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We’re funny (usually), controversial (sometimes) and insightful (always!). Our travel experts share their experiences below in hopes of hearing back from YOU. So read, comment and enjoy!

Posts in ‘Food, Pubs & Nightlife’

PERFECT HOLIDAY CONTEST FINALISTS

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Thanks to those who participated in the 2008 isango! ‘Perfect Holiday’ Contest! We were overwhelmed with enthusiastic responses and sincerely apologize for the delay in posting the finalists. But we’ve finally done it! Hooray! The top 5 entries have been selected, and it’s time to VOTE!

FYI: though we could only select 5 finalists, we truly enjoyed reviewing your (100!) entries. We admire your imaginative efforts; thus, the majority of this blog is dedicated to the bulk of entries that did not make it through to the shortlist. We have explained why certain types of entries were not selected and have included some relevant travel tips to assist you in actualizing your dream getaways!

If this sounds boring to you ( – it’s not, actually!), you can skip straight to the action, and:

CLICK HERE to VOTE for one of the TOP FIVE ENTRIES

…as selected by our team of travel writers and product specialists. Go ahead, do it! But remember, you can vote once, and once only!

SOME TRENDS AND TIPS:

(By the way, we’ve listed the finalists at the bottom of this blog in hopes that you will actually read the rest of what we have to say!)

…right, so we learned a great deal about your travel desires and needs from reading your entries—namely that most of you are in need of a good, long holiday! There were also some recurring themes:

1. “It’s not where you are, it’s who you are with…”
A large number you would prefer to spend your precious time away from the office on a romantic getaway with your significant other. Your descriptions of destinations were often very imaginative, but also quite vague, as you focused on the experience that you would have with the love of your life—just the two of you—isolated in paradise. These entries were fantastic (and heartwarming) but were also, unfortunately, more difficult to judge as sometimes we were not sure where, exactly, you aimed to go on your holiday! We suggest visiting the Romantic Retreats section of the isango! website to transform your, ahem, ‘daydreams’ (wink!) into reality.

2. Family First.
A large percentage of you have young children and thus face difficulties with planning to please multiple parties. For you, the ‘perfect holiday’ is one that is free of logistical nightmares: your entries thus tended to be long lists of things that you wanted to avoid (long queues, large crowds, flight delays), rather than of things you actually wanted to do. Though we can do nothing about rubbish airlines (except to complain right alongside you) we can help you to avoid ‘on the ground’ family feuds by encouraging you to plan a detailed itinerary prior to departing. Start with our list of Family Tours under the Activities section of our website, which can be narrowed down, for example, to theme parks and self drive tours.

Others of you focused on the needs of your parents and grandparents, wishing to fulfill their dreams by taking them to parts of the world that they have always wanted to see. We suggest starting with our Seniors category and narrowing your options down by country, or city, from there. (You can also always contact one of our friendly customer service reps if you have any questions!)

3. Some of you are, well, CRAZY…
Really, wow. You submitted some fantastically wild travel ‘plots’ (- you know who you are!). Check out some of our quirkier blogs for more unconventional ideas and inspiration.

Now, it’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for!

THE FINALISTS:

1. Hanlie Burger, ‘Shipwrecks, Sand Dunes and Desert Elephants’.

2. Louise Brown, ‘Northern Solitude’

3. Sarah Berl, ‘Spelunk!!’

4. Marian Redmond, ‘Campania Felix’, and

5. Sarah Stocks, ‘Tropical Rainforest? Or is it?’

A huge CONGRATS to Hanlie, Louise, Sarah, Marian and Sarah—and all of our participants—for dreaming up such fabulous ‘perfect holidays’! We cannot thank you enough.

Please vote here, and to pass this email along to all of your family and friends!

You can also check out more blog coverage of the contest here.

Thanks again for participating!

