TRAVEL GUIDE: CHICAGO IN THE WINTER

It’s not a secret by now that Chicago is one of my favorite cities, if not my favorite city, in the States. Summertime Chi is enough to make you pack up your bags and relocate to the Windy City. But even though I’ve been to Chicago a handful of times, I had never been in the Winter, until I decided it would be a brilliant idea to bring in my NYE in this city notorious for its harsh winters with negative temperatures.

Let me first give this disclaimer, I’m from Texas. My winters usually involve days where shorts and sandals are appropriate, and even as I boarded my plane to head to temperatures slated to be at or around zero, I was only layered up to be prepared for disembarking from the plane. So, it’s not surprising that my conversation with my friend that’s a Chicago Native went something like this:

Me: Do I need to wear long johns and fleece tights at the same time?

Her: No.

Me: Are you going to help me decide the best way to tie my scarf?

Her: Yes.

Me: Do you think I need to go and get a ski mask?

Her: (I’m pretty sure this is probably where she slammed her hand to her forehead)

I’ve been to New York in the Winter, but that’s honestly where my experience with extreme cold weather temperatures comes to an end. And I can remember being so cold my first night in NY that I refused to leave the warmth of my cousin’s apartment. 110 degree weather, I have experience for days, but sleet and snow are outside of my realm of expertise.

There are a million ways to enjoy Chicago in the summertime. The weather is perfect, the festivals are in full swing, and the rooftop bars become every liquor connoisseurs playground. But what do you do when the temperature creeps into the negative, when it’s no longer fun to be an outdoor tourist, and when you’re in one of your favorite cities in the world?!?

Click here to get your Chicago City Pass for discounts to some of the most popular Chicago attractions.

Here is my list of 9 things to do in Chicago when the temperature tries to prevent you from living your best life:

Be festive. 

Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years are my favorite holidays, making winter and fall my favorite seasons to indulge in holiday activities.  Whether you go to ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo, see a Charlie Brown Christmas at the Broadway Playhouse, or visit the Magnificent Mile Light Festival, there is plenty to do for holiday enthusiast like myself.

Eat like you’re trying to gain a layer of flubber.

When it comes to food, Chicago is one of my favorite cities to restaurant hop and live the foodie life. This trip, I had the opportunity to enjoy some of Chicago’s best food outside of the ritzy and touristy areas. From the beef tips that I enjoyed at Wiley’s to the fried hot polish from Maxwells , I know that I put on a extra four or five pounds during my trip. I will just say that I needed the extra weight to battle the freezing temperatures. You can venture out on your own or take a food tour.

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Go ice-skating. 

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See a show on Broadway. 

Warm up with a cup of steamy hot chocolate.

There’s nothing like enjoying a warm, steamy mug of hot cocoa to escape from the frigid temperatures. Get on Trip Advisor and find the nearest highly ranked carrier in your area and forget it’s windy and below zero.

Visit a Museum. 

While many tourists know to visit the Art Institute Museum, Chicago is home to many other museums like the Field Museum or Museum of Contemporary Art.  Get a Chicago Explorer pass and escape the frigid temperatures to stimulate your artistic creativity.

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Go to a sports game. 

Whether it’s the Chicago Bulls, Bears, Cubs, White Sox etc, Chicago is the perfect city for sports fans. And if you like hockey, don’t forget to go and visit the all-new Black Hawks stadium.

Take a self-led tour of filming locations.

There have been many popular movies and TV shows filmed in Chicago. Since I’m a Batman fanatic, this is right up my alley. You can click here to track down some of Chicago’s most popular shot locations.

Shop at the new Jordan store. 

Picture Courtesy of Chicago Tribune

P.S.  If you would like assistance booking your next trip, click here.


Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

TRAVEL GUIDE: CHICAGO, IL

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The first time I went to Chicago, I ended up back in Houston job searching and packing for a move to the Windy City. While the media likes to speak of Chicago’s murder rate and failing education system, the perfect summer weather, walking downtown, rooftop bars, and blue water beach often go unnoticed and unmentioned. But all that you have to do is look at the hashtag #summertimeChi to catch a glimpse of the Chicago that seems to be a secret from anyone that has yet to experience it.

Now, I’m not going to pretend that Chicago is all white picket fences and sunny skies, the gritty streets can sometimes be as hard as the harsh winters, but as with anywhere, your common sense should always prevail over your desire for adventure. Being that one of my friends is from Chicago, this trip I had the opportunity to actually spend a significant amount of my time on the West Side of Chicago. Yet, even with a glimpse into what is considered one of the roughest places in America, I still came home with a renewed interest in my Chicago job hunt and with the desire to pack my things and move, while I’m still unmarried and childless. 

I have never met anyone that has visited Chicago and not wanted to make it a place that they revisit frequently. My advice is to get a room near the Magnificent Mile or Downtown, due to their proximity to most of the popular eateries and tourist attractions, maximizing your time and inner city travel funds. The Tremont and Raffaello are 2 of my top picks for hotels on the Magnificent Mile that can usually be found at affordable rates, and if you plan on being a tourist, don’t forget to get a city pass for access and discounts to some of the cities most popular attractions. Gas and parking costs can be pricey in Chicago, making Uber, public transit, and walking more viable options than commuting across the city.

Below are a handful of things to make sure you add to your itinerary on your visit to Chicago:

Take a stroll down the Magnificent Mile

From Forever 21 to Gucci, the Magnificent Mile runs down Michigan Ave and is filled with stores, restaurants, and attractions.

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Go to Millennium Park and take a photo in front of The Bean

The infamous Bean in Millenium Park has to be one of Chicago’s biggest tourist magnets. Go ahead and get your perfect shot. It’s very social media appropriate.

