Monday, February 29, 2016

My 5 Favorite Destinations

Every time I try to plan a new holiday, I always weigh the option of visiting somewhere new to visiting a favorite place. This year, I think I want to do a little of both (after all, there are still eight months left in the year). I have Greece on the horizon but I think I want to hit up London during the same trip because it's my first love and I haven't really blogged about that babe of a city here yet.

So, while I was retrospecting, I decided it would be fun to do a little roundup of some of my favorite destinations.
Frankly, this was kind of a difficult post to put together because I've thoroughly enjoyed every destination I've been to. But, I kind of forced myself to make some cuts and harsh decisions and this is what I came up with.

Favorite Destination for Food & Drink: New Orleans
Why: Let me say that there's good food (almost) everywhere. But NOLA in particular is known for its delicious eats. When I told a coworker that I was going to New Orleans, she got so excited for me and told me that dining in NOLA was probably the best food she'd ever eaten. And she said this to me just a few weeks after she'd returned from a trip to Paris. So, I had high hopes but I was not disappointed. The food really is phenomenal.

We focused mostly on the food of the region (think cajun-inspired dishes and seafood) and it was some of the yummiest fare I've ever enjoyed on vacation. Maybe it's because I grew up on spicy food (I'm Korean and kimchi is my life) but I loved the vibrancy of the flavors and the delicious preparation of every individual dish.

And of course, I can't mention NOLA without discussing the cocktails. During our long weekend here, I was introduced to several new cocktails including the Sazerac, the Brandy Milk Punch, the French 75, and my all time favorite, the Pimm's Cup. I'm sure I had a Pimm's Cup in the UK before but it wasn't anything like the punchy, refreshing, gorgeous cocktail I was served in NOLA.

Basically, going to NOLA will yield you a holiday filled with deliciousness.

When: Obviously Mardi Gras is the most popular time to visit the Crescent City but I really enjoyed going during the Halloween season. Because NOLA is known for its ghosts and cemeteries, it's a nice way to creep yourself out and the Krewe of Boo parade is a fun way to experience the glamour of a proper New Orleans parade without the intoxication and boobs and vomit. Plus, the weather is mild and even though we experienced a storm here and there (thanks to a passing hurricane) it was perfectly manageable and I was just thankful that it wasn't boiling hot uncomfortable.

That being said, my friend who lives in NOLA says that autumn and spring are the ideal times to visit (for that mild weather I mentioned above) and if you're into fanfare, look at an events calendar and plan around a parade or a festival. The jazz festival is a local favorite.

How Long: I was in NOLA for a long weekend (72 hours) and it was perfect. Sure, we could have done more, but I think because it's such an indulgent destination, you don't need to spend too much time there to enjoy yourself.
Budget: {$} I honestly found New Orleans quite affordable. When we were looking up places to stay, we found decent options for <$100 per day but settled on a mid-range place just because the hotel looked sleek as hell. As far as dining options go, you can find delicious cheap eateries on every corner or you can treat yourself to something fancy. That being said, alcohol is crazy affordable. Maybe it's just me being used to the NYC prices of a $14 Coors Light, but if you're looking to imbibe and go a little crazy but you're strapped for cash, hit up a bar in NOLA. They will treat you right without breaking the bank.

Eat: My favorite meal of the trip was definitely Commander's Palace. Sure the 25¢ martinis are a great lure, but the food itself was phenomenal. The gumbo made me want to weep with joy and the bread pudding souffle was no joke.

Of course every tourist must try Cafe du Monde for beignets and coffee at some point. It's open 24 hours a day so there is no excuse not to go.

Everything is delicious so it's hard to fail. Just don't be an ugly tourist by hitting up chain fast food places and you'll be okay.

Drink: Definitely try a few of the many cocktails that were born in this city. The Brandy Milk Punch is basically like a dangerous Christmassy milkshake. I view the Sazerac as more of a cocktail for sexy old men who like cigars but if you want to try America's first cocktail in the city of its birth, then do it. If you're looking for something girly and sweet, try a Hurricane. The French 75 is a champagne cocktail with simple syrup, lemon, and either cognac or gin; it's a bit feminine and sweet and makes a nice mimosa alternative at brunch.

