When Curiosity Turns to Love in Tanzania

For Cuisine Noir Magazine. January 2018. 

I arrived in Dar es Salaam with Grace Odogbili, a Nigerian-American chef and caterer from Brooklyn. Having worked with New York’s top restaurants and caterers, Odogbili started her own business, Dining With Grace, in 2010 to offer people a chance to savor regional cuisines of the African diaspora. She teaches nutritional culinary arts workshops in Brooklyn’s public schools, introducing underserved communities to healthier lifestyles.

This was the first trip to East Africa for both of us. For the next several days, we explored the cuisine and culture of Tanzania, like a local, with a local. “When I started The African Table, a monthly pop-up dining series in 2013, I hosted “A Night in Zanzibar” dinner at a Brooklyn art gallery where we had a multi-course Tanzanian inspired meal with live music. That’s where I met Justa Lujwangana, who had recently started a Meetup group namedCurious on Tanzania (COT). She was my featured guest and since that day we decided we must go to Tanzania together, ” says Odogbili. Lujwangana is a Tanzania-born African who has lived in Uganda and New York. She also founded COT as an experiential travel company.

Grace-cooking-at-COT.jpgWe headed to Lujwangana’s house in the quiet suburbs of Dar which she calls “the COT house.” The two-story bungalow, with its five bedrooms, beautiful garden and spacious living room and kitchen, is a private guest house listed on Airbnb. Dressed in a brightly colored cotton dress called a kanga, Luiwangana welcomes us to the place she calls home for a few months each year. “Karibuni Tena!” (meaning welcome to Tanzania) she exclaims with a big smile. This is a greeting we got accustomed to hearing many times during our visit. Over a breakfast of smoked eggplant and tomato stew, steamed cassava, chapatti and ginger tea, she tells me how she started COT. “I wanted to give people the opportunity to hear the untold stories of Tanzania and go beyond the safaris,” she explains about bringing groups from New York to Tanzania on dance, music, sporting and culinary tours.

Lunch-in-Dar.jpgTogether we explored the cosmopolitan big city. During the day, busy streets clog traffic as street peddlers walk up to cars selling everything from chopping boards and wood carvings to fidget spinners. At night, restaurants and bars are alive with women dressed in long flowing Western dresses and men in sharp Western wear sipping on cocktails, enjoying the summer breeze. We frequent several upbeat neighborhoods, watch live music and enjoy late night dinners.

The next day we board a ferry to the island of Zanzibar, Lujwangana’s “second home.” Everyone seems to come greet her as we walk through the narrow cobblestone streets of Stone Town. We stay at the Mizinghani Seafront Hotel, a historical building that was originally built for newly married royal couples for their honeymoons.Ornate wood doors, wool tapestry and mosaic floors speak to the hundreds of years of Portuguese and Omani influences left on the island. The island is also home to a small Arab and Indian population.

Grace-tasting-Swahili-pizza.jpg

Our main reason for being here now is the Stone Town Food Festival. A celebration of local flavors featuring over 30 restaurants offering special prix fixe menus, it culminates at a two-day street fair at the island’s gathering spot, Forodhani Gardens. We pay anywhere from $1 to $5 for a tasting and feast on fried sardines, fish balls, beet salad, hummus, pita and more.  Odogbili and I are intrigued by “Zanzibar Pizza” signs that several food vendors display. Minced meat, bell peppers, eggs and cheese are stuffed into a crepe thin like pocket and fried with ghee. Served with hot sauce and mayo, it is not a traditional pizza but a popular local street food no less.

In the morning we head to the island’s oldest vegetable market for produce and then to the home of a Swahili family for a cooking class. All of the female extended relatives and neighbors gather to greet us and give us a change of traditional clothes for wearing at home, which is custom. Odogbili instantly takes charge of the outdoor kitchen while all the women chop, shred, and fry food over a charcoal stove. “Cooking with the Swahili women felt like being home with your tribe of sisters. Everyone must play their part so we can all eat together. It felt like nothing was rushed, it was life and it was sweeter when done in community,” she recalls. After several hours of cooking, we sat on the floor eating with our hands and sharing laughs and stories.

