Stockholm Bucket List II: Skansen, Vasa Museum and the Best Dinner Ever


After a gorgeously sunny and warm arrival in Stockholm we woke up to a very rainy Stockholm on our second day. Undeterred, we took advantage of the poor weather to tackle a few of the indoor activities we wanted to explore (and one outdoor activity that we couldn’t resist)!

We started our day slowly trying to work up the courage to venture out in the rain, with a specific rainy day plan in mind. Yesterday we stumbled upon a great little tea shop just as it closed and, as you all probably know, I love tea, so we put it at the top of the list for today.

True to our word, Chaikhana was our first stop today and boy, was it a good one! We ordered a cup of tea each (I got the Bai Mu Dan, a very delicate white peony tea) and I ordered the Indian Omelette, which came with a side of gluten free toast. The service was admittedly a little slow and would have been preferable later in the afternoon, when our day was coming to an end and we didn’t feel pressured to get moving. Still, the food and tea were worth the wait (the omelette was to die for) and I topped it off with an amazing gluten and dairy free cake.

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Chaikhana is located directly across from the German Church, so we popped in there quickly and took a peek around. The church itself is small but beautiful, and we snapped a few pictures before we had our fill and continued on to what we thought would be the primary activity for the day–the Vasa Museum. Due to a slight lack of prior research on my part, the Vasa Museum was not exactly what I thought it would be, but it was very interesting all the same. We learned about the history of this 17th century would-be warship, which ended up sinking approximately 1000 meters into its voyage and killing 30 people. We learned about the reclamation and restoration process and about the lives of passengers that had died during the journey, which I thought was the most interesting part. Life in Sweden during the 1600s is an area of history I’m admittedly clueless about, so it was interesting to get a better understanding of what that was like.

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We left the Vasa Museum around 4:30 and made the impulsive decision to visit Skansen, an open-air museum and zoo. Although I typically have reservations about zoos and their treatment of animals, Skansen actually surpassed my expectations tenfold and I was disappointed I didn’t get to spend more time there. We paid the entry fee of 180 SEK and went straight to the aquarium, which confusingly houses not only fish and reptiles but also open-air monkey exhibits, including lemurs (my personal favorite). There was an extra fee of 120 SEK, but it was well worth it.

lemur photo

Photo credit: Photos by Ena

The rest of the museum was huge and we were stressed about the fact that it closed at 6:00 PM, but that was an unnecessary worry. Sweden is apparently an incredibly trusting country and Skansen, at least, seems to operate on the honesty policy. We walked at our leisure and weren’t kicked out promptly at 6:00, and saw others who continued to explore  until 6:30 at least. We felt compelled to leave at closing time, being the rule abiders that we are, but no one seemed too bothered that we spent a couple extra minutes looking at the Lynx exhibit or playing peek-a-boo with a cheeky seal.

Our exhausting day ended at a little local tapas-style restaurant called Matkonsulatet, where we had some of the most amazing food I’ve ever had. The restaurant itself was pricey by my broke millennial standards, but well worth every single krona! We sat at the bar and ordered a wine while we chit-chatted with the server–I started off with a rose champagne and informed him that I’m gluten free and not hugely fond of fish. The menu was in Swedish only but the staff spoke perfect English, so we asked him to just pick 5 of his favorite dishes for us (and were so hungry we ended up getting a sixth).

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Elise and I shared all of the dishes, starting with patatas bravas, a strawberry salad with balsamic and sheep’s milk cheese (amazing), pork belly with anchovy sauce (not as amazing), a cured beef dish, hangar steak and a pork side with parsnip chips and a parsnip puree (my personal favorite dish). We both topped off with a dessert–I got the chocolate mousse/fudge with olive oil and Elise got the vanilla/toffee version. We liked it so much that we went back again on our last day! I’ll be writing a blog post specifically about Matkonsulatet in the near future (and will link back here), so keep your eyes peeled for that!

Bucket list review:

Vasa Museum:

Activity Type: History & Culture, Museum

Price: 130 SEK for adults (~USD$15), 100 SEK students (~USD$11.75, we got in on student prices)

Value for Money: Moderate. The museum was very well thought out and interesting and worth a see, but like everything in Sweden  it’s fairly expensive. Best for history/naval buffs.

Suitable for: Everyone! Parts of this museum were definitely made with children in mind, and it made for a good rainy day activity.

Recommend: This wasn’t my favorite thing to do in Stockholm, but I definitely tend to lean in towards experiences instead of museums (i.e animal encounters, skydiving, etc), but for museum buffs this would be a nice activity. 

Skansen Open Air Museum:

Bucket List Traveler Info:

Activity Type: Zoo, Outdoor Adventure

Price: SEK 180 (~USD$21.22), Aquarium SEK 120 (USD$14 extra)

Value for Money: Moderate to high. I loved this museum and wished I’d made an entire day of it. That said, entry prices were steep and paying more to see the aquarium felt a little unfair, even if it was a very enjoyable exhibit. I’d pay it again, but I could see some people not enjoying it as much as I did.

Recommend: 100%! I really enjoyed this museum and love getting to spend time outdoors. Exhibits were large and animals looked mostly happy (even in the miserable rain), which is unusual for zoos. The history of Sweden was also explained in many interactive, open air exhibits, which was very interesting. 

Want to know more about Stockholm? 

Click here to read about eating, drinking and exploring Old Town Stockholm! 

 

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The British Bucket List: High Tea at The Savoy


SAVOY TEA

Going back to the U.K. has always felt a little bit like going home to me. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had the opportunity to live here a few years ago, and have since returned on an annual basis to visit friends and continue to build and reinforce my network of people in the area. Even though I find the U.K. incredibly comfortable, I always try and push myself to see or do one new thing that I haven’t done in the past.

This year’s trip saw me booking high tea at the very luxurious Savoy hotel with a good friend. High tea costs approximately £50-£53 per person without alcohol, and boy was it worth it! We arrived to London from Canterbury by train and got in a good deal earlier than our reservation, which was set for 1:15 PM. This gave us plenty of time to explore the beautiful Victoria Embankment Gardens while we waited, basking in the (rare) British summer sun.

When it came time for our reservation we entered the lavishly decorated building, which was incredibly ornately decorated. Fresh flowers, attentive staff and impeccable interior design completed the image of sophistication, and it was an immediately calming atmosphere. We were able to really sit down and enjoy ourselves, mulling over the tea menu (boasting more than 30 flavors of tea) while deciding on whether we preferred a savory service to a pastry service. Our waiter was attentive but reserved, which was the perfect combination.

SAVOY TEA 2 PHOTO CREDIT

Photo Credit: Kiwi Collection

When booking the tea I’d requested a gluten free tea service, and was informed upon arrival that my food had been prepared in advance and would be ready whenever I wanted it. I believe that those who didn’t request a gluten free service can still get one, but that the gluten free option will typically take longer to come out than the standard option if it hasn’t been pre-ordered.

I ordered the rose and peony white tea before choosing the Afternoon Tea option, which included finger sandwiches, fresh scones, a course of pastries and then a dessert option. Emily ordered the alternative menu, which substituted pastries for an asparagus, crayfish and egg dish. Our first course came out quickly and Emily, being my guide for all things British for the day, politely informed me that it was customary to taste each sandwich so as to avoid being rude. I was only too happy to oblige, and eagerly enjoyed the ham and cheese, the coronation chicken, the egg and mayonnaise and the tomato sandwich. Apprehensively I tried the smoked salmon–I’ve never been big on fish–but it was absolutely lovely as well, and I ended up eating the whole thing.

