Saturday, June 29, 2013

Quick & Nerdy - Surabaya

Thanks go out to Meanwhile to Thailand for this Quick & Nerdy! 

Mount Bromo (Surabaya):
·       Mount Bromo is only one of the three or four main draws here, but it serves as the gateway to Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park, a spectacular sight where an ancient Hindu temple stands in the ashen wasteland of volcanic remains.
·       Mount Bromo is an active volcano - only the crater remains. You can climb up to the top and look down into the smoking caldera.
·       Beyond Bromo, the volcanic mountain range can appear so desolate as to seem almost as if it stands above the moon. 
·       Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park is about three hours’ drive away from the main city of Sarabaya, though there are various other ways to reach the park, this is probably the easiest.
·       Surabaya, the third largest city in Indonesia, is nothing spectacular, but it is home to the (alleged) largest red light district in the world, if that is your thing.


·       The sun rise from Mt. Penanjakan – you have to get up early and walk up a mountain in the dark, but it’s what everyone comes here for. Arrange for a jeep to take you here and see the stars before the sun rises spectacularly over the smoky mountains.

·       Mt. Semeru – you can only climb if it you apply for a special visa, but just watch it in the distance and it may reward you with one of its frequent (almost daily) eruptions.
·       Mt. Bromo – after the sunrise, you can be taken down onto the Sea of Sand, to walk around the Hindu temple and up the steep sides of the ashy mountain.
·       The Poten – in front of Bromo and sitting on the wasted sea of sand, this Hindu temple is important in Hindu mythology in Indonesia.

Get Around:

·       To get here, you’ll probably need to hire a car (with driver) or take the bus if you are feeling up to that particular challenge. Once here, arrange for transport with one of the many jeep drivers at your hotel.


·       The Bromo area can become something of a ghost town during the day as most guests come to stay late in the evening, wake up early to see the sunrise, explore the area and then leave again. This can make buying water or finding something to eat a little more difficult than you’d expect. So if you plan to stay more than a day, bring snacks and supplies.
a rugged JKS
·       It gets pretty cold on the mountain in the dark, and just as quickly gets hot again as soon as the sun comes up.
·       Be warned that whatever shoes and clothes you wear will be so dusty you will consider throwing them away.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Hometown Adventures - Conrad Chicago

Chicago has a ton of great hotels, and there's always a new trendy place opening with a rooftop  or other popular attraction. Chicago's Conrad hotel has turned into my favorite hotel over the past couple years. 

Having stayed here and visited family members at the hotel as well, I have to say the service and rooms are always top notch. The Conrad offers a premium location as you are literally inside the Nordstrom mall! In spite of the busy location, the hotel is peaceful and quiet which offers a private escape from the noises of Michigan Avenue. The Conrad also has a rooftop terrace, and between May-September the hotel screens movies each Sunday night free of charge. 

Each time we stay an upgrade seems to be given to us! The bathrooms are impeccable with tubs and showers with lovely scented bath products. Each time at the Conrad I find myself indulging the room service option as well. Whether it's late night dessert with a warm toasted cookie, or french press and a yogurt parfait for breakfast, I am always greeted by the staff with a personal greeting and a smile. I feel so tucked away and secure at this hotel that there really is no reason to stay anywhere else. 

Find me:

521 North Rush Street, at Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Travel Photo of the week - The Great Barrier Reef

Whenever someone tells me to go to my happy place, (usually at the dentist or when anxiety is present) I picture this. In my bikini, sun shining, and floating on a foam noodle in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef in Cairns, Australia. It’s one of those life doesn’t get much better than this moments. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Hotel Review - The Royal Palm Beach Front Phuket

Not so clean hotel rooms or even a rock-hard bed can be forgiven. But terrible service and getting scammed out of money are deal breakers. There were several times in Thailand where I felt like I was being scammed and being a farang never helped. My experience at The Royal Palm Beach Front in Phuket was probably one of my worst hotel experiences in Thailand. It was so bad I didn't even end up staying there, and while nothing terrible happened to anyone in my group, losing money is probably one of the most frustrating things to happen to a backpacker on a limited budget.

