For Dan’s birthday trip to Puerto Rico, his one wish was to head to Juncos, Puerto Rico for lunch at Bacoa Finca + Fogón! While it was almost an hour away from our hotel and I had never heard of the restaurant, we booked a car and made reservations weeks in advance for a Sunday morning lunch! And good thing I made the reservation, because Bacoa Finca + Fogón is really popular.
Dan and I really enjoy our food and drink, and we think that Puerto Rico has some of the best in the United States! I’ve compiled a list of some of our old and new favorites – be sure to check them our if you find yourself in lovely Puerto Rico!
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO EATS
Jose Enrique is certainly my and Dan’s absolute favorite restaurant in San Juan. I wrote about it at length here. I won’t rehash my entire post, but Jose Enrique is an excellent restaurant with upscale, delicious Puerto Rican dishes in the Condado area. Make a reservation in advance. Don’t miss it. You will thank me.
El Jabrito is a classic Puerto Rican restaurant in Old San Juan. If you read guide books, El Jabrito will likely come up. Nothing super fancy or expensive, just quality, local food. You will find tourists and locals here lining up for dinner (as there are no reservations). We’ve visited a couple times, most recently in April 2021, and will return. Definitely go with a Puerto Rican dish, and don’t forget the pitcher of sangria!
New year, new vacation bank! Yes, it’s that time of year again. Time to plan your 2022 getaways and vacations. Last Spring, me, Dan, and Dan’s sister took a five day trip down to Isla Verde, Puerto Rico to celebrate Dan’s birthday! The trip was easy, fun, and the perfect few days away from New York City. If you are planning a similar trip this year (which you should!), here’s a summary of our lovely trip.
Isla Verde, Puerto Rico is a gorgeous strip of beach located just outside of San Juan, Puerto Rico in Carolina. While technically in Carolina, Isla Verde is extremely close to San Juan and nearly borders San Juan’s international airport. For this reason, Isla Verde often lumped into San Juan vacation speak, often referred to as the best beaches in the San Juan area. I cannot vouch for the validity of this statement, but Isla Verde is gorgeous, much more so than the Condado area if you are looking for beaches. And beaches were exactly why we decided to stay in Isla Verde. Aside from beaches, Isla Verde has numerous restaurants and tourist activities, but we ventured into San Juan for most of our non-beach activities.
Happy New Year to readers of this blog! I wish everyone a happy and healthy 2022 filled with travels near and far! I am starting this year’s blogging by sharing one of Dan and my favorite restaurants in the World – Jose Enrique in sunny San Juan, Puerto Rico!
Dan and I keep a running list of all of our favorite restaurants around the World, and Jose Enrique in San Juan, Puerto Rico always makes the list! Introduced to us by one of Dan’s college friends, we first dined at Jose Enrique in 2013. Still raving eight years later, Jose Enrique was just as good as we imagined, albeit in a new location! Now in swanky Condado, Jose Enrique is located in a somewhat unimpressive looking building without a sign (a carry over from before). Inside is pretty casual, with a few paintings scattered around.
When I was in Polignano a Mare earlier this year, I spent the better part of a day exploring Puglia’s largest city, Bari! I had always heard that Bari is a run-down and dangerous city but to my surprise, it was not at all! Bari is an adorable old school Italian city with lots of character and charm. I would absolutely spend a few nights here on another trip! Since we didn’t have much time in Bari, here are some photographs from our afternoon. I’ll link the places we visited below!
STEAL OUR TRIP
Veloservice Tours and Rentals: Strada Vallisa, 81, 70122 Bari BA, Italy. We booked the street food tour, which, unfortunately, turned into a combination walking tour and cooking course. The tour was very disjointed and not what we expected (or booked) at all. Book with caution.
Gentile: Piazza Federico II di Svevia, 33, 70122 Bari BA, Italy. Open daily from 11:00 – 1:00. The gelato shop we visited – delicious! There is also a location in Brooklyn – 253 Wythe Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11249.
Le Sagagliozze: Largo Albicocca, 70122 Bari BA, Italy. Closed Monday. Open other days until 22h.
Trenitalia: Italian local train service. You don’t need to pre-book your tickets but if traveling from Polignano a Mare like us, check the schedule because there are some quick trains and others that take about an hour. Downloading the Trenitlian app is very helpful.
Acro Basso: The famous street for the pasta making! You can buy from the ladies, but you can only bring it back to the US if its dried (i.e. not fresh).
ON A BUDGET
We took the train to and from Polignano a Mare for only a few euros each way. Our afternoon in Bari could be easily recreated on your own by just walking around the old town (15 walk from Bari’s train station).
Matera. The name sounds like a place you should know, but you just don’t. Well surprise, surprise, Matera is Italy’s newest, hottest tourist destination. Thanks to being named a European Capital of Culture in 2019, Matera is on the travel radar, but, at least for now, still retains lots of Italian character and charm! Dan and I spent too few days here in September 2019. This is our trip report for those planning a similar trip!
As promised in my recent review of Alberobello, I had lunch at an excellent restaurant recommended by our Puglitaly guide: L’Aratro. L’Aratro means “the plow” in English, and that is is an appropriate name for this essentially “farm to table” restaurant. To wit, L’Aratro is part of the Slow Italy movement and it sources almost all of its menu items from the local area, and certainly from within Puglia. Look for local delicacies highlighted on the menu!
Located on one of Alberobello’s main tourist streets, L’Aratro is located inside a beautifully decorated trullo, with both indoor and outdoor seating. Its not uncommon to see the main chef hanging around outside the restaurant in his signature brightly colored chef pants! We sat in L’Aratro’s open air courtyard overlooking a few trulli domes. The views from the courtyard are not fantastic, but certainly good enough. The interior, however, is beautiful. I would have sat inside were it not for COVID-19.
