All posts by zaagitravel@gmail.com

An Afternoon in Saint Petersburg, Russia

 

Russia…

It still hides behind a mysterious cloud. Only in fairly recent history have outsiders been allowed to visit and yet many still don’t — possibly due to the difficult visa process — amongst other reasons.

One way around the annoying visa situation is arriving by cruise ship and taking the cruise line’s offered trips, which is how many visitors to Saint Petersburg go about things.

But do I do that? Of course not. No, I have to be difficult. I have to pay WAY too much for an approximately 4×3 inch piece of paper that allows me to frolic around Russia without a tour guide because I tend to try way too hard to embrace the free-spirit side of my personality. Was it the best decision? Maybe. Maybe not. Both sides have their pros and cons.

If you are doing Saint Petersburg independently, here are some suggestions for how you could spend an available afternoon (or morning).

1. Sip a hot chocolate at Cafe Singer in the Dom Knigi bookstore on Nevsky Prospekt.
Cafe Singer at the Dom Knigi Bookstore on Nevsky Prospekt in Saint Petersburg, Russia via ZaagiTravel.com Located across from the Kazan Cathedral, the Dom Knigi bookstore towers over pedestrians below.

Cafe Singer at the Don Knigi Bookstore on Nevsky Prospekt in Saint Petersburg, Russia via ZaagiTravel.com

On the second floor resides Cafe Singer with it’s decadent pastries and a vast variety of both cold and hot drinks to sample. It’s not the most affordable place in town but the view is incredible, the food and drinks are delicious, and there is free wifi. Need I say more?

2. Admire beautiful Russian architecture at the Church of our Saviour on Spilled Blood.

Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood in Saint Petersburg, Russia via ZaagiTravel.com

Just down the road from the Dom Knigi bookstore is the Church of our Saviour on Spilled Blood.

This stunning piece of Russian architecture, located beside the River Neva, was built on the spot where Emperor Alexander II was murdered in 1881.

Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood in Saint Petersburg, Russia via ZaagiTravel.com

The church, which was closed due to political unrest for a significant part of the 20th century and then under restoration for decades, only opened back up to the public in August 1997.

Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood in Saint Petersburg, Russia via ZaagiTravel.com

TIP: My friend’s DSLR camera lens was stolen right off her body as the camera hung from her neck while we walked towards the church. A group of men ran by and hit her arm with a small book as a distraction. Seconds later the lens was gone and she was devastated to say the least. Don’t become a victim. You can prevent this by keeping your camera directly in front of you and holding on to your lens at all times. Same goes for your bags. Keep your purse or backpack in front of you and keep a hand on it. Also keep an eye out for anyone/anything suspicious. Being aware of your surroundings could save you a lot of heartache — as well as time, money, and your safety. Prevention is key.

Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood in Saint Petersburg, Russia via ZaagiTravel.com

The interior of the church, which holds Russia’s largest collection of mosaic art (several thousand square yards) is beyond impressive and truly breathtaking.

Church of our Savior on Spilled Blood in Saint Petersburg, Russia via ZaagiTravel.com

3. Grab some pierogi pies a few blocks away at Stolle.

Eating Pierogi Pies from Stolle in Saint Petersburg, Russia via ZaagiTravel.com

West of the church, a few blocks away, is Stolle. I had heard about this place from many people in the months leading up to my trip. It was difficult to find at first (due to the street names in the surrounding area being so incredibly similar) but once we did find it we returned for a total of 3 meals in 3 days. It was that good (as well as inexpensive — key for a traveling college graduate’s budget).

TIP: If you see a place called Barcelona, keep going, it’s just around the corner. If you spot red awnings you’ve found it!

Strawberry Pierogi Pie from Stolle in Saint Petersburg, Russia via ZaagiTravel.com

For my first visit to Stolle I tried a slice of strawberry and a slice of green onion. There are two sizes to choose from, small — shown here — and large, which is about double the size of small. Depending on availability, Stolle offers pies in: cranberry, cowberry, apricot, apple, lemon, sweet cheese, cabbage, rabbit and mushroom, green onion, herring, mushroom, chicken, fish, meat, salmon, and more.Green Onion Pierogi Pie from Stolle in Saint Petersburg, Russia via ZaagiTravel.com

As you can see, the girls clearly enjoyed their first taste of Russian pierogi pies! Look at those clean plates and big smiles!