After a 12 hour travel day and finally landing in Phuket, we were ready to settle into our pre-booked room for 3 at the Royal Palm Beach Front. Upon checking in we were told there would be a 800 baht (about $25) additional fee for having three people. This is standard in Thailand I learned - always investigate this when booking a hotel. For a room that cost about $35, paying nearly double for an additional person was an outrageous charge. We had booked a room with a full bed and a twin bed in advance for three people. I don't know why such a room would exist if not for two people to share a bed and the other bed for one person. To make things worse when we arrived at 11pm, our room was still not ready!
Don't be fooled by pictures online! The hotel did not look like this.
The front desk employee told us a different room was going to be provided for us and we requested to look at it first. The room had two twin beds and we were told a third bed would be moved in. However, there was absolutely no way a third bed could be shoved in this tiny room. We said no, and wanted the room we originally booked. After sitting down again in the lobby they said it still wasn't ready and the room with two beds was available. We asked to get the third person charge waived. After not getting a clear answer they said now the AC was broken. At this point it was almost midnight and we wanted our money back. We tried to settle things with Agoda (the booking site we used) online, but the Internet in the lobby wasn't working. Oh, there wasn't Internet available in the rooms either.

To top things off, there were stray dogs walking through the lobby throughout all of this. The service was incredibly rude and we are still trying to get our money back. Do not stay here-- there are so many other options available in the area.  Don't waste your time.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Dream Destination – First class on Emirates Airlines

Ok, I know flying first class on Emirates Airlines isn’t exactly a dream destination, but it’s a dream travel experience. How about that? Emirates’ is based in Dubai, which is definitely a place I’d like to visit, but for now I’ll focus on the incredible first class experience Emirates offers.

Emirates was the first airline I heard about to offer a shower on board. That’s right, a shower! Airplane bathrooms are usually disgusting, and I generally hold my breath and spend as little time as possible inside of one. Emirates offers a true spa experience, with marble countertops and five minutes of warm water in the shower! 

Additionally, each passenger has his or her own suite onboard the flight. Traveling with someone? Don’t fret; a divider pulls up or down depending on how chatty you’re feeling. The suite has a seat that folds into a fully pulled out bed, and of course there is an entertainment center and private mini-bar.

Speaking of bar, first class also has a lounge on board. This lounge is great for socializing or just stretching your legs and sampling the wine list. I’m so used to sipping on my cheap red wine and reclining my seat back a few centimeters, that the idea of a lounge on board is so foreign to me. The cuisine available in first class is top of the line. I don’t think they serve any of the rubbery noodles or grey mystery meat I’m used to in coach!

I was even considering applying to be a flight attendant with Emirates several years ago, so clearly I’m a bit fascinated with this airline! Until then, I’ll settle for flying coach as I’m usually too excited to even care that I’m crammed next to two strangers for the next 10 hours. One of these days I’ll fly first class on Emirates and enjoy every five minutes of that on board shower! 

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Quick and Nerdy - Krabi (Ao Nang)

A big thank you to Meanwhile in Thailand for this post!

Krabi (Ao Nang):
·       Less well known than Phuket or Ko Phangnan, Krabi is only a two hour drive and a four hour ferry ride away from Phuket.
·       Krabi is also famous for its high beachside cliffs, but nearby Rai Lei offers even more of Thailand’s best cliffs and climbing.
·       Smaller, less crowded and more relaxed than Phuket, Krabi offers similar beaches and island getaways at a more reasonable, less personally taxing price.
·       Krabi has an international airport and flights from AirAsia, so it’s a cheap and easy getaway from the craziness of Phuket and Bangkok.