The courses rolled out as we requested them and each one was better than the last. By the time we were finished we were uncomfortably full but incredibly satisfied, and spent a pleasant half hour chit-chatting in the beautifully adorned tea room. We settled the check promptly before venturing out to explore the little shop just outside the tea room, where Emily purchased a packet of the tea that she’d enjoyed during our meal. Taking our afternoon tea at the Savoy was an absolute treat, and one I’d recommend for anyone looking for a taste of British culture and refinement at it’s very best.

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Photo Credit: Visit London

Bucket List Traveler Info:

Activity Type: Food & Beverage

Price: $50-53 without alcohol

Value for Money: Variable/high: I personally felt like this was incredibly worthwhile, but for people who are less interested in food/beverage and prefer something a little more active and a little less refined it may be less enjoyable. 

Suitable for: Everyone! May not be great for young kids.

Recommend: 100%! I loved the tea service here and it was a great experience. I’d love to come back for another special occasion.

Extras: Photography is mildly frowned upon, so most of my photos came from a stock source.

 

 

The Bucket List Traveller’s Guide to Eating Gluten Free while Traveling


Source: Appforhealth.com

Hey everyone! I know its been a little while since I’ve updated, but I’ve been working on a few posts in the interim that have all taken a lot longer than I’ve expected! This post is dedicated to my readers that have severe food allergies and want to travel. I know it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it can be hard to know where to start when you’re traveling with special, food-related problems, so I thought it would be a good idea to add a concise, all-in-one guide to planning your trips with a food allergy, specifically gluten intolerance.

Spontaneity and food are two of my favorite things about traveling, but when I found out that gluten doesn’t sit well with my body or my brain, I had rethink my eating strategy while traveling abroad. Having a food allergy in your day-to-day life can be frustrating, tough, isolating and confounding, and having to contend with your food allergy (or its icky symptoms) when you’re traveling can be ten times worse.

Constantly feeling like a pain when your friends want to try some snazzy new restaurant and, if you’re anything like me, having to plan your meals and snacks to avoid some pretty brutal hangries without being able to count on the convenience of fast food isn’t generally comfortable or easy. And while travel is a great experience, I like to think that its a little bit like life on steroids. You’re doing some things you’d usually do, but you never have a routine, rarely have a kitchen and, when you’re away, you don’t want to be wasting your time trying to figure out where and when you need to eat.

Before I went on my most recent big trip I had to completely reassess my eating situation. I had the whole traveling thing down by this point, but I definitely didn’t have the whole gluten-free thing under control just yet. I was great at home, but leaving the house and dining out was always a crapshoot. I was anxious about what my situation would be like when I would have to eat out all the time, when I wouldn’t always be able to pack my own lunch, nor would I want to.

Tasting the traditional dishes in a country is, to me, one of the top travel experiences that anyone can have, but what happens when you can’t eat some of the countries best foods— or worse still, their staples? Bread in France (and, shockingly, Laos), soy sauces in Asia, noodles in Japan and Pierogies in Poland are all off the menu for you, so what now? With a little pre-trip preparation, a lot of your potential food problems can be avoided while on the road. So yes, traveling with a food allergy can be tough, but its definitely not impossible! Read below for my best tips on traveling with food allergies.

Source: Ask-Aladdin.com

Tip #1: Know your trip.

Trip length, destination and budget mean everything when you’re planning your travels, and that counts double for when you’re planning a trip with a food allergy. Depending on the severity of your allergy, knowing these things is a pretty crucial first step, especially if you’re going to need to buy any medications or supplements in advance. I’m going to break this down into three different sections for ease of reading and planning into, predictably, trip length, destination and budget.

Trip Length: Knowing how long you’re going to be gone for is the first step when it comes to planning a trip. If you’re only going to be gone for a week or two, then you’ve got it easy! I know it isn’t the most exciting thing in the world, but trips that length tend to require a little more organization and planning than trips spanning, say, three to six months. Chances are you’ll only be in one or two locations, which will allow you to do some research into nearby supermarkets, restaurants and tourist locations. Doing a few preliminary google searches in the comfort of your own home will save you a lot of grief and stress while you’re abroad, so keep a couple of restaurants with gluten-free options on-hand. If you’re going to be out extensively during the day, pick one of your activities or sites and scope out a few places where you can eat in advance.

If you’re taking a longer trip we can segue conveniently into the know your destination category, and I’d advise you to do the above on a much vaguer scale. I know this sounds tedious, but my best advice to you is to write down a list of all of the foods that you know, for certain, that you’re allergic to. For most GF’ers, knowing these foods can become kind of second nature, but if you’re new to being gluten free or have recently found out that you have a dietary restriction it may not come so easily. Then, research traditional foods in your destination country or countries. Make a list of some things you think you’d like to try, then do a quick google search for recipes for said foods. Check to see if any of the ingredients are on your no-eat list, then write down some dishes that are naturally gluten free.

Know your budget: Are you going to be hoteling or hosteling? Will you rent an apartment on Air BNB or will you be staying with a friend (or surfing someone’s couch)? These details, while seeming minor, are actually pretty huge. If you’re in an upscale hotel that does breakfast, for example, make sure you e-mail them in advance to let them know about your dietary restrictions and to see what your options are. If you’re hosteling, make sure you get a hostel with a kitchen and be extra sure to re-wash any and everything you eat off of or cook with. Hostelers are well-known for being shitty dishwashers, and you don’t want to get any second-hand allergy contamination (or old food contamination, yuck) by eating off plates that haven’t been cleaned as well as they should.

Renting an apartment or a hotel suite with a kitchenette can also be a lifesaver (and a money-saver!) for higher-budget travelers (read: not backpackers). Preparing your own breakfast is extremely cost-effective and gives you much more choice when deciding what you want to eat. Even places like Thailand have Western-style supermarkets (usually ten times more expensive than local Asian markets, but sometimes necessary for people with dietary restrictions… or for travelers who are really, really craving some cheese), and can usually be found inside or near large shopping malls. Chiang Mai has an especially good supermarket in their “airport” mall (misleadingly not at all close to the airport, though also not in the walled city center).

Source: CBtravel.com

Tip #2: Plan for the flight AND the airport.

I had the misfortune of dealing with the problem of plane food first-hand on a 23-hour long flight from New Zealand to Chicago this summer. Booking a specialty meal often needs to be done at the time that you book your ticket and can often not be changed. Flight attendants will tell you that you have until 48 hours before your flight to change your booking, but I have found this, more often than not, to be untrue. So definitely double/triple/quadruple check to make sure you’ve booked a gluten free meal for your flight!

Also, it never hurts to pack a meal for yourself just in case. Bring anything without liquids or gels— so that means no yogurts, sadly, unless they’re mini-sized (under 3oz)— and make sure its going to be enough to sustain you in the event of flight delay, long flight service and/or organizational issues that may come up upon your arrival at your destination. There’s nothing worse than being stuck, starving, at an airport at midnight local time with no place to eat only to find out that your airport pickup didn’t show! Plan ahead and you’ll thank yourself later.

Tip #3: Bring breakfast.

When you arrive at your destination you’re going to be jetlagged, tired, cranky and disoriented. Trying to find a place to eat breakfast or being unpleasantly surprised to find that your hotel doesn’t actually have any gluten free options is going to be a major pain in your ass and, if you’re like me, might lead to a hunger-induced crank-tastic meltdown. Prepare yourself for this in advance by bringing a few gluten free granola bars, a few little carry-on sized packages of nut butters (I highly recommend Justin’s Nut Butters— tasty on their own or on portable fruits like apples and bananas!) and, if allowed, a piece of fruit. Bringing a few tea bags never hurts, either— you’ve got to get your caffeine fix in somewhere!

Tip #4: Use your hotel.