You’re probably familiar with Alberobello in Puglia, Italy, even if you don’t know its name. Alberobello is the Southern Italian town filled with trulli (trullo, singular) houses, or those small white stone houses with domed roof tops that seem to be straight out of fairy tale. Its a super cute town, but also very , very touristy, even during the light travel summer of 2021. Here is how my husband and I spent a day in Alberobello if you are planning your own trip!
TOP TIPS: Arrive early, bring cash, dress in layers, wear walking shoes, and be sure to see inside a trullo by visiting the shops or restaurants.
SOME CONS: Super duper touristy, hilly with cobblestones making walking somewhat difficult, not as many people as we expected spoke English (this may be a positive!)
If you have any form of social media, you have probably seen the gorgeous cliffside restaurant in Polignano a Mare, Grotta Palazzese. Yes, the one light up in blue with white tables perched on a sharp cliff above the Adriatic (or maybe Ionian) sea. The location is truly stunning.
Most blog readers probably know that Dan and I love to travel and particularly enjoy wine travel. Our two favorite wine grapes are big reds: Tannat, which we went all the way to Uruguay to drink a few years ago, and Sagrantino, a grape from the land surrounding the Umbrian town of Montefalco. Hence, we decided to start our [first] 2021 Italian adventure in Montefalco precisely to drink Montefalco’s wines! And they were fantastic. We left with no less than 3 cases…and this was our first stop. Whoopsie.
Dan and I spent a weekend in Montefalco in September 2021 for the sole purpose of drinking its magical Sagrantino wine. We took a wine tour with Gusto Wines so that we could drink alllll the wine, and our tour guide recommended a dinner at Trattoria “il postaccio.” We took him up on his recommendation, as he lives in the area and had excellent taste on the wine tour. This ended up being one of the best pieces of advice of the entire trip!
Dan and I were super excited to return to Rome in September, because (1) we LOVE Rome and (2) we LOVE to eat all of the delicious Roman food! As such, I plan our Roman meals meticulously, especially on short trips, like our recent one. We had one lunch spot open and Dan, unexpectedly, suggested a causal restaurant in Trastevere called Caramella. We ate there on our last trip to Rome and apparently, Dan liked it a lot more than I remember. Done, added to the list.
Dan and I spent a magical 40 hours in Rome to finish our Italy trip in September 2021, which is definitely NOT enough time to properly see Rome. However, we were only in Rome because our flight departed from Rome’s FCO and we will be back in Rome with our whole family in November. This was just a little taster of Roman goodness! While not the most popular Italian tourist destination (wrongfully so IMO), Dan and I spent a summer in Rome back in 2008 (yes, we’re that old) and have looooved Rome ever since. So this 40 hours was a real treat for us! Here’s what we did if you have your own 40 hours to explore Rome if you like to eat, drink, and shop.
After our planned Puglia trip last summer was COVID-cancelled, we rescheduled to this September! While we originally planned to explore a bit more of Puglia, we ended up adding Umbria to the trip (highly recommended!) and based our time in posh Polignano a Mare. This article tells what we did, where we ate, and where we stayed or those planning a similar trip to Polignano a Mare!
POLIGNANO A MARE
Polignano a Mare is a small, yet swanky, Italian beach town in Northern Puglia, located 45 minutes south of Bari by car on the intersection of the Adriatic and Ionian coasts, directly across from southern Croatia and Montenegro. While in Northern Puglia, Polignano a Mare is firmly in southern Italy, and as such, stays warmer and summery much longer than its northern counterparts. Reachable by its tiny train station or car, Polignano a Mare is definitely on the Italian-tourist’s radar, but I didn’t find it quite as touristy as some more popular destinations, such as Amalfi or Cinque Terre (at least not yet…). Dan and I spent 3 nights and 4 days in Polignano a Mare and we thought this was the perfect amount of time to see Polignano a Mare and explore a bit of Puglia.
We choose to stay in Polignano a Mare because it just looked so cute in the pictures! We were happy with our decision: Polignano a Mare was easy enough to reach, close to some places we wanted to day trip, such as Bari and Alberobello, and had lots of restaurants and shops. On a return visit, however, we will probably visit another town; Polignano a Mare is more expensive than other towns in the area and its a bit more foreign-tourist heavy than its neighbors.
Italy, thankfully (!!), re-opened its borders to residents of the US in June 2019, and many of us Americans booked trips, including Dan and me! Ha, we actually booked two – in September and November. We just returned and had an amazing trip, but we were a bit stressed finding a COVID-19 test in Rome for our return flight to the US. Turns out, it was really easy! Here is the latest information as of September 20, 2021.
Telling people that Dan and I were traveling to Rhodes, we received a lot of feedback stating that it was too touristy, too crowded, and that we would find “meh” food, at least for Greece (where honestly, even some “meh” food is great!). So I made it my missing to pre-book some, what I thought would be excellent dinners. In researching good food in Rhodes Town, I came across Taverna Piatakia, and it was a fantastic find. Definitely good high-end food at a very reasonable price! And spoiler alert, Rhodes, especially Rhodes Town, is super touristy and you can certainly find a not-so-great meal that is over priced; I do recommend doing some researching in choosing dinner spots.
Dan and I found ourselves at Aljoun Castle earlier this year on a day trip from Amman. We had previously never heard of Aljoun Castle, but it was a super cool castle with well-preserved exterior that tourists can walk around around. We would never had visited it without the stop being included on our day trip. Here are some pictures and information if you want to include a stop at Aljoun on your own Jordan tour!
Amman is a large city, Jordan’s capital, and largely filled with picturesque white square buildings. It’s quite beautiful. But again, its large and it takes time to get from here to there, so I went back and forth on where to dine when we were in town! After much research, I found the BEST restaurant just a 10 minute walk from our hotel – Fakhreldine Restaurant & Cafe. In fact, it was so good we went back twice (rare for us)!! Please don’t miss this gem in Amman.
On our departure from Amman, Jordan, Dan and I had two airport lounge options though our Priority Pass: Royal Jordanian’s Crown Lounge or the unaffiliated Petra Lounge. After googling some other reviews, we started with the Crown Lounge and it was so nice that we never left to check out the Petra Lounge! The Crown Lounge was quite luxurious – definitely an upgrade from many Priority Pass lounges!
