This is where I will be posting updates on my everyday adventures on this journey called life.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

A Week in Holguin, Cuba

Hi everyone!

As most of you know, I was able to spend a week at an all-inclusive resort in Holguin, Cuba back in July with my mom!  I didn't get a chance to update until now, but it was certainly a memorable trip.  It was our first time at an all-inclusive resort and definitely our first time in Cuba.  My mom had a week off and I was free, so I looked into affordable trips we could take that would accommodate our schedule, and Cuba fit the bill!

I booked our trip via Air Canada Vacations, and everything went smoothly.  We stayed at Memories Holguin and opted for Diamond Club.  We spent the first two days relaxing on the private beach and sipping drinks by the pool, really soaking in the sunshine and what the Cuban resort had to offer.  But we also tend to get kind of antsy, so we booked two excursions during our stay.

The first excursion was the Sun Cruise, which included swimming with dolphins, a catamaran ride, snorkeling in the coral reef, and a lobster lunch (half-day excursion).  Lots of firsts on that excursion, but really fun nonetheless!  Swimming with dolphins was a lot of fun and they were friendly and well-trained.  There were even photographers on-site who would take professional pictures as well as pictures with your own cameras/phones.  The catamaran was relaxing, but snorkeling was definitely one of the highlights.  The waves weren't as calm as they were the day before (according to our guides) so it was a little difficult to get oriented at first.  It took a bit of practice to get used to the snorkel gear and proper breathing techniques, however once I did, what I was able to see and experience underwater will not soon be forgotten.  Unfortunately, my mother had a lot more trouble with the gear than I did and wasn't able to participate in the snorkeling portion.  She still had fun on the excursion though!

The next excursion we went on was the Bay Adventure, which included a catamaran ride, snorkeling on a different reef, a wildlife observation safari on the secluded island, and a buffet lunch (full-day excursion).  To our surprise, we had the same guide!  Alfredo was great and really friendly, so it was certainly a welcome surprise.  The waters were a lot calmer in this reef, and so mom was able to participate!  It still took a bit of practice but she did end up getting the hang of it.  This excursion is only offered about once a week and so it was a bit more crowded than the other one.  The secluded island wasn't that close and so the crew members would dance and entertain the guests on the way (and kept encouraging full-use of the open bar).  After the snorkel session, we went on the island for the observation safari.  The island had hundreds of different species that were introduced to the area, however we were limited in the animals we saw because the weather was too hot for most of the animals to be out.  Our jeep driver was really helpful in slowing down and pointing out animals that were hard to see.  He even brought us to the highest vantage point of the island which overlooked the gorgeous clear turquoise water.  Absolutely breathtaking.

After the safari, we returned to the restaurant for a buffet lunch.  Mostly Italian influenced, however the meat was Cuban inspired.  After lunch, we had 45 minutes of free time to relax on the beach or to spend how we pleased.  Mom and I decided to go horseback riding on the beach!  It was 3 pesos for 1/2 hr and we had a guide who led the horses.  I guess he could tell that I was really enjoying myself because he would click his tongue and my horse would start trotting, resulting in my extreme laughter and struggle not to fall off my horse!  It was such a fun experience and I'm so glad it was one my mom and I shared.  After our horseback ride on the beach, we made a quick stop by the gorgeous secluded beach where a professional photographer was commissioned to take individual pictures of the guests (included in our package).  Shortly after, we were loaded back onto the catamaran to start heading back to our resorts in Holguin.  It was a fantastic excursion and I highly recommend it.

There was also a bus that came by the resort daily to pick up/drop off tourists to Guadalavarca.  There was a beach and an outdoor market, so we decided to go and see what it had to offer.  The market was petite but great to explore, however the beach was crowded and not as pristine as our resort.  We were glad we went though!

On our last day in Holguin, we booked the Hasta la Vista Holguin tour which was a half-day tour of Holguin and ended in VIP access to the airport lounge with priority boarding.  We chose to do this tour because we wanted to experience a bit of Holguin city before we left.  Our guide was fun and knowledgeable and we were able to pick up some last minute souvenirs. The lounge was quaint but it had A/C, food, drinks, and wifi so we were content.  It was a great end to our relaxing week-long stay in Cuba!

Until next time.  Hasta la vista!