·       Ao Nang Beach – the main beach area offers nice views of the nearby cliffs and a relaxed beach feel. You can still get a massage, a shell necklace or some spring rolls, but you might have to ask, instead of being endlessly offered.
·       Rai Lei – nearby Rai Lei beach is available by boat and offers the best cliffs and climbing in the country.
·       Monkey Trail – just at the end of the beach and over the stream, this wooden walkway connects the main Ao Nang with a private resort beach. You can use the beach, you just have to sign in and out and promise not to enter the hotel areas. The trail is well named, do not be surprised if you see large numbers of monkeys surrounding you. They might be harmless, I don’t know.
·       Kayaking – the amount of cliffs and islands make Krabi great for Kayaking and there are a number of tourist agencies offering tours. It costs 500 to 1000 baht, depending on how long you want to go for but it can offer a magnificent view of the cliffs, along with some much needed exercise.

Get Around:

·       Ao Nang is small enough that the main area is walkable. You can rent scooters here, of course, and tuk tuks are ever-present. A cab to the airport is about thirty minutes and will cost about 500 baht, so be aware, and it may be best to arrange for one through one of the many travel agencies located in the main areas.


·       The one lackluster thing about Krabi is the food options. Not that much different than most of the rest of Thailand, Krabi’s options of warmed over Thai, Italian and American favorites are less than inspiring.
·       The night life is much more subdued here, even though it is still present, especially in high season.
Be aware, Krabi is also the name of the province, and actual Krabi city is not located on the beach, nor is it a resort.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Hometown Adventures - Farmhouse Chicago

I feel like I constantly hear about a restaurant that is “farm to table” and or use only the “freshest/most local ingredients” and then I’m greatly disappointed by just another average meal. This was not the case at Farmhouse Chicago. After a string of lousy meals the past couple weeks, I was blown away by Farmhouse.

My Dad and I were meeting up for dinner, and I wanted a place that wasn’t just typical bar food, and also wasn’t fine dining. I know my Dad loves a killer beer list, and he’s been known on several occasions to ask the waiter for the hoppiest beer on tap. After having drinks at Farmhouse one night with a girlfriend, I knew the beer list would impress him, but wasn’t sure if the food would hold up.

Farmhouse is a two-story restaurant, and we were seated in a quiet booth upstairs. Downstairs is perfect for drinking at the bar or for louder groups, while upstairs tends to be more for couples. Right away my Dad grabbed the beer menu to scope out the 28 (!) beers on tap. Farmhouse features a wide selection of beers from the Midwest, including some Chicago breweries. As an IPA fan, my Dad enjoyed three of Farmhouse’s local IPA’s, while I stuck with Revolution’s Rosa brewed with hibiscus. You can’t go wrong with drinks at Revolution, and non-beer drinkers will enjoy craft cocktails or wine, and all the sodas are made in house.

The food menu offers much more than burgers and fries. Grass fed steak, homemade soups and a variety of fish are just some highlights. I ordered the trout served with quinoa and a carrot purée. The fish was served whole and I can honestly say I cleaned my plate. The fish was perfectly cooked, and I welcomed the healthy sides. My Dad commented that his pork chop was cooked better than he could have done at home – that is a huge compliment!

Farmhouse is more expensive than a neighborhood bar, with entrees starting at around $20, but I felt a whole heck of a lot better than had I grabbed a greasy burger somewhere else. Eating at Farmhouse made me proud to be from the Midwest with such great ingredients being shown off. I will gladly return to this restaurant and would encourage all my readers to do the same.

