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!

 

Miami Mini Vacation, Day 1: Jet Lag, Miami City Tour & Wynwood Walls

IMG_20181109_134222Travel to Miami, leave your sunglasses at home!

I still find it hard to believe this actually happened. Earlier this year my team at work won a sales contest, which meant that last month I got to go on an all-expenses-paid reward trip to Miami, FL. The trip was sponsored by a large Finnish manufacturer of sweets. Slothie and the Chocolate Factory, anyone? I was joined by the candy company’s representative (our host, a.k.a. Mr. Picks-Up-The-Tab), one of my workmates, a buyer from our company, as well as four other victorious sellers from our other branches.

Before this trip, I had never been to the other side of the pond. In all honesty, if I had been planning a self-funded trip to the States, Florida wouldn’t have been my first pick. The stereotypical image of retirees flocking to the state to heal their aching bones occupied my mind. However, Miami was a hugely positive surprise, and it surely didn’t hurt to get a little break from the greyness and misery also known as November in Finland. The biggest downside was that the long flights ate up nearly two days out of my one-week holiday. I would have loved to stay longer, but this time it wasn’t possible to move the return flight to a later date since the eight of us were travelling as one group. It turned out to be ok, though – had I skipped any more classes, I really would have struggled to catch up with my studies. As evidenced by my more-than-lax blogging schedule, this Autumn has been an incredibly busy time for me.

 IMG_20181109_062717Pool area at sunrise, Washington Park Hotel South Beach

As a little addition to my reward package, I also got my first taste of debilitating jet lag. During the 11-hour outbound flight, I didn’t sleep a wink. Instead, I tried to finish a huge backlog of coursework at the mercy of Finnair’s spotty in-flight wifi. We finally made it to our hotel late on Thursday evening in the local time. The first night, I managed to get exactly two hours of sleep before waking up to a feeling of heavy nausea. I suffered through the rest of the night all curled up, just waiting for the morning, waiting to feel better. At the break of dawn, I dragged myself to the beach while the rest of the group remained in their comfy beds. It’s really quite miraculous how easy it was to forget how sick I really felt – all it took was the chance to dig my toes in the warm sand and watch the colourful sunset above the surging turquoise waves.

Now, two hours would make for a perfectly acceptable nap time, but it isn’t nearly enough to sustain a sloth for an entire day. But this was not the time nor place for tiredness, as our days were packed with activities. Our first full vacation day started with a three-hour Miami City Tour on a minibus. We were accompanied by a Finnish guide, who told us about the sights and local culture. We made a quick pit stop at a cigar shop in Little Havana and then proceeded to have lunch in the Wynwood Art District.

IMG_20181109_121019Wynwood Kitchen and BarIMG_20181109_123810Octo a la Plancha

Wynwood Kitchen and Bar served us a wide selection of drinks and tapas, of which my favourite was the deliciously tentacled portion pictured above. I normally travel on a budget, so this “order whatever you want on the company Visa” type of wining and dining felt almost awkward at first. I mean, how many tapas can I order before feeling like a complete mooch? Well, I quickly got over it, and so did the others. The final bill was a sight to behold. At least nobody was left hungry!

While our driver Carlos took everyone else back to South Beach right after lunch, my workmate and I decided to stay behind to tour the Art District and admire the endless graffiti and colourful buildings. I took so many photos that I had to make a separate gallery out of them. Click on any picture below to browse their bigger versions.

 

I’ve never seen such a delightful hotchpotch of colours and patterns as I did in Wynwood – ¡me encanta! From Wynwood, we still continued our tour by walking a couple kilometres to the city centre, because there would have been no more time for such things later. Sure, we could have caught the bus, but who has the patience to wait for those?

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As the temperature remained at around 29–32 °C for the duration of our holiday, our short walk across the concrete jungle quickly became sweaty business. On the way, we popped into a Burger King to get some refreshments, and that way also caught an authentic glimpse of the everyday life of the eighteenth most obese nation in the world (WHO 2017). If these buckets o’ diabetes above are only “medium” in size, then I’m pretty sure the largest cups would be big enough to swim in.

The vibe in downtown Miami was strangely retro-futuristic: steel, glass, tall-ass skyscrapers, surprising colours and shapes, slip roads going in every direction, expensive cars, commuters on the elevated Metromover snaking its way across town, high above the streets. It was like a trip to the future – not my future, but future as imagined in the 80s. I could have spent days just exploring the architecture in the city. This is something not to be missed, even if you’re in Miami primarily for a beach holiday! Here’s another gallery of my skyscraper snaps:

 

We finally reached our daily walking limit and caught a bus back to South Beach. We made it back just in time before sunset, and managed to get in a quick dip in the warm waves of the Atlantic before darkness fell.

