COSTA RICA

Costa Rica has been on our list for several years mainly because every single friend that has visited RAVES about this quaint coastal getaway. After several trips to Europe recently, it was time to trade the mountains & glacial melt for sandy beaches and lush rainforests. Plus, sunshine is always a great contrast to brisk North American winters.


CHRISTMAS IN COSTA RICA

8 DAY ITINERARY THROUGH COSTA RICA


SAN JOSE

Nestled in a valley amongst mountains, this sprawling city is actually quite quaint. While we didn’t spend too much time exploring, we did get to drive through many districts - spotting some charming contemporary restaurants and bars. We even found a Taco Bell (with an absurdly long line). We decided to fly into San Jose primarily due to availability of flights and stayed at an amazing AirBnB in the hills. The views were stunning, the host so amenable and helpful, the breakfast was delicious and the home was beautiful. We definitely recommend this AirBnB we stayed at for anyone who is considering staying in San Jose (click here to check it out)!

Our kind, helpful and oh so sweet host Marisol! She was so welcoming and gave us so many great tips for our stay in Costa Rica!

Our kind, helpful and oh so sweet host Marisol! She was so welcoming and gave us so many great tips for our stay in Costa Rica!

Arenal Volcano Costa Rica Travel Guide

ARENAL

The HUBS has been looking forward to visiting this region for years, so when we finally trekked out here we were so excited! I had never seen a caldera volcano before!! It was so spectacular and magnificent. My eyes were just drawn to it.

The surrounding town is pretty, full of lush forestation, markets, a cute town center, and an abundance of lodging. We originally planned on trying some of the hotels, but almost every one was booked when we started planning this trip so we opted for AirBnB’s the entire time. It couldn’t have worked out better. We traveled with some of our friends, so when the HUBS found these cute cabins we immediately booked them. Now, while I will be the first to say these were pretty bare, the property was so idyllic. The hammocks, $5 breakfast, intermittent WiFi that forces you to engage with those your with and nature - these cozy cabins were perfect for anyone looking to feel immersed in nature without having to sacrifice running (hot) water. They were also surprisingly spacious. To be honest, it was kind of romantic to fall asleep in polite rainstorms an wake up to birds chirping.

Some of the HITS from Arenal: ATV’ing at the base of the volcano, the Hanging Bridges, the Don Olivio Chocolate Farm, and Baldi Hot Springs. The only real SKIP was the Cane Negro boat tour. Keep reading to find out more about these experiences.

PARADISE ADVENTURES COSTA RICA

We were connected with PACR via our AirBnB host for the cabins which was actually really nice. We basically booked everything in advance so that during the trip all we worried about was enjoying our excursions. Jonathan was super nice, responsive and easy to work with. Plus since the weather can be unpredictable, it was great that he was able to flex our plans depending on weather. It was pouring the first 2 days we were in Arenal so he just moved everything around accordingly - great customer service!

ATV’ING: This was my first experience on quads. The company that PACR goes through owns land at the base of the volcano with lots of mud trails over hills, cows free grazing, and trees. Some of the hills can be a little intimidating for first-timers like myself but overall this was a great experience. A couple notes: the loop we did said the we would go to a “jacuzzi” which meant creek crossing at the end where people get in, the guides can sometimes herd you, some regulars might pass you which can be frustrating for newcomers. Overall I would rate this a 4/5. Good fun, great views.

DON OLIVO CHOCOLATE FARM: Another one of our faves, this tour came highly recommended to us by our AirBnB host so we had high expectations and it definitely delivered. Owned by a local Tican family, this farm grows over 100 different types of fruits and vegetables - everything from sugar cane, bananas, papaya, black peppercorn, tabasco peppers, coffee beans, coconut, cacao and the list goes on. During the first portion of the tour, we were able to walk around the property and see all the local produce, and even try some fresh harvest! Omg these were the best bananas, papayas and pineapples we had ever tasted. I mean who knew bananas could actually be really good?!

We continued to explore the property, learning about how to harvest sugar cane, drank fresh sugar cane juice and tried some homemade rum! The second portion of our tour was about harvest cacao and the process of making chocolate. We were all so impressed with this tour, the hospitality of the family and all of the tasty samples! TIP: don’t spoil your appetite before you go, there is so much to try you might just skip a meal!

eating freshly harvested papaya 😋

eating freshly harvested papaya 😋

The cacao plant - the humble beginnings of chocolate!

The cacao plant - the humble beginnings of chocolate!

From harvest to chocolate: 1) cacao is harvested 2) the seeds are extracted from the fruit 3) the seeds are fermented 4) the skins are removed and the seeds are dried in the sun 5) the seeds are roasted 6) the shells are removed 7) the pure seeds are very finely ground 8) pure sugar cane juice is added to sweeten the cacao 9) chocolate is made

THERMAL SPRINGS: Over the past few years, we have been scouring the globe for the best hot springs. We so enjoyed our experiences in Iceland and Banff that of course we had to try the thermal springs in Arenal. The two notables are Tabacon & Baldi. We ended up visiting both. Tabacon is free to enter (parking on the side of the street) with a pretty active night life scene. We went around 9:30ish and there were many young adults enjoying the springs. Supposedly the springs are beautiful, however we just saw them at night so we can’t really speak to their looks. We did really have fun meeting other tourists and enjoying the night in some thermal pools.

Baldi Hot Springs is a series of 20+ manicured pools that are powered by geothermal heat. The pools vary in temperatures and size, and can be visited for a small fee ($35/person) that includes a buffet meal at one of the resort’s restaurants and access to the locker rooms. There is an additional fee for lockers & towels. The resort is pretty well maintained and the pools are beautiful and relaxing. PROS: the abundance of pools, saunas, and scenery. CONS: can be busy, the locker rooms are ok, lots of kids (and adult only areas are not strictly enforced). Overall the experience was a 4/5.

Costa Rica Vacation Baldi Hot Springs Itinerary Vegetarian Travel Guide
The resort at Baldi Hot Springs (December 2018)

The resort at Baldi Hot Springs (December 2018)

HANGING BRIDGES (MISTICO): This was probably one of my personal favorites of the trip. The Mistico park features 9+ hanging suspension bridges overlooking rainforest, waterfalls, mountains and more for some seriously scenic views. The park is VERY well maintained and just simply gorgeous. TIP: go first thing in the morning (before 9AM) when its quiet and there very few visitors. You just may be greeted by little critters and really hear the rainforest breath. Its so serene. Overall I’d give this a 5/5.

Hanging Gardens (Mistico) Arenal Park was amazing! Such beautiful views.

Hanging Gardens (Mistico) Arenal Park was amazing! Such beautiful views.

Costa Rica Travel Guide Mistico Hanging Vegetarian
Just outside the Hanging Bridges Park there is a lookout thats has a wonderful view of the volcano.

Just outside the Hanging Bridges Park there is a lookout thats has a wonderful view of the volcano.

CHASING WATERFALLS

CATARATAS DEL TORO & GEMINAL: Arguably the most beautiful part of our trip, we used PACR and Ecotours Toro Amarillo 360 to trek through some rainforest to find the best kept secret waterfalls. The boys rappelled down the waterfalls, did some natural water slides, climbed up trees and rappelled some more. That was a wee bit too adventurous for me, so we decided to just hike around until we all met at the same waterfalls - Cataratas del Geminal. I am pretty sure this is a little known waterfall since it doesn’t even exist on TripAdvisor. They were super serene with turquoise blue waters and oh so peaceful. No tourists, like we had the rainforest and waterfall to our selves. It was incredible - the type of place that makes the rest of the world dissolve into absolution. Overall would rate this a 5/5. Strongly recommend visiting these while exploring Costa Rica.

Taking in the waterfall

Taking in the waterfall

The first waterfall of Cataratas del Geminal. Seriously gorgeous. Look at that water 😍.

The first waterfall of Cataratas del Geminal. Seriously gorgeous. Look at that water 😍.

The second of the two waterfalls that make up Cataratas del Geminal

The second of the two waterfalls that make up Cataratas del Geminal

LLANO DE CORTEZ: this beautiful waterfall is about an hour west of Arenal (en route to Liberia) when the topography really starts to change. The land starts to resemble more arid climates, and the temperatures are much warmer. We just made a pit stop on our way to the pacific beach town of Potrero. Honestly we didn’t know what to expect and definitely did not expect to see tons of people cooling off at the base of this waterfall. While, I am not a fan of crowds, this was still an elegant waterfall. I wish we had prepared to get in, but I definitely loved photographing it. It seemed to be more of a local spot. There is an entrance fee of $7/person. There are decent bathrooms on site and a parking lot. Overall would give this a 4.5/5.

Llano de Cortez Waterfall (outside Liberia)

Llano de Cortez Waterfall (outside Liberia)

PLAYA POTRERO & AZUCAR

After 5 days of adventure, excursions and early wake up calls, it was time to relax! We headed out west towards the sandy beaches of Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast. Since we were looking for something a little bit more quiet, we opted for a less touristy town called Potrero. Turns out many of the locals were actually ex-Pats that abandoned the bustling city life for sandals and sand. The beach itself was nice, good for a quick jog, nothing too remarkable but full of charming people and quaint eateries. We spent most of our days exploring neighboring beach coves, with notables being Playa Azucar (quiet, tan-ish sand), Angelina’s Italian restaurant, Surf Box (for breakfast), and The Shack (for brunch).

Playa Azúcar was so peaceful - the perfect little getaway!

Playa Azúcar was so peaceful - the perfect little getaway!

Pura Vida 🌿 friends!

VENICE


VENICE

TRAVEL GUIDE FOR VENICE ITALY


Venice was pretty much our last destination in Italy.  We actually weren't planning on going because so many had said that this was their least favorite Italian city in part due to the large amount of tourists, extreme prices and dirty water.  We decided to check it out anyways since we were so close and flying out of Venice to Greece was super convenient.  Overall we really enjoyed the city.  I think it helped that we went in with very little expectations so it definitely surpassed ours.  We had such a wonderful time exploring and walking around.  Venice is the perfect destination for 24 hours!

SINGING GONDOLA RIDE

This is a great way to experience the singing gondola ride.  A group of 6 or so gondolas travel at the same time - one has a singer on it.  The route takes about 45 minutes and gives a great tour of Venice by water.  It is a little short but romantic none the less.  

  1. RATING:  5/5
  2. PROS:  singing gondola ride, comfortable gondolas with cushion seating
  3. CONS:  short (45 minutes), singer on one boat not all boats
One of our favorite memories from the trip - our gondola ride was magical 

One of our favorite memories from the trip - our gondola ride was magical 

Gondola ride in Venice during golden hour!

Gondola ride in Venice during golden hour!

ST. MARK'S BASILICA

  1. RATING:  4/5
  2. PROS:  beautiful majestic architecture, amazing mosaic tile murals that are raw stones, good tour guide - very knowledgable 
  3. CONS:  TONS of people, short 1 hour tour - almost not enough time to really explain sights, no photography allowed in several parts of the church
A quick dip with the pigeons outside St. Marks Basilica 

A quick dip with the pigeons outside St. Marks Basilica 


We had such a blast visiting Italy and feel so blessed to have the chance to explore so much of the country.  Check out our drone video below to see more from our trip!