Dan and I spent an afternoon visiting the ancient city of Jerash (or rather, Gerasa) back in May on our trip to Jordan. It was a great experience and recommended! Here is some information on our visit.
WHAT IS “JERASH” A/K/A THE POMPEII OF THE EAST?
Jerash is now a modern city in Northern Jordan, a little less than 1 hour from Amman by car. While being its own city, Jerash is best known as the home of the ancient Greco-Roman city of Gerasa, which is known, at least amongst archaeologist and historians, to be one of the best preserved Greco-Roman cities in the world. Frequently referred to as the “Pompeii of the East” by those in the know (because its so well preserved, not because of any volcano eruptions), it’s definitely some of the best preserved ruins that I’ve seen worldwide. Modern-day Jerash is very much a tourist town, but ancient Gerasa enjoyed much success as a trading post and a favorite city of Roman Emperor Hadrian, before eventually falling out of favor and into ruin. Modern-day Jerash is now the perfect place to day trip from Amman.
Amman, located in the Northern part of Jordan, is its capital. A number of travel advice suggested that I skip Amman when visiting Jordan, and I am very glad that I didn’t listen! While perhaps less exciting than some of Jordan’s other heavy hitters (Petra, Dead Sea, Wadi Rum, etc.), Amman is a gorgeous city that is often referred to as the “white city” due to the many, many white homes filling its hills; very picturesque and photographic, especially in Spring with all its flowers in bloom. Also, a great entrance or end to Jordan! In addition to its gorgeous white structures, Jordan is a fairly modern city, especially for the Middle East, with lots of Instagrammable spots! We spent 3 nights and 2 days in Amman, with a half-day trip to Jerash. We thought this was a perfect amount of time, but you could definitely squeeze it into 1 day. Here are the highlights from our time Amman!
On our recent trip to Jordan, Dan and I spent some time in Aqaba (yes, we continuously called Agraba!), and Aqaba turned out to be my favorite stop on our trip through Jordan. Which is kind of crazy given that we almost skipped it. As luck would have it, our flight was moved back by more than 24 hours and we had some extra time in Jordan, so I slotted in Aqaba on a whim. I recommend others making time for Aqaba even if you only have 1 day!
Have you seen those luxury tented campsites set against red rocks that looks like Mars?! Well, that’s exactly where Dan and I stayed for two days on our vacation to Jordan! And, yes, they are just as magical and Instagrammable as pictures make the out to be!
Jordan opened to tourists post-pandemic in February 2021, and Dan and I promptly booked Emirates flights for the end of May in the hopes of visiting Petra sans tourists. And, we were successful! We visited Petra and only saw 12 other tourists! It was amazing. While tourism is definitely rebounding as the pandemic subsides, I still think there is time to visit Petra before the hoards of tourists return. We had a wonderful visit and literally everyone who has seen our pictures is like OMG that’s Jordan?! Go now. Don’t wait.
As you probably know, Dan and I went to Jordan last month for almost two weeks! Our trip was amazing, but the main point of it was, obviously, Petra!! Petra had just re-opened during our visit and we only saw 12 other tourists, which was crazy! I will be posting a full write up and guide on Tuesday, but here are some of our favorite pictures for your Friday viewing pleasure! Happy Weekend!!
When I heard that the site of Jesus’ baptism was only a 20 minute drive from where I was staying in the Dead Sea, I decided that I needed to see it, despite not being religious (I did grow up Christian). We arranged for our excellent driver to take us to the Baptism site before driving the few hours south to Petra. Since it’s close to the Dead Sea, the baptism site can be visited as day trip from either the Dead Sea or Amman. The entire visit takes about 2 – 2.5 hours, depending on how long you need to wait for the next tour. And, for those looking for information, the site is actually called Bethany Beyond The Jordan. There are signs on the highway leading up to it.
Jordan, a small country in the Middle East existing between Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia (!), recently reopened for travel, and Dan and I spent almost two weeks in Jordan in May 2021 right when it opened up post-COVID lockdown! While I will write more about our trip as a whole, we started our trip with a weekend on the Dead Sea, which was lovely and a great way to start a trip! And yes, while visiting the Dead Sea from Israel is well-known, you can also visit the Dead Sea from Jordan!
WHAT IS THE DEAD SEA
The Dead Sea is actually a salt lake – not a proper Sea – sandwiched between Jordan and Israel and the West Bank. The Dead Sea is in the Jordan Rift Valley and its main tributary is the Jordan River, of biblical fame. The Dead Sea is called the Dead Sea because of its salinity (i.e. saltiness); it’s so salty that nothing can live in the Dead Sea for any extended period of time.
After a somewhat disappointing visit to the new American Express Centurion Lounge at JFK two weeks ago, Dan and I made our way to JFK’s Emirates Lounge for a proper breakfast and drinks before departing on Emirates’ morning flight to Dubai. Spoiler alert, the Emirates Lounge was great and service was fantastic. We both prefer this lounge to the new American Express Centurion Lounge.
Dan and I finally made our long anticipated visit to New York JFK’s American Express Centurion Lounge two weeks ago! We have been waiting for this lounge to open for over a year and honestly, I kept my Platinum Card just for this experience. We visited JFK’s Centurion Lounge on a Thursday morning around 8:00 AM, prior to boarding an 11:20 AM Emirates flight to Dubai. We wanted a place to respond to a few last minute work emails, drink some breakfast beverages, and eat a small breakfast. In short, the American Express Centurion Lounge in Terminal 4 did provide what we were looking for, but it was not as great as I imagined. And it was very crowded, even on a Thursday non-holiday weekend morning. Here is our review; be prepared for crowds and waits as travel continues to pick up.
