Miami Mini Vacation, Days 4 and 5: Sunset Celebration in Key West

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On the fourth day, the end of our mini vacation was rapidly approaching. Our official programme for the day consisted of seven full hours of shopping at the Sawgrass Mills outlet. However, I am really bad at buying anything, and the mere thought of changing rooms and their bright lights makes me sweat. I’ve also gotten quite used to travelling alone, so the first three intensive days of travelling in a group (no matter how nice the group) had started to wear down my introverted brain. Although I’m sure that chasing after discounts in a jungle of designer products would have been a culturally rewarding dive in the deep of capitalism, at this point I decided to separate myself from the rest of the group and headed out to Key West by myself.

I had reserved my bus transfer from Miami to Key West a couple days earlier through Travel to Key West, and early on Monday morning, the bus picked me up in front of our hotel precisely as and when promised. My one-way trip cost 35 dollars, nearly as much as the 39-dollar day trip would have been. However, I didn’t want to return on the same day, since the drive is nearly four hours one-way. The day trip only allows for six hours to tour the destination, and the return bus leaves too early to see the famous Key West sunset. And I really, really wanted to see that sunset.

So, I booked a bed in a shared room at NYAH Key West, which turned out to be an excellent decision. Even though 55 dollars for a dorm bed seemed like legalised robbery at first, considering the general Key West price level, I actually got a lot of bang for my buck. The official check-in time would have been 4 pm, but they let me in my room as soon as I arrived around noon. The flirty receptionist’s only concern appeared to be whether I was trying to use my older sister’s passport – and that’s how to get hefty tips! :)

The room was clean and tidy and it had its own bathroom and access to a spacious balcony. Each bed had its own night light, a small shelf, and a couple of USB charging ports, as well as a regular power outlet. In addition, every guest got a big locker that worked with the same key card that was used to access the rooms. There were a lot of small, practical things like that to make life easier for everyone. The hotel consists of several maze-like wooden houses surrounding a cosy and secluded pool area shaded by tall palm trees. There are four pools: a heated and an unheated pool, a hot tub and a jacuzzi. Though I’m not entirely sure of the difference between the last two, it didn’t stop me from enjoying the warm soak to relax my sore muscles. Not Your Average Hotel, indeed! This one gets my sincerest recommendations.

The architecture of the wooden houses in Key West has a delightfully Caribbean vibe to it. I spent the first two to three hours just walking around the sleepy neighbourhoods, admiring their cheerful colours and kooky details, of which my absolute favourite was the scheming, mail-munching frog (see picture above). I only stopped for some quick takeaway Cuban lunch from Sandy’s Café, now known as Fernandy’s Café. My recommendations to that one, as well!

Key West is so compact that it’s easy to get almost anywhere on foot. There’s also the free Duval Loop Bus which tours the most important tourist traps seven days a week. Myself, I’d rather walk than travel by bus, but I’ll just leave that little tip here for anyone else heading to the island. Whatever you do, don’t fall victim to the 35-dollar hop on, hop off tour that they try to peddle at every street corner. It really isn’t necessary.IMG_20181112_130120

In November, there were still a lot of Halloween decorations left up here and there. And I’m not talking about any old fake spiderwebs thrown around willy-nilly. No, I’m talking about the “more is more” type of extravaganzas that only true Americans seem to master. I captured the most artistic display in the picture above: at first, I thought the dude on the rocking chair on the porch was the owner himself, but upon a closer look, I realised it was a nightmarish clown keeping company to a couple of full-sized horse skeletons. Loved it!