The turquoise blue waters of the Arabian Sea are dotted with dhows, traditional wooden sailing vessels operated by skillful sailors. On one of the days, Lujwangana organized a special sail to one of the most beautiful sand banks off Stone Town and a picnic on the beach. Surrounded by white sand and crystal-clear water, we feast on grilled lobster, prawns, calamari, fish, accompanied by kachumbari salad, French fries and steamed rice. We take turns swimming and snorkeling.

No visit to Zanzibar is complete without a visit to a spice farm. At Jumbo Spice Farm, we get to understand why Zanzibar is named the island of spices. Cardamom, cloves, black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg – practically all of the spices I had ever heard of can be found here. We also got a chance to make our own masala chai blend and received beautiful handcrafted floral gifts and had a delicious farm-fresh lunch. “I’ve used the masala chai spice blend for everything from curries, desserts, dry rubs and more. I make an amazing carrot cake with masala chai cream cheese frosting. It’s delicious,” Odogbili says tempting me a few weeks after our trip.

We end our tour with a safari at Selous Game Reserve, one of the largest animal reserves in the world, where we stay at a tented camp overlooking a river and spot zebras, giraffes, buffalo, impala and a lion. Here, we had a chance to interact with Maasai tribes and bushmen, learning about their traditional dances.

“Tanzania is truly a beautiful country with so much rich history,” says Odogbili and I agree. It offers everything from beautiful beaches, quaint hotels and indigenous art, to diversity of flavors from Arabic, Portuguese, African and Indian traditions. With warm hospitable people who are always smiling and dancing, it is impossible not to fall in love with Tanzania.

Enjoy these recipes for Masala Coconut Caramel SpreadBoiled Cassava w/ Kachumbari and Spicy Beet & Coconut Salad courtesy of Grace Odogbili. For more information about Dining With Grace, visit www.diningwithgrace.com and for Curious on Tanzania, visit www.curiousontanzania.com.

Written for Cuisine Noir Magazine. January 2018. 

 

Rio on a Budget: Cheap Ways to See the Largest Carnival in the World

For CheapOAir Miles Away. January 2018. 

Are you desperately in need of some sunny beaches, dancing in the streets, and meeting some of the friendliest people on earth? Is seeing the largest carnival in the world on your bucket list but the high travel costs scaring you off? Follow these essential tips so that you can plan a trip to Rio De Janeiro this spring for a lot less than you may have imagined!

Plan Ahead

planning a trip to rio

Flights and hotels in Rio go up in prices during peak season, so book as far in advance as possible. Gather some friends who can split a room or an apartment. Carnival tickets go on sale in December and they are cheaper early on. If you have friends in Brazil, ask them to purchase it locally, as residents receive discounts.

Get There Early for Free Street Parties

Rio band_edited

Don’t wait to get to Rio until carnival weekend. Over 400 carnival parties take place for 3 entire weeks leading up to Carnival Monday, and flights are a lot more affordable! During the days leading up to the season of Lent, there’s a block party practically every day in different neighborhoods, complete with marching bands, live orchestra, DJs, and samba dancers.

rio bloco orange edited

Everyone is invited and there’s no cost to attend these block parties, called Blocos de Rua. Each block has a theme that determines the colors, flags, dress code (e.g. oranges, nuns, drags, clowns) so you may want to check online and prepare to blend in. Drinks are available for purchase but you can also bring your own to save money. The best blocos are located at Rio’s major districts including Ipanema, Santa Teresa, Copacabana, Botafogo, Flamengo, Leblon, Gávea, Jardim Botânico, Vila Isabel, Ramos, and Tijuca.

The freeform parties are mostly attended by neighborhood residents, but also attract party hoppers from all over Brazil as well as tourists. It’s a fun way to enjoy the local music, dance, and culture without having to spend anything. The block parties are the best places to interact with the vibrant and diverse people of Rio.

