Nicaragua: Land of Lakes and Volcanoes

img_1497Two weeks in Nicaragua over the holidays greatly increased our: basic Spanish, sleep mastery (9 hours a night), dedication to Deet, tolerance for creatures sharing our bedroom, surfing skills, enthusiasm for volcanoes, life tally of best sunsets ever, perspective on Nicaraguan politics, and gratitude.

CRITTER TALLY:

  • Bats (in our room), howler monkeys, capuchin monkeys, black iguana, geckos (3:00am on David’s head)…
  • Scorpion (in David’s luggage), tree snake, ground snake (but luckily not the coral snake that was there the day before), grasshopper, leaf cutter, wasps of all sizes, ants of all colors, ubiquitous mosquitoes, giant cockroach (down my shirt), tree termites (edible in a pinch), tarantula-ish spider + an unfortunate (imo) multiplicity of other spiders (small and not small at all), butterflies (blue morpho, swallowtail, monarch, owl +++), enormous cicadas, moths…
  • Dolphins, sea anemones, tortoises, giant sea turtles (nesting and swimming), angel fish, sea urchins, barnacles, possible baby sting ray or horseshoe crab (between our feet, gulp), hermit crabs, rock crabs of every color, guapote (fierce lake fish on my plate), jellyfish (on Siena)…
  • White egrets, herons, white crested magpie jays, humming birds, white headed eagle, black headed vulture, wild turkey, terns, grackles…
  • Chickens, baby chickens, roosters, pigs, piglets, pig in a bag (on the ferry!?), cows, oxen, children riding oxen, pelibueys (sheep/goats, um, supposedly yum?), skinny horses (sad), sturdy burros, a plethora of hungry dogs (also sad), 3 fluffy bunnies, 5 cats…
  • and Paco the giant crocodile (at the beach)!!!

GRANADA:

  • The best way to see the city is from one of the horse drawn carriages that line the central square. The guides are very knowledgeable about the history and sites, and some speak good English if you need. Cost about $20 for a 1-hour tour.
  • Get lost in the dense warrens of the bustling city market to learn how local people shop and eat.
  • Climb to the bell tower of the Cathedral ($1) for views across the city and into some of the lovely gardens in the center of the older buildings.
  • Meander down lively Calle la Calzada lined with festive bars, cafes, shops and ice cream.
  • Take Spanish classes or cooking lessons.

To eat:

  • Garden Café – May favorite place in town and maybe one of the best of the trip! Healthy salads, smoothies and coffee in a lovely art-filled garden with a book borrowing program and a fantastic shop featuring very nice artisan products from NGOs and sustainability projects around the country.
  • El Pizzaiol/Pita Pita – Wood fired pizzas + hummus plates. Good stop for the family!
  • El Tranvia – Charming garden, elegant building, nice food, live traditional dancing on Thursday evenings.
  • Restaurante Las Colinas – Worth a small detour out of the center of town for this traditional thatched roof restaurant. They actually sent a driver to take us to/from our hotel but you could walk in 15 minutes. The specialty is a fierce looking whole fried lake fish called guapote in a special sauce with a nice array of salad, rice and beans on the side.
  • Restaurante El Zaguán – One of the most recommended spots in town for a nicer meal. A good spot to have a steak.

To stay:

  • Hotel Plaza Colon – Definitely book a room with a balcony overlooking the cathedral and the main square. You can spend all day in a rocking chair watching the dramatic sky above and the world go by below.

img_1273SIDE TRIPS FROM GRANADA:

  • Las Isletas – Book a 1-hour boat tour (about $30) from the lakefront harbor for a placid putter around a chain of 365 minute islands on the lake hosting beautiful villas, small restaurants with pools and even one with tame monkeys.
  • Mombacho – Walk or hop in the back of a truck to scale the near vertical road to the ranger station on top of this sort-of-sleeping volcano, and take a moderate 1 ½ hour walk around the crater trail to experience throngs of orchids and bromeliads, howler monkeys, steaming vents and cool microclimates. The reward is sweeping views of Lake Colcibolca, Masaya volcano and lovely Granada below. The cloud forest hosts 50 species of mammals, 174 species of birds, 30 of reptiles and 750 species of flora. There is also a rigorous 4-hour route around the second crater, which you can only visit with an approved guide.   Half way up the mountain there is a coffee stop at Cafe del Flor (like Nicaraguan Starbucks they are everywhere) and zip line tours.
  • Apoyo Lagoon – It was very windy on the day we went, but this crater lake is famous for being clear and lovely for a swim. Check in to the Monkey Hut where you can eat, drink, lounge and rent kayaks. Supposedly there are five different fish that are ecologically unique to this pretty little lake.
  • National Artisan Market in Masaya – Housed in the shell of a beautiful renovated 19th century market, this is a good place to buy many different crafts from around the country like hand woven hammocks, textiles and carved wood. There are folkloric shows every Thursday evening as well.

OMETEPE ISLAND:

Take the 1-hour ferry or book a flight from Managua to this island formed by two volcanoes (one very much alive), rising out of vast Lake Colcibolca.  Cloud forest, crystal pools, prehistoric petroglyphs, beaches and nature preserves – you really shouldn’t visit Nicaragua without at least a 2-day stop here.

To do:

  • El Ojo de Agua – cool off in this clear natural pool formed by a pristine river originating from the Conception Volcano.
  • Petroglyphs at Finca el Porvenir – Visit a field of stones dating to the 4th century AD showing ornate human and animal scenes carved by the original indigenous settlers of Nicaragua – probably related to the Aztecs. There are several other sites around the island where you can find additional petroglyphs.
  • Charco Verde Lagoon and nature preserve – A small fee admits you to this lovely nature preserve which includes a butterfly garden. Take the loop trail around the lagoon, and pause in a clearing to learn about the infamous witch doctor Chico Largo who haunts the lake.   Watch out for snakes – no joke.
  • Climbing – You can climb either of the island’s two volcanoes with a round trip of about 8 hours. The hikes are vigorous and guides are essential.

To stay/eat:

  • Finca San Juan de La Isla – Located on a huge plantain farm.  Book an elevated lakefront log cabin for peaceful breezy sleeps.  A kind vaquero will take you on a horseback ride through the beautiful farms, forests and beaches around the property.
  • Hotel Villa Paraiso – Enjoy a nice lunch on the terrace of this lakeside hotel, probably the most upscale on the island.

BEACHES:

Tola:   The “Emerald Coast” is beautiful with virtually untouched beaches – serious Pacific Coast paradise. Hotel Punta Teonoste offers charming but basic accommodations (thatched huts, outdoor showers). A little roughing it is worth it though for the hotel’s pristine private beach with nesting sea turtles, literally perfect boogie boarding waves, and a dramatic lava shoreline providing excellent tide pools. Nearby the Rancho Santana development offers more infrastructure and homes for rent, and Mukul is the most exclusive and high end resort in the country ($$$$$).