 

 

 

 

 

 

BURANO


BURANO

TRAVEL GUIDE FOR BURANO ITALY


This quaint city lies just outside of Venice and is the lace capital of the world.  Just a quick 40 minute ferry ride the city boasts tons of lace museums and seriously colorful buildings that make the Painted Ladies look drab.  We absolutely adored our visit to Burano and so enjoyed walking around and just taking it all in.  

BURANO

  1. RATING:  5/5
  2. PROS:  instagramer's paradise, colorful buildings and wonderful seafood (from what I hear), cute shops
  3. CONS:  later in the day this town gets super packed.  Many of the well-established well reviewed restaurants here require reservations for eating so plan in advance!
The charming city of Burano!

The charming city of Burano!

When the HUBS finally gets Instagram 

When the HUBS finally gets Instagram 


We had such a blast visiting Italy and feel so blessed to have the chance to explore so much of the country.  Check out our drone video below to see more from our trip!

 

 

 

 

 

ROADTRIP THROUGH THE ITALIAN COUNTRYSIDE


ITALIAN ROADTRIP

ITINERARY FOR A 10 DAY ROADTRIP THROUGH ITALY


Our 10 day road trip through Italy 

Our 10 day road trip through Italy 

DAY ONE  ROME

As y'all know Italy has too much to see for one trip but we were committed and determined to get the most out of our 10 days.  We wanted to hit the ground running (quite literally) as soon as we landed, so we planned to see most of the notables on the first day.  However, insane customs/immigration lines and less than stellar weather did not allow for this.  As a result we had to flex some of our plans to the next day.  

SIDE NOTE:  if you are taking a non-stop direct from the US to Rome, just be prepared for some ridiculous lines in customs/immigration.  It took us 2 hours to get through customs alone!  It seems that the FCO airport has several international flights land mid-afternoon which accounts for the ridiculous lines.  Also, there are many affordable transportation options leaving the airport.  We used the SIT bus (6 Euros/person - cash only) and would definitely recommend this option over cabs, shuttles or even the train.  

VARESE GUEST HOUSE (LODGING)

We really tried to keep our housing affordable throughout the trip, and since we were traveling with our besties we wanted something that catered to group housing.  This is effectively a glorified dormitory.  Several group housing rooms that all share a couple of bathrooms. 

  1. RATING:  4/5
  2. PROS: great location (two blocks from Termini Train Station, clean, reliable wi-fi, good common area space with small kitchenette, spacious rooms (some with balconies).
  3. CONS: average comfort, no breakfast, city/tourist tax to be paid in cash only

RIFUGIO ROMANO (RESTAURANT)

  1. RATING:  4/5
  2. PROS:  good food, affordable prices, really nice helpful staff
  3. CONS:  long waits, reservation highly recommended (or go early - like before 8PM).

DAY TWO  VATICAN CITY + ROME 

Since we encountered lots of temperamental weather the Sunday we landed, we had to flex our original plans to the next day which meant a lot more walking!!  Thankfully we packed comfortable clothing and shoes 🙏🏽.   Between the Vatican museum, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter's Basilica & Colosseum, there was quite a bit of walking - 7 miles to be precise.  Yep SEVEN.  

During the planning stages of this trip we got tons of great insights from our many friends who had been to Italy already.  Pretty much everyone told us to buy skip-the-line tickets for both the Vatican & the Colosseum (+ Forum).  This was excellent advice, however the key to this being useful (for the Vatican in particular) is doing the earliest tours available.  Skip-the-Line tickets allow you to skip the entrance lines for these high profile sights, but do not allow you to skip the security lines (metal detectors).  The security lines are smallest first thing in the morning!  The other benefit to morning tours is that the Vatican is WAY less packed.  You have some breathing room to enjoy the artwork & historical artifacts, but more importantly really gawk at the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel.  

THE VATICAN MUSEUMS & SISTINE CHAPEL TOUR

  1. RATING:  4/5
  2. PROS:  great quick tour with a knowledgable guide, all the highlights are noted, great for individuals who enjoy fast paced tours (length was 1 hour, ending with the Sistine Chapel - could stay here indefinitely), the Vatican Museum Map room was 😍, we got blessed by a priest in the Sistine Chapel!! 😇
  3. CONS:  not as informative as we personally would have liked (could have been more in depth)
the maps room in the vatican museum is gorgeous 

the maps room in the vatican museum is gorgeous 

outside the Vatican with my favorite humans 

outside the Vatican with my favorite humans 

FASHION INSPO:   BLOUSE   |   JEANS   |   SUNGLASSES   |   ESPADRILLES   |   CROSSBODY BAG

FASHION INSPO:  BLOUSE  |  JEANS  |  SUNGLASSES  |  ESPADRILLES  |  CROSSBODY BAG

ST. PETER'S BASILICA TOUR

  1. RATING:  4/5
  2. PROS:  go at your own pace, explore freely, this Basilica was personally my favorite from our tour of Italy, absolutely breath taking architecture and so artfully made.  THIS IS A MUST SEE.
  3. CONS:  This tour comes with an audioguide (downloaded through your own phone on an app), headphones cost extra and are only for normal headphone jacks (not compliant with iPhone 7 and newer).  
  4. NOTES:  Our tour was in the afternoon when there were floods of people, definitely recommend first thing in the morning.  
I think a part of my soul was left behind here at St. Peters Basilica.  I mean just look, gah.  Its so magnificent.

I think a part of my soul was left behind here at St. Peters Basilica.  I mean just look, gah.  Its so magnificent.

SOME NOTES ABOUT THE VATICAN:  

  • If you decide to use these two tours linked above, I would recommend doing all three sights back-to-back.  As the day progresses, the Vatican gets super packed both outside and within the museums.  Its best to be done with all the tours before lunch in my opinion.  Also the Vatican is a no re-entry zone, so once you exit a museum you can not go back in.  
  • Special attire is required (pants, no hats, no revealing clothing for women - no sleeveless, knees must be covered, and according to most sites - closed toe shoes (however this one didn't seem to be strictly enforced)).  
  • The Vatican is closed on Sundays and several religious holidays throughout the year.  It is best to make sure that it will be open during your visit before booking anything.   If you can, book the garden tour - we regret not buying tickets to see this.  
  • Ok and our final note, lots of restaurants in the area will solicit your attention in a semi-aggressive manner.  I would plan meals as much as possible.  We made the mistake of walking into one of the restaurants and getting some fruit.  We didn't think it would cost that much and the price wasn't listed on the menu.  It cost us 50 Euros just for the fruit salad (note this is not the restaurant listed below)!!

PASTASCIUTTA (RESTAURANT)

  1. RATING:  4/5 
  2. PROS:  great basic italian dishes, really inexpensive ($), and very fresh
  3. CONS:  nothing too inventive (just the basics - think pesto, pomodoro, fungi...), only 4 stools in the restaurant to sit, a little hard to find because in a alley way of sorts, not the nicest staff.  

 

COLOSSEO

Much like the Taj Mahal, the Colosseum (aka Colosseo) is magnanimous in person.  Its so incredibly grand and massive - I was literally speechless.  We thoroughly enjoyed just walking around the entire archeological site and spent a couple hours doing only that (and taking pictures 🤗) before even going in.  It was really incredible to be in a space that was built almost 2000 years ago!  So incredible that we went back 3 times!  

RATING:  5/5

  1. PROS:  well preserved, lots of historic artifacts throughout
  2. CONS:  tons of people, very touristy food in the area, steep uneven stairs
  3. SOME NOTES:  
    1. The Colosseum offers skip the line tickets which were excellent.  Our scheduled entry time was 5:30 PM and we basically walked in.  The security line at that time was pretty minimal which was also really convenient.  Just a heads up, only small purses/backpacks are allowed, tickets can be purchased here and are good for 2 consecutive days (this proved very useful with the bad weather we encountered), and tickets give access to the Forum (where Caesar is buried) & Palatine Hills.  Oh also they are super affordable - however the link above is not for a guided tour - if you are looking for that then I'd suggest the Viator route.  
    2. I also really recommend going back to the Colosseum at night when its all lit up.  There is a little bridge right across from it that is a great view point at night (see picture below).  
    3. Lastly, watch out for the gladiators.  These guys are aggressive, will essentially take your phone as collateral until you pay them, and will ask for ridiculous amounts of money for about 5 minutes of fun.  Have cash ready for this instead of opening your wallet in front of them.  They demanded we pay $100 USD, we gave them $30 (which is still a bit much).
Colosseum Colosseo Itinerary Guide Italy Roadtrip Charisma Shah
Colosseum Tour Roadtrip Through Italy Tuscany Travel Guide Charisma Shah
Colosseum Guide Roadtrip through Italy Tuscany Travel Guide Charisma Shah
OUTFIT DETAILS:   DRESS   |   SKIRT

OUTFIT DETAILS:  DRESS  |  SKIRT


DAY THREE  TIVOLI GARDENS + CIVITA DE BAGNOREGIO

The next morning we had a late breakfast before picking up our rental car and leaving Rome for Villa D'Este aka Tivoli Gardens.  Some of our good friends raved about these lush gorgeous gardens so we knew we had to check it out.  The gardens were first commissioned by Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este an avid patron of the arts in the 16th century.   Today the site is owned by the Italian government and is a a world UNESCO heritage site.  Tickets can be purchased in advance (to be picked up at the counter) here.

TIVOLI GARDENS

  1. RATING:  4/5
  2. PROS:  beautiful lush gardens, very well maintained, expansive, lots of fountains
  3. CONS:  can't be reached by train, sometimes large groups
Just admiring the endless roses in Tivoli Gardens (Villa d'Este)

Just admiring the endless roses in Tivoli Gardens (Villa d'Este)

Happiest with the HUBS.

Happiest with the HUBS.

CIVITA DI BAGNOREGIO

  1. RATING:  4/5
  2. PROS:  really quaint village, very few tourists, peaceful
  3. CONS:  not accessibly by train, steep hill/hike to entrance, everything closes early here so plan accordingly!

Civita di Bagnoregio is this really charming village that sits at the plateau of a mound of constantly eroding volcanic rock.  The town is over 2500+ years old and is constantly at risk of erosion from decaying rock.  This was actually the HUBS find.  Neither of us had ever heard of this town before but I am so glad we went.  In fact, this is where Pinocchio was filmed.  Geppetto's shop is still here and can be visited!  Its actually an olive oil bottle manufacturer.  The views from Civita are beautiful.  Every corner & crevice of Civita de Bagnoregio is chock full of beautiful blooms and vines.  

The stunning Civita de Bagnoregio, a 2500+ year old city that sits atop volcanic rock in Tuscany!