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Mama Mia! Mania: Behind the Scenes in Greece

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“(I would) fly to the beautiful Greek Isles, to a quiet marina, where I could introduce my wife to the boat that would take us island hopping – sailing from fishing village to fishing village…local ports fringed with tavernas…seafood washed down with the native wine whilst the blood-red sun kisses the Mediterranean sea `good night’…”

– Fred Harper, ‘Perfect Holiday’ Contest Entrant

Sparkling blue water, rugged coastal terrain, sailboats, sunshine, serenity, and fresh seafood (mmm…..)

…not to mention a strutting, overall-clad Meryl Streep, a feisty Julie Walters, a singing Pierce Brosnan, a glowing Amanda Seyfried……and, of course, a non-stop ABBA marathon.

Who’s seen Mama Mia! And doesn’t want to go to Greece?

I’m always skeptical of movie renditions of musicals, but, in this case, the big screen certainly exploits what the West End can’t: the absolutely breathtaking scenery of the Greek Islands.

Behind the Scenes in Skiathos and Skopelos

Just over a year ago, Streep, Brosnan, and the rest of the multi-talented Mama Mia! cast were staging 1970’s ABBA mayhem on remote islands of the Aegean sea…

It’s time to follow in the footsteps of the stars (and as well as the imagination of our contest entrant Fred) on the following tours:

1. Romantic Sunset Cruise in Skiathos.

If you’ve seen the film, it’s impossible not to imagine yourself as a blissful, young bride or groom to be, sheltered from the realities of the world on a little Greek slice of paradise. The amorous atmosphere of the Sophie’s dream island wedding lingers on the island of Skiathos, where a Calypso fishing boat awaits the next pair of lovebirds that desire a taste of Aegean seaside culture, music, cuisine and scenery.

The Skiathos ‘Music and Moonlight’ Sunset Cruise departs Tuesdays from 15 May – 15 October and is the perfect romantic outing for the adventurous duo. Indulge in freshly prepared island cuisine, feel the rhythms of the traditional Greek folk music, and dance your way into the sunset…..

2. Tour of Skopelos

Explore the magnificent setting of Donna’s infamously ‘rustic’ hotel—‘the greenest island in Greece’—by embarking on the Sporades Island Hopping Tour, which includes a stop at ‘Kalokairi Island’, or rather, Skopelos!

Your adventure will begin as you board a boat in the harbour of Skiathos, where some of Mama Mia’s most lively scenes were created. Coast across the sparkling Aegean until you arrive at what was, just under a year ago, the central hub of ABBA action—where Pierce Brosnan’s flip flops are now on display…and where the film’s fairytale church, Agios Ioannis, juts out over the sea on a magnificent, towering rock formation.

Your day will end with a stop at neighbouring Alonissos; you will return to Skiathos in time for a relaxing sunset meal.

Mama Mia! Here we go again…

May your romantic, island hopping adventure leave you ‘stranded’ at an isolated taverna…complete with a staff that breaks out into spontaneous song and dance…

Other great behind-the-scenes film tour ideas:

The ‘Film Tours: Hollywood and Beyond’ Blog

The ‘Hollywood, Bollywood and Beyond’ Blog (a favourite!)

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When in Rome?

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The restaurant has around 600 types of wine in its cellarTraditional Roman food is often hard to come by, but Checchino dal 1887 brings it to you on a platter.

Dishes include Quinto Quarto, Il Padellotto, I Rigatoni con la Pajata, L”insalata di Zampi, La Trippa, Le Animelle, Il Cervello and Gli Schienali, together with Bue Garofolato, the ancient rural dish whose original recipe is owned by the restaurant.

As the name suggests, the restaurant opened in 1887 when a young couple, who ran a wine shop in the Testaccio caves, decided to replace it with an Osteria con cucina (a tavern with kitchen) because a slaughter-house was being made opposite it.

When the new slaughter-house was ready (1890), its workers got used to coming to the tavern to cook the meat that they received as a part of their incomes.

Thus dishes like La Pajata alla Romana, La coda alla Vaccinara, Il Padellotto were born.

Located in the Testaccio district, you can enjoy your meal with a bottle of wine from the cellar which stores around 600 different types.

