Welcome to FanaticNomadic.

Welcome to FanaticNomadic! You must be here because you're as addicted to traveling as I am. I hope the articles I've written here provide you with some small insight into places far and away, or inspire you to chuck on a rucksack and hit the road.
You'll also note there is a link here to GlobeTales. If you like this blog, you'll love GlobeTales. It's a whole lot more of the same, and offers you the opportunity to submit your own articles, hints and tips on places you've explored. Check it out.
In the meantime, happy reading. But most of all, happy travels. After all, as Saint Augustine said; The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.

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Monday, November 29, 2010

Croatia's Istrian Riviera, with a little bit of Venice, Italy thrown in for good measure.

If you’ve been considering a beach holiday along the Istrian Riviera, you’re not alone. If not, why not? Croatia’s Istrian Riviera is becoming an ever more popular sunny destination for holidaying European families. But there’s a slow influx of North Americans that have discovered the beauty of the Adriatic coast as well.

My first impression upon arriving in Croatia was how clean and well maintained the highways and roads through the countryside were. All the buildings and homes alongside the roads were in good repair and the surrounding areas seemed immaculately landscaped. This held true for every area we passed through or visited for the duration of our time in Croatia. What a beautiful, green country.

The town of Porec teems with German, Dutch, Italian and some few English holiday-makers. Many of the menus and tourist information signs seem to be in German, Croatian or Italian. But if you don’t speak any of these languages, you’ll get by just fine on English alone.

Extremely family friendly, there are plenty of resort style hotels to choose from in Porec and the surrounding area. From guesthouses and hostels right in the city proper to 4 and 5 star resorts within a twenty minute walk, you’ll find the kind of holiday you seek.

My sister-in-law was kind enough to arrange the booking on her end (from the U.K.) for myself, my husband, and our one year old daughter. If you are making multiple stops in Europe, or even just two or three, your best bet is to book through a U.K. travel agent to fly out of London onto your next destination, as there are some incredible deals to be had. We’ve found that it’s next to impossible to find similar deals flying direct from Canada to Europe. Of course we have the luxury of staying with family in England, so this may not be an option available to you.

Through Thomas Cook, she arranged an extremely affordable package vacation flying out of London Gatwick into Pula, Croatia. We were booked into the Hotel Mediteran, a partially-inclusive resort about a twenty minute walk from Porec city center. The staff at Hotel Mediteran were more than happy to accommodate our family; arranging for a cot for our daughter and, upon our arrival, sending a mini-fridge up to our room (for a small rental fee) to store formula and baby food in.

A full breakfast buffet and dinner buffet, including coffee, tea, juice, soft drinks, red or white wine and lager were included in the package deal we purchased with our flights. Food choices were varied and tasty, although the line-ups could get pretty lengthy if you arrived just as the restaurant opened its doors.

Don’t expect pristine sandy beaches on your arrival to Porec and the surrounding area. What you will find is a wonderfully maintained seawall that wanders its way along the ocean front with rocky outcroppings to be used as “beaches.” What they’ve done here is taken the naturally occurring rock formations along the water’s edge, flattened them somewhat, laid natural stone tiling on them, and added ladders here and there for safer access to the water. All of it makes for a very aesthetically pleasing, and surprisingly comfortable experience for ocean lovers. Of course they also have acres and acres of grassy area next to the seawall to set up your beach blanket in the sun. Plenty of Pine trees along the seawall provide pleasantly shaded areas to spend the day as well.

If basking in the sun by the seaside is not your particular cup of tea, Hotel Mediteran boasts a large salt water pool with plenty of poolside seating. Finding a seat by the pool doesn’t generally pose too much of a problem here, but you’ll still find many guests here practicing the irritating habit of “chair saving;” (rising at 6am to rush out to the pool and throw their towel over select chairs before breakfast – and then, oddly, not showing up to claim their chairs until sometime after noon.)

Our hotel was not lacking for daily and nightly entertainment. An energetic team of staff members kept kids busy playing pool sports, treasure hunts, and other games during the day, while the nights were geared toward the adult guests. Local musicians, dancers and even magic shows kept those guests who did not care to wander too far from the resort entertained. We didn’t take in any of the shows ourselves, being more of the ‘exploring the city type’, but from what we did see and hear on our way in or out, there was certainly some excellent local talent performing for the guests.

Havana Bar became a favorite stop of ours on our way out on the town. Tucked around the corner and attached to the hotel, it was the perfect little meeting spot before a night out. Although attached to the hotel, the bar staff informed us that they were not part of the hotel and tabs could not be signed to your room number. No problem, the drinks there were cheap. As the name suggests, Havana Bar is a bit of a shrine to Che Guevera and all things Cuban. Great music, friendly staff, bamboo chairs with comfy cushions and a lovely open air seating area kept us there for a bit longer than intended for more than a few nights.

Of course, if taking in the shows at the hotel or sunbathing by the pool or the sea don’t hold a lot of interest for you, there are a multitude of activities and tours in and around Porec that should keep you busy.

Take a boat tour to Brijuni Islands and explore the history and natural beauty of the islands. Plenty of opportunities for wildlife viewing here.

Ride the Kupa River. This river forms a scenic natural border between Croatia and Slovenia and you can book a leisurely canoe tour, or a thrilling river rafting excursion, depending on the kind of adventure you seek.

Book a “Croatian Evening” Tour. Sample delicious local cuisine, with plenty of Croatian wine to wash it down, accompanied by Istrian and international song and dance that tell of local history. Vibrant, colorful and authentic costumes make for some great photo opportunities.

Spend the day deep-sea fishing on a trawler. Experienced local fishermen will teach you to lower and raise their fishing nets while telling tales of a fisherman’s life. Even if you’re not much of a sport fisher, it’s still an incredibly relaxing way to spend a day in the sun.

Visit one of Europe’s most photographed locales, Lake Bled. Known as “The Pearl of the Alps”, Slovenia’s Lake Bled will bring to mind scenes from the Sound of Music. Set in a pine forest, with snow capped mountains providing a stunning backdrop, the glass-like surface of the lake isn’t the only thing here worth photographing. Visit gorgeous Bled Castle, and take in the view of the toy town houses and the tiny island church; which you can get to by gondola if you wish to see it up close. Locals claim that you must make a wish as you ring the church bell to attain your heart’s desire.

Book a ferry trip to nearby Venice, Italy and visit the famous floating city and all that it has to offer. Your hotel in Porec will be happy to arrange bookings for the ferry from Croatia to Italy, or you can book at any travel agent in the city of Porec.

In order to do the city of Venice the justice it so richly deserves, I would need to write a whole separate article that touches on every aspect of its history, culture and beauty. However, since this article is mainly about Porec, Croatia, I’ll try and just touch on a few points of interest and some of the not to be missed sight-seeing opportunities of Venice.

For the coach from the hotel to the ferry port (which we could have easily walked, had we known how close it was!), return tickets for the Venezian Lines ferry to Venice, (approximately two and a half hours each way), and the boat taxi from the customs office into Venice proper, we were charged about 400 Kuna, which works out to about $80 Canadian. Very reasonable!

We were lucky enough to have our family with us in Croatia, who were more than happy to babysit for us as my husband and I took the day to ourselves to explore Venice. When we arrived in Venice, I was glad we had decided not to bring our baby, as we saw more than a few families struggling with strollers in this not-very-stroller-friendly city. And I couldn’t imagine packing her around all day in the humidity we were experiencing.

Once in Venice, there are loads of tour companies offering gondola tours, boat taxi tours, walking tours, etc. However, we chose to wander through the city by ourselves at first to explore at our own pace and decide which tours interested us. One of the first sights we saw, walking along the water’s edge, was the famous Bridge of Sighs,or Ponte dei Sospiri. Local legend has it that lovers who seal their love with a kiss under the Bridge of Sighs at sunset in a gondola will be granted everlasting love and happiness. The origin of the name of the bridge, however, is not nearly so romantic. It passes over the Rio di Palazzo and connects the old prisons to the interrogation rooms in the Doge's Palace. The name derives from the thought that prisoners would sigh at their final view of Venice through the window before being taken down to their cells.

Unfortunately, at the time of our visit, the Bridge of Sighs was under construction, and the scaffolding was covered over with a giant Coca Cola advertisement, which felt slightly jarring to the eyes amidst the beauty of Venice.

We also, of course, made a point of taking a tour by gondola while sipping champagne as we glided through the canals. It’s cheaper to buy your tickets for the gondola on the ferry ride over from Croatia; but even if you have to spend a couple of extra dollars buying them from a gondolier, it’s well worth the price, for a once in a lifetime experience.

There are plenty of caffes to stop and sip on an icy cold beer, fine wine, or frothy cappuccino lining the famous piazza at St. Mark’s Basilica, and it’s certainly a lovely place to do so, with string ensembles setting a lively backdrop amongst caffe patrons, and plenty of people watching to be done. However, don’t think the view and the ambience comes cheaply here. Before your behind even hits the chair, the nearest waiter will be over pointing out the “orchestra fee” on the menu (at least they forewarn you); not inexpensive at 11 Euro per person. On top of that there was a 10 Euro “seat charge.” And that’s all before you even order a beer! When we saw the 12 Euro price tag on the menu for bottled beer, we decided to take a fellow travelers advice and head deeper into Venice, where we were told the prices were much more reasonable.

Sitting, eating, or drinking is forbidden in the piazza as well, so grabbing a slice and a soda and settling down on the steps to people watch is out of the question. This is enforced by guards that patrol the outskirts of the square, gesturing for weary sightseers to stand up and move along. The fine for not complying is fifty Euro, although I think you’d have to push the guards patience pretty far before they actually enforced the fine.

I was glad we heeded our fellow travelers advice to head deeper into Venice, because the only way to truly experience Venice (if not by gondola) is getting lost in the labyrinth of tiny lanes and cobblestone alleys throughout the city. Not to worry, you can’t get too lost; you’ll always find yourself somewhere recognizable, or the locals are happy to point you to your destination (if any), but just be sure to give yourself time to wander a bit if you’re on a schedule at all. There are so many charming little shops, cozy wine bars, and caffes with shaded seats outdoors, that it’s easy to lose track of time here.

