Dubai, the glittering gem of the Middle East, is located on the southeast coast of the Persian Gulf and is the most populous city in the United Arab Emirates. In 2012, Dubai was proclaimed the 22nd most expensive city in the world and the most expensive city in the Middle East. Known for luxury shopping, ultramodern architecture and lively nightscene, the opulence and extravagance of the city is apparent everywhere you go and begins from the moment you step foot in the magnificent Dubai airport. Endless skyscraper and development projects are continually ongoing and constantly transforming the Dubai skyline. The city hosts the Dubai Shopping Festival every year as well as the annual Dubai International Film Festival and Dubai Food Festival.
Best time to visit…
The best time to visit Dubai is between November and March, although Dubai is ALWAYS scorching so it’s either hot or hotter! The weather is beautiful with blue skies in the winter but these are also the peak months which means greater crowds and higher prices.
Situated midway between the Far East and Europe and an equal distance from Londong and Beijing, Dubai is a trek. It’s well worth the trip but be prepare for a lengthy travel day! Less than an eight-hour flight away from most major destinations in Asia, Africa, Europe and Russia and with a superb network of roads and highways, Dubai is easily accessible by air, land and sea. Emirates Airlines has a great direct 16-hour flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Dubai International Airport. Be sure to take advantage of the extended Dubai layover deal that Emirates Airlines offers – a great (and FREE) way to see Dubai if you’re traveling to the Middle East. Upon arrival at Dubai International Airport, Downtown Dubai is merely a 20 minute taxi ride away!
Where to stay…
There are a multitude of options as it relates to lodging Dubai that stretch from Jumeriah Beach to Downtown Dubai and all around and in between. On artificial islands just offshore is Atlantis & The Palm, a resort with water and marine-animal parks. My favorite place to stay is the luxuriously modern Nassima Royal Hotel in the heart of Downtown Dubai with its stunning views over Dubai and more than reasonable prices. Located on Sheikh Zayed Road, the 51-story hotel offers a great pool outdoor rooftop pool, kids center and fabulous restaurants, bars and nightclub. Ask for a room with a view of Dubai’s iconic skyscraper, Burj Khalifa!
Nassima Royal (5-Star, Downtown Dubai)
Plot 49 Sheikh Zayed Road, Trade Centre District
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
+971 4 3080000
For the ultimate in luxury, the Armani Hotel Dubai, envisioned by fashion icon Girogio Armani, occupies 11 floors of Burj Khalifa and has a private entrance, direct access to the Dubai Mall and 7 restaurants to choose from!
Armani Hotel Dubai (5-Star, Downtown Dubai)
Lobby Level, Burj Khalifa
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
+971 4 888 3888
If you’re looking to stay near the water and to pay a pretty penny, you’ll recognize the famous Burj Al Arab hotel with its striking sail-shaped building set on an island…arguably the most luxurious hotel in the world. The hotel offers suite-only accommodation, 9 world-class restaurants and bars, 5 swimming pools (3 outdoor and 2 indoor), a private beach, free breakfast buffet, complimentary access to Wild Wadi Waterpark and a private reception on every floor.
Burj Al Arab (7-Star, Jumeriah Beach)
3 شارع جميرة
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
+971 4 301 7777
A weekend in….Dubai
Once you’ve settled into your hotel, head over to check out the Bur Khalifa…the tallest building in the world standing at 2,722 feet! Aside from being one of the most spectacular sights in the world, the Burj Khalifa also features two observation decks (one of which is the highest in the world), sky lobbies, swimming pools, the world’s highest nightclub and the world’s highest restaurant. The first 15 floors of the structure are the luxurious Armani hotel and further up the tower are apartments, corporate offices and observatories.
The Burj is a towering symbol of Dubai’s opulence with its Neo-futurist design and that’s evident in the hefty price tag to visit the building. You must have a ticket or a reservation to enter and visit the Burj. If you’d like to make a reservation at Al Mahara, the iconic seafood restaurant within the Burj with a floor-to-ceiling aquarium, be prepared to pay a pretty penny as the average price for two with a bottle of wine is approximately $600! Another alternative (still not cheap but slightly better) is to make a reservation for afternoon tea at At.mosphere on the 123rd floor and enjoy high tea with bird’s-eye views. There are two observation decks (lower outdoor observation deck At The Top on the 124th floor and indoor deck At The Top Sky on the 148th floor) and ticket prices will vary depending on which deck you choose and the time of day. The best time to visit the Burj Khalifa is just before sunset. If you arrive early enough, you can take pictures from the top during the daylight hours, through sunset and dusk then into the evening. Tickets for the sunset hours (5:30 pm to 6:30 pm) increase by AED 75 or around $20 so it’s recommended that you purchase a 5:00 pm ticket if you just plan on spending a couple hours at the top. Sunrise tickets are available from 5:30 am on Fridays and Saturdays only. Make sure to make arrangements in advance as tickets for the Burj purchased on the spot can cost 75% more!
After visiting the Burj, skip on next door to The Dubai Mall, the largest mall in the world (by total area) with 1,200 shops and over 13 million square feet! It also has a 250-room luxury hotel, 22 cinema screens along with 120 restaurants and cafes. You cannot miss the Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo and its 300+ species of marine animals, including sharks and rays while you are at the mall. Wander through the aquarium’s 270-degree acrylic walk-through tunnel where you can see the underwater animals up close. The Underwater Zoo is located above the aquarium and features penguins, crocodiles, piranhas, giant spider crabs, water rats, sea horses, jellyfish and more! If you’re feeling active, take a spin at the olympic-size Dubai Ice Rink…the go-to place for ice skating in Dubai. The rink offers professional ice skating lessons as well as lessons for figure skating, ice hockey, Disco and Mega Skate sessions. Kids will also find hours of entertainment at SEGA Republic, a 76,000 square foot indoor theme park dedicated to SEGA’s Sonic the Hedgehog, and KidZania, an award-winning children’s ‘edutainment’ concept that features an 80,000 square foot mini-city that combines play with learning! To check out Ski Dubai, the Middle East’s first indoor ski resort and snow park), head over to the nearby Mall of the Emirates with its 630+ retail outlets and 500-seat capacity Dubai Community Theatre and Arts Centre and Magic planet (one of the largest indoor family entertainment centers in Dubai).
The Dubai Mall (Downtown Dubai)
Financial Centre Road
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
+800 38224 6255
Mall of the Emirates (Downtown Dubai)
Sheikh Zayed Road
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
+971 4 409 9000
Upon leaving the Dubai Mall, you can’t miss The Dubai Fountain Show, the world’s largest choreographed fountain system set on the 30-acre manmade Burj Khalifa Lake at the center of the Downtown Dubai development. Illuminated by 6,600 lights and 25 colored projectors, it is 275 meters long and shoots water up to 500 feet into the air accompanied by a range of world music. It’s truly a magnificent sight to see! Performances take place at 1:00 pm and at 1:30 pm as well as every 30 minutes from 6:00 pm to 10:00 pm on weekdays and until 11:00 pm on the weekends (Thursday, Friday and Saturday).
For the freshest fish and an experience in itself, try the seafood at Bu Qtar Fish Restaurant for dinner after a long day. Featured in CNN Travel and shortlisted by Foodie Hub as one of Dubai’s Essential Eats, this restaurant requires more than an hour longwait to even place an order! The menu consists of 5 menu items and is definitely a no frills joint with plastic stools and plastic tables out front of the restaurant. Crispy fried fish, spicy shrimp, Malabari fish curry …whatever you order will be marinated in a mildly-spicy seasoning before being friend and served rice or paratha and curry sauce!
Bu Qtair Fish Resaurant (Jumeirah Road)
4 D Street Al Sufouh
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
+971 55 705 2130
Beach day! Set out to discover the glorious Jumeriah Beach with its stretches of soft white sand and crystal clear blue waters. Jumeriah Beach islocated and named after the Jumeriah district of Dubai, on the coast of the Persian Gulf. If you’re lucky enough to stay at one of Jumeriah’s hotels like the opulent seven-star Burj Al Arab, you’ll have private beaches with waters sports. Otherwise, you’ll be able to enjoy Jumeriah Beach Park, the public portion of the beach buzzing with action with people playing beach games, jet-skiing, picknicking, jogging, sunbathing and swimming in the warm Gulf waters.
