4.24.2016

El Nido, Palawan Guide



The first time I heard about Palawan was through a picture that looked similar to the one I took above. I mentally bookmarked the place and when I knew that I would have some vacation time coming up at Christmastime, I jumped on the opportunity to book a trip to the Philippines, with Palawan being the main reason. Turquoise waters, jagged limestone cliffs, island-hopping, and fresh grilled fish are promised to those who endure the long journey to El Nido. We were granted all of that and more. 

Palawan is definitely in a transition state-- somewhere between best-kept secret (at least among Americans) and mass-tourism. On multiple occasions, we bumped into travelers that we had met earlier in Manila and Boracay. That's how small El Nido, Palawan feels. It's on everyone's itinerary and rightly so. The funny thing is, the options for accommodation fall on two sides of the extreme- very basic (yet overpriced) and luxurious. Since we didn't properly reserve in advance, we were stuck with one of the worst rooms I'd ever stayed in for the first two nights. It was extremely overpriced considering it had an unbearable moisture smell (which meant we had to sleep with the window open and DEET ourselves up at night), a non-functioning toilet, and questionable sheets. When a room freed up two nights later in an excellent, albeit relatively pricey, "designer" hostel, we felt like kings with an aerated room, a clean and functioning bathroom with a shower, a tasty breakfast, and more. We moved accommodation one more time just to see what else was on offer and ended up in a very comfortable hotel. Read on for my guide to Palawan!


Where to stay: SPIN hostelSea Cocoon Hotel
Where NOT to stay: Mochileros Guesthouse

Good places to eat a meal or snack:
  • Shakes at Shady rest cafe 
  • Crepe stand next to Shady rest cafe (this place gets a lot of action at night)
  • Burgers at Alofa
  • Drinks at Pukka Bar
  • Breakfast at Art Cafe
  • Altrove for good crispy pizza- get there early to snag a seat
  • V and V bagel- The pan bagnat was out of this world and made by a French expat
  • Happiness bar- satisfying shakshuka and good homemade bread. It's in Corong Corong like Republika Bar (see note below) but directly on the beach and not up high.

"Nightlife":

Unlike Boracay, there's no raging club or bar in Palawan but laid back bars dot the beach and the town's main drag. Here are a few I enjoyed:
  • Reggae bar- drinks and live music on the beach
  • Habibi- for shisha at a beachfront cafe (upstairs)
  • Kalabar- bar run by French expats (seeing a theme here?) with delicious cocktails like pineapple mojitos and good ceviche and tartare, pingpong, and a DJ (inside "The Bazaar")
  • Republica Sunset Bar- take a trike to Corong Corong (just past El Nido) and catch the sunset of your dreams at this place run by Spanish ex-pats. They have a good Spotify channel on play and tasty if not weak pitchers of sangria. The Spanish tortilla and ceviche are very good.

Activities:
  • Island hopping tour- there are plenty of places to book this- we used Art Cafe and did Tour C- the snorkeling was amazing and we saw blue star fish, tons of little biting jellyfish, and lots more. The boat capitans grill lunch while you're out at sea and then you have a meal of fresh fish and fruit waiting for you when you hit the sand.
  • Nacpan beach- we rented a scooter to this beach (which was NOT easy to get to- we got lots muliple times. If you're coming from El Nido, the turnoff on the left is very subtle.) Good swimming here and good restaurant on the beach
  • Kalit waterfalls- with that scooter you should also go here- you'll need a local guide and flip flops are essential (sneakers don't work because you keep crossing rivers)- the ice cold falls are a refreshing and scenic way to cool off from the Philippine sun
  • Rent kayaks (they go quickly so do it in advance!) and head away from the El Nido coastline until you can veer left. Around the corner is a beautiful secluded beach where you can enjoy a quiet swim and a picnic lunch. I brought a pan bagnat from V and V bagel! Watch out for the strong current on the way home.


Interesting observations:
  • It's custom to take off shoes before entering restaurants and other businesses in Palawan (For some reason, I didn't encounter this on the other islands I stayed)
  • Lack of internet-wifi sucks in Palawan. Even if your accommodation says there's internet, it's often through one cell phone and you'll never get connected. Singh's is the only foolproof solution. A very entrepreneurial Indian guy runs it out of his upstairs apartment in town. Bonus: you get free wifi if you buy Indian food!
  • Daily power outages- these are the norm so get used to candlelight. One night we were having dinner and the power was out from the moment we ordered our drinks until right before we finished our meal. Another evening while at Happiness Bar, it was the same story so their menu was limited and they gave me a lantern when I went to the restroom.
  • Lots of mosquitoes in Palawan
  • "Hello, sir ma'am" is the standard introductory greeting. For some reason I enjoyed this.
  • El Nido airport is an experience- we had to take two strikes to get there. It's totally worth it to fly back to Manila from this "airport" instead of going back to Puerto Princesa. There are cows on the runway and you're given a wooden boarding pass which you sadly have to return when you board. It's a small plane back to Manila but luckily the flight is short.
Tips:
  • Book accommodation early as El Nido proper is small and the decent (read: reliable plumbing) places go fast
  • Rent a scooter and explore the surrounding areas
  • Buy bug spray and make use of it from day one!
  • Fly back to Manila via the El Nido airport. Yes, the airfare is a little higher than going back to Puerto Princesa, but remember how long the ride took you? Time is money, baby. Plus it's worth it if only for the experience of getting a wooden boarding pass


