Last week I shared the results of this year’s Reader Survey and summarized the biggest requests I received from a good majority of you, outlining my future plans to incorporate these content requests into my blog. I was happy with my decisions, feeling proud that I’d managed to address 80% of your comments and feedback while still keeping the integrity of my blog’s mission – to highlight local, cultural experiences and off-the-beaten-path destinations.
Yet the remaining 20% haunted me all week.
I know I can’t make everyone happy. That’s as true in real life as it is in internet life but the competitive side of me insisted I could do more. Especially in regards to the below two comments:
“Just curious how you’re getting on with your travel bucket list? I crossed 4 off mine so far this year in Southeast Asia and it was incredible!”
“I loved your article on honoring your first bucket list. I hate it when people bash country counting and I agree that travel is good no matter the reasons why you do it. I have a bucket list with all the touristy sites too and it gives me a goal to achieve which inspires me to travel more. I hope you get to see everything on yours!”
They were the only 2 of its kind referring to an article I wrote last year entitled The Importance of Honoring Your First Travel Bucket List.
In the post I tell the story of how I first came into travel at the relatively old age of 19 and how my first travel book purchase, 1000 Places to See Before You Die by Patricia Schultz, unintentionally became the only bucket list I’ve ever had (unless you count the “places I want to have sex before I die” list my friends and I dared each other to make at a sleepover when we were 14 year old virgins who didn’t even know how sex really worked). Fresh off the plane from my first international trip to Italy, I read the book cover to cover, promising myself I’d see every last place on the list.
10 years later I’m still honoring that promise, paying homage to my 19 year old self. I owe her everything. She instilled my love of travel and first collected the clay that would mold me into who I am today.
The Bucket List Quest
Those two comments on a post I wrote 16 months ago are what brings me here now – to the Starbucks I never go to on the corner of Nassau and Fulton because my local coffee shop was unexpectedly closed this morning – and also to the dilemma on how to rightly address these responses. There are a few problems that make this seemingly easy task difficult (just write about them as you check them off! I can hear you screaming). Trust me, it’s not that simple:
- Exhibit A: My travel style has evolved. I no longer choose destinations solely based on the book which means I may only hit up a couple per year. How can I dedicate a writing series to my bucket list if I rarely check anything off it?
- Exhibit B: Because of Exhibit A, I normally end up skipping places that are within easy reach in favor of hanging out with locals or seeking less popular sites typically not listed in guidebooks. After all, I’m the type of traveler who loves returning over and over to the same city so my attitude is of the oh-I’ll-be-back-before-I-know-it-so-can-visit-it-next-time variety. These local experiences are what I end up writing about and I don’t want to have two guides on each location – one tourist guide and one for those looking to stray from the norm.
- Exhibit C: The places listed in this book are the definition of TOURISTY which is in complete opposition to a site whose title reads I’m Not A Tourist, I Swear.
See? The ABC’s aren’t as simple as they used to be. At least not before a second cup of coffee – the magical properties of which get credit for the below solution:
Why not combine both travel styles to show how to transform a touristy experience into a local one?
Every 4 months or so I’ll take a look back and write a collective post on the places in the book I most recently visited. Each synopsis will include an excerpt from Patricia Schultz on why it’s a must do, my personal thoughts on the city/site/etc, and a “live like a local” list of cultural things to try in and around the site. I’ll also include links to off-the-beaten-path posts I’ve written in case you’re interested in further reading.
I created a new Bucket List Quest page so you can follow along as I fulfill 19 year old me’s travel bucket list. It includes the full list of places I’ve been as well as a link to non-touristy posts I’ve written on each specific destination.
So far in 2016 I made it to number 73, 74, and 75.
Only 925 more to go!
***side note – there is a newer version of 1000 Places to See Before You Die with an additional 250 entries. I continue to go by the old edition as that’s the one I bought 10 years ago and that’s the one I swore an oath upon to finish off.
