Panama – The Ultimate 30th Birthday Destination

If you need an excuse to travel somewhere exotic with your friends, I strongly recommend 30th birthdays. Alicia introduced me to this brilliant plan when she declared we were going to Australia and New Zealand for her 30th birthday. Not to be outdone, when I approached the big 3-0, I declared that we were going to Panama.

Alicia had agreed before the words escaped my lips. And truth be told, the other ladies were not much of a hard sell either: Lex, fluent in Spanish and all-around business bad-ass, Dominique who looks exotic though you can never quite place where she is from, and Heidi, my brilliant cousin who is witty in both English and Spanish.

Reasons why travelling to Panama is fantastic:

1. You are on a landlocked island. With the Atlantic Ocean to the north and the Pacific to the south, you can almost always see an ocean in the distance. In fact, if you scale to the top of Condé Nast, you can see both oceans from the same viewpoint. (Technically, we didn’t do this, but it does sound rather awesome.)

2. You can experience so many places in a single week. We explored the historic beauty of Casco Viejo in Panama City, ziplined over the rain forests and coffee plantations of Boquete, and lived on an island with our private water taxi driver who took us to tiny islands and to wild dolphin feeding spots.  In one week. And it didn’t even feel rushed. It was one of those rare vacations when you feel like you’ve been there longer than you’ve been there, but in the best way possible.

3. The coffee. We had a caffeine-boosted afternoon at Cafés De La Luna in Boquete, learning about growing coffee beans, roasting, and tasting the goods.

4. Panama hats. Technically, these iconic hats originated in Ecuador, but just be a tourist about it and get one anyway.

5. Cosmic Crab. Book a ticket to go to Panama City, then book a local flight on David Air to Bocas del Toro. Get in a water taxi and say those two magical words: Cosmic Crab. What awaits you is a three course meal for something like $12. And amazing drinks. And the best company. We’re still Facebook friends with Dop, a Dutch woman we met there.

6. Chilling on tiny islands. Since you’ve already made it to Bocas del Toro to hang out at Cosmic Crab, you might as well stay around for a few days. We stayed at this fabulous solar-powered house that came equipped with a candy bar telephone to call a local water taxi driver. He took us to wild dolphin feeding areas, tiny islands we could circumnavigate in 45 minutes, outdoor seafood restaurants on stilts in the water, and white sandy beaches with starfish in the water and thatched roof bars on the sore.

7. Mixture of Old and New. From nearly hitting a sloth to crossing the road, to shopping around the streets of Casco Viejo, Panama was full of juxtaposing moments of old and new, modern and not-as-much. We loved every moment!

Extra Credit: Panama uses the American dollar so Americans don’t have to figure out exchange rates and complex math formulas while negotiating street vendors for treasures.

One extra tip for getting around the country: buses and rental cars are available, but the country is fairly spread out and mountainous. I’d suggest jumping from region to region using Air Panama.  They will get you where you need to go, but not necessarily when you need to get there. We had an unexpected 6 hour delay while trying to leave Bocas, which gave us an excuse to hop in a water taxi and have one more fabulous night at Cosmic Crab.


Snowshoeing Mt. Baker & Mt. Shuksan, Washington State

Some weekends just beg for road trips.  We are road-trippers to the core, so as the (rare) snow storm let up in Portland, Oregon, we piled our boots and puff jackets in the car and headed north to the Mt. Baker area of the Snoqualmie National Forest in Washington State for a weekend of audio-books and snowshoeing.


Even though I previously lived in Seattle for five years, I had never visited this area – opting instead to head due east or bypass it entirely for Vancouver, B.C..  What a gem I missed!

Snowshoeing Mt Baker

The Mt. Baker/Shuksan area is unbelievably beautiful.  We snowshoed the hills of Mt. Baker, skirting the ski slopes (which boasted fresh powder, beautiful scenery, and a lovely lack of crowds) to reach the summit of Artist Point:

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Can you believe this view?  It was the steepest, sweatiest climb of my snowshoe life and 100% worth it.