I have to add to this post prior to publicly publishing that Dan and I went to Iceland in February 2020 – pre-pandemic. Things were normal and COVID was just a slight thought in the back of our minds causing us to carry extra hand sanitizer. While things have certainly changed since February 2020, Iceland remains a great destination and it looks like they are some what opening up in 2021 (fingers crossed)! Happy future planning (February 2022?).
Dan and my last international trip pre-Coronavirus was an escape to Reykjavik, the largest city in Iceland, over Valentine’s Day weekend. Yes, another cold-climate country in the Winter (read about my prior cold-climate February trips here and here)… We enjoy visiting cities in their off-season, as you can usually find deeply discounted flights, particularly from the NYC area (hopefully that’s not a pre-corona memory of the past) and these destinations are less crowded in off-season, yet almost everything we want to do, see, and eat is open for business. And, honestly, its often colder in New York than the winter destination we visit, which was the case last February in Iceland. Further, Iceland is a super easy, five and a half hour flight from NYC and a long weekend (Wednesday night – Monday evening in our case) is a good amount of time to see the highlights. However, had I known that this would be our last trip pre-Coronavirus, I would have definitely stayed longer and seen more of Iceland.
When researching things to do in Dubai, I learned that Friday Brunch is a very popular thing in Dubai. So, clearly we had to sign up! There are so many options for Friday brunch in Dubai, from pub fare at Dubliners Irish Pub to super upscale experiences at top notch restaurants. We opted for the renowned Traiteur Brunch at the Park Hyatt Dubai! Known to be one of the best and most popular brunches in town, we booked a table before we left the US and were not disappointed. When planning, however, I had a lot of questions. Hopefully this post helps to answer some of your questions.
En route to the Maldives last November, Dan and I spent four fabulous days in Dubai! Partly as a stop over en route, but mostly to see some of Dubai! It was our first time in Dubai, and given its location and good flight connections, I’m confident we will return. There’s a ton to do in Dubai and we had a difficult time deciding exactly what to do and how to fit everything into four days! For those planning a trip, here’s a recap of what we did during our four day stay. Feel free to replicate!
FIRST DAY IN DUBAI – 12.5 HOUR FLIGHT & ARRIVAL IN DUBAI!
Emirates’ direct flight from New York to Dubai departs around 10:30 PM and arrives the following evening, around 8:30 PM local time. After a very, very long flight, we finally arrived in Dubai shortly after sunset! Customs in Dubai, where we presented our COVID-19 negative results (a simple PCR print out in English – nothing like French Polynesia), was quick and easy and we soon had our luggage and were en route to our hotel, the Intercontinental Festival City. We arrived shortly before 10:00 PM and were excited to see the entire hotel was decked out for Dubai’s national day on December 2nd. Very fun.
Of everywhere I’ve traveled and eaten the last few years, I receive the most questions about the underwater restaurant I visited in the Maldives! Named Ithaa, meaning “pearl” in Dhivehi, the local language, Ithaa is a restaurant 5 meters underwater at the Conrad Rangali Island resort!
If you read my last post, you know that my husband, Dan (a bit of a points guru), found a crazy deal for a week in the Maldives at the Conrad Rangali Island, Maldives the first week of December – 5 nights in an overwater bungalow totally on points. So that became our Thanksgiving vacation! I was a little iffy about staying a full 5 nights and 6 days on a remote island with no realistic ability to leave, but we had a wonderful time and it was perfect during the pandemic. And actually, Dan and I both felt that our Maldives vacation FLEW by and we easily could have spent another week. Big surprise! Here’s a run down of our week if you are curious (or hesitant) about what you would do on such a stay!
Dan and I spent a week at the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island in December 2020, during the COVID global pandemic. The resort was at around 35% capacity, we felt totally safe, and we had a lovely time, particularly enjoying the resort without other people! Here is our review of the resort, which may change slightly once COVID ends… In any case, I hope that this helps you plan your trip!
The Conrad Maldives Rangali Island is obviously in the Maldives, a national of many, many islands located off the south west coast of India (making it fun to combine with a trip to India or Sri Lanka). The Conrad is in the South Ari Atoll of the Maldives, and is comprised of three private islands. It takes exactly 29 minute to arrive via sea plane from Malé, the capital of Maldives and home to its major airport.
Dan and I attended our friends Pryor’s and Bryan’s wedding earlier this month in Richmond, Virginia and, since my parents live in Virginia and I had not seen them alllll of quarantine, we met them for two fun-filled days of wine tasting in Charlottesville, Virginia before the wedding! While Dan and I have wine tasted all over the world, from Mendoza, to Stellenbosh, to Bordeaux, we had not spent a lot of time in Central Virginia, so we were pumped to try some VA wines, especially since I am from Central Viriginia!
As you may know from my prior posts, Dan and I took an almost proper vacation to Mo’orea in August on our summer getaway to French Polynesia (after Georgia, Azerbaijan, Puerto Rico, and Puglia were cancelled …I know it could be much worse)! We had an absolutely lovely trip and recommend Mo’orea to others for sure! This details how we spent our four days on Mo’orea and provides some logistical information that is hopefully helpful. I would 100% do this exact trip all over again!
Dan and I stayed a few nights at the Conrad Bora Bora in August, shortly after French Polynesia re-opened to Americans on July 15th. We had an amazing time at the Conrad. The Conrad is top notch, super classy, and much fancier than the Hilton that we stayed at on Mo’orea or the Intercontinental Tahiti. But, it was also more expensive and difficult to reach. This is Dan and my review of the Conrad for those planning a visit – happy trip planning!
Dan & I traveled to French Polynesia in August on a whim after it reopened to Americans on July 15th! After spending nearly two weeks in the islands, these are our budget tips for traveling to French Polynesia. Because French Polynesia is expensive and really, who doesn’t love to save some money for that next trip?!!
After a very, very long year with hardly any travel since mid-March (aside from a quick getaway to Antigua over the July 4th holiday), Dan and I spontaneously booked a real live getaway to French Polynesia just as it reopened to the World in mid-July! There were a lot of unknowns due to COVID, but everything ended up working out splendidly. However, literally until we boarded our Air Tahiti Nui flight, we were not certain our getaway to French Polynesia would happen… I’ve detailed our trip for those visiting, or dreaming of visiting, French Polynesia!