Eating Pierogi Pies from Stolle in Saint Petersburg, Russia via ZaagiTravel.comAre you interested in traveling to Russia, why or why not?

Have you been to Saint Petersburg? What would you recommend to someone with only a day or two to spend?

 

 

The Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg, Germany

Elephant at Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.com

What if I told you that the best zoo I have ever been to is located just outside of Hamburg, Germany?

What if I told you that I am a former resident of San Diego, a city known for it’s zoo, and I still think the Hamburg Zoo is better. And not just by a little bit. By a lot!

Elephants at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg, Germany via ZaagiTravel.comElephants at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg, Germany via ZaagiTravel.com

As you enter the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg, Germany you are almost immediately greeted by a herd of friendly elephants. The big, gray, muddy animals are happy to hold out their long trunks in order to receive snacks from visitors, who are allowed to feed them.

Elephants at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg, Germany via ZaagiTravel.comElephant at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg, Germany via ZaagiTravel.com

I could have spent all day with these fascinating giants, but the girls and I decided to venture out and chose to take a counter-clockwise approach to exploring the park.

Heads up… these photos were taken with a DSLR camera, but without any zoom lens, just the standard factory lens that it came with.

Flowers at Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.comThe park itself is massive. It maintains a natural landscape that I have never seen at any other zoo. Green grassy fields sprawl out on either side of dirt walkways; tall trees frame the different exhibits making it feel like you’re really out in nature with the animals.

Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.comOne exhibit that looked a little less natural but still beautiful nonetheless was this futuristic looking dome where a group of orangutans were hanging out, some of them literally.

Orangutan at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.com

As we left the orangutan exhibit we crossed an optional foot bridge with (fake) crocodiles swimming beneath us.

Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.comDown the main dirt pathway we came across a peacock that paused long enough for us to grab a quick photo.

Peacock at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.comNow just because we’re grown, have graduated college, and are beginning our own careers doesn’t mean we’re too old to have some fun at the kids playground, right?? The five of us piled onto this swinging contraption without hesitation and had ourselves an awesome time. You know you would do it too!

Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.comLike the grown-up kids at heart that we are, of course one of the highlights of the entire zoo was the gated goat petting area. Being that it was late spring during our visit we got to see many baby goats, including this little guy below.

Baby Goat at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.com

The girls and I enjoyed loving on the baby goats.
Petting Zoo at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.comObvi.

Petting Zoo at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.comThe goats enjoyed the attention also.

But I think it’s important to mention that goats are very aggressive, however in a non-violent way. Maybe persistent, stubborn, or tenacious would be more accurate terms to describe their personalities.

TIP: Put any papers away, like your map, before going inside the petting area. I saw some teenage boys feed their map and a tissue to a pregnant goat. It annoyed me enough to say something, and even though they didn’t speak english you can bet they knew I was angry. Just because goats will eat nearly anything doesn’t mean they should.

Goat at the Petting Zoo at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.comTIP: grab some nutella crepes (the stand is located across from the goats) after being inside the petting area, as to avoid having the smell all over our hands while trying to pet the little guys and gals. If not, you’re asking to get your fingers nibbled on.

Same with the ponies.

Pony at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg, Germany via ZaagiTravel.com

Take it from someone who nearly had their finger chomped off by a pony at age 5. Animals don’t often mean to actually bite you, they smell or see what they think is food and before you know it you’re wishing it was Charlie that had bit your finger instead.

A couple minutes down the road we discovered this sassy seal. He/she put on a good show for us, repeatedly slipping in and out of the water, but not without lounging like a Victoria’s Secret model mid photo shoot. Minus the bikini. Scandalous.
Seal at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.comTo protect the seal’s privacy I’ll refrain from publishing those indecent pictures. You’re welcome, seal.

Seal at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.com

One of the kid favorites was the walrus, probably because of the face-to-face interaction.
Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.com

Walrus at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.com

I have a theory. Humans are intrigued by marine animals because underwater life is so foreign to life on land. Or what I like to call Reverse Little Mermaid syndrome.Whale tail at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.comMaddie and Rachel played marine biologist before we went off to find Rachel’s favorites, the lions…

Lions at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.com

Lions at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.com

Lions at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg Germany via ZaagiTravel.comAwww, look at how happy she is.

