Idyllic Italian Riviera: A postcard come to life
Location: Agadir, Essaouira, Marrakesh, Morocco
Date: May, 2015
Give me 30 seconds:
- Remember to respect the culture and bring appropriate clothing that covers your shoulders and the majority of your legs. (Speaking from a womans POV) Don't wear skimpy clothing. If you plan to visit any mosques, remember to bring a light scarf to cover your head/ hair.
- In the majority of Medinas and larger cities, women still wear veils and the street is mostly the man's domain.
- Tipping is expected.
- Different women have different experiences with sexual harassment in Morocco. Some find it persistent and bothersome, while others have little or no trouble with it. Obvious way to get rid of unwanted attention is the same you would do here at home: appear confident and assured. Again, attire is another strategy for avoid unwanted attention.
- Do not buy the dried fruit in Jemaa el-Fnaa matter how delicious they may looks. The water they use to spray the fruit to make it look delicious is generally contaminated and people have gotten sick from it.
- ONLY drink bottled water, do not drink from the tap. Even when brushing your teeth, use bottled water. Its a lot easier to handle and way easier to negotiate with.
- Highly suggest staying in a Riad in Marrakech.
- If you are an argan oil user, buy it in Morocco. If you have the time, find a woman's cooperative and watch the amount of work that goes into cultivating the product. Plus, supporting the local women empowerment movement is a wonderful feeling on its own!
- Moroccan tea is a must! It can be a little sweet but it is delicious.
- Morocco Currency is the Dirham, MAD.
I've can't say I have always wanted to go on a Surf and Yoga retreat. It sounded intriguing and I was definitely interested, but I never thought I would be headed to Africa to practice yoga, learn how to surf and be zen. SO random right? Ah, the power of Google and elimination. I was down to two trips, one in Morocco and one in Costa Rica. I asked my BFF and we agreed, Morocco sounded like the adventure we were looking for. We picked Surf Maroc, which is located on the beach in Agadir in the Villa Mandala. Our trip included lodging, meals, and a week of surf instruction and twice daily yoga; one session at 7am and another at 5pm. Delicious healthy meals were cooked daily by the house chef and we ate family style every night and spent time getting to know the other people who decided to come on the retreat. Old, young, single, divorced, it didn't matter, just a desire to find some inner peace and be open to new experiences. Yoga level does not matter as the teachers cater to every person's needs. Also, the yoga and surfing is optional, so it isn't required that you attend the classes. (The side trips to Essaouira and Marrakech and activities outside of yoga and surf are not included in price for Surf Maroc.)
I must say, after a week in this zen paradise, I didn't want to come back to the craziness of NYC. The feeling of absolutely serenity does stay with you for a while after returning home which is amazing and I can't wait to find another yoga surf trip in a new destination!
Surf Maroc, Agadir
Beach, Surf, Yoga...Repeat x 7. Surf Maroc was quite an amazing experience and as a New Yorker, it took at least three days to completely detox from the sounds and hustle of life and learn to appreciate the serenity of the retreat. Morning yoga started at 7am for about 1.5 hours and then off to a family style breakfast in the garden patio. Yoga is always held in a beautiful indoor and outdoor Shala that allows for a delightful breeze during your practice. Yoga is for both beginners through advanced and there is no need to know any yoga prior to attending. We practiced Vinyasa as well as Yin and Yang Yoga and I learned that Savasana is incredibly difficult! Not only must you remain awake and calm, but you must put your mind at ease and not move a single inch. Everyone moves at their own speed and our instructors Tara and Jennifer were absolutely phenomenal. I even made my way halfway up to a headstand! (I'm so proud I had to include a photo below!) As for surfing, they provide the surfboards, instructors and wetsuits and again, no need for prior knowledge of surfing. You are broken up into different groups based upon previous surf experience and the instructors usually had no more than 3 or 4 students at a time. I got up on the board and pat myself on the back for surfing a handful of waves. Paddling out is the toughest part and makes for super sore muscles. Thank goodness for Yin and Yang yoga in the evenings to stretch out our bodies! We are given about 3-4 hours on the beach each day in which you can choose to surf, read, play around in the water or simply just soak in the sun.
Camels can be rented with a guide for less than $15USD for two hours. The camels will walk along the beach and the guide will tell you history of the area you are in and tell stories of fisherman stories at sea and happily take your photo! If you're going during the day, make sure to wear a lot of sunscreen and a hat as the sun can be brutal and the camels walk really slow.