After you arrive, go down to reception and have your receptionist write down the words “No gluten/soy/dairy/peanuts” or “gluten/soy/dairy/nut/food allergy” on a piece of paper in the local language. This way you’ll be able to enjoy street food, or at least be able to ask if some food has wheat/dairy/nuts/soy sauce in it without having to try and mime your illness to them and almost definitely get laughed at in the process without really accomplishing anything. And, even if your food vendor can’t read there’s bound to be someone around who can, so its always a good thing to keep on hand.

Learning the word for your problem food in the language of your destination can also save you a lot of trouble, so make sure to commit it to heart before you go!

Tip #5: Get to know the place.

After you’ve had breakfast take a stroll around your area. Peek into any little food places you find appealing, make sure you mark them down in your phone. Take a different route every time you leave the place you’re staying to find new hidden gems. Go to local markets and buy food to cook for yourself at the end of the day. Ask your hotel/hostel staff or host if they have any recommendations.

Source: Oncallinternational.com

Tip #6: Make an allergy-response kit.

This is one of the most beneficial things that you can do to deal with any oopsies you may have during your trip. Make a list of your symptoms and then figure out what helps soothe them; common symptoms of gluten intolerance include skin rash, upset stomach, loose/frequent bowel movements, headache, fatigue, cramps, gas, bloating and cotton-headedness. My personal gluten-response kit includes non-drowsy Benadryl, probiotics, gluten-free antacids, anti-diarrheal, aspirin, caffeinated tea, ginger tea and anti-bloat/anti-gas medication. If you need an epipen, make sure you bring more than one with you! Learn what your particular problems are and pack for them accordingly. Pack at least enough supplies to take one packet a day in the event that you have the misfortunate of getting gluten’d on your first day there!

Tip #7: Take advantage of the global market (and the picnic!).

Buying food in a restaurant can be a great treat and an awesome way to get to know local culture better, but sometimes its just not an option or not worth the risk. Instead of cooking rice for dinner at your apartment every night, go out to the local market (check the area’s market listings online or in a guidebook before you head out for the day!) and pick up some food that you can turn into a meal later. When I was in Australia they even had gluten free  pastas and breads in the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne, so I could make a great gluten-free gnocchi with locally produced sauce and fresh mozzarella! This goes double in places like Italy or Spain, where local cured meats and cheeses are enough to complete any meal while giving you some local flavor at the same time.

Source: Themomentcompany.nl

Gluten-free tips and warnings by region:

So obviously I haven’t travelled everywhere in the world just yet, but I can give you all a little bit of information on the places that I have been and what you can expect when traveling to those destinations! If you’re headed to the UK, Australia, New Zealand, The United States, or Southeast Asia or Europe, here’s a handy little guide for things you can and can’t expect when traveling:

The UK: I found it surprising that it was more difficult for me to eat gluten free in England when I was buying food from the grocery store than when I was eating out. Loads of restaurants have gluten-free options these days, so definitely don’t be afraid to eat out! Just make sure you tell your waitstaff that you’re gluten free and you shouldn’t really have any issues.

Australia: Australia has probably the best gluten-free options in the world. Most breakfast places will have gluten free toast (and toasters!), many dinner places will have a gluten-free option that isn’t just salad (yay!), and the grocery stores have plenty of gluten free yummies stocked fresh. Food labeling is especially thorough in Australia, so make sure you’re checking your labels and you should be fine.

New Zealand: Slightly less GF-friendly than Australia but still pretty good! When eating out I found a good number of places that had gluten free options, although eating out in New Zealand is crazy expensive. Still, NZ is the only place that I found that had GF naan, so that was a huge plus!

Europe: Europe is notoriously difficult when it comes to non-traditional diets. Vegetarians in particular have, for a long time, struggled with eating in Europe, and it definitely isn’t any easier for the gluten free! In central Europe it may be easier than in places like Eastern Europe, where wheat products make up a huge part of the diet and the language barriers become more complex.

Eating in central Europe can be done easily if you often get food from markets, but it is definitely a bummer when you have to miss out on some local, traditional yummies, for which there aren’t really any viable alternatives. Going for vegetable dishes is definitely going to be your best option in the East and going for meat (as long as its unbreaded!) is going to be your best bet in the West.

Southeast Asia: I have super mixed feelings about eating GF in Southeast Asia. I love love love SE-Asian food, especially Vietnamese and Thai. But you absolutely have to be careful about what you’re eating to make sure there’s no sneaky imported soy sauce! I’ve found that there’s two kinds of soy sauce available, the imported (adulterated with wheat) soy sauce and a local variety that did not cause any kind of gluten reaction for me, which was great. It is definitely close to impossible to know which kind you’re going to be getting, though, so it may be best to just avoid it altogether.

In Thailand, fish sauce is often used in place of soy sauce, which means that you’ll be able to nom on pad thai, noodle soup and tons of other delicacies!  Curries are almost always gluten free, and the same goes for the infamous papaya salad. I have almost no problem eating GF in Thailand ever, with the exception of at the Elephant Nature Park, where they use meat-substitutes in lieu of meat, which are all made from flour.

Vietnam is similarly GF-friendly, and their spring rolls are absolutely to die for! If you can do a cooking class in either Thailand or Vietname I’d highly recommend it, because it allows you not only to get introduced to some local food favorites but also allows you to see exactly whats going into your food, so you know what will be safe for you to eat and what wont.

In Laos you may run into some problems when trying to grab a quick bite to eat during the day. French colonial influence is still heavy in Laos, and as a result the country is extremely bread-product heavy. Baguettes are everywhere and so are crepes (pancakes), which are all made with wheat flour. As yummy as they may look, definitely know that they are not gluten free! Nighttime food and textile markets are popular, though, and I’d always recommend stopping by one (especially in Luang Prabang, where the night market is amaaaaazing!) for dinner. You’ll almost always be able to find GF options there, so eat up!

Indonesia: I’ve decided to put Indo in a different category from SE-A because I found eating in Indonesia to be incredibly difficult. Access to local markets is limited (you’ll need a motorbike or a tuk-tuk driver that speaks really good English! Or a local guide, which is always helpful but not always an option for backpackers). For the most part, non-locals are kind of corralled into tourist districts, which means eating at overpriced, tourist-oriented restaurants.

The only time I got a break when eating in Indonesia was when I had to go to a hotel because there weren’t any other options for food. I asked what options on the menu were gluten free (salad and more salad were my two choices, awesome), but the waitress amazingly brought me some gluten free bread, which at that point felt almost like a miracle. Finding authentic Indonesian food at a good price is almost impossible unless you venture out of your comfort zone (or ask your hotel staff for directions to a good, authentic market), so make sure you spend some extra time getting to enjoy the Indonesian cuisine outside of the tourist area. Just be ware of the noodles, as I’m pretty sure most of them are wheat based.

So yeah! Those are my best tips and tricks for eating gluten free when travelling abroad. Have any questions, comments, anecdotes or tips of your own? Do you know anything about what its like to eat gluten free in places like South America, Northern Europe, China, Japan, Africa or any other destinations that I don’t have experience with? Fire away in the comments section below!

My Favorite Things: The Bucket List Traveller’s Top 6 Teashops around the World


“Each cup of tea represents an imaginary voyage…” 

-Catherine Douzel

…and every real voyage deserves a good cup of tea. Tea is one of the few things that is commonly found in all corners of the world, from Yerba Mate in Argentina to English Breakfast in England, from Darjeeling in India to simple yet invigorating green teas in China. In Turkey everyone comes together over tiny shot-sized cups of sweet apple tea or a pure black tea, from ice cream vendors to restauranteurs to shop keepers, uniting locals and tourists alike. Discovering a new teahouse or shop is, for me, a goldmine when traveling. I’ve rarely found a tea shop that I haven’t enjoyed, but some certainly stand out more than others. Here’s a list of my top six tea spots around the world, plus a bonus destination at the end!