San Juan del Sur: Surfer/backpacker HQ bustling with nightlife, people watching, honking, music, surf shops, laundromats and a strip of lively beachfront restaurants perfect for taking in sunset with a cocktail.  It seems really loud if you’ve been hanging out in other parts of the country, but it’s a great stepping off point for the many beaches along this beautiful stretch of coast.

  • The beach in town is calm and nice but crowded (it’s in town!). You can rent a car or find an easy ride from one of the surf shops to beaches nearby including Playa Maderas – a great beginner’s surfing beach with three restaurants, surf lessons and beach chairs for hire. Playa Marsella – much more tranquil – stop at Rancho Marsella on the estuary for lunch and a glimpse of Paco the resident crocodile (3 meters long!). Playa Hermosa south of town was also highly recommended to us.
  • Da Flying Frog – just outside town for zip lining, repelling and horseback riding on the beach.
  • Nica Sail and Surf – Spend a day on a catamaran drinking rum and cokes and waving to dolphins as you sail away to a private beach.
  • To eat: G&G Gourmet (one of our favorite restaurants of the trip), Gato Negro (for books, smoothies and yummy breakfast), Dia de los Donuts for donuts fried to order, Super Frutto Gelateria for real gelato, Vivan, El Timon and many more cafes along the beach.
  • To stay: Pelican Eyes is considered one of the best in the country, and is a good place to rent 1,2 and 3 bedroom homes/villas.  However, it is not on the beach, and being built into a hill some of the rooms are VERY hard to get to unless the resort drives you up a side dirt road.  Either request a room near the pool or lobby, or consider renting a house on the beach.

WE ARE GOING BACK FOR:

  • Stop through the colonial town of Leon
  • Eat lobster and coconuts on a pristine white sand beach on the Corn Islands in the Caribbean
  • Take a boat trip down/up the Rio San Juan – bordering Costa Rica, the untouched jungle along the former route of infamous pirates sadly might be turned into a giant shipping canal by the Chinese in the next few years…
  • Canoeing, hiking, swimming through the newly opened Somoto Canyon whose dramatic vertical canyon walls are one of the oldest rock formations in Central America
  • Tour the chocolate and coffee farms in the north

TIPS AND NOTES:

  • The current exchange rate for the Nicaraguan cordoba is about 29/1$ as of winter 2016.  It is not hard to create a very affordable trip in most of the country, but expect to pay US prices in more touristy areas like Granada and San Juan del Sur.  Many people take US$ in small notes, but you should exchange some money anyway.  You will get a better exchange rate if you get money from the ATM or change $ on the street rather than changing cash at the airport or banks.
  • DO NOT forget to apply bug spray every day.  Even in the dry season mosquitos are plentiful and tenacious.
  • When you enter the country you need to have $10 cash at customs for each traveler.
  • Check the season you travel – the dry season is still moderately rainy with brief light daily showers, but the rainy season is WET and makes some areas impassable.
  • Nicaragua is very casual.  Leave your diamonds and fancy resort wear at home.
  • Most people do not speak English.  Brush up on your Spanish or bring a phrase book to help you communicate.  Locals were very patient and appreciative of our meek efforts to speak Spanish!
  • Bring a flashlight.  Although electricity is now pretty reliable throughout the country, smaller hotels and beach hotels may not have lighted pathways at night.
  • Nicaragua is a very agricultural country.  All the food we ate throughout the trip was very fresh, locally grown, clean and safe to eat, although I do recommend drinking bottled water.
  • We booked a lot of our trip through Nicaragua Adventures who arranged wonderful guides and airport/hotel transfers in very clean comfortable vans.
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Nashville: A Long Weekend in Music City

img_0716Nashville is a music and food lover’s paradise and that is all there is to it.  We majorly packed it in for 3 days and I think we did some justice to our short window – here’s a few of the delicious and festive spots we hit:

 

EAT!! (Yes we ate all this in three days…)

Dinner

  • Adele’s – Celeb chef Jonathan Waxman offers seasonal comfort food like great meatballs and craveable kale ceasar in a beautiful industrial space in the Gulch
  • City House – Germantown neighborhood gem with insane pizzas – don’t miss the smoked lamb sugo, buttermilk cottage cheese with okra, grits al forno, mmmmm…
  • 404 Kitchen – cozy little shipping container next to the Station Inn in the Gulch.  Try the rabbit with gnudi.

BBQ

  • img_0712Peg Leg Porker – OMG the ribs. Pimiento cheese was pretty epic too.
  • Edley’s – There are three of these around town.  Everything was unforgettable here, fried okra yes!  – at lunch have the Tuck Special with brisket, pimento cheese, over easy egg, pickles and two sauces on a perfect bun.  Heart stoppingly good…

Breakfast and snacks:

  • img_0684Nashville Farmer’s Market – The permanent building in the middle of Bicentennial Park has a fun international food hall with Saturday outdoor produce market
  • Kitchen Notes in the Omni Hotel – We didn’t have a whole meal here, but my biscuit was hands down the best of the trip – super flaky and buttery – if you like that sort of thing…
  • 417 Union – great spot for breakfast with memorable Bloody Marys in a cool old dining room dedicated to civil war and WWII history.
  • img_0717Sprinkles – If you’re in the 12South area, you kind of have hit the cupcake ATM.
  • Biscuit Love – Once a food truck, now a charming biscuit themed cafe.  There are lines around the block but go after the lunch rush to try the fluffy style biscuits and “bonuts.”

 

PLAY!!!

  • img_0676The District – honky tonk heaven (or hell depending on how you feel about the raging crowds).  Go during the day for lots of great live music but a mellower scene. Our favorite stop was Roberts Western World and their house band Brazil Billy.
  • Saint Anejo – The fun tequila library upstairs is a great stepping off point for an evening out in the Gulch.
  • The Station Inn – Classic spot for serious appreciation of bluegrass and acoustic country.

CHECK IT OUT!!

  • img_0695Country Music Hall of Fame
  • Hatch Show Print – take a tour and watch posters roll off the presses at this working letterpress print studio which has been cranking out artwork for the music industry since 1879.  Great spot for souvenir posters and original postcards!!
  • Ryman Auditorium – Once a gospel tabernacle and former home of the Grand Ole Opry, this beautiful building has hosted a most incredible array of performers for well over a century.  Do not miss the tour.
  • img_0672Bicentennial Park – Escape the city for a stroll through Tennessee state history in this beautiful mall down the hill from the capitol, and be sure to stand in the center of the 95 bell towers (“Carillons”) for a lovely tolling serenade on the hour.
  • Boot stores abound especially on Broadway in the District (cheap), but for higher end boots visit Lucchese or Frye (which had a band set up when we were there – of course!)
  • Draper James – Visit Reese Witherspoon’s sweet southern clothing store in 12South and be sure to take your picture by the Nashville sign around the corner!
  • img_0713Craft South – Inspire your inner DIYer at this craft heaven
  • Littleton Leather – I am coveting these beautiful handbags, belts and other leather goods at the Five and TENN store in the Omni hotel.