Spending a few hours at the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo was by far the best way to spend time in Hamburg. I highly recommend it to anyone passing through the area. It is accessible by public transport; we took the metro system — exit the red Metro line 2 at the Tierpark Hagenbeck stop — which drops you off just around the corner from the entrance.

The park also has an aquarium connected to it — but you are required to buy a separate ticket for entrance. Inside the aquarium you can see fish, sharks, snakes, spiders, and the best part… there is a Madagascar room! Over 10 lemur monkeys climbing around a space the size of my kitchen, if my kitchen had a super high monkey-filled ceiling. We took pictures with the lemurs on our shoulders, heads, and backs.

I can hardly think of a better way to spend a day in Hamburg. Do yourself a favor and go!

German Christmas Market in Vancouver, Canada

German Vancouver Christmas Market via ZaagiTravel.com

As I opened the car door and jumped out into the crisp November air I shivered and slid my knit toque* onto my head, pulling it down far enough to cover the tops of my ears.

The cold still shocked me every time I stepped outside. The late autumn weather in downtown Vancouver was colder than the coldest night all year in Southern California.

Across the street, on the corner, I could see white Christmas lights and a line of people in coats, boots, toques and gloves.

German Vancouver Christmas Market via ZaagiTravel.com

Once we had my god son all snug in his stroller we began following the smell of roasting bratwurst that filled the air. I began realizing just how starving I actually was.

Sidney, Erica’s four-year-old daughter, stood at my side and held her arms up towards me with her infamous (as well as irresistible) sassy smile on her face. I reached down and lifted her up onto my hip before walking across the street and getting into the long but quickly moving line.

German Vancouver Christmas Market via ZaagiTravel.com

Approximately ten minutes later we walked through the entrance. The adults of our group made their way to the booth where we could show ID in exchange for a bracelet that allowed us to consume alcohol. You know you don’t want to miss out on some mulled wine!

Before we could satisfy our grumbling stomachs we needed to satisfy the youngest awake member of the family – little Wyatt was in and out of a deep sleep despite the high energy environment around us.

So Erica and Sidney had a photo op with the Gingerbread Man & Woman. Pretty nice of them to take a moment out of their busy schedule — you know with all that running as fast as they can. Ha! This is where you laugh… Okay, moving on.

Gingerbread Man at the German Vancouver Christmas Market via ZaagiTravel.com

Then I took Sidney on the Carousel a few times. Four-year-olds. They dig that stuff. And maybe 22-year-olds do too.

Carousel Ride at the German Vancouver Christmas Market via ZaagiTravel.com

That evening we ingested vast amounts of traditional German food — including the longest bratwurst you’ve ever laid eyes on (just see below) generously topped with sauerkraut; Schnitzel, which was breaded and fried to perfection; freshly roasted chestnuts; and the delicious (but strong!) Gluhwein, steaming hot red wine spiced with cinnamon, sugar, vanilla, and citrus that warms you from the inside out.

Bratwurst at the German Vancouver Christmas Market via ZaagiTravel.com

After over-indulging our appetites we walked around and checked out the different Christmas gifts and decorations being sold by vendors at nearly fifty wooden booths — things like nutcrackers, German beer steins, tree ornaments, and a whole lot more! A talented live band played festive Christmas music on a stage in the center of the event.

Live band at the German Vancouver Christmas Market via ZaagiTravel.com

I stopped to take some photos of my brother and his fiancee — wouldn’t this have been a sweet picture if he weren’t chowing down on those spiral-cut-potatoes-on-a-stick? I don’t know their actual name but they were delicious so I don’t blame him.

Romantic View of the Christmas Tree at the German Christmas Market in Vancouver, Canada via ZaagiTravel.com

Then the rest of us gathered for a group photo.

Christmas Tree at the German Christmas Market in Vancouver, Canada via ZaagiTravel.com

It really was an incredible way to spend the holidays with family. It’s barely September and I’m already looking forward to this year’s German Christmas Market experience!

Nutcracker at the German Christmas Market in Vancouver, Canada via ZaagiTravel.com

The Vancouver Christmas Market is located at 650 Hamilton Street on the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Plaza. It takes place from November 22 – December 24.

Adult tickets (13 years and older) cost $6 on weekends and during the evening on weeknights; $3 during the day during the week; $3 for kids 7-12 no matter the day or time. Kids 6 and under enter for free.