After spending the day in the hot Dubai sun, get ready to explore the Dubai desert at sunset. After researching countless tour companies and itineraries we decided that the evening night safari with Desert Safari Dubai was the best bang for our buck and incorporated everything we wanted to do in the desert! They pick you up at your hotel around 4pm and take you on the 40 minute drive out to the desert. Upon arriving in the desert, the driver releases the air out of the tires of your vehicle and takes you on the thrilling experience of dune bashing up and down the miles of mountainous sand dunes. Your stomach will drop and you’re unsure whether you’re in a vehicle or a roller coaster…an experience of a lifetime!
After dune bashing, you’ll head to camp where you’ll be able to take a short ride on a camel (great photo opportunity) and ride quad bikes or sand boards for an additional charge. They also offer henna painting, shisha smoking, and traditional attire for you to wear for pictures. The highlight of the night is the belly dancing and fire dancing show performed while you enjoy a buffet dinner and BBQ underneath the stars! You’ll head back at your hotel once the evening concludes around 9:00 pm.
Desert Safari Dubai
Wake up and stroll around the Dubai Marina, the famous artificial canal city built along a two-mile stretch of Persian Gulf shoreline. When the entire development is complete, it will be the world’s largest man-made marina and will accommodate more than 120,000 people in residential towers and villas. The Dubai Marina walk is a 7 km long pedestrian walkway that runs around from the start of Dubai Marina until the end of Dubai Marina with cafes and restaurants along the waterfront. Phase I has already been completed and Phase II will consist of high rise buildings, which are mainly clustered into a block, known as “Tallest Block in the world”. The Dubai Marina Mall, the shopping mall located in the center of Dubai Marina, features 140 retail outlets spread over 390,000 square feet of gross leasable space consisting of shops, a supermarket, an entertainment area for children and a six-screen Reel Cinemas.
If you’re a shopper and in the market for amazing knock-offs, be sure to stop by The Karama Market…Dubai’s number one market for replicas. For the good stuff, you’ll be taken into a secret room or upstairs. Make sure you do your research what kind of items you want beforehand and be sure to bargain, bargain and BARGAIN!
The Karama Market (Downtown)
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
+971 50 000 0000
Before you leave Dubai, experience excellent and genuine Pakistani food in a local neighborhood restaurant. Although small, Ravi’s has garnered quite a gobal reputation and is well-known to be Craig David’s favorite restaurant in Dubai. The curry here is out of the world! The staff doesn’t speak much English, but they will tell you what menu items are good to order. Try the Chicken Jalfrezi, Lamb Green Masala and Paneer Butter, yum!
Ravi Restaurant (Al Satwa Rd)
Shop 245, Al Dhiyafa Rd, Satwa
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
+971 4 331 5353
Panda’s Tips for Dubai:
- Dubai’s laws concerning sexuality morality restrict public and private acts and kissing in certain places is illegal and can result in deportation.
- Adult non-Muslims are allowed to consume alcohol in licensed venues but restaurants outside of hotels in Dubai are typically not permitted to sell alcohol so alcohol is hard to come by (your best bet is a hotel bar) and therefore pricey!
- Women typically wear the “Abaya”, a long black robe with a hijab (head-scarf which covers the neck and part of the head) and men can be seen wearing the “Kandurah” (long white robe) and headscarf but the dress code is not compulsory and many people wear western clothing wihout any problems as long as clothing is not indecent.
Antigua, also knows as Waladli by the native population, is a breathtaking Caribbean island in the West Indies and the main island of the country of Antigua and Barbuda. The island is relatively small with a circumference of roughly 54 miles which can easily be explored in a day. Beyond its breathtaking white sand beaches, Antigua’s English Harbour and its neighbouring village of Falmouth are internationally famous as a yachting and sailing destination center and hosts the annual world-class regatta during Antigua Sailing week at the end of April and beginning of May.
Best time to visit…
The best time to visit Antigua is May to November, the island’s off-season. You’ll find lower than usual rates and although there is a slight threat of hurricanes, the weather is more than likely always above 80 degrees. There is less chance of rain between December and April but rates are expensive and the crowds abundant. A little fleeting tropical rain never hurt anyone…especially your wallet!
You’ll want to fly into VC Bird International Airport (ANU), approximately 5 miles east of St. John’s. 1,325 miles southeast of Miami, many US airlines offer connections to VC Bird from the continental United States. Americans arriving in Antigua receive a six-month tourist stamp so visas are not required. However, immigration officials may verify a return ticket or ticket of onward travel along with sufficient funds for the entire period of stay.
Where to stay…
We stayed at the amazing all-inclusive Galley Bay resort overlooking the beautiful Galley Bay surrounded by tropical greenery. The Galley Bay resort is located directly on the beach with airy and colorful rooms that look out onto the crystal clear Caribbbean water. If you want a change of pace from the breathtaking beach (although not sure how you could), the resort also has a lagoon-style pool surrounded by palm trees and hammock, a chic spa, tennis court and an exercise room. With 4 restaurants and 4 bars, all with sea views, you definitely will not go hungry or thirsty here! We devoured the finger licking good glazed barbecue chicken and roasted corn on the cob for lunch at the Gauguin beach restaurant every day we stayed there – pure heaven!
Galley Bay Resort (4- star)
Five Islands Village, St. John’s, Antigua & Barbuda
A weekend in…Antigua
For adventure seekers and nature lovers, Antigua won’t be complete without making a trip to Stingray City! Antigua’s Southern Rays are without doubt the brightest rays in the Caribbean, friendly and gentle. Touch and feed a Stingray while you swim and snorkel amongst them above magnificent coral reefs and colorful tropical fish. Stingray City is on Mercer’s Creek Bay in Seatons in eastern Antigua, off the road to Long Bay. Numerous tour packages are offered and a swim with the Stingrays will cost you around USD $50.
If you forget that SPF and get a little suburn that requires a break from the sun, head to the beautifully restored naval dockyard that was once the home of the British fleet during the Napoleonic Wars. Nelson’s Dockyard is a site to see and also part of Nelson’s Dockyard National Park which also contains Clarence House and Shirley Heights. A cultural heritage site and marina in Englkyardish Harbour, Nelson’s Dockyard is home to Antigua’s sailing and yachting events. In 1889, the Royal Navy abandoned the Dockyard and it fell into decay. The Society of the Friends of English Harbour began restoration in 1951 and a decade later, it was opened to the public. Among the original buildings are two hotels, a museum, craft and food shops, restaurants, and a large marina. Hiking trails radiate across the surrounding national park. Nelson’s Dockyard is open daily from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm. The cost of admission is $8 USD and includes a guided tour as well as entry to all sites including Shirley Heights and Dow’s Hill. Tours do not run on Sundays.
Once you’re finished at the Dockyard head up to check out the incredible view from Shirley Heights (490 feet above the ground) that overlooks the English and Falmouth Harbours and boasts the best view in Antigua! The view is especially spectacular at sunset when the English Harbour is all lit up. Shirley Heights Lookout also hosts a Sunday Barbecue party that starts at 4:00 pm with reggae music and a mouth watering barbecue that goes until 10:00 pm. Get your groove on while overlooking beautiful Antigua and experiencing some of the island’s finest bands.
While the actual town of St. John is probably not where you’ll want to spend most of your time, it’s worth seeing if you are renting a car and driving around the island. A few other notable stops you must make are to Valley Church Beach with it’s quiet white sand just south of Jolly Harbour, the Devil’s Bridge to see the dramatic natural limestone arch, and Half Moon Bay, one of the most beautiful beaches in Antigua! The island is known for its collection of 365 sugar-white sand beaches so you will not run out of beautiful beaches to explore!
This post (like all the others lately) is a bit delayed but I wanted to have a memory of our fabulous trip to the Park City snow! Park City is a beautiful scenic mountain community filled with activities, award winning restaurants, a lively action-packed calendar – in addition to its two world-class resorts Deer Valley Resort and Park City Mountain Resort. Considered part of the Wasatch Batch, Park City is a mere 32 miles southeast of downtown Salt Lake City and hosts the famous Sundance Film Festival every year where the streets are lined with celebrities and transformed with pop up shops and parties!
