SlovinIt19: Beach Holiday in Caorle

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After the action-packed hiking week in Slovenia, we continued sweating our arses off in a different way as we moved on to take a quick breather on Italy’s side. There are several tempting beach holiday destinations in Northern Italy, and after thorough google research we ended up picking Caorle, which is located halfway between Trieste and Venice. We were looking for a relaxing atmosphere, nice beaches and a bit of personality, reachable by public transport, and Caorle fit the bill perfectly.

trainItalian air conditioning = fanning yourself with a train ticket

From Ljubljana, we first took a Flixbus to Trieste on the Italian side of the border and continued on to the Portogruaro-Caorle station by train. Finally from there, we caught a local bus to the centre of Caorle. The early morning Flixbus had a plenty of room left, and we only bought our tickets the day before our journey. The train wasn’t packed either and we were able to get our tickets on the day of the journey. Both the bus and the train ran pretty well on schedule, only the bus got stuck in traffic for a while as we were nearing Trieste. However, Trenitalia’s claim of aria condizionata was just a bad joke. This was the week when all of Europe was hit by a record-breaking heatwave, so our train trip was nothing short of pure agony. Our thighs and backs got glued to the leather seats and little droplets of sweat formed small streams running down our faces. A sauna would have been wayyyy more comfortable than that.

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We stayed at Hotel Fabrizio, which unfortunately ended up being a bit of a disappointment. The booking site advertised a room with a balcony, but in reality there was only a tiny window. The room was dark and dingy. The staff were very friendly but quite disorganised: for example, they tried to charge us twice for the same room. Nobody spoke English, but we were able to get by on body language and a few words of elementary school German. On the bonus side, the breakfast was pretty good (although only served for one hour from 8 to 9 a.m.), and beach chairs and umbrellas were included in the room price, whereas normally you’d have to rent them for 20-25€/day or 85€/week.

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Our pain and suffering subsided as soon as we settled in and got to wander around town. Caorle is a cute, small town full of colourful houses and beaches stretching as far as the eye can see – a perfect spot for simply loafing around for a few days. Each day of our three-day beach vacation pretty much followed the same routine: breakfast at the hotel, off to the beach until lunch, a shower and a nap in our air-conditioned room, and finally venturing out to enjoy the colour therapy while looking for a nice place for dinner.

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The Old Town of Caorle is made up of a maze of narrow streets and tiny squares surrounded by cheerfully colourful houses. For that reason, Caorle is also called Little Venice, even without any canals. For me, the low and colourful buildings are reminiscent of Miami Beach, and I love that! When I see these kinds of places, I’m always hit with architecture jealousy – why don’t we use any colours in Finland? (NB! Grey and beige are not colours!) It would make November a million times more bearable if we got to enjoy a rainbow of colours on our way to school and work like they do in Caorle.

Caorle

When it comes to restaurants, the menus in Caorle are naturally full of all kinds of seafood in addition to the usual pizzas and pastas. All of it is definitely worth sampling! And even though it’s the promised land of pasta we’re talking about here, I have to make this outrageous recommendation for an excellent Chinese restaurant called Nuova Hong Kong: they serve incredibly tasty food at reasonable prices, the service is friendly and fast, and they have outdoor seating at a charming little square away from the noisiest streets. This is a great opportunity to add a little variety to your diet, especially if you’re staying in Italy for an extended period of time.

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One morning we made an exception to the routine I mentioned earlier and walked to the beach to watch the sunrise. At 5 a.m., there were only a handful of joggers and photographers around. We also got to check out the outdoor art exhibition, consisting of dozens of carved rocks, without herds of German tourists blocking the view. I really, really love the sunrise vibe, but I never have the energy nor motivation to wake up for it in Finland. Everything’s different when you’re on holiday.

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Despite its unique architecture, Caorle is quite a typical beach holiday destination in the sense that it comes alive in cycles and the atmosphere changes completely between these cycles. During daytime, people enjoy the sun and the sea, the beaches are teeming with tourists and pink skin sizzles in the heat. In the late afternoon, everything quiets down as people retreat indoors to have a siesta and perhaps something to eat. And once darkness sets in, the quiet streets are suddenly back to life and full of couples and families. Neon lights blink at arcades, ice-cream sellers rake in the dough and shoe stores (open until late night) invite people in for some impulse shopping. It’s a unique vibe I’m sure everyone who’s ever been to a beach destination recognises. Caorle is among the best, and I absolutely recommend it to anyone with a basic grasp of Italian or German!

