Friday, August 10, 2012

This is my submission for the '3 Things in the City' I Love contest by Velvet Escape, Traveldudes and

3 Things In The City I Love

I love how different and unique Istanbul is than anything else I have ever experienced.  Lots of cities have beautiful rivers, great vibes, and plenty of sights, but Istanbul stands ahead of the crowd for me.  The city itself has a mystical presence in my imagination with its dominating minarets, phenomenal history oozing from its every pore, and east meets west ambiance.  It is also surprisingly young and vibrant and alive.  Nowhere else that I have been can you view two continents in one line of sight over an Efes beer and let your imagination run wild at the sight of the mosques and towers, the aromas of the street vendors’ seafood and kabobs, the hustle and bustle of the Grand Bazaar, and the utter relaxation following an afternoon at the Hammam.  I love how Istanbul takes me out of my comfort zone, out of my hemisphere, and away from my worries.  Aside from the fascinating list of sights and attractions, here are my 3 things that I would recommend to anyone visiting Istanbul:

When in Istanbul, you must…Go have lunch in Asia.  For 2 TL (less than $1), you can hop on a ferry at one of several points in European Istanbul and take the short ride over to Kadikoy where you can set foot in Asia and stroll the hilly streets of the neighborhood and take in the market atmosphere of everything from electronics to fresh seafood stalls lining the streets.  There are numerous street food vendors serving up many different options, but you will want to choose one of the fresh fish filets cooked up to order on the grill and placed on an open faced bun with seasoning, sauce, lettuce, and tomato.
Fresh seafood stall in Asian Istanbul
When in Istanbul, you must…Visit a hamam.  Do not even consider leaving town without experiencing the penultimate ages old Turkish tradition.  Set a couple of hours aside (maybe after lunch in Asia), and head back to Sultanahmet,  where there are several options, the most popular for tourists being Cemberlitas Hamami, which is an excellent choice.  Be careful asking locals for recommendations because they will take you to lesser quality places for about the same price or more while telling you what a deal they are getting for you.  If you want to take their advice, just don’t take it from anyone that insists on walking you there personally.  In fact, they are the ones getting the kickback for bringing in overpaying customers.  Even if you are the most frugal of budget travelers, do yourself a favor and splurge at Cemberlitas or one of the several other reputable places and go for the full experience.  Start out by changing into the pestamal, a cotton wrap-around piece of fabric similar to a thin towel.  Head on in to the magnificent and elaborate steam room area where you will find a large warm slab of marble where you can lay around to get a sweat going.  You can then go over to the water basins along the walls and dump perfect temperature water on yourself.  When it is your turn, one of the attendants will come get you and take you over to the basin where they will wet you down and soap you up and then exfoliate you before taking you back to the marble and soaping you up some more and then rinsing you off.  You will be shocked at the amount of dead skin and filth that comes off of you after any amount of serious travel.  The attendant will spend about 15-20 minutes with you and then you are free to hang around and relax as long as you like, and trust that you will be relaxed.  Afterwards, you can have a cup of Turkish tea before completing your experience with an oil massage to get out all the muscle kinks caused by long nights cramped up on the bus or train.  Once you leave the hamam, walk back onto the street and have a freshly squeezed  pure fruit drink of your choice from one of the vendors and you will feel about as relaxed and refreshed in your new skin as you ever have in your life.
Entrance to Cemberlitas
When in Istanbul, you must…get yourself over to the park between the Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque late at night as the last thing you do before going to bed.  It is especially a good nightcap after a few drinks and perhaps a few puffs of hookah.  I am not sure that I can put into words how beautiful, magical, awe inspiring, atmospheric, and memorable this moment is to me.  After doing this the first night, we made it a point to do the same each and every night of our visit.  If you are staying in Sultanahmet, this will be a very easy thing to do, but if you are staying further away, it is still worth the effort.  Whether you are standing facing the Aya Sofia with the Blue Mosque behind you or vice versa, you can just feel and imagine the history that has occurred where you stand while you have it all to yourself.  This will be a moment that you will want to take a mental snapshot of and return your mind there in a daydream when you are back home at the office or sitting in traffic.
The Iconic Aya Sofia late at night
I think most anyone would have a fulfilling and highly memorable visit to this wonderful city if they made sure to include these 3 experiences in their itinerary.  I know I can’t get myself back to Istanbul soon enough!  Let me know what you think if you try them out.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Playing the Old Course as an Independent Traveler

If you are like me, playing golf on the Old Course is a lifetime dream and potentially even a once in a lifetime opportunity.  So here are 9 things to know once you decide to go for it.