We took a taxi from Agadir to Marrakech and it was about a 3 hour drive. Arriving in Marrakech is a little hectic. They park outside the main Medina near the Jemaa el-Fnaa, which is the main square and marketplace. Walk deeper in the marketplace and you will find narrow alleyways filled with stalls leading to many other souks. During the day, the square is predominantly occupied with orange juice stalls, ladies drawing henna designs, snake charmers and young apes doing tricks. As nightfalls, the crowd changes to dancing boys, story-tellers, magicians and fortunetellers. Around dinner time, the square fills with food stalls including kabobs all of types, all kinds of seafood, desserts, anything you could ever want to eat. Inside the souk, get ready for sensory overload! You will find thousands of stalls selling everything from handwoven baskets and spices to perfumes and oils to rug and silver items. You WILL want to buy everything! Popular items are rugs, hand carved chests, mirrors, baskets, poufs and lanterns, and they are all so beautiful. Leather and silver goods are a commodity here so you will find plenty of stalls selling similar items. Remember to negotiate hard. If you look like a tourist, get ready to have their initial offer be triple what they will end up settling for. And if they don't settle, don't worry. You will find about 20 other stalls selling the exact same thing. I promise your negotiation skills will really be put to the test here. We stayed one night at the Riad Itrane, which I highly suggest. The guest rooms are really authentic like a beautifully decorated Moroccan home. Plus, the Riad Itrane is only a two minute walk from the center of Jemaa el-Fnaa, so you can easily walk back to your room if you wish to drop off purchases and rest. There are very few ATM's around so make sure you go to the bank before heading into Jemaa el-Fnaa.
Jardin Majorelle, Marrakech
The enchanting Jardin Majorelle is one of the most visited places in Marrakech, and for good reason. It took the French painter Jacques Majorelle 40 years to bring this garden to life. In 1980, Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge bought the Jardin Majorelle and saved it from falling victim to a real estate project which would turn it into a hotel complex. After passing away in 2008, Yves Saint Laurent's ashes were scattered in the rose garden and a memorial was built. The garden is full of shady trees, exotic plants and refreshing burbling streams of water. Its a lovely way to spend an afternoon in Marrakech.
If you watch Game of Thrones on HBO, you will recognize Essaouira immediately and if you don't watch Game of Thrones then you are missing out! Essaouira is a small seaside town with fortified walls, a fishing harbour and seagulls soaring all around. Similar to Marrakech, there are plenty of souks and stalls selling all types of items, but it isn't nearly as crowded. The prices seemed a little more flexible here and there was much more room for negotiation. I negotiated a rug for about $15USD and thought I would probably find a better deal, so I held off and found out it was almost $100USD in Marrakech. I still think about that little beach rug to this day... The fishing stalls right outside the walls of Essaouira are lined with fishermen and their catches of the day. There are plenty of grills in which they will happily grill up for you to eat, as very low cost. Britt and I decided to get henna while in Essaouira thinking it would be less expensive than in Marrakech. It basically washed off the next day. (I think we got someone who didn't really know how to do it.) Advice, just skip over the henna, however it does make for a good photo! All in all, the gentle coast breeze and delicious food makes Essaouira a must visit destination.
So, if you're considering a yoga and or surf retreat, highly consider doing one with Surf Maroc in Morocco. You will meet people from all over the world and push you to explore emotional places that you didn't even knew existed. In a non stop city like New York, it really should be a requirement for people to get out and take a mental break and what better way than a rejuvenating yoga and surf retreat.
I'd love to hear if any of you have ever been on a great wellness retreat! Share in the comments below.
As always, go JETSETAWAY!
Location: St. Maarten and Saint-Barthélemy
Give me 30 seconds:
- Its beach all day everyday.
- Gem and jewelry shopping is huge here and almost every single store sells pieces for over 60% less than what you would buy it for in the states. Basically I felt like Abu from Aladdin when looking around at all the rubies, sapphires and emeralds!
- The French side of St. Maarten is known for its nude beaches, clothes and outdoor market shopping. The Dutch side is known for nightlife, beaches and jewelry.
- Must go to Maho Beach. You will get as close as humanly possible to watching a plane fly above you and get ready for landing at the nearby commercial airport.
- If you take the ferry from St. Maarten to Saint-Barthelemy, buy your ferry tickets in advance online here. They are about $7 cheaper and then you can use that extra money to buy yourself a cocktail later. Read about my day trip to Saint Barthelemy here.
- Rent a vespa or a car. You will need it to get around the island. We rented a vespa and had a blast!
- If you like fruity sugary cocktails, (hey, some people love them!) I'd try the guavaberry rum punch.
- The currency here is the Euro, but they also accept the dollar.
