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The Best Warm Weather Spot in Europe: Lisbon

In the past few years, Portugal has started to top the list of European travel destinations. It’s unique, budget-friendly, has tasty food, great weather, and even better people. When I visited Lisbon for a weekend at the end of April 2018, I was so excited for the warm weather after 4 months in London’s cold, cloudy, and rainy climate. It was one of those solo travel experiences where I was able to explore everything at my own pace, met great people along the way, and really saw why everyone falls in love with Portugal on their visit.

 

I flew from Madrid to the Lisbon and found their public transportation easy to navigate. Lisbon has a unique tram system which is worth experiencing, but most of the sights in the city itself are walkable. I stayed in a youth hostel during my time in Lisbon, and of all the hostels I’ve ever experienced, this is my most highly recommend of them all: Good Morning Lisbon Hostel. It provides a hot breakfast every morning, had the most attentive staff, and featured lots of activities for travelers.

On my first day, I went to Belem Tower is a fortified tower and UNESCO World Heritage Site a little way outside the city. I took the historic tram to get there. Near Belem, I was also able to indulge in a pastel de nata which is an egg tart.

Portugese Egg Tart

This is an absolute must eat when you’re in Portugal, and the line out the door indicated that this, in particular, is the place to eat them.

Cooking class

That evening, I participated in a Portuguese cooking class where I deboned Bacalhau, a local salted codfish, a fascinating experience to say the least. Luckily, the hostel’s nightly happy hour of all-you-can-drink free beer and sangria was shortly after the cooking class.

The next day, I woke up and head on a Sintra day trip. Sintra is a resort town located in the foothills of the Sintra Mountains and possesses a ton of awesome sights. The warm weather made seeing Quinta de Regaleira, Azenhas do Mar, Almoçagema, Adraga Beach, Cabo da Roca, and Pena Palace absolutely divine. The action-packed day left me exhausted, but the opportunity to romp around at the beach isn’t one that you get in every destination. I was thrilled with the richness of Portugal’s countryside in addition to its history and culture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For the third and final day of my trip, I spent the morning on a walking tour which covered the remaining parts of the city I had yet to see. Free walking tours are one my largest travel hacks and Lisbon certainly didn’t disappoint. Some of the most memorable parts of the tour were the Alfama Neighborhood, Santa Justa Lift, Barrio Alto, Praça do Comércio, and Rua Augusta Arch. The views of the city during the tour were spectacular, and it reminded me of San Francisco, CA with the hills, trams, and large red bridge.

I left Lisbon finally understanding what all the rage was about. Not only did the city have a lot to offer with its gorgeous weather and landscape, expansive history and culture, but the food was also incredible and every person I met was nothing but kind and gracious to me. (Oh and bonus: Lisbon is in fact far less expensive than any of my other favorite spots in Europe!)

 

 

 

 

 

Top 5 most beautiful places

It isn’t easy coming up with a list of the most beautiful places in the world that I’ve personally seen. I live in a city surrounded by concrete and tall buildings, and I often miss what mother nature has to offer. So my top 5 places visited are pretty remote, but well worth seeing.

  1. The first beautiful location I would recommend is Blue Lagoon, in Iceland.
Blue Lagoon, Iceland

It is full of man-made ponds fed by waters rich in minerals, that many believe can cure certain diseases. In the winter, the hot steam coming from the pond is surrounded by snow and ice, creating a tense atmosphere.

2. The next beautiful spot would have to be Haleakala National Park,  on the island of Maui in Hawaii.

Sunrise Haleakala summit

Haleakala attracts 1.5 million visitors every year and with a summit at 10,023 feet attracts “skywatchers” from around the world.  The name Haleakala comes from the Hawaiian language, meaning house of the sun. According to legend, the demi-god of Maui would have kept the sun there to extend the time.

