Travel Tuesday Takeover: Japan Prelude

Today I have some exciting news to share with you guys! Since I started the blog, Tuesdays have been all about my traveling experiences, specifically my experiences in Europe this past summer. Since I want to keep sharing traveling adventures, I decided to begin “Travel Tuesday Takeover” – guest posts from other people sharing their travel stories. So I asked my good friend Rebekah to guest post for the next few weeks. She recently returned from Japan and will be sharing her experiences every Tuesday on the blog. If you have any questions or comments for Rebekah, be sure to leave a comment (as always)! Enjoy!

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Adventures in the Land of the Rising Sun: Prelude

My boyfriend and I moderately enjoy Anthony Bourdain. We watch his shows, read his books, lust after his trips, adore his arid brand of sarcasm, and we’d like to spend a night at a bar with him. Ok, fanboys really.

Perhaps subconsciously inspired by his jet-setting life and autumn Sundays spent watching him on the tube, we decided we wanted to travel out of the country. But the proverbial trip to Europe didn’t seem to strike a chord with my other half—myself either to be honest. I have been lucky enough to visit a good number of beautiful countries in Europe, and while “been there, done that” is far from my feelings on mainland Europe, the thought of going again didn’t tickle me. Ideas were tossed around, nothing stuck.

One night, likely after a few too many beers and far too many episodes of “No Reservations,” I received an off-the-cuff text message from my boyfriend: “Let’s go to Japan.” It was half suggestion, half question—but across town I squealed and immediately began looking up flights.

He should know better.

Because with that we were off to Japan. Everyone asked, “Why Japan?” We answered, “Why not?”

Not long after, we stopped calling the trip a vacation. It became clear that we were embarking on something of an adventure—12 days, 3 cities, countless things to do and see.

For the next few Travel Tuesdays, I’ll be walking willing readers through my time (read: adventures) in Japan. What I expected, what I did not expect, what I learned, and what I got myself into.

-Rebekah

Travel Tuesday: The Contiki Experience

Hello everyone and happy Tuesday! After a few weeks’ hiatus, Travel Tuesday is back! Over the last few months, I’ve chronicled my and Bernie’s trip last summer to Italy, France, and Spain with Contiki, a travel guide for 18-35 year-olds. We did a ton of things during our two week tour around the Mediterranean. We explored the Colosseum and visited where the Pope lives.

We took a bus to a bus, to a boat, to a train, to a bus, to get to our hotel.

We toured the smallest Museum of Natural History ever in France.

And we saw architecture that would make Dr. Seuss happy in Barcelona, Spain.

 

 

We saw a lot of sights in 2 weeks and experienced things we never would have if we didn’t decide to travel together. It was a once in a lifetime experience and I don’t regret a second of it.

When Bernie and I decided to take a trip together, we sat down and brainstormed ideas of where to go. Ever the adventurer, it was Bernie’s idea to go to Europe. At that point, he and I had been together for about 4 months. I didn’t think the relationship was going to end before, but that’s a big commitment to make, to schedule a huge trip together months in advance when you had only been together for a short period of time. I took the leap of faith and said yes to Europe. A few weeks  later, we paid a visit to a AAA travel agent in search of some help. We had both been abroad, but never traveled within Europe before. We didn’t have the faintest idea of what to do. This is where we found out about Contiki, a travel company that plans trips/tours throughout Europe and other countries. After crunching some numbers, we realized that traveling through Contiki would be about the same cost-wise or somewhat cheaper than traveling on our own. Between Euro Rail passes, hotel/hostel stays, and food/activities the trip’s cost added up fast. Contiki takes care of everything for you – hotels, travel between countries, some meals, and many activities. And during the entire trip, you’re lead by a guide who deals with logistics and helps you navigate a foreign country.

After searching through the GIANT Contiki tour book, we settled on “Mediterranean Highlights” which started in Rome and ended in Madrid. A few days later, we booked the trip online and waited!

Overall, there were good things about our experience with Contiki and some not so good things. Here’s a quick rundown of the pro’s and con’s of budget traveling.