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Indulge in the beauty of the Navy Pier

This trip was my first time visiting the Navy Pier, and I hate that I somehow missed it on my past visits. It’s the perfect place to just relax and unwind and maybe catch a bite at one of the restaurants while enjoying the view.

Go all the way up the Willis Tower

Even though the Willis Tower is still often referred to by its previous name, The Sears Tower, it was once the tallest building in the United States. After holding this title for 25 years, it was dropped down to second place following a new building at the World Trade Center site. For a fee, you can buy tickets to visit their Sky Deck for a view of Chicago from over 1300 feet in the air or book a lunch or dinner tour.

Channel your inner child at the FREE Lincoln Park Zoo

Being from Houston, I didn’t even know that zoo and free could be in the same sentence. Not only is the Lincoln Park Zoo ranked as one the best zoos in the world, but it’s also free to to the public. One of the best moments from my most recent trip to Chicago was having a family picnic on the grassy area near the zoo, something the kids with us have never experienced, and simply enjoying nature for a few minutes before our excursion through the zoo.

Take a 360 view from the John Hancock Center

Chicago seems to have an affinity for skyscrapers, and the John Hancock building  is no exceptions. In conjunction with offering 360 views from their observation deck, you can also heighten your sense of adventure, literally and figuratively, with their adrenaline pumping tilt experience. Imagine being 94 floors up and then being tilted over Michigan Avenue in a glass encasing. Horrifying right?!? Well, let’s just say I did it once, and while I found it electrifying, I only need to feel close to death once.

Eat Chicago Staples

Chicago is a city from a foodie’s dreams. From deep dish pizza to gourmet hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches, make sure you save up your calories. And if you want to see what all of the buzz is about stop by Giordanos, Portillos, and Home Run Inn. Remember, calories don’t matter in Chicago. Resume your diet when you get back home. This Chicago food tour is another great option for foodies.

Visit a Rooftop Bar

There are 2 cities that should be in the record books for the best rooftop bars, DC, and of course, Chicago. One of our days was spent simply rooftop hopping, and there was not one that let us down. From the signature cocktails to the banging DJs, here are some of my favorite Chicago rooftop bars:

Joy District

Apogee

Cindy’s

ROOF on the Wit

A specialty cocktail from Apogee

A specialty cocktail from Apogee

Sidenote: And if you’re looking for a beach party, go ahead and add Castaways to your list.

Attend a Basketball or Baseball Game

Whether it’s the Chicago Bulls, Cubs, or White Sox, if you have time and the season prevails, catch a game for any of these legendary teams. And if basketball or baseball are not your thing, or you’re just loyal to your home team, at least take a drive by the stadiums.

Sidenote: The Michael Jordan statue has been moved inside of the United Center, so it’s not as easy to snap a quick photo in front of this legend anymore.

See a show at the Chicago Theatre

Built in 1921, this legendary theatre, once dubbed the “Wonder Theatre of the World, still hosts a variety of different shows, from traditional theater to comedy. Click here to check out their calendar of events.

Go to the beach

When I tell people that Chicago has a real beach, I’m often met with either a blank stare or a “yeah right” face. But just in case you don’t believe me, here you go. So grab your swimsuit, and take a plunge into the frigid water.

This picture was taken from timeout.com.

This picture was taken from timeout.com.

Take a river cruise

The view from land is great and all, but the view from the water is even better. As you cruise the Chicago River, you will be given a brief run-down of Chicago’s colorful history. Click here to secure your spot on the highly recommended Chicago architecture river cruise.

Fun Fact: For St. Patty’s Day the Chicago River is dyed green. Being this is my favorite holiday, I’m still sad I haven’t had a chance to make it to join in the festivities yet.

Feast at the Taste of Chicago

Every year, Chicago hosts the Taste of Chicago, showcasing some of their best restaurants and city staples. This was my first time going, and the food was sooooo good. It was also my first time tasting an Italian Beef sandwich. I’ve been to many festivals, and the best thing about this festival is that it wasn’t overpriced. For $20, I received 28 tickets, and even though I ate like it was my last supper, I still walked away with leftover tickets (which I donated to the family pot for a huge funnel cake). Another options for foodies is embarking on a Chicago food tour.

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And last but not least, if you will be in Chicago for several days and want discount pricing on some of the popular tourist locations and skip the line access, consider purchasing the Chicago City Pass or securing a spot on the Chicago hop-on hop-off bus.

P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation, click here.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

TRAVEL GUIDE: NEW ORLEANS- THE OFF BOURBON EDITION

In my head, I am an honorary New Orleans resident. At one point, after graduating college, I was in New Orleans every month simply catching up with old friends and enjoying one of the few cities that has a piece of my heart. When you graduated from a college about an hour away from one of the most famous cities in the world, and had college roommates that call it home, it’s almost impossible for it not to become a second city of residence. While most travelers to New Orleans visit the infamous Bourbon St, there is so much more to see and love in this lively city. While I recommend securing your seat on the Hop-On, Hop-Off bus, especially if you are New Orleans first timer, below are some of my favs to enjoying New Orleans, off of Bourbon St:

Eat Like It’s a Cheat Day

It’s no secret that New Orleans is the type of city that lives in a foodie’s dreams. But being that there are so many choices, I’ve narrowed down the list to a few of my favorites.  Since these locations are not on Bourbon Street, hail an Uber (using my code if it’s your first ride: ANTHONIAO) and go indulge in calorie overload.  Simply click the name to peruse these choices to find the ones that match your palate needs.