Special Interest – Nightlife – From an extravagant meal to an eerie ghost walk – plenty of things to keep you entertained after the sun goes down.
ADNFCR-1652-ID-18677018-ADNFCR

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Where to Dine in Nice, France

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This is the second, juicy post in the Nice, France, series (check out the Nice, Part I blog here). In fact, this will probably be the juicest post of all, given that it’s all about food and wine!

After 7 years living in Nice, I’ve experienced lots of good restaurants…and lots of places to avoid!

I’ll save you 7 years of exploration with these few lines.

Local Specialties

The local cuisine is strongly Mediterranean – think olive oils, vegetables, fresh fish and delicious, roasted meats. Local specialties include the socca, a thin waffle made of chick peas, the pissaladiere, a thin, pizza-like bread with onion and olives, petits farcis, which are roasted vegetables stuffed with flavored meats, and, one of my favorites, la daube, which is basically beef stewed in red wine and served with fresh tagliatelle or ravioli.

There are many small restaurants in the Old City serving local specialties at decent prices – just ask around for a place that serves fresh socca. To try most local specialties in one sitting, look for L’Estocaficada, which has prices around 35 euros and serves 12 or so local specialties.

For some more upscale cuisine, try to get a seat at the bustling La Merenda. They don’t take reservations and only accept cash – it’s very small and always packed, so you can imagine how good the food is!

Local tip: just behind the Nice Etoile shopping centre (tramway stop Jean Medecin), there is a small, hidden street called rue Biscarra with 4-5 small restaurants that have terraces and small tables. These restaurants are beyond the typical tourist radar – definitely worth a visit! The best one is Vin Sur Vin, a winery serving wine (yes), cheese and sausages platters, fantastic meat and a consistently tasty dish du jour.

The old town is also full of hidden surprises. If you want join some locals for a few drinks, look for Les Distilleries Idéales or La Civette du Cours.

A (Michelin Star) Japanese Chef in Nice.

Yes, Keisuke Matsushima is a Japanese chef who has practiced French cuisine with top culinary experts; lucky for us, he ended up in Nice, where he setup a comfortable Zen-style restaurant, “Keisuke Matsushima” (previously called Kei’s Passion). This French restaurant – with a Japanese twist – is definitely worth a visit: think wasabi beef or fried zucchini with green tea sauce. Yum. His Michelin Star means prices are in the range of: 40-50 euros (lunch) and 130-150 euros (dinner).

(If you can’t live without your Japanese food while on holiday, there are plenty of sushi/Japanese restaurants in Nice, but they are mostly managed by Vietnamese or Chinese staff. In fact, there is only one real Japanese restaurant called Kamogawa, with real Japanese staff. Sushi-ya is a decent sushi shop with a Chinese chef, who did actually work for years making sushi in Japan. MySushi in the old town has a real Japanese chef but it’s overpriced , probably due to it’s centural location.)

Italian Restaurants in Nice

Given Nice’s proximity to Italy (and remembering that the Nice region was once part of the Italian Kingdom!), it’s not a surprise to find a flurry of Italian restaurants – pasta, pizza and all the rest – scattered throughout the city. But beware! Most of them are pale imitations, copying the Italian menus but delivering bland versions of the dishes. For a relatively safe bet, try La Villa d’Este and La Voglia (same owners, different locations – the first in the pedestrian rue Massena and the second just next to the Cours Saleya or “flowers market” in the Old Town). Both places serve wood oven-fired pizzas, abundant antipastis and pasta al dente. Unbeatable is their spaghetti ai frutti di mare (with seafood), served in the perhaps the largest individual bowl I’ve ever seen. Also delicious is their tiramisu dessert.

For something upscale, right across the street from Villa d’Este is the Boccaccio, famous for its seafood platters. For fresh seafood, don’t miss the traditional Cafe de Turin in Garibaldi Square. Another nice pick is the vegetarian-friendly La Zucca Magica, next to the port, with a fixed price menu (around 30 euros) changing every day.

Ice Cream (French – glace ; Italian – gelato) in Nice

Despite its proximity to Italy, the vast majority of ice cream shops in the French Riviera are rip off joints, only serving scoops of the same industrial ice cream that you can buy yourself in any supermarket.