TIPS:

1. Admission is CASH only!

2. Print off the VIP Fast Pass from their website, it saves you time in line.

3. Once you pay to enter the Christmas Market you automatically get in free on return visits! Just hang onto your ticket.

4. During lunch you can BOGO! Buy One, Get One ticket FREE! Just print the lunch pass on their website.

5. When you buy a mug of Gluhwein or Feuerzangenbowle you automatically put down a $2 deposit for the mug. If you’d like to keep your mug like I did, go for it! If you’d like that $2 back you can exchange your mug for a toonie (a.k.a. $2 Canadian dollars).

* For all you non-Canadians out there, a TOQUE is a round-shaped hat normally worn during cold weather, and otherwise known as a beanie.

 

The Top 5 Reasons to Travel with Contiki Tours (Review + Tips!)

BigBenLondonEyeTelephone Booth London UK

I arrived in London at the Royal International Hotel not knowing what to expect. Contiki’s “European Escapade” tour was set to take a group of us to Paris, Beaujolais, Barcelona, Arles, Antibes, Nice, Monaco, Pisa, Florence, Rome, Vatican City, Venice, Vienna, Munich, the Austrian Tyrol, Liechtenstein, Lucerne, Lauterbrunnen, Heidelberg, St. Goar, and Amsterdam over the course of three and a half weeks.

To be honest, it hadn’t been my idea to book a Contiki tour. I’m generally anti tours because I think I can usually have a better experience planning it all on my own, but this trip was selected by my aunt and it was Europe so I thought, why not. As it turns out, I was pleasantly surprised when it ended up being one of my favorite travel experiences.

Overall, I would recommend Contiki to young (the company only accommodates people ages 18-35), friendly, down-to-earth people who are looking to make friends from around the world and create fun memories in a beautiful and exciting setting.

Contiki Europe European Escapade Holland Netherlands via ZaagiTravel.com

Here are my top 5 reasons to travel with Contiki.

 

1. Make friends with great people from all over the world.

Contiki Girls at Chateau in Beaujolais France via ZaagiTravel.com

IMG_3000

Many of my tour mates turned into friends that I will stay in touch with for a lifetime. Actually, writing this blog made me realize just how much I miss them.

While a majority of our group was from Australia we also had awesome people from the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Brazil, Mexico, China, and South Africa (as well as our tour manager and bus driver, both from England).

Contiki Munich Germany Dirndl via ZaagiTravel.com

We came from diverse backgrounds, had different interests, and yet, by the end of the tour, we were as close as family. Meeting these incredible individuals was the absolute highlight of my summer.

 

2. Stay in incredible exclusive-to-Contiki properties.

Contiki Chateau Pool Beaujolais France via ZaagiTravel.com

Our entire group’s favorite place that we stayed during the Contiki tour was a place called Chateau de Cruix. It is a 400+ year old chateau in a wine region of central France known as Beaujolais (which was recently highlighted in the August issue of National Geographic Traveler).

Contiki Chateau de Cruix Vineyards France Beaujolais via ZaagiTravel.com

The chateau produces it’s own wine, has a beautiful pool, overlooks miles of vineyards, and has a bar in the underground cellar known as the Cave.

The atmosphere here was one of the best anywhere. The girls would lay out on the lounge chairs by the pool while the guys played rugby on the lawn in the evening. Multiple tour groups are often staying at the Chateau at the same time creating a fun and social environment.

Contiki Chateau de Cruix Vineyards France Beaujolais via ZaagiTravel.com

My tips for staying at the Chateau de Cruix:

  • There’s no elevator in this property so be prepared to carry your luggage up the stairs to your room. Take advantage of the strong attractive foreign dudes.
  • To thank said strong attractive foreign dude that carried your bag up the stairs, buy a round of Ice Tropez. It’s a French peach-colored drink in a glass bottle that the Chateau sells and it’s probably one of the most delicious alcoholic beverages I’ve ever tasted.
  • The chateau packs picnic baskets (wine, breads, cheeses, fruit, chocolates, etc.) for groups to take on a hike up to a nearby lookout spot. On your way, if you spot a cemetery, you’ve gone too far. Turn around. You missed one of the landmarks on the map.

Other exclusive properties we stayed at were: a “chalet” in Switzerland surrounded by waterfalls, a “gasthof” in Austria where we helped serve dinner after paragliding from the local mountains, and many more.