Breakfast/Brunch

The Ruby Slipper Cafe

Surrey’s Cafe and Juice Bar

The Trolley Stop

Russell Marina Grill

Another Broken Egg

Lunch/Dinner

Port of Call

Superior Seafood

Basin

Trenasse

Tableu

Compere Lapin Balise

Zea Rotisserie and Grill

Happy Hour

Victory

Skip the Line at Cafe Du Monde

If it’s your first time going to New Orleans, by all means, stand in line and enjoy the powdered sugar covered pastries that tourists can’t seem to get enough of, BUT remember to not drink the cup of water that comes with your treats, as it is solely given to clean your hands, and don’t wear black, unless you want to leave looking like a 2 year old that just got into a bag of flour. But if you’ve already done the Cafe Du Monde thing and just want some beignets equally as delicious, go a little further down the sidewalk to New Orleans Famous Beignets. The line is usually non-existent and you can still get the same “quality” people watching from one of the tables on their outside patio. You’ll thank me later.

Take a Tour

If you watched American Horror Story’s third season, Coven, which was set in New Orleans, you were probably prompted to do some research on the real characters behind the actors like the infamous, Marie Laveau. New Orleans is filled with enough spooky ghost stories and voodoo legends to create a booming tourist industry. As you walk through the French Quarters, take a stop at one of the tour vendors and book a tour of your choice. If ghosts and creepy old houses are not your thing, ask about a swamp tour, drunk history tour, steamboat cruise tour, or anything else that might spark your interests. You can click the links below to access some of my favorite New Orleans tours:

Ghost, Voodoo, and Vampire Tour

New Orleans Swamp and Bayou Boat Tour

Small Group Swamp Tour by Airboat

Food and History Tour

New Orleans City Tour: Katrina, Garden District, French Quarter, Graveyard

City of the Dead Cemetery Tour

Cocktail History Walking Tour

Night Cemetery and Ghost BYOB Bus Tour

Hang out at Harrahs after the Club

The millennial locals will probably be mad at me for sharing this tip, but after the clubs close, Harrahs has become a popular hangout for those that are not yet ready to call it a night. For a few pennies, literally, you can sit at one of the slot machines and indulge in the complimentary drinks, or simply hang out and people watch with some of your friends.

Take a Stroll through Jackson Square

This historic national landmark is cited as the place where Louisiana was made a US territory before the signing of the Louisiana Purchase. Today, Jackson Square is filled with local painters, artists, and musicians showing off their talents and selling their goods to ogling tourists. This park is the perfect place to nurse a drink or beignet while people watching and taking in the greenery.

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Eat at the Popeyes on Canal

Maybe I made this up, maybe it true, but I would put money on endorsing the Popeyes on Canal, the original Popeyes, as having the best fried chicken in the world (even at 4am when you’re just leaving the club). Don’t let the long line detour you, because the servers and cashiers have efficiency down to a science and will have you walking the quarters chomping your chicken in no time, greasy lips and all.

Visit Celebration Rum Distillery

Who would have ever guessed that New Orleans produces one the highest rated rums in the US? Since I’m frequently in New Orleans, I’m always looking for new things to try and do, so when a close friend suggested visiting Celebration Distillery, I was all for it. For $15, you can take a 45 minute tour of the facility and sample some of their award winning rums. And let me not forget the welcome cocktail you are presented with on your arrival. For those that are without a vehicle in New Orleans, Celebration even offers a complimentary shuttle to their facility that leaves from the French Market at different intervals throughout the day.

Go Urban Kayaking 

In real life, I’m not very athletic, but there’s something about the lure of  kayaking that always lands me ill-advisedly in a boat with a paddle in my hand. As a alternative to walking and bus tours, Kayak-iti-Yat offers adventure enthusiast the oppurtunity to explore New Orleans via the city’s vast waterway systems.

Compete in the Tchoupitoulas Barathon

6 miles. 6 bars. 6 beers. When I first signed up for this very untraditional race, I didn’t know what to expect. I can’t run 6 miles on a regular day, so I don’t know what made me think it was a good idea to sign up for 6 miles semi-inebriated. From men dressed in tutus to all types of festive attire, we took the New Orleans streets half jogging, half walking, chugging beers and taking shots for the esteemed title of Barathon Champion. This annual race always takes place 2 Fridays after Jazz Fest and continues to get better and better with each passing year. I’m not going to lie, I ended up sleep at a sushi dinner table after I completed the race, but hey, I finished it before it finished me.

Shop at the Farmer’s and French Market

Gather your coins and support local vendors as they sell everything from handmade goods and souvenirs to fresh fruits and vegetables. And if you’re a crawfish connoisseur like myself, pick up a pound or three from the farmer’s market, already boiled and seasoned to perfection.

What are some of your favorite off-Bourbon places in New Orleans? Please share in the comments.

P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation, click here.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

TRAVEL GUIDE: PACK RIGHT, PACK LIGHT

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Sign up for my mailing list by clicking here to get your free packing list, discounts, updates, and much more to help your satisfy your wanderlust.

In April, a group of friends and I embarked on a trip to Mexico to celebrate the 30th birthday of one of my college roommates and closest friends.  As we organized our trip via group message, one of the questions that seemed to arise continuously were the packing necessities that would need to be brought along for our getaway.  Unlike many vacation destinations, all-inclusive resort trips are usually the easiest trips of which to pack.  Your day wear often becomes your night wear as you enjoy the many amenities the resort has to offer and the drinks that flow at the snap of a finger.  While I am usually very fashion conscious and prefer cocktail dresses to sundresses, I’ve learned my lesson about over packing when visiting the Carribean.  They say you can never be overdressed or overeducated, and while I agree with the latter, no one wants to be the girl at the resort club with the achy feet watching the other vacationers dance drunkenly in flip flops still coated in sand. Below are helpful tips to help you pack for your next all-inclusive vacation.