Pro’s of Traveling with Contiki

  • Convenience. All of the logistics of traveling in foreign countries is taken care of for you. Your hotels are booked for you, group dinners are scheduled for you, and tours of monuments/attractions are organized for you.
  • Inexpensive (in comparison). While it’s not cheap to travel with them, it is cheaper than traveling on your own. There are many dinners and tours included in the cost of your trip. When we went to visit the Colosseum, we had a two-hour guided tour lead by a local guide. This was included in the overall cost of the trip. The day before, Bernie and I went to the Colosseum and had tours pitched to us for about 25 Euro each – VERY expensive!
  • Hotels>hostels. We got to stay in some pretty nice places (for the price) while traveling. Our hotel in Madrid was beautiful; it even had a pool.
  • Tour guides are live-in teachers. Our tour guide, Giuseppe, was amazing. He was from Italy, so he was fluent in Italian, but was also fluent in Spanish and knew a lot of French. He led us on some great walking tours of all the places we went, and taught us the native language of the country we were in. This proved to be key. It felt good speaking the language and experiencing it with more knowledge than the average tourist who was on their own.
  • Traveling in groups is better than traveling alone. We made a ton of friends while on the tour. Since Contiki caters to 18-35 year-olds, everyone was in a similar age group. We all became very close over the two weeks and had a blast together exploring. I think it also helped me and Bernie not want to kill each other by the end of the trip. Don’t get me wrong – I love my boyfriend and spending as much time with him as I can – but traveling is stressful. Having other people to put your focus on and interact with makes a big difference.

  • Free time. We were given at least a few hours each day for free time to rest, explore, or do whatever. We found these free time hours to be key to enjoying our vacation. While it’s great to go with the group, going off and doing things on our own was sometimes better than group outings.

Con’s of Traveling with Contiki

  • This is a tour, not a vacation. While we knew that this trip wouldn’t be all rest and relaxation, I felt like sometimes the go-go-go nature of the trip was overwhelming. There were days where we were so completely exhausted, almost to the point of not even wanting to go out on the tours (which is crazy talk!). Our tour guide said on day one, “This is not a vacation, this is a tour.” He couldn’t have said it better. If you’re looking for a low key adventure vacation, Contiki is not for you.
  • Cost. While the trip was cheaper overall, we ended up spending more money while there than we thought we would. Many of the extra excursions through Contiki were not included in the price – which we did not know. When we got to Europe, our tour guide laid out to us how much each excursion would be over the course of the trip. Before we knew it, we were dropping 250 Euro each for excursions. I wish I had known this beforehand so I could budget accordingly.
  • Hotels are so-so. It was hit or miss with the quality of hotels we stayed in. The hotel in Rome was great, but the hotel in Nice, France was HORRIBLE! A kid in our group was covered in bed bug bites from that hotel. I developed a cold after two days in the hotel. There was visible mold everywhere. I know the trip included budget accommodations, but some of the hotels were even worse than “budget” level in my opinion.
  • The tour group’s dynamic can be hit or miss. Our group had a fabulous dynamic! Our tour guide took us out to enjoy the nightlife, but we didn’t do it every night so it wasn’t overkill. We all bonded well as a group and I stay in touch with many people from the trip. We saw some other Contiki groups along the way, and some of them were wild – going out every single night, never sleeping, drinking until all hours of the night, hung over on all excursions. Apparently Contiki has a reputation to be sort of wild and crazy. This was not the experience I had, but I can imagine that the mindset of your tour guide and the people in your group makes a huge difference. Our group was all about going out and having a good time at night, but we also wanted to be refreshed enough to enjoy the sights during the day.
  • Not enough free time. I wish that we had an extra day in each country to experience things on our own. Unfortunately, we didn’t. Free time was numerous, but it was often short and was spent napping, resting, or getting ready for the night ahead of us.

Overall, I don’t think we would do a Contiki tour again. Not because we had a negative experience, but because we’ve figured out how to travel through Europe and we want to do it on our own. Going our first time with a tour group was the best thing we could have done – we aren’t travel virgins anymore. Also, we weren’t nuts about all the countries in the tour. Italy was phenomenal, Spain was way cool, but France wasn’t great. I wasn’t that much of a fan, and could have done without it. If we were to go back to Europe, we would stick to one or two countries and tour those extensively.

