Incredible Ways To Spend Your Vacation in Puerto Rico (List-Style Highlights Published on Trips to Discover!)

I’ve been writing for Trips To Discover for a couple years now and just published some list-style highlights from my Puerto Rico trip. Here’s the link and intro!

http://www.tripstodiscover.com/incredible-ways-to-spend-your-vacation-in-puerto-rico/

Incredible Ways To Spend Your Vacation in Puerto Rico

By: Alyssa Ochs  
On 

Puerto Rico enjoys a very unique place in the world, since it’s a U.S. territory and a Caribbean island at the same time. On one hand, Puerto Ricans use U.S. money, no passport is needed for visitors from the mainland, and English is widely spoken. But on the other hand, the island has a laid-back vibe, beautiful beaches, and fascinating history that feels a world away.

For U.S.-based travelers, Puerto Rico is an accessible destination that offers wonderfully warm 80-degree year-around weather and affordable accommodations. Since the public transportation system here leaves a few things to be desired, the best way to get around is by renting a car to explore all parts of the island. It’s not too difficult to do that either, even if you only have a week to spend here, because it’s only about 100 miles long and 35 miles wide!

These are some of the most unbelievable places to visit in Puerto Rico, which are some of my own personal favorites.

People-Watch at La Plaza del Mercado in Santurce
More details to come about this awesome trip soon!

Adventure Cycling Guest Post! How to Pull Off a Bike Overnight on a Budget

Just a quick share to kick off the weekend…

The Missoula-based Adventure Cycling Association published my guest post today about my first overnight bike experience and some budget-friendly tips!

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http://www.adventurecycling.org/resources/blog/how-to-pull-off-a-bike-overnight-on-a-budget/

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Check it out and mad props to ACA for featuring my ride!

48 Hours in the World’s Most Romantic (eh?) City: Paris

By the time I reached Paris by train, I had already spent five days in Amsterdam, three days in Brussels, and visited the world’s greatest gnome-themed brewery in Belgium. That’s a solid trip right there, but my journey was only half complete.

I had just 48 hours to soak up Parisian culture and see for myself if the city lived up to the hype.

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PARIS: DAY 1

The Gare du Nord train station in Paris was super close to our hostel, which served fresh croissants, coffee, and juice each morning. Vintage Hostel is on rue de Dunkerque and was a pretty sweet place to stay, with 1 Euro Heinekens during happy hour, a foosball table, and good Wi-Fi. We had booked a four-person dorm and found ourselves shacking up with a guy from North Carolina and a girl from an undisclosed location in South America.

It was also just a short walk to Sacre Coeur.

P1020658This was a huge cathedral with a lonely carousel outside. Mysterious armed guards met our acquaintance as we walked up the stairs and beggars flocked toward us from all directions. It really was a beautiful church though….and those views! P1020667This was a great place to snap a panoramic shot of the city…which is clearly what every other tourist quickly discovered too. Next up: the Arc de Triomphe! P1020699And what a triumph it was! I was feeling a bit under the weather during my entire time in Paris, mostly due to a weird bubbled lodged in my right eye. (It’s not contagious, I swear!) So the walk to reach this classic landmark was a bit of a doozy.

A doozy yes, but also an insightful glimpse into the real streets of Paris. These were streets filled with trash, traffic, tow trucks, and sporadic yelling. It all kind of reminded me of a European version of New York City…but with more motorcycles and scooters.

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Marching on, we looked tirelessly for that elusive hunk of scaffolding that everybody’s always talking about.
P1020761Well I finally found it (I’m totally pulling your leg…it’s completely obvious) and those were my first words, “That’s it? It looks like a bunch of scaffolding!” To me, it seemed like an unfinished piece of construction, but it sure is big.

The park around the Eiffel Tower was really nice though. We stopped by a local Soup & Juice to pick up lunch to-go and plopped down on a nearby bench. It was a weekday, so the crowds were totally manageable. The lines to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower were not manageable in my opinion, and I’ve seen enough vistas from high places lately, so we skipped that whole thing.

An interesting part of the visit was that a large screen was placed on the lawn and played a tennis match. Tennis fans rooting for Robert Federrer and the other guy perched themselves on the lawn to watch. The temperatures were finally warming up and the sun was shining. What a wonderful way to spend an afternoon!

But the minutes of our 48 hours in Paris were ticking away, so onward we plodded into the city…

Everyone knows that Paris is full of a ridiculous number of museums. Some people handle museum days better than others…

P1020788Like these tourists who I busted passing out mid-day outside one of the military museums, I was starting to get museum-ed out myself. This fact coupled with the time constraints were enough reason to simply view the museum’s architecture and sculptures from the outside rather than actually going inside.

P1020801The stroll took us past Ecole Militaire, Musee de L’Armee, Musee de Orsay, the Louve, and the Seine.P1020814All this urban hiking was making me thirsty, so we decided to stop at a fancy French cafe for an afternoon treat.
P1020822Our waiter was only moderately snooty, and after some time passed, he brought us a bottle of their cheapest white wine on the menu (30 Euros and decent) and a lemon/strawberry dessert (14 Euros and tiny).

With a little French sustenance in our systems, we continued on to explore yet another stereotypical French tradition…shopping!
P1020851This was the huge indoor luxury shopping complex known as Galleries Lafayette. In our not-so-luxurious outfits, we browsed all sorts of counters Tiffany, Coach, etc. and didn’t buy a damn thing. Le sigh.

That evening was pretty low key…I cranked out an article for work and we used a couple free drink coupons at On the Road Pub that our hostel handed out. Then we took a stroll around the neighborhood in search of by-the-slice pizza and failed miserably. I guess it’s not a French thing.

PARIS: DAY 2

My eye condition had worsened by the morning, but I was still convinced to see the sights of Paris. Passing through the Indian part of town, we walked to the Marais neighborhood, which is raved about in the all the guidebooks.