- English, French and Dutch are all spoken here.
We stayed at a 4 star hotel, Royal Palm Beach Resort in St. Maarten and had no complaints. Not luxurious by any means, but it was clean, the people were super helpful, there was private beach access, and it was close to some fantastic open air restaurants. Since we didn't opt for a 5 star hotel, we upgraded to a suite overlooking the water which was fantastic for me. Wake up to the sound of the ocean and the crystal blue waters was everything I'd expect paradise to be.
Maho Beach, St. Maarten
Sugary sand, sparkling clear water makes for a stunning beach that is pretty family oriented and therefore crowded. Snorkeling is amazing here and you are almost guaranteed to see a turtle. The beauty of this beach is people come to watch the landing of planes. Its pretty insane to see a plane fly right above your head to Princess Juliana International Airport.
Orient Beach, St. Maarten
Orient beach is located on the French side of the island and boasts soft sand, crystal clear waters and smaller crowds. Sign me up! Chair and cabana rentals, and water sports are available on this entire strip of beach along with local restaurants and shops. At the far stretch of the beach, you will notice there aren't as many people, thats because to enter this part of the beach you must be entirely nude. Its so interesting how different our society is about nudity, as the rest of the world is completely comfortable and non judging. This area is called "Club Orient".
JP and I of course went for it. Swim suits off and we went prancing onto this part of the beach. If you can believe it, there is someone like a beach patrol person there going around kindly kicking out people wearing swimsuits and random people with cameras. I mean come on buddy, camera on a nude beach while still wearing your own swimsuit? Way to stand out. Of course I don't have any images from this part of the trip, only the great memories in my head.
There were some floating barges out in the ocean for people to swim out to and lay out on and an entire bar with swim suits hanging from the ceiling. We spent about an hour or so on this beach, met some new people, had great conversations in the nude, and eventually left. This was one of my favorite parts of my trip to St. Maarten.
With a great view of the harbor and the beach, the Boardwalk in Philipsburg is a great place to walk around, grab an ice cream and check out some touristy souvenir shops. You can also rent beach chairs and umbrellas here, but at a premium. Its in the harbor where all the cruise ships arrive, so it might be a little crowded due to those guests, but i'd only recommend checking out the Boardwalk if you happen to be around it or want a snack. I'd really just spend most of your time at the beach.
We came to St. Maarten soak in the sun and check out some underwater creatures, so we went with Captain Alan's Three Island Adventure, which came highly recommended to us from some local friends. Our boat had only 3 other couples (it can accommodate up to 12), and we stopped at 3 different places throughout the 6 hour day. You can actually rent a Go Pro from them too if you don't have one or didn't bring one. The boats are speed boats, so you get to the destinations pretty quickly. Good for me because I get super sea sick.
First stop is Tintamarre Island at the feeding area for the sea turtles. I've seen turtles while diving before, but not when snorkling! The sea turtles are pretty crazy to see and they were around the sea grass which was about 20 feet down, along with other fish and sea life. After this, the boat pulled into a beach area at Tintamarre and we ate snacks provided by the crew and had a little time to swim around in the ocean.
Stop #1.5 was just around the corner from Tintamarre, which was a coral reef. I was hoping for a dolphin sighting, but no such luck. Dove down and saw a bunch of neon colored fish, a starfish, and a few sea urchins.
Stop #2 was Pinel Island where we had lunch with iguanas. There are these huge iguanas walking around that you can feed by hand. I didn't do it because they kind of freak me out but apparently they are pretty tame. There is also a section on this Island where sunbathing has unofficial clothing optional, but we didn't have time to check it out.
Stop #3 was Green Cay which was another reef snorkeling area. The coral here was vibrant and there was plenty of colorful fish and brightly colored conch.
This snorkeling day trip was quite fun in the sense that we got to see a ton of water creatures hat we wouldn't have otherwise seen. We unfortunately didn't do any diving while on this trip, but Serial Divers in Gustavia comes highly recommended.
Bale Rouge Beach & "Devil's Hole"
A hidden gem of a beach, quiet and secluded, about 100 meters from the main road in the Terres Basses area. The beach is a little hard to find as the beach can not be seen from the road and the sign is pretty small. Secluded for a reason I suppose. The sand is a bit pinkish, which is where it gets its name, Red Bay. The main reason why I wanted to find this beach was for the "Devil's Hole". The Bale Rouge Beach is dotted with luxury villas and on the East side, gives a stunning view of Anguilla.
If you are up for it, I highly suggest it, please take a walk and search for Trou David aka The Devil's Hole, a steep hole in the middle of the cliffs, filled with water. Its quite a magnificent sight! Some people jump into it, I myself was a chicken and just admired its beauty without jumping.