How To Get On:  There are 4 ways to get onto the Old Course.  As an independent budget traveler, we can immediately rule out the most secure option, which is booking with one of the tour packages at a minimum cost of $3500. These tours provide a guaranteed tee time on the Old Course plus a few other rounds on other courses, rooms, transport, and some meals.  The only other way to guarantee yourself a tee time is to apply around the beginning of September of the year prior to your visit.  Details on that process can be found on the Saint Andrews Links Trust website.  If you are traveling with another golfer, then by far the easiest thing to do is enter the daily ballot.  You must have at least 2 people in order to enter the ballot and it seems to me that 2 people is the optimal number for the best chance at scoring a tee time.  Simply call +441334466666 before 2PM (St. Andrews time) two days before you want to play.  Be prepared to tell them all of the names, home courses, and handicap indexes for each person in your group.  You will need verification that your handicap is 24 or better for men or 36 or better for women.  So for a Wednesday tee time, call Monday before 2PM.  The results will be posted on the website by 4PM the same day, so you will know in advance allowing you the opportunity to plan around the time or decide what your alternative will be if you don’t get selected.  I actually called Monday morning when I woke up on the East Coast of the US and I knew that I had obtained a 1:50 tee time on Wednesday before I even left my house for the airport which really helped me to adjust my travel plans to accommodate this.  The fourth and final option is to show up at the starter the same day you want to play and see if he can fit you in that day.  If you are there early enough, it seems that there is a lot of success had in this method.  In fact the 2 people that we played with that day got on in this manner when the original twosome that was on the tee sheet with us cancelled.  If you are a single golfer, then this will be your best option.  KEY INFORMATION:  The Old Course is CLOSED on Sunday, so make sure you take that into account in your planning.

Be Flexible:  I had allotted myself a 3 day window that I was willing to work around trying to get on the course, but realistically I would have kept trying every single day that I had because this was the one central must do for my trip and I was willing to make everything else flexible.

When To Go:  Yes, Summer has nicer weather but everyone else knows that too.  By all means, if it is important to you to get on, go in the shoulder season.  Not only will you exponentially increase your odds of securing a tee time, but you will also save yourself a lot of money.  Early April seems to be the sweet spot for several reasons.  First, if you go any earlier, you will be required to play your shots off of small mats under your ball to protect the course for the busy season ahead.  That is not my idea of “playing” any golf course, much less the Old Course.  Secondly, playing before April 15th will save you about $85 on your green fees.  We paid £100 pounds to play and 3 days later the price went up to £150.  Another reason is that you are in Scotland and therefore you have absolutely no idea what the weather will be like.  It is possible that you could have better weather in April than in August.  The one thing you can count on in Scotland weather is that it will be unpredictable and ever changing.  The day we played the temperature was around 50 degrees Fahrenheit and we literally saw sunshine, wind, rain, and sleet at different parts of our round, but it was absolutely perfect.

Renting Golf Clubs:  If you plan to play multiple rounds of golf and have a car, rent some clubs for the trip.  They run about £60 per week including umbrella, towel, balls, and tees and if you communicate with the vendor you can actually get some nice clubs and even choose what you want from his inventory.  If you plan to only play one or two rounds, then it is best to rent from the courses themselves.  Rental clubs at the Old Course run about £40 per round.  I can happily recommend Scotland Golf Club Hire as we were provided with excellent pick up and drop off service, great clubs, and a great price.

The Course Is Not That Difficult:  Most anybody with a pulse is going to be nervous on that 1st tee box with God and the spirits of the golfing legends looking down on you in front of the Royal And Ancient clubhouse.  There will inevitably be at least several dozen other golfers, spectators, sightseers, and general population also stopping to watch you tee off.  The 1st hole is easy and not too long, so hit your best club and do it with confidence.  Make any error to the left as there is plenty of room and the rough is not very penal.  Once you get off the tee box, your number one priority for the day is going to be to avoid the bunkers.  Yes, this seems like common sense, but cannot be overstated.  I made a couple of birdies, lots of pars, and no worse than bogey all day except for 2 holes in which I found a bunker and made triple bogey.  I was only in the bunker twice and it cost me dearly both times.  These things are not what you are used to back home and truly if you are otherwise a decent player and can mostly avoid the bunkers, you can go home with a score in which you will be proud to tell others about.