The stunning Civita de Bagnoregio, a 2500+ year old city that sits atop volcanic rock in Tuscany!

the HUBS wanted a picture with his Italian café in front of Civita 

the HUBS wanted a picture with his Italian café in front of Civita 

OUTFIT DETAILS:  SIMILAR  RAINCOAT   |   SUNGLASSES   |   CROSSBODY

OUTFIT DETAILS:  SIMILAR RAINCOAT  |  SUNGLASSES  |  CROSSBODY

OUTFIT DETAILS:   SIMILAR TOP   |   JEANS

OUTFIT DETAILS:  SIMILAR TOP  |  JEANS

II RIPI & GO (RESTAURANT)

  1. RATING:  4.5/5
  2. PROS:  quaint, spacious, great service, delicious food, reasonable prices, walkins welcome
  3. CONS:  limited parking, staff may not speak english

LA MERIA COUNTRY HOME

  1. RATING:  5/5
  2. PROS:  probably our favorite of our stays this home was quaint, spacious, comfortable and perfect for families.  It has a kitchen, dining table, fireplace, balcony, two rooms and two bathrooms.  The balcony overlooks lovely Tuscan rolling hills.  The home sits at the base of a larger property with several units.  Breakfast is delicious and included pastries, teas, fresh coffee, cheese spreads, breads, deli meats, and fruit.  I also loved that you could literally drive up to the home directly.  Also Luca was so sweet, thoughtful and just happy to be there.  Also theres a cute little rooftop above the breakfast area that is so serene.  We really wish we had stayed longer.  
  3. CONS:  literally no complaints.

DAY FOUR  CASCATE DEL MULINO

CASCATE DEL MULINO

Probably Italy's best kept secret is Cascate del Mulino (in Saturnia), these beautiful cascade of natural geothermal pools nestled in the Tuscan countryside.  I knew I wanted to visit this gem the minute we decided to vacation in Italy, so I planned quietly to keep this somewhat a surprise for everyone else (especially the HUBS who is obsessed with local only spots).  Its super relaxing and serene.  For anyone looking to rent a car, this is a must see.  

Since this spot is tucked away, we decided to stay in Catabbio, the closest lodging we could find on AirBnB.  Saturnia is technically free and not associated with any hotel so people can go at any time.  We wanted to get there first thing in the morning before it got too packed.  According to the reviews on TripAdvisor, most people get there around 8:30/9AM and the pools tend to be most packed during the warmer seasons (May - September).  Since we were visiting at the beginning of high season we planned on getting to the pools by 6:00 AM.  Thankfully we were only staying about 15 minutes away.  

  1. RATING:  5/5
  2. PROS:  natural (not man made) geothermal spa, serene, stunning, not too many tourists because no train access or tour groups
  3. CONS:  can get packed with locals, rocks can get slippery so be careful, no lockers or bathrooms - plan accordingly, smells like sulfur 
Saturnia Terme Geothermal Spa Tuscany Travel Guide Charisma Shah Italy Roadtrip Itinerary
Cascate del Mulino geothermal spa in Saturnia, Tuscany.

Cascate del Mulino geothermal spa in Saturnia, Tuscany.

Cascate del Mulino geothermal spa in Saturnia, Tuscany.

Cascate del Mulino geothermal spa in Saturnia, Tuscany.

ROCCAPESTA

After spending the morning at Cascate del Mulino in Saturnia, we decided to visit the Roccapesta winery which our host recommended.  Tuscany is abundant with wineries including several notables.  Although, we had never heard of Roccapesta we were excited to try a local recommendation.  The owner, Alberto, actually gave us our tour.  He was so incredibly knowledgable, kind and answered our many questions (the HUBS asked easily 100+ questions).  Apparently Alberto purchased the winery in late 2000's.  If I remember correctly, Alberto was formerly an engineer before buying the winery.  Every grape is hand-picked before being hand-sorted for processing.  Many of the wines have earned the illustrious DOCG certification, included their most popular Roccapesta Reserve.   Our personal favorites would have to be the Calastia.  Alberto was so generous and even let us try some of his older reserves from his personal collection!  

  1. RATING:  5/5
  2. PROS:  local pick, boutique vineyard, not touristy, very charming, great service and very friendly staff, very affordable wines
  3. CONS:  not accessible by train
  4. NOTES:  make a reservation well in advance.
Roccapesta Tuscany Winery Morelli di Scansano Italy Travel Guide

 

DAY FIVE  WINERIES & ABBEY DE SAN GALGANO

You can't visit Tuscany without visiting a winery...well actually several.  We wanted to get a good variety of wineries so we chose a large and boutique vineyard to visit.  

CASTELLO DI BANFI

  1. RATING:  5/5
  2. PROS:  great service, we did the tasting menu (vegetarian friendly) at the restaurant which comes with 3 wine pairs and 1 aperitif prior to the meal.  The Banfi campus is HUGE and gorgeous.  You can also stay here.  This one of the biggest wine manufacturers & exporter in Italy and a majority of their wines are exported to the US.  
  3. CONS:  pricey, a little less personal,
  4. NOTES: reservations are required
The shop at Castello di Banfi has so many wonderful wines, olive oils, pottery and much more to bring home!

The shop at Castello di Banfi has so many wonderful wines, olive oils, pottery and much more to bring home!

MATÉ WINERY

  1. RATING:  4/5
  2. PROS:  quaint, beautiful campus, wine tasting is pretty thorough
  3. CONS:  wine tasting does not include a tour, personally was not that fond of the wines.
  4. NOTES:  requires a reservation.  

ABBEY OF SAN GALGANO

This was somewhat of a random stop.  I literally saw some photography of this abbey on instagram and knew I had to visit it.  It just looked so beautiful and raw.  Turns out the abbey was en route to pisa so we decided to stop by and check it out.  It was absolutely gorgeous and a great spot for drone footage.  A 800+ year old monastery, the Abbey was once roofed but in 1786 its bell tower fell after years of decay and with it went the roof.  Today several efforts have been made to restore what remains.   People can still get married here however and the inside looks beautiful (we couldn't go in because it was already closed by the time we arrived).

  1. RATING:  5/5
  2. PROS:  beautiful, quaint, quiet (no tourists), serene
  3. CONS:  not accessible by train, closes early.  
The Abbey of San Galgano from above by drone (DJI Mavic Pro).

The Abbey of San Galgano from above by drone (DJI Mavic Pro).

Playing dress up at the Abbey of San Galgano (Tuscany, Italy)

Playing dress up at the Abbey of San Galgano (Tuscany, Italy)

The Abbey of San Galgano from above taken with a DJI Mavic Pro.

The Abbey of San Galgano from above taken with a DJI Mavic Pro.

GANDHI (RESTAURANT)

  1. RATING:  3.5/5
  2. PROS:  really great service, super friendly staff, spacious, good food, decent portions, well priced
  3. CONS: parking right outside of restaurant is limited and restricted
  4. NOTES:  As an Indian, I am pretty critical of Indian cuisine outside of India or my mom's kitchen 😂.  That being said, I was pleasantly surprised with the food but it definitely was not as good as the real thing.  After eating tons of Italian food however, it did provide some necessary variety & spice.

VILLA MARIA

  1. RATING:  4/5
  2. PROS:  great breakfast (fruits, pastries, eggs, fresh coffee, tea, meats), private bathroom, spacious room 
  3. CONS:  twin beds, staff is somewhat strict about quiet hours

DAY SIX  PISA

Before our trip we scheduled a cooking class just outside Pisa with Chef Paolo that covered 10+ pasta sauces and 4+ different types of pasta. We so enjoyed this class and would definitely recommend it to other friends and family.  

CHEF PAOLO MONTI'S COOKING SCHOOL

  1. RATING:  5/5
  2. PROS:  very thorough assortment of pasta sauces and pastas, recipes are printed out for you to take home, learn everything from chopping to making fresh pasta, get to eat your creations afterwards, wine pairings are included, food is delicious!
  3. CONS:  a little outside of Pisa (not that common of a location), 5 hours long course with lots of standing.
  4. NOTES:  reservations required, seriously one of the best meals we had in Italy.  The pasta carbonara was easily the top 5 pastas I have ever had in my life.  I wish I could eat it every day lol.
Chef Paolo teaching me how to make Carbonara.  

Chef Paolo teaching me how to make Carbonara.  

We had such a wonderful time learning from Chef Paolo & his team!

We had such a wonderful time learning from Chef Paolo & his team!

Later that evening after the class, we decided to stop by the Leaning Tower on our way home.  Like many of our friends said, the tower is pretty anti-climactic, especially at night.  It wasn't even lit up!  There also weren't any plaques or guides describing the history of the tower.  The architecture was definitely beautiful and ornate, but this was probably the least memorable experience during our Italy trip.

LEANING TOWER OF PISA

  1. RATING:  3/5
  2. PROS:  nice architecture
  3. CONS:  not that interesting, touristy (lots of people), not lit up at night

DAY SEVEN CINQUE TERRE

One of the most anticipated destinations in our Italy trip was visiting Cinque Terre.  We had heard so many amazing things and were so excited to spend some time exploring.  Each town was so quaint that half a day was definitely not enough.  We had anticipated hiking through the 5 towns, but it was really hot so we instead opted to just enjoy more time in Vernazza.  We visited Monterosso al Mare & Vernazza.  We really wish we had also spent some time in Riomaggiore but unfortunately we ran out of time since we had a long drive ahead of us.  

  1. RATING:  4/5
  2. PROS:  super quaint, lots of charming shops and restaurants to visit (not the most veggie friendly), phenomenal pesto, beautiful views, train accessible, hiking path
  3. CONS:  jam packed with tourists (best to go earlier in the morning).
Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy - Spring 2018 

Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy - Spring 2018 

Damn, that gelato was so good though 😋!

Damn, that gelato was so good though 😋!

BELFORT CASTLE

We decided to stop by Belfort Castle while we were en route to the Italian Alps.  The HUBS was obsessed with visiting old abandoned castles during the trip.  In fact he even had a little ritual of playing "Castle on a Hill" every time 😂.  We had spotted this castle during while researching about Italy before our trip.  Much like the rest of Europe, Italy has some beautiful castles, each one rich in history and nestled in some quaint countryside.  

  1. RATING:  4/5
  2. PROS:  incredible views of the alps, free, parking lot, quiet and serene
  3. CONS:  not train accessible
Belfort Castle from above.  

Belfort Castle from above.  

Fields of dandelions in front of Belfort Castle

Fields of dandelions in front of Belfort Castle


DAY EIGHT ALPS

This was probably the part of the trip that I was most looking forward to.  After visiting Switzerland & Iceland last year, I was really curious as to how Italy compared.  No one ever talks about the Italian Alps, but damn they are GORGEOUS.  I personally felt like the Italian side of the alps was tremendously more beautiful than the Swiss side.  The views were incredible and so much more approachable?  I am not sure how to describe it, but the mountains are softer and land seems sweeter.  Maybe pictures would help?

Italian Alps as seen from the charming town of Bruneck (Brunico) 

Italian Alps as seen from the charming town of Bruneck (Brunico) 

One of our first stops in the Italian Alps was Lake Sorapis.  I had read about many beautiful hikes in the Alps and knew immediately that I had to do this one.  The trail head for the hike starts off SR48 (follow the signs for Passo Tres Croci).  The hike is about 11 miles roundtrip with an elevation gain of 200 meters.  The trail path winds through forest, scales the side of a mountain before coming to a clearing where you will see Lago di Sorapis (Lake Sorapis).  This lake is insane.  Basically glacial melt, the water is brilliant tiffany blue.  This is by far the BEST HIKE I HAVE EVER EXPLORED.  Even the HUBS agrees.  We witnessed snow, rain, sunshine, waterfalls, mountains, wildlife, etc.  It was so beautiful that we all were in awe when we came back.  Lets just say this is a hike where you are so lost in the beauty of your surroundings that you forget how tired your feet are.  