SE Asia: Week 4 - Hong Kong & China

We left Hanoi and headed for Hong Kong for the last week of our journey.  We checked into our accommodation in the Tsim Sha Tsui area of Hong Kong.  If I could do it over, I would definitely have spent more and stayed in better accommodations.  We had decided to invest in an Octopus card, which made getting in/around the city an absolute breeze.

On our first day, we met up with my friend Jasmine for #jalex2016.  We walked around the botanical gardens (and got eaten alive by mosquitoes) and made our way up to Victoria Peak.  We had our first meal in Hong Kong up at the peak and it was delicious!  We took many pictures, shared news and memories, and made new ones until the next time we see each other!

The following day was our first full day in Hong Kong.  We started the morning by trekking to a famous restaurant which served one of my favourite foods - however, we didn't realize it was supposedly a holiday and the restaurant would not be open that day.  Though we were disappointed, we were also not the only ones in line so we didn't feel as bad.  We ended up walking around and grabbing a bite in a nearby neighbourhood.  I had planned to take the Star Ferry and visit the other side of the island, and a walk through the Ladies Market.  We ended up catching a movie at a mall near Central, and then had an amazing hot pot dinner at Nabe One.  Highly recommend!  We decided to go with the Australian Wagyu Beef (middle option) and it did not disappoint!

The next day, we caught up with my friend Andy who was kind enough to show us around Hong Kong.  We went for dim sum, and then out and about in the city.  We made a stop on the other side of the island (near Stanley) and were able to witness a dragon boat race.  Walked around the beach area, and the adjacent market.  Even stopped by a bakery for some snacks.  It was a great tour and I'm so grateful he was able to take time to accommodate us.

The initial plan was for my sister Wendy to fly from Germany to Hong Kong, and we would take the train together to visit our family in Guangzhou, however there were several mishaps regarding her flight.  It ended up being severely delayed, however it worked out in the end because they were able to fly her to Guangzhou without routing through Hong Kong.  We checked out a day early and bought train tickets the next morning to meet her in Guangzhou.

Luckily, my family was able to meet us at the train station (my sister had already been picked up from the airport earlier that morning and was already at the house).  After a near fiasco, we were all finally together in Guangzhou!  It was the first time my sister and my aunts/uncles had met so it was quite a joyous occasion.

My family spent the next few days taking turns spending the day with us and showing us around Guangzhou.  Highlights include Yuexiu Park where we saw the Five Rams Statue, stopped by one of the beautiful gardens, and even spent a day at the zoo about an hour outside the city.  It was great spending time with my sister and extended family exploring the town our family is from, and I'm so glad we had the opportunity.  After a few days in Guangzhou, we said our goodbyes and made our way back towards Hong Kong where we would be spending some time before our journey came to an end.

We made our way to the hotel in Hong Kong, and then went in search of lunch.  We had a quick bite at a Korean restaurant nearby, and then ended up exploring a market or two before having a lovely dinner nearby.  Afterwards, we set out to see the light show at the harbour.  Unfortunately for us, it was raining but it was the only night we would be in town so we had to make it work.  Afterwards, we went in search of the Bruce Lee statue on the Avenue of Stars - the Avenue was under renovations at the time and the statues had been temporarily moved elsewhere.  After a bit of a walk, we managed to find him and some other stars on a semi-private outdoor terrace.  We then retired for the night and prepared to depart for home the next morning.

My sister had an earlier flight and so she set out first.  We spent a bit more time walking around the neighbourhood (and eating!) before finishing packing and heading out ourselves.  The flight was long but uneventful, and before we knew it, our month-long trip had come to an end.  It was quite a trip, and I'm glad I was able to have all the experiences that I did.  Glad I was able to check so many things off my list of things to do, and I'm excited for the next adventure to come!

SE Asia: Week 3 - North Vietnam

We landed in Hanoi in Northern Vietnam around 9pm on Saturday May 7, 2016.  We took a taxi to the hotel we booked for the evening and went in search of nourishment.  Everything in the area started closing early (despite being a weekend) and it became increasingly more frustrating as the hanger settled in.  Eventually, we ended up going to a little restaurant next door to our hotel which was enough to tide us over.

The next morning, we had breakfast in the lobby and checked out as the luxury van pick-up for our cruise arrived.  We had decided to splurge on a luxury cruise with Indochina's Dragon Pearl junk boat cruise to Bai Tu Long Bay.  There were many options for Halong Bay tours, however Indochina is the only company with permission to tour Bai Tu Long Bay, next to Halong Bay but much less touristy.  It was one of the best decisions I had made!