Instead of just walking by and snapping pictures of museums, we actually went into one on Day #2…the Picasso museum. I’ve always enjoyed a good abstract/cubist creation.

P1020879Even if you arrive a Paris’ museums before they open, it seems there is always a line anyway. The line only took about 30 minutes to get through, which wasn’t too bad. There were four floors to check out here and it was pretty interesting to see all of his non-cubist works and sculpture work in addition to the well-known paintings.

We had packed a picnic lunch to take to Vosges, another famous Parisian park, and snagged some gelato at a little shop on the way out. We also took a walk to Bastille, another big monument here, but no one takes photos excessively of it like they do the Arc de Triomphe.
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After a quick nap back at the hostel (when in Paris…), I got all dolled up for a fancy night out on the town. 
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Dinner was at Petit Canard, which translates to The Duckling. It was my first pleasant dining experience in France, as the staff was nice, the service was good, and the restaurant was cute but not crowded.

It seemed that no trip to Paris, no matter how short, would be complete without seeing a show. So we booked tickets for a cabaret show at La Nouvelle Eve.
P1020936Photography wasn’t allowed during the show, but let me assure you, the evening was filled with plenty of singing, dancing, costumes, champagne, and perky breasts. It was all a bit cheesy and touristy, but definitely a fun time.
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Okay, I guess my math is bad because we actually had a couple more than 48 hours in Paris. On the morning of third day, we woke up early and walked to Père Lachaise Cemetery, to see row-after-row of elaborate gravestones and mausoleums.

P1020967The big tourist draw here is the site where Jim Morrison was buried, and there are fences surrounding it so you don’t bother him too much.

Morrison’s great and all, but this was one of my favorite gravestone. Well done George…you’ve epitomized every horror movie fan’s nightmare-come true.P1020968

But before catching our flight to the UK, we had one last stop to make in Paris. After one last stroll along the Seine (because that’s what you’re supposed to do in Paris, right?), we finally found the elusive Ile Saint Louis, which is an “island” with an ice cream shop made famous by Anthony Bourdain. 
P1020974I must admit, Berthillon did serve up some pretty delicious ice cream…my ultimate food weakness.

Paris is one of those overrated places that you visit and expect to be wowed in an instant. But what I remember most is how burnt out I felt on city life. In the short amount of time I spent here I felt beyond irritated with the crowds, the lines the noise, the smells, and just people in general.

I grew up in a town of 2,000 people and dreamed of big city life. But by now, I’ve been there, done that, and moved on. I certainly don’t want to move back to that tiny town, but I’ve come to really appreciate solitude, the sight of trees outside my window, and the sounds of birds chirping in the morning. Sometimes the best part about traveling is coming to new realizations about yourself.

I wouldn’t say that Paris is at the top of my “must visit again” list, but I wouldn’t mind seeing less-touristy/more-quirky areas of the city someday. Although Paris was technically part of my honeymoon, I didn’t see the romantic appeal that’s touted in all those movies and storybooks. But then again, I’m not all that romantic of a gal, so what I do know?

As with most cities, I’m sure that there’s a neighborhood or two that I would have fallen in love with. But those will have to wait a little while because there are plenty of other places to discover for the first time.

Next stop: the English countryside! Au revoir!

A German Village Oddly Misplaced in the Hills of North Georgia

These days, pretty much all travel planning is done via the interwebs. I work for travel companies, write for travel blogs, and Google my way from one destination to the next.

However, this travel story begins differently than all the others. That’s because I planned this trip WITH A BOOK.

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I picked up this book at a local state park after a hike and flipped through it up occasionally while it sat on the coffee table. I picked out six or seven “quick escapes” from Atlanta that I wanted to check out, and one of them was the Helen/Clarkesville/Sautee area. Here are a few key points from the book that stuck out to me about this particular escape:

  • German alpine village
  • Waterfalls
  • International restaurants
  • Local wine
  • German beer
  • Boiled peanuts

Following the book’s recommendations, we started our two-day northern Georgia journey in Cornelia, a tiny town “famous” for having the world’s largest apple monument. It was pretty big, as far apples go anyway.

20150718_113810There isn’t a whole heck of a lot else going on in Cornelia (population 3,834), so we quickly moved on down US 23 to Clarkesville, another little town (population 1,250) known for mountain craft and antique stores. The book recommended a placed called Stephen’s for lunch, but Stephen must have lost in an epic battle to someone named Tucker.

I haven’t the slightest idea who Stephen or Tucker are, but this is when I realized my prized book was published in 1996. Whoops.20150718_130820

Lunch at Tucker’s was pretty alright – a fried green tomato sandwich and side salad, which hit the spot and seemed appropriately southern. Well, the fried part at least.
20150718_131021Then we mozied on over to a few of the little craft shops and watched cows paint other cows. Craft shops and festival booths always make me wish that (1) I didn’t have to have a full time job, (2) that I had unwavering motivation to keep up with crafts, and (3) that I was much, much better at crafts. Le sigh.
20150718_132107Old timey libraries with lots of books and grandma-style couches welcomed us in town…
20150718_135102…and so did little pathways around historic (abandoned?) cabins surrounding by strategically-placed statues. I’m always willing to lend a helping hand to a friendly statue.20150718_135159But statues can only provide entertainment for so long, and our next stop was Sautee, a town best known for its old general store.20150718_143502Inside the store were lots of old-timey relics…
20150718_143554…and even circus-style games that tested the strength of your love and let you watch a little peep show. I think I saw an ankle. I’m not entirely sure, but it still felt scandalous.20150718_144133By this point in the day, I’d worked up a hearty thirst. Fortunately, the Habersham Vineyards and Winery was on the way to Helen. The Southern Harvest label utilizes the distinctly Southern Muscadine grape to make sweet, fruity wines. I picked up a bottle of Peach Treat, which seemed only appropriate for a Georgia winery.