LAGO di SORAPIS

  1. RATING:  5/5
  2. PROS:  insane views, beautiful surroundings, pretty clear trail path, hiking shoes not required but would be advantageous, partially shaded, cool & shaded for about 1/2 of the trail.
  3. CONS:  no bathrooms, limited parking immediately off the street (no lot), road leading to trail head is a little bit confusing.  
  4. NOTES:  if you are ever searching for hikes in this region this website is a great resource - click here
the HUBS exploring Lago di Sorapis

the HUBS exploring Lago di Sorapis

Lago di Sorapis is seriously gorgeous y'all.

Lago di Sorapis is seriously gorgeous y'all.

Serenity at its best!

Serenity at its best!

LAGO di BRAIES (PRAGSER WILDSEE)

Supposedly one of the most photographed lakes in Italy, Pragser Wildsee aka Lake Braies is a local gem of the Dolomites.  This lake somewhat resembles Lake Morraine in Banff and is beautifully framed by the wonderful Italian Alps and features really pretty almost moody teal water. We absolutely loved visiting this lake and it was so peaceful to just be able to take a canoe out and explore.

  1. RATING:  5/5
  2. PROS:  beautiful view, no hiking required (just park and walk), serene, quiet, canoe rentals available
  3. CONS:  parking costs 4 Euros, somewhat touristy later in the day
Canoeing with the HUBS on Lago di Braies (Pragser Wildsee) 

Canoeing with the HUBS on Lago di Braies (Pragser Wildsee) 

HARDMITZN (RESTAURANT)

To be completely honest, I didnt really know what to expect of the food in the Alps.  Its pretty well known that the alps are this fusion region with a large german influence.  In fact many of the signs as you travel north are in both Italian & German.  The same is pretty much true for the food. Lots of meats but surprisingly the meals we had in the alps were our second best.  This restaurant was right next to our hotel and had two floors - downstairs (the pizzeria) and upstairs (a steakhouse).  On the first night we decided to try the steakhouse.  As a vegetarian, I really was expecting to just eat sides for the night but they had this "curry" veggie burger.  Y'all:  it was the best veggie burger I have ever eaten (sorry, Grindhouse you've been bumped)!  It was smothered in this creamy masala mayo that was so delicious.  Note to self:  steakhouses can have excellent vegetarian options.  

  1. RATING:  5/5
  2. PROS:  the prosseco aperit with dragonfruit and mint is excellent, awesome veggie burger, grilled vegetables & baked potato, great atmosphere -  some tables have great views , the pizzeria was delicious too - suprisingly good chili burrito and margherita pizza!
  3. CONS:  the tomato butter & bread are not very good (personal opinion), on the expensive side
  4. NOTES:  reservations not required unless you want the view

CRON4

  1. RATING:  3/5
  2. PROS:  nice thermal pools with lots of sauna options
  3. CONS:  saunas are towel only (no bathing suits), lots of men walk around entirely nude, steam rooms are nude only, must have sandals, bring your own towels & sandals or you can rent them for a small fee, entry fee, lots of kids

HOTEL GARNI HOCHGRUBER

  1. RATING:  4/5
  2. PROS:  nice staff, really awesome breakfast (waffles, fruit, teas, fresh coffee, meats, pastries, juices, cereals), comfortable rooms with balconies, discounted entry to CRON4
  3. CONS:  no pool or hot tub, rooms are dated

DAY NINE  VENICE

Venice was pretty much our last destination in Italy.  We actually weren't planning on going because so many had said that this was their least favorite Italian city in part due to the large amount of tourists, extreme prices and dirty water.  We decided to check it out anyways since we were so close and flying out of Venice to Greece was super convenient.  Overall we really enjoyed the city.  I think it helped that we went in with very little expectations so it definitely surpassed ours.  We had such a wonderful time exploring and walking around.  Venice is the perfect destination for 24 hours!

SINGING GONDOLA RIDE

This is a great way to experience the singing gondola ride.  A group of 6 or so gondolas travel at the same time - one has a singer on it.  The route takes about 45 minutes and gives a great tour of Venice by water.  It is a little short but romantic none the less.  

  1. RATING:  5/5
  2. PROS:  singing gondola ride, comfortable gondolas with cushion seating
  3. CONS:  short (45 minutes), singer on one boat not all boats
One of our favorite memories from the trip - our gondola ride was magical 

One of our favorite memories from the trip - our gondola ride was magical 

Gondola ride in Venice during golden hour!

Gondola ride in Venice during golden hour!

ST. MARK'S BASILICA

  1. RATING:  4/5
  2. PROS:  beautiful majestic architecture, amazing mosaic tile murals that are raw stones, good tour guide - very knowledgable 
  3. CONS:  TONS of people, short 1 hour tour - almost not enough time to really explain sights
A quick dip with the pigeons outside St. Marks Basilica 

A quick dip with the pigeons outside St. Marks Basilica 

DAY TEN BURANO

This quaint city lies just outside of Venice and is the lace capital of the world.  Just a quick 40 minute ferry ride the city boasts tons of lace museums and seriously colorful buildings that make the Painted Ladies look drab.  We absolutely adored our visit to Burano and so enjoyed walking around and just taking it all in.  

BURANO

  1. RATING:  5/5
  2. PROS:  instagramer's paradise, colorful buildings and wonderful seafood (from what I hear), cute shops
  3. CONS:  later in the day this town gets super packed.  Many of the well-established well reviewed restaurants here require reservations for eating so plan in advance!
The charming city of Burano!

The charming city of Burano!

When the HUBS finally gets Instagram 

When the HUBS finally gets Instagram 


We had such a blast visiting Italy and feel so blessed to have the chance to explore so much of the country.  Check out our drone video below to see more from our trip!

 

 

 

 

 

 

CIVITA DI BAGNOREGIO


CIVITA DI BAGNOREGIO

GUIDE FOR TRAVELING THROUGH ONE OF ITALY'S OLDEST CITIES


Civita di Bagnoregio is this really charming village that sits at the plateau of a mound of volcanic rock.  The town is over 2500+ years old and is constantly at risk of erosion from decaying rock.  This was actually the HUBS find.  Neither of us had ever heard of this town before but I am so glad we went.  In fact, this is where Pinocchio was filmed.  Geppetto's shop is still here and can be visited!  Its actually an olive oil bottle manufacturer.  The views from Civita are beautiful.  Every corner & crevice of Civita de Bagnoregio is chock full of beautiful blooms and vines.  

  1. RATING:  4/5
  2. PROS:  really quaint village, very few tourists, peaceful
  3. CONS:  not accessibly by train, steep hill/hike to entrance, everything closes early here so plan accordingly!
The stunning Civita de Bagnoregio, a 2500+ year old city that sits atop volcanic rock in Viterbo!

The stunning Civita de Bagnoregio, a 2500+ year old city that sits atop volcanic rock in Viterbo!

the HUBS wanted a picture with his Italian café in front of Civita 

the HUBS wanted a picture with his Italian café in front of Civita 

OUTFIT DETAILS:  SIMILAR  RAINCOAT   |   SUNGLASSES   |   CROSSBODY

OUTFIT DETAILS:  SIMILAR RAINCOAT  |  SUNGLASSES  |  CROSSBODY

OUTFIT DETAILS:   SIMILAR TOP   |   JEANS

OUTFIT DETAILS:  SIMILAR TOP  |  JEANS

II RIPI & GO (RESTAURANT)

  1. RATING:  4.5/5
  2. PROS:  quaint, spacious, great service, delicious food, reasonable prices, walkins welcome
  3. CONS:  limited parking, staff may not speak english

 

WHEN IN ROME & VATICAN CITY


ROME TRAVEL GUIDE

ITINERARY FOR A 3 DAYS IN ROME, ITALY


Our 10 day road trip through Italy 

Our 10 day road trip through Italy 

DAY ONE  ROME

As y'all know Italy has too much to see for one trip but we were committed and determined to get the most out of our 10 days.  We wanted to hit the ground running (quite literally) as soon as we landed, so we planned to see most of the notables on the first day.  However, insane customs/immigration lines and less than stellar weather did not allow for this.  As a result we had to flex some of our plans to the next day.  

SIDE NOTE:  if you are taking a non-stop direct from the US to Rome, just be prepared for some ridiculous lines in customs/immigration.  It took us 2 hours to get through customs alone!  It seems that the FCO airport has several international flights land mid-afternoon which accounts for the ridiculous lines.  Also, there are many affordable transportation options leaving the airport.  We used the SIT bus (6 Euros/person - cash only) and would definitely recommend this option over cabs, shuttles or even the train.  

VARESE GUEST HOUSE (LODGING)

We really tried to keep our housing affordable throughout the trip, and since we were traveling with our besties we wanted something that catered to group housing.  This is effectively a glorified dormitory.  Several group housing rooms that all share a couple of bathrooms. 

  1. RATING:  4/5
  2. PROS: great location (two blocks from Termini Train Station, clean, reliable wi-fi, good common area space with small kitchenette, spacious rooms (some with balconies).
  3. CONS: average comfort, no breakfast, city/tourist tax to be paid in cash only

RIFUGIO ROMANO (RESTAURANT)

  1. RATING:  4/5
  2. PROS:  good food, affordable prices, really nice helpful staff
  3. CONS:  long waits, reservation highly recommended (or go early - like before 8PM).

DAY TWO  VATICAN CITY + ROME 

Since we encountered lots of temperamental weather the Sunday we landed, we had to flex our original plans to the next day which meant a lot more walking!!  Thankfully we packed comfortable clothing and shoes 🙏🏽.   Between the Vatican museum, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter's Basilica & Colosseum, there was quite a bit of walking - 7 miles to be precise.  Yep SEVEN.  

During the planning stages of this trip we got tons of great insights from our many friends who had been to Italy already.  Pretty much everyone told us to buy skip-the-line tickets for both the Vatican & the Colosseum (+ Forum).  This was excellent advice, however the key to this being useful (for the Vatican in particular) is doing the earliest tours available.  Skip-the-Line tickets allow you to skip the entrance lines for these high profile sights, but do not allow you to skip the security lines (metal detectors).  The security lines are smallest first thing in the morning!  The other benefit to morning tours is that the Vatican is WAY less packed.  You have some breathing room to enjoy the artwork & historical artifacts, but more importantly really gawk at the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel.  