Contiki Switzerland Mountains European Escapade Europe via ZaagiTravel.com

Contiki Austria Mountains Tyrol European Escapade Europe via ZaagiTravel.com

 

3. Travel to multiple destinations without the added stress.

Contiki Coach European Escapade in Europe via ZaagiTravel.com

Traveling alone or with just a few people can be wonderful. But it can also be seriously awful. Like the time it took 5 hours to go what should have been 20 minutes on the tube in London with 85 pounds of luggage. It’s 1000x worse than it sounds. Trust me, you don’t want to do that.

Or the time I received unwanted attention from a man in Belgium at 6 in the morning while I was alone on my way to the airport. No one wants to star in their own personal version of Taken 3.

On Contiki, your driver (or the hot Australian dude on tour) puts your bag on the coach for you. You can kick back on an air-conditioned bus and watch the sunflowers fields of southern France or the turquoise lakes of Switzerland outside the window. No back injury, no sore arms, no fatigue, no creepy random men, no anxiety, no worries.

 

4. Experience your destinations with a knowledgeable guide.

Tour manager Lisa and driver Jamie
Tour manager Lisa and driver Jamie

Our tour manager, Lisa, worked day and night to create the best possible European experience for us. She went through intensive training to prepare for her position and it shows. She knew exactly how to handle all situations, was full of interesting and impressive knowledge about every place we visited, and made all of the days entertaining and memorable.

For example, while we staying in the south of France Lisa suggested we go to AntibesLand, an amusement park on the Cote d’Azur.

Contiki at Antibes Land FranceNIK_0004

Contiki at Antibes Land France

Pizza at Antibes Land France Contiki via ZaagiTravel.com

The bravest of our group rode hundreds of feet in the air and saw the gorgeous Mediterranean coastline all around us before free-falling back to Earth. We went on fast, spinning rides again and again and recovered by stuffing our faces with nutella crepes and warm, cheesy pizza.

 

5. If you’re a young and inexperienced traveler, being apart of a group will satisfy your parent’s requirement for safety.

To be honest, I never would have thought to join a Contiki tour. I had already traveled extensively and always preferred traveling with 2 or 3 other people, not a group of 40-50. My aunt chose Contiki for the safety that comes with being apart of a group. It’s a convincing factor for anyone who has a worried family.

The downsides to traveling with Contiki (because there are downsides to every type of travel)….

  • There is limited time in each location. Only 2 days somewhere isn’t enough to see and do everything. If you want to get a taste of each place to help decide where to come back to and spend more time at someday, then it’s great.
  • Traveling by coach means early mornings and long bus rides. If you’re like me and find it difficult to sleep sitting up be prepared to be tired many of the evenings.
  • It’s easy to get sick while traveling on a coach with nearly 50 other people. It’s close quarters, it’s little sleep, and it’s a cold waiting to happen. The “Contiki Cough” as we called it was pretty terrible. I remember skipping through the cobble-stoned streets of Florence early one morning with my Aussie friend Dane. We were celebrating finally getting our hands on some antibiotics. My suggestions: bring (and TAKE) daily vitamins, bring over-the-counter cold medication, stay hydrated, sleep whenever you can. Just do whatever it takes to avoid getting sick or to recuperate if you do get sick.

 

If you have any questions about my experience with Contiki or would like a further review on the European Escapade, comment below and I’ll be happy to talk more about it.

In Search of the Big Buddha: Lantau Island, Hong Kong

The giant Buddha and monastery on Lantau Island near Hong Kong is a captivating sight. It’s easy to feel entranced by the misty allure that surrounds the meditating statue. The Buddha sits on top of a lush mountain bordered by velvety emerald water; his open-facing palms deliver a message of balance and tranquility.

I had a mere 24 hours to spend in Hong Kong. Visiting Buddha was an obvious choice. Getting there… now that was a different story.

DSC02130

It was the first day of April. I struggled to wake up after one of the roughest night at sea. I’d been living on the MV Explorer for nearly three months, sailing around South America, Africa, and Asia on a study abroad program called Semester at Sea.

Sitting up, I stretched my arms up above my head leaning side to side and glancing out the porthole.

Outside stood an army of high-rise buildings, swimming in misty fog.

Good morning, Hong Kong.

I threw on a pair of jeans and a cozy sweater and ran out the door, down the hall, and straight to cabin #2003. I pounded on the door with both fists until the door swung open seconds later. My shipmate and friend, Anna Christina, smiled back at me. She was ready to go.