Tastings were $5 per person, but the most memorable part of this winery visit was the slushy drinks. Habersham had two slushy options: a peach flavor with white wine and a blackberry pomegranate flavor with red wine. Wine slushies…what a brilliant idea for a hot summer day!
20150718_151421Nothing really goes better with wine than chocolate, and fortunately, there are lots of sweet shops in Helen. Unfortunately, it rarely dips below the mid-90s here in the summer. So if you’re going to buy chocolate, you’re going to have to stuff your face with it right away or be prepared for a nasty mess in your pocket.

20150718_185851Unlike my typical travels that usually involve stays at campgrounds and hostels, I sprung for a full-fledged B&B this time. In Helen, we stayed at the Alpine Hilltop Haus, whose owners were kind enough to accommodate us for just one night. Most B&Bs in the area require a two-night minimum…even for last-minute bookings, which is annoying.
20150718_182624Our room had the most amazingly realistic mural painted on it. Seriously, nothing in this photo is real except the chairs, table and lamp. Mind = blown.
20150718_182336It was totally relaxing to hang out in the B&B’s living room, which was much more spacious than mine back at home. This is where I watched some ridiculous reality show about dating naked while flipping through old copies of National Geographic Traveler, while my husband started putting together a puzzle of an bland lighthouse.

This is also where breakfast was served the next morning, which was a tasty egg quiche, breads, coffee, and tea. There were four or five other couples staying here as well, but it didn’t feel crowded. The back yard overlooked the Chattahoochee River down below, which would have been quite peaceful if not for all those silly tubers.
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The big thing to do in Helen, which I quickly discovered, is tubing. Tourists stand in long lines waiting to board re-purposed school buses and be dropped off at the top of the river. They leisurely float down the gentle currents, bumping into each other and awkwardly getting out to swim from time to time.

The crowds, lines, and congestion made this an unattractive option for our relaxing, low-key weekend. But perhaps another time.
20150718_191657There were quite a few German restaurants around town in Helen, and although the food is hit or miss, this particular restaurant got my “thumbs up” for having cool steins. And the beer was pretty alright. 20150718_194200

But putting all the trip details aside, I find it absolutely bizarre that a German-themed village is tucked away in the hills of north Georgia.

Apparently, Helen was a logging town that was going downhill fast. To resurrect itself, some local business folks decided to recreate a Bavarian alpine village in its place and try to bring in some tourists. Even franchise businesses like Dollar General and Huddle House have that German architecture look.

20150718_202446And not surprisingly, this is also THE place in the area to party for Oktoberfest. On weekend evenings, this little town square area is filled with DJs spinning bad 90s dance-along tunes and vacation-minded southerners dancing-it-up with plastic cups of beer in hand. Then again, it’s also a total family-friendly area and kids are everywhere.
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After waking up in the B&B the next morning, we took the kayak out on Lake Unicoi, a 53-acre lake in Unicoi State Park. There isn’t a whole lot of water to paddle here, but it is pretty peaceful.

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Then we drove over to Anna Ruby Falls for a short waterfall hike. You only have to hike in a half mile from the parking lot to see the falls, which is created by the convergence of Curtis and York Creeks. Curtis drops 153 feet and York drops about 50.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo this was my experience planning a weekend trip “by the book.” It started with a book, and then branched out into randomness from there. Helen is just an hour and a half from Atlanta, but it couldn’t feel farther away.

Sure, it’s more touristy than authentic, but what more would you really expect from a European replica in the American south? Regardless, it’s one of the most unique places I’ve discovered down here and totally worth a stop to gawk if you’re passing through.

An Afternoon in Clovelly, A Step Back in Time

After spending a dream-come-true afternoon at The Gnome Reserve in the WAY remove countryside of England, I found myself searching for something else interesting to do in North Devon.

Something…oh I don’t know…England-y, something country-ish, something off-the-grid. Something like Clovelly.

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I think I first learned about Clovelly from TripAdvisor. It’s a small village in the Torridge district that’s intentionally stuck in time in the mid-19th century. It’s known for steep cobblestone streets that allow donkeys, but not cars. It’s also known for it’s lovely coastal views over the Bristol Channel.

Interestingly, Clovelly is a privately owned city that’s been under the control of the same family since 1738. In fact, it’s been run by just three families since the middle of the 13th century – nearly 800 years! According to the most recent census, around 443 people call this place home today.
IMG_2128Visitors are required to park at the top of a hill and enter through the Visitor’s Center. It costs £6.95 to get into Clovelly, which goes towards building maintenance and historic restoration.

We caught the last 5 minutes of the 20-minute video that tells about the village’s history and picked up a brochure to fill in the gaps. After passing by some resident donkeys, we took a stroll to check out the silk and pottery craft workshops before they closed for the day.

IMG_2136The cobblestone streets here are too steep for cars, so donkeys were used as the primary means of transportation for centuries. Now it seems that the donkeys are more of a tourist attraction than a source of hard labor, but motor vehicles are still prohibited. Everything from groceries to building materials are now hauled up and down by sledge.
IMG_2167The buildings here are ridiculously cute, from old-timey inns to chapels and houses that you swear people must not truly live in…but they really do.
IMG_2192It was about 5 pm when we were talking around, which is when many of the shops were closing. But I didn’t mind. Closed shops meant less temptation to break the Eurotrip budget, and it’s not like any more trinkets would fit in my backpack anyway. Closed shops also meant less crowds…which is perfect in a place like Clovelly.

IMG_2206However, a few restaurants and bars remained open and we were able to snag some traditional English grub and a couple beers before heading home at the end of the day.
IMG_2227But what I loved most about this place was the seascape. I’ve always been a sucker for little towns along the shore, and this was by far one of most serene and beautiful ones I’ve visited. Clovelly used to be a fishing village, which isn’t surprising, considering its perfect location and plethora of boats.
IMG_2263One thing that surprised me though was the waterfall. As if this village wasn’t beautiful enough, someone had to stick a waterfall in there too.