The area on the Bay was lovely and lush.  It was refreshing not being surrounded by a crowd of other tourist boats, and actually quite relaxing.  We kayaked through the Bay 2 of 3 days of our tour, but the highlight was the dinner in a cave.  We spent the few hours before dinner on a private beach on the island the cave was located.  We took a kayak and went out on the water circling the near islands before heading back to the ship to get ready for dinner.  I had secretly arranged for a special birthday surprise during the cave dinner and Indochina delivered!  They surpassed all expectations and I was so happy they were able to accommodate.  Though it was a day before his actual birthday, it was certainly a surprise and definitely memorable.  After a fabulous and romantic 10-course dinner in a cave (as romantic as it could be with 20 people!), they asked him to close his eyes and surprised him with a birthday cake and a small souvenir of a shell with "Halong Bay" written on the side.  The whole experience was simply amazing.

We spent the next two days exploring Hanoi, including a visit to Hoan Kiem Lake, and a stop by Cafe Giang for authentic egg coffee; a specialty of Hanoi.  We made friends with the other guests on the cruise, and we even managed to meet a few for drinks in Hanoi before everyone departed to continue on their separate journeys.  We met at Beer Corner, a popular area for drinks among locals and tourists alike.  Hanoi is a well known destination for young budget travelers, especially with its countless happy hour deals.  Certainly an interesting experience!

SE Asia: Week 2 - South Vietnam

We landed safely in Ho Chi Minh City after a near miss of our flight from Bangkok.  We were met by his family who took us out for dinner and I was able to experience my first real bowl of pho in Vietnam - my favourite food!  I hopped on the back of one of the motorbikes and was thrown right into the hustle and bustle of life in HCMC.  After dinner, we returned to his aunt & uncles' who were to be our accommodation for our week-long stay in HCMC.  Knowing that we would be visiting family, this was the one week where I was hands-off and just went with the flow.  It was a nice break from the constant research and planning I did in preparation for this trip.

During our stay, we spent most of our time eating and enjoying different specialties the city had to offer.  It was a real culinary experience and I am so grateful to his family for their generosity and hospitality.  We spent a day with his cousins and watched Captain America: Civil War, to take a break from the heat.  They took us around different parts of the city, and it was interesting to see the subtle differences between districts.

His family had arranged for a day trip to the islands about 1-2 hours from the city, where we joined a tour who brought us around the 3 different islands.  We had fresh honey and tea, fresh local fruit, and fresh coconut juice from a coconut that grows locally in that area (swamp coconut!).  I was also able to feed alligators!  They would tie a piece of meat to a string that was attached to the end of a thin bamboo pole and you would lower it in and out of the alligator enclosure.  It was certainly an interesting experience, and I'm glad I was able to experience it!

While in HCMC, I also had the pleasure of trying ostrich meat pho.  It was surprisingly similar to beef, and thoroughly delicious.  We also spent time visiting one of the shopping malls in another district, where we were able to order small hot pot in the food court!  While we were there, we also celebrated his aunt's birthday with the entire family.  The last night we were in the city, we enjoyed a homemade meal with the family.  Afterwards, his cousins decided to take us out for a night on the town.  We went to a rooftop lounge in downtown HCMC, where we enjoyed beer towers and fruit while singing along to Top 40 tracks.  It was the best way we could have spent our last night in HCMC!

Late that night was terrible, but for the sake of blogging... I woke up in the middle of the night feeling nauseous.  We were staying on the 3rd floor and the bathroom was a mere 6-8 steps around an L-shaped hallway.  Needless to say, there was an "accident" and a fall resulting in a huge mess and massive bruises.  Not the best way to end a stay, but certainly memorable!

We headed to the airport the next day to continue our journey.

SE Asia: Week 1 - Thailand

Hello everyone!

As you have probably realized by now, I did not get a chance to post about my month-long adventure in South East Asia.  I had every intention on updating my blog throughout the trip, however it proved most difficult with only a smartphone, so I apologize for the delay!

