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!
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!
My go-to meal is generally the above-pictured veal schnitzel, which is served with spatzel (German pasta), a lemon, and green beans. The schnitzel is pounded very thin and is always tasty. The spatzel is my favorite side dish, and I barely touched the green beans (I had better things to eat). I usually also order a side of German potato salad to split amongst the table, which was absolutely large enough to split between 4 people.
Other popular dishes are the meatloaf, which is even larger than the schnitzel and is served with purple cabbage and mashed potatoes, and the Jaegar Schnitzel, a non-breaded piece of meat served in a mushroom cream sauce, that is served with green beans and spatzel!
Despite the dishes being huge, I always order dessert, which are really good! Recently, I’ve split the Black Forest Cake and the Apple Strudel, which is served warm(!), with my fellow dinners. Both are terribly delicious and huge.
All in all, I think Rolf’s is a super fun NYC Christmas experience. Its worth the annoyances, but only if you book early or go at an off time. I don’t think waiting in line for just drinks is worth it, but that’s up to you. If you go that route, arrive early and be prepared to wait a long time and be super crowded inside the standing-room only bar.
STEAL OUR TRIP
Rolf’s German Restaurant:281 Third Ave, New York, NY 10010. T: 212-477-4750 and 212-473-8718. IG: rolfsnyc. Open 12h – 20h, closed on Monday through Labor Day. Christmas decor up October – May.
ON A BUDGET
Rolf’s at Christmas is definitely a worthy splurge! If you are on a super tight budget, you can wait in line for access to the bar – but drinks are still $18 – or find another fun bar decorated to the nines for Christmas! There are a lot in NYC!