If you’re a skier, you’ll be in heaven at Deer Valley Resort that revolutionized the ski industry by being the first North American ski resort to provide the first-class service comparable to a five-star hotel with a variety of lodging, an award-winning ski school and 300 annual inches of powder snow along with state-of-the-art snow making. If you’re a snowboarder, Park City Mountain Resort will be more up your alley. The resort combined with neighboring Canyons Resort in July 2015, creating one powerhouse ski/snowboard resort encompassing 7,300 acres, 300+ trails, 38 lifts, seven terrain parks, 14 bowls, six natural half pipes, one super pipe and one mini pipe. Non-skiers and snowboarders can ride the Quicksilver Gondola for a killer view!
Deer Valley Resort
2250 Deer Valley Drive South
Park City, UT 84060
Park City Mountain Resort
1310 Lowell Ave
Park City, UT 84060
The adventure lovers out there will love visiting the Utah Olympic Park to experience Utah’s Olympic legacy! Guided tours of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games venue are available daily and you can explore both the George Eccles 2002 Olympc Games Museum and Interactive Alf Engen Ski Museum. The Park is a year-round U.S. Olympic training site for athletes of all ages training for Nordic Ski Jumping, Freestyle Skiing, Bobsled, Skeleton and Luge. You can even take the ride on the Winter Comet Bobsled and experience what it is like to fly down the Olympic track in a bobsled!
Utah Olympic Park
3419 Olympic Parkway
Park City, UT 84098
We got lucky and had fresh snow on the ground and blue skies for our day on the mountain (especially appreciated after getting skunked the last few years at our local mountain). We had a great day journeying from Park City to Canyons and back and getting some quality time with everyone on the ski lifts. We didn’t stop all day and it’s safe to say I couldn’t move by the last run, a sign of a successful snowboarding day!
After a long day of snowboarding (or skiing), THE spot for apres ski is no doubt No Name Saloon and Grill, Park City’s oldest and most popular bar. The signature red-brick saloon with pub grub on Main Street features killer bison burgers and an extensive beer and whiskey menu. Come for a drink on your way off the mountain or dance the night away!
No Name Saloon and Grill
447 Main St
Park City, UT 84060
Beer lovers will also love Wasatch Brew Pub at the top of Main Street. A local favorite since 1989, Wasatch became Park City’s first brewery, since prohibition, in 1986. Wasatch was one of the first craft brewers in all of the U.S. and continues to brew award winning beers year after year. Their pulled pork sandwich is also crave worthy!
Wasatch Brew Pub
250 Main St
Park City, UT 84060
If you’re a whiskey fan, don’t miss High West Distillery and Saloon, Utah’s first distillery since the 1870’s and the only ski-in gastro-distillery in the world. Located at the bottom of Quittin’ Time ski run and next to the Town Lift, this intimate gathering spot serves small plates of nouveau Western fare and of course their own small-batch, mountain-crafted, award-winning whiskeys and vodkas!
High West Saloon
703 Park Ave
Park City, UT 84060
The shopping on historic Main Street in Park City is second to none. Whether you’re in the market for a new fur mankini or merely just window shopping, Main Street is home to every type of store you can imagine. From the latest fashion trends to unique art galleries from local artists, you can browse for hours with pit stops for a delicious cappuccino or cocktail in between! The Red Velvet Mocha at Atticus Coffee Books & Teahouse is to die for and they have thousands of used books to browse along with eclectic gifts and souvenirs. Too cute!
Atticus Coffee Books & Teahouse
738 Main St
Park City, UT 84060
Having grown up and lived in California my whole life, I’m not exactly sure how it’s possible that I’ve never been to Big Sur. To my parents’ credit, they did plan a family trip there…but alas, it was on their road trip for my college graduation and I was neck deep in finals. We decided that we had to take advantage of living near this breathtaking rugged stretch of California’s central coast – and conveniently combined it with a venue scouting trip!
We left San Diego at the crack of dawn and drove straight into the world-renowned Carmel, a town that has charmed artists and celebrities alike with its picturesque white-sand beach and European-style village packed with restaurants, shops and art galleries. We made it there before the sun came up and stopped first at the Hyatt Carmel Highlands which was absolutely beautiful but a little too small for our needs. I got my first glimpse of the beauty we were about encounter with turquoise capped waves slamming into the cliffs below us. We then started the dramatic journey down Highway 1 along the jagged cliffs pummeled by surf line to Big Sur, providing the most stunning views of any coastline I have ever seen.
The Big Sur Bakery was recommended to us as a “must” but I found it to be overpriced and a bit overrated…the avocado toast was over $20 (which they were out of) and apparently wheat toast is only delivered on certain days! Not that day…I settled for a mediocre $7 muffin. We made our way to the Ventana Inn, across the street from the famous Post Ranch Inn which was also beautiful but too small for our tastes. For a refreshing drink with an insane view, stop at the reknown Nepenthe restaurant…pricey but the atmosphere can’t be beat!
48510 Hwy 1, Big Sur, California 93920
The most iconic photo of Big Sur is that of the 80-foot McWay Waterfall as it cascades onto the sandy shore in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. One of the shortest hiking trails in Big Sur, Mcway Falls should be seen by anyone traveling along Highway 1…trust me, it’s easy. We did it in flip flops! The trail is a mere .64 miles on a flat and wide path that provides both southern and northern Coastal views. After parking, walk directly west back towards Highway 1 and look fo the sign to the Overlook/Waterfall Trail/Pelton Wheel straight ahead. You’ll head down short wooden steps, proceed along a wide path and then through a round tunnel under the highway. Once you emerge facting th ocean, turn right and walk along the path for several yards until you see the falls. Breathtaking!
We continued south to visit one of the most beautiful venues I’ve seen – Point 16. Point 16 is absolutely magical with 180 degree views of the coastline and the “loo with a view” that can’t be beat. If the logistics were not an issue (distance from LA, 1 hour bus ride from closest hotels, etc.), this would be our dream venue!
There are several different Big Sur lodging options from camping at Fernwood to the magnificently opulent Post Ranch Inn if you end up spending more time there. Many choose the “glamping” option to take advantage of the natural beauty of the area without having to rough it TOO much. We decided to continue our trek down the coast but for the adventurous, you have plenty of options to choose from whether it be tent camping to lounging in a luxurious room with a butler!
Fernwood Resort (range of options from camping to motel)
47200 CA-1, Big Sur, CA 93920
Big Sur Lodge (3.5 stars)
47225 CA-1, Bi Sur, CA 93920
Ventana Inn & Spa (4 stars)
48123 CA-1, Big Sur, CA 93920
Post Ranch Inn (5 stars)
47900 CA-1, Big Sur, CA 93920
We continued our drive down the beautiful California coast past the stunning rock formations and sunning elephant seals at Piedras Blancas down to Cambria, a lovely seaside town in San Luis Obispo County. We checked in to our adorable room at the Firestone Inn and went down to catch the gorgeous sunset at Cambria’s famous Moonstone Beach. We worked up an appetite collecting the semi-precious jasper stones of all colors scattered all over the beach (hence the name “Moonstone”) and headed into town to check out Robin’s Restaurant, an eclectic East village restaurant serving made-from-scratch international cuisine that came highly recommended to us. The setting at Robin’s is romantic and unique and the fusion of Asian, Mexican and Indian – absolutely mouthwatering. We started out with crispy calamari with a spicy aioli and tried the enchiladas and chicken curry…we were not disappointed!
4095 Burton Drive, Cambria CA 93428
Firestone Inn at Moonstone Beach (3-star)
6700 Moonstone Beach Dr, Cambria CA 93428
If you have the time, arrange for a tour of Hearst Castle, William Randolph Hearst’s famous estate, only 6 miles from Cambria! We didn’t have time since we had to continue down the coast on a serious scouting mission but I hear this sprawling state historical monument is definitely worth the visit!
750 Hearst Castle Rd, San Simeon CA 93452
We forged the trek cross country to Vermont this past weekend for a wedding and while I knew it would be pretty this time of year, I wasn’t fully aware of the beauty I was in store for! We took a red eye flight from LAX to JFK…then hopped on a 1+ hour flight to Burlington. I had scoped out a highly ranked breakfast spot for us in the heart of town for when we landed – Penny Cluse Café – with supposedly amazing egg and chorizo tacos with black beans and avocado and it did not disappoint. Their home fries and banana bread are also out of this world. Don’t be surprised if you find yourselves subject to a 30 minute to 1 hour wait for a table but you’ll appreciate that time to wander the adorable and bustling cafes and shops of Burlington’s main square!