Checking Off Numbers 73 – 75
#73. Antigua, Guatemala
“…Antigua is one of the oldest and loveliest cities in the Americas. The remnants of its colonial past are a charming and poignant legacy of a time when the city reigned as Spain’s capital for all of the middle Americas…Today’s strict preservation ordinances protect what remains of its 16th-to-18th century Spanish Renaissance and Baroque churches, monastaries, and homes… – P. Schultz”
Patricia had it right when deeming it one of the loveliest cities in the Americas. I previously wrote an article comparing the setting to an artist’s canvas. Stuccoed walls explode with color. Orange flame vines swoop down from low-lying roofs. Baroque architecture shows off Christian influences in every church, monastery, fountain, and statue. All the while the city lies centered beneath a ring of volcanoes and hovering gray skies that only heighten its beauty.
Yet the main town seems to be nothing but a string of hotels, International restaurants, and tourism offices. Restored dwellings house over 75 Spanish schools catering to foreigners while market stalls and gift shops outnumber local tiendas – with the cost proving to be twice as high as alternative places in Guatemala.
Don’t get me wrong – I love Antigua and I think it’s a great starting point for anyone exploring Central America for the first time. It’s just a bit harder to interact with locals here as Antigua is rife with expats. I really had to go out of my way to spend time with locals and get their recommendations of where to go and what to see off the tourist trail.
Would I recommend Antigua? Absolutely yes. It really is beautiful and is a wonderful base from which to explore other areas of Guatemala. If you want to learn Spanish this is the place to be with its schools and host family language programs. Antigua’s also great for active travelers thanks to its surrounding volcanos offering wonderful hikes and city views. Volcan Pacaya offers the easiest and most popular day or half-day hike while Volcan Acatenango is a harder overnight hike that is totally worth the difficult schlep up. The 13,000ft Acatenango climb is down on my personal “Top 10 Favorite Travel Experiences EVER” list.
Cultural Must Do’s
- Shop for food with locals at El Mercardo, a farmers market located behind the city’s main bus terminal.
- Eat a tostada that’s been prepared the traditional way rather than with the aid of the fancy machinery found in many of Antigua’s restaurants. The best way to know it’s the real deal is to buy it from one of the local women selling them on the sidewalks in the surrounding villages of San Antonio Aguas Callientes, San Pedro Las Huertas, San Gaspar Vivar, or San Juan del Obispo. I like mine slathered with Guacamole, onions, and a bit of salsa.
- Get your shoes shined. It’s hard not to spot a wealthy Guatemalan businessman indulging in this practice in the city’s main square – Parque Central. Not only is it a cultural practice of the region but it also helps to put money in the pocket of the poorer local residents (there’s a lot of poverty in the areas around Antigua) who use this as a way to help support their families.
- Catch a ride on a chicken bus. These brightly painted reused school buses are the most local transportation you could take in Guatemala. Use these to get to the city’s outlying districts for a glimpse of truly local Antiguan life.
- Try the pork at Rincon Tipico. It’s not all about rice, beans, and tostadas in Antigua. This local restaurant was recommended to me by several residents who eat there weekly. It’s best for lunch and their star dish is the pork.
- Drink water from a bag. Most local tiendas in the residential areas surrounding the city center sell water in plastic bags rather than in water bottles. Tear off one of the corners with your teeth and drink away!
- Shout Arriba! Abajo! Al Centro! Al Dentro! before your sip of beer. Because one should always learn the local way to say Cheers!
Posts on Antigua
- A Glimpse of Local Life on the Outskirts of La Antigua Guatemala
- Climbing the Acatenango Volcano: A Lesson in Adventure and Friendship
- How to Prepare and Pack for the Acatenango Volcano Hike
#74. Burj Al Arab, Dubai, United Arab Emirates
“Petrodollars paid for the five-year construction of this technical and engineering marvel, which upon its completion in 1999 immediately became the icon of the tiny but confident Dubai, the most progressive, aggressive, and dynamic of the United Arab Emirates’ seven sheikdoms – a kind of Arabian Hong Kong, with the design sense of Miami and the flash of Las Vegas. Conceived to pamper and amaze jillionaire sheiks and jaded international execs, the Burj Al Arab is a cool oasis of unfathomable luxury, part James Bond and part glory-days of Hollywood. – P. Schultz”
Honestly, I’m not too sure how I felt about Dubai in general. It all seemed so fabricated and it’s one of those insane places you do insane things at just because you can (like ascending the world’s tallest building or skiing indoors). Granted, I was only in Dubai for 2 days enroute to Oman (if you want a real Middle Eastern experience then Oman is the place to go. I’m still in awe of how incredible the country is) so I didn’t get an in depth look into the city. I have a feeling if you’re looking for real culture you might be better off exploring one of the UAE’s other sheikdoms.