Find me:
228 W Chicago Ave, Chicago, IL 60654

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Subletting your Apartment

For many years I used the excuse of being stuck in an apartment lease to not go abroad for an extended period of time. This was of course, just an excuse, as subletting is almost always an option. I was incredibly nervous about subletting my one-bedroom apartment, but at the same time I wanted to go abroad badly enough that I was willing to take the risk. Subletting turned out to be the biggest headache I had to deal with prior to my big move, and I was filling out paperwork up until the day I boarded my flight. Here are some tips for those of you looking to sublet:

·     Find out from your building’s management or your landlord what the process is for subletting your apartment. I didn’t realize my building was incredibly strict and required several “administrative fees” and “move in fees” that really added up. Always get something in writing from your landlord so there aren’t any surprises.
·     Use Craigslist carefully and patiently. My friend bailed out at the last second, causing me to resort to posting my apartment on Craigslist. Many people responding to my ad wanted some kind of deal on rent, blatantly ignored the fact that pets weren’t allowed or wanted to dramatically change the décor of my apartment during their stay. I showed my apartment to probably 10 different people before finding a good match. Ask pertinent questions to the individual prior to inviting them to see your space, Google them and have a friend nearby in case he/she ends up being a total creep.
·     Post your ad daily. I can’t stress the importance of this. Cragislist requires you to change up the text a bit; otherwise the site will reject your duplicate post. Use a catchy title, and include specifics in your ad (rent, credit check, appliances, building amenities, cable/internet, etc.)
·     Always take clear photos of your space. Clean the bathroom before snapping a photo and don’t have dirty dishes in the kitchen sink!
·     Have a system in place to ensure your rent gets paid while you’re gone. My building required a credit check and made the person put his name on the lease, which was a hassle at the time, but it saved me the worry of unexpected bills. Hold a deposit is another option.  
·     Take any valuables out of your apartment when you leave. I stored my jewelry at my brother’s apartment, and took my laptop with me. If you’ll be heartbroken over a stain on your couch or any of your dishware getting broken – subletting your apartment probably isn’t a good idea!
·     Keep in touch with your subletter and make your home inviting for when he/she arrives. Chances are they are a bit nervous about living in someone else’s home just like you may be wary about having them there! I left my place spotless, wrote my subletter a nice note with important building information, plus a box of cookies! As a result, I came back to a spotless apartment and a fridge full of beer!

Have any additional questions about subletting? Drop me an email! 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Travel Photo of the Week

This photo was taken inside of Phraya Nakhon Cave at Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park in the Prachuap Khiri Khan Province in Thailand. That was a mouthful! After seeing a picture of this shrine in the bottom of a cave with the light shining down, I knew I had to see it for myself. It just looks like something out of a movie! Getting to this National Park was quite the adventure, and I’m sure I’ll share the story in another post. For those readers interested in visiting, take a van from Hua Hin for the easiest commute. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Before You Leave For a Trip

There are many things on my do-list before leaving for an extended trip. From finances, forwarding my mail and packing my prescriptions, it’s important to get everything taken care of so I can relax and finally enjoy my vacation. Here are some tips for last minute trip preparation.
  • Call your credit card companies. Before any international travel it’s essential to call your credit card company and let them know all the countries you will be visiting. There’s nothing worse than having your credit card decline while traveling abroad, and suddenly be out of funds.
  • Always bring extras of your prescriptions and travel with them in a carryon or handbag. If there’s a prescription that is essential to your health, consider putting one supply in your suitcase and another in your carryon in case of theft.
  • A pile of unopened mail is a dead giveaway that you aren’t home. Depending on how long you will be traveling, there are several different options. Arrange for a friend to collect your mail, stop mail for the duration of your trip, or forward mail to another address if your trip is several months in length.
  • Accidents can and do happen while traveling. It’s best to read through your insurance plan and find out what your options are if you need coverage while traveling out of state or internationally. Learn what the steps are for submitting a claim before you are in a state of panic.
  • Figure out what (if any) adapter or voltage converter is necessary for various chargers. You can bet I’ve blown a fuse in a hotel room before from a hairdryer I mistakenly plugged right into the wall. Save yourself the embarrassment and buy a universal adapter  for all your gadgets. 
By utilizing these few short tips, you can save yourself the headache of being unprepared while traveling. What are some other things to consider before leaving for a trip? 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Dream Destination - Red Rocks Amphitheater

It's been a long time since I've seen a good concert. There's something so magical about seeing one of your favorite acts live, and singing along to all their songs and feeling that ache in your legs the next morning from standing so long. Seeing one of these sets outside in good weather with an awesome view? That's what I'm talking about. Chicago has great options for outdoor music, but I want to visit Colorado's Red Rocks Amphitheater. 