Penny Cluse Café (Burlington, Vermont)
169 Cherry Street, Burlington, Vermont 05401
With bellies full, we embarked on the scenic hour drive up to Stowe. We arrived at our hotel and were in awe of the pristine and majestic beauty of the Stowe Mountain Lodge. The quintessential New England resort, you could definitely feel the beauty of the mountains and the charm of the surrounding town and can only imagine how beautiful the resort would be covered in snow. Located at the base of Mount Mansfield, the resort is the only ski-in/ski-out lodging in Stowe, boasts farm-to-table dining at their Solstice Restaurant and has a plethora of shopping options at The Shops at Stowe Mountain Lodge (including the Beanery coffee shop that just happens to have THE best breakfast sandwiches in town). Take the gondola up for skiing in the winter and for zip-lining and hiking in the summer!
Stowe Mountain Lodge (Stowe, Vermont)
5781 Mountain Rd, Stowe, Vermont 05672
We settled into our king suite with a fireplace, kitchenette and bathrobes then decided to tackle a Smugglers’ Notch hike that we had read about that ends at the beautiful Sterling Pond. We drove up to the Smugglers’ Notch Park visitor center and parked (well at least half of the car) at the base of the trail. The hike is about 2 miles on a well-maintained yet vertical trail…look for the 2” x 6” blue blazes to mark the trail. Make sure you reward your efforts with a refreshing dip in the pond!
If there’s one thing that’s a given in Vermont, it’s that they sure like their Heady Topper. This American Double IPA is packed with hops and while it’s not the strongest or bitter double IPA, you’ll get a hint of orange, tropical fruit, pink grapefruit, pine and spice hops in every sip. It is unfiltered and contains 8% ABV and because it’s sold only in limited production, it sells out within days or hours of being released. You’ll most likely see a silver can of Heady Topper being dranken at every restaurant table in Vermont…we even saw someone drinking it at 8 am with breakfast!
The Alchemist Brewery
35 Crossroad Rd, Waterbury, Vermont 05676
Wedding time! The ceremony and reception were held at the bride’s beautiful family home up in the mountains of Stowe. Escaping the forecasted thunderstorms, we had the perfect sunny weather for a beautiful romantic ceremony by the pond. The wedding was flawless and we danced the night away to music by the groom and friends…and of course Heady Topper galore!
You cannot leave Stowe without buying some maple syrup…and eating at one of THE best places to get a salad or sandwich. Ever. Green Goddess Cafe makes the most amazing “create your own” colossal salads served in huge wooden bowls with mouthwatering dressing (think maple balsalmic, jalapeno cilantro lime and their signature green goddess just to name a few). Their double peanut butter chocolate chunk cookie isn’t too bad either!
Green Goddess Café (Stowe, Vermont)
618 S Main Street #2, Stowe, Vermont 05672
Panama City is the capital and largest city of the Republic of Panama and the most cosmopolitan capital in Central America. Its skyline screams urban chaos while cobblestones link boutique hotels with underground bars and crumbled ruins in the peninsula of Casco Viejo When visiting Panama City, I highly suggest taking an hour flight to Bocas del Toro. It’s extremely rare in this world that you find an atmosphere so seductive, primitive and unforgettable…think Costa Rica 20 years ago. The islands are surrounded by the beautiful Caribbean ocean, packed with lush and unique tropical vegetation and immersed in numerous cultures including the indigenous Westin Caribe people, latinos and extraneros.
Best time to visit…
The best time to visit Panama is during the summer dry season from mid-December to mid-April but this also means that its high season and higher rates at hotels and resorts. The Caribbean destinations such as Bocas del Toro has a shorter dry season, usually September/October and February/March. Humidity is always high in Panama and some areas in the Caribbean receive almost twice the yearly rainfall of Panama City.
It is most common to fly into Tocumen International Airport (PTY) which is 22 miles from the downtown area unless you can find a flight into Albrook Airport (PAC). The only airports in the United States that fly direct into PTY are Atlanta, Houston, Miami and Newark. Bocas del Toro Airport (BOC) is an hour flight from Panama City.
Where to stay…
Casca Viejo has become Panama City’s hottest night life sector with renaissance-restored hotels, restaurants, sweeping ocean and bay views. Although a bit pricey, Las Clementinas is an extraordinary hotel with enormous rooms, beautiful terrace, sweeping views of both old and new Panama, and a spectacular restaurant.
Las Clementinas (Casco Viejo)
Las Clementinas Chambers, Avenida B, Panamá, Panama
Bocas del Toro has tons of little hotels right near the water and nightlife. Hotel Palma Royale is centrally located right across the street from the water taxis and restaurants. Jimmy Buffett stayed here and the service is top notch. We stayed at Hotel Olas because it is owned by a friend and the location is wonderful and the ocean patios are great. It’s a good value if you’re looking to save some money!
Hotel Palma Royale (Bocas Town)
Calle 3, Isla Colon, Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro, Panama
Hotel Olas (Bocas Town)
Avenida Sur, Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro, Panama
A weekend in…Panama City and Bocas del Toro, Panama
Take a city tour of Panama City and see the “three” Panama cities: the ruins of the 16th century original city Panama Viejo or “Old Panama”, the Spanish colonial city or Casco Viejo, and the modern city lined with skyscrapers. Panama City was founded in 1519 and was the first city founded on the west coast of the Americas. All of the loot stolen from the Inca empire went through Panama City, making it the target of English pirate Henry Morgan who destroyed it in 1671. In 1673, a new colonial Panama City (Casco Viejo) was built which still stands as the historical center today. Casca Viejo is now a vibrant neighborhood with renaissance-restored hotels, restaurants, sweeping ocean and bay views and is now Panama City’s hottest night life sector. It was featured in the James Bond Quantum of Solace film!
Visit the Panama Canal at the Miraflores Locks. 10 minutes from downtown Panama City and a $10 admission fee, the center features a museum with interactive exhibits and a short film on the building of the Canal. You can get close-up view of ships transiting through the locks on the outside terrace.
If you’re looking for fine dining at its best, make a dinner reservation at Madrigal in Casco Viejo. The restaurant has two floors, each with its own intimate feel. The owner and chef has Michelin Star and the food is both creative and upscale. Try the tasting menu for the full experience!
Madrigal (Casco Viejo)
Avenida a Con Calle 5ta Oeste, Casco Viejo, Panama City, Panama
If you’re a little more on a budget but want the freshest and tastiest seafood and schmooze with the locals, check out The Fish Market. This is a restaurant but the kitchen is a food truck and they have a different menu every night. Come early or they might run out of your first choice!
The Fish Market (Casco Viejo)
Casco Viejo, al lado de Barlovento, Panama City, Panama
Get a taste of Panamanian nightlife which takes place in three sectors of the city: Casco Viejo, the business district and the Amador Causeway. The bars, discos, pubs and casinos are packed all night until the early morning. In Casco Viejo, check out the La Rana Dorada micro brewery, Tantalo Rooftop Bar and the Habana Panama salsa dance club. The business district contains the Hard Rock Hotel that has 4 bars including the Float Pool Get Wet bar and stage for bands, The Wine Bar, and Sparkles Bar with sweeping view of the city and bay skyline. The Amador Causeway connects a string of Panama Bay islands with ocean and city views both day and night and is home to Bamboo, a popular bar with an open-air area and indoor lounge and Pahya, a fairly new and popular dance club.
Take the 1 hour flight to the Bocas del Toro archipelago! There’s so much to do and explore in Bocas and you truly feel like you’re in a different world here. You can sail, horseback ride, dive, visit the Bastimentos caves and explore all the nearby beaches. We hired a boat to take us to Red Frog Beach, one of the best beaches in Panama. There wasn’t much of a restaurant or snack bar but apparently they were in the process of building one across the street when we were there!
Bocas also has some of the best waves in Panama and is also one of the best places to learn how to suf. Check out www.BocasSurfSchool.com if you’re interested in learning. We hired a water taxi to take us to Silverbacks break and wait for us while we (tried) to catch some waves.