Travel Documents: Depending on your destination, make sure you have proper identification (passport, visa, etc) and travel documents required for boarding your plane, hotel check-in, excursions, etc.  Your internet access might be spotty, even if your resort says otherwise, so it’s best to have everything printed and readily available.

Clothing: Before you leave for an all-inclusive vacation, be sure and check the resort’s dining restrictions, as most of the finer resorts may have a dress code for their fine dining establishments.  Pack clothing items that fit these restrictions, and when possible, try to pack articles of clothing that will work for day and night.  Since most of your day will be spent soaking up the sun in swimwear, that maxi dress you packed to wear around the beach as a cover up that didn’t leave your beach bag can instead be carried over to dinner attire.  Pack light, pack right (unless you are a career fashionista or fashion blogger).  Since I’m someone that doesn’t like to be seen in the same swimsuit twice, below is my ideal clothing list for a 5 day, 4 night all-inclusive trip:

  • 4 Swimsuits

  • 2-4 Cover-Ups

  • 3 Dresses (These can  be substituted for non-shear cover-ups)

  • Sandals (Not Flip-Flops)

  • High-Heels

  • Sneakers (for workouts and/or excursions)

  • Pajamas

  • Undergarments

  • Excursion Outfit(s)

  • Workout Attire

  • Small Clutch or Swing Bag

  • Travel Outfit

Toiletries and Grooming: Let’s be honest. Most of your all-inclusive trip will be spent in or near water, and unless you plan on styling your hair everyday just to jump in the pool or swim on the beach, grooming supplies can be kept to a minimum.  Besides the daily toiletry items, like my dental hygiene products, soap, deodorant, lotion, perfume, etc, I try to keep my toiletry case light, especially when it comes to hair care and makeup products.  I wear minimal makeup on most days, so when I’m on vacation triggering my inner mermaid, I keep my products to the basics: Foundation, Blush, Mascara.  And I usually only break them out for dinner.  Now, I realize that everyone’s haircare regimen is different, but only bring the products that you absolutely need and leave the rest at home.  And don’t forget your sunscreen, mosquito repellent, and any medications that you may need while away from home.

Misc: Since the weather will probably be somewhere between hot and scorching, be sure to include your sunglasses and a beach hat.  Also, verify that you have all of your chargers and additional batteries to sustain your electronic devices while on vacation.  I can almost promise you that you don’t want to pay the up-charge for either at your resort.  While I am not one to wash clothes on vacation, if your resort offers that amenity and you’re a stickler for returning home with clean clothes, be sure to include your travel sized, leak-proof detergent.  And if you plan to shop, it may be wise to pack an empty bag to bring home your loot and/or use as your daily beach bag.  Last but not least, check the weather and see if you need to throw your umbrella in your bag, swag.

Helpful Tips:

  1. Check out my Travel Store to purchase some of my favorite travel items, from fold-able duffel bags to fancy passport covers and more (Available February 2019).

  2. When I headed to Europe for 18 days last summer, one of my friends recommended handy travel compression bags.  These bags are an inexpensive way to compress multiple items to make for easier packing. Click here to purchase a set.

  3. Be mindful of airline baggage costs, and keep your bags and fees to a minimum.

  4. Don’t check your fancy luggage and expect it to come back in tip top shape.  Let’s face it, if you’ve ever watched the airlines unload/toss your luggage off the plane in transit to baggage claim, then you are more than aware of the scuffs and tears that come along with checked luggage.  And unless your bag is severly damaged, meaning the type of damage that prevents it from being re-used, you will not be reimbursed for their callousness.  If you’re rich forever and plan on taking your Louis, make sure its carry-on size.

P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation, click here.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

TRAVEL GUIDE: THE BEST OF BALI

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It only took one trip to Bali for me to find out why it is affectionately named, “The Island of the Gods.” From the lush green rice fields to gurgling waterfalls, this place stole my heart from Day 1. After spending 5 days in Thailand, I was looking forward to Bali being the relaxing last leg of my trip, and it did not disappoint. Who would have thought that thousands of miles away from the US, I would eat some of the best BBQ ribs ever and hear soultry live R&B classics while nursing signature cocktails?!?

Click here for the Best of Ubud Tour with Bali Swing entrance.

Climb a waterfall.

Whether you take the short drive to Tegenungan Waterfalls about 30 minutes from Ubud or take a longer ride to Sekumpal, there are waterfalls all over Bali.  Pick your poison, and if you want pictures without the crowd, make sure to arrive early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Click here to purchase a tour to visit three of Bali’s best waterfalls.

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Go hiking up a mountain to view the sunset.

Every summer when I’m off work, I make plans to workout and get ready for summer vacation.  Every summer when I’m off work, I eat snacks, take naps on the couch, and watch Netflix.  So while I wasn’t in shape enough to make the trek up Mt. Batur and didn’t want to slow down the team waiting for an ambulance, I sent my travel companions and made them send me pics. It is highly recommended to take this tour with a knowledgeable guide, and you can click here to book your trek up the mountain.

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Eat good food.

If you read my Thailand blog, you know that I am not a huge foodie, so I’m always hesitant about trying new foods during my travels (especially knowing about the threat of Bali Belly).  Several bloggers raved about a restaurant in Ubud called Melting Wok Warung, so it was the first place on my itinerary after checking into Villa Jepun.  Even though I still rank my lunch at Melting Wok Warung as the best meal of the trip, all of the food we consumed in Bali was extremely fresh and flavorful.  Another notable place to add to your food itinerary is Naughty Nuri’s, and I honestly can’t decide if it was the ribs or cocktails that had me leaving their restaurant with a little extra pep in my step.