Snorkeling crystal-clear Palawan waters
Waiting for the sunset at Republica Bar

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Aforementioned Republica Sunset Bar with their chill music accompanying the sunset

(Not too shabby) view from room at Sea Cocoon Hotel
View of the bay from my hike for wimps (as opposed to the death-defying Taraw Peak hike)
Singh's Internet Cafe (and living room Indian restaurant!)
Sign: "Fastest INTERNET connection in town! Wifi is not free unless you order Indian food"
Wooden boarding pass at El Nido airport
The "runway"
Our plane back to Manila
Bye, Palawan!


3.02.2016

Christmas in the Philippines- Manila

If there's an award for most festive Christmas in the world, the Philippines is way on top--sorry, Germany. This was the nativity scene I encountered as soon as I walked into the arrivals area at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila.
Fried chicken for breakfast on Christmas morning! Being that Christmas is such a huge holiday here, not much was open on December 25. I spent the morning eating fried chicken (apparently that's a thing in Japan?) with a Korean guy from my hostel talking about everything from Hank Aaron to guns in America...all thanks to the help of his trusty horrible e-translator. If that's not an international Christmas experience, well then I don't know what is.
 Christmas mass was so full that crowds gathered outside the church

 Intramuros


Tagaytay volcano. Was it worth the traffic jam spent in a squished van? I think so.
And halo-halo because, well-- it wouldn't be the Philippines without it.

1.20.2016

Barcelona Guide


I'd wanted to go to Barcelona for the longest time and I finally made it happen last summer. It was everything I'd hoped it to be and a lot more. (I was a bit weary about it being overrun with tourists, but thanks to the neighborhood of both my hostel and hotel, I had a great experience and can't wait to return.) Here's what I did and would do again! 

Where to stay:

Hostel One Paralelo- This is hands down one of the best hostels I've stayed in. They have a great family dinner every night, nightly bar hopping events, and awesome staff. Between the great community vibe of the other guests and the lovely Poble Sec neighborhood, I wasn't ready to leave and move to a hotel when my other traveling partners arrived in Barcelona. (In fact, the day after I checked out, I brought my friend back to the hostel for another pub crawl and we were welcomed with open arms.)
Hostal Live- This is the hotel we stayed in after our amazing stay at Hostel One. It is clean, reasonably priced, and has friendly staff. The neighborhood is also outside of the touristy Las Ramblas area.


What do see/do:


Sagrada Familia- A MUST. While it can be overwhelming to feel like you have to visit every church/cathedral you see in Europe, you can't forgive yourself if you leave Barcelona without seeing this awe-inspiring masterpiece. You need to book your timeslot in advance (online).


Park Guell- Another must-do although the crowds can be crazy. (Again, you need to book online in advance as tickets are limited.)



Food Tour with Devour Barcelona- I first used this great company in Madrid and I'm pleased to report that they've recently expanded their tours to include Barcelona. We had an excellent guide who walked us through the Gracia neighborhood and showed us some real gems.

Beach day at Barceloneta Beach- While other areas of Spain have far more beautiful beaches than those of Barcelona's, there's something to be said for an amazing city that is located on a nice beach. If you have the time, plan to spend part of an afternoon here and unwind.

Boqueria Market- Yes, this place is insanely touristy and crowded but it is fun to do a quick visit and grab one (or three) of their amazing juices. I preferred the Gracia market as it was more low-key and the selection was equally unrivaled.


Where to eat:



Quimet y quimet- Come here for a standing-room only bite to eat and drink. The place fills up extremely quickly and the hours can be a bit unpredictable so try to call ahead if you're not already in the neighborhood. The family behind the counter is jovial and helpful, even if you don't speak a word of Spanish or Catalan. Try the preserved foods or any of the sandwiches they have on offer. (Tip- if you're staying at the hostel mentioned above, this tapas bar is only a 2-minute walk away.)



Cal Pep- Go here if only so you can have the best white anchovies of your life and die happy.


Where to go out at night:




XiX bar- Just down from Plaza Espanya, this gin and tonic bar has a lengthy menu of gins and top-shelf tonics, with Fever Tree being among the latter. Along the bar, they have various bottles of infused gin (think peppercorns, cinnamon, and citrus peels) and on the back wall, you can find the more "pure" gins.



Los Juanele- Flamenco bar -This is an authentic hideaway in central Barcelona (we were the only non-Spaniards and also the only under-40 year olds). There is an unmarked door so don't be discouraged if you can't find the place on the first try. We sat at the bar and had the sweetest bartender all night. A jamon and cheese plate with gin-tonics was on the menu for us and he treated us to shots at the end of the night. It was so fun to see cute older Spanish couples dance flamenco the entire evening.