 

We are going back for:

Bluebird Café for music, Pinewood Social for bowling and fun indoor outdoor festivities, Parthenon because wow, Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant for music and bbq, Loveless Cafe for country ham, live music at the Ryman, a field trip to Andrew Jackson’s home The Hermitage, and so much more…

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South Africa: The Garden Route

 

This one’s a bit nostalgic for me, as we took this lovely road trip from Cape Town up the Garden Route to Port Elizabeth a couple of years ago now, but it will definitely go down as a lifetime family favorite!!  I’ve recently updated all the links/businesses so they should be current.

CAPE TOWN

See/stay:

  • Victoria and Albert Waterfront – There are several hotels in this area and I recommend staying here because it’s central and has good security. South Africa is still a country with huge economic disparity so you really need to be aware of safety. We stayed in an apartment in this part of town and it was great. Many of the city’s best restaurants are in this area too.
  • Uthando tours/education – This wonderful organization coordinated a visit to some of the nonprofit projects in one of the townships just outside Cape Town. They do amazing work for the community, and it was one of the most impactful days of our whole trip.
  • Hop on Hop off bus – sounds touristy but it’s really a great way to easily get around the city.  Much better than trying to drive or take taxis.
  • Table Mountain – take the aerial tramway or hike to the top for the best views of Cape Town
  • Lion’s Head – you can hike up here too for great views down over CT but if you don’t make it, Table Mountain is enough!
  • Robben Island – where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned.
  • District Six museum – history of a neighborhood razed by apartheid
  • Camp’s Bay – just over the hill from the main part of the city is this fun beach town with lots of restaurants and beach lounging
  • Boulders Beach  – African penguin colony – cuteness!!!
  • Kalk Bay – on your way to or from the African penguins and stop for lunch, antique shopping, and ice cream in this cool little fishing town.  Don’t miss the Cape to Cuba restaurant!
  • Shark diving – SOOOO not my bag but if you’re seeking thrills you can dive with great whites.
  • Visit the Cape of Good Hope

Eat:

  • Beluga – beautiful spot on the harbor for sushi
  • Africa Café –  super super cool place serving foods traditional to different African tribes with music and more. Loved this!!
  • Savoy Cabbage –  beautiful space and great food
  • Old Biscuit Mill – great farmers market, yummy food and cool boutique shops – do not miss
  • Bo Kaap – Highly recommend a visit to this neighborhood – a vibrant community of people from Cape Malay live in super colorful houses and have a distinctive history and cuisine. We did a walking tour and cooking class/lunch in someone’s home, which was super special. Capetown Magazine had a nice article with ideas as well.

WINE COUNTRY

Winelands – Stay a at least a couple of nights in this gorgeous part of the country – about 45 minutes from Cape Town. Main towns Stellenbosch and Franschhoek are surrounded by beautiful countryside, fantastic wineries, and many excellent places to stay.  Biking, wine tasting, and general loveliness abound. Have lunch at pretty  La Petite Ferme.

OUDTSHOORN

  • The ostrich capital of the world!   Visit Safari Ostrich  to learn about the birds, and smaller kids can try their luck on a bird ride!
  • Cango Caves –  These beautiful limestone caves are definitely worth a detour.  I seem to remember a funky restaurant/park just outside with mini zip lines for the kids as well.
  • Meerkats –  This one takes a bit of motivation but is totally worth it. Get up at the crack of dawn and meet your expert naturalist guide near open fields to catch the wild meerkats emerging from their homes to greet the day. Fascinating and adorable.
  • DeZeekoe Guest Farm – This farm/hotel/restaurant is a great spot to stay in the area and they can help arrange tours for you.

COASTAL GARDEN ROUTE

Next your drive will take you down along the Indian Ocean which is dotted with quaint little beach towns including Mossel Bay, George, Knysa and Plettenberg Bay. Many Cape Town residents have their getaway cottages along this stretch. Knysa harbor is particularly good for a lunch stop.

Visit all three of these spots if you can:

Near Port Elizabeth

  • Addo Elephant National Park – This is a famous national elephant preserve with other wildlife viewing as well. As it stretches down to the sea, this park technically offers the “big 7” – elephant, rhino, lion, buffalo, leopard, southern right whale and great white shark.  Um obviously not all viewable on the tour…   We stayed at Addo Afrique Lodge which was rustic and fun, but there are a bunch of lodges and game reserve hotels to try in this area.
  • Schotia Private Game reserve –  Enjoy a jeep tour for up close viewing of lions, rhinos, giraffes and a fun bbq dinner afterward. We enjoyed this a lot as a quick and easy mini safari experience, but you might skip it if you have already been on enough safaris!!
  • Alexandria Coastal Dune field – SUPER COOL massive sand dunes covering over 140km.  They are on private land, but are reachable by a couple of different boat cruises, and I believe you can arrange hikes/tours to parts of them with a naturalist as well.   Don’t miss a day of sand sledding!!  We took Addo Cruises, but also look at Sundays River Adventures.

 

 

 

 

 

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Iceland/Island

 

img_1277

How to describe the pristine unspoiled breathtaking beauty of Iceland?

Majestic volcanoes and glaciers tower over cliffs and steaming foothills sweeping down to the churning sea past breathtaking waterfalls and rivers of pure glacial melt.  These raw swaths of nature are tempered by picturesque red farmhouses, great fields of purple lupine, diminutive Icelandic horses in a rainbow of colors, and little clumps of white sheep.  It is one of the wildest and most beautiful places on earth – and you can easily visit by car!

Iceland is the size of Kentucky with just a little over 300,000 people, 60% of whom live in the capital. Just a few minutes out of Reykjavik and you’re on a tiny two lane road.  If you don’t get off you can basically drive the whole way round (in a couple of weeks).

It’s hard to get your mouth around the language, but everyone speaks perfect English, and Icelanders are very warm (no pun intended).  It’s incredibly safe.  Despite the fact that there has been a 29% increase in tourism in just a year, it still feels untrampled and unspoiled. The food is all local, traditional and incredibly fresh, and you can literally drink from the streams. We visited during the summer solstice so the sun never set during our visit (eye masks!).  There are TONS of incredible sites throughout the country so in 7 days we missed far more than we saw, but every day was completely full of unique experiences. Needless to say we are already scheming our return.

img_0959

Hmm, we did not know that…

  • Settled in the 800’s, Iceland was one of the last places on Earth to be inhabited by humans.
  • The Icelandic language is so close to ancient Norwegian that modern Icelanders can read 1,000 year old Norse texts.
  • The government is one of the world’s oldest democracies, with the first parliament elected in 930.
  • Iceland had both the first elected female prime minister and first openly gay prime minister.
  • The island is the most active volcanic area in the world, with eruptions about every 4 years.
  • About 85% of the country’s energy comes from geothermal and hydroelectric energy sources.
  • You can stand simultaneously in two continents where the European and North American continental plates meet.
  • Reyjkavik is closer to Boston than Boston is to LA.