You Don’t Really Need A Caddy:  When you pay your greens fee, they will give you a small Old Course pouch with some tees and coupons in it.  Additionally, the starter will give you an excellent yardage book, which can get you around the course and make you aware of the bunkers that you can’t see from the tee.  The yardage book is a wonderful resource and you should refer to it often to keep yourself in good shape around the course.  Keep in mind that there are shared greens on the middle 14 holes, as this is a classic out and back layout.  Hit to the white flag on holes 3-9 and the red flag on holes 10-16.  If you end up closer to the wrong pin, don’t fret, it happens all the time and all that will do is require a very long first putt.

Practice Your Long Putting at Home:  You will inevitably face a few putts much longer than you are accustomed to and you will also see that putting from off the green is often a good option as well.  The greens roll nicely and while the grass is different, they are likely similar in speed to a lot of courses in the US.

Have Fun:  This is an incredible experience.  Arrive early to take it all in, adjust your putting on the practice green, and let your nerves settle.  There is plenty of free parking down by the St. Andrews Links Clubhouse down past the British Golf Museum along the beach.  They will shuttle you back to the starter’s box.  Watch a few others tee off so that you can be ready and know what to expect.  You will enter the surreal world at some point, but try to focus on being in the moment, just relax, go through your normal pre-shot routine, and you will be fine.  I particularly enjoyed the layout of the course and seeing all of the historic areas of the course where I’ve seen all of the greats at some time or another on television.  The course condition is much better than I expected and it is just an indescribably awesome experience.  Had I not been on a budget, I would’ve stayed and played it again the next day as well.

Stick Around:  The town of Saint Andrews is awesome as well.  Enjoy a stroll down The Scores, through the back alleyways and residential gardens, the University quad, the old ruined cathedral, the British Golf Museum, and the West Sands beach to name a few.  It is well worth another day or so to be in the town.

This experience exceeded my expectations and was well worth the effort to make it happen.  I would highly recommend it to anyone with an appreciation for golf and its history.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Hostels - Brasov, Romania - Rolling Stone

This is a great place to stay overall. We actually went to another hostel that was recommended in our guidebook, but that one was all booked up. We basically wandered a couple of blocks and just happened upon this gem.

As soon as we walked in and up the stairs we were welcomed by probably the nicest, most helpful English speaking hostess that we had on the entire trip. Her name was Sylvia and very casually she sat at a table with us and went over everything that they had to offer at the hostel as well as day trips. She gave us a map of the city and spent at least 10 minutes going over everything there was to do in the area and answered every question that we had about anything. She was very helpful but not at all pushy and the whole discussion was very pleasant.

We ended up staying in the upstairs loft for 43 lei (about $14 US at the time) each. The loft is a bit of a different experience. You need to be coordinated enough to climb up some "attic like" steep stairs and squeeze in without hitting your head on the small opening. Once you are in there, it is a long room where you walk down the middle and beds are on both sides. There were about 14 or so beds in the room, which has nice pergo floors and wood beams and slanted wood walls. It might feel a bit cramped to some people, but was no issue to us, especially since there were only 2 other people up there. When staying in this part of the hostel, you are assigned a locker in the main dorm room which is on the main level. The only problem with this is that you kind of have to step over people's stuff and go through a room of sleeping people if you are wanting to get to your locker for an early start (8AM). This is only a minor issue though. However, I would choose the main level if available over the loft. There is also another intermediate level which I might also choose over the loft in hindsight. We chose the loft because we basically had it to ourselves, so the loft suited our needs just fine and I would not hesitate to stay there again.

Rolling Stone is in a great location, right off of Piata Unirii in the old town and walking distance to most everything you want to see in Brasov. The train station is about 7-8 bus stops away or about a 10 lei cab ride for 2 people. We walked after dark down to Piata Sfatului, the main square area of bars and restaurants, and then back to the hostel late night and never had a concern. The entire area felt very safe.

They have a pretty basic breakfast of bread and spread and a couple of other items, but it is good enough to get you started for the day.

The day trip options were great. We signed up for one of these and it turned out great. There were only 5 of us in a BMW van and we had our own driver. We visited Bran Castle, Rasnov Fortress, and Sinai (Peles Castle and Monastery). The driver was great and we did about 2-3 days worth of sightseeing in one day. The trip was a bargain at 40 lei.