 

Readers: Have you ever traveled through a foreign country? Did you do it through a tour or on your own? Share your experiences!

Travel Tuesday: Madrid to Boston

This week on Travel Tuesday, the final day in Europe!

After coming back from Toledeo, we had about 5 hours to kill until our final dinner in Madrid. We thought about going downtown to explore Madrid on our own, but after an early morning tour of the royal palace, a trip to Toledo, and a long bus ride back, we were ready for some r&r. We sat our asses right down next to the pool – this hotel was the only one with a pool area. One of our Contiki friends got a couple 6-packs of cervezas, so we reclined and relaxed. It was the first time in a few days that we had a chance to just unwind. The hardest part of the trip, and especially during the final week, was trying feeling guilty for choosing to relax during free hours instead of pushing ourselves to explore everything. At some point, something had to give. We didn’t have enough time in Madrid to truly tour it and explore the best part of the city, so we opted to just rest. We had a long day of travel back to Boston the next day.

A few hours later, we met up with the entire group for our last dinner of the trip. We went to the famous Plaza Mayor to have dinner outside. While there we saw some pretty interesting street performers.

We dined on fried calamari, fish, and various tapas. Bernie also got something he had been DYING for all trip – milk! Watching him ask the waiter for milk was hilarious. Not exactly the high class drinks everyone else was asking for.

After dinner, we took pictures with some friends we made along the way. Bernie was pretty bummed to be saying goodbye to some of them. I think there were some budding bromances going on.

Then the whole group went out one final time for some drinks and dancing. Goodbyes were said, and everyone started going their own ways. I was pretty bummed out that it was all ending so fast. The two weeks completely flew by.

The next morning, Bernie and I dragged our ragged, tired bodies to breakfast. After a very fast meal, we ran off to catch a cab and head to the airport. We ended up waiting a LONG time for our flight. I was so burned out at that point and was ready to just get on the plane and head home. 8 hours later, we were back in Boston. We were HOME!

Next week: Overall thoughts on our Contiki experience.

Happy Tuesday!

Readers: What was the best vacation you’ve ever been on? Have you ever had “vacation guilt” aka: felt like you weren’t taking full advantage of the place you’re vacationing?

 

Travel Tuesday: The Final Stop

Hello friends! I thought I would start this week’s Travel Tuesday with another travel update: Bernie and I have officially booked a vacation this summer. After our 2 week adventure in Europe last summer, we were ready for a vacation that was much more relaxing and low key. So this June, we’ll be spending 6 nights in Key West, Florida! I’ve been to Key West once before on a cruise and enjoyed it. I can’t wait!

On this week’s Travel Tuesday, Bernie and I reach our final destination: Madrid, Spain. At this point in the trip, we were both pretty beat. With our constant go, go, go schedule, sleep was a welcomed luxury. I also on and off sick at this point – we both were – so by the time we got to Madrid, we welcomed a hotel that had…A POOL! The rooms were gorgeous and clean (finally!)

This is how I felt toward the end of the trip. Tired Sarah = crazy Sarah

By the time we arrived in Madrid, we had been on a bus for about 5 or 6 hours, so I was pretty exhausted. We all went out as a group and and had tapas at a place around the corner. There, we toasted to the final stop. Then, I went back to the hotel to rest and Bernie went out with the group and took some night pictures of Madrid.

The next morning, we woke up bright and early and went on a tour of the Royal Palace. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, but imagine the biggest palace with everything covered in gold, silk, and velvet. GORGEOUS!

After the tour, Bernie and I went with a small group to visit Toledo, outside of Madrid. The town was so cool – very medieval and charming.

While we were in Toledo, we saw a really famous painting by El Greco, “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz”. I remember learning about him in an art class in college and was shocked when I actually recognized the painting. Our guide in Toledo started analyzing the painting, pointing out themes to the group. I was immediately brought back to my college days. I took an art class and a ton of film analysis classes and I miss that feeling of discovering something about a piece of art (whether it’s a painting or film) that’s not necessarily right on the surface.