Our favorite foods:

  • Lamb soup – every version you try will be different…but they are all good!
  • Arctic char – like a delicate salmon
  • Einstok white beer – my favorite beer on tap!!
  • Butter – Icelandic butter is one of the best things I have ever put in my mouth
  • Skyr – a cross between Greek-style yogurt and a soft cheese eaten by almost all Icelanders for breakfast
  • Fish and Chips – all good – eat them everywhere!
  • Cheese – delicious but they seem to be made in a cooperative way and surprisingly there is no sheep cheese despite the fact that there are more sheep than people…
  • Egil’s Appelsin orange soda
  • Ethical limitations and personal culinary boundaries prevented us from trying: horsemeat, minke whale, milk soaked sheep’s testicles, fermented shark

To read:

  • Halldor Laxness – one of Iceland’s most celebrated writers. Start with the Nobel Prize winning “Independent People” for a great insight into the Icelandic psyche.
  • National Geographic: Vikings
  • Mysteries – Icelandic Noir is a genre of its own. I am enjoying atmospheric nail-biters by Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Michael Ridpath.  I also have Arnaldur Indridason, Arni Thorarinsson and Quentin Bates on my reading list.

Music:

  • Two excellent Icelandic bands who have made it on the international scene: Sigur Ros  and Kaleo.

ITINERARIES – (Apologies!!   The spelling of a lot of these places is an English approximation as there are several characters unique to Icelandic that are not available on my keyboard.)

REYJKAVIK

To See:

  • Settlement Museum – walk through a recently excavated 10th century Viking house.
  • Volcano House – great film intro to the drama generated by some of the country’s great volcanoes.
  • Harpa –  the most imposing, beautiful, controversial building in the country – designed by architect/artist Olaffur Eliasson.  This giant concert hall has several theaters, restaurants, shops and a striking view of the harbor and mountains through its unusual windows. Definitely try to catch the hilarious comedy “How to be Icelandic in 60 Minutes” – save this for the end of your trip and you’ll get the humor much better.
  • Shipwrecks outdoor installation on the harbor – a testament to the treacherous waters around the country with an interesting panel on WWII action in the area.
  • Blue Lagoon – this is not overrated. Definitely do this on your way in or out of the country as it’s near the airport, and prebook your tickets and spa appointments well in advance. They are also building a luxury hotel on site.

To Eat:

  • The Reyjkavik Food Walk – Three hours deliciously well spent!
  • Ostabudin –  We stopped by the specialty food shop and came back for dinner at the restaurant, and agreed both visits were some of the best food of the trip.  Don’t miss the smoked wild goose breast and the lamb cured with thyme and rosemary.
  • Mokka-Kaffi cozy spot in the middle of town for coffee and lovely pastries.
  • Sægreifinn (The Sea Baron) – for the best lobster bisque of your life.
  • Baejarins Hot dogs – Famous must stop hot dog stand.  Just go.
  • Bergsson Mathus – for breakfast and lunch.
  • Argentina Steakhouse – pricey but super cozy on a cold night.
  • Apotek – great breakfast buffet spot morphs into elegant and popular lunch/dinner spot. Siena’s favorite bite of the trip was their raspberry chocolate mousse!
  • Sky Bar – tallest bar in Iceland with a great view of Harpa .

To Stay:

  • Kvosin Downtown Hotel – comfy centrally located in the square just behind the Icelandic Parliament.
  • Iceland Air Hotel Marina –  great location by the harbor, super hip with a great restaurant, cinema, bar and library in the lobby.

SOUTH ICELAND

  • Icelandic Horses: Farms across the south are populated by these adorable little animals descended from mixed European horses brought by settlers in the 800’s. Like a bowl of marbles they come in every conceivable color from appaloosa and palomino to the beautiful “silver bay” smoky dark with a blond mane. Super friendly with fluffy manes and puppy dog expressions – you’ll see tourists along the road just stopping to pet them.  Try to book a ride somewhere to experience the two gaits unique to the breed. The “tolt” is somewhere between a walk and a trot and has to be the most comfortable ride you can have on a four footed animal.
    • Hella horse rental –  Looks unassuming from the road but they offer a beautiful 1½ hour tour through fields, forest and waterfalls (also heard Eldhestar is a good place to ride close to Reykjavik)
    • Icelandic Horse Park – Fakasel – Exhibition riding multimedia show is a fun introduction to the history of Icelandic horses and history.
  • Seljalandsfoss waterfall – bring a waterproof jacket to walk behind this enormous plume of water falling off a cliff. Take time to hike up the path past a couple of smaller falls to Fljufrafoss waterfall and venture back into a cool cave to experience the falls from below
  • Eyjafjallajokull Erupts  – fascinating documentary of the farm nearly obliterated by the dramatic 2011 eruption that grounded air traffic across Europe.
  • Seljavllalaug Zwembad geothermal pool – built in 1923 one of the oldest outdoor geothermal swimming pools in Iceland. It’s a 25-minute hike from the parking lot, and yes the pool is a little murky, but as we soaked I counted over 30 waterfalls in the hills around us. Unforgettable.
  • Skogafoss waterfall – Hike to the top of and climb the sheep fence to find further falls on the path up the river. Grab excellent Fish and Chips at the red food truck on your way in.
  • Reynisdrangar – Immense basalt sea stacks at a moody black sand beach. Grab a refreshment at the sleek Black Beach Restaurant.

To Stay/Eat:

  • Icelandic Air Hotel Vik – If you have kids ask for the family room with a cool loft. The restaurant is great. Try the amazing smoked lamb salad and rack of lamb.

We are going back for:

Westmann Islands, Jokusarlon Glacier Lagoon, Wrecked DC-3 Plane on Solheimasandur (you have to hike in from the road), Cliffs of Dyrholaey – where the puffins nest.

GOLDEN CIRCLE

We took 2 nights and 2 days to explore here, but there are many day trips from Reyjkavik if you are short on time and want to quickly catch the highlights.

To See:

  • Thingvellir –  Reserve ample time to explore this amazing UNESCO World Heritage site.  Probably the most important location in Icelandic history, it is also one of the most geologically unique and cool places on earth. Walk the easy path through the rift valley, don’t miss the detour to the waterfall, and climb up to the visitor center on the top for gorgeous views.
  • Gulfoss waterfall
  • Geysir – Yup this is where the name comes from! Check out the Stroker geyser – the Old Faithful of Iceland.  There are no barriers so use your noodle and don’t get too close – we almost got scalded…
  • Laugarvatn Fontana – elegant geothermal spa, sauna and baths on a beautiful chilly lake – take the cold plunge!
  • Kerid crater – take a quick hike around this pretty volcanic crater lake

To Stay:

  • Mengi Kjarnholt – beautiful little farmhouse/guesthouse with lovely farm breakfast
  • Hotel Grimsborgir –   Well-located beautiful hotel with luxurious rooms and full apartments.