3. I am drawn to warm destinations and the next beautiful location would be St. Lucia in the Caribbean.

The Pitons

The Piton mountains are breathtakingly beautiful with so little built up around them they have a natural majestic  beauty that is well worth seeing.  We rented this beautiful home with a perfect view near Soufrière, Saint Lucia

4. Another beautiful place to visit is the Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, USA.

Native Americans witnessed its formation 7,700 years ago, when a violent eruption triggered the collapse of a tall peak. It has a remarkable purity: fed by rain and snow, and it is the deepest lake in the USA …and perhaps the most pristine on eart

5. Number 5 on my list is Cappadocia, Turkey

Cappadocia is located in Turkey with unique rock formations called “the despair of fairytale chimneys.” Cappadocia is formed by geology and volcanic activity, including weather and erosion, which took place in Islam about 60 million years ago. In 2000, Christians built the first church in one of the unique rocks of the region. And not to be missed is a balloon ride to capture the beautiful views the area offers.

 

 

A British girl moves to Barbados

In 2009, I took the bold step to move to Barbados after dreaming about it for years, and driving my friend’s crazy with my procrastination and excuses for not going.

You may ask what made me decide upon such a bold step; after all a holiday is one thing, but to live! My decision was made due to the cold. I wish it was something more romantic, but that’s for another time. Truth be told, I didn’t want to experience feeling SAD (season affective disorder) each winter and coming home from work when it was dark and damp. It made me depressed and it was getting worse. So, procrastination over, I made a plan, as it wasn’t a case (pardon the pun) of packing a suitcase, saying bye to my job and buying a one-way ticket to paradise. I’m adventurous, but a plan gives direction.

So, what did I do?

First, I built my savings as the cost of living in Barbados isn’t cheap and I had no idea of how soon I would secure work. I also told my family living in Barbados what I’d decided. Their reaction wasn’t what I’d hope. “Gail are you crazy? Barbados is a small island for a city girl like you. Wait a few more years (like when you’re about to retire) and then come.” However, no amount of dissuasion could deter me. Once they realized I was serious, my grandparents said I could stay with them, which meant I’d be able to save on rent until I got myself established with work.

With savings accumulated, I 

took flight. Upon arrival in Barbados, the first thing to hit me was the heat, had it always been this hot? I mean it was hotter than a volcano. In the past I’d always come as a tourist and loved the heat as a welcome change from the dreaded cold. Now I had to acclimatize.

I was fortunate to secure temporary work at a secondary school as secretary to the principal, and as my mother is Barbadian born, I was able to gain my citizenship through being a descendent, (thanks mom).

Eventually, I got used to the way of life with its slower pace, and less stress. Plus, the beaches were of course a bonus. I thought making friends would be hard, but it was actually quite easy. This was in part due to my philosophy of “when in Rome, do as the Romans.” I adapted and made myself fit in with the culture.

Today, the UK is just eight hours away and I fly back when I can. I’ve met some great Brits and we reminisce over a rum and coke (Barbados is famous for its rum), about how we miss fish & chips and pie and mash.

Barbados is truly the “Gem of the Caribbean” and I haven’t regretted my decision to live here.

My advice to anyone contemplating living abroad even for a short time is:

  • Plan and save.
  • Before the big move, visit the place and imagine it as home.
  • Allow time for a period of adjustment.
  • Don’t be a tourist. Immerse yourself in the culture.
  • Do it. Life is too short to live with regrets.

Havana-na-na-na

In 2017, I spent 5 days in Cuba on a whirlwind vacation with my older brother. The trip was the perfect mix of adventure and culture as I left the United States and ventured to a country far less traveled than popular, warm European destinations.

Arriving in Cuba was part of the adventurous vibe I love in my travel experiences. My flight departed at sunrise from Washington, D.C. with a short layover in Atlanta before moving on to Havana. In Atlanta, I purchased a visa, or “tourist card,” under the “Education: People to People” category at the departure gate and excitedly sat on the airplane waiting for the short flight that I had been told would practically take me back in time. I was ready for the place I had read about—one that is “frozen in time” with the 1950s cars, no internet access, no ATMs or credit cards, and a commercial-free atmosphere.

The first day consisted of a series of trials that I encountered primarily because I have never traveled in an age without cell phones or the internet. After going through customs in the Havana airport, I had the pleasure of my first bartering experience with an airport cab driver. He spoke only enough English to cover for my poor Spanish, but I managed to negotiate a ride to the area of my “casa.” Locals open up their homes and sell bedrooms to tourists looking for an inexpensive place to stay. I found a suitable “casa” on AirBnB but soon found it was nearly impossible to locate with the address provided and the internet connection in Cuba was too poor to message the host.