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You have to hike across some medium-sized pebbles and stones (a little rough in flats with minimal support) from the main cobblestone path to reach it, but when you do, you can walk right up to the waterfall. Behind it is a cave, where it’s rumored that the Arthurian magician Merlin was born.IMG_2347Speaking of magic…the air was warm (finally!), the sun was shining bright, and funny blobs of clouds dotted the sky.
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Author Charles Kingsley lived in Clovelly as a child, and the town inspired him to write Westward Ho and The Water Babies. Over a century and a half ago, here’s how he described the village:

Suddenly a hot gleam of sunlight fell upon the white cottages, with their grey steaming roofs and little scraps of garden courtyard, and lighting up the wings of the gorgeous butterflies which fluttered from the woodland down to the garden.

IMG_2410And these boats aren’t just for decoration either. If you have a little more time to spend here than we did, you can book a fishing trip or a boat excursion to nearby Lundy Island at the Visitor’s Center.
IMG_2435There are two hotels in town…one at the top and one at the bottom. The one at the bottom is called the Red Lion, which used to be a coal store and tavern back in the day. There are a couple cottages that offer bed and breakfast accommodations too. IMG_2441 There’s a bar inside the Red Lion where I snagged this beer and took it outside to sip by the dock in the sunshine.IMG_2449After a little beer-fueled relaxation, there was really only one way to go…back up. So I begin retracing my steps and climbing the cobblestone stairs back to the top of the village.

Little did I know at the time that I’d left my wallet down by the dock and actually had to run all the way down and back up again to find it. Fortunately, it was right where I left it…passport and all. A little extra exercise never hurt anyone.
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Sure, Clovelly may be categorized as a tourist attraction, but to me it was one of those really unique places I’ll never forget. It’s easy to find historic villages all over the world, but this one had a uncommonly authentic vibe that’s hard to describe.

Clovelly made me forget about checking my smartphone, forget about the conjunctival cyst that was stuck in my eye, and forget about being in a hurry to get anywhere. To me, it felt like a fairytale, but it’s nothing more than real life for hundreds of people who call it home…which is fascinating to me.
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The whole concept behind Clovelly intrigues me and honestly creeps me out a little bit. The village has inspired me to write a fictional short story about the alleged deep, dark secrets of the village’s owner family and why its residents have stayed for so long.

I’m not the first one to have this bright idea either. An 18th century fiction book called The History of John Gregg and his Family of Robbers and Murderers tells the story of cannibalistic bandits who lived in Clovelly and committed over a thousand murders while living in a cave by the sea.

Does Clovelly really have deep, dark secrets? I guess you’ll just have to visit for yourself…or read my upcoming hypothetical novel.

My Gnome-tastic Visit to Brewery Achouffe in Belgium

Several years ago while shopping at Whole Foods, I caught a glimpse of a gnome perched atop a beer tap at the grocery store’s bar. Ever since that day, I’ve been obsessed with Brasserie D’Achouffe, a gnome-themed brewery in the countryside of Belgium.

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Through my gnome writings, I’ve even gotten to know the brewery’s founder, Chris Bauweraerts via email! Well one of my gnome travel bucket-list dreams recently came true when I booked a trip to Belgium to visit Chris and these tiny gnome brewers.

My gnome-supportive husband and I rented a car in Brussels, and drove two hours to reach the brewery in the rolling hills of the Belgian Ardennes. Belgians drive on the right side of the road, not the wrong/left side like they do in the UK, so it was pretty easy to get around.

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But first, we stopped in Liege, a small Belgian town on the way. A quick TripAdvisor search told me that the top thing to do in Liege was climb the Coteaux de la Citadelle, which involves 374 stairs that lead to an awesome view of the town.

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The town of Liege has an upper level and a lower level, so we wandered the streets of both, which were connected by peaceful wooded trails. Although I only had a couple hours to spend here, I’d say it was definitely a worthwhile pit stop.

And what’s a pit stop without some sustenance?! Here’s me skeptically eating a delightful (?) lunch of canned corn and peanut butter while watching some drama go down with the local police.

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But without further delay, onward we traveled to Achouffe! The brewery location is beautiful with cutesy homes, a small lake, and gnome figures scattered all around on the walls and signs.

Chouffe 1It was a Friday afternoon and all was quiet on the gnome-front. This was fine with me, as it provided many uninterrupted photo ops with the local gnome residents.

Chouffe 2Helpful gnomes pointed us in the right direction as we explore the grounds before our scheduled tour.
Chouffe 4Reminiscent of that day back in Chicago when I “gnomed myself” at Chouffe Fest Chicago, the brewery had a perfectly-situated and oversized chair to hop into and feel as tiny as the gnome brewers themselves.

Related: The Night I Gnomed Myself – Chouffe Fest Chicago

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Standard brewery tours are in Dutch; however, our gracious guide, Lydia, took the time to translate everything in English just for us.

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We got to see the Achouffe beer-making equipment, brewing vats, and even a short film about the brewery’s history. Not surprisingly, I was captivated and enthralled during every single moment.

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Then Lydia led us to the tasting room to sample all the Chouffe specialties: the traditional blonde (La Chouffe), decadent brown(Mc Chouffe), hoppy IPA (Houblon Chouffe), and fruity summer beer (Chouffe Soleil). I must reveal that I’m a bit of a craft beer connoisseur, and even if gnomes weren’t on each label, these would still be some of my all-time favorites!

Chouffe 8I even got to play bartender for a bit! Could a full-time gig and relocation to Belgium be in my future?

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Although the staff gave us complementary glasses and postcards, I quickly found myself stocking up on gnome gear at the souvenir shop. I’m now the proud owner of a long-sleeved Chouffe bike shirt, wall plaque, key chain, and zip drive!