To Eat:

  • Geysir Hotel across the street from the geothermal field
  • Fridheimar Tomato Farm – Definitely tour the greenhouse of this geothermal farm with a lovely little restaurant inside featuring everything tomato…
  • Efsti-Dalur II – Pop into this sweet cow farm/hotel for delicious homemade ice cream
  • Linden –  lovely lakeside restaurant next to Laugarvatn spa.
  • Tryggvaskali – one of our favorite stops for traditional Icelandic food with a great farmhouse atmosphere.

We’re going back for:

The Secret Lagoon in Fludir, Gardyrkjustodin Engi (farmer’s market), Iceland Riverjet (thrill ride on the river), Salt Eldhus for Icelandic cooking classes, scuba dive or snorkel in the Silfra fissure between the continental plates, Inside the Volcano to hike up and take an elevator into the center of a 4,000 year old dormant volcano! Yikes cool!

WEST + SNAELFELLSNES PENINSULA

To See:

  • Borgarnes: The Settlement Center – You can spend the next 10 years plowing through thousands of pages of complex Icelandic sagas or get the very entertaining immersion version here. Try the lamb soup in the cafe.
  • Drive by the breathtaking Eldborg Crater and the Gerduberg basalt cliffs.
  • Stikkisholmer – Historic restored harbor with views over the innumerable islands (thousands of them).  A great home base for exploring the peninsula.
  • Library of Water – Art installation dedicated to Icelandic glaciers.  Get tickets at the nearby Volcano Museum or make an appointment through the website to visit.
  • Viking Sushi Tour – Float past hideouts of Eric the Red, coo at adorable nesting puffins, and feast on delicacies shucked straight from the sea aboard this very comfy and beautiful boat with daily tours out of Stikkisholmer harbor. One of our favorite outings of the trip.

We’re going back for:

Hike to Glymur waterfall, Vatneshellir Cave, a drive around the whole peninsula, Into the Glacier tour on the glacier and in ice tunnels at the second largest icecap in Iceland.

To Eat:

  • Narfeyrarstofa –  Try the local mussels and scallops
  • Sjavarpakkhusid –  Charming small restaurant just on the harbor.
  • Nesbraud Bakery – Look for the pretzel sign and duck in for delicious pastries, but don’t overlook the mushroom soup – my daughter said it was the best thing she ate the whole trip!

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Road trip time!!

OK people! The clock is ticking. School is almost out, and it’s that time of year when you pack up your little people and hit the road for Family Vacation.  You’re either counting the days or dreading it (or more likely a little of both).  Personally I LOVE having my kids to myself for a bit over the summer, as I have to share them with school, friends, and endless activities for the rest of the year.  I am excited to be their buddy, their teacher and their exploration co-captain for a little bit before they get back on the growing up train.

Honestly though let’s all agree – there are inevitable complications when everyone is out of their element, jet-lagged, trying to settle in to unfamiliar beds, sampling “interesting” foods, stretching their comfort zones, and adjusting to unaccustomed oodles of “togetherness.”

People always marvel when we tell them how much we travel with our kids, but I need you to know that even on the BEST TRIP EVER usually at least one person in our family loses it at least once a day.  There are glares and huffs and tears and meltdowns and irrational proclamations and cringy behavior, and not just from the kids.  It’s part of the deal, along with grand adventures, fabulous photo ops, beautiful moments of revelation, and once-in-a-lifetime memories.  Like a lot of our parenting low moments we tend to edit them out of our trip stories and even our recollections.  But they happen regularly.  I think if you know this going in to your voyage, you’re more likely to take those bumps in stride.   I also believe the more you travel with your kids, the more you amortize those en-route hiccups and realize the greater enjoyment of venturing out across the world together overall.

I also know from experience that preparation is essential.  And also food.  A lot of food.  I cannot emphasize this enough.  Snack early – snack often.  You too grumpy grownups!!!

Here are some tips for family travel that we have amassed over the years:

FAMILY TRAVEL JOURNAL

Creating a travel journal is super fun for journeys large or small. You can collaborate on one as a family or have each kid dream up their own.  This is a free-form project so give them the tools and a nudge and let them get creative!   Here are some ideas to get started:

  • Get a blank notebook (unruled if you can) at MoleskineMuji, or check your local office supply store for mini sized three-ring binders with blank paper inserts.
  • Stock a zippered pencil bag with glue stick, glue dots, multi-colored pens, watercolors, kids scissors, stickers, mini post-its.
  • Bring a re-sealable plastic bag or manila envelope.
  • Throughout the trip, have your kids collect plane tickets, cards from restaurants, hotel keys, postcards, museum ticket stubs, paper menus, pretty leaves, tooth picks, tiny shells or whatever little 2D knick knacks they find along the way. Glue them into the journal as you go!
  • Leave space to draw, make notes, and record funny or interesting things that happened.
  • Bring your journal to a museum and sketch your favorite artwork.
  • Buy postcards and glue on one side, sketch your own version onto the other.
  • Create funny commentary with thought bubble stickers
  • Use a Polaroid Snap Instant Digital Camera to instantly print mini-pics you can stick right in your journal.
  • Have fun decorating the cover with stickers, photos or pictures of the trip.

MOBILE ARTIST

My daughter is a huge fan of the Travel Watercolor Kit, and it has become a trip essential for her.  Use the postcards or stationary from your hotel room to paint watercolors in down time before bed.  Bring along a pack of blank watercolor postcards and your kids can create their own postcards to send home.

TEAM PHOTOGRAPHER

Put a kid-friendly digital camera on a lanyard and let your kids go snap crazy.  We adults seem to be always caught up with our check list of sights and monuments and tall buildings when we are traveling.  Kids notice the most interesting, poignant little things along their paths.  It is amazing to literally see the world through their eyes in a way they may never be able to tell us with their words.

Celebrate their unique impressions in a dedicated photo flip book at Shutterfly – 20 pages for about $20.

If you can upload them while you are traveling, kids can also use their photos to make instant postcards with customized messages that can be ordered online and sent directly from the road!!

The camera doesn’t have to break the bank!!  Here are a couple of good reviews of cameras for kids.  I recommend finding the smallest most portable one you can that takes semi-decent pictures.  The bigger ones are durable but too heavy/clumsy for kids to really keep track of all the time (read: Mom can you carry this?):

http://www.dpreview.com/articles/5154059852/best-digital-cameras-for-kids

http://digital-cameras-for-children-review.toptenreviews.com

SURPRISE!

I usually have an arsenal of small surprises that I pack in my kids’ carry-on bag and/or dole out throughout the trip.  Every journey has inevitable doldrums, layovers, long waits at a restaurant or the train station.  A little surprise always breaks the tension when kids get antsy, and my kids now really look forward to these little pick me ups!!