The biggest drawback to me was the upstairs bathrooms. The wall is slanted severely over the toilets, so if you are over 4 feet tall it is a problem whether you are standing or squatting, but especially the latter. The room is also very, very small and narrow. Add that to the fact that there were no toilet seats attached and you have a very uncomfortable experience. The downstairs bathrooms did not have the same problem. The downstairs bathrooms have the roomy toilets, but the shower is also in the same room, so they are usually occupied by shower takers. Once you get access though, you have a nice roomy place where you can lock the door, use the bathroom, and take a shower without feeling cramped. The only problem here is there is no shower curtain, so water is literally everywhere. If you are accustomed to hostels you will not think much of it because you will have shower flops and you will just be appreciating the privacy and the size of the room. If you are a hostel newbie, then you may not feel comfortable. I really only had a problem with the upstairs bathrooms, but was very happy with the shower bathrooms downstairs.

The hosts were very nice as were the people staying there, but in my experience, it wasn't an overly social hostel. We talked with plenty of people, especially those that went on our day trip, but though there is a communal area, it didn't seem to draw people to be in there and socialize. It was fine, but just based on experiences in some of the really social hostels I have stayed in, this one did not measure up in that department.

Pros: Friendly Staff, Free Breakfast, Cleanliness, Day Trip Options, Location, Free Internet, Free Wi-Fi, Safety, Value

Cons: Only 1 computer for Internet, Uncomfortable upstairs Bathrooms, Social Atmosphere

Monday, September 19, 2011

Philadelphia / PA / USA Restaurants -- Ishkabibbles

Excellent Food, Local Experience
I was looking for something more local than Geno's or Pat's, so I took a recommendation from some locals and found a really authentic lunch experience. As I sat at the tiny bar inside eating, no less than 90% of the patrons that came up to the window obviously knew the guy taking orders by name and he knew them. This alone let me know that I was in the kind of place I was looking for.

Location: Excellent. Ishkabibbles is located at 337 South Street which appears to be a great area. There are tons of small, local, independent shops along this street. It is just a few blocks and an easy, very pleasant walk from the tourist area of the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.

Food: The cheesesteak was outstanding. It had just the right mix of everything for excellent flavor. The bread was fresh, soft, and tasty and did not leak or break up. It ranks right up there with the best cheesesteak I've ever had. The fries were good, very similar to McDonald's fries except fresher and more substantive. The guy beside me got the chicken philly and it looked incredible as well.

Cost: Too high. My cheesesteak, small fries, and drink was about $14. The cheesesteak is huge, but they do not offer a smaller version. The small order of fries was huge also. Refills on drinks are $1, but the server gave me one at no charge. Coming from somebody that can eat, it was way more food than necessary.

Service: Good. The guy taking orders was nice enough, but hard to understand. The server was nice and friendly as well. I did enjoy watching the interaction between the patrons and the staff. It was easy to tell that this is a favorite.

Restaurant: This is a tiny, hole in the wall type of place. The bar in front of the grill has about 4 seats and the one along the wall has about 4 more. There is not much room in between. Most people order takeout at the window and take it with them. The bathroom is small, but clean and supplied. They have a lot of pictures on the wall signed by varying degrees of celebrities. The cook up each order as they come in so it is always fresh food.

Overall: The food and local experience are exactly what I would hope to find in any place. I did not rate Ishkabibbles as a 5 star only because of the cost and the too large one size portions.

All in all, I would most definitely eat at Ishkabibbles again and again. I think it would be hard to find a better cheesesteak anywhere.
 Scene from South Street
 Philly Cheesesteak, Fries, Gremlin

Journey Of A Lifetime

A blog about my Journey and my passion for travel.  I hope to share travel stories, travel reviews, life lessons, and advice from my experiences.  Unlike most travel bloggers, I regrettably am not currently nor have I ever traveled for what I would consider an extended amount of time (more than 3 months).  I have to get my fix in smaller increments.  In general, each calendar year I will travel internationally somewhere between 10 - 24 days and also take several shorter trips within the US.  I have a family of five, a career, a mortgage, lots of other real life responsibilities, and a borderline obsessive desire to experience and see all that the world has to offer.  I am living proof that it can be done and I would love to share how I make it work and hear from others like me as well to learn from you.  I enjoy independent budget travel (public transportation, home stays, hostels, etc) to anywhere and everywhere.  I love to go to places that most people that I know wouldn't even think of as a vacation.

I will only offer opinions on places that I have actually visited, so my posts / opinions / lists may seem limited to some, but will always be based on my personal experiences and not something that I read or heard somewhere else.  I do not think it is fair to anyone or any place to do any differently.

Thanks for taking the time to read my travel blog!