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On our way home, we decided to take the scenic tour and inadvertently ended up on Snoqualmie Falls – a lucky find for a Twin Peaks fan like Brendan.

The Tiniest Country in the Mediterranean

Malta.  A tiny island state in the middle of the Mediterranean, and about a 90 minute flight from Rome, which was perfect since we were already in Italy and looking for a companion destination.  Everything about Malta proved to be an unexpected delight, right down to its affordability.  Though the country is primarily Catholic, influences from around southern Europe and northern Africa permeate everything from the cuisine to the architecture.

We stayed at the beautiful Westin Dragonara Resort, and since we arrived at the start of off-season (end of September), we apparently had it all to ourselves.

Westin Dragonara Resort

Mdina, a tiny medieval city, is simply magical.  Known as the “silent city,” it is entirely contained within its ancient walls and pretty much shuts down after dinner.  Many of the 300 residents are descendants of the original nobility, and the buildings and infrastructure remain in amazing condition.  The former moat surrounding the city has even been transformed into a tree and grass lined park.


We were surprised at how much we liked the cathedral and its associated museum – both a required stop if visiting Mdina.  The city goes quiet mid-afternoon, so we killed time in getting drinks and dropping in on Mass in neighboring Rabat before returning to dine at The Medina Restaurant on fresh seafood and top-notch local wine.
Malta’s main city, Valletta, rests on the north shore of the eastern island and was built in the mid-16th century by the Knights of St. John.  The history is palpable – from the Knights to the Ottoman invasions to present day.  The streets are lined with cafes, plazas and tiny shops, and it would be easy to spend a day wandering around and down tiny alleyways.  Since we were pressed for time, we focused on the biggies – the cathedral and war museum.
St. John’s Cathedral is just about the most gaudy thing I’ve ever seen, and is worth a visit just to gawk at the gold-lined… well, everything.  But the surprising highlight of the city is the Malta War Museum.  This interactive, engaging and thorough museum covers from the time of the Knights through the Ottoman conquest to Malta’s role in World War II.  (Did you know three old airplanes took turns patrolling the airspace around the island to give the impression of a large air force that never existed? Or that The George Cross was awarded by King George of Great Britain to the country in its entirety for its service during the war?)  I wished we could have squeeze in a second visit before we left!


We came back raving about this museum, and Malta as a whole, so much so, a couple friends of ours booked their own trip a few months later and fell in love with it as much as we did.


Calascio: Best Kept Secret in Italy

When you think of a perfect honeymoon location, what’s usually the top pick?  Italy!  And for very good reasons – the food, the scenery, the wine, the coffee, the rolling hills, the history…  You get the idea.  I haven’t been for years, and this would be Brendan’s first trip to pasta country, so we booked it.

Photo Sep 20, 7 31 10 AM

Since we were flying into Rome, we decided to devote a few days to the city before moving onto the less explored, less commercial central region of Abruzzo.

Brendan cashed in his hard-earned points and booked us a room at the Rome Cavalieri (Waldorf Astoria, Rome) (holy buckets), and we proceeded to hit up every major attraction – the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Pantheon, and the Vatican just to name a few.  We also kicked off our daily lunch regimen of gelato and espresso.

On the third day we were off to Abruzzo and the real adventure of the trip.  We rented a car and took the scenic route from Rome to Calascio, one of a dozen Abruzzo area, 9th century stone villages clinging to mountaintops.  A friend of Brendan’s lives in Calascio and generously lent us his villa while we were in town – and stayed close enough to play tour guide through the region.

View from Calascio

Calascio is most famous for Rocca Calascio, the highest fortress in the Apennine Mountains, looming above the village.

The original village at the foot of Rocca Calascio has been abandoned for hundreds of years.  But about two decades ago, a couple started buying up the property of the abandoned village and turned it into a bed and breakfast – Rifugio della Rocca – complete with a restaurant, cafe and a modest concert hall.


Valle Reale

When we first decided to do Abruzzo instead of the more famous regions of Italy, I had no idea what to expect.  It turned out to be one of the best travel decisions we could have made.

I recommend this area to any and everyone planning an Italian vacation, and no one has been disappointed.  Its worth the food alone, although I’ve found this true for any region of Italy.  But sometimes the less known is the most fun – do yourself a favor and visit Abruzzo next time you find yourself in pasta country.

England, Scotland, Ireland and a Mum

I love to travel.  I was bitten by the travel bug right after graduating high school, when my mom surprised me with a trip to Hawaii.  It was my first “big” trip – first time riding in an airplane, first time changing time zones, first time exploring a new place for the sake of exploring a new place.  She went on to sponsor many of our trips together, from the Oregon Coast to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and used to joke how one day I would be the one to take her on a grand adventure.

As I grew up and become more travel savvy, the joke began to seem less far-fetched.  She hadn’t traveled internationally before, it had always seemed too intimidating.  And I knew she had always wanted to visit the British Isles (our ancestors, according to family history).  So, it was settled – the common(ish) history, language and culture, and direct flights from the East Coast, would make them an excellent destination for a first trip abroad.

The ceiling of St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh

But to do the trip even a wee bit of justice would require a lot of moola, not to mention months of planning and at least two weeks on the ground (a long-weekend sprinting between ruined castles would not a grand adventure make).  If she was going to get a passport, take time away from running her business, and realize a life-long dream, we were going to have to make it great.  No, not great.  Epic.  So, we set out to execute our “Epic Trip” the most affordable, adventurous way possible, loading up our itinerary with iconic scenery (for her) and whiskey tastings (for me).


About a year before our trip, we began to play the points game.  A friend of mine had explained how she navigated credit card miles for a free vacation to Thailand the previous year, and I picked every inch of her traveled brain.  I immediately signed up for specific cards and loyalty programs in an attempt to earn enough in free flights, stays and attraction entrance fees.  And I convinced my mom to do the same.  (What’s better than a free round-trip airline ticket?  Two free round-trip airline tickets.)

And, strangely, we had so much fun putting the pieces together.  We strategically spent and saved for over a year, and by the following April we had acquired enough miles and points to cover our flights, accommodations, rental car and even a few entrance fees.

But regardless of the rewards, it’s a widely-known fact London is crazy expensive.  We lucked out here – we stayed at a friend of a friend’s flat, close to London’s center and right on the tube line.  And my mom had never ridden a subway or metro system, so what better way to initiate her than the London Tube?  We navigated the maps and insane amounts of people to hit up the British Museum (free), the Victoria and Albert Museum (free), Parliament (free selfies from the across the river), and Harrods (not free; we bought enough pistachio-creamed/fudge-filled/fruit-infused gourmet chocolates to last two epic trips).  Crisscrossing the city, we put miles on our Oyster Cards and pounds on our bums (our trips together are little more than glorified food tours).

Once in Ireland, we rented a little (tiny) car with points, and immediately opted for the additional insurance (also with points) – it seemed silly not to have the extra coverage considering I would be driving in the other side of the car, on the other side of the road, across a foreign country.  If something happened to the car (and it did), we didn’t want the incident to be such a traumatic event it soured the entire trip.

Trinity College 1

We spent our last full day in Dublin, wandering around Trinity College and its famous library, gawking over the Book of Kells (worth the 10€), and took a surprisingly informative free walking tour of the old town courtesy of Sandeman’s Walking Tours (the guides work for tips).

Trinity College Library

When it was all said and done, and we were back home logging photographs and reviewing receipts, we confirmed the only money we spent went towards souvenirs (Portobello Road took a fair share), food (soooo much food), and whiskey tastings.

Shopping on Portobello Road


Months earlier, while putting together our itinerary, I decided to add in a surprise stopover in between London and Ireland.

The airports in the UK and Ireland operate differently than those in the US: once through security, travelers are held in a common area surrounded by shops, duty-free stores, restaurants and cafes.  There are a few electronic leader-boards posted around the seating area listing upcoming flights.  Thirty minutes before departure, a flight’s gate is announced and passengers begin to make their way in the appropriate direction.

My mom was not familiar with the process, and since London is a huge hub, with huge leader-boards, she had no way of guessing which flight was ours.  It wasn’t until we were boarding the plane that I turned around and handed her a ticket to Edinburgh.

Top of Edinburgh Castle

The Old Town’s tragically beautiful skyline and Gothic buildings, paired with dark grey rain clouds and whipping wind, made the city seem quite menacing that first night.  Walking down blind alleys and up haunting, twisting stone staircases to find dinner, my mom – already prone to anxiety and in possession of a wickedly vivid imagination – was sure we were to be murdered any second.  When we rounded a corner and found the packed, stone and wood-lined Devil’s Advocate, lively with music and conversation, she was so relieved she downed two cocktails straight away.  Hours later, full of grilled meats, halloumi salad, and the giggles, we stumbled arm in arm all the way back to the hotel.  Singing.  From that point on, she was constantly diving down side streets and up unmarked alleyways, just to make sure she wasn’t missing anything good.

Scottish National Gallery

Apart from meandering through Old Town, I was surprised how much time we spent at the Scottish National Gallery.  I usually wander through art galleries at a decent clip, pausing to read only the plaques of paintings that catch my eye.  My mom, however, hadn’t been to a gallery of this magnitude before, and proceeded to study every single piece, in order, as we moved through the exhibits.  And to my surprise, I did the same.  I couldn’t help it.  The richly painted rooms and bright skylights offset the art work perfectly, and kept us both engaged and energized throughout the visit.  And the artwork is especially alluring; before we knew it, we had whiled away an entire afternoon.

The same focus and fascination showed itself in Ireland.  Miles of rolling green hills, ancient ruins, and enchanting Irish accents were exactly why we decided to holiday there.  And lovely Ireland was to be the last portion of our trip.  My only beef with the country was the two-feet high metal posts separating parking spots in Tralee.  Not quite high enough to see once you’re seated in the car, and easy to forget as you’re pouring over a map, one of these little buggers jumped out and scraped the side of our car as I pulled out of the parking spot.  Yay insurance.

View from Rock of Cashel

After frolicking through the mid-southern portion of the country, we dedicated a full day to the Dingle Peninsula.  Until Dingle, everyone we encountered in Ireland was amiable and welcoming.  The people of Dingle, however, were comically rude – many shopkeepers couldn’t be bothered to offer even a polite smile, and some flat out refused to speak English, though they clearly understood us when we wanted to make a purchase.


Residents were gearing up for peak season, though, and were possibly dreading the coming months when their newly-reopened, two-lane road would be packed with tour buses and gawking tourists (it had been closed for three months to accommodate the filming of Star Wars: The Force Awakens).

Dingle Peninsula

Either way, the peninsula’s scenery, ancient monuments, blind, one-lane corners (almost took out a sheep!), and beautiful sunny sky made interacting with the surly locals 100% worth it.  Green, rocky hills sloped down to the coastline, jetted out into the ocean, and provided perfect selfie backdrops.

On our way back to the hotel we decided to detour over Conor Pass – something we didn’t know about until we passed a sign pointing the way.  Incredible!  From its summit – the highest pass in Ireland – dramatic views of the peninsula’s northern and southern coasts are visible, and one can see as far as the Aran Islands off the coast of Galway.

Conor Pass

Galway itself is famous for its hipsters and trendy music scene.  But we arrived during the off season, and though we witnessed an impressive young street band covering 80s hits, the town was pretty sleepy.  So we spent a full day two hours away at Kylemore Abbey and Victorian Walled Gardens.  Kylemore Abbey and its acres of lush gardens solidly earns its reputation as one of the premier tourist attractions in Ireland.  We spent a relaxing, blissful day toddling around the buildings and grounds… until we decided to take the scenic way back to Galway.  Thanks to an inaccurate map and no cell data, we spent hours driving in circles over the rolling hills of north Galway Country until finally finding ourselves on the main highway.  And we loved every single roaming minute – the detour proved to be one of our favorite memories of the trip.