THE VATICAN MUSEUMS & SISTINE CHAPEL TOUR

  1. RATING:  4/5
  2. PROS:  great quick tour with a knowledgable guide, all the highlights are noted, great for individuals who enjoy fast paced tours (length was 1 hour, ending with the Sistine Chapel - could stay here indefinitely), the Vatican Museum Map room was 😍, we got blessed by a priest in the Sistine Chapel!! 😇
  3. CONS:  not as informative as we personally would have liked (could have been more in depth)
the maps room in the vatican museum is gorgeous 

the maps room in the vatican museum is gorgeous 

outside the Vatican with my favorite humans 

outside the Vatican with my favorite humans 

FASHION INSPO:   BLOUSE   |   JEANS   |   SUNGLASSES   |   ESPADRILLES   |   CROSSBODY BAG

FASHION INSPO:  BLOUSE  |  JEANS  |  SUNGLASSES  |  ESPADRILLES  |  CROSSBODY BAG

ST. PETER'S BASILICA TOUR

  1. RATING:  4/5

  2. PROS:  go at your own pace, explore freely, this Basilica was personally my favorite from our tour of Italy, absolutely breath taking architecture and so artfully made.  THIS IS A MUST SEE.
  3. CONS:  This tour comes with an audioguide (downloaded through your own phone on an app), headphones cost extra and are only for normal headphone jacks (not compliant with iPhone 7 and newer).  
  4. NOTES:  Our tour was in the afternoon when there were floods of people, definitely recommend first thing in the morning.  
I think a part of my soul was left behind here at St. Peters Basilica.  I mean just look, gah.  Its so magnificent.

I think a part of my soul was left behind here at St. Peters Basilica.  I mean just look, gah.  Its so magnificent.

SOME NOTES ABOUT THE VATICAN:  

  • If you decide to use these two tours linked above, I would recommend doing all three sights back-to-back.  As the day progresses, the Vatican gets super packed both outside and within the museums.  Its best to be done with all the tours before lunch in my opinion.  Also the Vatican is a no re-entry zone, so once you exit a museum you can not go back in.  
  • Special attire is required (pants, no hats, no revealing clothing for women - no sleeveless, knees must be covered, and according to most sites - closed toe shoes (however this one didn't seem to be strictly enforced)).  
  • The Vatican is closed on Sundays and several religious holidays throughout the year.  It is best to make sure that it will be open during your visit before booking anything.   If you can, book the garden tour - we regret not buying tickets to see this.  
  • Ok and our final note, lots of restaurants in the area will solicit your attention in a semi-aggressive manner.  I would plan meals as much as possible.  We made the mistake of walking into one of the restaurants and getting some fruit.  We didn't think it would cost that much and the price wasn't listed on the menu.  It cost us 50 Euros just for the fruit salad (note this is not the restaurant listed below)!!

PASTASCIUTTA (RESTAURANT)

  1. RATING:  4/5 
  2. PROS:  great basic italian dishes, really inexpensive ($), and very fresh
  3. CONS:  nothing too inventive (just the basics - think pesto, pomodoro, fungi...), only 4 stools in the restaurant to sit, a little hard to find because in a alley way of sorts, not the nicest staff.  

COLOSSEO

Much like the Taj Mahal, the Colosseum (aka Colosseo) is magnanimous in person.  Its so incredibly grand and massive - I was literally speechless.  We thoroughly enjoyed just walking around the entire archeological site and spent a couple hours doing only that (and taking pictures 🤗) before even going in.  It was really incredible to be in a space that was built almost 2000 years ago!  So incredible that we went back 3 times!  

RATING:  5/5

  1. PROS:  well preserved, lots of historic artifacts throughout
  2. CONS:  tons of people, very touristy food in the area, steep uneven stairs
  3. SOME NOTES:  
    1. The Colosseum offers skip the line tickets which were excellent.  Our scheduled entry time was 5:30 PM and we basically walked in.  The security line at that time was pretty minimal which was also really convenient.  Just a heads up, only small purses/backpacks are allowed, tickets can be purchased here and are good for 2 consecutive days (this proved very useful with the bad weather we encountered), and tickets give access to the Forum (where Caesar is buried) & Palatine Hills.  Oh also they are super affordable - however the link above is not for a guided tour - if you are looking for that then I'd suggest the Viator route.  
    2. I also really recommend going back to the Colosseum at night when its all lit up.  There is a little bridge right across from it that is a great view point at night (see picture below).  
    3. Lastly, watch out for the gladiators.  These guys are aggressive, will essentially take your phone as collateral until you pay them, and will ask for ridiculous amounts of money for about 5 minutes of fun.  Have cash ready for this instead of opening your wallet in front of them.  They demanded we pay $100 USD, we gave them $30 (which is still a bit much).
Colosseum Colosseo Itinerary Guide Italy Roadtrip Charisma Shah
Colosseum Tour Roadtrip Through Italy Tuscany Travel Guide Charisma Shah
Colosseum Guide Roadtrip through Italy Tuscany Travel Guide Charisma Shah
OUTFIT DETAILS:   DRESS   |   SKIRT

OUTFIT DETAILS:  DRESS  |  SKIRT


DAY THREE  TIVOLI GARDENS + CIVITA DE BAGNOREGIO

The next morning we had a late breakfast before picking up our rental car and leaving Rome for Villa D'Este aka Tivoli Gardens.  Some of our good friends raved about these lush gorgeous gardens so we knew we had to check it out.  The gardens were first commissioned by Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este an avid patron of the arts in the 16th century.   Today the site is owned by the Italian government and is a a world UNESCO heritage site.  Tickets can be purchased in advance (to be picked up at the counter) here.

TIVOLI GARDENS

  1. RATING:  4/5
  2. PROS:  beautiful lush gardens, very well maintained, expansive, lots of fountains
  3. CONS:  can't be reached by train, sometimes large groups
Just admiring the endless roses in Tivoli Gardens (Villa d'Este)

Just admiring the endless roses in Tivoli Gardens (Villa d'Este)

Happiest with the HUBS.

Happiest with the HUBS.

BANFF NATIONAL PARK (CANADA)

About a year ago, I came across a picture of what I assumed was of some exotic lake in Switzerland.   Turns out it was Lake Louise in Banff National Park just outside of Calgary, Canada. I have been pushing the HUBS to go ever since.  The mountains looked perfect, the water was the unimaginable shade of blue and the proximity was undeniable.  

Fast foward to this past Labor day weekend - we were scrambling because we booked a trip to Costa Rica that was cancelled because of the devastation to Houston by Hurricane Harvey.  We were about to cancel our plans entirely, but desperately trying to find another great getaway.   The first option we considered was Puerto Rico but then we turned on the news and it appeared that Hurricane Irma was headed straight there.  We then considered the sunny beaches of Mexico but Hurricane Lidia was en route.  We just about gave up, when I realized that Banff was an option, especially since Canadian parks have free entrance this year in honor of the national parks' 150th anniversary (about a $20 saving per day per entrance to the parks).  Granted the HUBS had already been (when he was 10), but it was pretty safe from all the tropical storms and a great use of our vacation time.  We literally booked our tickets 32 hours before our flight!

Banff definitely did not disappoint - even with forest fires (146 to be precise) and heavy smog it was still super pretty and a wonderful time!  Keep reading to see all the places we visited during our 6 day stay in Banff and maybe even a little drone video at the end.

Happy Wanderlust Wednesday y'all :)


BANFF NATIONAL PARK

6 DAY ITINERARY


DAY ONE  CALGARY

Before visiting, we got some great recommendations from our friend who lived in Calgary.  Calgary is about an 1 - 1.5 hour drive to Banff.  Since we landed somewhat late, we decided to stay the night in Calgary and explore the town. 

RESIDENCE INN NORTHEAST CALGARY

  1. RATING:  4/5
  2. PROS:  close to the airport, free breakfast, good gym, quick drive to downtown, really good music playlist, good customer service (random I know but seriously true lol!), spacious suites, awapuhi shampoo (one of my faves!)
  3. CONS:  meh decor, generic, breakfast is pretty standard

10 FOOT HENRY (RESTAURANT)

  1. RATING:  5/5
  2. PROS:  delicious food, amazing cocktails, great ambiance, very kind staff, extremely vegetarian friendly
  3. RECS:  cocktails - asno cavalo (port + gingerbeer + lime) ah-mazing.  My favorite dishes were the yam tortilla, grilled asparagus and the gigli.  Pass on the gai lan if you don't like acidic asian flavors

DAY TWO  BANFF NATIONAL PARK

The next morning we had a late start.  It was a little cooler in Banff than we had anticipated (specifically the nights) so we woke up and shopped for some layers and then drove to Banff (~100km/60mi).  En route to Banff we stopped at Cascade Ponds and Johnson Lake (an extension of Lake Minnewanka).

Aerial (drone) photo of Cascade Ponds.

Aerial (drone) photo of Cascade Ponds.

CASCADE PONDS

  1. RATING:  4/5
  2. PROS:  really pretty, very clear almost stained glass like water with green hues.  Not too touristy (even at mid-day), canoes/kayaks welcome, no hiking necessary for views
  3. CONS:  hard to see the real colors when the sun isn't directly overhead
  4. RECS:  go during morning or early afternoon for best views.
Johnson Lake

Johnson Lake

JOHNSON LAKE

  1. RATING: 3/5
  2. PROS: no hiking necessary for view, not too touristy, en route to Banff, serene and quiet, picnic tables 
  3. CONS: view is ok
Banff International Hostel Itinerary Tour Guide Canada Charisma Shah

BANFF INTERNATIONAL HOSTEL

  1. RATING:  4/5
  2. PROS:  cost effective option for staying in Banff town center, clean rooms/bathrooms, 8 bunks/room, co-ed/family/single sex rooms available with en suite bathroom, free breakfast, young professionals, safe, great location
  3. CONS:  can be noisy, front desk is open 24/7 so people can arrive in the middle of the night

CARLITO'S PIZZARIA

  1. RATING:  3.5/5
  2. PROS:  really good veggie poutine with cheese curds, friendly staff, no reservation needed
  3. CONS:  pizza hut style pizza, too cheesy, not enough sauce (I love neapolitan style pizza, so take this with a grain of salt)

 

DAY THREE  EMERALD & PEYTO LAKE 

On Wednesday morning, we woke up early so we could head out to Emerald Lake first thing (about a 1 hour drive from Banff).  Technically Emerald Lake is not in Banff, its in Yoho National Park.  This lake came highly recommended by several other sites, the views looks beautiful, and it definitely did not disappoint.  From there we drove up through the Icefields parkway to Peyto Lake.  

Emerald Lake (Yoho National Park, Canada)

Emerald Lake (Yoho National Park, Canada)

Emerald Lake Yoho Banff National Park Canada Tour Guide Itinerary Charisma Shah
Emerald Lake Yoho Banff National Park Canada Tour Guide Itinerary Charisma Shah

EMERALD LAKE

  1. RATING:  5/5
  2. PROS:  no hiking necessary for view, incredibly serene, very well maintained, beautiful, minty seafoam green water, canoes available ($95/hour), wonderful 5 mile trail that goes all the way around the lake, good cliff jumping spot, great reflections.
  3. CONS:  canoes are quite expensive, gets busy starting at 10 AM.
  4. RECS:  definitely take the trail that goes around the lake - very worth it for beautiful views and evolving scenery.
Drone footage of Peyto Lake (Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada) from the Bow Summit.

Drone footage of Peyto Lake (Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada) from the Bow Summit.

These two goofballs, almost scared me to death with this shot (thats a cliff right there!!)

These two goofballs, almost scared me to death with this shot (thats a cliff right there!!)