There are amazing acoustics, and Red Rocks has been voted the best outdoor music venue over and over again. I recently watched a Mumford and Sons concert DVD at Red Rocks and thought just how cool this place looked. I can just imagine how good it would feel to totally lose myself in the music with the stunning scenery behind me.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Quick and Nerdy - Kuala Lumpur

Thanks again Meanwhile in Thailand for your weekly contribution! 

Kuala Lumpur:
·       Kuala Lumpur might the largest and most important city in Southeast Asia.
·       KL is a mix of developed, with high-speed trains, a state of the art airport and a modern downtown, and undeveloped, as the rest of the city struggles to catch up.
·       KL is short on must-sees other than the famous Petronas Towers, its purpose as a transport hub makes it almost impossible to see much of Southeast Asia without ending up here at some point. So try and enjoy it, I guess.
·       Another place famous for shopping and street food, the Muslim influence here makes KL at least unique in terms of its architecture. 


·       Petronas Towers – home to the State owned oil company, the opulent towers stand at the heart of the downtown and were once the tallest buildings in the world (briefly, and sort of technically). Book your trip to the top online and in advance, as it does fill up.
weather was not on our side!
·       KL Tower – A revolving restaurant, the KL Tower offers similar views of the city as the Petronas Towers only at a cheaper price and shorter wait.
KL Tower
view from the revolving restaurant - with a storm looming
·       Batu Caves – located a short train ride to the north of the city, the Batu Caves house a giant gold plated statue of Shiva. Behind the statue is a long climb up a wet, monkey covered stair case into the caves which house a small, unspectacular Hindu temple. Worth the ride and free admission, be aware you will probably feel like a shower afterwards based upon all the monkeys, pigeons and dripping water.
entrance to the Batu Caves
JKS spotted in red climbing the slippery steps
  Chinatown – dirty and crowded, Chinatown offers the real thing here. A central market is there for all your souvenir needs, as well as cheap, low quality food.


Get Around:

·       Kuala Lumpur has an extremely confusing set of trains that are unintegrated, meaning each line runs separately and as far as I can tell, tickets must be purchased separately. It is no one’s idea of easy, but they are fast and will get you over most of the city at the cost of some stress.
·       Downtown offers a great, free tourist bus that even has Wi-Fi. One of the best ways to get around downtown.
·       Additionally, KL has its fair share of taxis, but they can be a little pricey. You can rent a car, too, if you don’t mind the traffic.


·       KL is big and getting bigger. It can seem the most and least modern city in a matter of a few minutes.
·       Unless you love shopping, don’t plan on spending too much time here. Get out to the islands or beaches, or off to somewhere else.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Hometown Adventures - Hash House a Go Go

I think this is the restaurant to blame for America’s obesity problem. Humongous portions and rich dishes are just some of the specialties at this chain. I stopped in here last weekend with my brother after both of us were getting hangry and couldn’t make up our minds about where to eat.

Hash House a Go Go’s (ok, getting really tired of typing that) menu focuses on twisted farm food, or at least that’s what my waiter told me. The ingredients are fresh and the menu is full of classic recipes with an updated twist. Hash House a Go Go has been on many television shows including Man v. Food and The Martha Stewart Show, so I predict this chain is here to stay in my neighborhood.