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Try a Nalu Bowl.

While I was on Pinterest looking up things to do and simple foods to eat in Bali, I came across several blogs that recommended trying smoothie bowls in Bali because the fruit is much fresher than in the States.  Since my hotel in Seminyak was near a Nalu Bowl, I stopped by and tried the Uluwatu bowl, a dragonfruit blend topped with strawberries, mangos, coconut flakes, and honey.  It was yum!

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Get a tan while lounging by a infiniti pool.

Bali is known for their infiniti pools, even at accommodations that are budget friendly.  Grab a Bitang, put on your swimmer, and let the sun kiss your skin.

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Visit a temple.

There are as many temples as waterfalls in Bali, but Tanah Lot took my breathe away. You can click the tour options below to visit some of Bali’s most photogenic and popular temples:

Lempuyang Gates of Heaven Tour

Water Temples Tour: Tanah Lot, Ulun Danu, and Taman Ayun

Tanah Lot and Uluwatu Sunset Tour

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Get a massage.

$7 US for a 1 hour massage.  Enough said.

Listen to live music.

Live music seems to be a staple in Ubud, so if you’re ever there and want to hear great music while enjoying cocktails and delicious food, make sure you check out Bar Luna and the Laughing Buddha.

Laugh at monkeys at Monkey Forest.

Not only are the monkeys obnoxious and clever thiefs, they are also escape artists that roam the surrounding areas near Monkey Forest at night. Keep your valuables clutched tight and out of reach if you want to go home with them.

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Shop until you drop. 

Ubud was one of the only places where I debated paying astronomical shipping charges to ship home handmade goods (since my small luggage was already at capacity).  There are markets and vendors on every corner, and many of the items are well-made and too inexpensive to pass up.  Make sure you go prepared to bring goods back home.

Visit a coffee plantation.

Did someone say free coffee and tea samples?  Not only was my coffee plantation tour free, but as part of the complimentary package, I was also given 14 samples of tea and coffee to try before perusing the gift shop.  The free tour and samples are enough to make you feel obligated to purchase one of their signature blends.  I wasn’t bold enough to try the Luwak coffee, which is made from the droppings of Luwak cats, but it’s the most expensive coffee in the world and considered a true delicacy which you can try for less than $5 US.

Click here for the Best of Ubud Tour with Bali Swing entrance.

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Pose for pics at Tegallang Rice Terraces.

Click here for the Best of Ubud Tour with Bali Swing entrance

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Swing through the jungle.

You’ve probably seen all of the IG pictures with the cute poses of bloggers and IG models swinging through the trees. While the pictures are cute and all, make sure that you also harness up and try the swing with the biggest plunge. Your $20 entry fee covers all 3 swings.

Click here for the Best of Ubud Tour with Bali Swing entrance.

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Watch the sunset.

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I’m looking forward to traveling to Bali again soon, because there were so many places that I did not get a chance to visit from my itinerary.  There are only a handful of places I plan to revisit repeatedly over the course of my lifetime, and Bali definitely made it to the top of my list.  Have you been to Bali?  If so, what were some of your favorite things to do and see?  

And if you’re planning a trip soon, click here to read my tips before you embark on your vacation.

Sidenote: There is a Bali Instagram tour for those that want to do it for the Gram. Click here.

P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation, click here.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

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TRAVEL GUIDE: TIPS BEFORE BALI

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This summer I had the opportunity to combine two trips into one, so after spending 5 amazing days in Thailand, I hopped on a plane to begin my stay in Bali. Bali easily landed on my list of places that I will revisit many times throughout my life, and here are some tips to make your trip just as enjoyable:

1) Make sure to bring some conservative pieces, especially if you will be staying in Ubud.

While daisy dukes and swimsuits were the norm in Kuta, Ubud was much more conservative, and appropriate covering is required to enter most temples and religious buildings. Since the sun can be brutal during the day, err on the side of caution and at least stick a cardigan in your bag just in case the environment is attire restricted.

2) Be careful of the foods you consume.

Bali Belly is very real, and unfortunately, one of my friends fell victim after over-indulging at the 99k ($7 US) buffet.  Bali Belly not only ruined the last few days of my friend’s trip, but it also followed him home. And being that he had just come from out the country, he couldn’t be treated at an urgent care clinic and had to choose between toughing it out until he met with his doctor the following weekday or taking a trip to the emergency room. The flight to Bali is long enough without having to deal with additional shit, pun intended. Unless you want to spend your entire trip suffering from tummy troubles that may land you at the pharmacy or clinic, be mindful of the foods you eat and pack some Imodium and probiotics to strengthen your immune system, just in case.

3) Do not drink the water.

Refer to #2.

4) Buy your liquor at a duty free BEFORE you reach Bali.

Liquor is considerably more expensive when you get to Bali, in both stores and restaurants. I kicked myself in the butt for not buying a bottle or 2 in Singapore on my layover when I got to Bali and saw that a bottle of regular Hennessy was $120 US. And let me not even mention that their cheapest bottle of wine was around $40 US, and that was for a brand that was similar to Barefoot, which is $5 a bottle in the US. Your money goes far in Bali on just about everything, with the exception of liquor.

5) Respect the offerings.

One of my favorite things about Bali, especially Ubud, was the smell of incense permeating the air due to the fresh daily offerings in front of almost every home and business. Since the offering are plentiful, be sure to watch your step, so that you don’t inadvertently knock over one or smush it under your shoes.

6) Include these amazing things on your itinerary (click here)

7) Stay in Seminyak versus Kuta.