After undoubtedly working up an appetite, have dinner at El Ultimo Refugio (the Ultimate Refuge) and enjoy fresh seafood and delicious cocktails with sunset views over the water. The restaurant is 100 meters right after you pass the ferry dock and Casa Verde. The food is delicious and the service is stellar!
El Ultimo Refugio (Bocas Town)
Avenida Sur, Isla Colon, Bocas Town, Panama
Bocas del Toro is known for cheap drinks and music that plays all night! Start at Bar La Iguana, a surf shop themed bar across from the popular sushi restaurant The Blowfish with great cocktails. It typically opens around 7pm until midnight and it’s a great place to meet fellow travelers as well as locals.
After you’ve had a few cocktails, head over to Barco Hundito (the Sunken Ship Bar), the most popular spot at night in Bocas. It opens around 8pm and closes at midnight Sunday through Wednesday and at 3am Thursday through Saturday with a $2 cover charge for guys. The bar lives up to its name and there is an actual shipwreck in the middle of the bar with a dock built around it. Dance the night away on top of a sunken boat to anything from hip hop to reggae with both tourists and locals!
Hire a boat and explore the surrounding islands. We had a friend take us on his boat to Starfish Beach, where the stars shine in the sun. You can also take a taxi from town which takes approximately 25 minutes or the Bocas del Drago bus that stops at the plaza in downton Bocas and takes you on a beautiful ride through the jungle to Bocas del Drago. Once in Bocas del Drago, take a five minute boat ride to the beach or forge the 20 minute walk between the shore and the jungle.
We were pleasantly surprised to find this magical beach relatively deserted. We spent the afternoon swimming in the cystal clear water displaying hundreds of bright orange starfish and louning on the white sandy beaches. The water is always calm and clear which makes it ideal for snorkeling (or spearfishing like we attempted…but I wouldn’t recommend it)!
Don’t leave Bocas without getting tacos from Tacos Surf Bocas. Founded in 2014 by a San Diego couple, Taco Surf Brothers serves the freshest baja fish tacos, California burritos, specialty fries, homemade hot sauces and more. You can get 3 tacos and a beer for only $10!
Tacos Surf Bocas (Bocas Town)
2nd Street behind the main park, Mono Loco Surf School, Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro, Panama
The island of Phuket is surprisingly large, about 50 km long by 20 km wide. It’s so huge that you rarely get the sense that you’re surrounded by water. Phuket is an international magnet for beach lovers and divers who submerge themselves in the Andaman Sea and blue lagoons by day and revel in the salmon sunsets by night. The island’s sin city of Patong is the biggest town and busiest beach with undoubtedly the liveliest (and sleaziest) nightlife in Phuket.
Best time to visit…
The best time to visit Phuket is December through March, during the cool NE monsoon season when it isn’t to humid and a cool breeze lingers in the air. Phuket is blessed with warm weather all year round but April to May and September to October are the hottest. September to October is monsoon season.
You can get to Phuket by bus, car, train and air! Flying from Bangkok into Phuket International is by far the most convenient with a mere one hour flight time. Several domestic airlines such as Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways, Phuket Air and Thai Air Asia offer daily direct flights. An intercity or public bus is the cheapest way to get to Phuket but the trip will take 12-14 hours. Taking a train is also rather cheap but there are no direct trains to Phuket. You would need to take the train to Surat Thani then take a bus to Phuket. Driving is also an alternative option that includes being able to stop at several beautiful places along the way but the trip is still a good 12 hours.
Once you land at the Phuket Airport, the cheapest way to Phuket Town is to take the Airport Bus Phuket for a price of 85฿. The bus leaves every hour from 6:30 am to 8:45 pm. As you exit the arrivals hall, turn left and walk 20 meters to the end of the building and look for the vibrant orange bus. You can also take a metered taxi but be aware that there is a flat charge of 100 Baht which is a legitimate fee. State your destination and you will be issued a receipt and assigned a driver so it’s difficult to be overcharged. A taxi to Karon Beach is approximately 450 Baht and 500 Baht to Patong Beach.
Where to stay…
Due to the size of Phuket, you have numerous lodging options in a variety of locations and beaches depending on your personal preferences! Patong Beach is the main center of shopping and nightlife in Phuket, and where the majority of the hotels are located along with the traffic and party noise. Bangla Road in inner Patong is the heart of Patong’s nightlife and is central to the main shopping areas and also leads right down to the islan’s main beach. The vast majority of hotels are located in outer Patong, just short taxi ride to Patong city center and located near the beach. Kata and Karon Beaches are approximately a 30 minute drive from Patong and quieter than Patong with much nicer beaches. They each also have their own areas with shopping, restaurants and bars. Bang Tao Bay is an hour drive north of Phuket and hosts mainly secluded luxury hotels, notably the Laguna resorts that are built on a 1,000 acre area surrounding a network of small lakes and include the prestigious Banyan Tree and Sheraton Grande. Kamala Beach is one of the larger towns on Phuket and while the town itself is not particularly impressive, it’s located near a beautiful beach and near several other nice ones. Located approximately a 25 minute drive north of Patong, Kamala has a few quiet bars and some quality beach resorts with wonderful ocean views. Rawai Beach is a nice little tourist village near the southern tip of Phuket. While Rawai Beach is not suitable for swimming, the superb Nai Ham Beach is just a 10 minute trip over the hill with its small shops, bars and restaurants. Rawai is the main departure point for island trips by the traditional long-tail boats.
A Weekend In…Phuket, Thailand
Start your trip by visiting Old Phuket Town which dates back to the 19th century. Far from the beaches, the traditional Phuket and its unique culinary and historical story boasts several hip shops, cafes, restaurants and bars. The area is also filled with Chinese temples, crumbling mansions, cultural museums and a nunnery. Venture out with Phuket Heritage Trails which specializes in walking tours of the Old Town, one of the best ways to see the area. Tours cost approximately 1,800 to 2,100 baht ($60-$70) per person and include hotel pick-up and drop-off, all museum entry fees and meal expenses.
Old Phuket Town tour
Thalang Road, Phuket Town, Phuket Thailand
+66 851 589 788
Make a reservation at Kruvit Raft and eat the catch of the day on a raft floating in the middle of the island. The raft is a floating mini-pier made of weathered wooden planks with tables that sit beneath quaint thatch roofs. The menu changes according to the fresh seafood that they catch each day but consistent favorites include barbecued lobster, steamed tiger grouper and steamed yellow curry blue crab. There are nets that hold the live fish and you can choose what you want and they will prepare it with perfection. While this is not a 5-star restaurant, it’s an experience not to be missed with the most spectacular and unique atmosphere. The 2 minute free long-tail boat ride will take you right to the restaurant.
Kruvit Raft (Phuket Town)
Moo 6 Front of Maphro Island, Ko Kaeo, Phuket Town, Phuket 83000, Thailand
The best way to explore and see the island is renting a scooter. Phuket has numerous breathtaking viewpoints. Some of the best include Phromthep Cape, Big Buddha, Rang Hill and the Karon (Kata) viewpoint pictured below. Located between Nai Harn and Kata Noi beaches, the Karon viewpoint is one of the most frequented viewpoints in Phuket. From here, you can see Kata Noi, Kata Yai and Karon beaches.
Continuing on the road to the Big Buddha, you’ll pass Raiwaibeach. Once you hit the water, there is a little motorcycle street that veers right that is lined with local restaurants that serve you fresh seafood and Thai food right on the beach. Take a break with a nice cold Singha!
Continue on to see the Big Buddha, one of the island’s most important and revered landmarks. The 45-meter statue is easily seen from far away, sitting on top of the Nakkerd Hills between Chalong and Kata. Easily reachable by a six-kilometer road leading from Phuket’s main artery, the site offers the best sweeping 360-degree views of Phuket Town, Kata, Karon beaches, Chalong Bay and more.
Get the best pho in town at Pho House By Mama Phung. The food here is one of the best authentic Vietnamese meals with exquisite spicy beef pho and famous pork chops. Try all of the “Pho House Dishes”!
Pho House By Mama Phung (Patong)
Phrabarami Road, Patong, Kathu, Phuket 83150, Thailand
+66 81 285 9626
When the sun sets, Paton’s Bangla Road closes to vehicles and comes to life with 400 meters of neon lights, loud music, cheap beer and girls. While for the most part, Bangla Road is fairly sleazy, there are a few quality nightclubs like Seduction Beach Club & Disco that keep the party going until the early morning. The three-level Seduction Beach Club & Disco brings in top international DJs like Paul Oakenfold. The first level beach bar plays R&B and hip-hop music while the top floor is the actual nightclub where the DJ spins. For the VIPs, there’s an exclusive members only open air lounge called BLOW.