Mount Otemanu in beautiful Bora Bora, French Polynesia. August 2020. Continue reading
Yep, we did it. After strictly locking down for 3.5 months in New Jersey (and missing 3 trips along the way), we were majorly itching for a getaway when restrictions were finally lifted. We initially planned to travel within the US but honestly, the US is going to shit with its handling of the pandemic. So we looked else where and realized that a number of Caribbean destinations were open/opening to US travelers. We settled on Antigua, which was one of the first Caribbean countries to open to the US back on June 4th, and upon researching, Antigua handled the pandemic quite well. We decided on a short trip over the 4th of July, from Thursday, July 2nd – Tuesday, July 7th. This article details our travels and hopefully will shed some light on the issue for those trying to decide whether to travel this year.
Its Cinco de Mayo on a Taco Tuesday people, and we’re stuck inside. That’s mighty cruel. So in an effort to boost my own sprits, I wrote this post about a tasty little cafe in Condesa, Mexico City that Dan and I visited in 2018! I had meant to write about it before and never got around to it, but now seems like a better time than ever!
Dan and I visited South Korea in November 2019 and, like many tourists, we had a few discussions about whether to visit the North/South Korean border, referred to as the Demilitarized Zone or the “DMZ.” I very much wanted to and quite frankly, could not imagine going all the way to South Korea without at least trying to catch a glimpse of the infamous country. Dan, on the other hand, had zero interest and preferred to spend his time on more “positive” things. We compromised by doing a half-day guided tour from Seoul to the DMZ with I Love Seoul Tour, which tour got totally restructured due to an “African Swine Flu outbreak.” Reflecting back on our half-day tour, Dan enjoyed it more than he thought he would, and I was underwhelmed. Interesting and historical for sure, but not a “must see” in my opinion. This post is about our personal experience in November 2019. Information and safety at the Korean border changes daily, as do what things tourists can access, and travelers should always review the most up-to-date information before engaging in such a trip.
In planning our trop to Seoul, Korea, Dan and I were very excited to try allll of the food, but we also knew that we would have some trouble accessing some of the more local cuisine, especially of the street food variety, so I booked three (!!!) food tours during the course of our six day trip. Nope, I do not regret it at all and each one was quite delicious. Our first food tour was centered around Gwangjang Market, a busy market frequented by locals, as well as some tourists in the know. More so now with the release of Netflix’s Street Food Seoul episode – featuring Gwangjang Market.
We entered Gwangjang Market early on a Sunday morning and despite it being rainy and cold, the market was largely open and packed with people, mostly Koreans. Our tour guide walked us through the most famous intersection of Gwangjang, as seen on Netflix’s Street Food Seoul edition, and pointed out some less authentic, more tourist oriented stalls in this popular area. He advised us to avoid them at all costs.
Our tour guide then led us to our fist proper stop – a humble stall serving noodles and dumplings – as featured on Netflix’s Street Food Seoul edition (!!), and we sat down for our first taste of the day (well, we did have some breakfast, which would later regret). Sitting at this food stall was quite exciting, as we did not realize this famous one was on the tour! Second surprise, the benches affixed around the cooking area are all heated! Totally genius and this perk made our meal much more comfortable on a cold morning. Our first food was two bowls of kimchi – the traditional red version that we often see is the US and a green variety that, according to our guide, is only found in Korea. We were also given a bottle of soju – Korean liquor – to drink with our breakfast… The kimchi was, as expected, way better than anything I’ve ever had in the US, and the green kimchi was my favorite of the two. It was absolutely delicious! The soju was a little much for a Sunday morning but, when in Seoul? We managed to finish the bottle.
Seoul is the capital of South Korea, the lower portion of the Korean peninsula (the upper portion being North Korea). Seoul is a huge city located in the northwest part of South Korea on the Han River. I have been wanting to visit Seoul for a few years, and Dan and I finally pulled the trigger and visited for six days in November as part of a Seoul/Tokyo trip over our Thanksgiving holiday. I had a bit of a difficult planning our trip and figuring out what to see and eat, so here are the highlights of our trip, as two thirty-something American travelers who are certainly not experts on Korea! We loved our time, found Seoul to be a surprising budget destination, and we absolutely need to go back for the cherry blossoms!
Excitingly, JFK recently added two (!!) Priority Pass lounges to its roster: the Primeclass Lounge in Terminal 1 and the Air India Maharaja Lounge in Terminal 4. This makes 3 Priority Pass lounges in Terminal 1 and 2 Priority Pass lounges in Terminal 4! Very exciting since the current Priority Pass lounge situation in both terminals is busting at the seams. For example, a 30 minute wait for Wingtips Lounge last summer…
Both the Primeclass Lounge and the Air India Maharaja Lounge opened to Priority Pass members in mid-November 2020, and Dan and I just happened to be flying out of Terminal 1 on Thanksgiving Eve for our trip to South Korea and Japan – perfect timing! Of course, we had to visit the new Primeclass Lounge in Terminal 1! Plus, a visit to the Primeclass Lounge fit perfectly into our late night departure (or rather, early morning – 12:50 AM), as the other Priority Pass lounges were not open during the majority of our time in Terminal 1. For example, Korean Air Lounge closes at 8:30 PM and the Air France Lounge does not permit Priority Pass members until 11:30 PM (they do also allow Priority Pass guests in the morning).
The Primeclass Lounge is located in JFK’s Terminal 1 post-security all the way in the back of the terminal, near Gates 8 and 9. Walk all the way down the terminal to find the entrance; a bar/shop in front of the entrance to the Prime Class lounge nearly blocks view of the entrance entirely from a distance.