Many of the shops sell handmade Pinocchio marionettes, along with English or Italian versions of the storybook which can be purchased along with them. Another big seller here is handmade Venetian Carnival Masks, which make for gorgeous mementos of Venice.

In sore need of a drink and some food, we were having a hard time deciding which pizzeria or caffe to stop and revive ourselves at. So of course we ended up at an English pub. In Italy. Watching English premier league football. Did I mention that my husband’s English?

I was pleasantly surprised by the Devil’s Forest Pub. Although I was looking for an authentic Italian meal in an authentic Italian restaurant, you couldn’t help but like the friendly English staff and the backpacker kind of feel of the place. The first thing we were informed upon asking for menus was that they “don’t serve English pub food.” Perfect. A small but delicious selection of pastas and sauces did the trick for me, with some decent red wine to wash it down with.

After a few more hours of shopping and wandering through the lanes, with a taxi-boat tour of the Grand Canal thrown in to rest our weary feet, we were ready for a quick slice of pizza and a cold beer before we caught the ferry back to Croatia. One more thing I should mention regarding the ferry between Croatia and Italy; you may want to take a look at the weather forecast on the day you plan to travel. Our trip over to Italy was a pleasant two and a half hour journey across calm waters. The trip back, however, was an entirely different story. A storm had moved in rather quickly as we began our journey back to Croatia, turning a two and a half hour crossing into a harrowing six hour ordeal, with most of the passengers and crew suffering from extreme seasickness as the ferry lunged, rolled, and pitched back down into the deep troughs left by sizeable waves that at times seemed to engulf the whole boat. One tip for seasickness; face toward the back of the boat, fix your eyes on the horizon, and hold on. This helped me through much of the journey, but unfortunately, since our trip was now a good four hours longer than intended, I was out of luck once the sun went down and I had no visual horizon to fixate on. I made it though. Barely.

Back on dry land in Croatia (where I saw more than a few passengers actually kneel down and kiss the ground in gratitude), we headed back to our local, Havana Club, to plan for the next days activities.

Our trip to Porec happened to coincide with the end of season festival, which happens yearly on the last weekend in August, and is known as the “Porec 24 Hours.” It is Porec’s way of showing gratitude to the tourists for a successful season, and the locals use it as an opportunity to let off a little steam and have some fun after working non-stop through the tourist season.

The festival is held throughout the streets of Porec and the riva, where loads of food and beverage tents are set up, serving up local favorites alongside more recognizable brands, such as the Jagermeister tent, or the Red Bull tent. Dine on burek ( a delicious pastry filled with heavy cheese, meat, or pastry), fresh fish along the waterfront, palacinke (crepe desserts filled with chocolate, nuts or fruit – also delicious) or pretty much anything else you may be craving as you walk along the waterfront market, stopping to take in several bands or DJ’s along the way. You’ll know when you’re getting close to the town square, as the crowds here get livelier and livelier the later it gets and the decibels seem to rise accordingly. Here you’ll find a large main stage, complete with pyrotechnics, dancers and a succession of ever-more-energetic DJ’s. The crowd here is fun, welcoming and hell-bent on dancing up a storm. Count yourself lucky if you’re staying at the Hotel Mediteran, or at one of the hotels close to it, as these seem to be far enough away that the music is slightly muffled by the trees and hills between these hotels and the town square, because the rave continues until dawn all weekend long.

After the crowds depart and Porec has quieted down again somewhat, it’s a good time to do some shopping, sightseeing and try out some of the local restaurants. Take a stroll through the Old Town and take your pick of Croatian cuisine, kebab shops, seafood restaurants, or try one of the many Italian restaurants. Having once been part of the Venetian Republic, and due to it’s proximity to Venice, Italy; Porec has some of the best Italian restaurants to be found outside of Italy! And at very reasonable prices too.

If you’re looking for traditional Croatian cuisine, try Konoba Aba in Old Town. Dine indoors in an intimate setting or on their lovely patio, lit by candlelight and somehow just as cozy as the indoor seating. The staff here was humorous, friendly and very accommodating. And the food was spectacular. Just the thought of the filet mignon with tartufi (Croatian truffles) still makes my mouth water.

Another restaurant in Old Town Porec worth checking out, simply for the view and the experience, is Torre Rotonda. Originally built in 1474 under the Venetian government, the round tower was part of a strategically important fort used to defend Porec from the Turkish government. Now it is home to a trendy caffe bar with a perfect vantage for watching sunsets on the ocean or night life in the town of Porec. If you’re not a fan of heights, grab a table in one of the cozy nooks, formerly used as niches to house cannons, in the medieval interior of the tower.

Marconi’s Restaurant, also in Old Town, is a family friendly Italian restaurant with large outdoor seating capacity, very reasonable prices, and servers who aim to please. It’s a pleasant spot to duck out of the sun on a hot day, and have a relaxing drink or a meal on their shaded patio.

Whether you are thinking of Croatia for a romantic holiday for two, a fun destination for you and a group of family or friends, or a holiday in the sun for you, your spouse and the kids, the Istrian Riviera certainly fits the bill for any of these. There were so many games and activities geared toward children and families along the seawall that there’s not much point in listing them all. Suffice it to say that your children won’t soon be bored here!

One thing I should mention; if your child or children are still young enough that you bring the stroller or pram with you whenever you travel, I recommend that you leave it at home when you travel to Porec. Although more than family friendly, Porec and the surrounding area is definitely not stroller friendly. With countless steps, uneven roads and tiny alleys filled with slow moving sight-seers, it becomes an exercise in frustration trying to navigate all of this with a stroller. Even the hotels, which are equipped with elevators, quite often have a few flights of stairs you have to pack the stroller up before you even get to the elevator! If you and your baby are comfortable with it, a sling or a Snuggly is a good way to go here.

The Istrian Riviera was certainly different than any sunny holiday we’ve experienced, but it’s definitely one that I would love to experience again – perhaps exploring more of the coast and heading inland a bit on our next visit. If you have any tips or destinations in Porec or Venice to add, please feel free to comment below!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Weekend Summer Getaways in the Mount Baker, Washington Area

Head south on the Trans Canada Highway from Vancouver, through the Fraser Valley, and you’ll be greeted by the impressive sight of Mount Baker on the horizon. Mount Baker offers spectacular skiing and snowboarding in a particularly scenic area of the Cascade Mountain Range, located in Washington State. The mountain itself is actually an active volcano; it is also the second most glaciated mountain in the Cascades. It is also, locals will proudly inform you, known as one of the snowiest place in the world. In 1990, Mount Baker set the world record for snowfall in a single season.

All of these make for great reasons to throw your skis and snowboards on the roof-rack and head south of the border from Vancouver for some fun in the snow. Inexpensive lodgings and lift passes add two more reasons to that. There are no lodgings at the actual ski resort itself, which helps to maintain the rustic atmosphere the locals strive to maintain; but there are plenty of log cabins, chalets, and rooms for rent in the foothill villages of Glacier and Maple Falls and surrounding area.

Miles and miles of pristine wilderness, heavy snowfall, and cheap lodgings and lift passes make for a fantastic winter getaway; but what about the summer? Well, some would say that summer is the best time to visit the area. Even though I’m an avid snowboarder myself, I can’t say that I would disagree.

Where to stay
Although there are no lodgings available at the ski lodge itself, visitors are spoiled for choice when it comes to the surrounding areas.

The town of Glacier, at the foothills of Mount Baker, offers the closest accommodations to the mountain. Your best bet is to get online and check out www.mtbakerlodging.com, which pretty much provides information and links for every kind of rental in the Mount Baker area.

There are plenty of affordable log cabins, condos, chalets and houses that are great for couples or even large groups of people to rent out.

Maple Falls is in a somewhat central location if you want to do a bit of exploring while you’re here. There are cabins and chalets available to rent in Maple Falls, as well as a handful of bed and breakfasts to choose from.

If you’re looking for somewhere even more secluded, and incredibly beautiful, to bunk for the weekend, there are six rustic cabins available for rent overlooking Silver Lake, about a 10 minute drive out of Maple Falls. These cabins were built by the original resort owners in the 1940’s and have since been restored for visitors to the area to make use of.
Lakeside campsites are also available for tenting or RV’ing.

If you’re in the area to do a bit cross-border shopping, but still want to remain in close proximity to the mountain to do some hiking, biking, or other outdoor activities, there’s always Bellingham. Nothing rustic about Bellingham, but there is plenty of shopping, night life, casinos, restaurants, etc.

Bellingham is about 60 miles from Mount Baker, so it’s an easy, and picturesque, drive if you don’t mind commuting back and forth between the two.

There are a few bed and breakfasts along the Mount Baker highway outside of Glacier or Maple Falls; it just takes a small amount of research online to find the perfect one you’re looking for. They are all extremely affordable and hosted by very welcoming locals, in my experience.

Sumas Mountain Lodge, very near the Sumas border crossing, is also a great option; especially for those not arriving from the lower mainland area and need a cozy place to bunk for the night before driving toward the mountain. Rustic, log cabin style suites, some with their own wood burning fireplaces, are a welcome sight after a long day on the road. Head downstairs to Bob’s Burgers and Brew and you’ll feel right at home.

One further option, which may not be as outlandish as it sounds, is to consider looking at real estate in the area, especially if you live in the lower mainland. Vacation properties in this area are much less expensive than their Canadian counterparts and are easily accessible via a short drive across the Sumas border crossing. Just take a look at www.theglenatmaplefalls.com (under Lots for Sale) to see what I mean. And there are a few other facilities just like it in the region, priced along the same lines.

Where to play
The answer to this would be obvious if you were heading to Mount Baker during winter months. Strap on your boards and skis and hit the mountain, of course! However, during summer months, your options greatly expand and it can be difficult deciding what to do while you’re here. If you live in Vancouver, the solution to this conundrum is easily solvable; come back next weekend and see what you missed the last time around!
If you’ve driven from, say, the Okanagan, or even further, you want to get in as much as you can while you’re here, though. I’ve listed a few suggestions here to help you along with that.

River Rafting on the Nooksak River makes for an exhilarating and incredibly scenic ride. Glacial melts from Mount Baker, Mount Shuksan, and Goat Mountain feed the Nooksak River. Mid to late summer is the best time to plan for this. There are several whitewater rafting companies in the area, and if you choose not to book online, you can stop at most restaurants, pubs, or shops in Bellingham, Maple Falls or Glacier and pick up a brochure to help you find a guide or an outfitter.