Pack Your Weird and Wacky Halloween Costumes

Part of the carnival fun is to dress up in costumes and express yourself in front of thousands of people without being judged. Though not required (you’ll see people in bathing suits, shorts and T-shirts, underwear, or even in drag), here’s your chance to dig out those Halloween costumes buried deep in your closet. We recommend you pack as many loud and colorful costumes and accessories as you can, as they will all come in handy at the block parties and save you the time and money of having to purchase them in Rio.

Samba costumes, on the other hand, are very expensive and made to order. Unless you’re planning to dance in the carnival parade (for which you may need to move to Brazil for a few months for practice), just add a few feathers to your swimsuit!

Save on Costs at the Grand Parade

rio carnival parade edited

The biggest parade in the world takes place at the Sambadrome in Rio on Sunday and Monday before carnival ends and tickets are sold out few weeks in advance. Six samba schools perform each night for about an hour each with over 24,000 performers. Make sure to bring extra camera and phone batteries as you take photos and videos of 3-story tall elaborately decorated floats with professional dancers wearing lots of feathers and glittering costumes. Here’s a secret – there is a special “Access Group” performance on Friday night where seven of the best samba schools (known as Carnival Gold Group) parade, for a fraction of the cost!

There are five types of tickets available for the parade depending on the proximity to the floats, inclusion of snacks/ drinks: Boxes, Dress Circle, Grandstands Seats, Back Stall Seats, and Specially Handicapped. Though box tickets can cost as much as $2200, we feel the stadium seats (cheapest) offer the best panoramic views of the entire parade, as well as a chance to mingle with the locals. You can bring your own food and drinks in coolers, therefore saving money on those meagre food stalls.

rio carnival edited

Tickets can be purchased through the official carnival store, though we found the best prices online at Brazilian event tickets sites. We paid $20 per person for the Access Group performance on Friday night.

You want to get there at 10-11pm and plan to stay till sunrise. Uber is much cheaper and safer way to get to and back from the Sambadrome, which is not accessible by metro.

 Go Beyond Rio

Although Rio’s Carnival is the most famous one, other cities in Brazil also celebrate the carnival with lots of fanfare and enthusiasm. Different regions of Brazil are influenced by local music, folklore and culture. Go to the northeastern state of Bahia to see Afro-Brazilian inspired groups, mingle with some of the largest student population in Belo Horizonte, and see Galo de Madrugada (the biggest carnival parade in terms of number of participants according to The Guinness Book of World Records) in Recife.

All Carnival pics by Amanda Villa-Lobos/ goeatgive.com

Written for CheapOAir Miles Away. January 2018. 

 

Why Kerala (India) Is Our New Favorite Place to Escape Winter

For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. December 2017. 

The lush state of Kerala, located in the southern peninsula of India, is touted as “God’s own Country.” With such a bold tourism slogan, you can expect the bar to be set pretty high. Well, Kerala does not disappoint. It’s filled with pristine beaches, houseboats floating in clear backwaters, spicy Indian food, and fun-loving people. It’s perfect for a yoga retreat, an adventure holiday, or an eco-friendly vacation. Now that’s a pretty divine package. If you haven’t added Kerala to your travel plans to escape the frigid winter, here’s why you need to do so right away.

You Can Relax, Rejuvenate, and Experience Life in a Fishing Village by the Sea

As soon as you arrive at the world’s first solar-powered Cochin International Airport, you’ll understand why Kerala is the most literate and advanced state in India. Take a chauffeur-driven car (it only costs a few hundred rupees –  under $5) to nearby Alappuzha District. Stay at Marari Beach Resort, a village-themed boutique resort located at the award-winning yet somewhat secluded Marari Beach. Recharge your energy levels with some fresh coconut water on arrival at this all-inclusive beachfront property. After checking in to an individual thatched roof cottage, take a yoga lesson, walk around the lily pond and gardens, learn how to wear a Kerala sari or pick your own vegetables from the organic garden for a cooking class. Enjoy a relaxing evening at the herbal spa. There is a resident Ayurveda doctor to consult and prescribe treatments based on chronic ailments like sinus, back pain, asthma, digestive disorders or even jet lag — all with natural herbs and oils.

ayurveda

To catch a glimpse of the daily lives of the locals, head to the nearby town of Alleppey, known as Venice of the East due to its intricate network of canals. Early mornings are great to watch fisherman easily maneuvering their white mundu (a long, wrap-around piece of cloth worn by men) and bringing in the catch of the day, and in the evenings, entire families strolling on the beach, playing games and snacking on street food.