We left Toronto on April 23rd and flew directly into Bangkok, Thailand.  Upon landing, (and after much miscommunication!) we hopped in a taxi and headed for a few pre-determined sights before making our way up to the train station.  We first dropped by the Taling Chan floating market (small floating market in Bangkok) where we enjoyed a nice seafood meal and some (warm) durian.  Next, we made our way to the Chatuchak Weekend Market, which is the largest outdoor weekend market in Thailand.  I absolutely adore outdoor markets so this was an exciting experience for me!  The only downside was that although we only brought carry-on luggage, it was incredibly heavy and strenuous to carry so we could not enjoy the market as much as we hoped, though we did get some nice cool drinks to help keep our spirits up.  It was bittersweet leaving the weekend market, but I was happy we were able to experience it, even for a short while.  We made our way via taxi to the train station to pick up our pre-bought tickets and wait for our overnight train up north to Chiang Mai.  The overnight sleeper train was actually very comfortable and not very crowded.  The staff were also extremely friendly; it was a lovely experience!

Upon arriving in Chiang Mai, we hopped in a private cab (charged us the same as a tuk-tuk but was air conditioned!) and made our way to the Jungala House where we would be staying for our short visit in the lovely northern city.  Doh and his wife were lovely hosts, and I definitely recommend staying with them if you ever get the chance!  We weren't that tired after arriving, so we took some time to exchange money and feed ourselves before calling a cab to go to the Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai.  Our host Doh was extremely helpful and arranged a car for us!  At the Tiger Kingdom, we purchased 3 packages which allowed us to go into the tiger enclosures and pet them, and take pictures.  It was quite an experience!  We decided to go to the medium-sized tiger cage together, and then each did a separate enclosure on our own.  I chose to spend time with the 2-month old tiger cub, who was so incredibly adorable and soft.  Upon leaving, our driver recommended stopping by a snake show, which was interesting, before heading back to Jungala House to rest before dinner.  We had dinner at We's Restaurant, our first real meal in Chiang Mai, and it did not disappoint.  Highly recommend going if you're ever in Old Town Chiang Mai!  That night, we took a tuk-tuk to the night market where we explored and bought souvenirs, before retiring for the evening.

I had made arrangements for an elephant tour however the morning of, I realized that the dates were unclear and we were unable to get in touch with the trip providers.  Luckily, our host Doh used to lead trekking tours and used his contacts to find us another elephant tour we would be able to join that day!  There was only one other couple on the tour that day so it was a nice small group of four (six if you include the driver and guide).  Toto's Elephant Training Camp was AMAZING and we were able to join mahout training for the morning, getting to know and training with our elephant ride Mekamun, before riding her bareback through the jungle, and bathing her.  After eating lunch at the elephant training camp, we said our goodbyes to our new elephant friends and headed to a waterfall where we were able to swim and spend time cooling down in the water.  Our guides were amazing, and even hiked up with us to go to the bat cave nearby!  It was really an incredible tour and one of the main highlights of the trip.

The next morning, we ate a quick breakfast and hurried to the train station for our day train back to Bangkok.  In our haste, I had forgotten my digital camera at Jungala House!  Doh and his wife were extremely helpful and accommodating and upon returning to Canada, I was able to coordinate its return.  Cannot thank them enough!  Upon arriving back in Bangkok, we made our way towards Khao San Road area where we would find a hotel for our short stay and explore the city.  The next morning, we did our own walking tour of Bangkok where we spent the day temple hopping to the 3 main temples in Bangkok: The Grand Palace, specifically Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), and Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn).  Each were amazing and majestic, but my personal favourite was Wat Pho.  The giant reclining Buddha was incredible to see and experience.  I had originally planned to visit Soi Cowboy that evening for a ladyboy show, however the day proved to be extremely trying and we ended up sleeping through the night.

Our last morning in Bangkok, I arranged a surprise visit to the Bangkok Aquarium as an early birthday present.  The Bangkok Aquarium is located in DMK, one of the main shopping centres in downtown Bangkok.  The tickets I had purchased ahead of time included a Behind the Scenes tour of the aquarium, as well as popcorn and a drink, and admission to the 4D cinema.  It was a really lovely visit and we even saw a few of the animal shows while we were there!

Heading to the airport was actually a nightmare, as we didn't realize it was a holiday and there was a lot of traffic everywhere.  The tuk-tuk we tried to hail was charging obscenely, and when we asked mall security on the best route to get to our airport, they recommended taking the train a few stops and trying to hail a cab from there (closer to the airport and therefore, should be cheaper!).  When we arrived at the recommended station, all we were able to find were motorbikes who could only take one passenger each.  Eventually, we were able to find a taxi driver who was sympathetic to our cause and agreed to take us to the airport for all the money we had left (wished we could have paid him more!).  Luckily, we were able to make our flight and were on our way to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam!