The Emerald Isle

Preparing to go on a trip often takes hold of me in the same way that a brilliant meal, a perfect wine, a good nap and a delightful book do. I am consumed, and I am immediately looking forward to the next great thing. I also like to do my research. If I’m traveling to a new city, even with the most basic lead time, I’ve probably looked up a) restaurants, b) bookshops and c) recommendations – in no particular order.

I am a firm believer in the recommendations of those that have gone before me. Although, let me say it here: those of you reviewing hotels on Hotels.com and saying things like “I would have liked softer pillows” or “the television was too small” really are not doing anyone any favors. I usually seek out multiple references about a place, in hopes of finding the most well-rounded picture and gaining access to hidden gems, beyond the hyper touristy places.

For example – when heading to Austria, everyone said sacher torte had to be on the menu, and an argument about which restaurant provided the best delivery of said sweet ensued. In the end, I relied on a local to point me to the best venue. She did just that, and although I was not fond of the cake, the experience was memorable.

sacher torte

I should have bailed when she picked carrot cake!

Now I have two major trips before me, both in the month of December. First on tap is Ireland, to present at a big conference that I am over the moon about. Professionally, it’s a tremendous opportunity and personally, Ireland is somewhere I’ve never been. So where to turn?

1. Friends. Several friends have visited Ireland before, including colleagues who just visited there last summer with a group of students. I also have a dear friend living in Belfast who I plan to visit / travel with while I’m in-country. Bonus!

2. Fodors. With all the travel guides floating around in the world, I have grown comfortable with the Fodors guides* and what they offer. Additionally, I am grateful to their active online community of travelers. When I first stumbled out onto their website in April 2011, I was planning a trip to Greece. Thanks to a kind woman from Philadelphia, we had almost our entire itinerary planned for us, with her every recommendation. *Yes, I still purchase hard copy guidebooks.

3. Literature. You know I’m a freak for books. So it should come as no surprise that I’ve amassed a little Ireland-related collection on my bookshelf. These include:
* McCarthy’s Bar by Pete McCarthy, which I reviewed in an earlier post.
* Dubliners by James Joyce, Dublin native
* Trinity by Leon Uris, recommended to me by a Barnes & Noble bookseller
* 44 Dublin Made Me by Peter Sheridan, which spoke to me from a used bookshop shelf.

How do you prepare for a trip? Are you a planner? Or do you wing it?

Revisiting: Costa Rica

map credit: Lonely Planet

Where: Costa Rica (Arenal, La Fortuna, Manuel Antonio, Quepos,  San José)

When: late August – early September 2009

How: direct flight from Newark to / from San José * see Thanks to for note on in-country transport. + There is a $26USD outgoing tax at the Pavas airport in San José.

Duration: 11 glorious days

breakfast companion

Accommodations**:
- Gran Hotel / San José
- Montaña de Fuego / Arenal
- Costa Verde / Manuel Antonio
** Planning your visit to Costa Rica? For a price break, try the rainy season, also known as the “green season” in tourism lingo. Over 11 days we experienced brief sun showers and some clouds, but otherwise: clear skies. Worth it!

Language: Spanish

Currency: – Costa Rican colón

photo credit: Thao Dang

Tourist facts: In the front cover of my journal I wrote the following: Hemos encontrado el paraiso, se llama Costa Rica. Pura vida! Translation? We’ve found paradise, and it’s name is Costa Rica. The term pura vidais widely used throughout the country to mean everything from hello, great weather, have a nice day, and most literally – This is the pure life. And it is! Costa Rica has its priorities straight – recycling, sustainable living and protecting what’s theirs. As ecotourism continues to gain popularity, Costa Rica’s rainforests and beaches truly fit the bill.

If you’re into:

  • SURFING — check out this post from Marco at 25dollartravel on catching waves in CR here.
  • WATER SPORTS — if you like rock climbing and white water rafting, why not try canyoning? We took our trip with PureTrek, and it was absolutely unforgettable.
  • NATURE — this country protects over 10% of its land, rainforests included. Take a horseback ride, a hike or a tour across the Hanging Bridges. But for the love of travel, please pack some heavy duty bug spray!

Frommers.com Links I recommend during trip planning — I used Fodor‘s Costa Rica 2009 edition, hard copy. That’s right: hard copy! Take a look at Frommer’s “When to Go” to better understand the seasons and what to expect.

My absolutes — rainforest, volcano, spa, something sporty (not zip-lining) and, you guessed it: eat!

Arenal: CR's most active volcano

What I saw — After a post-flight siesta, Thao pulled open the blinds at our cabin and what was previously covered by clouds was revealed: Costa Rica’s most active volcano, just outside our hotel in Arenal. We hiked in the rainforest nearby and later rode horses through the farmland at it’s base. My jaw dropped the first time I heard it rumble, and it is still one of the most awesome things I have ever experienced. We saw glass wing butterflies, hummingbirds, marching ants heralding oncoming rain, a toucan (!). And let’s not forget: monkeys. Part of the early morning sunrise in Manuel Antonio meant birdsong, waves crashing on the shore .. and the myriad hooting and hollering of our simian friends.

Canyoning with PureTrek

What I did – Once you read about a few of my trips with Thao, you’ll understand that we like a packed itinerary. Costa Rica being no different, we maxed out. Canyoning, horseback riding, hiking in the rainforest. Make no mistake, we know how to take breaks, too! Time for the spa, the hot springs and the beach were also in the mix. It should be noted we chose EcoTermales hot springs – there are three major contenders in northern CR.

What I ate – traditional Costa Rican breakfast that is To Die For: gallo pinto (rice/beans), fried plantains, eggs, magic. And pizza! I’m not kidding. Pizzeria Vagabundo, keep up the good work. Other delicious dishes include spicy chocolate cake from Agua Azul, crêpes del bosque and high test coffee from Cafe Milagro.

If (when) I return I will – visit some other regions in the country like the Osa Peninsula; tour a coffee plantation.

Sorry I missed – a chance to see the Arenal volcano at night. Late night lava flow is rumored to occur with great frequency, and I’m going back to see it!

Thanks to*: NatureAir for their wonderful air transportation while we were making our way around the country. NatureAir is a carbon-neutral airline that provides 74 daily flights to 17 destinations within Costa Rica. We had three flights between our destinations, and found the prices fair and the experience memorable. Rather than renting a car or riding a bus, we chose this airline – the views alone are worth the ticket! Read more about their efforts for sustainable tourism here.

Now, you: Are you a surfer? A honeymoon planner? A photographer? What brings you to Costa Rica? What keeps you coming back for more?

Revisiting: Turkey

Map credit: Lonely Planet

Where: Istanbul, Turkey

When: June 2010

How: Direct flight from Newark to Tel Aviv, flight to / from Istanbul

Duration: 6 days, 5 nights

Accommodations: Boğaziçi University dormitories on the cheap. Attending an academic conference as a grad student, I got a sweet deal on a dorm room and bunked up with 5 other conference attendees from around the world for a whopping $45USD.

Boğaziçi Üniversitesi

Language: Sign language! Unless of course, you speak Turkish. English was not widely spoken when I visited just last year.

Currency: Turkish Lira

Tourist facts: Istanbul has been gaining popularity as a tourist destination. According to the Republic of Turkey Ministry of Culture and Tourism, in 2010 the country logged 28,632,204 foreign visitors and the number continues to rise. National Geographic opens their review of Istanbul with a quote from Alphonse de Lamartine, a French politician from the 19th century: If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Constantinople.” I must say, it certainly deserves a look.

Fodors.comLinks I recommend during trip planning: I consulted the NYTimes to look for their 36 hour report, which was written in February 2010. As recently as July 2011, the Frugal Traveler (once Matt, now Seth) took a swing at the city on a $100USD budget. You can see the details of his adventure here. Just reading it makes me want to go back, immediately! Another tried and true resource: Fodor’s online guide and users forum for Turkey.

My absolutes:

  • see Sultan Ahmed, more commonly known as the Blue Mosque
  • visit Hagia Sophia: once a basilica, later a mosque, now a museum
  • haggle in the Grand Bazaar
  • enjoy a Turkish bath
  • eat, eat, eat

Sultan Ahmed (the Blue Mosque)

What I saw: A city on the rise: chaotic, historic, thrumming with energy. The Blue Mosque is postcard perfect, and you can walk through as long as you’re not baring any unnecessary skin (arms + legs, ladies) – the guards will give you fabric to tie around your bare parts. Hagia Sophia is enormous, and stunningly beautiful: a mash-up of Muslim and Christian decor, resulting in an awesome sight, as opposed to a garish one.