Numerous trails throughout the Mount Baker area draw mountain bikers from all over Washington State and the lower mainland area every year during the summer months. Stop at Graham’s Pub in the town of Glacier and you’re guaranteed to meet more than a few trail riders stopping for a pint and a pub lunch on their way up the mountain for the next ride down.

Pick up some delicious sandwiches from the deli counter at Maple Fuels, a frosty bottle of Red Barn Cider and head to Silver Lake. Spend the day relaxing day along the shoreline or on the water in one of the canoes or rowboats available for rent. No motorboats are allowed on the lake so you can be sure of a peaceful day spent drifting along and soaking up the sun.

If you’re into motorized water sports, Lake Whatcom in Bellingham allows motorboats and jet skis and there’s plenty of parking for trucks and trailers along the shoreline.

Stop by the Mount Baker Vineyards for some award winning wines and great hospitality. Staff here is happy to answer any questions you have about the Mount Baker area or the winery itself. Not a bad idea to pick up some bottles while you’re here as well, since it’s so affordably priced. Just remember to check what you’re allowed to bring back across the border.

Miles of wilderness, wildlife, and trails offer countless opportunities for dirt biking, hiking, bird watching or wildlife photography. All of this is, quite literally, right at your doorstep when you stay in the Mount Baker region.

Where to eat
Following the Mount Baker highway from Bellingham to Mount Baker, I’ll give you the culinary rundown of where you should stop for a bite along the way.

Of course Bellingham has your choice of numerous restaurants and pubs; from franchises such as Applebee’s or Olive Garden to delicious Mexican fare at Taco Lobo or upscale dining at popular bistro Café Toulouse. It’s a safe bet you’ll find something for every palate while in Bellingham.

However, some of the more interesting local flavor lies closer to the mountain.

Il Caffe Rifuggio, located just past Deming, on the right hand side of the highway, is a cozy, family run café that’s well worth the drive from Bellingham. Set against a wooded backdrop and green fields, their patio is the perfect place to enjoy some home style Italian cooking on a sunny day. Try their Mexican hot chocolate and potato pancake benny for brunch.

Next up is the North Fork Beer Shrine, a micro-brewery that also operates as a pizzeria and, believe it or not, a wedding chapel. North Fork serves up some of the best thin crust pizza around; hand tossed and straight out of the oven with an eclectic choice of toppings.
There’s also a “beer backyard” with comfy deck chairs, water features and loads of flora to admire as you sip on some barleywine, handcrafted on location.

When you reach Maple Falls, a little closer to Mt Baker, you have your pick of a handful of restaurants, coffee shops, and a bakery to choose from. All of them serve cheap, good eats and each has their own unique atmosphere.

Joowana’s, a funky little bar/restaurant, is a great place to stop for hearty breakfasts, plus-size burgers, and even some Mexican fare. Joowana’s is also another place that boasts its own “backyard,” which makes for a fantastic live music venue during the summer. Pull up a stump by the fire, order something off the BBQ, and sip on some local microbrew as you take in one of their mini music festivals.

Maple Fuels gas station may seem like an unlikely place to stop for a meal, but try one of their made to order deli sandwiches. Amazing!

Other restaurants,etc, worth mention in Maple Falls include Frosty Inn (great breakfasts), Mountain Man Espresso (equipped with a drive through for meals on the go), and Harvest Moon Bakery.

Glacier is the last stop on the way up to Mt Baker, so if you’re driving up the mountain, you’d best make a pit stop here for some grub. Graham’s, Milano’s, and Wake and Bakery are your choices for meals in Glacier. And you’ll find that all three more than fit the bill for a great meal in a cozy environment.

Wake and Bakery is the perfect stop to grab a coffee and a fresh made pastry on your way up the mountain.

Graham’s, a pub style restaurant, is a local favorite. Graham’s plays host to some fantastic local bands on weekends, including one of my favorites; Bent Grass. You may stop in for a quick bite, but stay for the party. While you’re there, try their fish tacos. Not to be missed!

Stop at Milano’s for mountain view dining on their deck. Enjoy delicious Italian fare, with a wine list to match. Service here is always warm and welcoming, and the desserts are inspiration enough for the drive to Glacier.

Live Music
For such a rustic, back-country seeming area, Mount Baker and the surrounding region has a surprisingly diverse and vibrant music scene.

The Nooksak River Casino puts on great outdoor music festivals during the summer months. Check their schedule online and plan a trip for a Blues, Jazz, Classic Rock or Country music festival. Outdoor beer gardens and food stands run by local First Nations serve up cheap beer and fantastic food to make it an all day (and evening) affair.

Joowanna’s in Maple Falls also puts on the occasional outdoor music festival in their back yard. Dine on BBQ by the bonfire and enjoy a cold beer while you take in local bands doing their thing.

Graham’s in Glacier is another great live music venue, generally hosting live bands Thursday through Sunday evenings. Enthusiastic fans and an intimate setting ensure a great night out dancing or just tapping your feet along with the music.

If you’re up for the drive to Bellingham, countless opportunities to take in a live show present themselves here. Look online or in one of the local papers and head for whichever watering hole sounds like your kind of place.

Now that I’ve given you some suggestions of what to see and do in the Mount Baker area, the only thing to do is grab your passport and hit the road. You’ll find there’s plenty more to explore when you cross the border and you’ll probably even find a few gems of your own. Feel free to share them with me if you come across something interesting that I haven’t listed here. And don’t forget your travel insurance!

Monday, May 31, 2010

One Night in Bangkok

Bangkok is a common stop-over for travelers to reconnect with the city vibe, stock up on travel supplies, and get a little hedonistic. After weeks and weeks of island life, sometimes one begins to crave the chaos of life in the city; the neon lights, the honking horns, the tuk-tuks puttering crazily by, piled high with rucksacks and crammed full of backpackers. One day (and night) of Bangkok madness is usually enough to cure you of this and send you back to the islands in a big hurry, though

I’ll admit, I’ve spent more than one night in Bangkok. But not much more than that. Not at one time, anyways. I think the most I managed there at one time was a week, which is actually pretty impressive. It’s just too much to drink in all at once.
If you should find yourself with one night to kill in Bangkok, and just can’t decide what to do with yourself (unlikely), here are a few suggestions for you. The most dedicated of travelers may possibly be able to fit this all into one 24 hour period, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Bangkok is best tasted in small sips, a little at a time.

Khao San Road
You may remember the conversation which takes place in Alex Garland’s backpacker cult hit, The Beach. The one where one backpacker, referring to the ultimate demise of off-the-beaten-track tourist destinations due to Lonely Planet guide books, wonders aloud to another; “What’s so fucking lonely about the Khao San Road?”

Good question. Bar upon bar upon guesthouse upon hostel upon restaurant upon sidewalk food vendor…well, you get the picture. There’s nothing lonely about Khao San Road. No great surprise there. Khao San Road acts as a waystation for backpackers on their way to other parts of Thailand or to neighboring countries for a visa run. At any given time you’ll find much of the guesthouses packed to capacity and every bar and restaurant full of travelers off to new destinations.

It’s a great place to book plane, train, or bus tickets to wherever in Thailand or neighboring countries you wish to go. There are loads of travel agents that are available to arrange your trip for you at little to no commission.

It’s also a great place to catch up on any important emails without the price gouging that can occur at some internet cafes at some of the more distant islands.

If you’re picky about your lodgings, it’s best to book ahead for Khao San Road. However, if you don’t much mind where you lay your head to sleep, with a little leg work, you’re guaranteed to find a room for the night, on or near Khao San Road. With new guesthouses popping up all the time, prices remain competitive.

I stayed at a few different guesthouses on different stopovers in Bangkok, including Top Guest House, Thai Thai Guesthouse, Baan Sabai Guesthouse, Sawasdee Guesthouse, Mango Lagoon Place, and D&D Inn.

All ranged from twenty dollars CDN and under and all were reasonably clean and well-maintained, with the occasional cockroach here and there. But cockroaches are pretty much unavoidable in Bangkok, so best get used to it.

By far my favorite was D&D Inn. Of course it was also the most expensive, and prices have gone up further, although not substantially, but still cheap in comparison to similar lodgings in my home country of Canada.

Boasting a rooftop pool, bar, and large, clean, air-conditioned rooms, I chose to come back to D&D Inn for my last few days in Bangkok before flying home. “Why not enjoy the hell out of my last few days here?” I thought.

Khao San Road also has no shortage of pubs, clubs and restaurants to relax in and enjoy some Sangsom and Pad Thai. Many of them play movies all day (and night) long on big screen TV’s if you’ve had enough of wandering around in the Bangkok heat and haze, shopping or sightseeing. A few have courtyard pools that you can pay a small fee to use for the day and bar staff will serve you poolside.

A lot of the bars come with the prerequisite “bar girls” which are common in Thailand, so if that’s not what you’re there for, you may have to politely decline a few come-ons before they get the hint and leave you alone.

You can find just about any type of watering hole you’re looking for on Khao San Road, from Irish Pubs, to McDonalds, street stands that serve up deep fried crickets, grasshoppers, cockroaches and other creepy crawlies (I was only brave enough to try the crickets) to lovely garden patio restaurants. I even stumbled across a nightclub that catered to the hardcore rap/hip-hop crowd on my last visit to Bangkok – something I didn’t expect to find there at all.

A popular spot is Gulliver’s Tavern, at the end of Khao San Road. Drinks here are a little on the pricey side, but there’s always good music, pool tables, and plenty of backpackers looking for some good conversation. It gets a little too noisy for that later on though, so you may want to switch venues if you’re not up for Thai whiskey shots and dancing.

Grand Palace
Adjoined by The Temple of the Emerald Buddha (also known as Wat Phra Kaew), The Grand Palace is a beautiful place to spend the day exploring some of Thailand’s rich culture and history.

Admission fees include entry into Wat Phra Kaew and Grand Palace, as well as the Royal Thai Decorations and Coins Pavillion. Much of the Grand Palace is inaccessible to the public, but occasional anterooms are available for viewing. Even with much of it closed off to the public; it’s still fairly easy to spend hours exploring the grounds and admiring the ornate buildings.