Our weeklong trip to another beachy paradise comes to an end and in fact, I must say I didn't enjoy Saint Barthelemy as much as I did St. Maarten, not that there was a competition or anything. I enjoyed the views from hiking to then find my way onto the most magical and secluded beaches and not worrying about gawkers if I decided to go for the no tan line beach layout. There is such a great tie between the European and Caribbean way of life that I hope is never lost here in St. Maarten. I cant wait to return on a dive trip!
If you have any suggestions for other beaches or hikes I should check out on my return, let me know in the comments below!
As always, GO JETSETAWAY!
Location: Lake Como, Italy
Date: October 2015
Give me 30 seconds:
- Must go to Villa d'Este and have a drink and enjoy the views.
- Off the ferry, stop in Bellagio and wander around to all the shops. They have beautiful silk items that are not crazy expensive.
- Visit Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo.
- Eat a lot of pasta.
- Eat a lot of gelato.
- Favorite Restaurant: La Colombetta, Il Glincine in Cernobbio
- Currency in Lake Como is the Euro, €.
Relaxing weekend getaway trip with the girls as we said au revoir to Paris and Ciao to Milan. Coming directly from Milan via the Malpensa Express, we arrived in Lake Como in about 2 hours. With no agenda except relax and explore, we checked into our hotel and decided to take the ferry around the lake the next day. It can get a little confusing but I suggest just buying the day ticket in which you can get off and get on anytime at any of the stops which include Menaggio, Varenna, Bellagio, Cadenabbia, Tremezzo and Lenno. We boarded the Gestione Navigazione Laghi, got a glass of champagne and enjoyed the beautiful lake views.
Villa d'Este, Tivoli, Italy
When I think Lake Como, I immediately think of George Clooney. Sadly, I had no George sightings, but what I did see was equally as beautiful. Villa d'Este is a magnificent and opulent hotel overlooking Lake Como with sprawling manicured gardens, glorious statues and a floating pool right on top of the lake. We arrived a little before sun down, so we had a little bit of time to walk around the property grounds and enjoy the 25 acre gardens before sitting down for some cocktails and watching the sunset. We had planned to have dinner here, however, we saw people entering the dining room in gowns and tuxedos and given our outfits above, we were a far cry from black tie. Instead the concierge at Villa d'Este suggested a wonderfully delicious, albeit, hidden restaurant in town and we decided to give it a shot. Boy were we not in any way disappointed. Ristorante La Colombetta made us feel like we died and went to pasta heaven. Simple white tablecloths, no fuss silverware and glasses, fantastic service and exceptional pasta; it was everything we were looking for. I think I just drooled a little as I uploaded the photos and remembered how amazing the food was that night.
The Funicular, Lake Como
The Funicular is an excellent way to see Lake Como and surrounding areas from above. It has been in operation since 1894 and takes about 7 min to reach the town at the top, Brunate. There are a few little cafes in Brunate in which you can sit outside and enjoy the panoramic views. To get the best views, you sort of have to fight your way to the front so that you can see everything. On our way up, my friend and I got trapped with 50 school children so that wasn't going to happen, but luckily on our way down, we got the very front. Worth it to fight for the front. Cost to ride the Funicular is about 6 Euros round trip and it operates every 15 minutes.
If you are traveling in Italy and have a few extra days, definitely consider heading up to Lake Como for a little R&R. You won't regret it and you will be blown away by its beauty and serenity.
As always, go JETSETAWAY!
Location: Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Needing to clear my head and take a mental break, I yearned to find a new destination to explore. Somewhere inexpensive, less than 4 hour flight from New York and lots of history. Google told me Santo Domingo as an option, so off I went. The only photos and knowledge I had of Santo Domingo was incredible beaches, but not much else. I did a bunch of research and booked a sweet boutique hotel right in the heart of Zona Colonial called Boutique Hotel Palacio. I wanted to stay in the heart of the city versus on the beach because I wanted to walk around and explore the small side streets and surrounding churches and sights. I spent five days wandering the city, learning about its history, journaling at local cafes, beach front dining in Boca Chica, and magical cave exploring. I wouldn't say that I felt 100% safe at all times, but this solo trip was well worth all the sights and exploring. There is something so beautiful and empowering about spending time alone in a place unknown to you that I hope you too have trips to share of your solo travels. Share them with me below!
Give me 30 seconds:
- Brush up on your Spanish. Almost nobody speaks English (except for the hotel).
- Tipping is a must here.