[image source]

Once we finished the tour, we stopped in a tapas place for a quick lunch. They had a lunch deal going on – 1 tapas and a small beer for 2 euro! Awesome!

Then it was back on the bus – we were headed back to Madrid to prepare for our last night of the tour!

 

Until then, some questions for you: Have you ever had a “I miss college” moment like me? Have you ever seen something you studied in school in person? What was it like?

Travel Tuesday: Dancing in Barcelona

I want to wish a belated 21st birthday to my wonderful little sister, Alie.

It’s just the two of us in our family and I’ve enjoyed being a big sister – but ‘big’ no more. Now that Alie can buy alcohol, I feel weird calling her my ‘little’ sister. She’s not little anymore! Happy birthday Alie!

Now – onto Travel Tuesday. This week, day two of Bernie and Sarah’s great adventure in Barcelona, Spain. You can check out day one here.

Little kids looking into the club. Sorry guys, not old enough yet.

After the Flamenco show, we all headed out to the water for a night out on the town! The club scene in Barcelona was insane. The clubs are expensive to get in, 10-20 euro each, and the drinks are costly. But we had an awesome time! It was really great to cut lose for a night after all the traveling. Bernie and I made friends with 3 different couples from Toronto,San Fransisco, and New Zealand respectfully. We all had a really great time out together.

The whole European club scene is very different than in America. The men are very pushy and flirtatious, so you have to be careful. The drinks are also REALLY expensive, but they do tend to make them strong, so you get your money’s worth. Overall, I had great club experiences in all the countries we visited – definitely a ‘must-do’ on your list if you enjoy clubs.

After the night out, we headed back to the hotel to sleep. Something that I found out in Barcelona, is that the cabs are super cheap! The cabs in Italy and France were similar to how they cost in the U.S. – there’s a flat beginning fee, and then the cost increases by $0.40 every 1/5 of a mile or so. In Barcelona, there was no flat fee, and the cost increased by like 0.10 euro. Our hotel was a good 6 miles or so away from downtown and our cab was maybe 5 Euro. Not bad!

The next day, we said goodbye to Barcelona to head off to our LAST stop of the trip – Madrid!

 

Travel Tuesday: Donde estan mis pantalones?

Guess what today is?!

Tuesday? Travel Tuesday? The last day of January?

Yes, Yes, and Yes. But it is also my BIRTHDAY! I turn 24 years young today! I can’t believe how quickly another year has gone by. I feel like I was just celebrating my 23rd birthday. I was in my final semester of college and I was chomping at the bit to graduate. Now I’m over 6 months post-college and in the working world. I’m dealing with tight budgets, renting an apartment with 3 other girls, and balancing time between friends, family, and the boy.

According to Bernie, the “mid-twenties” start at 24 years of age. According to me, it’s 25. I don’t know about you, but I’m in no hurry to grow up and assign a title to my age. I’m still in my “early twenties” in my eyes – one more year! He can be in his “mid-twenties” all he wants. 😉

So back to the Tuesday tradition over here at Blonde Bostonian. This week I will be covering mine and Bernie’s adventures in Barcelona, Spain.

We were pretty excited to head to Spain. After a not-so-wonderful experience in France, we were ready for something new. The bus ride from Avignon to Barcelona was long. Very, very, very long. After maybe 8 hours or so, we finally arrived! I think the coolest thing about Barcelona was the nice mix between the modern metropolis and historical architecture. The buildings were gorgeous and varied everywhere you looked. Our first stop was Sagrada Familia.

I was in awe of the whole building. Every side was different. I didn’t realize that Gaudi died in the middle of it being built, so there are sections of the church that are still being worked on. He never left any blueprints or designs, so they are literally working on the unfinished pieces by copying the parts he already did. We didn’t get a chance to go inside, but it was worth it on the outside.

We then went and saw the Olympic stadium where the ’92 games were held. It seemed much smaller than it should be in person.

After sight seeing for a bit, we finally got to our hotel. We all went out as a group for dinner and then headed to the waterfront for a drink or two. We all quickly realized how tired we were, especially from all the travel, and headed to bed.