#1: The Covent Garden Tea House, Covent Garden, London, England

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The Covent Garden Tea House is located on Neal Street right in the heart of Covent Garden, a minutes’ walk from the Covent Garden tube stop. The shopfront is a myriad display of teapots arranged in cubic rows on a backdrop of white and bright red, broken up by a lattice of painted black wooden window frames. Inside, the shop is quaint and full of aromatic goodies, with teas and tea-steeping paraphernalia located on the first floor, tea tins lining the front wall of the staircase and an extensive collection of teapots and mugs flanking the stairs, leading up to an attic that, unsurprisingly, is packed to the brim with more teapots.

The teas on the first floor are arranged by type, with greens typically at the front and blacks typically at the back. The store boasts an impressive collection of herbal infusions as well, including flaky nettles and tiny, beautiful dried rose hips. Unfortunately, teas here can’t be sampled, but they do have small portions available for the customer to sniff before making their ultimate decision.

My personal favorite teas from the Covent Garden Tea House include the Green Chai Sencha, Gunpowder Mint Green Tea, Caramel Black Tea, Vanilla Black Tea and the seasonal Christmas Tea. I also almost always buy at least one small packet of the flowering tea balls located at the checkout counter.

#2: Het Brugge Teehuis, Brugges, Belgium

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Another distribution-only tea shop, Het Brugges Teehuis is a small, two-room shop that boasts large tins of unique, flavorful teas. In the back room you can find any manner of tea paraphernalia, from tea towels to teapots, teacups, tea cozies, teaspoons and the like. They have a number of unique designs and an extensive collection of animal-themed pots and cups. The owner is very friendly and helpful, too!

One of my favorite teas ever, a green tea flavored with chunks of real Belgian chocolate, comes exclusively from Het Brugges Teahuis and is highly recommended.

#3: Argo Tea, Chicago, Illinois, USA

Image credit: C Y N 8 N Y C, click for through-link
Image credit: C Y N 8 N Y C, click for through-link

One of my favorite tea distributors and tearooms, Argo Tea, originated in my home city of Chicago, Illinois. Since then, it’s expanded to include locations in many cities across the United States, including Boston, New York, North Carolina and Washington DC. Modern, chic and stylish, Argo Tea not only delivers a consistently high-quality product, but also offers a comfortable and attractive sitting room where you can sip your tea and read the newspaper, work on your computer or chat quietly with a friend or colleague.

In addition to serving teas, they also sell teas both in bulk and in small quantities. Their pre-packaged teas come in cute containers and make for great gifts for any tea-loving friends on your Christmas list! Their teapots are also to die for, offering bright colored traditional-styled pots (which include a removable mesh strainer for all your loose-leaf needs) as well as sleek glass pots, including their new Mono Teapots.

My favorite flavors from Argo Tea include a blueberry white tea, a white peach tea and an Armenian mint tea.

#4: The Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse, Boulder, Colorado, USA

Photo Credit: USA Today
Photo Credit: USA Today

The Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse looks like a work of art from the inside out, decorated intricately with tile work, hailing from as far as Tajikistan. The ceiling is painted and carved, and the entire atmosphere is reminiscent of a sultan’s palace. The Boulder Teahouse is not only a beautiful, atmospheric tea room, but also serves tasty meals and high tea. They also offer teas for sale, all of which you can sample with a meal, over dessert or simply on their own.

Some of my favorite teas include the Boulder Breakfast and the Huckleberry Lime tea.

#5: Dobra Tea, Burlington, Vermont

Photo courtesy of Yelp.
Photo courtesy of Yelp.

A small-scale chain teahouse, Dobra won my heart for being a relaxing, if a little bit hippie-esque, place to have a nice cup of tea and some really, really tasty food. They have gluten free and vegan food items that from appetizers to desserts. Their teas are out of this world, and are served in teapots or cups that reflect the traditional consumption methods from the tea’s country or region of origin. Seating is varied; there’s a handful of tiny tables, but most people choose to sit in the private-ish sections, which boast larger tables that sit only a foot or so off the ground. Pillows and bean bags are the primary places for sitting, and its easy to lose whole afternoons here.

My #1 favorite and most highly recommended tea here is their Masala Chai, which is served with milk and honey. Their hummus plates are also fantastic!

#6: Demmers Teahaus, Europe (Budapest, Warsaw)

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Originally an Austrian operation, Demmers Teahaus now functions as a chain that stretches throughout Eastern Europe. The location I visited was in Budapest, on the way from the Parliament Building to the City Center. They had an impressive tea menu, which made it really difficult to choose just one! I had an green tea flavored with orange, which I would highly recommend, and my mom had a basic breakfast tea, which she liked very much as well.

Bonus: The Best Hot Chocolate I’ve Ever Had:

Image Credit: Hernhill Forum
Image Credit: Hernhill Forum

I know it isn’t exactly tea, but if I’m giving shout-outs for my favorite beverage destinations, I cannot ignore the Chocolate Cafe in Canterbury, Kent (UK). Their hot chocolate is thick, rich and creamy, but not suffocatingly sweet or too dense. There are great views of the Canterbury Cathedral upstairs, and quaint views of the medieval streets from the ground floor. This is my absolute favorite destination in the entire city of Canterbury, so make sure you don’t miss it on your next trip!

Do you have a personal favorite tea spot that I haven’t mentioned here? Let us know in the comments!

City Guide: Budapest!


City Guide: Budapest

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Overview:

Its no secret that Budapest is my favorite city in the entire world. Brimming with trendy, tasty restaurants, great cultural and historical landmarks and tours, amazing bars and clubs, and a very picturesque downtown area, Budapest really gives the traveler the whole package. Its also extremely affordable, and you get a lot for your money! Whether you’d rather spend the day touring museums, eating your way through the city or relaxing at one of the many beautiful thermal spas, Budapest always has something great on offer, and you’ll find yourself wanting to come back again and again.

What to do:

Tours:

Budapest offers a lot of free walking tours, hosted by the Free Walking Tour company (no surprise there). These tours are super high-value, and last for 2.5-3 hours each. They offer a city walking tour, a communism walking tour, a Jewish Quarter tour, a pub tour (which is apparently different from a pub crawl), and a variety of private paid tours as well. These tour guides work for tips only, so make sure to toss them a few thousand forint for their effort (1,000-2,000 ft or US$4-8 is an average tip, and a good bargain to boot). The guides are friendly, funny and extremely knowledgable, and their tours are both educational and interesting. The free tours start at Vorosmarty Ter, which is near the Jewish Quarter and the river and marks the end of the Yellow Line of the Metro. 

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Activities:

Szechenyi Baths and Spa and City Park:

Going to the baths is an amazing way to spend a day. The baths offer a ft 4,000 (~US$16) day pass to go into the spas, though they will try and get you to take a tour for a much, much higher price (~US$40/day and upwards). These baths are beautiful, relaxing and you can choose whether you want to experience the outdoor baths, the indoor baths or both! You can also choose to add on massages or other services while you’re there, and its a great way to spend the day. Pair it with a nice walk around the surrounding park and you’ve got your morning/day sorted!

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Click through for source of image.

Cruise along the Danube:

Tons of boat companies offer cruises and tours along the river. My personal favorites are the night cruises, where you can see Parliament and Buda Castle lit up at night. Most tours include a free drink. During the day time you can take a trip to the Margit Island, where you can go walking or biking. Your boat should come back to pick you up around an hour to an hour and a half later.

Castle Hill:

Take an afternoon to go explore Castle Hill and the surrounding areas and you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of the city. There’s also an open-air exhibit about what Castle Hill looked like after the bombings during WWII, which you can take a casual stroll through free of cost. There’s a funicular that can take you up and down the hill, but there are also stairs, which are free and only take seven or so minutes to climb up.You can also take a look at Matthias Church, which has some pretty cool features and might be worth the entry fee. Hint: the views of Budapest from the pavilion by Matthias Church can’t be beaten, and you can see them for free!