It came as a surprise to me that Key West isn’t really much of a beach destination. The public beaches downtown, including the Southernmost Beach in the Continental USA, sure look fine from a certain angle but are tiny and overcrowded in reality. It may even be possible to get stung by Portuguese man-of-wars in the water, yikes. Smathers Beach, which is near the airport, is surely big and gorgeous, but the highway runs parallel to it and you can hear the cars on the beach. In my opinion, anyone looking for a full-on beach holiday would be better off picking another Key or sticking to Miami Beach.IMG_20181112_152401__01 IMG_20181112_152356IMG_20181113_065628

Don’t travel to Key West for the beaches, travel there for the unique and laid back atmosphere. One of the island’s unique features is that chickens seem to have full rights there. Chickens and roosters roam free everywhere from traffic intersections to playgrounds, and you get to experience a cacophony of crowing every morning. Other must-see tourist traps include Mile 0, the starting and finishing point of the Florida Keys Highway, the old Flagler Station and the home of Ernest Hemingway, which I didn’t have time to visit.

One tourist trap reigns supreme: in Key West, they celebrate the sunset every day (every single day)! Every evening, Mallory Square fills up with artists, acrobats, fire eaters, musicians, and of course tourists. I almost missed the entire spectacle because I couldn’t tear myself away from the warm embrace of the NYAH jacuzzi, so I had to run like the wind to make it to the square in time. There were hundreds of people at the square just staring at the sun slowly falling into the horizon. The very last rays of light inspired a wild round of applause in the crowd before everyone wandered off in different directions. I loved it! I only wish I could have stayed longer.IMG_20181112_180424IMG_20181112_174428IMG_20181112_174026IMG_20181112_180057IMG_20181112_174701

After the sunset, I grabbed a cup of key lime ice tea to go and slowly wandered back to the hotel. The room had been empty when I first arrived and I had already gotten a bit excited about getting a private room for the price of a dorm, but by the time I got back, every bunk had filled up. I didn’t really mind, since it also meant that a nice French girl (whose name I cannot remember) joined me for dinner. I cannot remember the name of the seafood restaurant we picked, either, but it was next to Flagler station, the food was good and the service incredibly slow. They also asked to see my ID, which is always a nice bonus! I wouldn’t have dared to go back home to Chef if I hadn’t sampled the local specialties, conch fritters and key lime pie, both of which were absolutely delicious. I didn’t even order a main, just an appetiser and dessert, and still couldn’t finish everything. These portion sizes truly boggle my mind.IMG_20181112_203213IMG_20181112_205249

On Tuesday morning, I literally woke up at cock-crow, packed up what little belongings I had brought with me and started walking toward the Key West airport, where my Greyhound back to Miami would leave from. I decided to walk because the local bus didn’t run that early, because I don’t like taxis, and because walking allowed me to enjoy one last sunrise. And the sweet, sweet crowing of roosters, of course.IMG_20181113_062800

Greyhound arrived in Miami slightly ahead of schedule. From the airport bus station, I caught the Metrobus back to South Beach and took one last dip in the ocean, trying to soak up the sun and the waves, and all the colours, sounds and smells to get me through the dark winter awaiting back in Finland. Finally, I picked up my luggage and rejoined the rest of the group at the hotel, and then Carlos gave us a ride back to the airport. Farewell to Miami, though I hope we meet again!IMG_20181109_173007_001

To read all my Miami trip posts in English, use the tag Miami18EN!

 

Sveti Stefan: The Elitist Island of Montenegro

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The tiny island of Sveti Stefan on the coast of the Adriatic Sea is rumoured to be the most photographed location in Montenegro. While planning a trip to the Balkans, it’s nigh impossible to avoid the bajillions of laudatory recommendations naming it as the #1 Must See Holiday Destination for everyone visiting Montenegro. Historical atmosphere, carefully restored 15th century villas, narrow cobblestone streets, high-quality food, turquoise sea and a pink beach – oh my heart-eyed-emoji, how heavenly! And sure enough, it does sound tempting when you put it like that. Often these same people singing the island’s praises conveniently forget to stress the point that it is strictly off limits to the common man. If you haven’t got a black Amex, you have no business on the island.

The luxury hotel chain Aman clutches its five-star tentacles tightly around the whole island and has completely taken it over. Only hotel guests are allowed to stride along the narrow causeway connecting the island to the mainland. Or better yet, few of them actually seemed to strain themselves by walking the distance of a couple dozen metres on their own feet – no, an array of luxury cars with tinted windows did the heavy lifting for them, at least when I was passing by. Rude gatekeepers kept the rabble at bay, ensuring the luxurious air on the luxurious island stays pure for its wealthy patrons.