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Prices (June 2019): Caorle

  • Flixbus Ljubljana–Trieste: 10€ pp (upstairs premium seat)
  • Train Trieste–Portogruaro: 9€ pp
  • Local bus ticket Portogruaro–Caorle: 3€
  • Accommodation, Hotel Fabrizio: 76.35€/night/room for 2 + tourist tax 0.70€ per night per person
  • Renting beach chairs and umbrellas: 20–25€/day or 85€/week
  • Pizza and drinks for two, Hotel Negretto: 28€ (incl. service fee)
  • Slushie 3€, water bottle 1€

To read all my posts on this trip in English, use the tag SlovinIt19EN.

 

SlovinIt19: Ljubljana

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After our exercise-filled nature holiday in Bled and Bohinj, it was time to move on to Ljubljana, where the wild mountain scenery made way for carefully maintained parks and impressive architecture. As we were only passing through, our brief one-day visit barely allowed us to scratch the surface of this beautiful city. We were originally supposed to meet a Slovenian friend of mine while in town, but the plan fell through due to unforeseen circumstances. (Hey D, I’ll be back for those drinks later!) We ended up spending the day wandering around aimlessly and just taking in the sights.

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At the time of booking the trip, I wasn’t aware that our timing collided with the Slovenian Statehood Day on 25 June. Many shops and other establishments closed early that day and the streets were surprisingly quiet, which of course made walking around easier but also meant that the atmosphere was a bit strange – most of the locals seemed to be celebrating out of town. But hey, at least we got to admire the architecture close up without always getting blocked by other tourists. I simply adore those colourful buildings! And how about that daycare playground with its green wall and cloud ornaments? For a capital city, Ljubljana seems surprisingly clean and charming.

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We also spent a good chunk of time in the lush Tivoli Park, which offered us some much needed shade and refuge from the afternoon heat. In addition to enjoying the park’s floral splendour, we also found an outdoor art exhibition and a small botanical garden whose collection of exotic trees was grown in pots out in the yard. However, my favourite Tivoli memory is from the water lily pond, where a plump duck was straining to park its behind on a floating water lily leaf. After making considerable effort and trying many strategies from straight-up climbing to backing up rear first, the duck finally succeeded, but the leaf couldn’t support its weight and dipped underwater. The duck still kept proudly chilling out on its freshly conquered, semi-sunken leaf pontoon. Obviously, I have a soft spot for chunky animals, but I never seem to have the time to pay attention to these details in my everyday life.

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When it comes to food, I can recommend the Icy Bobo ice-cream roll stands and the restaurant Druga Violina, which employs people with special needs. Druga Violina is located in a quaint old square near the Ljubljana Castle. The portions are big, the food is tasty and the prices are very affordable. For a quick snack, it’s also easy to grab a cup of fresh berries from the riverbank market.

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After dinner, we (among many others) climbed up to the Ljubljana Castle to watch the sunset. The castle hill has great views over the old town rooftops, and as an added bonus, there are mountains shimmering on the horizon. Not a bad way to finish the day.

Prices (June 2019): Ljubljana

At this point of our holiday, I had already gotten lazy about writing things down, so I’ve only got a couple notes on prices.

  • Accommodation, Guest House Stari Tisler, room for 2 with shared bathroom: 50€/room/night + tourist tax 3,13€/person
  • Three-course dinner and drinks for two at Druga Violina: 35€ in total

To read all my posts on this trip in English, use the tag SlovinIt19EN.

SlovinIt19: Lake Bohinj and Triglav National Park

IMG_20190621_194221Welcome to Bohinj!

The third day of our holiday began in typical Bled fashion, with a refreshing bout of hail and rain. Naturally, it only started to pour down while we were outside waiting for the bus to our next destination, Lake Bohinj. Always fun to travel with your hair and clothes dripping with rain water, but at least the trip took less than an hour. I’d be lying if I said we didn’t leave behind some suspiciously damp bus seats – so sorry for the unsuspecting travellers who caught the bus after us! It wasn’t what you probably thought it was.