Opium- For a fun way to end the night dancing, this is one the mega clubs on Barceloneta beach. You can be sure the music will be good (one night, we got to see Sander Van Doorn) and if you're like us, you can cap it off with a 5am swim in the Mediterranean. (Just be sure that no enterprising pickpockets try to snag your belongings which almost happened to us!)



Bar Marsella- Supposedly one of the city's oldest hangouts, this timeless absinthe bar is a real treat. (We stopped here as part of my hostel's pub crawl.) Try to play a game of "concentration" with the elderly bartender- you won't win.


 

Montjuic Fountains/Park- Take a bottle of cava and enjoy it on the steps above the fountain or in the park with a view at sunset. The night we were there, we got to see a group of Spanish folks squaredancing. My Texas travel buddies joined right in.


Barcelona- we will be back!!!!

1.18.2016

"Eat With" in Rome- Dining with Locals

video

There's an "airbnb" for everything these days and I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. Connecting with locals while traveling adds so much more to the experience and "Eat With" (an online platform and community that connects travelers with locals who like to cook) is no exception. While in Rome last July, we were fortunate to attend Giovanna's "Roman Dinner" on her beautiful rooftop terrace in the Prati neighborhood near the Vatican. We were a group of four travelers and there was a solo German traveler who attended as well. Giovanna's boyfriend and friend (and her turtle!) rounded out the guests. The meal was delicious from start to finish and the dishes she chose to make were perfect for the very hot weather we'd been having, even by Rome standards. Many of the dishes were family recipes passed down to her and incorporated vegetables and herbs that she grew on her terrace. She was the quintessential Italian host and even brought out some delicious cheese and meats when one of the people in our group revealed he didn't like veal. While Giovanna is a museum educator by day, it's clear that her passion for cooking does not take the backseat. In addition to the many "Eat With" dinners she hosts regularly, she also writes a food blog documenting her recipes. 

Eat With is expanding to many countries but their biggest base is in Israel, Spain, and Italy, so if any of those destinations is on your list, I highly recommend signing up for a dinner.


 Grilled eggplant
 Potatoes with rosemary from her roof garden 
 Vegetable lasagne with tomatoes from her roofgarden
Veal saltimbocca and a simple salad with delicious lettuce from--you guessed it--her roof garden


A delicious zabaglione, her grandmother's recipe, which she kindly handwrote for the German guest
 A lovely evening!


11.11.2015

Budget-friendly hotel in Bruges: Hotel Fevery

This hotel is awesome and just off the beaten path in Bruges.  Paul, the owner, is super friendly in a reserved, endearing, European way.  The breakfasts are tasty and served in a cozy room.  The hotel is "green" so the water pressure isn't great, but that's what you should expect in an ecohotel.  Apart from the service, the best part about this hotel is the price.  We got a 2-room suite (with a shared bathroom) for 250 euros (the two-night total!)  I'm sure it's higher in the summer, but this was my second trip to Bruges in March and winter is a magical time to visit Bruges.

Also, there is a direct bus you can take here from the Bruges train station.  It is a short walk from the bus stop and a lot cheaper than a taxi.



11.08.2015

Food Tour and Underground Tour in Naples, Italy


I've written about my positive experiences with foods tours here and here. When I was in Naples, Italy, I was hopeful to find something of similar caliber. There was not as much choice or competition as I found in other European cities, but I eventually settled on "Eat in Italy Food Tours". My guide, Simone, met me in the waterfront district of Chiaia, which was where our tour would take place. As it was last-minute, I ended up being the only person on the tour and overall, it was enjoyable. The culinary highlight was a visit to a restaurant for eggplant parmesan. While the caprese salad left a bit to be desired (the tomatoes were unripe), the eggplant parmesan was everything I love about the dish- it was meaty and the slow-cooked sauce had a very mellow flavor.
A historic coffee shop displaying coffee makers from various eras!
A walk in a garden

Wine tasting of Campanian wines
A simple but tasty pasta
The tour culminated in a visit to the "Naples Underground" or Napoli Sottterranea which provided a respite from the sticky summer heat. Deep under the chaotic bustle of the city lies an extensive underground "city" of tunnels and rooms built from volcanic rock and ash, also known as tufo. It has existed since Neapolis was founded by the Greeks around 470 B.C. Over time, it was used for various purposes including underground aqueducts, Christian burial grounds, garbage dumps, and finally as a bomb shelter in World War II.

Disclosure: this is not for the claustrophobic. Some of the tunnels we went through were extremely narrow. (It is similar to the Catacombs of Appian Way, if not more narrow.)

A chilling scene of a room frozen in time from WWII, including a child's rocking horse.

This underground city represented everything I loved about Naples, particularly the immense history that included both optimistic and very dark periods of history. I can't recommend this tour enough.