When I first started mapping out my trip to Bali, I read several blogs and articles about the best places to stay. Almost every blog recommended staying in Seminyak over Kuta, since the 2 are so close in proximity.  On arrival, I figured out the rationale fast. Kuta is considerably more sketchy than Seminyak and nowhere near as nice, but don’t worry, you can still reach the same attractions from both.

8)  Be extremely careful when taking an Uber. Please.

Even though you can request Uber from various places in Kuta and Seminyak, the service is discouraged and there have been many reports of Uber drivers being attacked during passenger pick-up or drop-off. At many businesses, including popular places like Potato Head and Ku De Ta, Uber pickups are banned and there are several signs discouraging riders from using them versus a taxi. If you decided to call an Uber and your driver requests to pick you up in a different, but close location, it is probably for their safety. Uber is the cheaper route (and has a motorbike driver option), so we did opt to use it, especially since the ride to the airport was $3 US versus $20 US using the hotel shuttle, but just make sure that you use with caution and are open to being flexible with your driver. And if you should opt to use a taxi, use blue taxis only, as they are the only ones regulated by the city.

9) Negotiate.

The price of almost anything that you can get off the street in Bali, including taxis, is negotiable. NEVER go with the first price, and as a rule of thumb, remember that the real price is often 25-50% cheaper than the first asking price.

10) Rent a Scooter (at your own risk)

Ummm, so I would like to think that I am a decent driver, and I’ve rode solo on everything from a ATV to a snow mobile, BUT that did not prepare me for driving my first scooter. Let’s just say after skidding out full speed into traffic and attempting to stop the bike with my water shoes like I was on a 10 speed while steadily hitting the gas, both my travel companions and the owners of the scooter company decided that maybe I would be better off as a passenger. And just to give you a visual, I had my tote bag on my shoulder like I was really about to get on the scooter and do something. Tragic, just tragic. So while scooters are a great way to see the rice fields up close and let the gentle breeze waft through your hair, rent at your own risk.

11) Invest in mosquito spray.

I thought that mosquitos couldn’t get any worse than at my Granny’s house on the east side of Houston, until I went to Bali. Mosquitos were everywhere in the midst of the other exotic bugs, and quite the nuisance, which I can’t understand since there were frogs by the dozen on every corner trying to steal my joy.

12) Make sure you take some days to relax and just enjoy the scenery.

P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation, click here.

TRAVEL GUIDE: OCHO RIOS, JAMAICA

Last year, on Thanksgiving Day, I entered into the third decade of my life.  30 years young.  For months leading up to my birthday, I told anyone that cared to listen that the only guarantee for my big day was that I would be jumping down somebody’s waterfall in Jamaica.  Since my birthday fell on a family holiday, I wasn’t really concerned about who would be able to make the trip and big plunge with me, as long as I had a rushing body of water, a Red Stripe or 3, and a camera to capture the moment, life was fine with me. So, a few months before my scheduled departure date, I sent out a mass email to my usual travel crew and began to plan my first vacation to the reggae capital of the world.

The Jewel Dunn’s River Resort was worth every penny.  The rooms were spacious, the resort beach beautiful, the premium liquor plentiful, and the staff became our friends.  When was the last time you went to an all-inclusive resort that served Hennessy?  I’ll wait, but let me just say that the liquor selection definitely overshadowed the mediocre food that you find at just about any all inclusive resort.

Note: If your Jamaica travels will land you in Montego Bay versus Ocho Rios, you can click here to read my MoBay travel guide filled with tips, or click here to book your room at either a Secrets or Breathless resort.

While I’m a beach bum at heart, I am also a tourist, and there were some things in Ocho Rios that were must sees on my list.  There was no way that I could go to Jamaica and not visit the birth and resting place of Bob Marley, Nine Miles, or not find the perfect waterfall (Dunns River and Secret Falls) to make my birthday wish come true. Unfortunately, my phone died before we reached the peak of Nine Miles, but some sights photos wouldn’t do justice anyway.  If you’re struggling in the humble department, take a trip through Jamaica and up to Nine Miles, and it might help you remember that even on your worst day you are blessed.  From the shanty huts to the children chasing behind our tour van barefoot on the undeveloped roads like on Belly, I had to take a minute and just say, “Thank you God.”

And if you’re a free spirit with a wild heart that’s open to taking a walk on the wild side, take a trip to Shades on a Freaky Friday.  Sorry, no pictures were allowed, so you can only imagine what that means.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you, but you can definitely say I sent you.

Restaurant Highlight:

Miss T’s Kitchen

What is a trip to Jamaica without enjoying traditional cuisine in an authentic Jamaican restaurant.  I couldn’t imagine depriving my travel crew of not only a home cooked meal for Thanksgiving, but also making them suffer through the Jamaican attempt to Americanize the buffet with dry turkey, bland dressing, and a host of other holiday items that didn’t even slightly resemble your mama’s home cooking.  So, based on a host of yelp reviews and recommendations from the locals, we ate our Thanksgiving late lunch/dinner at Miss T’s Kitchen in the heart of Ocho Rios.  Usually a very opinionated and conservative food connoisseur, I must admit that the ox tails and rice and peas were fingerlicking good.  The ambiance of the restaurant also did not disappoint, as it was set outside in the center of a lush garden, protected just enough so that the daily torrential downpour didn’t dampen our moods or our clothes, but instead merged in harmony with the Bob Marley playing from the speakers.

P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation, click here.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

LOCAL GUIDE: HOUSTON BRUNCH FAVS

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Brunch is absolutely one of my favorite meals of the weekend.  There is nothing like enjoying mimosas and signature entrees with friends and/or family at trendy eateries with delicious food and great service.  Below are some of my favorite brunch spots in and around the Houston area:

The General Public

This place has been one of my favorites since its grand opening a few months ago.   Whether you are trying their fried quail and hotcakes or the bacon crab stack, my personal favorites, the perfect accent to any meal at The General Public are their $1 mimosas.