Of special note if you are planning a visit to Wat Phra Kaew; wats are sacred in Thailand, this one particularly so because of it’s proximity to royalty. Visitors must dress according to local custom when visiting Wat Phra Kaew. That is to say, no short sleeved shirts, short skirts or pants, and no flip-flops! Shoes must be removed before entering the temple. If you’ve spent some time in Thailand already, you’ll already be accustomed to the shoes piled up on the doorsteps to many of the temples, restaurants, guesthouses, and even bars. More so on the islands than in Bangkok, but it’s still custom in many parts of the city.

The wat structures themselves are extraordinarily ornate. Anyone with an eye for architecture and design can appreciate the gilded stupas, polished colorful roof tiles, and marble pediments set amongst mosaic pillars.

Be sure to stop here and admire the detailed, and beautiful, murals lining the inside walls of the compound, depicting scenes from the epic Ramakian fable. You don’t have to have an appreciation for art, or history for that matter to enjoy the stories told in picture along these walls.

Entrance fee is 350 baht and the grounds are open from 08:30 until 16:30. If you’re in Bangkok for an overnight stay, or even just for the day, this is a destination you should not miss while in the city.

Patpong (I and II)
Didn’t get enough of the “bar girl” scene on Khao San Road and the surrounding area? Head over to Patpong I and II. Two parallel side streets, located between Silom and Surawongse Roads, this seedy area will net you just about any sin you seek to commit. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Easily over one hundred strip bars crowd these busy streets and advertise all sorts of sexually acrobatic stage shows, not to mention “take-out” pole dancers and lady boys, if you’re willing to cough up the “bar fine.”

I took a wander through here with two pilots from Holland who were on layover for the night in Bangkok. They had heard the notorious reputation of Patpong, and were anxious to explore it for themselves. However they were a little nervous of its seedy reputation, and, absurdly, felt they would be safer bringing a female companion along with them. I guess they figured that the bar girls and their “employers” would be less likely to target them if they appeared as though they already had female company for the night. They couldn’t have been more wrong. The locals there just figured the three of us were up for a night of debauchery and approached us all the more. No matter, I was interested to see the place for myself, if not quite for the reasons the locals thought.

Strip bar touts lined the streets in front of each bar and approached us, sometimes two or three of them at a time, displaying menus of the flesh filled delights that could be purchased inside their establishments. I won’t fill you in on the exact details of the menus, but suffice it to say they included ping pongs, balloons, bananas, “electric” (what the hell did that mean?!) and various other items paired up with female body parts. I was so astounded by these little laminated menus they presented to us that I asked one tout if I could purchase it as a souvenir. He told me I could have it for free if I just came in for a show. He had me at “free.”

The show itself was fairly tame compared to what I had been expecting. Just your run of the mill strip bar that you could most likely find in any Canadian city. Items on the menu weren’t part of the show (thank God) and patrons wishing to purchase these were taken to a back room, where I’m pretty sure I can imagine what other sorts of things went on.

The drink prices were steep compared to other areas in Bangkok I’d visited, and the bar girls were relentless, approaching me to the point where the pilots from Holland were starting to feel a bit slighted, and suggested we head elsewhere. I don’t know if these women were used to other women coming in wishing to fulfill crazy fantasies, or they were just happy to have a woman in their midst, but they sure were friendly. Four or five surrounded me, wanting to “give me massage,” touching my sun-bleached hair and smiling non-stop at me. After a few minutes they realized I wasn’t there for anything other than a drink, and they sat down to practice their English on me. I left feeling very sad for these sweet girls, as I’m sure no little girl, given a choice in the matter, dreams of a life of stripping, and more, for hordes of sweaty, booze-soaked foreign tourists.

I had no desire to visit any more strip bars (and I still didn’t get the promised menu I had been offered) so we continued our exploration of Patpong, discovering that it was also home to a bustling night market and several decent live music venues. I happily sat down to a Sangsom and coke at Muzzik café and took in a great show by an up and coming local band. No hassle there either.

I’m told that Patpong is mainly show, and is preceded by its sleazy reputation, and that, if you’re seeking pleasures of the flesh, there are plenty more hardcore strip bars to visit in Bangkok, but Patpong was more than enough for me. With bar names like “Super Pussy”, “Pussy Collection,” and “Thigh Bar,” I’m not sure how anyone could really consider Patpong “tame.” But maybe that’s just my western mentality.

Floating Market
There are more than a few floating markets throughout Bangkok, some more authentic than others. In other words, some are geared more towards tourists, with far more commercial items than you’d find at some of the floating markets that sell household essentials, fresh fruits and vegetables, etc.

The most popular destination for tourists seems to be Damnoen Saduak, not actually in Bangkok, but in Samut Sangkhram Ratchaburi province, about 110 km southwest of Bangkok.

Yes, it is packed with hordes of tourists, but you’ll still get the authentic feel of a day out market shopping on the canal, while perhaps getting a bit of souvenir shopping done in the process. And it’s loads of fun.

The best way to do this is to book a tour to the floating market. There are more than enough tour companies to arrange this, or even your hotel or guesthouse would be happy to arrange this for you. Most tours include side trips to other points of interest on the way there or back.

Some great photo opportunities present themselves as you longtail it down the “khlong” or canal, stopping along the way to barter madly with Thai women, who are navigating through the chaos with goods stacked high upon their flat boats.

These ladies will disarm you with their sense of humor and snappy comebacks, and before you know it, you’ll be buying something you really didn’t come here to purchase. No matter though, the experience is worth the minimal cost. And you’ll get some amazing photos.

Some more photo opportunities present themselves in the side tours included in many of the Damnoen Saduak tours, such as a trip to the Bridge on The River Kwai, elephant trekking, or even river rafting. If you’re in Bangkok long enough to spare a half day for the floating market tour, it’s well worth it.

Chao Phraya River
I always recommend to fellow travelers that they make a point of viewing any given cityscape from the water, if the situation presents itself. This is particularly true of Bangkok. Getting out of the heat and noise of the city and viewing it from an idyllic setting on the water, with some traditional Thai music as background, you’ll get a completely different feel for the city, and see it in a whole new way.

As well as being a convenient way to navigate the city, a boat tour along the Chao Phraya River is a pleasant and peaceful way to spend a day or an evening. If you’ve had enough of the madness that goes along with Bangkok traffic, a Chao Phraya River tour or cruise is the way to go.

There are more than fifteen boat lines that operate along the canals and riverways of Bangkok; so it’s no trouble finding what you’re looking for, be it a simple mode of transportation, a scenic tour, or a guided dinner cruise.

Depending on which tour or cruise you decide to go with, you can expect to see plenty of historic sights and also have the opportunity to observe the traditional Thai way of life along the banks of the Chao Praya River. There are great photo opportunities during daylight hours of rustic Thai stilted homes along the banks.

Bang Pa-In; or the Royal Summer Palace is one of the stunning structures you can view along the banks, as well as Wat Yai Chaimongkon and Wat Mahathat.

Other popular sights include the famous Oriental Hotel, the Holy Rosary Church, and the Portugese Embassy; the oldest embassy in Bangkok.

Many of the hotels along the river offer free ferry service if you just want a quick (and free) tour of the river. There are plenty of floating restaurants on the water as well for a unique dining experience.

Visit a prisoner
For most, the thought of visiting a prisoner in Bangkok’s Bangkwang (Men’s Prison) or Bhan Khen (Women’s Prison) is a daunting undertaking. Don’t be put off by depictions of these prisons you may have seen in the movies or on television, however. Yes, the conditions are appalling, and yes, a lot of these prisoners are hardened criminals.

Quite often, in the film industry, the foreign prisoners in Thai prisons are portrayed as innocent backpackers who are lured in or set up unbeknownst to act as drug mules for Thai drug cartels. This is not generally the case. In most cases these people are simply young travelers or backpackers who’ve made a grievous error in judgment, whether it be indulging in the criminal element to the nightlife in Thailand, or an attempt to smuggle drugs across the border to neighboring countries or even back home. Stupid, yes. But not worth one hundred years in a Thai prison, or worse. Everyone makes mistakes in life, particularly in their younger years. Unfortunately, the Thai judicial system does not hand out too many second chances to young travelers guilty of making such a mistake.

Once you’ve gotten beyond this particular internal dilemma and made the decision to visit a prisoner at one of these prisons, you’ll probably be wondering how to go about doing this. It’s surprisingly uncomplicated. If there’s one thing to be said for a somewhat corrupt legal system, it’s the lack of red tape surrounding it.

Contact your embassy if you wish to visit a prisoner from your own country, as most people do. Your embassy will provide you with a list of prisoners that are waiting for contact from the outside world. Make sure to note which building the prisoner you wish to visit is housed in, as different buildings have different visiting days.

Bring all this information with you to the prison, along with the prisoner’s full name, as well as your passport, and register at the front gate. Allow the guards time to process your paperwork, usually about twenty minutes or so.

Upon entering the prison, you will go through a screening system and guards will inspect any gifts (such as books, toiletries, or food) you may be bringing in with you. Don’t get angry or frustrated if some of these items are confiscated as “contraband.” What is and isn’t allowed in seems to change on a daily basis and is entirely dependant on the particular guard you are dealing with. Arguing or getting angry will get you nowhere with them. In fact, you will most likely be denied entry in this case.

There is a shop at the prison as well where you may purchase items that are allowed as gifts for the prisoner.

You will be allowed to visit with the prisoner for approximately thirty minutes, talking by telephone through bulletproof glass, although guards sometimes allow a little leniency when it comes to the length of the visit.

Things to remember when you are visiting: you are not here to judge why this person ended up where they did; simply to listen, if necessary, or provide much longed for conversation to the prisoner. Much like airport security, jokes or derogatory comments about Thailand’s King, the Thai justice system, or prison escapes of any kind are not taken lightly.

Common sense dictates that you should dress appropriately for your visit, but you’d be surprised what some deem “appropriate.” Best to don long pants, closed toed shoes, and no tank tops.

Another thing to consider, if you haven’t already, is a visit to the women’s prison, or to a prisoner from a less advantaged country than your own. These prisoner’s have less rights and freedoms than many others, and visits to them are few and far between and therefore much appreciated.