  • MadLibs are always a crowd pleaser…
  • Coloring books – you can find “Zen” coloring books just about anywhere now and they come in small travel sizes great for the car, restaurant or airplane. If you’re headed to a major city, chances are there’s one themed for your destination like ParisLondon or New York.
  • Unveil a new book to read.  Do a little research before you leave and find a book themed for your destination.  There are usually picture books for younger kids, maybe a Magic Treehouse title for your young grade schooler, or local legends/mythology/history for older readers. If you are up for it – get something you can read together that will inspire conversation about your experiences.
  • Magnetic backgammon/checkers
  • Story cubes – I am a big fan of these little cubes – super portable, creative, engaging and endlessly entertaining for all ages. Roll the dice and use the pictures to craft creative stories on the fly.
  • I also love Eeboo’s “Tell Me a Story” cards.
  • Rubik’s Cube – it’s still around for a reason…
  • Mini dominoes – dominoes are super fun and you can create an easy game for youngsters or get a good competition going with the older set.
  • Brush up on your juvenile humor with joke books like National Geographic Kids Just Joking: 300 Hilarious Jokes, Tricky Tongue Twisters, and Ridiculous Riddles or Laugh-Out-Loud Jokes for Kids.
  • NEVER forget a deck of cards!   From Memory to Solitaire to Go Fish to Hearts, there is nothing easier to bring or enjoy.

OK parents – you’re OFF!!

Happy trails, keep it in perspective, stretch yourselves, be present, breathe, enjoy the unforgettable moments, bear with it through the rough spots, don’t forget to eat, and I hope this summer holds wonderful experiences near and far for your family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cabo Baby!

I have been vacationing in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico since the mid-1990s (old I am!), and have watched it grow from a scruffy spring break party town into a destination for families, retirees, cruise ships, grown up getaways, and yes still party weekends!  You’ll get a lot of differing opinions on what has been gained or lost along the way, but I think it has held onto its unique character even as the streets have been paved, and elegant new resorts have sprung up along Medano Beach and the cliffs of Pedregal.  Personally, I love that despite all the new – you can still have a fun silly feast at Mi Casa, dance it off at the Nowhere Bar, and get a plate of fresh seafood and a bucket of beer with toes in the sand at The Office the next afternoon.

RESTAURANTS

There are TONS of dining options in Cabo San Lucas these days – here are just a few of our go to favorites:

Tres Gallos – – I love the beautifully tiled big open kitchen with baskets of every kind of chile imaginable arrayed along the quaint courtyard dining area.  The queso fundido with chorizo and an array of beautiful salsas is a great way to kick off the meal.  Despite my intentions to branch out, I cannot help ordering the pozole with its savory pork and hominy broth topped with fresh crunchy shredded cabbage and radishes.  Truly everything is good, but try the mole if you like mole – it’s the real deal.

Manta at the Cape Hotel – Superstar chef Enrique Olvera (of Pujol in Mexico City) has spearheaded the menu at this spot.  Honestly it’s the best food I have ever had in Cabo, and not so crazy expensive considering the sophisticated quality.  Locally sourced, Mexican inspired, but wholly original.  Stop by the roof bar of the swank new Cape Hotel for incredible sunset views over Medano Beach and the arch at Land’s End.

Carnitas Los Michoacanos – If you are staying in a villa and are tired of eating out, make a run into town for an all inclusive carnitas feast to go, complete with delicious roast pork by the kilo, fresh made tortillas, beans, salsas, peppers, chicharrones (fried pork rind) and more.  It’s a major crowd pleaser!  There are a couple of locations in Cabo, but the most convenient to downtown is on Leona Vicario, between Venustiano Carranza and Alvaro Obregon.

Patagonia – We used to love going to this place when it was in a cinderblock courtyard bordering a huge outdoor parilla (grill), with the friendly Argentine owner happily grilling South American cuts of the best beef with a big glass of Malbec in hand.  They moved to an enclosed restaurant just up the street from Mi Casa a few years ago which is a little less atmospheric, but the air conditioning doesn’t hurt… Need your protein fix?  This is it.  If you have a group, try the mixed grill with a sampling of different meats and vegetables. Av. Cabo San Lucas cross Av. 5 de Mayo

El Farallon – This tiny restaurant at The Resort at Pedregal is literally hewn from the cliff, with a champagne bar and the freshest seafood grilled to order as Pacific waves crash at your feet (um, and sometimes ON your feet).  This incredibly romantic spot is definitely a splurge, but it is a beautiful and unique dining experience.

Hacienda Cocina – We have dinner at this elegant/casual beachfront restaurant almost every time we visit Cabo.  Sample the house selection of micheladas or mojitos as party boats below boogie back into Cabo harbor, bustling Medano Beach settles slowly down, and layers of dusk fall over the beautiful arch at Land’s End.  Steps down from the pool level are a small handful of tables atmospherically tucked into the sand.   My favorite bites here are the crab flautas, the arachera steak to share, the “casuela de mariscos” with an assortment of succulent seafood, and the “molcajete,” a molten hot lava bowl heaped with sizzling meats, vegetables and cheese.  Please please save room for the cuatro leches cake (as if tres wasn’t enough?) and the churros with chocolate and caramel sauces.

Flora Farm – The amazing Flora Farm restaurant is a good 50 minutes away past San Jose del Cabo.  It is one of my favorite restaurants on earth and I urge you to make the trek – but if you can’t, at least stop by their new farm shop in Cabo San Lucas.  It’s on the corner at the end of town across from the giant performing arts center that looks like a crumpled up grey paper ball (on Blvd Paseo de la Marina at Calle Cabo San Lucas).  You can pick up fresh made sausages, gorgeous baked breads, organic seasonal vegetables, and herbal balms and soaps.  Best of all, belly up to the wooden bar for inventive infused cocktails like the watermelon julep or a carrot margarita.

EXCURSIONS

I am over-programmed most of the time, and I NEED to be unscheduled for just a minute please!  Unfortunately, after about a day I get itchy just sitting by the pool.  Plus I have two energetic tweens who need a little more to do than just splash in the baby pool for 6 hours. So over the years we have ventured farther and farther afield from our shaded lounge chair paradise.  Here are a few adventures you can slot in to your day, and still be back in time for siesta and sundowners…