A couple of exceptions can be found in Nice: Fenocchio and Crema di Gelato.

Ice Cream in Nice, France

Fenocchio has 2 shops in the old city, the largest one on the small square Rossetti, where they serve many flavors including local herbs (and even flowers!), such as tomato, garlic, lavander, thyme, violet, or rose. A must try experience.

Fenocchio’s icecream is produced in-house and is colder and icier than the real Italian gelato (if you squeeze it with your teeth you will feel like you are crunching many microscopic ice crystals….)

Crema di Gelato, on the sqare facing the Justice Palace, is totally Italian (so Italian that the owners barely speak French) and only serves 15-20 flavors, but the quality is divine. Unmissable are nocciola (hazelnut) and amarena (sour cherry and cream).

(Italian gelato is softer and smoother than ice cream as you may know it…)

Two other excellent gelato shops, which are located less central, are La Gelateria Torinese in Avenue Gambetta, and Arlequin on Avenue Malaussena.

Nice’s Nicest Beach Restaurants

Don’t expect to find fancy food here, but the charm and atmosphere of dining on the beach – overlooking the blue sea and sailboats zigzagging around the bay – is unmissable. I guess this is why the food is generally overpriced.

I’ll never remember a beach restaurant for the food that they served me…but they are worth the extra cash for the scenery, especially if you’re with good friends or on a romantic getaway.

Two are worth noting here: the first one is the Castel Plage, which the ‘leftmost restaurant’ on the Nice beach (when you’re staring at the sea). It’s quite posh and located just below the rocks, which makes the scenery even more beautiful.

The second one is the Hi Plage. This is brand new – just opened in the summer 2008, and I haven’t tried it, but it sounds great: the interior is apparently designed by the uber-trendy Hi Hotel, and the food is prepared by the one and only Keisuke Matsushima – him again! Can’t wait to try this one!

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What’s for Breakfast?

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Good morning! Awake yet? Hungry? Ready for some stir fried noodles? How about some blackened cow’s blood? Some fried, mushed up pig’s ears?

Mmm, mmm, mmmm…..

I’ve noticed that, when I am traveling, breakfast is often the most difficult meal for me to compromise—it’s early, I’m tired, I may or may not be hungover, and I just want a bowl of Cheerios and a skinny cappuccino to go (yes, to go!). The morning is not the best time for me to be testing my gastronomical limits…..

I find that it’s easier to psych myself up for an exotic, adventurous dinner—or even a crazy lunch—but there’s something sacred about breakfast foods and morning rituals.

Just think about it—we all like our AM dosages of caffeine to be prepared in certain ways, whether small and concentrated, medium and diluted, or large and in charge with 3 added flavors, Starbucks style.

Take a New Yorker out of his or her nest, and you will be hearing about H & H bagels for weeks.

Go on a coffee date with an Aussie, and you’ll doubtlessly depart well-versed in the delightful nuances of ‘flat whites’ and Gloria Jean’s hazelnut lattes.

How do you start your day? One man’s commonplace routine can be another’s most memorable adventure (or worst stomach ache). I’ve surveyed some colleagues and friends, and here are some of the interesting breakfast destinations (Breakinations?) that we came up with……

1. Anchovies, anyone?

Forget your Frosted Flakes …how about a fresh bowl of sweet rice…topped with anchovies?

Yum…

If you’re craving new and exciting cultural and culinary experiences, take a jaunt down to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and kick off your travel adventure by stopping at a roadside stall to delight in the country’s most popular breakfast dish: nasi lemak. The sweet, coconut creamy rice base is typically served with eggs, pickled vegetables, cucumbers, roasted peanuts, spicy sauce, and, of course, anchovies!

2. It’s spicy, it’s sweet, it’s deep fried…it’s Delhi!

If you’re hungry for more adventure, skip over to Delhi, India to sample one of their most popular mid-morning snacks: kachori with aloo dum.