No matter who you decide to visit, your presence there is accepted with much gratitude, and you may find that you walk away gaining just as much from the experience as the person you spend your time with there.

Jim Thompson’s House
Even if you’re not an architecture enthusiast, you can’t help but appreciate the beauty of The Jim Thompson House. It is a serene oasis in the midst of the city.

An American architect with a deep love for Thai history, architecture and culture, Jim Thompson arrived in Thailand during World War II and revived the flagging silk industry. His house, now a museum, is a tribute to authentic Thai residential architecture. Formed from parts of six teak Thai houses, it also showcases his extensive art collection.
Jim Thompson disappeared under mysterious circumstances in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia in 1967.

In 1976 the James H W Thompson Foundation was established, with proceeds from the Jim Thompson House (as a tourist attraction) donated to Thai charities and to projects devoted to the preservation of Thailand’s cultural heritage.

The Jim Thompson House is located opposite the National Stadium, on Rama I Road in Bangkok. Open every day from 9 am, the last tour begins at 4:30 pm.

Dine Out
If Bangkok is your last stop on your way to some remote area of SE Asia, you might want to take advantage of the gastronomical delights this city has to offer. It might be your last chance for some fine, sit-down (on chairs, rather than cushions strewn on the floor) dining in a long, long time.

Bangkok has everything from street cart vendors to five star poolside restaurants atop luxury skyscrapers, with spectacular views of the city.

One such restaurant is Zense Restaurant at CentralWorld. No pool here, but there are several water features throughout this spacious rooftop restaurant, designed by award winning Thai architect, Amata Lhupaiboon. But the décor is just the beginning. The eclectic menu choices and five star service here are simply superb.

Riverside dining, or even dinner cruises, on the Chao Phraya River, are another way to beat the heat of the city, if you’re not up for some rooftop dining. There are plenty to choose from, and it’s hard to go wrong. It’s the perfect locale for a romantic dinner for two, a night on your own with a glass of wine and a book, or an evening out with fellow travelers.

One renowned restaurant on the Chao Phraya River is Angelini at the Shangri-La. Three stories high, with massive windows soaring up from the floor, Angelini is set in an amazing location overlooking the Chao Phraya River. A contemporary menu that leans heavily toward Italian choices, the only thing competing with your choice of food is the selection of fine wines.

Other areas worth checking out are Chinatown, Bangkrak, and Silom. Chinatown is the obvious choice for Chinese cuisine, Bangkrak for their numerous Indian restaurants, and Silom for the fine dining, which tends to run a little on the pricier side. But hey, no reason why you shouldn’t splurge while in Bangkok.

Khao San Road is a great place for new arrivals to Bangkok to dip their toes into the culinary waters of Thailand. If you’re a little leery at first of the streetside carts serving up Pad Thai, or even more frightening – deep fried insects (!), you can ease your way in with an Irish pub, Chinese restaurant, or sausage butty at one of the restaurants catering to the hordes of Brits roaming Khao San Road. After a few Sangsom and cokes maybe you’ll feel brave enough to try the local fare. And you should, because Thailand serves up some delicious food.

National Museum
While in Bangkok waiting to catch an early morning bus to Cambodia the next day, I found myself with several hours to kill and decided to take a wander over to the National Museum. I had not been expecting much, simply because I hadn’t heard a lot about the museum and because it wasn’t on my “List of Things to See in Bangkok.” I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the extensive collection of both history and art housed here.

Its collection spans thousands of years and includes informative exhibits on the history and origin of Thais, as well as early civilizations of the region.

The museum is home to several sculptures and exhibits dating as far back as 1257 AD and also includes restored private residences of former Thai royalty. It’s easy to lose a few hours here admiring the ancient artwork.

Tours are given in French and English on Wednesdays and Thursdays, starting at 9:30 am, or you can pay the 50 baht entrance fee and stroll through at your own pace.
Unfortunately, photographs are not allowed inside the museum, but the buildings housing it are quite beautiful and worth getting a few shots of.

Stock Up!
Most areas of Thailand, even the most remote, will have some sort of convenience shop or drugstore which will carry anything you need to get by. However, brands can be completely unrecognizable and perhaps not what you’re used to.

Myself, I like to use whatever local products that are at hand, makes me feel like I’ve immersed myself a little bit more into the culture. But if you’re in need of particular skin care products or toiletries due to allergies or sensitive skin or maybe just personal preference; then it’s a good idea to stock up while you’re in Bangkok.

Both Tesco and Boots have outlets in Bangkok which are easily found and should stock whatever particular brand of shampoo, skin cream, sunscreen, etc that you’re particular to.

Bangkok is also a great place to replace damaged rucksacks or luggage, or purchase an extra one if you’ve gone a little overboard on your souvenir shopping.

After hitting a few islands in Thailand, I had discovered that I was packing unnecessary items, such as trainers, one too many hoodies, and socks. I tossed the socks and sold the trainers and hoodie on Khao San Road, using the paltry fee I earned to purchase some more useful items, such as flip-flops (sixty cents CDN!), Thai fisher pants (most comfortable pants on the planet), and other light, loose items of clothing.

Any market in Bangkok, including streetside stands on Khao San Road will be selling burnt CD’s of the latest artists. I found that most of these hadn’t even been released in North America yet. Same for the newest movies out on DVD. Most everyone travels with an iPod these days, but if you’re still a CD collector, this is probably one of the cheaper spots to stock up for the trip.

Another item I would recommend replenishing your supply of here is books. There are book traders all over SE Asia, but when in remote areas the pickings can get pretty slim, and there’s nothing worse than being stuck on an overnight train ride with a crap book. Books here tend to also be substantially less expensive than a lot of the islands.

If you’ve got a lot of emailing to catch up on before you head to your destination, you should probably do that in Bangkok as well. You’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere in SE Asia that doesn’t have internet access, but the snail’s pace of it will drive you absolutely crazy on some of the islands – not to mention the price. One island I stayed on in Malaysia told me that their internet access was via radio signal. Not really sure how that would work, but it was intensely frustrating trying to send out a family Easter email only to have it deleted after half an hour spent trying to log in.

Any flights, trains, buses or boat trips you may want to prearrange can be booked in Bangkok as well. I’ve never met more helpful and knowledgeable travel agents than some of the ones I met in Bangkok. Most of them knew what I was trying to book before even I did!

Whew! Now that I look back on all that, I’m glad I didn’t try to fit it all into one day! But you’re welcome to try. Keep in mind that if you’re traveling around Thailand for any length of time, odds are good that you’ll make it back to Bangkok a few times to catch a bus, train or flight to your next destination. So, try and remember; small sips. Bangkok is best tasted in small sips. Perhaps the same advice should be dispensed with the Thai whiskey.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

5 Road Trips Within a Day’s Drive of Vancouver

There’s nothing quite like loading up your iPod with some good road tripping tunes, gassing up the car, and hitting the open road on a sunny day. BC has some beautiful, well-maintained highways to do just that on. But if you only have a day or two to spare, or you just aren’t into hours and hours on the road, here are some easily accessible spots to check out – all within a day’s drive from Vancouver

Manning Park
Just three hours drive from the city of Vancouver, Manning Park is worth the journey in both the summer and winter months.

If you head up in the winter, enjoy more than 140 acres of ski and snowboard terrain in an uncrowded setting with spectacular views.

Summer months provide gorgeous hiking trails set amongst sub alpine meadows ablaze with colorful wildflowers. Some great photo-ops here, including the wildlife. Visitors can’t resist taking photos of the very nearly tame ground squirrels that have somewhat overtaken the day use area in front of the lodge. Try and remember that you’re not doing the wildlife here any favors by feeding them, and they do quite well on their own in the wild.

Other wildlife commonly spotted in the vast forest off the highway include deer, elk, black and brown bear.

If you’ve got a night or two to spare, Manning Park has chalets, cabins, and a cozy lodge available (complete with pub and restaurant), as well as four campgrounds to choose from.

If you’re camping in the picturesque Lightning Lake campground, rowboats and canoes are available for rental, so pack up a picnic lunch from the store at the lodge and spend the day out on the lake wildlife spotting and exploring the surrounding forest.

The Okanagan Valley
Approximately a five hour drive from Vancouver (depending on where in the Okanagan you’re headed) lies the sun-drenched Okanagan Valley.

An abundance of lakes, ski resorts, vineyards, deserts, waterfalls, and golf courses means that the Okanagan, quite literally, has whatever you’re looking for.

If you’re there for the winter sports; you have your pick of six different ski resorts to choose from; Big White in Kelowna, Silverstar in Vernon, Apex in Penticton, Sun Peaks in Kamloops, Mt Baldy in Oliver, or Crystal Mountain in Westbank. All have accommodations on or near the mountain, with all the amenities you’ll need. Any one of these mountains will bring spectacular views, ski-goggle suntan lines, and the Okanagan’s famous champagne powder.

Summer in the Okanagan brings hot, dry temperatures and sometimes weeks without a cloud in the sky. Take advantage of this in one of the multitude of lakeside resorts, campgrounds, or B&B’s. Boats and jet-ski’s are available for rental at many of the resorts and beaches, so if you haven’t tried waterskiing before, there’s no time like the present.
Another favorite activity of visitors to the Okanagan Valley is houseboating. With plenty of companies to choose from, they’ll give you a quick operator’s course and off you go for a week of fun in the sun.

There are loads of secluded beaches tucked amongst the shorelines of the Okanagan’s many lakes, perfect for entire days spent at the water’s edge with the family, or a romantic moonlit night with someone special.

The Okanagan plays host to some of the most prestigious golf courses in BC. Predator Ridge, in particular, on the outskirts of Vernon is one of the more demanding courses and draws professional golfers from all over the world. But that doesn’t mean novice golfers can’t find a course to suit their ability.

A great way to spend the day, or even a weekend, is touring some of the Okanagan’s famous vineyards. With views and selection rivaling that of Napa Valley, the Okanagan is definitely making a name for itself in the wine industry.

Two hours drive from Vancouver, on one of the most scenic drives in North America; the world-famous Whistler Blackcomb Mountains attract visitors all year round.