  • One of our favorite patch it together yourself excursions is easily achieved right out of the harbor in Cabo if you don’t mind a little negotiating on site.  Head down to the dock near the dolphin experience center and hire a boat from the dispatcher who manages the fleet of water taxis (pangas) parked there.  Make sure they have life jackets sized for your kids.  The driver will cruise you out past the arch, pointing out rock formations, sea creatures and supposed celebrity abodes along the way.  If you have competent swimmers aboard hop off for a dip at Lover’s Beach (yes you can trust they will come back for you!), and then have them ultimately drop you on Medano Beach for lunch at The Office http://www.theofficeonthebeach.com.  Make a reservation before you go, and ask for a table near the back to avoid the vendors, or the front if you want to easily hop into the sea between Pacificos…
  • Outside of Medano Beach many of the Pacific Coast and Sea of Cortez beaches are too treacherous for swimming.  There are a couple of good spots for families and beginners not too far from Cabo though.  Santa Maria Bay and Chileno Bay are the two main spots to snorkel along the corridor, and most of the snorkel cruises you book from town will take you to these. If you rent a car they are safe and easily accessible if you’re willing to schlep your own gear, water and towels. There is construction with new resorts going up at both locations, but the beaches are still publicly accessible from the corridor highway.  Last time we were there, Chileno Bay had a nice parking lot, bathrooms, and a few palapas for early arrivers, while Santa Maria had no facilities.  They both offer nice swimming and ok snorkeling most of the time, although it’s always advisable to check the sea conditions before heading out as occasional faraway ocean storms bring larger waves and colder water to this area.
  • Cabo Surf Hotel – A little more than halfway back along the corridor road to San Jose you’ll find the Cabo Surf Hotel on the right.  Enjoy a leisurely lunch at the cliffside restaurant overlooking the sea, while aspiring surfers tackle beginner waves at the Mike Doyle Surf School on the beach below.  If you’re in your own car, as you get back on the corridor road make sure to stop in the pullout at the top of the cliff just above the hotel for a great view down the beach and a fresh cold coconut!!
  • Cerritos beach – About 35 minutes up the Pacific Coast from Cabo San Lucas, Playa Cerritos offers long rolling surf perfect for both advanced and beginner surfers, boogie boarding and body surfing, and even splashing about in the shallows for the littler ones.  With a fun beach bar and restaurant, clean bathrooms, attentive lifeguards, surf lessons, board rentals, inexpensive beach massages, live music on Sundays, and absolutely no crowds, you’re pretty much living the dream.  The recently expanded highway has made this well-kept secret much more accessible and well worth the drive.
  • Los Cabos Horses – My equestrienne daughter and I discovered these stables last year.  Not just the typical tourist shack with sad scrappy ponies for hire, this is a true equestrian center offering lessons and absolutely beautiful trail rides through arroyos and along the beach near Cabo Real.  The owner trains the famous Mexcian “dancing” horses, and also offers horse drawn carriage rides for weddings, etc.  It’s a real horse center, and if you like to ride you’ll really appreciate the lovely horses they offer visitors.

 

 

 

 

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Tokyo tastes…

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Japan has been on my bucket list for a long long long long time, and I thought this post would be all about how I am so happy to have checked that box with our Winter trip last month.  My takeaway however was quite the opposite.  After 10 days in Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan has now moved UP my list of desired destinations.  There is so much to see, eat, do and take in.  So many beautiful stores with (to me) mysterious products so meticulously packaged, hospitable people bowing and calling out welcome through every shop doorway, fascinating neighborhoods with neon lights and tiny alleys, skyscrapers and traditional wooden buildings, tantalizing displays of gorgeous foods in the windows at every turn.

Tokyo is huge – like 8 Manhattans population wise.  Get a birds eye view from one of the many towers, skyscrapers or top floor bar/restaurants, and you’ll see it stretch to the horizon in every direction.  Even if you diligently hit top tourist spots in a few days, you WILL miss a lot more than you see.  I think it’s a good place to go with a theme in mind (samurais! gardens! technology!), and mine of course was FOOD!!

Before we left I started a list of typical Japanese foods to try beyond the usual sushi and miso soup fare.  Needless to say my list was greatly expanded…

FOODS TO TRY:

  • Okonomiyaki – Japanese savory pancakes with a flour/sweet potato/dashi/egg batter, rough chopped cabbage and vegetables, meat or seafood, topped with bonito flakes, seaweed, Japanese mayonnaise and a thick sweet sauce. Locals cook their own on a hot teppan grill in the center of the table, but first timers are recommended to ask the restaurant to assemble and cook them for you (no shame they’re used to doing it for guests). Monja is the Tokyo style pancake which is chopped a bit thinner.
  • Soba – hand made buckwheat noodles served hot or cold with or without broth.
  • Yakitori – grilled chicken skewers. There are yakitori restaurants but these are also a delicious street food.
  • Tonkatsu – breaded fried pork cutlets, usually served as a meal with miso soup, rice and other sides.
  • Mixed katsu – we saw this at a street stall. It’s basically breaded fried mashed potatoes, ground meats, fish cakes, veggies, etc. A great two-bite snack!
  • Shabu shabu – Japanese hot pot eaten family style. Can be a homey dish or very elegant and expensive with kobe beef.
  • Ramen!!!!!
  • Marinated boiled eggs – these are soaked in the pork broth base for ramen soup and then served as a topping for ramen. I recommend asking for yours half cooked (soft boiled) so it is oozy in your soup.
  • Kushiyage restaurants – sit at the bar and watch as individual meats, fish and veggies are breaded in panko, flash fried and served one at a time, each with their own little sauce. You eat whatever comes your way until you are full and then they count your skewers to tabulate your bill.
  • Kaiseke restaurants are basically high-end beautiful multi course tasting menus. We didn’t try one, but there are several famous and very fancy ones around town to find!
  • Isakaya – like a mixed restaurant that serves a bit of everything
  • Japanese sweet potato – this staple veggie shows up in a lot of dishes and side dishes
  • Miso soup briny with tiny clams
  • Tempura  – pretty much anything you can think of is turned into tempura and served with a delicious dipping sauce, often as a street food too. Our favorites were the maitake mushrooms and sliced lotus root.
  • Takoyaki – this Japanese fast food specialty is basically balls of fried octopus topped with shaved bonito and mayonnaise served piping hot.  Crispy on the outside, gooey on the inside, it’s the ultimate street food/bar snack!
  • Raw shrimp sushi – shrimp is usually served cooked at Japanese restaurants in the U.S., but the shrimp is so fresh and sweet in Japan it’s delicious raw.
  • Sea urchin – this buttery, briny little sea critter is such a delicacy to me, but seems to be much more prevalent in Japan. If you love it, it’s a great place to get your fix.
  • Myoga – this little flower-like vegetable is sometimes called Japanese ginger (although it tastes nothing like ginger). Only the flower is used and is usually sautéed or used as a garnish. Pretty!
  • Burdock root – This nutritious root vegetable shows up in all sorts of dishes. It was recommended for us to try cooking them at home – peel, cut into matchsticks, soak, drain, and sauté with carrot, sesame oil, sugar, mirin, sake, soy sauce and sesame seeds. Just need to find a market that carries it!
  • Kogomi – these tender little curled up fern fronds are just around in the early spring, and we were lucky to try them.
  • Cold sticky rice wrapped in tofu skin – Appease hungry little tourists (and grown ups too) with this grab and go snack!
  • Maitake mushrooms – the name means “dance,” I think because they’re so good you want to do a jig.  Yeah!
  • Oden – Vegetables and fish cakes poached in a soy and fish stock.
  • Yakiniku restaurants – Order thin slices of beef and pork to cook yourself on a little grill in the middle of the table.
  • Pickles – Do not miss trying the myriad Japanese pickles you’ll find all over!!  Each vegetable is different – salty, briny, savory and deliciously fun to explore.
  • Sparkling cold sake – Slightly sweet, moderately bubbly and such a refreshing accompaniment to Japanese foods.