One of my colleagues, originally from Delhi, describes this as one of his favourite breakfast dishes. Basically, a kachori is a deep fried, hollow bread made of wheat and lentils. Kachoris can be filled with various different meat and vegetarian ingredients; in this case, they are stuffed with spicy potato concoction and typically followed by an orange, spiderweb-shaped sweet called a jalebi.

Mmm…

4. Health nuts to Sydney.

Are you turned off by all of the fried, spicy, sweet aforementioned craziness?

Then I suggest going Down Under for some healthy, beachside cooking….

Start of your Australian beach holiday with a traditional Sydney breakfast: smoked Tasmanian salmon on sourdough bread, served with spinach, poached eggs, OJ, a shot of wheat grass, and, of course, a skinny ‘flat white’ (glorified term for a latte). You will be feeling fit in no time!

Heading back home…

Right, so, exotic destinations aside, I can’t get over the English tradition of black pudding, which tends to accompany the full English breakfast (of toast, jam, marmite, fried eggs, sausages, bacon, baked beans, tomatoes, and mushrooms…). It’s fried blood, for crying out loud! Who thought that one up? Weird (but actually…not so bad.)

And to finish on a note which is close to my home and heart, I present to you an American delicacy that most of the world has never heard of: SCRAPPLE.

A patty of finely chopped pork scraps and cornmeal, typically fried and served in a breakfast sandwich. Scrapple is unique to the US Mid Atlantic region (Delaware, Maryland parts of Pennsylvania).

Here, folks, is a segment of the typical ingredient list for this breakfast dish with a cult-like following:

Pig tongue, skin, brains, eyes, ears, head, heart, and liver.

(The hog entrails du jour will vary from patty to patty…)

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Unique Learning Holidays

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Are you aching to break free from the office mundanity?

Do you ever daydream about that hobby, vocation or artistic skill that you never took the time to pursue?

Then why not combine relaxation and leisure with personal development on one of these unique learning holidays………

1. Get Creative in Paris

If you’ve ever strolled through the bustling Montmarte area of Paris—and witnessed the artists happily immersed in their craft—then you’ve probably romanticised your own potentials as a painter.Next time you’re in Paris, rather than purchasing a postcard of a painting, why not paint a pretty postcard yourself!

Get creative in Paris on a half day painting tour, through which you will learn the compositional basics of watercolor painting as you replicate a charming Parisian scene on a postcard.

Make mum proud!

2. Learn to Cook in the Mediterranean.

Do you dream of the fresh fish, cheeses, olives, and fruits of the Mediterranean? Want to learn how to recreate the deliciousness of Eastern Spanish cuisine in your very own kitchen?Then I suggest first embarking on a trip to Malaga, Spain, where you can partake in a Mediterranean Cooking class.

Shop for fresh veggies at a local market, learn to make authentic dishes from a local chef, and at the end of the day, enjoy a nice sit down meal, as you taste your very own creations—and some delectable wines—with your new friends.

3. Pottery Making in Africa

Get down and dirty…behind the pottery wheel…in Tunisia. Immerse yourself in the culture of Nabeul, known for its pottery and ceramic making, as you develop talents of your own!

You will not regret having immersed yourself in the therapeutic process of pottery making; the beauty of this course is that it runs daily—you can pick and choose which days you want to learn and how much time you wish to relax and soak in the beautiful scenery of the Tunisian coastline…It’s time to get creative!

Other Courses:

Photography Tours

Cooking Lunch with the Countess in Paris

Bumbu Bali Cooking Class

Belly Dancing in Tunisia

Blue Elephant Cooking School in Bangkok

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Cool things for American Expats to do on 4th of July in London.

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“Yankee Doodle came to London, just to ride the ponies…”

You are that Yankee Doodle Boy! (or Girl!)

While I am not aware of any upcoming pony parades through Parliament, I can offer my fellow American expats some festive suggestions re: things to do on the upcoming day o’ independence…

What: The Great American Beer Festival
Where: White Horse Pub, 1 – 3 Parsons Green, London, SW6 4UL
When: July 4th-6th, 2008.