DSC02131

As we bought our tickets for the Star Ferry that would take us across Victoria Harbour we met up with Jonathan, the guy who helped save my life in South Africa weeks prior (don’t worry, I’ll address this in a future blog post).

DSC02235

It was quite the complicated journey. We began in Kowloon, where the MV Explorer was docked. First we took the Star Ferry to the MTR subway. Then it was on to Tung Chung station. Then, after a 45 minute wait, Jonathan, Anna Christina and I boarded a Ngong Ping 360 cable car.

TIP: If you’re not deathly afraid of heights request a cable car with a see-through floor. It offers another extraordinary view of the island and surrounding water.

DSC02135

DSC02202

Gliding over the water towards Lantau Island felt like a dream. We were slowly being drawn towards the large Buddha statue somewhere in the distance.

DSC02137DSC02141We kept our eyes focused on the horizon, waiting to see the bronze statue appear before us.

DSC02218

Finally, we saw it.Buddha on Lantau Island via ZaagiTravel.com

Anna Christina and I jumped for joy. Literally.

DSC02158As we walked through the Ngong Ping village we poked our heads into shops and restaurants. A combination of foreign languages and the scent of tea filled the air.

DSC02165

Soon we found ourselves face to face with the largest seated bronze Buddha statue in the world, the Tian Tan Buddha.

DSC02173 The statue, which took 12 years to complete, has been watching over China since 1993. It stands over 110 feet tall and sits at the top of 268 stairs.

DSC02175The top of the stairs offered a vast view of the valley below.

DSC02186Even though finding it wasn’t as simple as we had anticipated, I’m glad that we spent the day trekking around Hong Kong in search of the big Buddha. I would do it again in a heart beat.

I hope to one day return to Hong Kong and have more time to spend exploring some of the other treasures hidden in that misty fog.

Have you been to Hong Kong? What would you recommend to see and do? Comment below and let me know your personal insights.

 

 

Kogi Food Truck: Korean BBQ in Los Angeles

IMG_5839The Kogi Korean BBQ food truck is one of the most famous food trucks in the country. It has been serving up tacos, burritos, quesadillas, sliders, burgers, chocolate tres leches (and more!) since 2008.

Kogi BBQ menu via ZaagiTravel.com

The co-founder/chef (and self-proclaimed milk-shake connoisseur) Roy Choi was born in Seoul, Korea. Choi was recognized for his seriously awesome food truck skills when he was voted Best New Chef in Food & Wine Magazine’s 2010 contest.

Kogi BBQ has also been featured in a multitude of other publications including TIME magazine, Sunset magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the Hollywood Reporter and LA Weekly.

Last week I learned that one of the four trucks comes to Cal Poly Pomona on Thursday evenings from 6-9pm.

So I decided to go and see what all the fuss was about.

Kogi Food Truck via ZaagiTravel.com

I went. I waited. I ordered. I devoured.

Verdict: Kogi BBQ was one of the best decisions I made all week.

Kogi food truck tacos via ZaagiTravel.com
My dad hand modeling a short rib taco.

I recommend the tacos (short rib, spicy pork, chicken, and tofu) for $2.29 each and the Kogi sliders for $6.00 which you can eat by themselves — or add a taco and drink to create a combo for $9!

IMG_5854

The Kogi website describes the sliders as “short rib, sesame mayo, cheese, salsa roja, and a cabbage-romaine slaw tossed in a chili-soy vinaigrette on toasted buns”. You can also swap the short rib for another meat if you’d like.

Kogi BBQ Sliders via ZaagiTravel.com

Kogi BBQ Sliders via ZaagiTravel.com

I don’t know about you but my mouth is watering just looking at these photos. Is it Thursday yet?

TIP: the Kogi truck is known to run a bit late (at least to the Cal Poly Pomona location). Aim to arrive around 6:30 instead of 6:00.

ANOTHER TIP: The truck can be difficult for first-timers to find. When it comes to Cal Poly Pomona it parks near the Valley Blvd & Temple Ave intersection. Head towards the mobile home park on the west side of Valley Blvd.

IMG_5838

And thanks to Josue for the service with a smile!

Honey, Kvass & Tea: The Central Market & Apsara Tea Room in Riga, Latvia

As we descended from the fifth deck of the MV Explorer I had no expectations. I did not know much about Latvia. All I really knew was that it had relatively recently found independence after being occupied by both Nazi Germany as well as the former Soviet Union.