Bohinj

Sobe_CuskicSobe Ćuskić, Ribčev Laz

In Bohinj, we spent a total of four nights at B&B Sobe Ćuskić, located in the village of Ribčev Laz. The lovely hostess didn’t speak much English, but everything went smoothly anyway. Our top floor room was clean and spacious with lots of natural light. We also had our own balcony with views to the mountains, as well as free access to a shared kitchen. The location was very convenient: right next to a bus stop, about a ten-minute walk from the head of Lake Bohinj with shops and restaurants. Our room for two cost 50€/night, which in my opinion was excellent value for money.

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While Bled is known by “everyone” and has the crowds to show for it, Bohinj remains a relatively unknown oasis. An American man we met at the Bled bus station was puzzled about why we would, after Bled, bother to go see “another lake”. Well, Bohinj isn’t just another lake, Sir. I’d even go as far as claim that Bohinj is just a bigger, calmer and more affordable version of Bled. Anyone looking for peace, quiet, mountainous scenery and endless hiking opportunities should feel right at home in Bohinj. Kayaking, parasailing and paragliding opportunities are also excellent there.

st_johnChurch of St. John the Baptist, Ribčev Laz

We started off by investing 27€ each on the Mini Bohinj Package, available at the tourist office, which included a boat tour on the lake, a return trip on the Vogel cable car, a drink at the Vogel restaurant and a visit to the Church of St. John the Baptist, which is probably the best-known historical monument in Ribčev Laz. There were many different packages to choose from, but the mini was best suited to our purposes.

IMG_20190621_202716 Midsummer dinner at restaurant Kramar

We arrived in Bohinj in the afternoon on Midsummer’s Eve. Unlike in Finland, where Midsummer is celebrated as “the nightless night” because the sun doesn’t set at all, in Slovenia it gets dark quite early even in summertime. So, the first day, we only had time to unpack and wander around in search of a meal. We found the perfect restaurant a short stroll away from the village centre, located right by the water’s edge. The food at Kramar was simple but tasty, however it was the views from the outdoor terrace that really won us over and got us in the right Midsummer mood.

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Savica Waterfall

IMG_20190622_104858Gloomy morning view through the window

The next morning was rainy and foggy, so we didn’t feel bad at all about lounging in our room until late in the afternoon. When the sun suddenly appeared from behind the cloud cover, we decided to make a quick visit to the Savica waterfall, which is one of the most popular natural sights in the Bohinj area.

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The boat tour included in the Bohinj Package is very convenient in that you get two separate tickets, each good for a one-way trip from one end of the lake to the other, and they don’t need to be used on the same day. So we took one of our tickets and travelled by boat from Ribčev Laz to Ukanc. The boat stops by the docks next to Camp Zlatorog Bohinj, and from there you can either walk or hitchhike to the waterfall entrance. During high season in July–August, there is also a bus that goes all the way up to Savica, but we were there a bit too early in June. We picked the easy one-hour walk instead of hitching.

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Our sporty choice kind of backfired once we made it to the ticket booth and found out there were still around 550 stairs to climb to even get within ogling distance of the waterfall. But none of that bothered us once we actually made it to the top, as it’s always pretty cool to see the most famous postcard views of your travel destination in person, rather than in the card rack of the nearest corner shop. The only bother was having to go back down to Ukanc the same way as we came, since the trail can get quite boring and there aren’t any sights along the way. At least the buses were still running, so we didn’t have to walk all the way to Ribčev Laz.

Vogel Hiking Trails

IMG_20190623_085605Orlove Glave chairlift

In the winter, the surroundings of Mt. Vogel operate as a skiing centre, and in the summer you can hop on the lifts and easily get to a height of 1537m to admire the spectacular mountain views without ever breaking a sweat. On the fifth day of our vacation, we spent our Bohinj Package cable car tickets to do a bit of hiking around Mt. Vogel. The same tickets were also good for the Orlove Glave chairlift, which took us even higher to the trails.

IMG_20190623_094405Snack break viewsIMG_20190623_104909Something that makes my soul sing
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A scared feller along the wayIMG_20190623_104236An excited feller at the top of a mountain (Šija 1880m)

The mountain weather forecast for the afternoon didn’t look too promising, so we decided to only do a short hike and summit one of the nearby peaks around the end station of the Orlove Glave chairlift. A very steep path took us to Šija in well under two hours, snack breaks included. In good weather, continuing further along the same trail would have led us to Vogel itself, but even this short route offered magnificent panoramas over the Julian Alps.