- My two favorite places to eat were Adrian Tropical and Meson D'Bari. Adrian Tropical was right above the water and had really authentic Caribbean food. Meson D'Bari was around the corner from my hotel and had the best chicken empanadas of life. I'd fly back just for the empanadas.
- The Santo Domingo Currency is the Dominican Peso, RDS.
- Must Visit: Alcazar de Colon, Cathedral of Santa Maria, Los Tres Ojos, Cathedral Primada de America, Jardin Botanico Nacional, Zona Colonial.
Cathedral Primada de America
One of my favorite and most memorial cathedral in Santo Domingo was the Cathedral Primada de America. The coolest thing about this cathedral, is that it is the oldest in operation in the western hemisphere and the first stone was set in 1514 by Diego Columbus, the son of the great explorer. The inside consists of stunning vaulted ceilings and 14 interior chapels and daily mass is performed at 5pm. Shorts and tank tops are prohibited and they will require you to cover up. If you don't have something to do so, they will lend you a scarf to wrap around. I'd suggest getting the audio tour so that you can hear all of the history of each chapel. Admission along with the audio tour is about $2USD.
Los Tres Ojos, Santo Domingo
"The Three Eyes" National Park is an absolute must. Its in the middle of nowhere and after all of the Trip Advisor research I did, I knew I had to take a little adventure to get here. Los Tres Ojos is located in Mirador del Este park and is home to open air limestone caves. When you arrive you pay a small admission fee is 100RD which is about $1USD. There are many "tour guides" there to show you around the park and the caves, but they sort of trick you in what price you will pay for the tour. There are no set prices as I believe they work for themselves and if you're a tourist, the prices inevitably go up. I paid $20USD including tip for my tour. Seemed steep but since I was alone I wasn't going to argue. The tour guide does double as a photographer so thats helpful. My guide spoke great English and my driver came along with me as my "body guard". He didn't like that I was traveling alone and so he felt compelled to go with me to every place I went. I only knew his name was Juan and he spoke not a word of English.
Words can not describe the beauty and depths of these caves. Even my photographs do not do it justice. There are a LOT of stairs leading down into the caves, so if you have issues with stairs, you might not get to go up close into the cave. There is a "ferry" that brings you into the third eye cave that opens up into a massive oasis of lush tropical trees and enchanting rock formations.
Zona Colonial, Santo Domingo
Wander the 11 blocks of historical and fun filled streets of Zona Colonial and get lost between old and new world treasures. This walled city holds the oldest permanent settlement in the New World. Zona Colonial holds claim to the first cathedral, monastery, university, hospital and customs house in the "New World". Alongside the churches and monuments are vendors selling delicious exotic fruit cups, handmade bracelets, paintings and leather goods. I personally didn't find anything interesting enough to purchase. My driver Juan's daughter, who was sick in the hospital, did make me a bracelet, which I keep with me in my journal to always remember this trip.
Jardin Botanico Nacional, Dominican Republic
Its easy to forget that this garden is in the center of a metropolitan area of over 2 million people. The Jardin Botanico Nacional is a lush 2 square km national garden, home to aquatic plants, ferns, orchids, palm trees, a Japanese Garden, a butterfly conservatory and so much more. I spent the day wandering the garden, soaking in the sun and serenity while journaling and enjoying the wildlife and foliage. Inside the garden there is a butterfly conservatory in which you walk into a fully netted area and are surrounded by various types of butterflies, all fluttering around you. Its quite magical. Entrance to the botanical garden is $.10 and $.50 for the butterfly conservatory. A taxi ride from Zona Colonial is about $7USD.
Boca Chica, Santo Domingo
Boca Chica is the only beach that I spent time at while on this solo trip. I wouldn't particularly say there is anything noteworthy about this beach. Food and drinks are served right on the beach and there are guys walking around shucking fresh oysters and clams for you to eat. Beware though, you must be firm with how many you want as they will keep serving them to you and then all of a sudden you're paying him $30USD. Thats a lot of money there. I had a grilled fish plate with vegetables and that was another $30 and it wasn't that impressive. I did snap a photo of the preparation though. A lot of vendors will walk up and down the beach selling inflatable animals, sweets, cigarettes, you name it, they probably had it for sale.
Overall thoughts, if I ever come back here, I will probably just stick to the beach area. I don't think I would need to see any of the sights I saw again. A beautiful and unique as they were, this trip was about reflection and being alone and I got just that. What are some of the beaches I should check out in Santo Domingo if I return?
Share with me your best solo trips, I'd love to feature them so you too can inspire others!
As always, go JETSETAWAY!