The sea to sky highway up to Whistler is half the reason for the journey itself. If you’ve got the time to spare, stop along the way to take in some of the sights it has to offer. Stop for fish and chips and watch the ferries come in at Horseshoe Bay, check out the BC Museum of Mining at Brittania Beach, hike the Shannon Falls, watch climbers scale The Chief right before Squamish, go bald eagle watching in Brackendale, stop for a dip in picturesque Alice Lake, or grab a coffee in Function Junction. And that’s all before you even reach Whistler.

If you’re in Whistler for the winter sports, try out the new Peak to Peak Gondola. Spanning the distance between Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, the awe-inspiring view is made all that much more spectacular by the glass-bottomed gondolas that are available at no extra charge.

Summer in Whistler will keep visitors just as busy as the winter months. Bear sightings are common between May and October so be sure to bring your camera.
Mountain runs are just as busy in the summer, with thrill seeking trail riders on their mountain bikes. Explore 4946 feet of lift accessible trails, ranging from novice to extreme.

Zip-trekking is also popular during the summer months in Whistler.

Alpha Lake, Lost Lake, and Alta Lake are popular destinations for locals and visitors alike. Grab the dog, a Frisbee, and a case of cold local microbrews and spend the day just chilling. Odds are good that some locals will provide the guitar or drumbeats for background music.

If you’re up for some pretty crazy night life, Whistler’s more than happy to supply it. From a relaxed evening spent people watching on one of the many heated patios, to insane house music spun by DJ’s from all over the world, to anything in between, Whistler’s got it.

There are world class dining options to choose from or just casual local fare, depending on your mood, or budget. No one said Whistler was cheap.

It is still possible to find affordable accommodations in Whistler however, and if you check out whistler.com you can probably find something in your price range. Your best bet is to phone the main reservation line (1-800-Whistler) and speak with one of their amazingly helpful operators, who are also Whistler locals, to help you find exactly what you’re looking for. I’ve used their services several times myself, and it doesn’t matter how specific you are - if they have it, they will find it for you.

Mount Baker
Look South from Vancouver on a clear day and it’s hard to miss the imposing, majestic sight that is Mount Baker. Just an hour and a half drive from Vancouver (depending on border traffic) brings you to this rustic locale for some fantastic, laid back skiing and snowboarding.

There are no accommodations on the mountain itself, which helps to maintain the natural setting, so it’s a good idea to get online ahead of time and find yourself some lodging. There are two small towns on the way to Mount Baker that provide several chalets, cabins, or even houses for rental, at very reasonable rates.

The closest is the town of Glacier, which has loads of small town charm. Stop into Graham’s pub style restaurant (children are welcome, but it can get pretty lively later in the evening) and enjoy talented local musicians performing live in this tiny venue. And be sure to try their amazing fish tacos.

Wake n’ Bakery is great for coffee and a muffin for the drive up the mountain.
Milano’s Italian restaurant across the street from Graham’s is probably one of the better Italian restaurants you’ll have the opportunity to visit. Without the snooty, high end service. Locals in the town of Glacier are warm, welcoming, and ready to impart any local history to curious visitors.

Maple Falls, a little closer to the border, is a tiny bit bigger than Glacier, but not much. There are a few more dining options to choose from here, and all are just as friendly as those in Glacier.

Joowana’s restaurant in Maple Falls hosts all day outdoor music festivals in their “back yard” during summer months. Grab a seat on a log next to the bonfire, order up some BBQ, and enjoy.

Mountain Man coffee shop and Harvest Moon Bakery serve up hearty breakfasts for boarders and skiers on their way up the mountain.

If you want to explore the area a bit and try something different, drive towards Bellingham and stop at the North Fork Beer Shrine for some of the best pizza you will ever have. Just ask anyone who’s been there. North Fork Beer Shrine brews up some delicious microbrew beers, serves up hand-tossed pizza with an eclectic selection of toppings, and doubles as a wedding chapel! Check it out. If you’re looking for somewhere funky and unusual to host your wedding, North Fork Beer Shrine is it. They also have a lovely back garden to hoist a pint in when the weather’s warm.

One more restaurant I’ll mention, which is a little further along the road, but not to be missed, is Il Caffé Rifugio. This cozy family run Italian café serves fantastic homemade menu items (try their eggs benny served on potato pancakes) along with pleasant conversation with owner Richard, who also cooks, serves and whips up tasty Mexican hot chocolates for patrons.

If you’re headed to the Mount Baker area during summer months, there are plenty of places to set up camp.

Silver Lake, near Maple Falls has great campsites or rustic lakeside cabins to choose from, and never seems to get too overcrowded. Motorboats are not allowed on the lake, which is a blessing; but rowboats are available for rental and make for a pleasant day in the sun. Grab some sandwiches from the deli counter at Maple Fuels, an icy bottle of Red Barn Cider, and you’re good to go.

The Nooksak River Casino, in Deming (on the way to Bellingham) hosts fabulous outdoor music festivals during the summer. Check the dates online for blues, classic rock, or jazz festivals and bring your lawn chair. Tents are set up to keep hungry music fans satisfied. Quite often local First Nations will run the food stands and you’ll have the opportunity to try some of their traditional dishes, usually running about three to five dollars a plate! Great value. Don’t worry, they also have a beer garden, if you’re so inclined.

Vancouver Island
Just a short ferry ride away from Vancouver (just shy of two hours if you’re heading out from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo), Vancouver Island is home to countless attractions that are well worth the very enjoyable trip over.

While much cheaper to ferry over as a foot passenger, if you’re planning to explore the island a bit, you might want to consider bringing your car across with you.
Nanaimo is home to a multitude of parks, beaches, hiking trails and great seafood restaurants along the waterfront. Fishing, kayaking and canoeing are all very popular here.

Visit the city of Victoria and at times you’ll feel as though you’ve somehow arrived in England. Double Decker bus tours, high tea at The Empress hotel, and horse-drawn carriages complete this illusion. Victoria is one of the prettiest harbor-front cities in North America and locals take great pride in maintaining this beautiful city. First Nations also hold a strong presence here and it’s a great place to purchase genuine First Nations artwork.

The small town of Chemainus remains a big draw to artists from around the globe. The majority of buildings here are painted with detailed murals, turning the town into a large outdoor gallery for visitors to enjoy. It’s also a great spot to go antiquing and art gallery hopping.

The fishing village of Tofino is rapidly becoming a destination for surfers from around the world; or at least those who appreciate the laid back, nature loving lifestyle of Tofino. It is also home to some of the largest, untouched rainforest on the Pacific Rim. There are quite a few tour companies that offer eco-friendly off-road tours of the rainforest.
Long Beach is where you’ll find the surf-worthy waves, and the dedicated surfers that hit them almost year round. If you’re not up for lessons, it’s still a great place to spend the day just watching the surfers do their thing.

Tofino is also a great location for storm watching, and there’s plenty of cozy accommodations where you can bundle up with a glass of wine, sit indoors and watch the storms roll in.

There are several well maintained campgrounds in Tofino, located just off or near the beaches, but the weather here can be rather unpredictable, so bring your tarps!
These are just a few of the communities on Vancouver Island. You could easily spend weeks exploring the island, and should! Most waterfront communities on the island have whale watching tour companies as well as sport fishing tours. You can choose from a half day on the water to an entire week, if you desire.

If you’ve got the time to spare, just one of these road trips could easily lead you down a very pleasant, week long detour; but if you only have the one day, then all are an enjoyable, easy drive from the city of Vancouver.

I hope you enjoy visiting these places as much as I did, and still do. Now throw on some sunnies, load up the iPod, and hit the road!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Christmas in New York City

We’ve all seen Miracle on 34th Street. New York City lit up like a Christmas tree, good cheer everywhere, Macy’s window displays. What could be more Christmas than New York City on Christmas Eve? So I decided, a couple of Christmases ago, to surprise my husband with a last minute getaway to the Big Apple. (Did I really just use the word Christmas four – no – five times?)

We were scheduled to fly in on December 20th, leaving on Christmas Eve, just in time to arrive back home to spend the big day with family and friends. Didn’t quite work out that way; our flight was delayed by 8 hours, so we spent much of Christmas Eve at JFK airport, and then our connecting flight at Chicago O’Hare was canceled due to a white-out blizzard, so we booked the last room available at the Airport Hilton and spent the night there. Still one of the best Christmases I can remember. Since we had such a fabulous time, I’ve put together our itinerary, of sorts, for you and your loved ones to make the most of your holiday trip to the Big Apple.

We touched the ground at JFK with fingers crossed, hoping to be greeted by a blanket of snow covering the city. No such luck. It was cold, grey and windy. What little snow there was drifted across the tarmac in little swirls. No matter, we were there! We hopped a cab into Manhattan, where we had booked ourselves into the Paramount Hotel, walking distance from Times Square. I’m always leery about online bookings when it comes to cities I’ve never visited before; it’s a bit like a lottery, waiting to see what sort of lodgings you’re going to end up in. Part of the excitement, I think. We lucked out with the Paramount. We entered the funky little boutique hotel, lobby decked out with a giant tree and all the garland you could ask for. Classic Christmas carols drifted from the speakers as visitors and bellhops alike bustled through the lobby, arms loaded with suitcases overstuffed with Christmas shopping to bring home to their families.

On a recent trip to New York, my husband and I stopped by the Paramount to have a drink in their bar (one of my husband’s favorites) and were disappointed to see that the hotel had recently undergone renovations. Don’t get me wrong, it looks fantastic now, but we had fallen in love with the classic New York look of the place when we first visited. Still, I suppose a Times Square hotel must update now and then if they wish to remain competitive. I just wish they had kept the brocaded red velvet chair with the snarling Rottweiler motif in the lobby. Sigh.

We spent the first night there searching out (and finding) what we considered to be a typical New York all night diner. Bar stools at the counter, pie under a glass dome, and windows fogged with grease, this little joint in Hell’s Kitchen was exactly what we sought. I’d tell you the name, but sadly, I didn’t write it down. Don’t worry though, there’s plenty just like it to be found, if a greasy spoon diner is what you’re looking for. After wolfing down a couple of pastramis on rye and cold cokes to wash them down , we went in search of a little Irish snug to have a pint, an Irish coffee, and do some people watching. No problem finding that either. If there’s one thing New York is not lacking in, it’s Irish pubs.