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But the highlight of my brewery visit was meeting and spending time with the owner and founder, Chris. I could not have asked for a more welcoming and hospitable host!

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Chris published a book, called My Chouffe Story, which details how the brewery began in 1982 and how the gnomes became such an important part of the brewing process. He gave me a signed copy of his book as a gift, a memento I will always treasure.

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Chris went out of his way to make us fall in love with the Belgian countryside, taking us to some of his favorite places in the area. We followed Chris, (in his orange shirt and orange car…a fellow fan of everything orange, like me!) to a nearby bed, breakfast & brewery, La Vieille Forge, which is known as the tiniest brewery in Belgium.

By the way, the concept of a BB&B is amazing and there should be more of these…EVERYWHERE.

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I got to meet the mastermind behind Brewery Inter-Pol and sample his two original beers, which were delicious. I really just wanted to stay at this tiny country pub for a while with the super-friendly locals and crash overnight at the B&B, but alas, all the rooms were booked for a biking event in the area. Maybe next time.

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After reluctantly leaving the tiny brew pub, Chris took a traditional kebob & fries restaurant, Friterie Au Chat l’Heureux, to fill up our stomachs after all that awesome beer.

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There were a few too many choices for my overloaded brain at this point in the brew-fueled day, but was finally able to decide on an order. Whew.

Fries are a big deal in Belgium, and although I tend to avoid the greasy specimens back in the States, I felt obliged to give ’em try on this side of the pond. I can’t deny that they were a tremendously satisfying post-beer snack. Good thing I’d been averaging 10 miles of walking per day!

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Chris knows the ins and outs of everything in the Belgian Ardennes…even the history behind an old cemetery that we stopped to check out along the road.

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In caravan-style, we spent our afternoon following him to a few of his other favorite places in the area, including a WWII site, scenic nature sites with yellow wildflowers, the production & bottling facility, and a local pub.

Chouffe19Gnome and beer enthusiasts truly are the friendliest people in the world, and I’m so happy to have hundreds of photos (literally, hundreds) to remember my gnome-tastic day forever.

Chouffe18A big thanks goes out to Chris, Isabelle, Lydia, and all the Chouffe staff for making my gnome brewery visit absolutely perfect. Cheers!

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*A version of this story is published in the current edition of the “International Gnome Club Newsletter.” Drop a line to President Liz Spera [email protected] become a member of our club and keep up with gnome enthusiasts like me!

Highlights from the Quirky Capital of Waffles, Beer & Chocolate: Brussels, Belgium

So after five amazing days in Amsterdam (Alyssa in Amsterdam: A Brief Rundown of Awesome Things), my next Eurotrip stop was Brussels…the capital of Belgium that’s world-famous for a few key things. Belgian waffles, Belgian chocolate, and Belgian beer were definitely at the top of my to-do list.

We arrived late via train and checked into the Urban City Centre Hostel. The perk here was that we had our own private room and bathroom. The downside was that this was probably the loudest hostel we stayed at. Earplugs be damned. Regardless, it was nice to have some personal space after sharing an eight-person dorm.

One thing that I quickly learned about Brussels is that the city has a sense of humor. Not in that “I’m trying super hard to be hipster-ish” sort of way, but more of in an “I’m so quirky that I don’t even realize that I’m quirky” way.

Take, for example, Manneken Pis.

pisShrouded by legends, mischief, and fancy outfits, this tiny peeing boy statue is a huge deal in Brussels. This shot was taken early in the morning before the crowds piled up. Normally, it looks more like this or worse.

crowdThe statue really is that small and just inconspicuously stuck onto an otherwise unassuming street corner. But still, it’s a big deal to these Belgians. So much of a big deal that the little guy gets a wardrobe change just about as much as I do.

We later visited the Museum of the City of Brussels, which was a pretty average museum…until you reached the top floor. This is where all the Manneken Pis replicas reside wearing outfits from different countries, current events, and random themes.

You can actually look online before you visit to see what he’ll be wearing on upcoming days. Spoiler alert: sometimes he’s just naked!

costumesAnother big hit in Brussels is the waffles. Don’t believe the hype of the “one-Euro waffle.” It might sound like a bargain too-good-to-be true, and it is. That price is just for the plain, boring waffles that I could pretty much just make at home.

All the real deliciousness is in the toppings…strawberries, bananas, whipped cream, peanut butter, ice cream, and Nutella – from what I saw, all of Europe is obsessed with Nutella.

However, the waffles’ deliciousness is somewhat counteracted by their messiness. They’re impossible to eat without getting schmutz all over your face and the weak plastic forks vendors provide you with are an absolute joke.

mushroom

Smurf house! I kinda-sorta fit inside.

Belgian waffles should only be attempted by professionals, those not afraid to look like a fool, and those who are not on a first date.
waffleAnother big deal in Belgium is the almighty comic book. We visited the Belgian Comic Strip Center and I was surprised to learn how many comics were created by Belgian artists.
comic2I was a moderate Smurfs fan back in the 80s, and there was lots of Smurfs stuff to be seen here. The museum really wasn’t all that big, but it was more interesting than I expected, especially as a not-so-huge comic book fan. The Adventures of Tin Tin also had a big exhibit here and a whole shop dedicated to Tin Tin memorabilia.

But what got me really interested in Belgian comics was when I spotted GNOMES in a weird Polish comic created by illustrator, Grzegorz Rosinski. His comic is called Thorgal and I bought this particular book of his that featured helpful little gnomes in the woods. It’s called “The Guardian of the Keys” and was pretty entertaining to read.
gnomecomic

Although I didn’t sample as much Belgian chocolate as I did waffles or beer, I did make it to Chocolatier Mary, which is a famous handmade chocolate shop that supplies the royal family. You kind of need to be royalty to afford it too.