Our flight left the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and Terminal 1 was, not surprisingly, super crowded when we arrived, even though it was already late in the evening. after searching for the Primeclass Lounge, we eventually found it, and luckily only had to wait behind one person to check in. However, a line multiple people deep quickly formed behind us. Sign-in was not as quick as it should have been, and required our Priority Pass and boarding passes, per usual. The person doing the check-in also gave us two free drink tickets and explained how the lounge works. I think this “explanation” is part of the reason why checkin was not quick. The same could have been accomplished by a handout of signage inside the lounge.
Access to the lounge is down the stairs behind the check-in desk; the lounge is actually located below Gates 8 and 9. There is also an elevator.
Upon entry into the actual lounge, our first impression was that the Primeclass Lounge is crowded. I’m not sure if this is due to the date we flew, the newness of the lounge, or if its always this way, but it was packed. We managed to snag two seats at the bar and set up there, as that was all that was available. The crowds did disburse by the time we left at 11:00 PM, but not until just before then (Terminal 1 is know to have some very late flights!).
Setting aside the crowds on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, guests enter the lounge in the bar area, which consists of a bar and some bar top seating, then opens up into a room with a food buffet and standard lounge seats, which were almost all taken on our visit. Toward the back of the lounge, there is a non-alcoholic beverage station, as well as private bathrooms (which could have been cleaner). Primeclass was decorated nicely, with some very cool New York famed pictures around the lounge and mirrored ceilings.
Since we sat at the bar, I’ll start with my review of the drinks. As mentioned, every patron receives two complimentary drink tickets to be exchanged for an alcoholic beverage at the bar – but only certain beverages, which are explained on a little menus sprinkled around the bar. On our visit the complimentary drinks were a selection of red, white, or sparkling wine and a few types of beers. However, the fancier beers, such as Blue Moon, took two tickets. In addition to the complimentary beverages, cocktails were on sale for $18 US (!!) and you could buy extra wine and beer, too. I tried the complimentary sparkling and red wines. Both were just ok; I would have been annoyed if I had paid for them. The bartender was pleasant and she made drinks pretty quickly.
In terms of the food, all food is set up on a buffet in one corner of the lounge. Almost as soon as we arrived, the lounge announced that it would stop serving food in a few minutes. We visited the buffet shortly after that announcement, but there was almost nothing left (in the lounge’s defense, it was nearly 10 PM at this hour). In fact, the only things left were a few yogurts, a couple pieces of fruit, a bowl of pasta, and some couscous. I imagine the buffet would be more robust during normal dining hours. I would like to come back and try the lounge when it is fully functional. We did try the pasta, and it was quite good. Know that if you have a late flight, there may not be food in Primeclass.
I also grabbed a lot of bottled waters and a Diet Coke from the self-serve drink area near the restrooms. I also looked at the restrooms, which while spacious and private, could have used a cleaning. I will write that off to it being a very crowded travel day.
We stayed in the Primeclass Lounge for our 2 drinks and then left around 11:15 PM and got in line for the Air France Lounge on the opposite side of Terminal 1, and yes there was a short line! You can read about the Air France Lounge here and yes, it is by far the best Priority Pass lounge in JFK’s Terminal 1. Of note – Priority Pass members are not granted access in the evening until 11:30 PM and lines start to form around 11:15 PM. There is actually an entire area set up for Priority Pass members waiting to get in to the Air France Lounge in the evening. If your flight time works out, the Air France Lounge is completely worth the wait. A full buffet was still operational until at least 12:20, when we left for our flight. The pumpkin pie and whipped cream was a special Thanksgiving Eventreat!
In sum, the Primeclass Lounge fills a time void for Priority Pass lounges in JFK’s Terminal 1 and provides additional lounge space, which is much needed in Terminal 1. Hopefully we just visited on an extremely busy day and Primeclass will perform better in the future. I am excited to return and try it at normal hours.
STEAL OUR LOUNGE
Primeclass Lounge: JFK Terminal 1, Post-Security, Near Gates 8 & 9. Open Monday, Thursday, and Sunday 05:30 – 00:00, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday 09:00 – 00:00. May 4 hour stay. Two complimentary alcoholic drinks per person. Other alcohol and “premium” drinks and cocktails cost money. Printer available in the lounge. Complimentary access for Priority Pass members. The General Public can buy access for $59.00 for four hours.
Korean Air Business Lounge: New York JFK, Terminal 1, air-side (post-security), near Gate 3. Open 14:00 – 20:30 daily. Accepts Priority Pass and Lounge Buddy, and possibly other cards.
Air France Lounge: JFK Terminal 1, airside near Gate 1. Open daily 6:00 – 17:30 and 23:00 – 1:00 (it is actually open all day, but shuts out Priority Pass members between 17:30 and 23:00). Offers wifi, showers, and refreshments – including Champagne and a Clarins wellness area (“during certain times”)!
ON A BUDGET
If you’re traveling on a budget, I would not pay for entrance into the Primeclass Lounge, – its not worth it. But the food options in Terminal 1 are generally terrible. Eat before the airport and maybe grab a beer and a snack at that bar/kiosk obscuring the Primeclass Lounge entrance.
Earlier this year, Dan and I spent a long weekend in Belgrade, Serbia. There are many, many hotels, hostels, and bed and breakfasts in huge Belgrade, but we choose to stay at the Hilton Belgrade because of the perks that come with our Hilton Diamond Status. There were other reasons as well, like location, a sweet spa with a “Caribbean shower,” and recently redone interiors, but our Diamond Status was what lead us to this hotel in the first place. If you’re unfamiliar with Diamond Status, its Hilton’s top status of hotel goers and we achieved it via our Hilton Aspire credit card. You can also achieve it via many night stays (I believe its currently 60 nights) or accumulating a certain spend. Diamond Status comes with a number of perks, including room upgrades, a welcome amenity, free breakfast and, our favorite, access to the Executive Lounge!
An Executive Lounge is basically a private club room for certain patrons of Hilton. The quality of an Executive Lounge varies by property, but, outside of the US, they generally all offer a quite space, your own concierge, and food and drink during certain times of the day.