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After our brisk little walk, it was nice to kick back and enjoy a glass of wine at the cable car upper station terrace, with views all the way down to the lake. A tip to any drink ticket users: wine costs less than other refreshments there, so spend your Bohinj Package drink ticket on a Coke and pay cash for your 1,50 € glass of wine. I also recommend taking a moment to visit these furry friends living next to the upper station viewpoint!

Pigi_and_friendSpotted: a plump pig called Pigi

IMG_20190623_084218The Vogel cable car takes you straight to this picnic spot. Suits even the laziest of us!

Adventures and Adrenaline in Triglav National Park 

BohinjA happy mountain sloth in its element

On the sixth travel day, we finally got down to business, i.e. went on a proper day hike in the national park! In the morning, we caught a bus to the neighbouring village of Stara Fužina, where we started off on a steep forest trail leading to the Vogar viewpoint at the height of 1085 metres. That made for a nice warm-up ascent of about half a kilometre.

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Our original plan was to do the five-hour circle route of Vogar–Pršivec–Planina Viševnik–Planina Jezero–Vogar, but the route between Planina Jezero and Vogar was unfortunately closed due to fallen trees on the trail. Our plan B was the one-way route of Vogar–Pršivec–Planina Viševnik–Crno Jezero–Slap Savica, which meant ending the hike at the waterfall we had already visited the previous day. I had a lot riding on this choice, since it was Redds’s first “real” mountain hike and I didn’t want to disappoint her.

IMG_20190624_130157Pršivec (1761m)
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Decent nap spot

At this point, we felt good about the route choice, and Redds didn’t let her fear of heights stop her from tackling a few scary points where we had to do some light climbing. The highest point of our route, Pršivec, offered incredible 360-degree views on the surrounding mountain range and down to the valley. It was also a great place to have a snack and a bit of rest before heading back down.

IMG_20190624_135307 Bregarjevo zavetišče

On the way down, we stopped by the Bregarjevo zavetišče hut, where we were able to purchase some cold drinks. Hot meals prepared by the hostess were also available. A cold soda cost 3 € and a sausage plate would have cost 10 €, which is incredibly reasonable considering the location. Best make sure to bring some cash for this one!

IMG_20190624_144931Back into the forest

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Our last pit stop before Savica was the dazzlingly turquoise Čzrno jezero (literally “Black Lake”). I wonder why each and every one of these lakes with clear turquoise water is always called the Black Lake, no matter where in the world they are located, hmm? There was a similar-looking puddle of the same name on my last trip to Montenegro. Anyway, at this point we had been hiking for at least eight hours, so a little soak in the cold water did wonders to our weary feet before the last leg of our hike. Perfect weather, perfect scenery – Redds’s maiden voyage into the world of mountain fanatics had gone almost suspiciously well.

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And suspicious we should have been, since bad luck struck us mere 20 minutes before the Savica parking lot. The descend from Črno jezero to Savica is a super steep zig zag trail, and while we were making our way down, some poor bastard above us stumbled and set off a bunch of chunky pieces of rock and failed to yell out a warning. The falling rocks bounced off the cliffs and thumped Redds straight in the forehead. Suddenly, there was enough blood to shoot a damn slasher film, and for the first time ever, I got to practise my first aid skills in action.

I managed to stop the bleeding, but the rest of the descent was nearly impossible due to the uncontrollable shaking in my thighs from all the adrenaline (oddly enough, I was more shaken than Redds). At Savica, we asked the staff to call us a taxi to the nearest hospital, but there were no taxis anywhere in the vicinity. Thankfully, a friendly restaurant worker gave us a ride to the nearest ER, which was a 35-kilometre drive away in Bohinjska Bistrica. The nurse who patched Redds up said that another person had gotten hurt on the same dayin the same spot and for the same reason. So, if you’re planning to take this route from Savica to Črno jezero, bringing a helmet definitely wouldn’t be overkill.