I settled on a €9.50 box of chocolate liqueurs and made them last as long as humanly possible…which was about two days.
chocolateWhich brings me to the beer…the strong, delicious, and wonderful beer of Belgium! One of our first stops was the Delirium Cafe. Sure, it’s touristy, but it’s actually a whole alley full of Delirium bars, which is pretty fun.

It’s a cute little alley with outside seating and rare varieties on tap that you just don’t find in the U.S. This is where I fell in love with Delirium Red and Floris Cactus. Floris is a Delirium brand that specializes in fun, fruity beers.beer

One of my favorite afternoons in Brussels was spent at Au Brasseur, a beer bar in the central restaurant area where I learned about La Corne in its horn-shaped glass & holder and sipped a few of these while drawing in my sketchbook.

beers

Of course, Brussels has lots of museums to check out if you’re not already museumed-out by this point in the trip. museum

And the architecture is absolutely nuts if you’re into gorgeous city scenery and all that.

night shot

But never fear…there’s plenty of more weird stuff lurking around the streets of Brussels. For one, the Atomium.

I really expected a science lesson from this visit, but instead I got a history about a world expo in 1958 and a bunch of closed-off areas.

atom1There are eight levels spread across five spheres that you can access by stairs and elevators. Honestly, the exhibits weren’t all that interesting…certainly not worth €11. But this escalator was pretty trippy, so I’ll give it that.
atom2Determined to make the most of our €11 tickets, we took the elevator to the very top to see panoramic views of the city and look down upon the equally-weird attraction of Little Europe down below.

Here’s me sipping a pricey drink from the top sphere and looking down over the city.atom3But one of the most random things we did in Brussels was attending a marionette show at Theatre de Toone. It was all in French and I don’t speak a lick of French.

Well, other than, “Haw haw! Oui oui! Baguette! Croissant!”

This is a traditional Brussels puppet theater that was recommended to us by the son of the owner of Achouffe Brewery. The show recounted the history of a French/Flemish battle in the 1300s, of which I was completely lost about 90 percent of the time.

But alas, attending the not-so-well-attended show makes for a fun story to tell, and it was an absolutely random way to spend an evening in a random city. marionettesMeanwhile and elsewhere in Brussels, you can find gigantic cartoon characters and mock their hand gestures…comic1…or reprimand fake dogs for peeing on sidewalks…
dog

…or do some laundry, because well, you’ve backpacking for weeks…

laundry

…or watch street performers do things like this (whatever “this” is)…

performance art...or try to walk through doors that resemble fake forests.

Yep! You can do all that in Brussels and more. P1020413

And then you can write home about it. Just look for the red post boxes and pop in a post card!

postcardBrussels definitely was something to write home about, and I’ll always remember it for its quirkiness.

Alyssa in Amsterdam: A Brief Rundown of Awesome Things

I just spent three weeks in Europe and I haven’t written a damn thing about it. And it’s killing me.

Well, okay fine. That’s not entirely true. On my third day in Amsterdam, my husband (yup, I have a husband now) bought me a little paperback journal from the Van Gogh Museum.

Van Gogh Journal

At least every couple days, I jotted down travel notes about things that stuck out to me and random stuff I wanted to remember. However, none of it was anything fancy, and none it ever found its way to the interweb.

Documenting the trip has felt like a pretty overwhelming endeavor, to be honest. And my freelance writing day job is drowning me, which is by all means a wonderful thing when you’re self-employed, but doesn’t exactly make me motivated to saddle up for personal writing at the end of the day.

I’ve talked myself into and out writing Euro-posts a dozen times now, but for some reason, I stuck with it today. Perhaps it’s the surprisingly tasty Diesel Punk Stout that is helping the words flow from my fingertips, or the familiar return to normalcy that makes me crave another excursion.

Who knows; who cares. It’s happening today and I’m letting it.

But first a disclaimer: Travel writing for money has made me a bit jaded about the whole industry. I write things about places I’ve never been and will probably never go just to get paid. And the Internet is little more than a regurgitated mess of paraphrasing and repetition.

But I have to write something about my travels…SOMETHING! 

So today, I adhere to the KISS principle: Keep It Simple Stupid. I’m just going to share a few of my favorite things from Amsterdam and leave it at that. Amsterdam is my new favorite European city, and I want to remember the things that made me fall in love with it.

This won’t be any literary masterpiece, but it will get me back into the groove of journaling for love of the game – not the love of the bling.

So without further ado, and in no particular order…

ALYSSA IN AMSTERDAM: A BRIEF RUNDOWN OF AWESOME THINGS

An 8-Person Hostel Room

One bathroom for eight people is kind of ridiculous, but somehow we made it work. Our most interesting roommate was a guy who woke up with two face piercings he didn’t remember getting.

We later found out that he wasn’t a registered guest and had actually just convinced another roommate to let him shack up so he didn’t have to sleep in a park. Ahhh…hostel life.

Hostel

Creepy Bunny Statues

I’ve always enjoyed these types of city-relevant/creature-themed public art displays. I remember the pandas when I lived in DC and the cows in Chicago.

I had no idea at the time, but these creepy bunnies are part of Nijntje Art Parade ~ Celebrating 60 Years of Miffy. It’s a kids’ book from the 1950s that was popular in the Netherlands. The more you know…

bunny

Cheese Sample Heaven

And just when I thought Vermont was THE place to be for cheese samples…I was wrong. The Dutch make some damn good cheese, and they aren’t stingy about handing it out.

My favorites were the non-standard varieties, like pesto and cumin, and Gouda…lots of Gouda.

cheese

More Bikes than Cars

I’ve always heard about how big “bike culture” is in Amsterdam, but it didn’t sink in until I was there.

Trying to cross the street as a pedestrian surrounded by hundreds of cyclists coming from all directions was utterly terrifying. But a place that has more bikes than cars is definitely my style.

bikes

Flowers Freaking Everywhere

The Dutch like their tulips, and although we arrived a bit late for prime tulip season, there were still plenty of pretty flowers to ogle at.