After hitting a few pubs, we stopped at our hotel bar for a nightcap, which turned into several because of the cool ambience of the place. Dim lighting, low tables, big, comfy plush leather chairs and a DJ spinning house tracks kept us there for a martini or four. I sincerely hope that the bar there wasn’t part of the revamping of the hotel, but I think it was.

We woke up the next morning feeling energized and ready to explore this great city. What to do first? Well, every large tourist hub seems to have an abundance of hop-on, hop-off bus tours. New York City is no exception to this rule. Just a quick walk over to Times Square from the hotel and we found what we were looking for. If you’re ever in any big city and feeling a little overwhelmed by your options, I always recommend starting with a two day pass on the bus tours. Preferably the open-topped buses so you can get a 360 degree view as you move through the city. This allows you the option to pick and choose which stops you want to get off and explore without all the walking that usually goes along with it. And if you miss something on the first day, a two day pass will allow you to come back and visit that spot.

Bundled up warm, we picked our seats on the bus. It was a chilly, clear day in the city and we had the entire top deck to ourselves. Perfect. Our tour guide/comedian kept us entertained and informed for much of the ride. Pointing out all the sights and filling us in on local knowledge, he occasionally requested the driver pull up close to other bus tours so he could chat up the female tour guides and pass them his number. The tour took us through the Theatre District, Times Square, down Broadway, through SoHo, Little Italy, Chinatown, down to Battery Park, past Liberty Island, Ground Zero, under the Brooklyn Bridge, past the UN Building, through a lovely tour of some gorgeous brownstone mansions, past Central Park, Rockefeller Center, and back into Midtown Manhattan.

We decided that day to disembark at Battery Park to take the ferry over and visit the Statue of Liberty. Standing in the line, which moved remarkably quickly, we were entertained by a dreadlocked street performer playing steel drum. After some quick photo-ops (it was cold and windy along the water!) and a hot chocolate, we ferried back over to Manhattan. We wandered along the waterfront a bit and admired some of the buildings and sculptures along the way.

Hopping back on the next bus that came along we decided to jump off near Empire State Building and do a bit of a walking tour from there, stopping of course at the Heartland Brew Pub at the base of Empire State for a pint and a pub lunch before ascending to the viewing deck.

After admiring the spectacular city views we did a walking tour through the Flatiron District, over to Macy’s to check out their Christmas window displays, which always draw a large crowd, stopped in to Macy’s for some shopping, of course, and then some shoe shopping on 5th Ave!

Our plan for that evening was to hit a Broadway show. Because it was Christmas, I wanted to see the Nutcracker Suite as performed by the New York City Ballet, but my husband had his heart set on the long running favorite, Phantom of the Opera. Since it was technically his trip, we decided on Phantom. We went to Times Square to purchase some discount tickets (big orange signs that say TKTS, right in the middle of Times Square – can’t miss it), stood in the incredibly long line-up that moved remarkably quickly, and we were on our way.

Housed in the gorgeous Majestic Theatre, which was originally built in 1927, Phantom seems right at home in this wonderfully maintained musical house. I was glad that we had gone with my husband’s pick.

If you’re planning on dining out before the show, arrive early or book ahead. We gave ourselves two hours for dinner before the show, thinking that would be more than enough, as the Italian restaurant we chose was very nearly across the street from The Majestic. It was incredibly packed with theatre patrons who’d had the same idea. Service was rushed, although pleasant, and food was slow. We had to remind our server a couple of times that we had a show to catch, but stopped when the manager came out and began berating the poor fellow right in front of us. The manager retrieved our dinners himself and we quickly saw why the server couldn’t bring it out when we asked. My chicken was practically raw. I shrugged, ate the salad and veggies around it, tipped the waiter generously (it wasn’t his fault) and rushed off to the show.

After the show, which we thoroughly enjoyed, we were still hungry (obviously) and chanced upon an open pizza joint right next door to our hotel. This became a regular stop for us on our way up to the room every night. Nothing like a slice of New York style pizza after a night on the town.

The next day our plan was to hit Rockefeller Centre, Central Park, and yes, more shopping! We hit the buffet breakfast at our hotel, which was fabulous, if a little on the pricey side, and then hit the streets to do some wandering around and photo-taking before heading off to our destination.

We absolutely loved the “New York-sized” Christmas decorations everywhere. Giant nutcracker dolls, giant trees, giant ornaments everywhere. Who cares if there was no snow; it still gave you that warm, fuzzy feeling.

We got to Rockefeller Center hoping to do some ice-skating on the rink there, but were put off by the tiny ice rink and the massive line-up of people waiting to get on it and skate in a tiny circle, along with hundreds of other people. So we took some pictures of the famous Christmas Tree there instead, along with the many other sights, and started off for Central Park. We hadn’t realized that Central Park also had an outdoor skating rink that was much larger with less than half the line-up. We spent a good couple of hours there, skating (badly) around, drinking hot chocolate, and listening to Bing Crosby from the loudspeakers singing of good cheer and white Christmases. Best. Day. Ever. Just don’t skate in the wrong direction. I’ve never seen so many small children get yelled at before by the “rink police.”

What else is there to do when in Central Park (besides ice skating) than take a horse-drawn carriage ride through the park. Of course we did just that. The movies always show two characters, cuddled together under a blanket, riding through the park for what seems like hours, while the driver (Is that what you call them?) discreetly pretends not to notice their undying declarations of love going on behind him. This was not our experience. I believe it was twenty minutes, the duration of which was spent (by me) listening to my husband and the driver discuss English premier league football.

After quite possibly the least romantic horse and carriage ride ever, we wandered back to Rockefeller Center, shopping a bit along the way of course, and found a little wine bar, grabbed a bench seat at the window, and sat down to warm up and indulge in some fine reds. Morrell’s Wine Bar at Rockefeller Plaza has an amazing selection, great view of the plaza, and choice menu items. You can’t go wrong. We returned there on our next trip to New York and were happy to discover that they hadn’t changed a single thing about it.

Possibly a few too many reds later, we thought it was time to retire to our room. On the way back we spotted a cycle rickshaw and thought maybe we should relive our horse and carriage ride from earlier, since it went so well. Silly us, we didn’t negotiate a price per distance before jumping in and had to shell out 30 bucks for a measly block and a half ride. Totally not worth the price. But, he did, conveniently, drop us in front of Rosie O’Grady’s Irish Pub, so, of course, once we were standing in front of the doors, the logic became, “Why not?” Great pub, great atmosphere!

Quick slice on the way up to the room after the pub, and we were done for the night.

We devoted the next day specifically to shopping, making time to stop for lunch and dinner and several pubs in between. Alright, so maybe we didn’t get a whole lot of shopping done. But we did find an amazing Beatles memorabilia collection housed in the Hard Rock Café on Broadway. Normally I try to avoid giant chain restaurants like this one and hit up more funky local haunts, but I’d heard rumor of their Beatles collection, and I wasn’t disappointed. George Harrison’s guitar, a touching shrine to John Lennon and the original doors from the Beatles Abbey Road Studio (that you can actually touch) gave this Beatles fanatic her fix. The only thing I didn’t manage to squeeze in on this trip, which I was dying to, was a trip over to the Dakota (John Lennon’s former home and the sight of his assassination) across from Central Park, and the memorial to him in Central Park. But I managed to get there on my next visit, so that’s okay.

Roaming around looking for a nice place for dinner that night, we happened across Ellen’s Stardust Diner on Broadway. Why hadn’t I heard of this place before? With singing waitstaff (most of them are aspiring broadway actors/singers), simple 50’s style fare, and an audience participation type atmosphere, this was a great place to end up our trip before leaving the next day. Staff dance along the back of your booths, singing 50’s, 60’s and 70’s hits, throwing in plenty of comic relief and encouraging audience/patrons to dance and sing along. They also did a smashing version of Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.

Another great restaurant to check out if you’re in New York is Island Burgers in Hell’s Kitchen. We didn’t get there on this trip, but my brother and his wife steered us there on our next trip to NYC. It’s a tiny little surfer themed restaurant (hence the name) that boasts the best burgers and shakes in Hell’s Kitchen. They don’t lie. It was fantastic. Find them on 9th Ave and enjoy!

The next day was our last day there. We took one last walk through Times Square to do some last minute souvenir shopping, had one more slice of pizza and then it was time to cab it to JFK for our soon to be discovered debacle at the airport. While in the cab, trying to figure out the mystery of just why NewYork cab drivers are continuously honking their horns at seemingly nothing, we reflected on our trip there and decided another trip to New York was definitely in order.

There’s so much more to see and do in New York City. But that’s the great thing; it’s only a plane ride away, so you can go back as often as you like, to explore and enjoy. Now I get why everyone has those I heart New York t-shirts. In fact, I’m wearing mine right now.

Monday, April 12, 2010

6 Islands You Should Visit in Thailand, and Why.

Thailand is home to some of the most beautiful islands in the world. Lush jungles, elephants roaming in their natural habitats, crystal clear waters with some of the best diving in Southeast Asia, they’re a tropical paradise in an exotic Asian setting. From the rustic and natural to the downright hedonistic, there’s an island for whatever kind of beach holiday you’re looking for.
Here are just six islands I had the opportunity to visit while in Thailand, each one more different than the last, and, if you have the chance, I recommend you spend some time on each of these lovely island paradises.

Ko Pha Ngan
World renowned for it’s Full Moon Party (and Half-Moon, and Quarter Moon, and Day-After Full Moon, and so on), Ko Pha Ngan has made a name for itself just by inventing reasons to host a party. And what a party it is. Backpackers stream in from all over the world in the week leading up to the Full Moon. Finding lodging during this time can be extremely challenging, so if you’re planning on attending the Full Moon Party, it’s a good idea to get online and find a bungalow or guest house to suit your needs. The party itself is held on Hat Rin Beach, so if you want to be in walking, or stumbling distance, it’s best to book something in this area. However, bungalows right on the beach tend to be incredibly noisy and prone to break-ins. Finding a bungalow off the main beach or even on other, quieter areas of the island is ideal. Guesthouses and bungalows all over the island are more than happy to arrange transportation to and from the party for you, no matter the time of day or night.
Rental scooters and motorcycles are also available in Thong Sala at very reasonable rates (your guesthouse will arrange a rental for you if you don’t want to journey into Thong Sala), but it’s not a great idea to count on this for transport home from the Full Moon Party, even if you’re not indulging in buckets of Thai whiskey and Red Bull, or the veritable buffet of marijuana, MDMA, mushrooms or ecstasy available at the party. The roads from Hat Rin are in sore need of repair, and it’s mainly the other drivers returning from the party that are cause for worry.