IMG_4561

I suppose I expected a place still obviously recovering from such a harsh and painful history. Instead, Latvia blew my mind and stole my heart.

 

It was a surprisingly quiet sun-filled Saturday morning in June when we finally found the massive Central Market in Riga, the capital of Latvia. The popular marketplace is housed inside of five old German Zeppelin airplane hangers from WWI.

IMG_4667

Before entering I stopped at a wagon with a bright blue awning reading KVASS. I smiled at the female vendor that looked about my age; she smiled back lowering her eyes as if apologizing for not knowing any English. I hadn’t had time to brush up on my Latvian either (not serious) so I bit my lip and lightly laughed while holding out Latvian change and she picked up the appropriate coins from my palm. We smiled at each other again. In that moment I wished I could have offered her more than an english “thank you” as she handed me my cold, chestnut brown drink. We waved goodbye.

I had heard about this strange but supposedly delicious drink from friends and could not resist trying it. Kvass, a common eastern European non-alcoholic drink, is made from fermented rye bread. It’s actually quite good — or at least I think so, as you can see here.

 

I bought another cup as we exited and was given even more kvass by my friends who did not admire it as much as I did. It kind of tastes like the little brother to beer. Slightly sweet and earthy, a bit tangy and tart… I’m beginning to realize how difficult it is to describe. But I do recommend trying it if you get the opportunity!

 

A couple booths away we stopped to buy a giant basket of deep crimson cherries. We used a water bottle to wash them, letting the water fall into the street at our feet.

IMG_4672

We walked through all of the hangers — I don’t have many pictures inside due to my double-fisting of the kvass. However, we encountered entire buildings filled with honey, nuts, meat products, seafood, fruits, vegetables, handmade knit goods.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

IMG_4673

Outside the hangers were numerous booths selling inexpensive clothes, shoes, and souvenirs. All of us bought miniature bottles of local honey, a Latvian speciality. I kept mine in my luggage for over a month, planning to bring it home for my parents to try. Sadly, the cranky man at Heathrow Airport took mine away (after he searched my entire carry-on which nearly made me late for my flight). Thanks, dude.

 

Alright rant over, back to the loveliness of Latvia. It really was. Lovely is the perfect word to describe it.

 

Lovely. Like the local, wrinkled old women buying and selling items around the market as they peered at us curiously from behind the tied scarves around their faces. I wish I’d had the nerve to ask them for a photo. That’s something I need to get better at — learning how to take pictures of people, especially ones I don’t know. I haven’t mastered that science. It’s difficult to break the ice especially with a language barrier.

IMG_4675

Us girls decided to venture on and discover another part of Riga. Without an idea of where we were going or what we would find around the next corner we crossed the street using the underground pedestrian walkway.

 

Down the road a little and to the left on Raina bulvaris we stumbled across an odd shaped building perched along a river that calmly coursed through a deep green park, shaded by soaring trees. Apsara Tea Room, a Latvian chain of tea houses, was circular and small, but with large windows allowing for plenty of natural light brightening the vibrant wooden interior.

IMG_4695

On the inside, a rustic blue and white staircase twirled upward to a second level where striped multi-colored plush pillows lined the floor in a circular shape. A giant black metal chandelier hung in the center of the second floor, eye level with those sitting facing the windows.

 

The view, which oversaw lush green lawns and the Pilsetas Canals lined with waddling ducks, created a feeling of serenity and peacefulness. As we entered we were greeted by a bubbly blonde woman behind the counter. Her voice was high-pitched, but in an endearing way, like a Disney cartoon character I would have loved to sing along with as a child.

IMG_4684

The counter held glass jars full of sweet treats like Sokolades Cepums (heart-shaped chocolate chip cookies), Mandeli Cepums (square almond shortbread cookies), and Riekstu Cepums (horse-shoe shaped sugar slazed cookies) for only $.25 Lats each.

IMG_4688

The walls contained endless assortments of exotic teas, and various tall slices of cake with layered fillings showcased in a glass refrigerator to the left of the cookie jars.

 

Two large black chalkboards were hung overhead and displayed the teas and their prices ($1.20 – 3.50 Lats) in handwritten white chalk. Iced teas came in two varieties, red and green, both were amply sweetened as well as absolutely delicious.