I wanted to buy some tulip bulbs from a city market and ship them back home, but I guess that’s illegal. The shopkeeper I inquired with told me they’d get stuck at customs, so I had to abandon my dream of growing Amsterdam flowers in Atlanta.

Oh well, the heat down here would have probably killed ’em anyway.

flowers

Europe is cold. You’ll see this same dumb blue jacket in pretty much every photo I’m in.

A Weird Cat Museum

A museum about cats…nothing but cats. I’m not even that much of a cat person, but this was too random to pass up. Kattenkabinet: a small, very specific, and slightly overpriced museum that will have you scratching your head for hours.

cat museum

Stupidly Cute Canals

The canals here are just stupidly cute. End of story.

canal

Space Cakes

Space cakes are nothing short of magical. Again, end of story.

My recommendation is Easy Times on Prinsengracht.

space cake

Coffee Shops with Pinball

These exist. Yep.

Pinball

Hemp Education

The Hash Marihuana & Hemp Museum is actually really historical, educational, offers a handy audio guide, and is worth the € 9.

Pro: One of the exhibits featured gnomes
Con: No free samples

hemp museum

The Lovely World of Delft

Even though this blue and white Dutch stuff is totally a Chinese knockoff, it’s beautiful.

I bought a Delft pendant and flower vase. Now if only I had those Dutch tulips to stick in the vase!

Delft

Museum Overload

Like many European cities, Amsterdam has tons of museums. We hit up some of the big ones, like the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum.

I’m certainly not one to argue with getting a little exhibition education during my travels. However, I came to realize that I have about a two-hour attention span per museum, and that I will get pretty museumed-out if I try to visit more than two in one day.

museum

Biking to the Almost-Countryside

One thing that this Eurotrip taught me is that I can only handle so much city life before I get cranky and crave some fresh air and solitude. One of my favorite days was the day we took a bike trip outside the city limits to the “almost countryside.”

The leisurely ride was complete quirky Dutch guide, international strangers, a windmill, and a farm with cows, a cheese production facility, a wooden shoe shop, and an touristy gift shop.

bike

Staying Up Late for Window Hos

A trip to Amsterdam really wouldn’t be complete without scoping out the legal prostitution scene. One thing that I learned though is that the ladies don’t make an appearance until well after 10 pm.

Despite the fact that it stayed daylight until about 10 pm in Amsterdam, staying awake that late was rough. Blame the 10+ miles of walking per day, or just blame being 31.

redlight

Brewery in a Windmill

Although our next stop, Brussels, proved to be the best beer destination in Europe by far, Amsterdam had some decent beer bars too.

The most iconic and memorable one was Brouwerij’t IJ, which was neatly positioned inside some sort of windmill. This was one of our last stops before catching a train to Brussels, where much more amazing beer was to be had.

breweryAnd that’s the best of the best…or at least the best of what’s coming to mind right now. Amsterdam was an amazing place that I could actually see myself living in for a year or so.

Who knows whether or not that’ll happen or not, but at least the city inspired me to start writing again. Cheers!

Hiking to the Tallest Waterfall in the Southeast (with a Dog): Amicalola Falls, Georgia

One of the best things that I’ve discovered about living in Georgia is that there are lots of decent hiking trails within an hour’s drive.

Before my living situation brought me to the southeast instead of the northwest, I put a high priority on living in a hiking-friendly area. Although the mountains aren’t quite as tall or the parks as vast down here, Georgia continues to surprise me in pleasant ways.

Did you know that there’s a 729-foot waterfall just 90 minutes outside downtown Atlanta?

Well there is! And I recently had the pleasure of checking it out with my fiancée and a random English Setter named Lily.

Amicalola Falls State Park is located in north central Georgia, smack dab in the middle of the Chattahoochee National Forest. Newcomers be forewarned: this is one of the most popular state parks so arrive early in the morning to beat the annoying line of cars waiting to get in the parking lot by noon. Parking costs $5 unless you have a state park pass.

The drive to get here is quite nice – it’s hilly, windy, and redneck-y. As soon as you see the gentle rolling mountains in the distance, you’ll soon forget about the perils of Atlanta traffic. Wear layers and bring a jacket because the temperature drops at least 10 degrees by the time you arrive from the city.

IMG_7889There are several different trails to choose from when you arrive at the park. Hardcore hikers (with hardcore dogs?) can venture out on the 8.5-mile route to Springer Mountain, which leads from the park to the end of the iconic Appalachian Trail.

From the visitor center, we started on the 0.6-mile Creek Trail (yellow), past the reflection pool at the base of the falls. From there, you’ll find the Appalachian Approach Trail (blue), which leads to the top of the falls. This trail is marked in blue on the map and follows the creek on a series of steep stairs.

I was dog sitting Miss Lily, a 5-year-old English Setter, through my part-time gig as a DogVacay host. She seemed like a pretty agile pup, so I figured a nice long hike would do us both some good.

IMG_7903“Amicalola” takes a few attempts to pronounce correctly and means “tumbling waters” in Cherokee. The whole park spans about 1,000 acres and is considered one of Georgia’s Seven Natural Wonders. A quick Google search informed me that these are the seven wonders…two down, five to go!

  • Amicalola Falls State Park
  • Okefenokee Swamp
  • Providence Canyon
  • Radium Springs
  • Stone Mountain
  • Tallulah Gorge
  • Warm Springs

IMG_7927This stunning waterfall reminded me of the best ones I saw while hiking through the Smokys…which I guess makes sense because they’re really not all that far from each other.

In addition to the waterfall, there’s a 56-room guest lodge, a 24-campsite campground, 14 cottages, and even a dining room with banquet facilities. This is one fancy-pants state park!

IMG_7934

It’s about a mile from the base of the stairs to the top of the falls, with few open areas to stop and take a break. I don’t think Lily had ever seen stairs quite like these, and considering that she has anxiety issues that warrant doggie meds, they were a bit nerve-racking for her.

But we went slow, stuck with it, and eventually reached the top! It was about 10 or 11 in the morning on a Saturday in late March, so although we were greeted by some fellow stair-climbers, the route wasn’t over-crowded.
IMG_7940Brave Lily was the only dog on those stairs that day and she did a great job sticking with it. If it would have just been my fiancée and me, we would have likely continued hiking after reaching the top to check out some of the other trails. But this was enough for our day with Lily, and I’d packed a picnic lunch to relax and enjoy the scenery and the beautiful sunny day.

Much to Lily’s relief, we didn’t have to backtrack down those steep stairs to complete our journey back to the Jeep. We took the East Ridge Trail down, which was wooded, rocky, and had a moderate down-slope. Lunch at the top had re-energized us and the air was feeling warmer with each step.

IMG_7991Just before making this little trip up north, we picked up and installed a new (to us) soft top on my Jeep, “Chief Surfs with Manatees”. What better way to enjoy the fresh (pollen-filled) southern air than with the top down and my crazy hair blowing in all directions?!

This was the first day we put the new soft top to use, and lil’ Lily seemed to love the open air as much as I did.
IMG_8005If you’re looking to grab a beer on an outdoor patio after a day of hiking (my favorite kind of reward!), head to Dahlonega (another hard-to-pronounce name) and check out the Bourbon Street Grille for a well-deserved brew and a bananas foster dessert to share.

Dahlonega is a super-cutesy and historic town that’s the site of the first major gold rush in America. Step down, California!

There’s some tourist shops to check out in the downtown square, a growler fill shop, and apparently some wineries in the area that unfortunately, I only learned about later on.

IMG_7956

Hiking with a dog is a relatively new thing for me; however, I’m getting better at it every time. I’ve provided dog sitting and dog boarding services for about 20 dogs now, which I’m hoping will make things go smoother one day when I have a pup of my own.

These are a few dog hike considerations that I’ve learned so far, and the list continues to grow with each trail…

  • Understand your dog’s physical limitations
  • Scope out specific trails, trail distances, and terrain beforehand
  • Call the park to make sure it’s dog friendly
  • Leave early in the morning for a slimmer chance of crowded trails and hot temperatures
  • Have a reliable leash/harness setup
  • Bring water, a water bowl, food, and poop bags
  • Bring plastic bags, paper towels, and hand sanitizer for poop messes
  • Take breaks if your dog looks like she’s struggling or turn back early if you’re reasonably worried
  • Check the pup for ticks and fleas after the hike

Where To Drink Belgian Beer in an Old Funeral Chapel

I’ve tasted tasty brews in many odd places in my day, but a recent trip to Michigan revealed a new brew stop that I was just dying to try out.

Brewery Vivant, located in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is located in what used to be a funeral chapel. Too morbid? I think not.
1Jason Spaulding is the President of Brewery Vivant and he opened the super-popular New Holland Brewing Company in 1997. He later attended the Doemens Brewing Academy in Munich, Germany and traveled around Southern Belgium learning from other breweries along the way.

After returning to Michigan, a funeral chapel seemed like the perfect spot for a new brewery. This particular part of Grand Rapids is nicely walkable/bikeable with easy parking on side streets nearby.

2Brewery Vivant was designed to remain small and specialized. It has a Belgian beer theme, which is what drew me here in the first place. Well that, and the possibility of chatting up the haunting spirits of wise Belgian brewing monks.

3I stopped by early on a Friday evening and the place was already packed. There was a wait for a table, but since I just wanted to sample some brews, I made my way back to the less-crowded tasting room. Standing up to sip at the barrel tables was just what I needed after a long car ride.

4Brewery Vivant has a 20-barrel brew kettle, several 20, 40, and 60-barrel fermentation tanks, and a couple maturation tanks. The brewers have been producing between 1,600 and 2,000 barrels in recent years.

As typical, I ordered a flight to sample what these monkish types had to offer. Flights were a bit pricey in my opinion – $10 for 4 of their standard brews or $12 for your choice of 4. The standard brews included a French-style Farmhouse Ale, a Belgian-style IPA, a Hoppy Belgo-American Red Ale, and a Belgian-style Dark Ale.
5

Triomphe, the IPA, and Undertaker, the Dark Ale, got my top two votes. To switch it up, I tried the Smoky Wheat, however, it really didn’t have the smokiness I was looking for at all. Pepper in the Rye was also drinkable, but not too memorable.

Slow jams played softly on the radio and lured me into filling a growler to accompany me back to the hotel. My growler fill of choice was the Triomphe Belgian IPA – refreshing with just enough full-bodied, hoppy flavor.

The main bar eerily resembled an alter, with a stained glass window as the centerpiece and a total church-like vibe. Although it was admittedly an intriguing use of space, I failed to encounter a single haunting experience. Perhaps it wasn’t the right cycle of the moon.

6

Funeral accommodations are turning into some of the most interesting food and drink establishments lately it seems. My family actually celebrated Easter a couple years ago by making lunch reservations at a funeral-home-turned-restaurant. Needless to say, some family members of younger years were more comfortable with the arrangement than others!

A couple people on Yelp raved about the bathroom sinks, which I found a bit odd. They’re the kind of sinks that look like a long slab of marble – or virtually no sink at all. A little unique, but I wouldn’t show up for the sink if you’re not a beer fan to begin with.

Grand Rapids is actually an awesome place to visit for craft beer fans – there’s Founders, HopCat , Harmony, Elk, Mitten, Hideout, B.O.B., the Grand Rapids Brewing Company in town as well. I’ve hit up a couple of these while passing through the area over the years, and I can’t recall much in the way of disappointment. And actually, in the last couple years it’s won a bunch of awards for being a top American beer town.

ale-trail-map-imageHere’s an ale trail map to guide you. Who needs GPS when you have cartoon pints in all directions?