RESTAURANTS:

  • The Shin-Marunouchi Building near Tokyo Station (accessible underground from the station) has more than 65 restaurants. Seriously… Even crazier is that this is apparently not that unusual for Tokyo!  It’s great for hungry sight seers as there is literally something for everyone… You can just wander the floors and pop in anywhere that looks good to you (based on the pictures – there is very little translation). We spontaneously had one of our best meals of the week at Teppan Yaki Ten Honmaru with a beautiful view of Tokyo station from our table. http://www.marunouchi.com/e/shoplist/shinmaru/gourmet.html
  • Fish for your own dinner at Zuao Restaurant which has several branches around Tokyo. Grab a fishing pole and catch fish from your table, which are then prepared to order. http://www.zauo.com/en/shop/
  • Seryna Shabu Shabu – Set in the tippy top of a skyscraper overlooking Tokyo this elegant spot offers gorgeous Japanese beef for you to cook in boiling broth at your table. A splurge but delicious. Ask for a seat by the window! http://www.seryna.co.jp/en/seryna/shinjuku/ Shinjuki
  • Namiki Yabu Soba – If you’re touring around Asakusa duck behind a little sliding screen door to find tatami mats, saki from a barrel in the corner, best soba you’ll probably ever eat and not a lot else. Amazing hand made soba noodles are served in a delicious smoky broth – you choose the topping like duck and meatballs, tempura, etc.  There’s no website but here’s a good article about the restaurant: https://www.ambassadors-japan.com/en/tokyodailylife/363/   Asakusa
  • Tatsukichi – Sit at the bar of this upscale kushiyagi restaurant and watch the chefs prepare bitesized morsels on a stick for you to be paired with individual sauces. http://www.shinjuku-tatsukichi.com Shinjuku
  • Aoyama Flower Market TEA HOUSE – Tucked behind a beautiful florist is an ethereal tea room serving elaborate desserts, floral teas and cocktails. http://www.afm-teahouse.com – Omotesando and Aoyama Street intersection just outside Omotesando station
  • Tanagokoro Tea Room – This zen spot resides on the third floor above the Tanagokoro charcoal store.  Hushed birdsong soothes as you sip delicate teas, mindfully nibble tiny sweets and gaze out the window at bustling Ginza shoppers below. http://www.Tanagokoro.com Ginza
  • Ramble through the super narrow streets of Golden Gai or Omoide Yokocho (aka “Memory Lane”) in Shinjuku, each jammed with teensy restaurants and bars. Shimmy in for a little saki and a small plate of yakitori fresh from the wee grill.

SHOPPING:

Tokyo is an endless retail adventure. You can spend days weaving through ultra elegant department stores, family run housewares and ceramics shops near the fish market, or the underground retail labyrinth in any subway station. There are the most amazingly colorful sweet shops, tea purveyors with little cakes or green tea ice creams, and even the myriad beauty products at the corner drugstore are fascinating. The kids were also delighted by the 100yen ($1) stores, not to mention the awesome vending machines with hot drinks and snacks…

Here are a few of our favorite finds:

  • Masahisa Cutlery – offers a wide array of beautiful hand-forged knives and other cutlery. This family business has been making knives for centuries. http://www.tsukiji-masahisa.jp Tsujiki
  • Kyukyodo – This epic Japanese paper store has been in business since 1633! kyukyodo.co.jp Ginza
  • Akomeya – I am in LOVE with this gorgeous Japanese rice and specialty foods store that’s like a high-end Japanese Williams-Sonoma meets Dean & Deluca. It’s not large but it’s beautiful and totally worth seeking out in a little alley in Ginza. Don’t neglect to go upstairs for ceramics and kitchen goods. There is also a little café in the back. http://www.akomeya.jp Ginza
  • Itoya – many floors of stationary, paper, crafts, sleek office supplies and more with a café at the top. http://www.ito-ya.co.jp Ginza
  • Tsutaya Books at the Daikanyama T-Site has been called “One of the 20 most beautiful bookstores in the world.” Three connected architecturally beautiful buildings include a gorgeous book-lined library/lounge/cafe with luxurious leather couches and full bar made out of stacked books. Spend a rainy afternoon perusing vintage magazines, cookbooks, art tomes, videos, English language titles and a whole section on cars and motorcycles. The complex and neighborhood are full of great little boutiques including a Leica camera store and Okura, a store featuring clothing dyed in pure indigo, and made from Japanese paper.   http://real.tsite.jp/daikanyama/english/   Shibuya (a bit of a walk from the station – Naka-Meguro station is much closer)
  • Shopping Streets
    • Meiji Dori Street – Walk from Shibuya Station up to Omotesando
    • Harajuku – Walk down Takeshita Dori starting at Yoyogi park for lots of cheap trendy little shops, but keep going for more interesting little boutiques as it crosses Meiji Dori and winds its way back to Omotesando.
    • Nakamise dori – This busy street leading up to the Senso-ji temple in Asakusa full of little souvenirs, chopsticks, fans, kimonos, and more. Go early to beat the crowds.

TRAVEL TIPS:

  • We got SUICA cards and took the subway everywhere.  It’s really not hard to figure out even though people warn you it’s complicated. If you have kids, take your passports to the ticket window for discounted SUICA cards for them.  SUICA cards are also good for buses and Japan Rail, plus you can buy awesome stuff from the vending machines with them!!
  • Ninja wifi – http://ninjawifi.com/en/ We rented this router for the week so we could all plug into the wifi from anywhere around town and didn’t have to use data on our phones.  Super easy pick up and drop off points at the airport, and it was a major convenience!
  • 7/11 banks – Although you can use credit cards to pay for most things, many Japanese banks and ATMs do not take U.S. bank/credit cards to get cash.  Bring some cash, and plan to take money out at 7/11 (randomly they are all over Tokyo).
  • Drink lots of water – Japanese food is SALTY!

USEFUL VOCABULARY:

  • Many Japanese words do not translate perfectly into English, especially as there are levels of formality in the language and culture that are unfamiliar to us.  Here are a few short words that were useful along the way:
    • Konnichiwa – hello, good day
    • Konbowa – good evening
    • Ohayou (sounds like Ohio)/gozaimasu – good morning/formal
    • Arrigato/gozaimasu – thank you/formal
    • Irasshaimase – welcome/can I help you (what shopkeepers say when you enter)
    • Suimasen – excuse me/sorry
    • Siyonara – goodbye
    • Oishi So! – DELICIOUS!!!!!
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