Though Edinburgh Castle is worth a visit simply for the views, The Scotch Whisky Experience is worth a visit because you’re in Scotland.  A whiskey tasting café and museum located just outside the castle gates, it provided the perfect reprieve from the cold, windy castle grounds.  From Aberlour to Glenmorangie to many, many more, it seemed as though every whiskey in Scotland was present.  We headed straight to the bar and let the barman customize tastings for each of us.  I learned I hate smoky whiskey, my mom learned she loved Scotch.

Scotch Whiskey Experience 1
The Scotch Whiskey Experience

Then in Ireland I unintentionally discovered Jameson’s Caskmates.  I asked the barman in a little Galway restaurant outside the main square to pick a whiskey for me to try, and he chose that week’s 3€ special.  Much smoother than typical Jameson, with nice heat and little burn, it reminded me of my favorite bourbons. (And since it’s making a more common appeared in American liquor stores, Caskmates became my go-to whiskey.)

As the trip came to a close and we made our way back to Dublin, we decided to detour to Tullamore Dew to visit their famous whiskey distillery.  After a brief tour, and a 20-minute video detailing the founding and growing of the company, we were back up in front of the bar, ready to dive into their collection.  I was again excited to find new whiskeys I liked and my mom again found herself polishing off the last drop of each sample.

Tullamore Dew Distillery

All in all, the Epic Trip was a raging success.  We had a ball together and made incredible memories.  And we saved so much money on airfare and accommodations, we were both able to bring back loads of unique gifts and souvenirs (and a few bottles of whiskey).  But almost as important, she’s now planning her own a return visit for 2019.  Utilizing many of the same tricks we learned during our Epic Trip and owning her comfort international travel, her next trip is bound to be her best one yet!

Though, at best, it will only be classified as “great.”

The last (and my favorite) photo of the trip.



Edinburgh:  Hotel Indigo Edinburgh was just what it claims to be – a fun, quirky boutique hotel in between Old and New Town, and smack dab at the end of the tram line on York Street.  We hauled in our luggage, checked in, and found ourselves in a charming basement room that somehow incorporated an outdoor garden, natural light, and functional use of abnormal wall angles.  The front desk peeps supplied perfect recommendations for our short stay (especially dinner at Devil’s Advocate and breakfast at Urban Angel), and to this day my mom still raves about this hotel – from our clever room design and decor, to the friendly and helpful staff, to the superb location.

Cashel:  We stayed at the lovely Peggy O’Neills B&B for the location, easy parking, and delicious breakfast (Peggy’s husband also happens to be a hoot).  The property backs up to the ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey, and the Rock of Cashel is just visible from the patio.

Tralee:  Since we wanted to keep an open itinerary for the Kerry/Dingle (and even Killarney) regions, we decided to stay in Tralee, a centrally-located, medium sized town located just north of the Dingle Peninsula.  I stumbled upon Ashe Hotel in a TripAdvisor search and it turned out to be a great find and the perfect home base.  The hotel staff were super friendly and helpful, the rooms comfortable, and the parking free – though lined with the previously mentioned two-feet high metal posts.  Be warned.

Galway:  I cannot say enough about our Galway accommodation, Petra House – it exceeded every expectation, from the friendly reception, to the gorgeous room, to the kick-ass homemade breakfast.  The entire place is stripped down, cleaned and repainted every two years.  Along with the high ceilings, crown molding and classic décor, this keeps the bed & breakfast feeling fresh and inviting.  We lucked out in snagging the last room available (during the slow season, no less) and I would revisit Galway simply to stay here again.

Dublin:  While the room at The Arlington O’Connell Bridge was disappointing (we were put in the back of the hotel, overlooking a loud and busy alley which kept us up both nights) the location couldn’t be beat.  We were across the bridge from Trinity College and walking distance to the historical district and Temple Bar, a trendy neighborhood almost exclusively owned by Bono (yes, that Bono) and famous for its restaurants and nightlife.