Hero Square:

Free and open-air Heroes Square is one of Budapest’s must-see sites. It sits at the end of Andrassy Boulevard, and can be seen on the way to the spas and the park.

House of Terror:

A moving museum about the history of Hungary during and after Nazi and Soviet occupation. Sobering and well worth the look, but sometimes a little bit difficult to follow for English speakers.

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 Caving under Budapest:

A good activity for those who like caving, but not great if you’re claustrophobic or afraid of the dark.

Seeing an Opera:

In Budapest, you can get Opera tickets for as little as $3, which is great if you’re on a budget but interested in getting a bit of culture. Other tickets can be more expensive, and if you really want a comfortable seat and a good view, its worth it to pay a little more for your ticket.

Zoo and Botanic Garden:

The Budapest Zoo and Botanic Garden are a single item that are definitely worth a look if you have an extra morning or afternoon. It costs 2500 HUF, or US$10. There’s a lot of cool species in there, some of which I’d never even heard of before! Bonus feature: they have an Australian-themed petting zoo with wallabies and emus.

Holocaust Memorial Center:

The name of this site is essentially what it is, but the museum itself offers an in-depth look at what happened to Hungary’s Jewish population during the second world war and the Holocaust. Its a little far out on the Buda side of town, but worth a look if you’re interested.

Where to eat:

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Eating in Budapest is always a treat, with hundreds of fantastic restaurants, food stalls and pubs to eat at. The city itself is multi-cultural and enjoys the gastronomical rewards. Authentic Hungarian food cooked in lard, The following are a few of my tried-and-true favorites, and will accommodate most tastes and dietary restrictions.

KisParázs:

KisParazs is a Hungarian-run Thai food restaurant with some of the best Thai food I’ve ever had, superseding even a good amount of the food I had while actually in Thailand. Fresh, flavorful and cheap, this is one of my favorite restaurants in the entire world. I recommend the Tom Kha Gai soup, which my dad claims is the “best he ever had,” as a starter, followed by any one of the curries. If you like spice, I’d recommend the Lap Gai (minced chicken salad). My go-to dish there is their rice-noodle soup with chicken or pork, and their peanut sauce for chicken sate is out of this world as well.

Köleves Vendéglö Stonesoup Restaurant:

Located in the Jewish District on Kazinczy Utca, this restaurant was an absolute gem! The interior sports a cozy vintage look, and the menu is smallish but jam-packed with gluten free, vegetarian and kosher-friendly options. The food itself is fantastic, starting with a complimentary basket of homemade bread with a garlicky spread. I can personally and wholeheartedly recommend the farm chicken with fresh sheep cheese and roast pepper salad, which also comes with potatoes (but I’d order the mashed potatoes instead, which are out of this world!). The portions are good-sized and I even had some to take home with me for lunch the next day.

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Arriba Taqueria:

Another great choice, especially for lunch. Arriba has a variety of Chipotle-esque Mexican dishes, including taquitos, burritos, chips and salsa and quesadillas. They also have a margarita happy hour, which accompanies the food fabulously.

The Central Market:  The ground floor of the market has a variety of sausages, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, spices and sweets, and the top part has knick-knacks and some really tasty prepared food stalls. A good place to pick up ingredients for a picnic lunch!

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Terminal:

Located in Elizabeth Square/Park, Terminal now stands where a communist-era bus station once stood. The food is a little pricy, but was some of the best food we ate on our whole trip! I had the duck breast with quinoa and pomegranate beetroot, which I’d highly recommend, and had their sparkling rose wine as well, which was equally fantastic. They even had a gluten-free raspberry cake for dessert, which was right up my alley!

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Decor inside Terminal.

Where to stay:

For backpackers: I will always and forever recommend the Budapest Party Hostels. When I first came to Budapest in 2013, I’d booked four nights in at Retox Party Hostel and made myself at home. Two weeks later I was still there, and two months later I came back for more. The staff at the hostels are amazing, inclusive, informative and most definitely know how to have a good time. The hostels run events nightly, including pub crawls, party boats down the Danube, and spa parties at the beautiful Szechenyi Baths. Retox itself can be a little rough around the edges and very full-on when it comes to partying, but there are other hostels in the chain, including Grandio and Vitae, that may offer tamer experiences. If you’re not looking to go out at all, I’d suggest Wombats or somewhere a little more low-key.

For non-backpackers: The 7Seasons apartments are a great choice for a stay in Budapest. The apartments are fairly spacious, and include full kitchens with dishwashers, ensuite bathrooms, an in-room washing machine, large, plush beds, fast and free wifi, and televisions, though we weren’t able to figure out how to get them to be dubbed into English instead of Hungarian. The apartments are conveniently located in the Jewish Quarter, a five minute walk from Erzsebet Ter, a 0-10 minute walk away from some amazing restaurants (including Köleves Vendéglö, which I talk about in more detail below), a 10 minute walk from the river and Chain Bridge, and short walks to many other attractions. Relatively inexpensive and a great value.

Nightlife & Going Out:

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There are literally hundreds or thousands of places to go out in Budapest, so I’ll just name a few of my favorites. Most of my going-out experiences were with Retox Party Hostel, and they definitely did things right!

Ruin Bars: Szimpla is one of the bigger and better-known ruin bars in Budapest, but there are apparently more than 50 in total. You can do a ruin bar pub crawl with a group or simply create your own. Another one of my favorite ruin bars is Instant, which is decorated with some out-there, funky art installations.

Morrison’s 2: One of a series of bars that does brutally strong cocktails and

Akvarium Club: Located near Terminal in Elizabeth Ter (metro stop Deak Ter), this is a nice, retro-themed place to get a drink. You can sit outside on the stairs or inside if its cold, but its definitely a nice place to hang out.

Retox Bar: Probably an obvious recommendation, but Retox has a nice bar, English-speaking bar staff, yummy cocktails and good prices.

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Corvin Tetö: A kind of generic club that usually does some pretty decent music. All in all not a bad night out, especially as it gets later!

Vak Egar: A fun little bar/mini-club in the Jewish District.

Budapest’s Special Nights Out:

SPArty: The Szechneyi Baths host a spa party on Saturday nights in warm weather. Its like a massive pool party rave and its pretty unreal, definitely recommended for backpackers and young people!

Party Boat: Cruise down the Danube with a bottle of champagne! Its a good time and an absolutely beautiful boat ride.

Going out tip: this tip is probably more pertinent to men than woman, but I don’t judge! Strip clubs in Budapest are a massive scam; the girls will try to get you to buy them drinks, then will essentially have bouncers trap you in there until you pay them upwards of 50,000 HUF (US$200). Hungarian bouncers are not people to f**k with, so just stay away!

Going out tip #2: On a similar theme, don’t be an a**hole. As I said before, Hungarian bouncers are not people you want to mess around with, and they will be firm with you if you’re being problematic.

Going out tip #3: Be sure you know how to get home before you go out! Budapest can e a confusing city, so keep your wits about you enough to get home. Also, refrain from taking your valuables with you, as you likely won’t have them any more by the time you stumble home.

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Decoration at Instant Ruin Pub.

Tips & things to be aware of:

1. Budapest is a very safe city. All the same, it’s always a good idea to be aware of yourself and of your surroundings, so stay alert and you should be fine! As always, don’t keep phones or wallets in your back pocket and count your change carefully.

2.  Taking public transport in Budapest makes traveling in the city a breeze, but it takes a little getting used to! If you have a big day planned, its best to buy a day pass instead of single tickets. A day pass (and the single tickets) are appropriate for any of the city’s public transportation units, including the metro, trams and busses. If using a single ticket, you will need a new ticket for every stop you make, and will need to validate a new ticket every time you make a stop or change trains/trams/busses. If you get a day pass you only need to validate it once, but be sure to keep it on you the entire time you’re traveling. You can get fined for not having a valid ticket, and it’s not a scam!