I am probably the worst person to review a restaurant like this considering I don’t like brunch food, I hate enormous portions and would rather pay less for less food and prefer to keep a healthy diet. I scoured the extensive menu and went with The Basic – Two eggs, potatoes, fruit, a choice of ham and a biscuit for $7.95. After I ordered The Basic, the waiter questioned my choice. He tried to encourage me to order the Chicken and Waffles, which I politely declined. I could have easily cooked this meal in my own kitchen, but I happily ate the leftovers the next two days.  
The Basic - I clearly took a chunk out of that ham!
My brother is a heartier eater and went for the Fresh roasted chicken salad sandwich, which was a monstrosity of a sandwich. Definitely not for the carb conscious! Overall, Hash House a Go Go is a trendy chain with enough booze flowing to keep the brunch regulars coming back, decent prices and no chance of leaving hungry.
chicken salad

Find me:
1212 N State Pkwy, Chicago, IL 60610

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Chicago Fog

On Monday night, I realized I couldn't see out of my fourth floor apartment windows at all. I headed up to the roof on the 20th floor and found myself surrounded by fog.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Travel Photo of the Week - Anne Frank House

One of favorite books is The Diary of Anne Frank and I have always been a bit fascinated about her life. I remember reading her diary in 6th grade, then again when I was in college and several times since then. I always wanted to visit the Anne Frank House and felt extremely blessed to have the opportunity to go to Amsterdam and pay a visit to this incredible museum with a story. This photo was taken outside, as photography is not allowed inside. My skin was covered in goose bumps as I climbed the rickety stairs up to the Secret Annex where Anne and her family hid. While all the furniture has been removed, the pictures in Anne’s room remain and it was heartbreaking to see what a creative and beautiful girl she was. I highly recommend anyone going to Amsterdam to pay a visit to the Anne Frank House. 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Library Hotel, Koh Samui

When I visited the island of Koh Samui in Thailand several years ago, I heard about a nearby hotel with a pool that resembled a blood bath. I was intrigued right away. Located right on Chaweng Beach, the Library Hotel Koh Samui is modern and stylish. The Library Hotel is the kind of place where once you check in, there’s really no reason to leave the premises.

On the hotel grounds are a restaurant, fitness facilities and a library. The rooms are simple and elegant with white décor that makes me want to move in immediately.

The hotel’s tagline Real happiness is not complicated at all is something I should probably write on the wall above my desk and tattoo all over my body. I often struggle with over thinking and overcomplicating my life and I just love how perfectly simply that line is.

Of course this hotel comes at more of a hefty price tag than the guesthouse I stayed in while touring Koh Samui, but I know one of these days I will return and go for a dip in the famous red pool.

Find me: 
14/1 Moo 2, Chaweng Beach,  Bo Phut, Surat Thani 84320, Thailand

Monday, June 10, 2013

Hotel Review – Erlebnishotel Jailhotel Loewengraben

If the name didn’t give it away already, this 66-room hotel in Lucerne, Switzerland was once a jail. The Jailhotel served as Lucerne’s main prison until 1998 (!) and was built in 1862.  Located just 5 minutes from the railway station, the Jailhotel is in a prime location for shopping and nightlife.  

love the windows! 
Luckily, this hotel has its own nightclub on the first floor that spins music until the wee hours of the night. Switzerland is extremely expensive, so expect to pay $10-$15 for drinks and exchange your money in advance.

it's not for everyone - but I loved the hallways!

the exterior
Don’t stay here expecting luxury, but do expect a unique hotel experience. Little has been done to make the hotel look less like a jail, but that’s exactly what I liked about it. The hallways are dark, the rooms are cold and damp with rock-hard beds and the stairs are extremely steep. In spite of all this, the rooms are clean, wifi is included and there’s free continental breakfast! There aren’t room keys either, rather a unique code that you type in to enter the room. If you plan on frequenting the nightclub, write the code down and put it in your pocket so you aren’t stuck sleeping in the hallway.
the room doors
my room
Find me:

Loewengraben 18, Lucerne 6004, Switzerland