IMG_4691

A version of “Someone Like You”, sung by a male voice, played in the background. The six of us girls sat down on the striped cushions upstairs and faced the windows. We barely spoke for ten minutes. I relished in how good it felt here. The Tea House. Riga. Latvia. Europe.

 

It felt homey, in both a comfortable and brand new way. I was with good friends in a very beautiful place. A place that felt exclusive, secret and undiscovered. It’s easy to run around and hit all the typical, tourist hot spots.

IMG_4718

But this. This was special. This was the feeling I chase. The reason I fly, sail, and ride around the world. Latvia, I can’t wait to return to you.

 

There’s a quote by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. It’s meant to describe people but it now reminds me of Latvia.

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

Look for the Part II posting of my time in Latvia coming soon!

Swells & Surfboards: The 2013 US Open of Surfing

IMG_6395

Huntington Beach is where I learned to surf. It’s where I realized I was in love for the first time. It’s where I met Arnold Schwarzenegger – for the second time. No, I was not in love with Arnold. Actually this guy’s last name was even harder to pronounce, so I won’t put you through that…

Huntington Beach holds a special place in my heart. I’m excited to share the first of many posts about it with you.

IMG_5271
Shameless selfie time! Okay, moving on…

So a few weeks ago we pulled into the garage of my aunt and uncle’s house located less than three blocks from the Huntington Beach pier. My mom, my dad and I had brought along our dogs Kona and Beau for a stay in one of the greatest surfing destinations in the world (Huntington Beach isn’t called Surf City USA for no reason)!

IMG_5240

We spent the evening resting up in preparation for the monstrous surfing documenting we would be doing early the next morning.

You better wake up early if you want to eat breakfast at the Sugar Shack before it begins to get crowded.

IMG_5713

IMG_6357

This place is famous. So famous in fact that our adorable server, Summer, is often recognized in other parts of the country when she’s working as a flight attendant – her other job.
SummerSugarShack

The Sugar Shack is a 3rd generation family owned business. It’s a Southern California style “mom and pop” hole-in-the-wall breakfast joint. The inside is covered with decade’s worth of photos of legendary surfers, many of them studded with autographs. A waiting list for the outside tables hangs out front under the forest green awning.

TIP: If there’s an available table inside, feel free to grab it! And you better do it quick!

ANOTHER TIP: My favorite things on the menu… If you want to feel like a true local you gotta try the Main Street Burrito which is stuffed with avocado, mushrooms, onions, sprouts and cheese. If you’re aiming for a quick bite you can’t beat the Wake Up & Shine – 2 poached eggs on toast. If you’re aiming to eat healthy I recommend Michele’s Special – grilled chicken breast, three egg whites, bell peppers and tomatoes. And if healthy eating isn’t a priority add a hot cinnamon roll to your order. You won’t regret it!

And pancakes are always a good idea!
And pancakes are always a good idea!

Main Street and the surrounding area have an impressive selection of delicious things to be consumed – everything from açai bowls to poke bowls to the best burger in Southern California. I’ll cover my favorites in detail in a post focusing on Huntington Beach as a vacation destination sometime in the next few weeks.

Okay… onto the surfing!

IMG_6386

IMG_6400

The misty morning began with the horn that announces the beginning of the heat, signaling the surfers to paddle into the line up and start scoping out the incoming swells.

IMG_6416

As we made our way further down the pier the cool, salty ocean air filled our lungs. The breeze out on the pier was just heavy enough to need a sweater and even though it was only 8am and completely overcast I was glad to have sunglasses.

IMG_6387

My dad and I arrived early enough to grab a key spot huddled up next to the professional photographers. Our pictures aren’t in the same league as theirs but they treated us as one of their own – all of us reminiscing about past U.S. Open of Surfing experiences and our predictions for this years events.

IMG_6391

The first surfer that caught our attention was Conner Coffin, last year’s (and spoiler alert this year’s also!) Junior Pro champion from Santa Barbara, California. It turns out Conner has a blog, which you can check out here.

My family followed Conner’s progress throughout the U.S. Open and we were ecstatic to watch him take home the Junior Pro title for a second year in a row the following weekend.

Here are some shots of random surfers we observed from the pier over the next few days.

IMG_6443

IMG_6408

IMG_6482IMG_6488

Have you visited Huntington Beach? If so, what are your own personal highlights?

Have you ever tried surfing? Would you?