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Many of the Sveti Stefan love notes I’ve seen littering the vast seas of the interwebs all feature this cunning tip: the average joe can game the system by making a table reservation for the hotel restaurant, in which case the guards cannot help but grant entry to the exclusive island. I’m not sure if these protip-sharers are trolling, or if they’re even entirely sane. When the price of a one-night stay at the hotel can be anything between 850 and 6 000+ (yes, six thousand) euros, then what kind of a check might one expect at the restaurant, hmm? And I very much doubt an order of a tall glass of tap water would be tolerated if someone were foolish enough to try and infiltrate the dining crowd of fat cats on the island. Seriously, stop giving this crappy “advice” already.

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Onto the “pink beach”. Yes, in certain lighting the tiny pebbles on the beach have a pinkish hue, but a pink beach? Who left the ad agency door open again? There’s a nice, curved stretch of beach facing the island on both sides of the mainland, but only one side is open to the regular folk. And that side is crowded as hell, and also made of sharp pebbles. At this point, it shouldn’t come as a shock that the better, sandy half of the beach is reserved to the hotel guests, though Aman has made some compromises there. For the low, low price of one hundred euros, anyone can redeem a sunbed on the private beach and see how the good life feels for a little while. There is a 1 000 euro fine for anyone caught on the beach without having paid the 100 euro troll toll. Still fascinated by the hospitality of Sveti Stefan?

IMG_20180623_162043A piece of the best of Montenegro reserved for a single family – excellent use of resources!

A common argument for the big shots’ shenanigans is that “it’s free to look” – any old bonehead can ogle the island to their heart’s content, as long as they keep a healthy distance to the better folk. I just wonder why anyone would be interested to loiter behind the gate spying on Mr. and Mrs. Moneybags’ doings. Are people hoping to catch a fallen crumb of the superabundance? Maybe they’re the same people who also keep up with the Kardashians? I just don’t understand.

IMG_20180623_163813Minimum wallet thickness level: must not fit in a pocket

Personally, I was fooled by the numerous Montenegro Top 5 lists and went to see Sveti Stefan because I believed the hype. This bitter rant is the direct result of a wasted half-day. It rattles me how a highly praised historical location and long stretches of beach can be completely closed off from the public. It’s not illegal, though, and who am I to meddle in the Montenegrin politics. Millionaires need their playgrounds too, right?

However, there is one thing I do ask: could we all please stop hyping up Sveti Stefan as the must-see destination for every traveller? In reality, only a select few are welcome there.

For more on my Montenegro trip in English, click here: Montenegro18EN

Budget Holiday in Montenegro, Part IV: Petrovac with a Hint of Bečići and Budva

IMG_20180622_140603Balcony with views to the sea, Apartments & Rooms Vjera, Petrovac

Day 7: The Three Beaches of Petrovac

After my busy, sweaty stint on the mountains, it was time for a change in pace and scenery. I wanted to combine my hiking holiday with a relaxing stay by the sea. I picked Petrovac for that, because the good people of the internet had been saying it’s a beautiful, sleepy town with no nightlife whatsoever – a perfect sloth resort. I needed two separate buses and one train connection to travel Žabljak-Podgorica-Sutomore-Petrovac, but I still made it to my destination early in the afternoon.

There are no hostels in Petrovac, but the cheapest of the mirthless private rooms would have cost less than 20 euros per night. This time, however, I decided to treat myself and paid a whopping 90 euros for a weekend stay at an apartment with its own kitchen and bathroom. The main selling point was the huge balcony overlooking the Adriatic Sea. Such an incredible spot to line-dry my laundry.

IMG_20180622_154018Always good to travel thousands of kilometres just to take pictures of cats

Petrovac was everything I had been hoping for: beaches, tranquility, narrow streets and beautiful views. There was also a good selection of shops, restaurants and random Nutella pancake stands, everything a sloth might need. However, the best part of the town are its three beaches: the town beach, Lučice and Buljarica. I tested all three on my first day there.