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In the evening, the whole group gathered together again for dinner. This time, we chose the Brazilian restaurant Boteco Copacabana on Española Way. I think our most important criterion this time was the ability to get a table for eight without a reservation on a Friday night, but the food was good enough and the drinks even better. Seated outside on the street, we even got to sneak a peek of two flamenco dancers hired by the restaurant next to us. The street really lived up to its name there.

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

 

Budget Holiday in Montenegro, Part VI: Detour to Croatia

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Day 12: Abandoned Hotel Belvedere & Crowded Dubrovnik

I finished off my Grand Montenegro Tour on the Croatian side of the border. Croatia has a special place in the depths of my dark heart because that’s where Chef foolishly proposed to me years ago. Back then in the distant past, we hitchhiked our way up the coast from Split, so we never had the chance to experience the magnificent tourist trap of Dubrovnik. A mistake I now got to fix, at least on my own behalf.

My bus arrived at the Dubrovnik station in the early afternoon. I queued up in the drizzle just to get to an ATM that only spit out big notes. I simply couldn’t bring myself to buy a bus ticket at the kiosk with a 200-kuna note, because from personal experience I know how maddening it can be to serve as an unofficial money exchange spot for tourists, especially when you’re already strapped for small change. (Yes, I’m looking at you thick fucks who think it’s OK to pop over, first thing in the morning, just to buy one euro’s worth of gum with a 50-100-euro bill. Stop doing that.) So, instead, I decided to be energetic and walk the three kilometres to Old Town Hostel where I would be staying.

IMG_20180627_143415Barba’s octopus burger: a million times better than I made it look

After a quick shower, I was immediately on the prowl for some late lunch. TripAdvisor did right by me: the much-vaunted street food joint Barba served the most delicious octopus burger, which was not only affordable and tasty but also so huge I didn’t even think about getting fries on the side. With my belly full, it was nice to roll up a hill to explore the abandoned hotel Belvedere.

IMG_20180627_163229Up-left: Belvedere roof peeking out from behind the trees

Hotel Belvedere stands in an incredible spot overlooking the sea, about a half-hour walk from Dubrovnik’s old town. The flashy and flourishing hotel of the 80s has been abandoned ever since the Croatian war, so for almost 30 years already. While planning my holiday, I read many blog posts by people who’ve trespassed on this private property to explore the secrets that lie within the building (f.ex. Belondoned). I’ve never even entered a “regular” abandoned house before, but all these fascinating tales about the labyrinth of hallways inside the Belvedere building were too exciting for me to pass up on the opportunity to go do some research of my own. Another tempting factor may or may not have been the fact that the hotel has served as one of the filming locations for Game of Thrones.

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The property is surrounded by signs against trespassing and there’s video surveillance, as well. When I got there, I was welcomed by a clowder of stray cats. I wasn’t the only tourist, either: I saw a couple of strangers climbing over the fence and disappearing towards the building. I was already at the gate when I noticed a seething guard appear from behind the building. He gave me a nasty glare and then started chasing down the other intruders while cursing profusely. Much to my disappointment, I had to settle for peeking in through the fence, because I really wasn’t in the mood to get manhandled. I suppose these Belvedere explorations have become too popular recently – none of the earlier blogs mentioned anything about guards patrolling the property, and it seems like many of the writers had managed to spend hours in the area. There’s nothing much you can see from behind the fence, so if the guards are always there, it’s probably best to just skip this one in the future.

IMG_20180627_164621I did make a beautiful new friend, though – not an entirely useless detour

Disappointed, I returned to the old town with the intention of seeing all the sights, but ended up having to change my plans again. In the late afternoon, it took some serious elbow action to fight my way past and through the hordes of cruise ship tourists on the narrow streets. I fully understand why there’s been talk of Dubrovnik setting some kind of a cap on the number of tourists allowed in the old town at a given time.

Every trip needs its own theme song, and this one came to me while I was desperately battling the crowds. This elegant classic by Ludacris suddenly started playing in my head, and it was stuck there for the rest of the trip. The chorus perfectly describes the feeling of trying to wade through the masses of people – and yes, I’m aware I was very much a part of the problem. :)

IMG_20180627_220658Only by night can you move freely within the city walls

Day 13: Patrolling the City Walls & Relaxing on the Island of Lokrum

Lucky 13, the last day of my holiday! Traumatized by the crowds of the previous afternoon, and against all my natural habits and instincts, I rose before the sun just to be able to take in the sights without someone constantly bonking me in the head with their selfie stick. At six in the morning, it felt like a whole other city – not a soul in sight. Fabulous!
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IMG_20180628_062250SHAME! SHAME! SHAME!
IMG_20180628_063636 IMG_20180628_063917Hi, I’m Sanni. I like to travel thousands of kilometres just to take pictures of cats.
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At eight, I was first in line for a walking tour of the City Walls. This one should not be missed, nor postponed to the afternoon! Early in the morning, I was able to walk in relative solitude, whereas the crowds in the afternoon seemed to form a tight queue around the whole old town, not unlike a record-breaking human centipede. The tour easily takes an hour or two, because from every corner of the walls there’s a different view over the old town and the Adriatic sea. Normally, tickets cost 150 kuna (~20€) a pop, but I got a hefty discount with my student card. They did twist and turn and stare at it for a good while, though, but eventually accepted the fact that this ancient sloth of 31 years is in fact still a student.