Peyto Lake Banff National Park Tour Guide Itinerary Charisma Shah

PEYTO LAKE (elevation 6100+ ft)

  1. RATING:  5/5
  2. PROS:  beautiful views, short walk to lookout or and long hike to summit
  3. CONS:  lots of people at the lookout (during mid-day), not as well marked as we would have liked
  4. RECS:  The longer hike (4 miles roundtrip) to the summit is definitely worth the incredible views.  Summit is at ~7000ft elevation.  Hiking shoes aren't necessary but highly recommended since rocky.

EARL'S KITCHEN + BAR 

  1. RATING:  3.5/5
  2. PROS: nice staff & service, comfy chairs, lots of veggie options, eclectic bar/pub food
  3. CONS:  taste was good not great.  the p'zookie was a little dry and crumbly.  quinoa beet bowl was good.  not memorable to visit again.

DAY FOUR  LAKE MORRAINE + LOUISE

During the 24 hours between booking and actually taking our flight we were definitely scrambling to figure out exactly what all we wanted to see.  The plight of the constant wanderluster is going somewhere and missing something epic or beautiful.  SO each one of us researched to find the best spots and most beautiful locations.  Lake Morraine seemed to pop up on every site's list as the most beautiful lake in Banff.  Obviously we had to see it for ourself.  

Lake Morraine at Sunrise Banff National Park Canada Tour Guide Itinerary Charisma Shah

LAKE MORRAINE

  1. RATING:  4.5/5
  2. PROS:  beautiful, perfectly flanked by mountains on all sides, bright blue water
  3. CONS:  super touristy now (much like Louise), lots of people (even at 5:30 AM for the sunrise), canoes are really expensive to rent ($95/hour), the hike for the best views is literally a pile of strewn about lumber and massive rocks (a little daunting)
  4. RECS:  if you go during high season (april - september) expect lots of people no matter the time of day, sunlight doesn't hit the mountains in september til late morning/early afternoon so sunrises are not really worth it.  Lake is absolutely beautiful though, bring hiking boots
Lake Louise Banff National Park Canada Tour Guide Itinerary Charisma Shah
Lake Louise Banff National Park Canada Tour Guide Itinerary Charisma Shah

LAKE LOUISE

  1. RATING: 4/5
  2. PROS:  really nice paved path around half of the lake, pretty, flanked by mountains, restaurants and nice bathrooms
  3. CONS:  way too many people (even early in the morning), hike can be pretty rocky 
  4. RECS:  bring hiking boots, lots of water, cash if you go to the teahouse
Waterfall along the Plain of 6 Glaciers Hike

Waterfall along the Plain of 6 Glaciers Hike

Plain of 6 Glaciers Hike Lake Louise Banff National Park Canada Tour Guide Itinerary Charisma Shah

PLAIN OF 6 GLACIERS HIKE (AT LAKE LOUISE)

  1. RATING:  3/5
  2. PROS:  cute teahouse (with veggie options) at the top, 10 miles (round trip) with elevation gain of ~2400ft, alongside beautiful waterfalls,
  3. CONS:  extremely rocky, horse poop, lots of people (you can feel rushed sometimes which is dangerous on this hike at points), view is ok.  
  4. RECS:  hiking boots, water, snacks for the top, cash to pay at teahouse, do the beehive hike instead for better views (there is another teahouse here as well).

AUTHENTIC INDIAN MASALA HOUSE

  1. RATING:  5/5
  2. COST:  $$
  3. PROS:  outstanding lick-your-fingers good food, great service, really friendly staff, walk-ins welcome
  4. CONS:  sometimes they get large tour groups so reservations might be beneficial
  5. RECS:  seriously if you like Indian food then this is a must visit - it is undoubtedly one of the best Indian restaurants I have been to outside of India.  Get the Tava Paneer and chili naan (delish!!!).  Oh the Tadka/Yellow daal was amazing too!  

DAY FIVE  JOHNSTON CANYON & INK POTS

The guys were considerate of my lack of hiking stamina, so we decided to only do one major hike per day.  Each of these hikes were about 10 miles long round trip so multiple in one day was not really an option for me.  Johnston canyon is a hike that runs along a creek to two waterfall (Lower and Upper).  The Lower falls is about a 1.5 mile hike while Upper is about a 3.5 mile hike with a pretty gradual increase in elevation.  Just beyond the Upper falls, is a hike to the Ink Pots, a series of brilliant blue green ponds that appear to be straight out of an asian garden and can only be reached by hiking (no road access).  In total the hike is about 5 miles (oneway) to the Ink Pots.

Waterfall between the Upper and Lower falls at Johnston Canyon

Waterfall between the Upper and Lower falls at Johnston Canyon

Waterfall between the Upper and Lower falls at Johnston Canyon

Waterfall between the Upper and Lower falls at Johnston Canyon

JOHNSTON CANYON (LOWER & UPPER FALLS HIKE)

  1. RATING:  5/5
  2. PROS:  well shaded by the trees, paved trail with rails, great views of the waterfalls, beginner level for hikes to both falls, great clean bathrooms.
  3. CONS:  lots of people, can't get in the water.
  4. RECS:  go early in the morning to avoid crowds (we started the hike at 8:30 AM)
Aerial (drone) photo of the Ink Pots (Banff National Park).

Aerial (drone) photo of the Ink Pots (Banff National Park).

INK POTS

  1. RATING:  5/5
  2. PROS:  well shaded hike, along water, definitive trail with signage
  3. CONS:  long hike to see ink pots, several people even in early morning
  4. RECS:  bring water and snacks, the earlier the better, hiking boots not necessary.

DAY SIX  RADIUM HOT SPRINGS

After three days of hiking 10 miles each, we just felt like relaxing the remainder of our trip so we decided to venture a little bit south of Banff to the little town of Invermere.  

CRYSTAL SPRINGS MOTEL

  1. RATING:  3/5
  2. COST: $$
  3. PROS:  great free breakfast with lemon blueberry ricotta pancakes, nice staff, in-room keurigs
  4. CONS:  typical drab decor, not too many young professionals

RADIUM HOT SPRINGS

  1. RATING:  4/5
  2. COST:  $5.95/person
  3. PROS:  inexpensive, natural hot spring with minerals, locker rooms, towel rental (and swim suit but that seems weird to me haha), spa on site for facials/massages/etc, really beautiful during the winter, biggest natural hot springs in Canada
  4. CONS:  lots of people, typically do renovations from september - november so regular spring is not open during that time, no drinks or food available for purchase, spa is very expensive, hard to compete with the Blue Lagoon (Iceland)

HORSETHEIF CREEK PUB

  1. RATING:  4/5
  2. COST:  $$
  3. PROS:  board games available to play at table, really nice staff, clean bathrooms, good food, large tvs
  4. RECS:  try the green chile mac n cheese!

LOU'S BURRITOS

  1. RATING: 3/5
  2. COST: $
  3. PROS:  nice friendly staff, fresh food
  4. CONS:  food was under salted and bland.  Too much paprika and just not very good.  Not a good example of Mexican/TexMex

BIRCHWOOD RESTAURANT

  1. RATING:  5/5
  2. COST: $$$
  3. PROS:  eclectic menus with lots of vegetarian options, pakoras were actually amazing (this Indian approves!), every dish was well made and tasted great, charming atmosphere
  4. RECS:  make a reservation

EDGEWATER GOLF COURSE

  1. RATING:  4/5
  2. PROS:  great pies, really nice family establishment, staff was warm and welcoming, seems to be a locals spot, great pies (with ice cream!), golf clubs & carts available for rent, can drink on course (when purchase at course's restaurant)
  3. CONS:  no driving range
  4. RECS:  get the blueberry rhubarb or apple pies with ice cream on top!

Unfortunately, due to forest fires in the surrounding area, most of the hikes in Invermere were closed.  We had an absolutely amazing time in Banff even with the smog.  The hikes were incredible and empowering for me haha because I have literally never hiked so much in my life.  The views are amazing but if I could go again I would avoid this forest fire season and try to go when there is still snow on the mountain tops!  The smoke and smog definitely affected our ability to take photos and drone footage, but it could hamper Banff's beauty!  Below is our drone video from this trip.  Enjoy!!

Our 6 day tour of Banff (and Yoho) National Park, Canada.

Our 6 day tour of Banff (and Yoho) National Park, Canada.

  1. Calgary
  2. Johnson Lake
  3. Cascade Ponds
  4. Banff (Town Center)
  5. Johnston Canyon
  6. Ink Pots
  7. Lake Louise
  8. Lake Morraine
  9. Emerald Lake
  10. Peyto Lake

 

 

24 HOURS IN PARIS

After our wonderful and epic vacation to Iceland and Switzerland, the HUBS and I decided to do a 24 hour layover in Paris.  I had never been, always wanted to go and anything less than 24 hours would be too little.  I must say, as the layover neared, I kept wondering if one day would really be enough time to get a flavor of the city.  Turns out when you have so little time you really REALLY make it count.  


PARIS TRAVEL GUIDE


GOAL 1:  EIFFEL TOWER

The first thing we did after landing was go to the Eiffel tower.  We wanted to get there before it got too packed.  Turns out we were too late for that, but we still did really enjoy ourselves.  Plus it was even better since we got to see some family there too!  

Eiffel Tower Paris Travel Guide Charisma Shah
selfie under the Eiffel Tower

selfie under the Eiffel Tower

Eiffel Tower Paris Travel Guide Charisma Shah
Acting like tourists :)

Acting like tourists :)

Eiffel Tower Paris Travel Guide Charisma Shah
Trocadero

Trocadero

The HUBS and I were pretty hungry since we had skipped breakfast for the Eiffel Tower, so we actively searched for food.  And since we hadn't eaten Indian since Iceland, we were pretty stoked to eat something familiar and veggie-friendly.  We tried out this place called Sangeetha in Paris "Little India" district.  We were pretty disappointed.  Let's just say stick to the South Indian food at this restaurant - that was decent.  

GOAL 2:  GET REAL FRENCH MACARONS

After lunch we decided to walk around for a while and work off our meal.  We walked until we got to our Macarons destination - Pierre Herme.  This was actually a recommendation from our Parisian Airbnb host so we figured we'd get it in lieu of Laduree.  

Macarons are not cheap!  We purchase 6 macarons for $20+ dollars, but they were DELICIOUS.  The flavors were so unique and the shop wasn't full of tourists which was nice because we had more time to select which of the flavors we wanted to try.  Definitely a locals spot.  And yes, all macarons are made fresh daily - we asked.  

Pierre Herme Macarons

Pierre Herme Macarons

PS.  the jasmine tea macaron was incredible!!

SIDE TRACK - GET ICE CREAM

Right outside of the Pierre Herme macaron store we spotted this really quaint ice cream boutique - Une Glace à Paris.  On a whim we decided to try it.  OMG.  Phenomenal.  The Lemon Olive Ice cream was the best ice cream I have ever tasted - super refreshing and not tart, and more importantly tastes like those lemon creme filled biscuits that you eat with chai.  Ah-mazing.