Seduction Beach Club & Disco (Patong)
70/1 Soi Bangla, Ratt U-Thit 200 Pee Road Patong Beach, Patong, Kathu, Phuket 83150, Thailand
When we were in Patong, it was the new year celebration which involved all night water fights throughout the entire city. Everyone is fair game and I lost track of the buckets of water dumped on me. Game on!
Take a day trip to Phang Nga Bay and its James Bond Island, a definite must while in Phuket. The best way to enjoy Phang Nga Bay’s spectacular scenery of sheer limestone karats that jut out vertically of the emerald-green water is to take one of the boat trips from the northern end of Phuket. Phang Nga Bay covers an area of 400 sqkm and is home to some 100 beautiful and unique islands. James Bond Island has been a major attraction ever since it was featured in the 1974 Bond movie. The two best ways to view the island are from boats or from the small beach on Koh Ping Ghan, a very high leaning rock with several small caves inside. On its crowded eastern beach are small stands selling souvenirs made from shells and wood.
The area is also a popular destination for sailing and kayaking. Most of the organized tours of James Bond Island are combined with a visit to other popular islands and usually include a stop for a seafood lunch at the charming nearby Muslim fishing village on stilts, Koh Panyee. Bring a snap-shut waterproof camera bag!
Baan Rim Pa literally means “house next to the cliff” and sits on the rocky headlands north of Patong Bay. Dine with extraordinary views over the entire bay as you listen to the waves crash at this open-air two-story teak dining institution that has been open for more than 20 years. The restaurant is right next door to the famous Joe’s Downstairs and Da Maurizio Bar Ristorante as well.
Baan Rim Pa (Kathu District)
Kathu District, Phuket, Thailand
+66 76 340 789
The Phuket Weekend Market (think Bangkok’s Jatujak market but on a smaller scale) is open Saturday and Sunday from 9 am until late at night. Located along Chao Fa West Road just outside of Phuket Town and not far from Central Festival, the market has a covered section (secondhand items and clothes) and an open section (toys, accessories, electronics, etc.). You’ll find food, clothing, jewelry, home décor, antiques, secondhand goods, plants and even pets. Sample all of the tasty food to the right of the main entrance!
Phuket Town Weekend Night Market
Wai-Rat-Hong-Yuk Road, Kamala, Phuket Town, Phuket, Thailand
Ka Jok See is one of the busiest restaurants/bars in town with its setting in a gorgeous old shophouse with beamed ceilings, aged photos on the wall and quirky Thai artwork. At night the restaurant turns into quite the hot spot!
Ka Jok See (Phuket Town)
26 Th Takua Pa, Takua Pa Thailand
+66 (0) 7621 7903
Your #1 priority while in Phuket is to take a 90 minute ferry or 45 minute speedboat to Phi Phi Island, Thailand’s island superstar. Phi Phi’s beauty with its beach-fronted jungle and sheer cliffs towering overhead is unbeatable. Phi Phi Le is completely free of human inhabitants while Phi Phi Don is without roads and packed with a busy nightlife scene. I recommended spending a few nights in Phi Phi if you have the time.
The ferry is the most popular method of reaching the islands. There are two ferries each day to/from Phuket town and Krabi town. The boats usually depart 8:30-10:00 am and 1:30-2:30 pm although times may vary. The ferry terminal is approximately a one-hour drive from Phuket Airport. Private speedboat transfer is the next most popular way of getting to Phi Phi. Obviously speedboats are more expensive than a ferry but if you have a larger group it may be worth the additional expense. In addition, departure and drop-off points are much more flexible and will save you time. Most of the year the ride is flat but avoid taking a speedboat in September and October as it can get rather bumpy.
There are also many tours you can take for $50 USD per person that will take you first to Maya Bay, the famous pristine beach from the movie “The Beach”, glimpses of Loh Samah Bay, Viking Cave, Pileh Cove, Monkey Beach, then to Phi Phi and Koh Nok with snorkeling in between.
Snorkeling on the islands is like being in a fantasy planet. The crystal clear water gives you full range to view exotic species of fish and one of the world’s most abundant coral reef systems. Unbelievable!
The last stop on your tour, Koh Nok, is a breathtaking island tucked away in Phang Nga Bay approximately 30 minutes from the east coast of Phuket with crystal clear blue water, white sand and no electricity. You’ll still be able to find souvenirs, bars serving ice cold cocktails in coconuts and vendors grilling fresh seafood that you pick yourself! There are twelve types of exotic fish here that aren’t afraid of humans so bring your snorkels to see them up close.
Panda’s Tips for Phuket:
- Dealing with the local tuk-tuk and taxi drivers may be challenging. The TAT publishes a list of taxi fares that the drivers completely disregard. Drivers in Kata, Patong and Karon are particularly ruthless and often ask triple this rate.
- Karon Café in Karon Beach serves the best steaks on the island!
- Wats, or temples, are sacred places for local people. Be careful not to stand over or position yourself higher than any Buddha image or wear clothes that reveal your shoulders, chest, belly or legs. You may be asked to take your shoes off when entering some of the buildings.
- The Phuket Weekend Market starts around 4:00 pm and closes after 9:00 pm. Get there early to avoid the crowds and you most likely can’t find a parking spot after 4:30 pm.
- Thailand issues 30-day tourist visas to U.S. citizens on arrival at Bangkok International Airport free of charge.
- The THB700 (approximately $24) Thailand International Airport tax is included in the cost of international airfare so there is no need to pay cash at the airport.
- Tipping of service personnel like tour guides and drivers in Southeast Asia is customary although there is no set standard for an appropriate amount. Drivers can be tipped $1-2 per person and guides anywhere from $3-5 to $10-15 per person for a full day tour, the larger the group the smaller the amount per person.
Krabi is quickly becoming a popular tourist destination with miles and miles of spectacular coastline, towering limestone cliffs, lush interiors and beautiful white sand beaches on the Andaman Sea. It still remains relatively untouched and retains its lovely charm. Krabi province includes over 200 small islands with top destinations being Hat Noppharat Thara, Ao Nang, Koh Lanta, Ko Phi Phi and Railay. We’ll concentrate our focus on Railay but a visit to Phi Phi is a must!
Best time to visit…
The ideal time to visit Krabi is November to May. You’ll find sunshine all day but because Krabi is sheltered by mountains it gets cool and breezy at night. August and September tend to be the rainy months!
Krabi is located on the south-west coast of Thailand, approximately 800km from Bangkok and 170km from Phuket. You can reach Krabi by plane, bus, car or boat! Krabi Airport is small and convenient and you can currently fly into Krabi from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Koh Samui, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Many larger hotels offer transfers from the airport for a fee or there are efficient, regulated taxis available. The standard prepaid fare to hotels in Krabi town are 350 baht per car; 600 baht to Ao Nang; and 900 baht to Klong Muang/Tubkaek. There is also an airport bus service serving destinations in Ao Nang and Krabi town only for 90-150 baht per person. Buses leave 5 times daily or when there are enough passengers to fill them. Railay is only accessible via a short long-tail boat, you can hire one at the Ao Nang pier!
Buses for Krabi leave from Bangkok’s southern bus terminal on Boromratch Chonnani Road with a cost of 626-920 baht but the journey time is 10 hours. If you’re planning on driving to Krabi, the road network in Thailand is excellent and the highways are easy to follow. If you are traveling from Phuket, you can arrive at Ao Nang by a ferry operated by Ao Nang Travel or a faster speedboat operated by Green Planet. The ferry leaves from Rassada pier and the speedboat leaves from Bang Rong pier.
Where to stay…
Lodging options in Krabi range from simple beach bungalows to opulent five-star mega-resorts. You won’t be disappointed staying in Railay Beach, one of Thailand’s most sought after beach areas with no roads or cars, just longtail boats and footprints. Just south of Ao Nang Beach and accessible only by boat, Railay’s gorgeous white sand beaches, soaring limestone cliffs, viewpoints, caves and a lagoon hidden inside the cliffs will astound you. Railay is only accessible by boat due to the tall limestone cliffs casting it away from Krabi province mainland. Railay West has a beautiful beach with amazing sunsets while Railay East has the nightlife (both are within minutes walking distance of each other).