Thanks to beginner’s luck, Redds only suffered a fright and some nicks and bruises – well, a bruise the size and shape of a golf ball on her forehead. Stylish! As an added bonus, at least we got to see how the Slovenian health care system works, and no complaints there. However, Redds wasn’t too excited about the idea of me publishing a picture of her monster bruise, so here’s a bunch of pictures of alpine flowers we spotted along the way, instead. Enjoy!

alp flowers

Prices (June 2019): Bohinj

  • Bus ticket Bled–Bohinj: 3.60€
  • Accommodation, B&B Sobe Ćuskić: 50€/night/room for two
  • Mini Bohinj Package: 27€
  • Entrance fee to Savica waterfall: 3€/adult, 2.50€/student
  • Bus travel between the villages in Bohinj: 1.30–1.80€
  • Dinner at restaurant Kramar by the lake (incl. main dish, drink and dessert): 17.50€

+Tip: See arriva.si for local bus schedules and ticket prices

To read all my posts on this trip in English, use the tag SlovinIt19EN.

SlovinIt19: Lake Bled and Vintgar Gorge

Lake Bled

Once again, the first half of this year has been a bit of a blur for me, but that’s just how it goes with the rat race, I suppose. At least I got to go on a few short holidays this summer! Ever since I first started (this admittedly intermittent) blogging, I’ve spent my midsummer alone in the mountains. This year, however, my friend Redds made a delightful special guest appearance. I planned us a little tour of Slovenia and northern Italy with the goal of maintaining a nice balance between the cities, the mountains and the sea – in other words, a bunch of mini vacations in one low-budget package.

Bled

The first stop of our grand SlovinIt tour was Lake Bled, best known for its clear, turquoise waters and its tiny church island. Bled is easy to reach from Ljubljana, as buses run regularly, and accommodation-wise there’s plenty to choose from, as long as you book early.

castle_hostelCastle Hostel: views from dorm and roof terrace

Mainly for budget reasons, we picked a hostel for the first two nights. Castle Hostel is located smack dab in the middle of Bled, a short stroll from the lake. The roof terrace features excellent views over the town, and they even arrange free morning yoga classes there. Our four-bed dorm shared the same view, which seemed great at first but turned out to be not-so-great after all. With no air-con it was really hot in the room at night, but it was also nearly impossible to keep the terrace-facing window open since the party people would smoke and make noise right in front of it until the wee hours. Decent accommodation for a couple of nights, just don’t forget to bring your earplugs and inhalator.

IMG_20190621_121229Lake view from the Bled Castle

Bled is one of the most popular tourist traps in Slovenia, and no wonder why: the astonishingly turquoise lake with its crystal-clear waters is surrounded by mountains and castles that could be straight out of a Disney film.  The lake keeps changing colours depending on the viewing angle and weather conditions. And those changing weather conditions seem to be able to pack all four seasons into a single day! Out of the two days we spent in Bled, both included sunshine, cloudy but dry weather, drizzle, thunderstorms and hailstones the size of a tennis ball. A storm can rise seemingly out of nowhere and soak you to the bone in a matter of minutes while the hailstones gently hammer your muscles, and the next minute the sun comes back out and there’s no trace of dark clouds anywhere. In this sense, Bled reminds me of Iceland – it is said in both places that if you don’t like the weather, wait for five minutes and check again. Unfortunately, that works both ways.

IMG_20190621_120527Better remember to bring an umbrella…

IMG_20190620_145935__01__01…or face the consequences! This only took five minutes.

My favourite thing about Bled is the trail circling the entire lake, with a plenty of nice wild swimming spots and opportunities to admire the lush vegetation and chubby duck families along the way. My least favourite thing must be the ceaseless echo of church bells from early morning until late evening  – the locals have found a way to squeeze a few extra bucks out of tourists by offering them a chance to ring the “famous wishing bells” of the island church and people positively flock to do it. Oh well, as long as business is booming, right?

 

When it comes to food, I can definitely recommend paying a visit (or two) to the reasonably-priced bakery Slaščičárna Zima, where you can easily sample the local delicacies. Make sure to taste the cream slice! And, even though it might seem silly to travel to Slovenia just to order a pizza, the popular Pizzeria Rustika is also worth queueing for – even going as far as making a table reservation might be wise with this one. These two joints won’t disappoint!

IMG_20190620_131024__01Cake break at Slaščičárna Zima. The hot chocolate was as thick as pudding, 5/5 from me!

The obligatory sights of course include Bled Castle. Built high up on a hill, you’ll get a nice, quick workout climbing there on foot. The castle overlooks the entire lake and the surrounding mountains, and the views from the courtyard are magnificent.