The next morning, we got up and Giuseppe took us on a short walking tour of Barcelona. We saw the old castle and a wall where firing squads used to line up people to  assassinate. You could see the hundreds of bullet holes in walls – pretty moving stuff.

Once we were set free, Bernie and I had a pretty good idea of where we wanted to go – Casa Batllo. My roommate in college was an architecture student, and I remember her telling me all about Antoni Gaudi and his crazy buildings. Once we found it, I realized she wasn’t kidding. It felt like we were in a Dr. Seuss house – it’s the only way I could describe it. Everything in the house was curved; door frames, staircases, windows, walls, furniture. It was definitely a once in a lifetime experience to walk through and marvel at all the amazing architecture. He thought of everything – including the colors of the tile in the middle courtyard of the house and how they should transition from a lighter shade to a darker in order to capture the most light.

After we finished exploring, we went for a shopping adventure. We once again found out that Bernie does not fit into European sizes. It was definitely a challenge, but we found some things that finally fit, after being told that he was “too strong (make the stereotypical flexing of the muscles move)” for his shirts.

After a quick shower and change at the hotel, we ventured out again for a flamenco show. This was one of the more expensive excursions of the trip, so we were somewhat reluctant to spend the money on it. We were not disappointed. It was incredible. The passion that was exuding out of the dancers was infectious. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of some of them.

It was definitely one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. After the dinner and the show, we headed to the waterfront for a night out on the town, which is where I leave you for now.

Happy travels! 🙂

Travel Tuesday – Perfume and Avignon

It happened. Boston finally got snow. Too bad it’s heavy and wet as can be, and that it’s going to be in the 40’s today so it’s all going to melt. The walk to the car this morning wasn’t so bad, it was kind of pretty.

This week on Travel Tuesday — Bernie and I visit a perfumery and Avignon.

After leaving Nice, our tour group started the journey from France to Spain. We had a stop over for one night in Avignon, France. After staying in a pretty seedy hotel in Nice, Bernie and I were both feeling extremely sick. Head colds and chills plagued me for a couple days after, including during our stay in Avignon. One of the things I wish someone had told me before we left for a 2 week trip, was that we would most likely get sick. We traveled so much and stayed in not always the best accommodations – so it was inevitable. Bernie and I were pretty miserable this day and got a little snippy with each other for a bit. Being sick isn’t fun, but being sick in a foreign country without a comfortable bed sucks even worse.

Wanna know what else sucks? Being in a perfume factory when you’re sick.

We took a pit stop and toured a perfumery in France. Overall, it was kinda cool to see them making the soaps and perfumes, but after about 10 minutes I just wanted to go outside in the fresh air and die. We ended up in a gift shop at the end of the tour (of course) and were encouraged to buy perfume. I almost went in on a 5 pack with another girl from the trip because we were under the impression that it was a deal – 5pack of perfume bottles of our choice scents for 45 Euro. But, it ended up being not a deal – 45 Euro for EACH bottle. No thanks lady. Too rich for my blood.

After everyone was shopped out, we got back on the bus for a couple hours. Then we stopped in a small town (no idea the name) for a quick 1 hour lunch/bathroom break. At this point, I was a miserable b*tch. I was hungry, physically exhausted, sick, and achy. We ended up walking around a little bit, found a french fast food place. After eating some chicken nuggets, I felt a little better. Then we got Nutella and banana crepes. Then I felt much better.

Avignon was pretty cool. We walked around for a couple hours – Bernie went on a tour of the Palace of the Popes and I went shopping. I found a Longchamp bag for about $25 less than it would be in the U.S. SCORE! We learned that Avignon is where the Popes used to live up until the late 1300’s. There is also a Medieval bridge called Pont Saint-Bénezet that originally spanned the whole Rhône River until a flood swept a lot of it away in the 1600’s. It’s opened now for tourist to walk to the end to.

After everyone finished their shopping and sight seeing, the group all got together to have a picnic up on top of a hill in a park. We visited a grocery store and got breads, cheeses, meats, and cheap wine. It was so peaceful and wonderful — a great end to a stressful day. We also found some really cute wagons and I couldn’t resist. They cheered my whiny-self up.

Readers: How do you deal with being sick on a vacation? What was your favorite vacation ever?