By the way, you never have to waste alcohol in New Orleans. If you can't finish your cocktail, ask for a go cup and just take it with you when you leave the bar or restaurant.
Stay: We stayed at the Q&C Hotel in the business district which was really cool and instagram-able and in a convenient location. If you're looking for noise and easy access to partying, stay in the heart of the French Quarter. If you're looking for somewhere more luxe, I'd suggest the Garden District. But, I loved the area we stayed in because it was a short walk to the Quarter but it was quiet and quaint and clean.

See: A walk through the French Quarter is a must, as is a walk through the Garden District. If you're a fan of American Horror Story: Coven, then visit Miss Robichaux's Academy and Madame LaLaurie's house. You can only view them from outside, but hey, it's still cool. Stop by Jackson Square to watch the street performers.

Do: Book a tour to visit Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1 and visit the VooDoo Queen Marie Laveau's tomb. Go to a jazz brunch; eat and drink while a happy band plays some tunes. Go to a jazz club; drink and drink while a happy band plays some tunes. In all seriousness, I am not a fan of jazz but I still enjoyed the live music and it's one of those bucket list things to check off.

Pack: Comfortable close-toed shoes are the most important wardrobe staple for a trip to NOLA, especially if you're planning on walking around the Quarter. The cobbles and the pothole-ridden streets can get tedious and for some reason, we encountered quite a bit of rubbish on the ground, which made me grateful that I wasn't wearing sandals.
The Most Charming Place I've Been: Annecy
Why: I know everyone flocks to Paris but if you're also someone who took French in high school and is looking for a way to be forced to use it, hit up a small town.

Annecy is kind of a tourist magnet but it's also a really quaint, hey-does-Belle-live-here kind of town where the locals either unwilling (or unable) to speak English, immersing you in the type of holiday that forces you out of your comfort zone.

When: I was in Annecy in May and it was beautiful. The air was crisp, the sun was bright, and there were baby swans and baby ducks swimming in the lake. I'm sure the French Alps are gorgeous in the winter too, but I recommend spring and summer so you can enjoy the greenery and the water without getting a chill.

How Long: I was only in Annecy for a day, but it was perfect for getting a taste of the town. I think if I were looking for a super relaxing vacation, or if I wanted a hiking holiday, I might extend the trip to 3 or 4 days.
Budget: {$} There really isn't much choice when it comes to hotels (they're all pretty tiny with tiny rooms) and though I'm sure it depends on the season, the rates were not bad at all. There are some tourist trappy restaurants that are pricier but there are also hole-in-the-wall eateries that are more wallet-friendly (while still being delicious). And as far as tourism goes, there aren't any major monuments or sites or museums that require admission so basically, that's all free.

Eat: I recommend grabbing a few things from the market and then eating it picnic-style by the lake. The first thing we did when we got to town (besides parking our car in a lot just outside of the town square) was to wander around the outdoor market to get something to eat. We ended up getting a loaf of fresh bread, a block of delicious cheese, and some slices of jambon de pays. We washed it all down with a bottle of sparkling pear cider that we'd picked up in Lyon. For restaurants, I recommend going somewhere a bit farther away from the Palais de L'isle for less touristy options.

Drink: Wine! When in France, drink wine.
Stay: We stayed at the Hotel Alexandra for about $100 per night. The rooms are tiny but comfortable and to be honest, I'm sure every hotel boasts equally tiny rooms.

























See: Palais de L'isle, Lac D'Annecy, Notre Dame de Liesse, Chateau D'Annecy; basically just walk around town and there's charm around every corner.

Do: Have a picnic by the lake, feed the swans, go for a hike, and relax. It's a quaint little town so do quaint activities.

Pack: Bring a tote bag to collect your fare from the market and a hat to protect yourself from the beaming sun.
The Most Relaxing Destination: Turks & Caicos
Why: For perfect and soft white sand, crystal clear waters, and amazing snorkeling just off the shore, Providenciales is the ideal destination for taking a break from everything. My first time here in 2012 was on somewhat of a whim (I'd actually never heard of T&C and just booked it because the flights were cheap) and I fell in love.