IMG_20180628_080711King’s Landing, bitchesss!IMG_20180628_081250IMG_20180628_083516
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The island in the background of the picture above is Lokrum, the official recreational oasis of Dubrovnik. Lokrum is fast and easy to reach from the old town harbour by boat, and after the City Walls tour I soon found myself on a picnic, surrounded by the rabbits and peacocks that freely roam the island. Although the boats connecting the island and the old town were always full of people, somehow all the crowds just disappeared into the forests and parks of the island. There was finally space to breathe, relax and swim.

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Unfortunately, my carefully selected, solitary swimming spot was soon ruined by a pack of loud Lads™ whose only swimwear was their birthday suit. “Oi lads, oi! Oi, check dis out bro! HEHEHEHE LOL!” Cue: helicopter dick. I moved away from them to another solitary spot, but soon enough an older gentleman laid his towel right next to me. He also started an odd ritual of putting on and taking off his teeny-tiny speedo, over and over again, as if to show off his wrinkly junk.  I honestly wouldn’t even be surprised if he turned out to be the godfather of Professor Massage. At that point, my daily dick quota had been met, so I slinked away to the return boat before the old guy could follow.

Back at the hostel, my dorm mates were looking for a wingwoman to join their club tour that night. After careful consideration I left them to their own devices. I was about to catch a super early return flight the next morning, and the thought of travelling hung over did not entice me at all. The boys promised me that they would wake me up with drunken noise upon their late-night return, just so I wouldn’t oversleep and miss my flight. How kind of them.

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I left the boys to pre-game in the common room and quickly jogged over to the Velika & Mala Petka forest park just in time for the sunset. From atop the hill, I had the perfect vantage point to admire the stormy sea and the sky that slowly changed its colour from yellow to pink. Congratulations to me for a holiday well executed!

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P.S. Oversleeping was certainly not a problem for me: the hostel bathroom smelled of stomach acid and the guy sleeping in the top bunk coughed and snored so heavily that he made the entire bed shake. I didn’t get one iota of sleep. A fitting end to a wonderful holiday!

To read the whole story of this Montenegrin-Croatian holiday, use the tag Montenegro18EN – complete itinerary and budget still coming up!

Long Weekend in Prague, Day 2: Crowds, Treats & Jazz

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Our second day began in a very touristy manner as we followed the crowds to Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral. Long before the giant Gothic cathedral opened its doors, queues had started to form around the building. While some might find joint sweating a delightful group activity, Redds and I are no such people. We didn’t even try to catch a glimpse of the interiors, but instead settled for a stroll around the outdoor spaces.

IMG_2049Illuminati strikes again! Can you spot the Pokéball pattern on the windows?

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I almost felt sorry for these newlyweds who were trying to finish their photoshoot in front of the cathedral. In the crowds, it was nearly impossible to take a photo without accidentally (or purposefully) getting photobombed by a sunburnt tourist. This paparazzi photo of mine also had to be heavily cropped to exclude random onlookers.

IMG_2057S is for Sanni (and also for Sloth)

IMG_0176Hello MTV, welcome to my crib!

Outside the castle, I found a pretty decent Sloth Palace. The compact, down-to-earth habitat with its serious hipster vibes found its way to my heart. The pompous S-Manor in the first picture? I’ll keep that in mind as a backup plan.

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Pushing through crowds gets tiresome, and there is nothing worse than a hangry sloth. For lunch, I tried the goulash served in bread, which was delicious. As an added bonus, a wild Hare Krishna group appeared out of nowhere, drumming and dancing, and provided us with entertainment as they passed us by several times.

For dessert, we sampled the local specialty, trdelník pastry, which is made by wrapping dough around a stick to bake it, and covering it with some kind of a sugar mix as a final touch. Redds had hers with ice-cream filling, while mine was served with a generous coating of Nutella. Delicious, once again!

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The rest of the evening was dedicated to a dinner cruise on river Vltava. We snagged a table on the upper deck of the Jazz Boat (reservation in advance recommended). An amazing live band played jazz in the closed space downstairs. We got the best of both worlds: we could hear the music well from the speakers placed on the deck, and we also had unobstructed views over the water and the city. A three-course dinner with wine and snacks completed the experience. I would be quite okay with this kind of life on a more permanent basis.

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The beautiful city lights guided our way back to the hotel. Unfortunately, we had to learn the hard way that leaning on the decorative fences around the river probably isn’t the greatest idea: giant spiders are forever waiting by their intricate webs, ready to strike en masse from the shadows. Ooooofff!

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