 

Vintgar Gorge

Bled is a great base for all kinds of tours and day trips, but if you’ve only got time for one activity (like we did), go for the Vintgar Gorge! It is one of the finest sites of natural beauty I’ve ever stumbled upon and my pictures don’t do it any justice. The start of the 1,6-kilometre walking tour is about 4 km from Bled, and can be easily reached by bike or on foot if you’re not fond of busy tour buses. By walking or biking, you’ll also be able to make an early start before the biggest  tourist hordes arrive.

IMG_20190620_090008Country scenery along the way from Bled to Vintgar

As I recall, Redds and I made it to the ticket window at around ten in the morning, and the number of visitors was still at a reasonable level then. The entrance fee includes a return trip from the starting point to the Šum waterfalls and back. As you’ll be walking in the gorge on narrow boardwalks and gravel paths, with people simultaneously going in both directions and stopping along the way for pictures, foot traffic gets easily stuck in various bottlenecks. Therefore, it’s best to go as early as possible in order to spare your nerves. By noon it’ll be too late, already.

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Another benefit to an early start is the chance to see the morning mist quietly hanging above the river, making the atmosphere a bit more eerie and mystical. As the day warms up, the mist slowly disappears and the crowds appear. So be early if you’d like to enjoy this sight in (relative) peace and quiet! Reserve at least two to three hours for the whole thing.

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Prices (June 2019): Bled and Vintgar Gorge

  • Bus from Ljubljana airport to city centre: 4,10€ pp
  • Return bus ticket Ljubljana–Bled_Ljubljana: 11,34€ pp
  • Castle Hostel: 19€/bed/night + tourist tax 3,13€/person/night
  • Vintgar Gorge entrance fee : 6€/student, 10€/adult
  • Bled Castle entrance fee: 7€/student, 11€/adult
  • Stentor BarFly, lunch by Lake Bled: 14,30€ (meal + drink)
  • Slaščičárna Zima: one piece of salty and sweet pastry each + hot chocolate: 9,55€
  • Rustika, pizza + drink: 14 €
  • Public Bar & Vegan Kitchen Bled, soup lunch + smoothie: 9,50 €

To read all my posts on this trip in English, use the tag SlovinIt19EN.

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, the Third and Best Day: Skyporn, Everglades National Park & Sunset Sailing on Biscayne Bay

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Our third vacation day was damn near perfect. I still couldn’t sleep normally (read: enough), but at least my insomnia made it easy to get to the beach in time for sunrise. And what a colourful sunrise it was – goes easily in my top three.

It had been raining heavily all night and storm clouds were still around in the morning. The first sunrays pierced the cloud cover and coloured the sky in bright shades of yellow, orange and pink. I even spotted a full rainbow! It came as no surprise that the treasure at the end of the ‘bow was a bright green lifeguard tower.

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In addition to gawking at the sky, I also had a plenty of time to swim before I needed to head back to the hotel for breakfast. At breakfast, they served strawberries and Nutella in tiny jars. If I’m being completely honest, this fine Sunday would have been the best vacation day based on its first couple of hours alone. But there was more to come! After breakfast, Carlos picked us up again and drove us to Everglades National Park.

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As most are probably aware, Everglades is absolutely teeming with alligators, but it is also home to a variety of rare species, such as the manatee and the Florida panther. The airboats which are used to tour the area are fast and fun but they also make a deafening noise – earplugs required here! If you cannot spot a wild alligator hiding the rich vegetation, you can participate in an “alligator show” after the boat tour. Even though the name suggests some kind of a circus spectacle where the poor crocodilians must jump through flaming hoops to entertain the tourists, in reality the show is more like a brief summary of interesting alligator facts.

I, for one, learned that alligators don’t actually like the taste of humans and therefore try to avoid snacking on homo sapiens. However, they also have very bad eyesight. So, if you somehow end up falling in the water, don’t stay in an upright position where only your head pokes out above water, as the ‘gators might confuse you for a tastier meal. Instead, float on your back and spread out your limbs – the shape will help signal to the alligators that this piece of meat tastes yucky. Leave a comment below if this tip saved your life – I’ll be waitin’!