No, no, no—not just a bunch of bottles of Bud Light and Michelob Ultra (AKA ‘water’). Tons of specialty American microbreweries (with some British favourites mixed in) will be represented at the famous White Horse Pub on the weekend of the 4th. From Chicago’s ‘Goose Island’ Beer Company to Denver’s ‘Flying Dog’ Brewery, there will be tons of flavors to whet your palette as you soak in the youthful vibrancy (and, hopefully, sunshine!) of Parson’s Green. Get ready for, beers, BBQ, line dancing, live music, and more!

What: O2 Wireless Festival
Where: Hyde Park, London
When: July 3rd – 6th, 2008.

There’s something for every homesick Yankee at the 02 Wireless Festival in Hyde Park; this 4-day extravaganza features performances by Counting Crows, Jay-Z, Goo Goo Dolls and Beck…to name a few. With 5 stages and 100 + performances, this is the biggest London music festival of the year! Again, let’s hope for sunshine…

What: 4th of July Barbeque (Organized by the London Expat American Meetup Group)
Where: Mile End Park, Grove Road & Clinton Road, London, E3 4PE
When: July 5th, 2008 from 2: 30 pm.

If you are looking for something a bit more casual and relaxing, why not whip together Grandma’s best potato salad recipe, grab a case of beer, and join in on the patriotic, picknicking fun with some fellow Americans on Saturday afternoon?

But first, you must join the American Expat Meetup Group (just Google it)—a very useful forum, especially for London newbies!

(And yes, bring your kids, but leave your fireworks at home.)

Know of any other 4th of July events going on in London? Then post below!

HAPPY 4th!!!

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The Omnivore’s East African Dilemma

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A recent rabbinical revelation, which qualified giraffes as amongst those lucky, split-hoofed and cud-chewing animals deemed kosher, got me thinking about my personal meat consumption. From where I’m currently writing (in the American northeast), if I want to eat locally, I’m pretty much restricted to sheep, cows, pigs, goats, and various poultry (minus one if I’m eating kosher!). It thus seems my giraffe-eating opportunities, rabbi-sanctioned or not, are limited. (Full disclosure: I’ve been a vegetarian since the 8th grade…).

But while giraffe remains novel, I did eat zebra once. Well, not really, but I very seriously considered it. I had it on my fork, raised it to my mouth and everything. Alas, at the last second, I got cold feet and finished my meal with my vegetarianism in tact.

Where, you ask, did I have this unique opportunity to test the (narrow) limits of my gastronomical bravado? Certainly not in Philadelphia. No way. I’m afraid enterprising eaters must travel to Kenya to try such exotic and gamey culinary delights. There you must head to Nairobi to have a lunch or dinner at the world-famous restaurant The Carnivore.

While I can’t promise giraffe, you can certainly enjoy such carnal treats as crocodile and antelope. And for those of you with less adventurous palates, grilled and barbequed beef, pork, and chicken are also available.

My vegetarian experience of The Carnivore was limited to some pastry-like, lasagna-esque dish, which I shamefully ordered as my more courageous colleagues had wildebeest and ostrich shaved onto their already overflowing plates. I’m not kidding. Attentive, waistcoat-clad servers literally shaved the meat from spits using very large carving knives at the table!!! (And for the record, my veggie meal was delicious, if embarrassing to order).

After stuffing themselves with as much meat as they could handle, my co-diners surrendered to their protein-induced food comas by raising a white flag. These flags are conveniently left in the middle of the table and signal to the diligent servers/meat-carvers that their customers have had enough game and are ready to move on to dessert.

Okay, so perhaps you’re not down with eating giraffe. I don’t blame you. I prefer my blue-tongued, acacia-eating ungulates without barbeque sauce, thank you very much. If you’re like me then you might favor heading just outside Nairobi to the Ngong Hills. There you’ll find the former house (now turned museum) of Danish author Karen Blixen. Drawing a blank on this one? Think: Meryl Streep, and more importantly, Robert Redford <sigh>, in Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa, the movie based on Blixen’s life and work. In addition to re-living favorite moments from the academy award-winning film while touring the house and its bordering grounds, you get to visit the adjacent Giraffe Center. Here you will meet Daisy, the famous Rothschild giraffe, and also have the chance feed the center’s towering twiga, as the animals are called in Kiswahili.