GOAL 3:  GO TO A REAL CREPERIE

So, after ice cream we continued on our food, LBH sweets, tour of Paris and decided to walk 2 miles to get crepes at Creperie Framboise.  Since we were walking we got extra :)

The HUBS and I were pretty apprehensive that crepes in Paris could be so much better than our favorite spot.  Truthfully, I was expecting more novel unique flavors than your typical nutella, strawberry, etc.  Most of the crepes we tried were solid but not amazing.  Although the flavors weren't that unique, the HUBS got easily the most delicious sweet crepe we have ever had.  It was caramel apple praline with ice cream - basically lots of yummy goodness.  

Caramel Apple Praline Crepe with Ice Cream

Caramel Apple Praline Crepe with Ice Cream

Oh also, apparently Parisians don't eat crepes for breakfast because none of the creperies are even open before noon...

GOAL 4:  FLAGSHIP LOUBOUTIN 

I mean do I really need to explain this one?  Basically, go and gawk, its like a boutique/shoe shrine/museum.  Oh and drop off your brother/husband/bf/dad at the dude side right next to it.

GOAL 5: SEE THE EIFFEL TOWER AT NIGHT

I actually must say this was one our favorite thing we did in Paris.  Apparently ever hour on the hour for five minutes the tower lights up in glittery spectacular glory.  I had seen it on Instagram and wanted to see it first hand so, we took a bottle of wine (a real french Bordeaux) and uber'd it to the tower.  We sat and reflected in the moments leading up to midnight.  Sure enough at midnight it started.  It was midnight in paris, and it was this perfect romantic moment.  

Midnight in Paris

Midnight in Paris

And that was basically our day layover in Paris.  Whats your favorite thing to do in Paris?  I am sure we will be going again so we'd love recommendations for our next trip!  Let us know in the comments below!  

Happy Travels!

 

 

6 DAY GUIDE TO SWITZERLAND

Such a beautiful country, lets just say it was difficult to spend just 6 days there. After doing tremendous amounts of research, the HUBS and I finally decided where we wanted to go and what we wanted to see.  We were pretty adamant about not doing too many extremely touristy things, so we set out to find the most beautiful and remote spots.  Each one was gorgeous.  Keep reading to find out where all we went! 


6 DAY GUIDE TO SWITZERLAND


Our itinerary for 6 days.

Our itinerary for 6 days.

 

DAY ONE  LUGANO

view of Lugano from Monté Bre

view of Lugano from Monté Bre

Before this trip, neither of us knew about this beautiful city.  It sits right on Lake Lugano on the southern border between Switzerland and Italy, and surrounded by mountains.  Its proximity to Italy lends to a very prominent Italian culture: food, wine, and architecture.  Even as we were hopping trains from Zurich to Lugano, the announcements progressively changed from German to Italian.  In fact, its one of the few cities in the country that speaks Italian. 

MONTÉ BRÉ

This is the highest peak in Lugano on the Swiss side.  Its a 3 hour hike (or 20 minute ride up the funicular) that has absolutely stunning views of the city.  You can also take bus 12 to the top and hike about another 20 minutes to the summit.  At the summit there are some restaurants and gift shops.  We just enjoyed the views.  

  1. RATING:  *****
  2. PROS:  great views, funicular available if you don't want to hike, bus available in case funicular isn't available
  3. CONS:  funicular costs 25 Euros and is not included in Swiss Rail Pass

ARTÉ AL LAGO

Located in the Arté Lago Hotel, this is the only Michelin star restaurant in the entire city.  

  1. RATING:  *****
  2. PROS:  great food, beautiful views, excellent service, sommelier, vegetarian friendly, amenable to allergies and dietary restrictions, tasting menu and a la carte
  3. CONS:  waterfront but inside (no outdoor seating).  
  4. NOTES:  guys must wear slacks (no shorts allowed).

 

DAY TWO INTERLAKEN

This was probably the most touristy destination of our trip.  Initially I was apprehensive about visiting, but it was just as beautiful as the rest of our destinations, and there was tons to do.

  1. RATING:  *****
  2. PROS:  variety of food options, lots of adventure sports, beautiful, boating/water activities
  3. CONS:  touristy, lots of people, expensive

 

THE AARBURG

This adorable quaint hotel is right along one of the canals that run throughout the city.

  1. RATING:  *****
  2. PROS:  our room had a balcony with a beautiful view of the city and Alps, breakfast is included, ensuite bathroom, and the staff (Chris) are so incredibly nice and helpful.  Out of everywhere we stayed throughout our trip in Iceland and Switzerland, this was our favorite place and favorite host.   
  3. CONS:  rooms are small so not the best for large suitcases

LITTLE THAI

We figured we would take advantage of Interlaken's variety of cuisines and try some Thai food since we had been surviving on swiss cheese and granola for too many days.  Surprisingly did not disappoint.

  1. RATING:  ****
  2. PROS: quick, better than expected, good variety of dishes, tofu friendly.
  3. CONS:  outside of the city center, not better than Thai food in the States.

SWISS PARAGLIDING

Paragliding in Interlaken

Paragliding in Interlaken

This was an amazing experience.  Neither of us had been paragliding before, and Interlaken provided the perfect scenery.  While flying you can see the three main peaks in the region: Jungfrau, Eiger and Schilthornbahn, and both lakes Thun and Brien.

  1. RATING:  ****
  2. PROS:  great coaches, super relaxing and beautiful & perfect scenery for paragliding
  3. CONS:  super expensive $150/person plus more if you purchase the pictures.  

LADERACH CHOCOLATERIE SUISSE

Delicious.

  1. RATING:  *****
  2. PROS:  officially my new favorite chocolate (previously the title belonged to Venchi Italian Chocolates), try the orange scented dark chocolate almond bark - Ah-mazing!  Better than Lindt, and you can ask to try flavors.  Can't be purchased in the States.
  3. CONS:  $$$$ (the HUBS was astounded that chocolate could cost so much).

 

DAY THREE  KANDERSTEG & LAKE OESCHINESEE

Lake Oeschinesee #nofilter 

Lake Oeschinesee #nofilter 

It took several weeks of researching the best, most beautiful sites to see in Switzerland and constantly adding & removing destinations to decide our final itinerary.  I think we had about 10 versions before we finalized everything.  I happened upon this spot on Instagram and immediately knew I had to go.  Unfortunately, adding it meant removing something else (Mount Titlis), but I just could not get over the bright blue glacial waters.  The HUBS was really reluctant to add another destination to our already crammed schedule, but in the end he was the first one to say that it was his favorite destination by far.  If you go to Switzerland we both think its a MUST SEE. 

  1. RATING:  *****
  2. PROS: remote, bright blue glacial water, peaceful, wonderful hike, really great strawberry vanilla soft serve, can rent boats to go out on the lake, GORGEOUS.
  3. CONS:  none.
  4. RECS:  take hiking boots, snacks (food can be $$$).
just rowing away on Lake Oeschinesee

just rowing away on Lake Oeschinesee

Lake Oeschinesee Kandersteg Switzerland Travel Guide Charisma Shah
the HUBS and his trademark jumping pics! :)

the HUBS and his trademark jumping pics! :)

Lake Oeschinesee Kandersteg Switzerland Travel Guide Charisma Shah

 

DAYS FOUR - SIX GIMMELWALD + MÜRREN

Gimmelwald from above.

Gimmelwald from above.

After exploring Interlaken for two days, we moved on to Gimmelwald - this adorable mountain village at an altitude of 4000+ ft.  In fact, its one of the few towns (village really) in Switzerland that can not be reached via car - there is no road access.  Just a hiking path or gondola ride (free with the Swiss Travel Pass).  The route to Gimmelwald from Interlaken is very picturesque - passing several waterfalls and Lauterbrunnen (another cute town).  Unfortunately it rained most of the time we were there, so we don't have too many pictures from this part of our trip, but Gimmelwald was the perfect destination for someone who wants to hike and be outdoors.  

  1. RATING:  ****
  2. PROS:  beautiful village, very remote, not too touristy, lots of wonderful trails and gondolas to summits (Schilthorn & Allmendhubel), the North Face Trail, Lauterbrunnen, and Mürren are very accessible.
  3. CONS:  somewhat hard to get to (not directly on the train paths), not too many food options within Gimmelwald but many more in Mürren.
  4. RECS:  bring hiking boots, do not bring too much large luggage, you could definitely do everything in just one or two days here max.  We stayed a little too long in our opinion.

MOUNTAIN HOSTEL

  1. RATING:  ***
  2. PROS:  lots of backpackers, young professionals and college kids.
  3. CONS:  its a hostel - so you have to remove your own sheets at the end of your stay, pay 1 swiss franc for the shower, breakfast is pretty bare bones, and all guests are required to wash their own dishes.  I know this is pretty typical of hostels, but it still cost $100/night for us to stay there which seems expensive when we are doing so much ourselves and sharing a room with like 20 other strangers.  Also they have a MAJOR fly problem - like 100 flies per floor.
Gimmelwald Switzerland Travel Guide
Gimmelwald Switzerland Travel Guide Charisma Shah

THE NORTH FACE TRAIL

  1. RATING:  *****
  2. PROS:  absolutely beautiful ~ 5 mile hike (mostly downhill) from Allmendhubel to Murren/Gimmelwald.  Very picturesque, free grazing cows, so peaceful.  We went in the rain and it was still amazing.  
  3. CONS:  since there are cows there is also cow dung, not too many food options or bathrooms along the way so prepare accordingly.
  4. RECS:  Absolutely wear hiking boots. 
view from the first part of the North Face Trail.

view from the first part of the North Face Trail.

North Face Trail Gimmelwald Murren Switzerland Travel Guide Charisma Shah

In spite of the rain, the HUBS still managed to take some beautiful drone footage of our excursions and travels throughout the country.  

If you have also been to Switzerland, what was your favorite destination?  There are so many beautiful cities we just might have to go again!  Leave us a comment below and let us know where we should travel to next!

 

 

 

 

3 DAY ICELAND TRAVEL GUIDE

So when the HUBS and I first met, he told me about all of his travel dreams.  He even asked me to create some artful pieces for his then new home of: where he's been, where he would like to go and where he's lived.  As he was talking about his future passport stamps, I realized that I had never created a list of places I wanted to go.  I just assumed the highlights like Italy, Greece, and Hawaii would happen eventually.  But now I wanted a list.  

Well, flash forward a couple years and some friends of ours went to Iceland.  It was pretty much the most beautiful pictures I have ever seen, and since I am OBSESSED with photos, I just had to go.  So long, Hawaii and Santorini, you just got bumped for Iceland!

Needless to say, when the HUBS said he was going for our friend's bachelor party, I couldn't resist.  I mean how many times do you go to Iceland in your life?  Plus the weather was amazing, and I don't fare well in the cold.  

Well, after months and months of planning and researching, we finally isolated what we HAD to do while we were there.  Iceland is a stunning country, regardless of the season and there is just too much to do in 72 hours, so we had to prioritize.  Not by choice but by necessity.  

Since we had such an incredible experience traveling to Iceland we figured we'd share what we did and saw.  To see all of our tips for traveling to Iceland click here.  Enjoy!