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After the park tour, we headed out for some good ol’ fashioned BBQ lunch at Shorty’s BBQ. To a European weakling such as myself, the portions seemed humongous and they could have easily fed at least three of me. Add to that the foot-long corn cobs swimming in butter, the ones that they claimed were only appetisers, and I was left completely stuffed. Apparently, you’re not even meant to finish your meal in one sitting but instead make good use of the doggy bag. Maybe it’s just me, but I’d rather go out to eat a smaller meal every day than keep heating up the same leftovers for days on end. Buuut, when in Rome, right? The food was okay, nothing to write home about, but the mouth-watering BBQ sauce made everything delicious.

Before our whole trip, I had been most excited about Everglades, but when Sunday’s final activity came along, it quickly became the clear winner: Caribbean Spirit took us on a two-hour sunset cruise on Biscayne Bay, and it was quite likely the best thing ever! Chilling out on the catamaran net with a glass of bubbly in one hand, surrounded by turquoise waters, feeling the captain’s playlist fill our souls with Caribbean vibes, and all this against the backdrop of the impressive Miami skyline and the setting sun in the horizon: perfection. If you’re in Miami and only have time for one activity, let this be it! Don’t even consider anything else.

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

Miami Mini Vacation, Day 2: Biking & Basketball

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There’s something quite exotic about sunrises. In my everyday life, I see them about as often as I see unicorns, but when travelling, the sloth-like part of my personality makes way for some highly uncharacteristic behaviour: on holiday, my favourites are the tranquil moments before the rest of the city wakes up. On the second morning of our vacation, my internal clock was still so messed up that I woke up painlessly after just four hours of sleep, well before my alarm. My coworker, with whom I was sharing a room, joined me and together we took a half-hour stroll to watch the sunrise from the South Pointe Park Pier.IMG_20181110_064845

Seagulls screeched, frothy waves washed over the sand and the salty scent of the ocean hung in the air as the first rays of sun gently began to warm up our skin. A handful of enthusiastic joggers were already up and about before the heat would make exercise too draining. I wish I could always begin my mornings like this. On our way back to the hotel, we walked along the beach, took a couple of dips in the ocean, and also got to check out many of the famous lifeguard towers. Miami sure is a colour lover’s paradise – I was about to burst with excitement about all those rainbow explosions!IMG_20181110_063312IMG_20181110_065105IMG_20181110_071721

After breakfast, we went on a guided bike tour around Miami Beach, arranged by Bike and Roll. We biked at a slow pace around the island and admired all the colourful art deco buildings. Along the way, we also stopped by the Holocaust Memorial and the botanical gardens. I don’t normally go on guided tours, but I warmly recommend spending a couple hours on this bike tour. In a relatively short time, we got to see and experience many things we would have missed otherwise. (The last two pictures were taken on a different day, but I thought they fit here best. That should explain the wet asphalt. :))IMG_20181110_102733 IMG_20181110_110907
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After the bike tour, we headed out to the Ocean’s Ten restaurant located on Ocean Drive for lunch, which quickly became of the boozy variety. If they know anything in Miami, it’s how to mix drinks properly! Half of our group stayed behind to order more rounds while the other half went to the beach for a couple of hours. I joined the beach posse.IMG_20181110_072644

After a few hours of worshipping the sun, it was time for a meal again, this time at the Forrest Gump themed restaurant Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. in Downtown Miami. The Jenny’s Catch fish portion was swimming in butter, which I didn’t mind at all. In fact, I’m trying to launch a new idiom, “rolls like a greased sloth”. The best part of this three-course meal were still the deceptively tasty cocktails, which was the case in many of the other restaurants we sampled, as well.IMG_20181110_173909

We ended the evening with some NBA and went to see the game between Miami Heat and Washington Wizards. Unfortunately, American Airlines Arena wasn’t anywhere near full capacity, which put a bit of a damper on the general atmosphere. However, this was still pretty good for my first experience with basketball. Starting with the players’ introductions, everything was just so grand: the bombastic commentary combined with the Rammstein-style pyrotechnics didn’t leave me cold. Feuer frei! I did find it strange how they played music even when the game was on, and not only on breaks – don’t the constant sound effects disturb the players’ concentration at all? Our waiter at Bubba Gump had taught us the proper chant, Let’s go Heat!, but no amount of chanting could prevent the Wizards from winning in the fourth quarter. I guess I bought the wrong team’s snapback.IMG_20181110_213507

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