In the Belgrade Hilton, the Executive Lounge was located on the second floor of the hotel, just about the checkin area and very close to the hotel’s ballrooms (lots of weddings on the weekend here!). This particular lounge was on the small side for a Hilton Executive Lounge, but it was very nice. You reach the Executive Lounge by swiping your room card and then checking in with the employee working the door by providing your room number. Once you check in once, they tend to remember you. Hilton is very good about remembering it Diamond members. Once inside, the Executive Lounge is basically one room decorated in a modern fashion.
As you can see, the room is set up with low tables and chairs, with a series of televisions playing major news channels in English. Along the wall there is a street view with bar style seating and a kitchen area in the back of the room, where all the food and drink are located. The private lounge restroom is also in the back of the lounge.
One or two Hilton staff members work the lounge throughout the day, hence remembering the Diamond members. We found the staff to be helpful, nice, and quite friendly!
Like most Executive Lounges, the Belgrade lounge offered breakfast, non-alcoholic drinks and very light snacks throughout the day, and a happy hour each evening for a couple hours. As is pretty standard at Hilton lounges, breakfast was substantial, but not huge, and offered a selection or hot and cold foods. The variety changed slightly each day.
Kind of off topic of the Executive Lounge, Diamond members also get free breakfast in the hotel restaurant which, in my opinion, often offers more options and better food. In Belgrade, this was my made-to-order Eggs Benedict breakfast in the restaurant. Those hash browns were 100%!!! The cons, its way more crowded than the Executive Lounge, is not as relaxing, and it usually takes longer.
After breakfast ends, most Executive Lounges put out some grab and go snacks, the quality and quantity varying by hotel. Belgrade’s were particularly bad – just these Big Corny bars. At least they were Serbian made. And they were kind of tasty.
In all the Executive Lounges that I have visited, happy hour is the busiest and most popular time in the lounge. Happy hour is usually a 2 hour period, in Belgrade from 18h – 20h, where the lounge puts out essentially a small dinner spread and offers alcoholic beverages. During our stay, the food was quite good, and we actually made a meal out of it one evening! The Belgrade lounge offered a variety of dishes, a selection of which were always Serbian dishes. You can eat as much or as little as you want. This is definitely a good option for a pre-dinner snack or a full dinner if you don’t feel like leaving the hotel!
In addition to substantial food at happy hour, the Executive Lounge also puts out free booze! In Belgrade, the Executive Lounge set out some local beers, a couple bottles of Aleksandrovic wine (which we visited on our wine tour!), and flavored rakia, as well as some standard hard liquor! The alcohol was replenished frequently. In addition to alcohol, an espresso machine, as well as sodas, canned juices, and still and sparkling water are always available when the Executive Lounge is open.
In addition to food, the Executive Lounge has free, good wifi, a computer area, and a number of magazines in a variety of languages.
STEAL OUR LOUNGE
Hilton Belgrade: Kralja Milana 35, Belgrade, 11000, T: +381-11-7555700. Great hotel, and highly recommended! Access the Executive Lounge with the Hilton Aspire Card.
Dan & I are big wine fans, and we love trying wine in less popular wine destinations. For example, we’ve done wine tours in South Africa, Montenegro, and Mendoza, to name a few. We spent a long weekend in Belgrade, Serbia last fall and upon researching for our trip, learned that Serbia has a wine country! Yes, Serbia has a wine country (actually multiple ones!) that is quite good, complete with its own indigenous grapes! As such, we promptly booked a wine tour.
Our tour, which we did with Private Serbia Tours, took us around the Šumadija wine region in central Serbia to three different wineries. It was actually supposed to have been four wineries, but one was unexpectedly closed due to a sewage issue… Our tour started early in the morning with a pick up at our hotel in Belgrade. We were the only two on the tour, so after the pick up, we drove about an hour outside of Belgrade to visit the first winery. The drive was on a modern highway, and our guide told us that we were only a six hour drive from Thessoloniki. Had I know that, I would have tried to squeeze in some Greece on this trip! Once we got off the highway, the countryside was quite different than Belgrade. Few modern cards; lots of tractors and horse drawn contraptions.
We reached Despotika Winery, our first stop on this tour, about an hour or so after our pickup! Despotika is a young and hip winery, making grapes with both traditional (i.e. French) grapes and indigenous Serbian grapes. Despotika’s theme is – “We’re still not the oldest, biggest and most famous, but we decided to be the best.” Love it, and also love that Despotika lived up to this theme! In addition to being the best, Despotika is designed to be really cool, and the owners have put a lot of work into this place. Lots of art and cool architecture. This would be a fabulous place for a wedding!
Our tour of Despotika began with a walk through the property, which included sightings of grapes being harvested and the extensive wine cellar, and ended with a tasting – and by tasting I mean nearly a full glass – of seven wines. Yes, seven wines. The tasting was a mix between white and reds and well known grapes and local varieties. The entirety of the tour took about 1.5 hours, and Despotika ended up being our favorite stop on the tour! I think Despotika had the coolest grounds and the best wine (true to its slogan!).
Despotika also has a really interesting wine museum with lots of Serbian wine artifacts that we visited as part of the tour and a decent gift shop. Very interesting. Pro tip – buy Despotika wine at the vineyard. Prices at the vineyard were wayyy better than at the airport.
After drinking a lot of good wine at Despotika, our guide drove us to the capital of the Šumadija region, Topola, for a visit to the well-known King’s Winery. The King’s Winery is part Serbian wine museum and part small winery. The King’s Winery started years ago when the Serbian Royal Family grew grapes on the surrounding hills and produced Trijumf (the name is currently in use by winery Aleksandrović) wine. Production stopped due to the conflicts in the area in the late 1900s, but picked back up in the early 2000s. Today, the King’s Winery produces a limited amount of wine each year, which you can purchase on the property.
At the King’s Winery, we did a self-tour of the historic wine cellar, which has wine making equipment from the early 1900s and an amazing wine cellar housing some really old bottles. The visiting was quite interesting, and shed some light on historic Serbian wine production.