Of course, there’s nothing like seeing animals in the wild. And for that, Kenya’s certainly the right place! After a few nights in Nairobi, head out of the city for a safari (Kiswahili for “journey” or “travel”) in any number of the country’s National Parks and Wildlife Reserves. In the lush landscape of the Masai Mara, you can see the majestic twiga in their natural habitat, not to mention simba (lion), ndovu (elephant), and kiboko (hippo).

The memories alone are enough to whet my appetite and start me dreaming about Landrovers and acacia-dotted landscapes. Sadly, from where I’m presently sitting in Philadelphia, these exciting meals and safaris are nearly half a world away. So despite the rabbis’ green-light on the ingestion of my favorite ruminant, until my next East African adventure I guess I’ll have to satisfy my giraffe-cravings at the local zoo.

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“Avenue Q” changed my life.

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Avenue Q BA English

“What do you do with a BA in English?

- Move to one of the most expensive cities in the world, clearly.

What is my life going to be?

- Unfulfilling!

Four years of college and plenty of knowledge,
Have earned me this useless degree!

- Indeed.

I can’t pay the bills yet,
‘Cause I have no skills yet,
The world is a big scary place.

- So, take out a loan…and go to grad school?

But somehow I can’t shake,
The feeling I might make,
A difference,
To the huuu-maaan raaaaace…..”

Avenue Q is probably the most life-changing work of art that I have encountered since moving to London. I bow in piety to writers Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez: your words are my new gospel, your songs my holy hymns, your Trekkie Monster, my Messiah…

Trekkie Monster Avenue Q

Beyond re-connecting me with my homeland and re-kindling my love for Sesame Street, this masterpiece of a musical actually transformed my perspective on what it means to be alive. I stand reborn.

“It sucks to be me!”

The key underlying question/theme of show: how does one reconcile the pervasive feelings of unfulfillment that characterize life post-college?

A series of hilarious coping strategies are delivered to you by a mishmash of over-stereotyped characters, colorful puppets, fuzzy monsters, and even a pseudo-Gary Coleman…

The worst thing about Avenue Q? A lot of people might cite the scandalous puppet sex scene. Others might have a strong distaste for hit song, “The Internet is for Porn.” But in my opinion, the worst thing about Avenue Q is that: the more controversial and offensive the lyrics—the more ludicrous the puppets’ behaviours—the more real it actually becomes.

Marx and Lopez have brilliantly extrapolated the most unutterable desires and contemplations of the human psyche, transcribed them into a kitschy, musical parody, and hurled them into the public arena, full force. It is impossible not to laugh out loud when you see one of your own life obstacles being candidly recreated by a furry puppet.

If you haven’t already, you must. If you already have, go again—it’s even funnier the second time. Oh, and did I mention that Avenue Q is one of the most affordable musicals playing in the West End? Get cheap tickets here.

Do it.

Cast of Avenue Q London

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The Republic of Happiness.

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“We have the friendliest border police in the world,” the officer smiled as he handed me back my landing card, “you can start your story with that?”

I’m in love with Ireland. And I’m not just saying this because I still have traces of Guinness lurking in my synapses (folk ballads ringing in my ears, 40 shades of green flashing through my hazy subconscious…). I just met some of the warmest, most welcoming people on the planet. It was their personalities—their enthusiasm for life and for those around them—that defined my travel experience. My most vivid memories of the Emerald Isle will thus linger as a series of encounters with lively locals, namely the following…

1. Michael O’Leary

Not the famed, fiery chief executive of Ryanair—or his son, as insinuated by friends (unless Mike Sr. secretly spawned at age 10)—but nonetheless a most charismatic guru of Dublin nightlife.

Mr. O’Leary’s mantra—“those who have no fear are truly free” (repeated several times, over several pints)—will never be forgotten. Amen, brother. Amen…

“The way I see it, girls,” he grandly gestured toward the window of The Bailey, a trendy, laid back Dublin watering hole—a crossroads for pub-going lads and cocktail-sipping ladies (a good place for the former to take and (attempt to) impress the latter), “is that you have two choices—two potential paths, if you will.”