3. Watch your zeros! Any time you get a bill, make sure there’s the proper number of zeros at the end of the prices listed for your purchases. Adding zeros is a super sneaky way to get a lot more money out of you, and its an easy way to prevent being scammed.

4. Check your restaurant bills to see if service has been added. Customary tipping in Budapest is about 10%, and a lot of the time it will be added to the bill in advance. If it has, you do not need to tip extra.

5. Do the free walking tours! They’re super informative and the guides are all great. Just be sure to tip your guides at the end!

6. Eat in the Jewish Quarter. The food there is amazing and a little bit cheaper than some other more touristed areas.

7. Don’t cross the street on a red light! Always wait for the little green walker dude, he’ll save you from getting any pesky USD$50 fines.

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Hopefully this guide gave you some good basic information about what’s what in Budapest! These are obviously just recommendations, but I think they’re all pretty solid. I can personally attest to the awesomeness of all these things, and if you have any questions please fire away in the comments section! I’d be happy to help you out and hope that someday soon you’ll be enjoying Budapest, too!

Taking a Traditional Cooking Class in Hanoi, Vietnam


Taking five different cooking classes around the world has been one of the most satisfying, rewarding and fun challenges that I’ve been working on as I cross things off my bucket list. So far, I’ve taken a vegetarian cooking course in Thailand, a gourmet cooking course in Tasmania and, most recently, a traditional Vietnamese cooking course. I’m going to be posting my recipes from my most recent classes on my cooking blog, and will provide links to them in the post when they’re up and running!

IMG_8602Unfortunately I arrived too late at night to book my class the night before it was meant to run, so I had to wake up early to try and secure myself a spot for the day. I booked the class through my hostel, and was pleased to find that it was only a few steps down the road from where I was staying. The class was run through the Blue Butterfly restaurant by a cheeky Vietnamese man named Tinh, who came and picked me up at my hostel promptly at 9:00 am.

Having booked on to the course at seven in the morning the day of the class, I was a little bit nervous about the class size and what the quality of the class was going to be like. Thankfully my worries were totally unfounded– there was only one other person in the class, and she joined us around ten thirty am. Although our class size was small, Tinh noted that upwards of ten or twenty people could be in a class, which usually run twice daily. Tinh’s flexibility with booking was a major bonus for me and my super laid-back booking style, especially because he was happy to start the class within two hours of learning that he had a customer!

Putting some elbow grease in by grating papaya at the market.
Putting some elbow grease in by grating papaya at the market.

When I got to the restaurant I was offered a complementary tea while Tinh explained the menu, which consisted of traditional Vietnamese spring rolls and sauce, a papaya and glass noodle salad and a lemongrass chicken stir fry. Before beginning the class, Tinh showed me around the local marketplace, where we sampled different fruits and meats from various vendors before buying some of the ingredients we’d need for our recipes. He took a lot of time explaining what the various fruits and vegetables available for sale were, what they’re commonly used for, and which features I should look for in the products if I was going to try and recreate the recipes at home on my own time. On the way home we stopped into a local temple, which was absolutely beautiful!

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Offerings in the temple.
Offerings in the temple.

Our preparation area consisted of two tables pushed together in the upstairs area, which was spacious enough for the size of the group and placed (thankfully!) underneath the air conditioning unit, which provided some necessary relief from the Vietnamese heat and humidity. The chef spoke little or no English, so Tinh served as a translator for me, and the other woman had her own Japanese language translator for herself. Tinh also was happy to play the part of the photographer and snapped literally dozens of pictures for us throughout the course.

Tinh and I posing for a photo op.
Tinh and I posing for a photo op.

The first thing we learned how to make were some super fun garnishes, including carrot flowers, tomato roses and cucumber hearts. Unfortunately I lack the patience and the skill to make these well, and all my carrots came out chunky and I could not even begin to make a tomato rose to save my life, destroying a few perfectly good tomatoes in the process. In the end I think the chef donated a few well-crafted veggie garnishes to my cause so that I didn’t have any ugly plates of food, but I got to eat the mess-ups, so I wasn’t too disappointed.

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My chunky carrot flower garnish.
My chunky carrot flower garnish.

The first dish we made was the salad, which involved mixing grated green papaya, grated carrot, coriander, mint, marjoram, peanuts and sesame seeds together, then tossing with a chili-garlic dressing and spicy dried beef. This recipe was amazingly easy and took almost no technical skill at all, but was incredibly flavorful and delicious, and would be (and was!) great for a hot summer day.

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The second dish we prepared were the traditional spring rolls, which were filled with a mixture of pork, carrots, bean sprouts, onion, spring onions, rice noodle vermicelli, wood ear mushroom, eggs, shallots and pepper. We made a dumpling sauce that was sweet but tangy, and thankfully gluten free! All of the dishes we prepared during the day were actually gluten free, but most contained fish sauce, which I typically am not a huge fan of. We were told that we had to pick a light-colored fish sauce to reduce the fishiness and the heaviness of the flavor, and it definitely did the trick! The sauce didn’t taste fishy at all, and was a perfectly mixed balance of salty and sweet.

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Our main dish was the stir fried chicken with lemongrass and chili, which unsurprisingly consisted of chicken, onions, lemongrass, chili, garlic, and various other stir fry veggies. Although the dish was pretty literally named, I was absolutely floored by how intense the lemongrass and garlic flavors were in the stir fry. Whenever I’ve tried to cook with lemongrass at home it usually just gets stringy and adds little flavor, so I’ve stopped bothering and used another flavor instead. Never again! I will definitely be making this dish in the future, as the lemongrass was not at all fibrous or tasteless.

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At the end of the class we were offered drinks again and had a table set for us to enjoy our food, which we most definitely did! The portion sizes were massive and there was definitely enough food there for at least two meals, but unfortunately I didn’t have any way to store my food, so I had to leave a lot of it on the plate. When I was on my way out Tinh gave me an extra recipe for my beloved Pho, which I can’t wait to try out on my own! Overall the day was amazing and such a value for what I paid (US30), and I could not recommend it highly enough. IMG_8721

Activity Type: Cooking Class

Price: $30

Value for Money: High value activity.

Suitable for: Everyone! This class was very intro-level, and all the foods we prepared could easily be made at home. Spring rolls would be a great activity to do with kids.

Recommend: Definitely. One of the best things I did in Vietnam, and for a pretty low price.

Tassie Experience: Taking a Cooking Class at the Agrarian Kitchen


Just before my return trip to Tasmania, I decided that I really wanted to do one of Tassie’s famous cooking courses. I did some last-minute research to try and find a class that suited my interests and my dates, and was a little bit disappointed that I couldn’t find a class for the dates I was going. And then I stumbled upon a blog post that talked about the Agrarian Kitchen and, after looking into it, realized that there was a class offered during the time I’d be in Tassie. I booked the course right away, not entirely sure what I was in for but definitely excited to check it out. The course itself was more expensive than I would have liked, but the rave reviews all said that the price was justified by the experience, and they were definitely not wrong.

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The course that I did was the Agrarian Experience, whose winter session ran on July 1st.  I rented a car and headed out early in the morning, but unfortunately didn’t rent a GPS and got myself painfully lost. I made it to the class half an hour late, but was welcomed all the same and was thrown right into the first activity, which was bread making. We were taught the proper way to knead and throw the dough in order to get the elasticity just right, then popped the dough into a covered bowl and let it settle for several hours.