Grand Bazaar

What I did: Sweat all my calories away waiting in the sunshine for the public bus. Held my breath when the un-deodorized masses surged around us. Sweat a bit more glamorously on a marble slab in a positively ancient Turkish bath (circa 1500s). Walked along the Bosphorus Strait and stopped for tea with my face to the water and my feet up on a chair. Bargained shamelessly for a pashmina that I now own and love, and laughed out loud at the salesmen inquiring if my friend and I were Top Models. Accidentally drank the soot at the bottom of Turkish coffee and have not had a cup since.

Kumpir: one serious potato!

What I ate: waffles, kebabs, kumpir, kunefe. You know kebabs originated in Turkey, right? You know how I feel about kebabs.

I’m sorry I missed: The famous 6th century cisterns, often referred to as the  “sunken palace” and the other side of the Bosphorus.

If (when) I return I will: book an appointment at Çemberlitaş Hamamı immediately. Plan to stay in the historic district. Take the ferry over and spend some time on the Asian side of the country.

Turkish coffee

Thanks to: One, a student working at the university who gladly took charge of my tour through the town, along with a fellow conference attendee. This meant waffles in Bebek (twice!) and my first taste of Turkish coffee (still recovering). Two, a post-doc who  visited my university in the US and welcomed me to her country that summer with open arms. With her we walked along the Bosphorus Strait, drank Turkish tea (much better) and chowed down on kebabs. Three, a Turkish native home for the summer from his studies at Northwestern took time out of his vacation to guide us through the Grand Bazaar. Most notably, he drove us through the most chaotic traffic I have ever witnessed, to date. My thanks to Tuba, Nagihan and Mert for their insights and their expert view into this beautiful city!

If you want to read the original post: You can see it here.

Now, you: What will you do when you visit Turkey? Have you been there before? What do you recommend?

travel hungry

Point Pleasant, NJ 

Point Pleasant, NJ

I’m having an excellent time making plans for my trip to Costa Rica in August 2009. I’ll be going with one of my best friends and my most favorite travel mate, Thao. We met while studying abroad in 2004 and have been indulging in our traveling dreams since. One day we’ll hit the lottery, buy ourselves a plane and do a lot more of this. Since we’ve been home, most of our travel has been domestic.. Chicago, Austin, New York, Philadelphia, Houston, the Jersey shore, etc. As an anniversary trip, we decided to go international again, and chose Costa Rica.

Once we decided on a location, I promptly sat myself down on the floor in Barnes & Noble to peruse the travel guides. The winner, by and large, was Fodor’s. Both the hard copy guide and the online website have helped us in leaps and bounds, and we haven’t even left the United States yet!

The following pieces have been most helpful:

  • maps. There are maps for each region of the country, and major airports and attractions are highlighted. There are also several itineraries in the beginning that trace a 6 or 8 days route through the country, on separate maps so you can orient yourself with the area.
  • honest tips. As a traveler, I really appreciate tips like “the hotel’s intimacy is compromised by its scale and its popularity with day-trippers, although a reservations system for day passes is limiting the intrusion and improving the situation …” These are further assisted by the online website, which allows for customer reviews.
  • security tips. Who knew that there were cars masquerading as taxis in Costa Rica? There are several blatantly honest notes about how to watch your step (and your pockets, your luggage and your belongings).
  • options. There are many different options in each region – each with it’s own paragraph with tips and facts. Restaurants, activities, shopping, travel logistics – everything is spelled out so that even the most pedestrian traveler can see the highlights. 
  • logical progression. Everything has a place! A well organized index points to all major topics, and each chapter is organized by region. As a organization geek, this appeals to me greatly.
  • feedback. I hope to be able to utilize this function when I come home / while traveling. Fodor’s invites commentary from traveler’s to legitimize their claims to this restaurant or that hotel. If they’re bogus, you can tell them. If they’re right on, they want to hear it. 

Is it August yet? I’m ready!