We sipped our glasses of chardonnay in anticipation.

“But you must first tell me,” he leaned forward: “What is it that you truly hope for?”

In life…or from the bartender? We just wanted to know which, uh, pub we should go to next?

“You see, you have choices.

choices?

“Yes, choices. You can either walk through that door, and turn left…”

He grabbed a pen from his pocket and quickly charted a hyper-detailed route to Café en Seine, a posh French café-turned-disco, on my damp napkin.

“Or, you can go…right.”

The difference being…?

“Well, if you choose left, you choose…suits.”

French cafes and suits? You’ve gotta be kidding. We want a banjo-picking, sham-rocking hoe down. This is Ireland for G’sake…

“But if you turn right…”

He carefully folded the napkin map into my friend’s palm.

“Well, that’s for you to discover.”

Two paths diverged in a green, drunken wood…

And we obviously chose right.

2. Mary O’Sullivan

Mary O’Sullivan was genuinely concerned with our well-being from the moment we stumbled into her Killarney Bicycle Shop—we appeared as two lost, giggling (hung over) tourists on an eager quest to “discover the Ring of Kerry” by bicycle…in four hours…right.

Mary saw how excited we were, though, and graciously offered us extra cycling time—she would come back to meet as after evening mass at 7.15pm on the dot (the shop closed at 6pm that night).

We had no idea where we were going, what to do with our bulky handbags or how to strap on our helmets. But Mary had us covered—she took care of everything. It took her 15 minutes to get us situated on our pink-trimmed town bikes, an amount of time in which, she informed us, “I can usually get 30 people out the door and on the road.” But she didn’t seem to mind mothering us—in fact, I think she really enjoyed it. She pointed out that she had good training for this type of thing, having raised 3 sons.

“Sorry, all married!” She responded…before I could even ask…while fastening my helmet (for the second time). Damn, she was good.

I should note that our cycling tour of Killarney National Park—a topic for another blog—was the unquestionable highlight of our trip to Ireland. Despite a *tiny* setback (we got lost and had to backtrack 15km to a vaguely familiar cow pasture, from which we miraculously navigated our ways back to the main road and into the city center), we had an amazing, scenic, and exhilarating journey through the enormous park and surrounds.

We even managed to make it back to Mary’s shop on time; actually, we were early. Mary informed us that our good fortune was a result of the prayer she said for us at mass.

Honestly, what would we have done without her? Mary O’Sullivan = our saviour.

3. Crazy Tom

Crazy Tom was the acoustic guitarist that stole our hearts with his country ballads and quirky cover selections at that little pub on College Street in downtown Killarney. I’ve spent the last 30 minutes doing crafty Google searches, trying to track down the name of the rustic little venue in which Tom’s musical magic transpired on the evening of May 25th, 2008. But I have failed miserably. Sorry kids—I just don’t remember where I was. But I remember the music…promise.

Fortunately, Killarney is the type of town where you could go door to door and say something like: “Do you know where I can find Tom, the crazy old, guitarist with the crazy hair? He’s incredibly talented and really nice to tourists? He sometimes plays Bob Marley…” And you would probably figure out a way to catch one of Tom’s gigs in less than an hour.

But if you can’t manage to track down Tom, fear not: the Killarney nightlife scene is live music. Just stroll through the city center on a weekend evening—you are bound to encounter tons of traditional/folk + country + rock cover bands in various little pubs and bars. I’ve never seen so many banjos in one weekend. Greatness.

We listened to Tom play for nearly three hours—he dedicated a song to us. We love Crazy Tom. And Irish music. And Killarney. And Ireland. And life…

Your turn

These are just a few of the many wonderful people that I met on a weekend trip to Ireland. I am still shrouded in a happy, boozy haze; I vow to return to the friendliest, leafiest little land in Europe as soon as I possibly can.

‘Tis the perfect season for an Irish jaunt. Get involved!

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