Grace’s

Besides having exceptional food, this trendy Upper Kirby restaurants makes frozen mimosas that will keep you coming back time and time again.  Although slightly pricey, the atmosphere and delectable cuisine are exactly what you have come to expect from restaurants in the Johnny Carrabba’s chain.

Dish Society

This place was recommended several times before I had the opportunity to finally make it to their La Centerra location.  And let me be honest, I am absolutely addicted to their brisket stuffed sweet potato and smoked Gouda grits.

The Houstonian

Even though most of us probably know of this fabulous hotel for its upscale accommodations and infamous Trellis Spa, their Center Court Restaurant might have some of the best breakfast omelets in the city.

Brasserie 19

This restaurant is still sitting on my list of must try brunches, but I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews, and their brunch menu has enough options for even the pickiest foodie.

 What are some of your favorite brunch spots in and around the city of Houston?

P.S. Sometimes you just need to get away, from your house, that is.  Let Tonia help you put together the perfect staycation for you to vacay in your own city.  Whether it’s an overnight stay with your girls, your spouse, or a solo trip, Travels by Tonia will plan your staycation from start to finish.  Who said you had to leave your home city to still have a rejuvenating vacation?  Click here and you will hear back from a representative within the next 24-48 hours to begin your destination planning.  

LOCAL GUIDE: MESSINA HOF WINERY

In celebration of the birthday of one of my close friends, we spent the day at Messina Hof, a winery and resort in Bryan, TX.  Even though Texas is not known for their vineyards, Messina Hof offers a unique blend of locally grown wines.  Founded by Paul Bonnarigo in 1983, today Messina Hof produces over 50,000 cases of wine a year and offers year round tours to visitors and wine connoisseurs alike.

As you wait for your tour to begin, you have the option to sample several of Messina Hof’s blends in their wine shop, accompanied by a cheese and meat tray specified to your taste.  We opted to go with a Gorgonzola, Red Dragon, and Cheddar to compliment our Sparkling Almond Wine.

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Similar to most liquor tours, the tour takes place in 3 parts: an overview of the history, a walk through the vineyards and distillery, and a tasting.  On the grounds of Messina Hof in Bryan, part of your tour includes the bed and breakfast where guests can stay on site. The doors of the villa were once a part of the home of Louis Pasteur, the father of pasteurization.

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From the villa, you are then taken on a tour through the vineyards, which had just started to bloom.  In Bryan, there are only about 30 acres of grapes being grown on the property.  Most of the grapes used in Messina Hof’s wines are grown in the panhandle.  According to Nick, our tour guide, wine makers prefer hot arid temperatures, so that they can control the amount of water being distributed to their crops.  Even though the vines were just starting to bloom, we still were able to get in some good photos.  Maybe, we were feeling the wine a little too much.

 After the vineyards, we were ushered into the distillery to learn more about the wine making process, which varies from company to company.

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And last but not least, our tour guide walked us through a six step, four wine tasting.  While many of us just like to make our way through a bottle (as quickly as possible),  there is an actual process that wine connoisseurs go through during wine tasting: See, Smell, Swirl, Sip, Swish, Sip.  Your first sip of wine should never determine whether it’s a keeper, because it takes time for your palates to adjust to most blends.  As we navigated our senses through four of Messina Hoff’s popular wines, there were 2 that made it on to my weekday after work list.  This was my second time touring Messina Hof, and I’m looking forward to one day making it back to stomp the grapes.

For lodging options near Messina Hof, click here.

P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation, click here.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

LOCAL GUIDE: DINER EN BLANC HOUSTON

About 2 years ago, I remember scrolling through Eventbrite and coming across an informational meeting/preview party for something called Diner En Blanc. After doing some research through social media on the hashtag and asking some friends in other cities, I decided that if nothing else the preview party was worth my time.

In order to shorten the story, I went to the meeting and discovered that this international affair would be making its debut in Houston, and even with all of the mixed reviews from friends that had attended in other cities, I rounded up willing participants and waited patiently to receive my invite. Diner En Blanc requires that each guest brings one other attendee, whether it be your significant other or BFF. For weeks leading up to the day, I watched videos and read blog posts of this fabulous, all white event, affectionately called DEB for short (when I wasn’t on Pinterest pinning decor and fashion ideas).

Invites to Diner En Blanc are issued in three phases, with the first phase being dedicated to friends of the organization, past attendees, etc, all the way to Phase 3, where a limited number of slots are opened to those on the Waiting List. Needless to say, Diner En Blanc goes the extra mile to keep the crowd exclusive, and did I mention that the event is held at a secret location that’s only announced as ticketed guests are in transit.

Diner En Blanc (Washington, DC)

Diner En Blanc (Washington, DC)

As with most inaugural events, the first Diner En Blanc in Houston had its issues, and while I missed last year’s event, this year I had an absolute blast. Here are my 5 tips to making your first Diner En Blanc a success:

1) The Phases- If there is a Diner En Blanc in your city, you can go on that city’s DEB website, select register to become a new member, and enter your email address to be Wait Listed for the next event. Remember, Diner En Blanc only happens once a year, usually in the summer. (Yes, I know this year’s DEB was in November, but that is not the norm for most cities). Unless you are a special invited guest or friend of one of the organizers, you will most likely be in Phase 3 for your first Diner En Blanc. My advice if you are in Phase 3 is to be ready to book as soon as Phase 3 opens for ticket purchases. And you guessed it, Phase 1 opens first, followed by Phase 2, and final slots are for Phase 3. On the DEB website for your city, you can find the exact date and time for each Phase to buy tickets once a date has been set for that year, and you will get email reminders with your unique invitation code prior to your date. My newbie DEB friends were so anxious on the day that Phase 3 spots opened that when tickets went on sale at 10:00am, I honestly had 3 friends on conference call, one friend on my work phone, and 2 texting me to make sure that they did everything right, ALL at the same time. When purchasing your tickets, you will have to choose a bus location to catch your ride to the “secret” location and a table leader. Friends that want to sit together will need to choose the same bus and table leader.