Sunset Bungalows on the west side of the island offers clean, inexpensive huts built into the hillside overlooking the ocean. All bungalows here provide hammocks strung from each ocean view balcony to assist you in your colossal Full Moon Party come down.
But the Full Moon Party isn’t the only draw for Ko Pha Ngan. It’s also home to some fairly respectable diving, excellent hikes through the jungle, and even a temple or two to explore.

There’s no airport on Ko Pha Ngan, so the best route for a backpacker on a budget is to take the night train from Bangkok to Surat Thani (request a sleeper bunk, the price difference is minimal and it’s worth it) and then ferry over from there.

Ko Samui
If you can look past the beach bars, the varying types of insanely loud music competing with the neighboring bar stereos, and the giggling, overly- friendly “bar girls” of Ko Samui, then you just may find that this island has a lot more to offer than it’s reputation claims.

After spending three weeks on Ko Pha Ngan, I was spoiled by the extremely affordable lodgings, meals, and transportation. Ko Samui was a bit of a rude awakening, to say the least. Luckily I was traveling with a friend at that particular point and we were able to cut costs by sharing a run-down bungalow with two beds off the beach. I wish I’d known how friendly he’d gotten with one of the bar girls prior to my arrival, however, as she continuously showed up at 3am demanding to know who I was and what I was doing there. No amount of explaining that we were just friends was going to convince her that I wasn’t her latest replacement. After a few nights of this, I genuinely began to fear for my safety and suggested that maybe it was time we move on to another island.
But never mind the bar girls. If you’re not there looking for them, they’re easy enough to avoid. There’s plenty else to do on Ko Samui.

Hike to the Hin Lat or Na Muang Falls if you’re up for a bit of a walk.
Take a guided kayak trip in Ang Thong National Marine Park, where you can explore caves, snorkel, or just relax on the white sand beaches of the hidden lagoons.
Muay Thai matches are also regular events on Samui, and the entrance fee is small.

Ko Chang
Thai for Elephant Island, Ko Chang is appropriately named. If you’d prefer not to make the long journey north to arrange your elephant trekking from Chiang Mai, Ko Chang is the place to go.

Like something reminiscent of Jurassic Park, Ko Chang’s lush rainforest jungles and steep cliffs rising from the surrounding ocean are stunning to behold as you arrive by longtail boat or ferry from the mainland.

I arrived in Ko Chang after a bit of a long haul through Cambodia, and was in desperate need of some hammock time. After doing a bit of elephant trekking, snorkeling, and kayaking around Ko Chang, I broke out the hammock and the book and settled right in for some chill time. I didn’t realize just how relaxed I had become when I went to search for my flip-flops to head off the beach for a change and maybe do some shopping. I had lost my flip-flops. Two weeks prior. And I hadn’t even noticed. It was clearly time to depart from my little stretch of beach!

I spent much of my time on Ko Chang at Nature Beach Bungalows, on Lonely Beach, which was within walking distance to many of the restaurants along the beach. The Treehouse Restaurant is one of the favorites among backpackers, with a large “treehouse” wooden deck overhanging the ocean. Pillows are strewn about on the deck for maximum lounging comfort amongst the low tables. Most restaurants along the beach serve amazing nightly BBQ buffets of fresh caught fish, thai salads, rice and BBQ’d corn on the cob.

After sunset you can settle in on a beach mat with a bucket of SangSom (Thai whiskey) and watch the firedancers spin their poi and listen to drum and bass, reggae, or jungle beats until 4 am, if you’re so inclined. Just be sure to request a bungalow a little off the beach if that’s not your thing, because the music gets louder as the night progresses.
If you’ve had enough of the chill-out scene, head over to White Sand Beach, slightly more populated and easier to find supplies for your travels. Bamboo Bungalows offer clean, comfy lodgings right on the beach.

Ko Phi Phi
Famed for its clear waters and sand like flour, you’ll see when you arrive why they chose this locale to film the backpacker cult hit The Beach.

Ko Phi Phi offers up some spectacular diving and snorkeling. Or perfect little secluded bays to just crack a good book and worship the sun. Longtail boats are available to taxi you wherever on the island you wish to go.

Lodgings on Ko Phi Phi range from downright luxurious to seriously budget. I was lucky enough to meet up with some friends from Italy who were on a short beach holiday and were more than willing to share their air conditioned (!!!) bungalow at Natural Resort with me. It had been a long time since I’d experienced more than a squat toilet, fan, and a hammock so this seemed like heaven on earth to me. The only problem I encountered was the secluded location of the resort. Located on the tip of the island with no roads in or out, I had to book a water taxi for any excursion. But if you’re looking for a peaceful, quiet getaway with plenty of opportunities for water sports, Natural Resort is the place to be. Unfortunately, my friends weren’t staying long, so I had to water taxi back to mid-island and find myself some cheaper digs. Chong Khao Bungalows had just what I needed. Cheap, clean, and centrally located, it was the perfect place to restock my dwindling book supply, book some day trips off island, and meet some fellow backpackers at the bars and restaurants nearby.

Ko Tao
Known to many underwater enthusiasts as The place to dive in Thailand, Ko Tao is the perfect spot for novice divers to acquire their PADI certificate.

High season on Ko Tao can get pretty crowded, so if you’re not planning on doing any diving, your odds of finding a place to stay can get pretty slim. Most resorts have divemasters living and working full time for them, and the push to sign up for a dive course or dive holiday can get pretty aggressive. Thankfully, that was just what I was there to do, so I had no problem finding lodging. I signed up with Crystal Dive Resort for a five night stay – the duration it would take to acquire my PADI certificate. If you’re buying a dive package, the accommodation comes pretty much included, if you compare the cost of getting your PADI certificate to other countries. I was happy to stay in a large, tile-floored, air conditioned bungalow with private, western style toilet just a short walk from the beach. I had been traveling so long that I’d forgotten what it was like to be up at the crack of dawn everyday hitting the books before diving though.

After finishing my PADI course I stuck around to do some more diving and just soak up the vibe of the island, as it was nearing Full Moon and I wanted to spend it in a more chilled out atmosphere than nearby Ko Pha Ngan.

I moved to SB (I think it stood for Sandy Beach) Bungalows further along the island, but still on the beach. Sigh. Back to squat toilets and no air conditioning. I had thought it would be a little more mellow on Ko Tao for Full Moon, but was surprised to see the same ravers busting out the ‘shroom shakes, ecstasy tablets and giant spliffs that accompany the Full Moon on Ko Pha Ngan. Still, the crowd was much smaller than the usual 8,000-10,000 you can get up to on Ko Pha Ngan, so, a little less crazy.

Ko Samet
Ko Samet was kind of a stopover for me in order to avoid spending New Year’s Eve either on a bus to Cambodia or in Bangkok, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect since I hadn’t researched it all that much before arriving.

I was pleasantly surprised to find pristine, sandy beaches, great restaurants and a clean, quiet atmosphere to lay low in for a few days.

Ko Samet is a popular destination for Thai Nationals, so, being New Year’s Eve, it was quite crowded by the time I’d arrived and finding lodging was a tad on the difficult side. Locals had also jacked their prices up accordingly, thereby adding to my dilemma. I was in talking to the manager of what turned out to be the last available bungalow on the island, trying to negotiate a fairer price, when three weary backpackers came through the door, heaving their rucksacks off with a sigh and looking without much hope toward the manager. I quickly explained the situation to them and asked how they felt about sharing a bungalow between the four of us for the duration of my stay, or whenever anything else became available, whichever came first. They readily agreed and after another round of negotiation with the manager (he had rapidly appraised the situation and jacked the price up another 300 baht as we were standing there – cheek!), we had ourselves a lovely bamboo bungalow with air conditioning and private bathroom right off the beach. I was relieved to see four mattresses strewn across the floor of the largish sized bungalow, as we hadn’t really checked the sleeping arrangements before agreeing to a price and I was the only female in the group
Having spent only three days on Ko Samet, I can’t tell you as much about the island as I’d like to. I can tell you that if you arrive on any sort of Thai National or foreign holiday without pre-arranging lodgings, be prepared to rough it on the beach for at least a day or two. I came across quite a few travelers who were doing just that. Not the worst place in the world to spend a night or two camping rough however. Clean white sands, warm clear water, and public showers available at very reasonable rates.

Ko Samet is a nice quiet island where you’ll get an authentic feel for Thai culture. Day trip excursions are available if you want to explore some of the smaller surrounding islands, and there are also one or two dive companies where you can get PADI certified or just add some more sights to your dive log.

The locals put on a great New Year’s Eve party, much different than you’d experience on some of the other, touristier islands. Traditional Thai dancers, singers and Muay Thai Boxing matches made for a refreshing change of pace.

A couple of things to note before you journey to the beautiful islands of Thailand; if you’re planning to indulge in the abundance of illegal substances available to tourists on many of these islands, be careful! Thai Police are ever vigilant, though it may not seem so when you attend a Full Moon Party, and are famous for their extremely thorough searches and bank-account-emptying “fines.” It may seem like a great idea at the time, but I came across many a backpacker whose holidays were ruined or cut short by run-ins with Thai Police. Worse still, imagine ending up in a Thai Prison for an indeterminate amount of time.

Women traveling alone; keep an eye on your drinks, particularly at the Full Moon Party, as there have been many reports of sexual assaults. Better yet, find a group of ladies, join them for the party, and look out for each other. Other than that, Thailand is extremely safe for women traveling alone, as I can attest to. Just don’t put yourself in silly situations.

Most of these islands, if you arrive when they’re not gearing up for a Full Moon Party or some sort of national holiday, have more than enough accommodations to suit your needs, from budget to luxury, and you should be fine arriving without pre-booking and just checking out the ones that catch your eye.

Having said all that, the only thing left is; have fun island-hopping!