Railay Village Resort and Spa (Railay West)
145 M.2 Ao-nang , Muang Distric, Krabi 81000, Thailand
+66 (0) 75 819 401-3
A weekend in…Krabi, Thailand
Relax and have a sunset drink while watching the sun go down at Flame Tree Restaurant, the first restaurant situated on the walking street in Railay West. The sun sets in the west, making Railay West THE spot to watch the sunset. They also have mats they put out on the sand so you can lounge outside while watching the fiery sunsets. Don’t expect. stellar service so get your drink then go enjoy the atmosphere. It’s an amazing experience to share the same moment with all the people in the world who also happened to end up at this same place as you.
Flame Tree Restaurant (West Railay Beach)
West Beach, Railay Beach, Krabi Town, Thailand
Continue down the walking street until you reach Local Thai Food Restaurant, a bamboo and thatch restaurant located on the footpath leading to Diamond Cave between Railay West and Railay East and the best restaurant in all of Krabi in my opinion. It’s wonderfully simple with a relaxed and laid back atmosphere, fair prices and excellent cuisine. The menu consists of traditional Thai dishes and fresh seafood. The barbecue prawns and Penang curry are to die for. The Mangrove Restaurant next door received higher ratings but it does not live up to the hype…skip it!
Local Thai Food Restaurant (West Railay Beach)
625/2 Moo 2, Railay Beach, Krabi Town, Thailand
Check out Railay’s four incredible beaches situated between towering limestone cliffs (accessible only from the sea): Tonsai, Railay West, Railay East and Phra Nang. Railay West is one of the south of Thailand’s most impressive, atmospheric and beautiful beaches with casual beach restaurants and perfect soft sand. The beach faces west so it’s the perfect spot to sit and watch the remarkable sunset. A pathway straight across across the peninsula links Railay West with Railay East.
Railay East can appear slightly rough but is the center of nightlife in the area. It’s a narrow beach (one where you wouldn’t want to sunbathe in) and home to mangroves, fishing boats, birds and the most convenient place to catch a long-tail taxi boat to Krabi town. There are numerous restaurant bars like the Friendship Restaurant with padded seats and tables on the floor of wooden platforms so you can kick back and enjoy a beer or pad thai while you feel the ocean breeze on your bare feet. I’m a huge fan of the chicken skewers that you can get at the stands in Railay East. They go perfectly with a bag of delicious sticky rice and sweet chili sauce!
Phra Nang is the least developed of the four (except for the elaborate Rayavadee resort) and has silky soft white sand. Most people arrive at Phra Nang by boat and are amazed by the beautiful cove but you can also walk there at low tide. It’s about a 15-minute stroll from Railay. You can walk along the beach at Railay East along the base of the cliffs bordered by caves and stalactites to Phra Nang beach. Look out for the monkeys! Check out the Princess Cave or Tham Phra Nang Nok at the bottom of the limestone cliffs, dedicated to an ancient fertility goddess that contains a strange amount of large phallic symbols and offerings in the hope of increased potency and prosperity. Read my post on Phra Nang beach and the amazing boats that serve hot, fresh Thai food to you right on the sand here.
You can walk between all four beaches, even to Tonsai by walking through the jungle. Don’t believe the crooked boatmen who tell you it’s not possible to reach Tonsai on foot! Quieter than all the other beaches, Tonsai is the place to relax and unwind.
If you are able to get a reservation, dine at The Grotto at the exclusive Rayavadee Resort, a stunning and unique restaurant set inside a spectacular limestone cave floored with fine-powdered sand and a magnificent opening to the beach. The Grotto features fine Thai and international cuisine, an extensive cocktail and wine list and an irresistible romantic setting. The price is quite lavish but the experience is unforgettable. You won’t be able to dine without a reservation.
The Grotto at Rayavadee Resort (Phra Nang)
Phra Nang Beach at Rayavadee Resort
214 Moo 2, Tumbon Ao-Nang, Amphur Muang, 81000 Krabi, Thailand
+66 66 75 620 740-3
For a night on the town, hit the Last Bar, named because it indeed used to be the last bar on the strip. The multi-level tiki bar with a terrace overlooking mangroves is not only the perfect place have breakfast, lunch or dinner but you can also experience Muay Thai demonstrations and fire dancing shows when the night falls. This is the place to be for full moon parties and their happy hour prices can’t be beat (cocktails for 100 baht)!
Last Bar (Railay Beach East)
Muang Krabi 81000, Railay Beach, Krabi Town 1125092509, Thailand
+87 468 9083
Krabi’s limestone cliffs are a rock climber’s paradise with plenty of climbing opportunities whether it be the challenge of an overhang or a vertical wall. Over 650 routes have developed since the late 1980’s that follow limestone crags, steep pocketed walls, overhangs and hanging stalactites. Some are accessible by boat while others can be reached via a jungle walk. Check out the climbing schools located at the end of Railay East!
If you’re not a rock climber but would still like a challenging hike, tackle the hike to the viewpoint and the hidden lagoon. You’ll find the start to the hike on the path from Railay East to Phra Nang beach across from a small shack with a few safety instructions. Look for a set of ropes hanging down a set of steep rocks on your left hand side. You’ll be using those ropes on the 20-minute or so strenuous climb to the viewpoint. Wear good shoes and clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty because you will be orange from sliding and climbing on the muddy rock. The view from the top is worth it with Railay West on your left, Railay East on your right and a remarkable grove of coconut trees in between.
If you’re feeling up for a challenge, continue the climb to the lagoon. The turn off for the lagoon is a sharp right just before the viewpoint and the climb consists of scaling four vertical walls. At parts you must use the ropes provided to get down. I was satisfied with just completing the hike to the viewpoint because several people that we met on their way down expressed that they had tried the hike to the lagoon but that the last leg of the climb was too steep so they turned around. The lagoon is tidal so try and make sure that it’s high tide when you go or else you might just find a small muddy pool. Once you reach the lagoon, you’ll find a pool surrounded by sheer cliffs and lush vegetation.
Alternatively, you could also hire a long-tail boat to take you island hopping to some of the 200 islands around the Krabi coastline. For example, you can cruise Phra Nang cave beach, Chicken Island, the Tup Islets and Poda Island in a day for approximately $50 USD for a private long-tail boat. The snorkeling and sunbathing on these beautiful islands with lovely white sand beaches can’t be beat.
Panda’s Tips for Krabi:
- If you’re arriving at Railay Beach, be aware that there is no pier at Railay so dress accordingly to walk ashore from the boat through shallow water.
- The tides are dramatic in Railay. You can walk from Railay West to Phra Nang at low tide and even to the picturesque limestone cliff that juts out from the beach without kayaking or swimming.
- Many of the hotels like the Sand Sea are muslim so will not serve alcohol. Even better, you can buy your favorite bottle and enjoy it with your dinner and amazing view.
- Try a traditional Thai pancake (roti). You’ll pass several stands making the with all sorts of flavors. The condensed milk is my favorite.
- Bargain with the street vendors when purchasing goods. Start your offer at half of their asking price.
The beautiful Phra Nang beach in Krabi is absolutely breathtaking. It’s the least developed of the four small beaches on Krabi (except for the elaborate Rayavadee resort which was selling for $600/night when I visited with tighter security than the White House) with its silky soft white sand against turquoise clear water and staggering limestone cliffs. Note: no filters used below!
The beach is so underdeveloped that your only source of food and drinks are from long-tail boats cooking mouthwatering authentic (and dirt cheap) Thai food right on the water. You can get an entire meal and Singha beer for $3 US dollars. Not too shabby at all.
Most people arrive at Phra Nang by boat but you can also walk there at low tide from Railay Beach along the base of the cliffs bordered by caves and stalactites…and monkeys! Hold onto those glasses and bananas.
Check out the Princess Cave or Tham Phra Nang Nok at the bottom of the limestone cliffs, dedicated to an ancient fertility goddess that contains a strange amount of large phallic symbols and offerings in the hope of increased potency and prosperity.