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Our menu was impressive, and the names of the dishes themselves were enough to get our mouths watering. The dishes on the menu for the day were: pink-eye potato latkes with bresaola, quail eggs, and a parsley apple salad, goat curry with flaky flat bread, chermoula pumpkin with quinoa and yoghurt, a winter salad, spice poached quince and mascarpone dacoise, and of course the wood-fired rustic bread.

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After we prepared our dough we were given a set of rain boots and a basket with a set of clippers, then set out into the yard for a tour of the farm and to collect some of our goodies for the day. The Agrarian Kitchen farms almost all of the fresh foods that we would be using for our dishes, depending on what was in season. We were shown the smokehouse first, and had all of the smoking techniques explained in detail. The farm raises their own animals for smoking, and built their smokehouse specifically for the dry smoking of their meats and cheeses.

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We toured the pens of the animals next, seeing the pigs and chickens that they kept on-site. There were two to six or so pigs per enclosure, with plenty of space to root around and explore. The farm specifically plans out which animals are meant to live where, and change up the enclosures frequently, with the aim of accomplishing maximum soil fertility through the use of natural means. In addition to having flexible and impermanent enclosures for their animals to help  naturally replenish soil fertility, the farm also uses horse manure from nearby farms, “green manure”  (dead plants laid out un-composted as a top layer and allowed to decompose naturally), and compost to organically add to the quality of the soil.

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During our mini-tour of the farm, we hand-picked some of the ingredients we would be using, including carrots, radishes, coriander, celeriac plants, cabbage and parsley. We headed back inside with our food and reassembled, ready to start cooking our main courses. Our group broke the menu down into different dishes that we’d be in charge of, and I was primarily in charge of the dessert. We were given a recipe book with all of the recipes and shown as a group the major techniques involved with each recipe so that we would be capable of cooking all of them on our own. When a group finished with one dish they moved on and helped with the preparation of another until all the groups had finished and the meal was ready to eat.

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We began with the pink-eye potato latkes, which were topped with a delicious home-cured meat and served with quail eggs and a parsley-apple salad, served with a glass of white wine. About twenty minutes later we were back in the kitchen, putting the finishing touches on the main dishes and the sides, serving them up and bringing them to the main table. The goat curry, pumpkin and quinoa, and the winter salad were served up in a group of three, and comprised the main meal. Every single dish was fantastic, satisfying, well-balanced, and served with a glass of red wine that was generously topped-up at every opportunity.

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When the main meal was over we assembled our desserts and put in an order for tea or coffee. The Agrarian Kitchen makes most of their herbal teas on-site, and come up with unique, fresh blends that were exciting to taste. The finishing touches on our desserts involved powdered sugar and a blowtorch, which seemed a little unorthodox but was fun to play with all the same.

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Unfortunately the day had to come to an end, but we were sent home with full stomachs, an apron, and our loaves of bread, which we wood-fired while dinner was cooking. Overall the experience was absolutely amazing, and highly recommended to anyone with a passion for cooking, sustainability, and getting a truly authentic Tassie foodie experience.

 Recipes:

Pink-eye Potato Latkes

Goat Curry

Activity Type: Cooking Class

Price: $385 AUD

Value for Money: Average. $400 is a lot to pay for a cooking class, no matter how amazing of an experience it was.

Suitable for: Adults with disposable income, cooking skills, interest in local/sustainable agriculture and/or gourmet foodies.

Recommended: If you have the money I would highly recommend it. Best for adults with some technical cooking skills.

Road Trippin’ the Great Ocean Road, Australia


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Last Tuesday, Cheyenne and I started our mini-road trip from Melbourne to Adelaide via the Great Ocean Road. We rented our car at the Avis near Southern Cross Station on Tuesday morning, aiming to get to Apollo Bay by that evening. We started out at 10 am with some packed lunches, and got to our first stop-off at Torquay Beach around 11:30. The beach itself is easy to get to, wide-open, pet-friendly and generally very well kept. We were lucky enough to get a little bit of sunshine while we ate, but unfortunately the pet-friendliness of the beach ended up with Cheyenne losing some of her lunch, as a cheeky yellow lab snagged most of her Foccacia while we had our backs turned.

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After a little more play time on the beach, we set back out on the road and drove for another five hours. The scenery was breathtaking and we found ourselves stopping all the time for photo-ops, and the views just kept getting better and better! We spent a good deal of time at the Great Ocean Road memorial arch, which also had a small military commemoration and was generally a nice place to have a rest for a few minutes.

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Along the way we noticed that Australia is particularly fond of aggressive road signage and polarizing place-names, with signs including friendly warnings (“drowsy drivers die,” “survive this drive,” and “fatigue is fatal” were three of my personal favorites), and with places of interest called things “Shrapnel Gulley” and “Mt. Defiance.” Our first day of driving lasted about five hours, and we arrived at our hostel around 3 pm.

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We ended the night in Apollo Bay, a quiet little beachfront town with an amazing youth hostel. We stayed at the Apollo Bay Eco YHA, which was more like a dorm-style hotel than a hostel and had very friendly owners, an amazingly homey living room, and a big, bright, functional kitchen. It was a five or so minute walk from the nearest grocery store and a five minute walk from the beach, and was overall an amazing place to stay.

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Day 2

Cheyenne and I had a bit of a late start on the second day of our trip, getting out around 10:30 am. Our first stop was the Cape Otway Lighthouse, which was scenic and had some great grounds to walk around. Entry to the Cape Otway area was $19.50, and included entry to the park, to an aboriginal museum, to a museum devoted to dinosaur fossils, and to the lighthouse. The lighthouse had a friendly and knowledgeable tour guide on top, eager to answer any questions we might have had about the area. The view from the top of the lighthouse was equally great, and in the right season makes for a great whale-watching location.

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We had some soup at Cape Otway’s café, which was expensive but perfect for the chilly day, and the café couldn’t have been in a more scenic spot. As we ate we heard some of the history of the lighthouse and the cape, and learned that it was the port through which many immigrant Australians came from 1848 onward.

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After we finished lunch we started driving again, moving slightly further away from the ocean for a few dozen kilometers as we drove through densely tree’d areas. The roads were windy but felt pretty safe, and the scenery was absolutely gorgeous. After an hour or two of driving we entered into wine and farming country, and we made a few pit stops along the way.

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Our first pit stop was the G.O.R.G.E chocolate makers, which offered some free samples and chocolates that came in a variety of different flavors, shapes and sizes. The chocolates themselves are tasty and not particularly expensive; I bought a large milk chocolate bar, a pair of chocolate frogs, a chocolate koala and kangaroo set, and a large chocolate “freckle” (chocolate topped with colorful sprinkles) for $13.50. The G.O.R.G.E chocolatiers also had two resident miniature horses who were super cute and friendly!

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A few kilometers up the road was the Artisanal Whet Cheese makers, whose farm and cheese making facilities are located in the middle of the gorgeous countryside. They offered a free cheese tasting with a selection of 9-11 cheeses, all made on site. I can’t say there was a single cheese that I tried that I didn’t like, but I absolutely loved their chili and garlic marinated feta! I bought a box of it for $10, which was definitely more than worth it. Unfortunately, I was unable to try the blue cheeses they had on offer as I’m allergic to penicillin and I’m gluten intolerant, but I have it on good authority that they were also pretty tasty!

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Our last stop on our mini foodie tour was one of the vineyards another few kilometers up the road, but unfortunately they were closed when we got there. Thankfully we were 100% satisfied with our chocolate and cheese, so we weren’t too disappointed!

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Our next stop on the road was the 12 Apostles, which are probably the most famous landmark on the entire trek. Day tours will take you directly there from Melbourne, and the area itself was pretty crowded with throngs of tourists. There’s a nice beach before the apostles that I think I liked even better than the apostles themselves, as it was quiet but very scenic and not super well-touristed. The weather was pretty volatile during our drive, though, and the waves were way bigger than I had expected. As a result, I had to change my skirt when we got back up to the car, having been hit unexpectedly by the renegade tide and been soaked up past my knees.