After our self-guided walk-through the cellar, we tried two tiny tastings of the King Winery’s wine. These wines were not nearly as good as Despotika. But I guess good wine is not really the point of the Royal Winery…
We skipped buying a bottle the King’s Winery. I mean, we we were worried about running into serious luggage weight issues… Since our third stop, which was also our lunch stop, was closed, we ended up having an al fresco lunch in the town of Topola (name that I cannot pronounce in the pic below).
For lunch, I finally tried the national Jelen beer and Dan and I both ordered pasta. The meal was fine, but the al fresco seating was the real winner. The restaurant’s terrace was lovely! If you do eat here, the portions are enormous, definitely large enough to share.
The final winery that we visited on this tour was Aleksandrović Winery. Aleksandrović is one of the most well-branded Serbian wineries and one of the few that exports its wines outside of Serbia. Aleksandrović’s most famous wine is a line called Triump (i.e. Trijumf from the King’s Winery) and its all over Serbia.
At Aleksandrović, we watched a short video about the winery, took a tour of the barrel room, and then moved to the back deck for the wine tasting. Unlike Despotika, Aleksandrović requires patrons to purchase tastings by the wine, but its only a few dollars per taste (which is just smaller than a 1/2 glass). I think we tasted five wines for about $15 per person. The wine was good, but not as good as Despotika. The best things about Aleksandrović are its wine selection of wines and the gorgeous tasting setting. Of the three wineries that we visited, this would be the easiest to visit on your own.
STEAL OUR TRIP
Serbian Private Tours: We did the Royal Footprints Wine Tour for 219 Euro for both of us. The price included door to door transportation, all wine tastings, an English guide (also the driver), and a little gift at the end of the tour. For the entire day, I thought this was worth the price. That being said, it is expensive for Serbia.
Despotika Winery: 11423 Vlaski Do, Smederevska Palanka. T: +381 26 302 126
E: email@example.com. You can do tastings on your own. I recommend calling or emailing in advance to set up a tour and tasting. Since its a young, working winery, I am not certain tours are offered daily.
King’s Winery: Zdužbina Kralja Petra I, Oplenac bb, 34310 Topola, Oplenac, Serbia. T:
+381 34 6811 280. You can just walk in for a tour and tasting, or to buy wine. Call to confirm hours, but it seems to be open daily in high season.
Aleksandrović Winery: Village of Vinca, Topola – Oplenac, 34310 Republic of Serbia. Individual visits: Dragana Srbljanin, curator, mob: +381 (0)62 262 277. Tamara Colic, curator, mob: +381 (0)62 262 186. Reservations recommended for individuals, mandatory for groups of ten and up. Open Monday – Saturday 8h – 19h, Sunday 10h – 18h. There is not a restaurant on premises.
Knezev Han: The restaurant where we ate lunch. Karadjordjeva 4, Topola Serbia. Right in the center of town. T: +381 34 812111. You probably do not need a reservation. Eat outside if you can.
ON A BUDGET
Serbian wine is inexpensive, particularly for the general quality. If you are on a budget, save money and taste various Serbian wines in Belgrade. You can find Serbian wine in most restaurants in Belgrade.
It’s the holiday season and time to review one of my favorite holiday spots in New York City! You’ve all seen it – Rolf’s German Restaurant on the East Side (22nd and 3rd). This is the famously booked restaurant that is decked out to the MAX in Christmas lights, baubles, dolls, and Santas. Seemingly forgotten until the Christmas rush, Rolf’s offers authentic Alsatian food that is good year-round. However, it is best at Christmas, despite how difficult it may be to score a reservation. Well, this will be my 3rd year going and I’m to give you all the required information to secure that coveted reservation and enjoy a holiday meal (albeit next year)!
First off, if you are looking for a reservation during holiday season, you cannot book too early. I always make reservations in September or early October via telephone (there is NO internet booking capability) early in the day. Rolf’s takes down handwritten reservations and stops answering its phone once November hits (and often sooner if booked up). If you miss the reservation call period and you are in NYC, stop by and try to make a reservation in person. Weekday lunches are your best bet for last minute reservations during the holiday season.
You should also know that Rolf’s has some interesting rules regarding meals during the holiday season. As of this year (2019), Rolf’s only takes reservations of parties of up to 4 people and each reservation is limited to 1 hour and 15 minutes (they will ask you to leave)! Seating is tight and service is quick, but its worth the effort, even for a meager 75 minutes! Also, since the restaurant is so tiny, this is not the place to come with loads of Christmas shopping – there’s simply nowhere to store it!
If you are unable to score a reservation during the holidays, you can wait in line for the bar area (for cocktails only, no food is served in the bar during the holiday season). To do this arrive, as early as possible and join the long queue on 22nd Street. You will probably wait hours for an overpriced cocktail, but this is an option to get that Instagram shot. Bucket list: check. That being said, if you’re local, decorations go up in early October and stay up well into the new year, so you can go and get that shot early or late. We actually took Dan’s cousins in October of this year just to see it! It was not crowded at all and we could stay as long as we wanted!
In any case, if you have a reservation, review the menu prior to arriving at Rolf’s. You do not want to waste your 1.25 hours looking at the menu. You want to waste it taking Instagram pics! Rolf’s makes choosing your food pretty easy – their menu is online and they don’t do specials during the holidays.
The one wild card is the drink menu, which is usually pretty fantastic! Rolf’s always offers fun holiday cocktails, as well as a long schnapps list and beer by the stein. Be ready to make a quick decision. Due to the time crunch, we generally order drinks as soon as the waiter comes by. Usually a Gluhwein, but sometimes we go rogue!
As you will see from reviewing the menu, the menu at Rolf’s is fairly small and is solely compromised of traditional Alsatian dishes. Think pork and veal schnitzels, potato and cabbage based sides, and even rabbit. For the most part, main dishes cost around $35 USD and come with two sides. While a bit pricey, it is New York and Rolf’s dishes are HUGE!