A national geographic-like photo in my eyes…
Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it is still known to many, is Vietnam’s center of commerce and biggest city. Perched on the banks of the Saigon River, it has transformed itself from a war-torn city to a thriving metropolis full of fine restaurants, luxury hotels, bars and nightclubs. However, amongst the remains of the modern-high rise buildings, French colonial architecture and ancient pagodas, you can still find reminders of a world less developed.
Best time to visit…
The best time to visit Ho Chi Minh City is during the dry season from December until April. Humidity is moderate in December then begins to decrease from January to April. Ho Chi Minh City experiences frequent tropical storms during May to November, the wet season, with the hottest months being March, April and May.
You will need to arrange for a Vietnamese tourist visa from your nearest Embassy or Consulate prior to departure from the United States. Many online services will offer you a visa upon arrival. This is not recommended unless you want to wait in potentially long and chaotic immigration lines at the airport. The visa process is quite painless. Contact your local embassy and you’ll be able to mail them an application form, copy of your passport, passport photos and check for the visa fee ($100/person when I applied) and they will mail your visa back to you. Your passports need to be valid for 6 months after your departure date.
Upon your arrival at Ho Chi Minh City airport, your best option is to hire a taxi into the center of town (set price of $9 USD or 180.000 VND each way). At the airport as well as in town, make sure you only take the Vinasun taxis (red and white color) because they actually have a meter and are the most reputable.
Where to stay…
Ho Chi Minh City is divided into 24 districts. You’ll want to stay in either District One or Three where all of the the bars, restaurants, museums and sights are. Districtu One is traditionally the French Quarter of the city and is still widely known as Saigon.
The best hotel by far is the sparkling Liberty Central Saigon Riverside hotel in District One. This clean and modern 4-star hotel is located right on the river at the end of the lively Dong Hui street with fantastic river views from the rooms and fitness center, an infinity swimming pool overlooking the city and a connected posh outdoor skybar. The hotel also offers the most magnificent complimentary breakfast buffet I have ever experienced complete with congee bar, omelet station, pho noodle bar, western and Vietnamese hot breakfast dishes, pastries, cheese board, yogurt and fresh fruit. Did I mention that this is included your hotel rate?! Mine was approximately $80/night!
Liberty Central Saigon Riverside Hotel (4-Star, District One)
17 Ton Duc Thang Street, District One, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
+(84) 8 38 27 17 17
A weekend in…Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Settle in and make your way to the Ben Thanh Market and marvel local handicrafts, explore traditional food stalls or simply people watch at this thriving market. Both locals and tourists alike gather here to shop and eat. The day market is replaced by a bustling night market with numerous food vendors around 19:00 and lasts until 01:00 or 02:00. I prefer the night market in the evening when the vendors and crowds are less aggressive than at the day market. I had to try the fried noodles with chicken (with an amazing garlic and cilantro sauce) and my favorite sticky rice…or I should say a sample of 6 varieties of sticky rice with toppings!
If you still have room in your stomach after sampling the delicious food stalls, go to Dong Pho Restaurant for the #1 Pho in Saigon. Its lovely French villa setting in District 3 adds to its appeal and its unique Hue style dishes are amazing!
Dong Pho Restaurant (District 3, Saigon)
57 Ho Xuan Huong, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
+84 8 930 7665
Put on your heels and head to Lam Son Square, one of the city’s most prestigious addresses. Have a drink at the Hotel Continental in the heart of the square (you can’t mis its high-maintenance glossy finish marks) where you can sip cocktails on the hotel terrace just like the French high society once did. If you’re interested in the theater, check out the nearby Municipal Theatre, a lavish 100-year old building that regularly hosts local and touring dance, opera and theatre companies, or see a show at the beautiful Saigon Opera House!
Visit the Reunification Palace, once known as the Presidential Palace, set in a beautiful sprawling park. It was towards this building that the first Communist tanks rolled into Saigon on the morning of April 30, 1975. After crashing through this gate, a soldier ran into the building and unfurled a VC flag from the fourth-floor balcony. The rest, as they say, is history.
Walk a few blocks to the War Remnants Museum which offers a different (and controversial) perspective on the Vietnam War aka “American War.” Military equipment including tanks and a plane as well as evidence supporting allegations of war atrocities committed by the enemies of Communism in the 1960’s and 1970’s are on display. I found the photography of the war journalists and the stories behind them to be absolutely fascinating. The entrance fee is $1.50.
Visit the Jade Emperor Pagoda built in the 1900s by Taoists and Buddhists. It is simultaneously spiritual and awe-inspiring in scale and ambition with its ornate carved panels and intricate interior details. You can head out on the roof terrace where you’ll find a statue of Quan Am (the goddess of mercy) which overlooks a sacred Bodhi tree in the courtyard.
Hire a Cyclo (similar to a tuk-tuk vehicle) to take you to Dong Khoi Street, a lively street filled with restaurants and bars that stretches from Notre Dame Cathedral to the Saigon River. The price for short Cyclo ride runs 20,000d (less than a few US dollars) and it puts you in the middle of the energy created by the 7 million motorcycles in Saigon, an experience that shouldn’t be missed!
When the sun sets, book a Motorcycle Street Food Tour for a culinary tour of the city! Vietnam lives up to its reputation as one of the world’s tastiest street food nations. The 4-hour Back of the Bike tour is approximately $65/person and takes you to 6 different locations across town. They’ll even let you cook some of the food that you try (thanks for the tip Margaux Vega)!
Hire a driver or a tour group and venture out of town to visit the extraordinary Cu Chi Tunnels. During the war for independence, “Viet Cong” guerrillas built this labyrinth of narrow tunnels virtually underneath U.S. military bases, using them to hide during bombing raids and to stage surprise attacks. Crawl through the tunnels and see how the Viet Cong hid out during the war. Imagine life as a VC soldier or a tunnel rat, absolutely unthinkable! There is a shooting range where you can purchase bullets to fire a variety of automatic weapons…I fired an AK-47 (or the AK-47 fired me, tip: don’t try bringing the empty shells back to the states). If you book a tour, a van will pick you up at your hotel and drive you the 1.75 hours to the tunnels then bring you back after the 1 hour tour.
Have lunch and get the pizza you will ever have at Pizza 4P’s. That’s right, you had to come to Vietnam to get the best pizza in the world. If you make a reservation, you can sit in front of the pizza oven, a true pizza oven with a wood burning fire. Each pizza is shaped and molded to perfection by the chef. Try the signature Burrata Prosciutto Pizza that is baked with olive oil, parmesan and garlic then topped with a gigantic ball of house made burrata cheese, prosciutto, rocket, fresh tomato, and more parmesan & olive oil. They slice the pizza at your table and cut the burrata so there’s just the right amount of heavenly burrata on every bite!
Pizza 4P’s (District 1, Ho Chi Minh City)
8/15 Le Thanh Ton Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
+84 120 789 4444
The closest beach to Ho Chi Minh city is Vung Tao (2 hours away by bus or you can take a ferry or express water taxi along the Saigon River). Mui Ne beach (approximately 4 hours) is more popular but farther. Nha Trang beach (447 km away) is a candidate for one of the best Vietnamese beaches but is a good distance away. Phu Quoc beach (390 km away) has the whitest sand. We were heading directly to Thailand from Ho Chi Minh City so we decided to opt out of traveling to the beaches and save our beach time for the beautiful beaches of Thailand instead. Off to the beautiful Krabi in Thailand tomorrow, stay tuned!
Panda’s Tips for Ho Chi Minh City:
- In small eateries, prices range from a low $3 for a typically large meal of meat, rice and vegetables but you can pay $50 or more at a four- or five-star restaurant. A service charge of 10% is usually included at the nicer restaurants.
- For airport transfers, tip $1-$2 per person. For tours, tip $3-$5 for the driver and $10-$15 for the guide per person (lower amount for larger groups).
- Vietnam is the biggest coffee exporter in the world and Vietnamese coffee is excellent – inexpensive and available nearly everywhere. Deep-roasted Trung Nguyen is the most popular local brand. Try it with a splash of condensed milk!
- If the crowded Ben Tranh market is too overwhelming for you, the less well known Cho Lon market is a huge Chinese market with a huge variety of goods that is also worth visiting.
- When visiting the Cu Chi Tunels, wear good walking shoes and bring sunscreen.
- Skip the Mekong Delta river cruises…the scenery isn’t amazing for the cost.