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We traveled the next 200 or so kilometers to Mt. Gambier without many stops, and stayed the night at the Mt. Gambier Gaol Hostel, which used to be used as a prison and a halfway house. The hostel was undergoing renovations, but thankfully the woman who runs the place accommodated us anyway, and we had an awesome (but kind of creepy) night, even though we were the only guests there.

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The next day we drove another five-ish hours off the Great Ocean Road until we got to Adelaide. This leg of the journey definitely wasn’t as scenic, but was a nice drive all the same. If you ever get the chance to do the Great Ocean Road I’d definitely recommend it, but unless you’re super pressed for time, stay clear of the tours! Its way more rewarding (and probably cheaper) to do it on your own.

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-Natalie

Motorbiking: My New Favorite Thing


After spending a few days in Chiang Mai, Alex and I decided to head down south to spend a few relaxing days in the islands. It was going to be a long journey; we had two twelve hour bus rides, an hour long ferry and then anther twenty minute taxi ride to Lamai Beach before we would finally arrive at our hostel. We were staying at the Ibed Hostel on Koh Samui, and planned on staying for a little less than a week. The infamous Full Moon Party was on the 17th, and we were going to spend several days on Koh Samui before, then take several more to recover.

The beach in front of our hostel on Koh Samui.

In the meantime, we tried to find ways to preoccupy ourselves on the island. Most of what the island had to offer consisted of beaches, and as someone who isn’t very good at sitting on a beach for days on end, I was interested in getting out and doing something a bit different. We’d talked to several other backpackers in our hostel, and for the most part they all recommended doing a motorbike tour of the island.

These recommendations didn’t come without precautions, however.  We were instructed to look for a  reputable rental company, and were warned that some companies rent out bikes at low prices and then try to claim that the renter caused superficial damage to the bike, therefore losing their deposits and having to pay an extra fine for reparations. Other companies stole parked bikes while the riders visited some of the sights around the island, then forced the renters to pay several thousand baht for the “stolen” bikes.  Even without the corruption, the bikes themselves were dangerous; we saw more than a handful of girls with painful, circular-shaped burns on the backs of their calves from overheated exhaust pipes. Still others had large, raw patches of road rash from corners taken too quickly or crashes brought on by sudden bouts of inclement weather.

Despite the various warning, Alex and I decided to rent the bikes. Our hostel provided a motorbike rental service that was both reliable and affordable; a full day (24-hour) rental was a mere 200 baht, or about six American dollars. The deposit was 500 baht or a passport, which was returned when you returned the keys to the bike. When it came time for us to actually get the bikes, Alex and I were both pretty nervous. The only requirement for renting a bike was having money and telling them that you could, in fact, drive. We were surprised to find that we didn’t even have to show them our drivers licenses; I had left my wallet at another hostel and was nervous about not being allowed to drive because I didn’t have my license (or a copy of my license) on hand, but found that this was not a problem because no one ever actually asked to see it.  We were given a brief overview of how the bikes worked, handed our keys and our helmets, and then essentially left us to our own devices.

Taking a break on the bike.

Alex and I took a few moments to talk about our game plan. Koh Samui only has one large main road, and it encircles the entire island. The tourist destinations were generally clearly marked, and other points of interest were visible from the main road. We only ended up covering about half of the things that we were interested in seeing, but the combination of our hesitation to drive the bikes quickly and our late start (we didn’t leave the hostel until about two in the afternoon) gave us difficult time constraints. We were concerned about driving on the unfamiliar roads at night and wanted to be back before nightfall, so we were forced to limit our time on the road.

The first stop we made was at Wat Kunaram, which has been made famous by the mummified monk kept there. We took a few moments to gather ourselves (and shoo off the large pack of dogs which dominate the temple grounds) before exploring the sights around the temple. The temple itself was visually interesting, and had a Thai-style pancake stand which offered tasty treats for a mere thirty baht (or one American dollar) located right outside the entrance.  It also had a few souvenir stands and a monk on-call to bless the various patrons of the temple in a short ceremony. We stayed for about fifteen minutes, then headed back out onto the road.

Mummified Monk at Wat Kunaram.

The second sight we stopped at was vaguely advertised as “Waterfall #2.” Access to the waterfall is gained by walking through an adventure park, which also offers animal shows and elephant trekking (which, as an animal lover, I would never recommend).  We were pleased to find that there was no fee to see the waterfall, and followed the signs until it was in sight.  The waterfall is 80 meters high, which Alex and  I diligently (and, in my opinion, wastefully) hiked to the top of.  The view from the bottom was by far the best, and the trek to the top was difficult and somewhat treacherous. The hike ended in a small pool of water (which was apparently safe for swimming) and a disappointing lack of view. Once we got back down to the bottom we took a break and snapped a few photos before heading back to our bikes. The waterfall itself was absolutely worth viewing, however, and made for a great start to our adventure.

View of "Waterfall #2" from the bottom.

After we finished taking our hike and snapping our photos, we got back on our bikes. We drove on for another half hour or so until we came upon a large food market and couldn’t resist making a stop. The market offered fresh, local produce, cuts of raw meat, fruit shakes, and a large variety of prepared foods, including curries, soups, vegetable stir fries and fried chicken. I selected some foods at random, prohibited from making informed choices by the language barrier, and ended up with some tasty fried chicken, a fruit shake, and the spiciest curry/soup dish I’ve ever tasted in my life. We took a seat at a small table set up near the fruit shake stand, and the woman serving the shakes seemed to take great amusement in watching me suffer through my spicy meal.

Line of the stalls in a food market, Koh Samui.
Rambutan and banana stand, market, Koh Samui.

After we visited the first market, we stopped at another market along the road to pick up some snacks before we ended our ride at a beach, roughly 25 km from where we started. The view was startling and beautiful; until that point we had been riding through towns and semi-forested areas, but the beach appeared as a stark, white, open strip on the horizon. It was overcast and the tide was out, leaving a huge expanse of open sand for locals and tourists alike to frolic along. We parked our bikes and took a few minutes to relax and take in the beauty before we headed back toward our hostel.

Alex and I on the beach, Koh Samui.

After a brief, directionally challenged kerfuffle on our way back home, Alex and I made it back alive, unscathed, and with a few new observations about Thai driving. Several large signs reminded us to “PLEASE REMEMBER TO DRIVE ON THE LEFT SIDE OF THE ROAD,” clearly in place for tourists like us. Horns are used frequently, and passing can and will occur at any given point, regardless of the legality or safety of the situation. The lack of concern for safety was something that took a bit of getting used to; more than once we passed entire families piled onto one bike with mothers steering  with one hand and holding a helmet-less baby or toddler in the other. Motorbikes also appear to be the favored means of transportation for school children, and we passed many young teenagers and pre-teens driving their bikes in their school uniforms, coming to or from their lessons. Baskets are used to carry extra cargo, ranging from groceries to the family pet.

The ride was a thrilling way to get to see the island, but required a lot of vigilant attention to local road rules and driving norms. I felt lucky to come away with no injuries and all of my belongings, and would highly recommend motorbiking as an activity, provided that bikes are rented from a reputable company and that close attention is paid to safety. Helmets should be included in the bike rental, but if they are not provided I would strongly recommend asking for one. There are several different ways to rent the bikes, ranging from solo missions like the one Alex and I chose to group tours, which cost more money but offer the advantage of having a guide and the safety of riding in a larger group. Researching the company and rental offerings of the local companies beforehand can save a lot of stress and money, and will ultimately make for a much more pleasant experience.

Double whammy: a dog waits for its owner in the basket of a motorbike while a helmet-less toddler rides with his father in the background.

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