If you’re here to be pampered and shocked by stunning, over-the-top architecture, then yes – you absolutely should visit Dubai and in particular the Burj Al Arab. Designed to resemble an Arabian dhow sailing through the Persian Gulf, the Burj Al Arab was built exactly there – in the open waters of the Persian Gulf (a fascinating feat of engineering you can read more about here). Nothing like this had previously been constructed, making the elite 5-star hotel designation inadequate. Therefore it was given a 7-star rating – which doesn’t exist.
Would I recommend the Burj Al Arab? Yes. This is one of the most interesting buildings I’ve ever had the pleasure to explore. Simply looking up from the floor of the elaborate lobby offers an OMG moment (just see the pic above). My friend and I took a glass elevator to the 27th floor for afternoon tea where, to be honest – apart from the panoramic sea views and the figs – it was exactly like having high tea in London.
Cultural Must Do’s
Since the Burj Al Arab is a hotel, this section doesn’t really apply. The only thing I can think to say is to try the figs – a Middle Eastern staple.
The Burj Al Arab is not open to the general public so you must either be staying there or have a dining reservation. Afternoon tea is served at the Skyview Bar on the 27th floor and is approx. $170 per person (includes full tea and plates plus 1 glass of champagne. You can order more drinks for an additional cost). Tea timings are Sat – Thurs at 1:00pm, 1:30pm, 4:00pm, and 4:30pm.
Posts on the Burj Al Arab
#75. Al Bustan Palace Hotel, Muscat, Oman
“Consistently voted one of the best hotels in the Middle East, the Al Bustan Palace is as favored by oil tycoons used to sheiklike pampering as by Western travelers merely hoping for such…Bustan means “garden,” and there are 200 acres of them here – an oasis created by royalty for royalty. Built in 1985 as the venue for a Gulf summit meeting, Al Bustan was the dream of the nation’s leader, Sultan Qaboos bin Said. The hotel’s natural setting includes a dramatic mountain backdrop and it’s own cove on the Gulf of Oman. – P. Schultz”
I can’t describe the Al Bustan Palace any better than Patricia did. As someone who has been on an ongoing hostel tour around the world for the past 10 years, staying here was an out of body experience. A true Freaky Friday moment where I swapped bodies with a rich oil tycoon. Or rather an elderly English lady. This place was crawling with 65+ Brit holidayers.
Muscat is one of those places where it doesn’t matter too much where you stay location-wise. The city is spread out and doesn’t really have a “city center” so you have to drive or take a taxi (which are quite cheap) almost anywhere you go. There also aren’t a whole lot of cheap hotel options so if you’re going to have to splurge anyway you might as well do it here. It provided a fantastic base to explore Muscat.
I was surprised the book didn’t list more places around Muscat, Oman. The Grand Mosque is one of the most stunning examples of architecture I’ve ever seen and the surrounding coastline and nearly deserted desert sands are jaw-dropping. Not to mention there’s culture around every corner.
Would I recommend the Al Bustan Palace Hotel? One word – ABSO-F******-LUTELY
Cultural Must Do’s
As it’s a hotel, I think it’s safe to say the Al Bustan Palace isn’t the best place to experience everyday Omani life. This category doesn’t quite apply here so the only thing I can say is enjoy some figs and Omani coffee as the scent of the frankincense emanating from the lobby wafts over you.
Despite the luxury of this hotel and the fact that it’s part of the Ritz-Carlton group, it’s more affordable than one would expect with rooms typically starting around $240 per night. Share a room with friends and the cost goes down. It’s not cheap but certainly not as high as other 5-star hotels. View room options here.
Posts on the Al Bustan Palace Hotel
I don’t have an in-depth post dedicated to the Al Bustan Palace as I’m not a fan of hotel reviews on travel blogs. Everyone has different expectations of comfort and luxury and what’s great to one person may be terrible to another. Therefore the below posts are on the city of Muscat and its surrounding areas:
75 places down and only 925 more to go! I hope you enjoyed the new series. You can check out the full list of the 75 places I made it to on my new Bucket List Page along with their corresponding blog posts.
What’s on your travel bucket list? Let me know in the comments below!
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