THE GOLDEN CIRCLE

A series of stops along the southwestern portion of the country.  Includes these main attractions: the Strokkur geyser, Gullfoss waterfall, Kerið volcanic crater, and Þingvellir National Park.  

  1. RATING:  ***
  2. LOCATION:  Click here to see tours on Trip Advisor
  3. PROS:  lots of guided tours available.  Gullfoss waterfall is incredible, large and beautiful. Diving between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates in Þingvellir National Park was incredible according to the HUBS.
  4. CONS: super touristy, Strokkur geyser was pretty much like any other geyser, Kerið volcanic crater was not that interesting or that beautiful either.  
  5. RECS:  super touristy, many more beautiful spots in Iceland than these.  Only one really worthwhile was the tectonic plates.  
Kerið volcanic crater from above

Kerið volcanic crater from above

DAY ONE

SOLHEIMASANDUR PLANE CRASH

Supposedly in the 1970's a US Navy DC plane crashed on the Solheimasandur beach because it was out of fuel.  All the crew members survived but the plane crash remnants still remain on the beach pretty close to the sea.  This crash site is about 2.5 hours from Reykjavik and 20 minutes from Vik.  

  1. RATING:  ****
  2. LOCATION: Click here to view on Google Maps
  3. PROS:  really neat unique experience, made for a great photo opportunity, close to Vik and black sand beach
  4. CONS:  long walk (5 miles roundtrip), very touristy now, hard to get on top of plane, lots of people
  5. RECOMMENDATIONS:  go as early as possible to avoid large crowds. Great guide on how to get there.
plane crash Solheimasandur Iceland Travel Guide charisma shah
Solheimasandur plane crash Iceland travel guide charisma shah
Solheimasandur plane crash Iceland travel guide charisma shah
Solheimasandur plane crash Iceland travel guide charisma shah
Solheimasandur plane crash Iceland travel guide charisma shah

SKÓGAFOSS

This grand waterfall sits on the edge of what used to be Iceland's former southern cliff coastline.  

  1. RATING:  ****
  2. LOCATION: Click here to view on Google Maps
  3. PROS: very large, beautiful landscape surrounded by roaming sheep and horses, can climb to view from top, very picturesque
  4. CONS: lots of people
  5. RECS:  earlier the better to avoid crowds
Skógafoss waterfall in the distance

Skógafoss waterfall in the distance

Skógafoss waterfall 

Skógafoss waterfall 

PURPLE NOOTKA FIELDS

Along our drive back from the plane crash site, we kept passing these beautiful fields of purple "nootka" or Alaskan Nupine flowers.  We literally frolicked in these fields of Nootka bollywood style.  Duh.

Nootka Flower Fields Iceland Travel Guide charisma shah
Nootka Fields Iceland Travel Guide charisma shah
Nootka Fields Iceland Travel Guide Charisma Shah

SEJALANDSFOSS

This pretty waterfall is along Road 1 on the southwestern portion of the island.  Its most well known for its walking path that leads behind the waterfall.

  1. RATING:  ***
  2. LOCATION:  Click here to view on Google Maps
  3. PROS: Close to the main road, bathrooms, pretty
  4. CONS: Touristy, Niagra falls offers a more unique walk behind the waterfall than this (if you've done Niagra before than this waterfall is skippable).  
  5. RECS: the earlier you go the better - less people.  Definitely slippery - wear appropriate shoes
Sejalandsfoss Waterfall Iceland

Sejalandsfoss Waterfall Iceland

DAY TWO

LANDMANNALAUGUR

Located in the Highlands this beautiful mountain range was created by a volcanic eruption back in the 1400's.  Its so gorgeous, has tons of wonderful hikes, a campsite and is totally worth the trek.  

  1. RATING:  *****
  2. LOCATION:  Click here to view in Google Maps
  3. PROS:  lots of guided tours available, great hikes, gorgeous views, lakes and ponds intermittently, bathroom, picturesque, not crowded, self exploring
  4. CONS:  requires 4WD, 3 hours from Reykjavik, pay-to-use bathrooms
  5. RECS:  bring hiking boots and just wander.  lots of great places to take pictures, very calming + relaxing
landmannalaugur mountains iceland travel guide charisma shah
landmannalaugur mountains iceland travel guide charisma shah
a little blurry but a golden memory

a little blurry but a golden memory

landmannalaugur mountains iceland travel guide charisma shah

SIGOLDÜFOSS

Gorgeous waterfall sitting on the northern outskirts of Landmannalaugur with bright blue glacial water.  

  1. RATING:  *****
  2. LOCATION:  Click here to view on Google Maps
  3. PROS:  lesser known, not crowded, bright blue water, lots of different view points
  4. CONS:  lots and lots of flies
  5. RECS:  bring face net so the flies don't bother you, right outside northern entrance to Landmannalaugur next to the power station
Sigoldüfoss waterfall

Sigoldüfoss waterfall

sigoldüfoss waterfall Iceland travel guide charisma shah

BRUARFOSS

Both the HUBS and I agree this was our favorite waterfall.  Its tucked away, remote and somewhat hard to find with all the bushes and trees, but its a stunner.  Pictures do not do it justice.  We basically followed a beaten mud footpath for about a mile climbed through some bushes and voila - Bruarfoss.  Stunner.

  1. RATING:  *****
  2. LOCATION: Click here to view on Google Maps
  3. PROS:  remote, isolated, blue glacial water, short hike
  4. CONS:  hike through mud and bushes to get to it
  5. RECS:  wear shoes that can get dirty, follow GPS to basic location then follow other people or sound of water to find footpath.  
Bruarfoss waterfall Iceland Travel Guide charisma shah

DAY THREE

ÖXARÁRFOSS

This really unique hike might seem familiar - its featured in Game of Thrones and follows the Mid-Atlantic ridge to a waterfall.  Its actually man-made, dating back to the 9th century with the intent to provide water to locals.

  1. RATING:  ****
  2. LOCATION:  Click here to view in Google Maps.
  3. PROS:  really unique looking, small quaint waterfall at end of hike, well paved in parts
  4. CONS:  lots of people
  5. RECS:  use hiking boots, pretty rocky at the beginning
Öxarárfoss waterfall 

Öxarárfoss waterfall 

Oxararfoss waterfall 

Oxararfoss waterfall 

BLUE LAGOON

Probably the most popular of our excursions, was the Blue Lagoon.  I personally was really looking forward to this experience.  First, yes its that pretty in real life, but what no one picture shows is how touristy it is.  Lots of people.  Since its quite large, this didnt really affect us too much except in the locker rooms as we tried to shower and change after.  It really is so nice to take a dip in a thermal pool when its chilly!

  1. RATING: ****
  2. LOCATION: Click here to view on Google Maps.
  3. PROS: very beautiful, relaxing, warm, fun to go with groups, chill
  4. CONS:  lots of people, packed locker rooms, expensive even for the basic package, only one toilet in locker room.
  5. RECS:  bring toiletries, towel, flip-flops, clothes to change into, don't leave the face masks on for too long - can be drying.
Blue Lagoon Iceland Travel Guide Charisma Shah
Blue Lagoon Iceland Travel Guide
Blue Lagoon, Iceland

Blue Lagoon, Iceland

We had such an amazing experience in Iceland!  We could not excessively share enough haha.  The HUBS took some amazing drone footage which you can watch below (best viewed in 4K!).  We hope you enjoy!  And please go visit Iceland - its a must see!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BELIZE

YOU BETTER BELIEZE IT

san pedro belize charisma shah

The HUBS and I have been traveling a lot lately.  Between moving and visiting family, our weekends have been packed, so naturally when we saw a great deal on a flight to Belize via Southwest we hopped on it.  Literally.  

We've travelled to several beach destinations (hello Maldives!) and always had a wonderful time.  Belize didn't disappoint.  The country is relatively small, with about 300k population total.  But y'all these are some of the most generous, hospitable, friendly folk ever.  Everyone was so nice and helpful.  Our tour guide Lloyd even fed us home-cooked rice & beans during our explorations of the area.  And almost everyone speaks english.  In fact, the native language is "Kriol" which sounds something like really fast broken English.  

Belize has several beautiful locations, but we decided to spend our time in Belize city and San Pedro Island.  Belize city was this quaint bustling city with a village feel.  Everyone seems to know each other.  And much to our surprise there is a large Indian population because several of the natives are of East Indian/Caribbean Indian descent.  We were walking down the street and passed a car playing Bollywood music.  We went to a local Indian grocery store.  In fact, our first meal was traditional Punjabi food at a local Indian restaurant called Sumathi!

I see trees of green, skies of blue...what a wonderful world

I see trees of green, skies of blue...what a wonderful world

The next day we took a ferry to San Pedro island.  It was beautiful, serene, and perfectly charming.  We stayed at Air B N' B's the entire time, which was the best decision we could have made.  We were able to really absorb much of the local culture.  We had our bellies fill of  fried plantains, fresh guavas, custard apple and like most vacations, too much other food to keep track of.  

Its hard to choose the most memorable part of our stay, but it is definitely a toss up between swimming with sharks or feeding wild howl monkeys.  

HOL CHAN MARINE RESERVE

Hol Chan is a local marine park that is home to a beautiful coral reef and its corresponding eco system.  It is always so fun to snorkel and see this magnificent world that exists beneath the ocean.  The little kid in me felt like I was in Finding Nemo exploring the "drop off"!  We saw eagle rays, eels, rainbow fish, swordfish and a ton of other species I couldn't even identify.  Definitely worth the figurative trek out there.  

SHARK RAY ALLEY

This was arguably the best part of our trip.  The local tour groups take you on a boat to where the fisherman bait the indigenous sharks.  You basically jump in to a school of barracudas and nurse sharks bigger than the HUBS.  It was terrifying, exhilarating and incredulous at the same time.  Definitely recommend this one.  Its a once in a lifetime experience swimming in the barracuda, nurse shark and sting ray pit.  Check out this video from our experience!  

 

BABOON SANCTUARY

This one is somewhat of a misnomer.  In the outskirts of the jungle go Belize city, there is a local monkey sanctuary.  Rather than traditional zoos or sanctuary's in the US, this is a local Belizean's home.  He spent 7 years befriending the wild howl monkeys (which the locals call "baboons") that live in the surrounding forrest of his home.  Today, you can visit his home and feed these friendly creatures in their natural habitat.  They are so friendly and apparently hungry for bananas!  We had such a wonderful time feeding them and watching them as they swung through the trees.  Another definitely see.  

she held on to the HUBS' hand with her tiny fingers

she held on to the HUBS' hand with her tiny fingers

sit still look pretty

sit still look pretty

We definitely recommend staying with the AIR BnB hosts we stayed with.  They were both amazing, offering to give us rides, feeding us - they redefined hospitality.  While in Belize City, we stayed with Karim in his quaint home.  He was such a wonderful host, feeding us breakfast, arranging rides for us, even giving us some of the best food recommendations!  In San Pedro we stayed in Laura's adorable charming 1 BR/BA villa.  It was so comfortable and was a great location right on the beach and walking distance to the main pier, the grocery store and several great restaurants.  Oh, and it had a hammock which is perfection on beach trips!

of course we had to take at least one dip picture!

of course we had to take at least one dip picture!