When: In the summer, there are fewer crowds and the waters are calmer which makes the snorkeling really good. In the winter, it's a bit more crowded, pricier, and the waters are choppier but it's lobster season. So, I preferred my experience in the summer, however, choppy water and a handful of more people was totally bearable when I was escaping the cold of the northeast and to be fair, caicos lobster alone is worth the trip. In conclusion: there is no bad time, except maybe hurricane season.

How Long: I recommend spending at least a week here. If your goal is to relax, you need time to just sit and breath in sea air and laze around in beach loungers.

Budget: {$$$} There are some options for cheaper lodging (like through VRBO) but in general, the hotels are pricey. They know you want to visit so they can hike up their rates. And because this is an island, everything is imported so it's all on the pricier side. To save a little money, stay at a hotel with a kitchen and you can cook a few meals insteading of always dining out.




























Eat: There are several amazing eateries on the island, but my favorite is Coco Bistro. They do a mean lobster and their coconut pie is famous for a reason. For cheaper fare, I would recommend The Patty Place. The Jamaican beef patties are the best I've had (though I haven't been to Jamaica so I don't know if this praise means much) and they're cheap. And of course, you have to get conch at Da Conch Shack. The cracked conch is my favorite; it's like calamari except it's made with conch and the breading is super crispy and delicious.

Drink: When in paradise, you should treat yourself to delicious fruity cocktails served in hollowed out fruit and coconutty cocktails and daiquiris. The rum punch at Da Conch Shack is dangerous. It's sweet and strong and the best way to imbibe on the island.
Stay: The first time around, I stayed at the Royal West Indies for about $175 per night in the low season (August). The second time around, I stayed at The Sands for $375 per night in the high season (October). Both were great. I thought the staff at the Royal West Indies was much more friendly and accommodating but the facilities at The Sands were better (the pool and amenities were really nice). In general, I would recommend staying on Grace Bay if you want access to the best beach ever. Or, if you're looking for some privacy, stay near Chalk Sound.

See: The beaches are beautiful, whether it's sunrise, midday, sunset, or even at night for stargazing. Chalk Sound has the most amazing pastel colored water ever and is worth a drive. If you're here at the right time, you might be able to spot flamingos at the appropriately named Flamingo Pond.

Do: Snorkeling here is so much fun. There are plenty of shallow and accessible reefs (I especially love Coral Gardens) so it's fun for even weaker swimmers. If you're into shopping, a walk into town is fun, though the shops are mostly tourist traps. Cool off in the afternoon by getting some ice cream at Giggles Ice Cream shop. Water sports are also a lot of fun here. The water is gorgeous and calm so it's a perfect place to try stand up paddleboarding and kayaking for the first time.
Pack: Sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat; basically, every form of sun protection you can think of and also bring along a snorkel and an underwater camera.
Best Destination for Being Active: Arizona
Why: The desert is beautiful and so are rock formations shaped by wind and water so if you've never been to this kind of ecosystem, you have to experience it at least once. The best part is that you can make it as active or as inactive as you like. And, for people like me who are exercise-averse, the scenery is so breathtaking, you won't even realize you're working out.

When: I visited in winter when it was chillier and the temperature fluctuations were rather extreme. If the sun was out, I was hot and if it tucked behind clouds, I got cold. However, I much prefer this to boiling alive. So, I would recommend visiting when it isn't too hot - basically from October through April is probably when the temperatures are not hellish and evil.

How Long: I was here for 3 days and we managed to pack a lot into that long weekend. I keep thinking I'd want to do a week here, but to be honest, the desert really took a toll on my skin so I don't know if I could withstand it for longer than 72 hours. So, I think short jaunts to cross things off my AZ list is the best way to experience the state. Also, the altitude was pretty rough on me so be wary.

Budget: {$$} Arizona, in my experience, was relatively affordable. The hotels were on the order of $150 per night, which wasn't bad when split between the two of us. The food was affordable (and for some reason McDonald's and Starbucks were both insanely cheaper than it was on the east coast). Gas prices were decent and renting a car did not break the bank. Basically, every individual component is affordable, but because you need to rent a car, because the state is vast and you end up loading up on gas, because the parks have entrance fees, if you want to explore and do things, it adds up.

