DEB Tip: Ticketed guests have the option to sponsor a guest, meaning, they can send out one special invite to a non-member. This allows guests in other phases to purchase their tickets sooner and not have to risk all spaces being sold out. Be advised, sponsored guests aren’t automatically invited back the next year.

2) The Preparation- I’m going to be honest and say that securing your spot is probably the easy part. The preparation is where it gets real. Diner En Blanc has very specific rules for its attendees and failure to comply could result in your being turned away from the entrance and forfeiting your fees. Here are the rules in a nut shell:

  • Your outfit must be ALL white from head-to-toe. No pops of color, unless that pop is on your lips. The Houston organizers allowed nude or beige shoes, but they made it clear that was the only exception to the rule.

  • You have to bring your own table and chairs. The table must be square and between 28 and 32 inches. Your table doesn’t have to be white, as it will be covered by a white tablecloth, however, your chairs must be unless you plan to bring chair covers. You can click here to view the easy to carry table I bought for the event and here to view the chairs.

  • You will need to bring a multi-course meal (unless you pre-purchase from the e-store), trash bag, table linens, tabledecor, silverware, plates/bowls, glassware (not plastic), and all white napkins for the signature napkin wave before dinner. Outside alcohol is not permitted, but you can purchase wine and champagne from the e-store.

Via Pinterest.

Via Pinterest.

DEB Tip: If you’re not into cooking multi-course meals or know that you will be running short on time, you can always pick up food from your favorite eateries. I was tempted to pick up a lobster bisque from 51Fifteen and one of the pre-made dinners from HEB, but since my group divided and conquered, I decided to take one for the team. And that leads to #3.  It sounds harder than it is, I promise.

3) Where 2 or more are gathered … The inaugural DEB in Houston wasn’t perfect, but I still had such a blast, that there were 7 friends (8 of us total) that were down for the cause this year. 8 willing able-bodied ticketed attendees, meant that we were able to divvy up the menu and tasks. You know your friends strongest assets (and their weakest ones), so we had one table take on the task of table decor for our 4 tables, one table that tackled dessert (meaning went to Nothing Bundt Cakes and Omazing Occasions), one group that made salad (because anyone can make or buy a salad), and my group was over dinner. Since the boudin stuffed chicken was such a hit at the first Diner En Blanc, we decided to run it back with bacon wrapped asparagus. The key to picking your food is choosing foods that are still delectable when lukewarm. Every group had to be responsible for some things on their own, like the tables, chairs, trash bags, plates, etc, but for the most part, we divided up the tasks leaving us with less to carry and less to stress over. Even if you are just going with your one guest, find ways to simplify your life, and don’t try to do everything. At least wait until your 2nd Diner En Blanc to hang the wisteria from the vase and down your table… Unless you’re just good like that. I’m not.

Our simple, yet elegant, table decor.

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DEB Tip: While unpacking the decor and decorating our tables, we realized that we had somehow left our wine glasses. If I have not learned anything else in life, I have learned that ish happens and that there’s usually always a solution to “fake” serious problems. Instead of panicking or using all of my favorite four and five letter words like I tend to do under pressure, I grabbed my purse and proceeded to walk to find the nearest store or something. That “something” ended up being the restaurant across the street that let me borrow a few glasses for a $10 holding other people stuff fee. They were not as cute as the ones that we had initially planned to use to adorn our tables, but the Moet flowed from them just the same.

4) Pack Light(ish)- I’m not sure if that’s a word, but let me explain. Yes, you have to bring your own table and chairs and channel your inner Martha Stewart, but the goal is to condense as many things as possible and to pack smarter, not harder. Ideally, you would bring a white picnic basket to Diner En Blanc, because it is essentially the fanciest picnic in the world, BUT that’s not a requirement (as long as your storage items can fit under your table). The first year we brought card tables, because they fit the size requirements, but we didn’t take into consideration how heavy those tables are in dress clothes and heels. This year, I got on Amazon and ordered a light table in a carry bag that slung easily over my back. The best thing is that after your first DEB, you won’t have to purchase these types of items again.  Remember, whatever you bring, you have to carry, and it’s hard being cute and working for a moving service at the same time.

DEB Tip: Go with a man or pair with a friend that has one. They might not help decorate the table, but they are great for carrying the heavy stuff (especially since they most likely won’t be wearing heels).

5) Remember, you did all of this to have fun … I’m still trying to figure out where DEB Houston found the DJ, because even with the mishaps like the catering company not showing up until extra late with half of the orders missing, I didn’t see one person sitting down or not looking like they were having a great time. If you don’t believe me, search the hashtag #DEBHOU17. I saw one caption that read, “My food never came, but Diner En Blanc owes me absolutely nothing.” I think I might have Swag Surfed so hard I almost broke my shoe. The food mishap might have been something that could have ruined the entire night for some guests, but between the full refund given to ALL those that paid for a catered meal and Simply Pho’s takeout menu (the same restaurant that let me borrow the glasses), most of us were full (of food, libations, and cheer) and are waiting for the next, “Dinner in White.”

Us.

DEB Tip: I swear that ish was as fun as it looked.

You can follow my stories on Instagram @toniatheauthor and check out our group Swag Surf if you don't believe me.