IMG_20180622_155007Petrovac town beach: easily accessible with lots of services

IMG_20180622_171902Lučice: tiny beach tucked away in a sheltered cove, a 10-minute walk from downtown. Features a popular, reasonably priced restaurant.

IMG_20180622_173403Buljarica: a four-kilometre stretch of peaceful beach far from everything and everyone

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that Buljarica was my absolute favourite of the three. In Montenegro, most beaches are run by beach bars, which means you’ll have to pay for a sunbed and a parasol, and listen to the generic bass boosted noise poorly chosen by the DJ. The law requires that the bars always leave a small stretch of beach free for everyone to use, but usually those are so crowded you can hardly see the pebbles from underneath all the laid-out towels. That’s why Buljarica is so great: most of the beach is still in its natural state, and you can easily get your own private spot by walking a little further than others.

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It takes around half an hour to walk from the centre of Petrovac to the beginning of Buljarica. On the Petrovac side, there is a small area filled with rentable sunbeds and a couple of bars, but the other side is free from both services and people. When heading out toward the quiet side of the beach, it’s good to note that there’s a small nudist area on the way. I was not aware of that – until, all of a sudden, I found myself staring straight into the depths of the brown eye of a dude happily sticking out his bum for all the world to see. Not quite the views I was after. I kept going for another half a kilometre until I finally found a good, solitary spot to swim and admire the sunset. It was wonderful to spend a whole day doing nothing much in particular.

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Day 8: Bečići, Budva, and the abandoned Hotel As by the Perazic Do Beach

I actually spent the first half of the eighth day in Sveti Stefan, but I’ll make a separate post for that next. There’s no way I could reasonably include it here, because there’s no place further removed from a “budget holiday” than that.

Later in the afternoon, I ended up walking through the Bečići and Budva beaches before returning to Petrovac. I’m not even claiming to know anything about these two holiday destinations, but based on my first impressions, I don’t really even care to find out more, either. It seems as though nobody actually lives in Bečići, because the whole beach boulevard was all hotels, hotels, and more hotels. Even though the beach is quite long, it was also extremely crowded and therefore not to my taste at all. I think Bečići is mostly marketed to Russians, because most of the restaurant signs included Russian, or even went as far as being written in Russian only.

IMG_20180623_171626Bečići
IMG_20180623_171940The best of Bečići: a house swallowed by flowers

Budva didn’t impress me any more than Bečići: Coca-Cola and Tuborg sunbrellas ruined the views, and the aforementioned, generic bass boosted noise poisoned the air. I must admit I was too tired to visit the old town, maybe there could have been something to see there?

IMG_20180623_182409Budva beach with views of the old town

No, Petrovac is surely the shining star among the beach resorts in the Budva region in every way imaginable – unless you enjoy getting wasted at beach bars, in which case it’s best to stay away from ruining Petrovac to us (mentally) elderly people. I felt like I had wasted the day, so I saved it by going for a little sunset walk from Petrovac to the Perazic Do beach. The half-hour, one-way walk is half amazing ocean views, half scary tunnel through the mountain. In other words, nicely balanced.

IMG_20180623_203723OK for a jogging pathIMG_20180623_203240Views from the roadIMG_20180623_204132This beach can only be accessed by boat, or by climbing down a vertical wallIMG_20180623_205603In through this end of the tunnel…IMG_20180623_204706and out from here.

IMG_20180623_204714The abandoned Hotel As

The massive skeleton of the abandoned Hotel As looms over the Perazic Do beach. This place would have been amazing if they had been able to finish construction! It’s not really a beach for swimming, since there are huge boulders and random pieces of concrete probably left there when the construction site was abandoned. The beach seemed to be a popular sunset chill-out spot for a lot of people, though, and I can see why: the abandoned hotel creates an eery vibe while the colours of the sky slide from pale pastels to flaming orange. Don’t miss this walk if you ever find yourself in Petrovac!

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To read the rest of my Montenegro posts in English, click here: Montenegro18EN