For the next 7 hours, while waiting for AirBnB’s assistance, I spent time in Habana Vieja, or Old Havana, exploring the sites. Plaza de San Francisco, El Capitolio, and Plaza Vieja were some of my favorites to check out. They were perfect places to see Cuban architecture, as well as people watch, to get a vibe for the city. During dinner, AirBnB managed to connect me with my host, and I was able to make my way to my casa for the evening. The cool air-conditioned room in the back of Maykel’s home was incredible after the warm July weather I had experienced all day.

The next day was an early wake-up call to catch a shared taxi to Trinidad. I spent just a day in the beautiful town located in central Cuba. There’s a ton to do with easy access to the beach, or “la playa,” incredible foliage, and beautiful natural waterfalls. In addition to a cute town with live jazz music, I spent time with a local guide horseback riding to and from the natural waterfall and grabbing beers, or cervezas, on rooftops.

When I headed back to Havana for my last few days, I had a few things still left on my list: take a ride in a 1950s car, drink mojitos at La Floridita, listen to jazz at a local spot, and eat traditional Cuban food. I managed to check everything off the list before hopping back on the plane to D.C.

Cuba isn’t a traditional destination, but if you’re looking for something unique, consider it for your next adventure! The experiential nature of this vacation was unparalleled. I learned more about flexibility in travel during my time in Cuba than I ever have before. Being disconnected from the internet and technology provides real opportunity to seek out a connection with locals and the culture and lives they have built.

 

Ruthless packing

Before the busyness of the holiday season hit, I had made up my mind: I was going to leave Toronto. I had booked a plane ticket to Colombia and on the first week of December, I gave my landlord his two months notice. I had moved in as a university student in the summer of 2012 and after five-and-a-half good years, I was leaving.

I planned my year of work-travel abroad on the sly for some time but in the weeks that followed, I was putting my plan in action. My dream quickly became a reality and so, with two months to leave the city, I learned how to pack up my life, tie up loose strings and leave.

It was a steep learning curve for me. And, as it turned out, a lesson in ruthlessness both in getting rid of old things and also in slicing out the unnecessary schedule demands. When faced with a deadline to leave the city, I simply didn’t have time or physical space to accommodate the excess I had allowed into my life for years. Thinking back on that time, I see there were a lot of lessons that shook out of the clutter.

When I said my move was a lesson in being ruthless, I meant it. In the weeks of downsizing, I’d regularly block off short sections of time to toss out anything I didn’t see myself using in the future. That whole “If it doesn’t bring you joy, get rid of it,” piece of advice from The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is true. I know because I put it to the test. When packing up your whole life and leaving, I learned, there are some items you just can’t take with you: old university papers, doodles from five years ago, unused and unflattering makeup, the dozen t-shirts that are used only as pajamas, highlighter pens.

As I started to declutter, my ruthlessness gained momentum. The high-waisted short shorts that were just that bit too small became history. Those wedges I always regretted buying? Goodbye. The hand-me-downs I had half-heartedly accepted also went straight into my bag of to-be-donated goods. Know those desk drawers that seems to just collect unwanted junk? I tossed it all. Old bathing suits? Gone. Mismatched socks? Gone. The magazines I would one day read? The stationery from an ex-boyfriend? Non-functional pens? I ditched them all.

Slowly, I could breathe again. And my decluttering sessions became cathartic. I loved my apartment but now that I was abandoning so many of my things, I came to like it even more. So, I started to apply this attitude to more than just the material.

Like my apartment bedroom, my schedule was filled up with things I didn’t need – or want. I did to the flakes and the shouldvitation (read: a non-genuine invitation) culprits what I had done to my junk: I cut them out. We all have the folks who always, to no avail, suggest perhaps getting a drink or a coffee because “we should catch up!” Well, when left with eight weeks in a city that was my home for nearly eight years, the patience wears thin. It’s funny how once under pressure, I did the thing I always should have done: I stopped letting it all in.

Of course, I kept the clothes, the shoes and the books that I adored. I kept race medals that had special memories attached. I made one-on-one time for the people I am closest to whose friendships I value and I had a going away party where I invited all of my favourite people. I had less but I was happier. In Colombia, my possessions are the tip of the iceberg compared to before. It’s for the better. I knew I’d learn a lot from my year away, but as it turned out, that started before I even left.