Eat: Tacos, tacos, and more tacos. The Mexican food here is really good. Oh, and if you're in Phoenix, go to In-N-Out (unless you regularly have access to the best fast food burgers, in which case, I'm jealous and you should probably go anyway because it's just that delicious).

I loved Elote Cafe's namesake dish, elote, in Sedona. I loved the fried fish tacos at Gabriela's in Camp Verde. I loved the tacos at El Tapatio in Page.

Drink: In an environment that really dries you out, downing alcohol isn't necessarily the smartest move. However, the dry heat is a perfect setting for cheersing with a cold margarita, made with fresh limes. Valley Bar in Phoenix served up a mean one; I like sugar on the rim.
Stay: This state is vast so you have many choices for places to stay. We stayed at the Southwest Inn in Sedona, which I v. much enjoyed. I think Sedona is a great place to stay - tons of hikes, beautiful scenery, nice eateries. It was nice and centrally located, giving us access to the sites up north that we wanted to hit up and making it an easy drive for us when we had to head back to Phoenix. If you're looking to do more stuff up north, like Monument Valley and the Vermillion Cliffs (two things we didn't get to do), then I'd recommend staying in Page.

























See: There's so much to see in this state. The Saguaro cacti, the red rock formations, the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River. I recommend making a list of must-see's and then doing your best to make a practical itinerary. In Sedona, I loved the Chapel of the Holy Cross and all of the vortices. Horseshoe Bend is beautiful. I mean, even just driving around is amazing.

Do: Tour of the Lower Antelope Canyon is a must. It's a bit terrifying if you have a fear of heights and/or enclosed spaces, but the view is worth the climb into the crevasse. Spend some time in Sedona doing a hike or two (the Wilson Canyon one is really beautiful). There is v. little light pollution in AZ so go stargazing at night and marvel at the sheer number of sparklers in the sky.

Pack: Bring a reusable water bottle (fill it regularly and use it regularly) and some good moisturizers. I used moisture masks every evening to make sure I didn't wake up with a crusty face. Oh, and of course, comfy hiking shoes are a must.
Favorite Holiday Ever: Cinque Terre
Why: These five towns are so small and so quaint that there is no traffic. You have to drive to just outside the town to get in (or you can be smart and take a train). The seafood is magnificent, the air is super fresh, it's incredibly hilly so you burn thousands of calories and earn a big pasta dinner, and best of all, the colorful little houses are the cutest sight in the world.

When: I visited in the spring, and I loved it. It was warm enough that people were swimming in the sea but cool enough that we didn't burn up and die on our hikes.

How Long: We were there for about two and a half days, which was not enough. When I have the chance again, I want to go for a week and hike from one town to the next, swim, and eat my weight in pasta alla vongole.
Budget: {$$} Accommodations are on the pricier side, as this is a tourist destination. Food costs aren't too bad though, and the views are free.

Eat: This region is known for its anchovies, pesto, and limoncello (as you can see there are lemon trees everywhere) so those are a few musts. Anything with seafood is bound to be amazing. I loved the spaghetti alla frutti di mare at Gianni Franzi so much that I had it twice.

Drink: Similarly to what I said about France, when in Italy, drink wine. There's a dry white wine from this region that I enjoyed; it paired nicely with the seafood pasta.
Stay: We stayed at Gianni Franzi in Vernazza, which took quite a climb to reach. The accommodations were comfortable and got the job done. I expect most hotels to be on the older side, with really simple amenities, but no matter because you're not supposed to be spending much time in your room anyway.

See: Monterosso Al Mare, Corniglia, Monterosso, Vernazza, Riomaggiore, all five towns are quaint and beautiful but each has its own personality. Catch views of the Mediterranean, watch locals fishing, and enjoy the mountains.

























Do: Hike the trails between the towns or take the train (the daily pass is only €5). Go for a swim (Monterosso Al Mare is the best spot for a dip). Go window shopping, drink wine and people watch, visit the beautiful churches.

Pack: Comfortable shoes - the stairs here are no joke - and a good camera. Everywhere you turn, you'll see something else you want to snap.
I know this list is just going to grow and evolve and I think I could technically give every trip I've been on some sort of title, "Favorite fill in the blank Holiday" but I love this roundup. Typing up posts like these make me so happy because I get to relive each trip a little and remember how much fun I had.

xoxo.

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