Though most tourists come here to board a houseboat cruise, there are some must-see temples and churches in this historic town, and if you are lucky, you may even get to see a traditional ceremony, participate in a unique festival or, if you’re gutsy enough, crash a wedding (there’ll be a thousand guests so no one will notice!).

kerala church

It’s believed that Christianity arrived in Kerala in the first century. Kerala also has the largest Christian population of any state in India, so it’s not uncommon to see Christmas decorations throughout December as well as elaborate feasts being celebrated in remembrance of patron saints.

You Can Get Close to Wildlife, Enjoy Fine Tea, and Explore Exotic Spice Markets

The hill town of Thekkady is much cooler than the coastal areas, making it a great weekend retreat for travelers looking for an escape from the beach. It’s also home to Periyar Tiger Reserve. While you’ll rarely get a chance to spot a wild tiger, you can see elephants, wild dogs, giant squirrels, bison, sambar (a large type of deer), langur, macaque, mongoose, and a large variety of birds while trekking or bamboo rafting through the forests.

tea estate

The other big attractions in the area are the tea, coffee, and spice plantations dotted along the green slopes. Watch how tea leaves are grown and harvested, sample green and black teas, before taking some back home (they are super cheap at the factory outlets). Take a private tour with the owner at Abraham’s Spice Gardens to see hundreds of spices, fruits, and flower varieties, and crush your Instagram following once you post pictures of Vandanmedu, the largest cardamom auction center in the world. In the town, stock up on fresh and very affordable freshly dried spices such as black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and much more. Also, make sure to pick up deep-fried Kerala banana chips and raw cashews.

kerala spices

Spice Village is the oldest mountain village-style resort and offers traditional huts equipped with modern day facilities, each named after a spice tree. This eco-friendly hotel grows its own food, filters and bottles water, composts food waste, harnesses solar energy, and even makes its own paper. On-site naturalists are ready to escort guests around the property to educate them about the flora and fauna and how it is integrated into the eco-friendly mantra of the resort.

You Can Float on the Backwaters, Take in Some Culture, and Taste Some Amazing Food

Another must-visit destination in Kerala is Kumarakom, located on the banks of the Vembanad Lake. Most backwater cruises rent a houseboat from here for a couple of nights. These boats are fully equipped with bedrooms and a chef who sometimes catches fresh fish and prepares it for meals onboard.

Photo by Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

However, if motion sickness is a problem, you can choose to cruise for a few hours only and stay at Coconut Lagoon, an eco-lodge accessible only by boat. These artistically crafted guest cottages, built with materials gathered from old family mansions all over Kerala, are architecturally inspiring. Here you can enjoy views of the lake from your front porch, row a canoe in the lagoons around the hotel, walk in the butterfly garden, or visit the bird sanctuary next door.

In the afternoons, a local lady known simply as Amma (meaning “mother”) offers homemade tea and snacks from her floating shop. There’s also a live musical performance every day with dancers wearing elaborate costumes and painted face masks, delicately expressing themes from Hindu mythology.

If you like spicy food, you’re in for a real treat in Kerala! Three restaurants at Coconut Lagoon offer a wide range of local specialties including a dosa (India stuffed crepe) station, seafood grill where the daily catch is displayed before dinner, and a buffet restaurant where you can taste a variety of homemade chutneys, pickles, and jams.

Photo by Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Kerala cuisine is very distinctive from the rest of India and features rich coconut curries, fragrant meat stews, rice flour breads, jaggery sweetened desserts, and lots of shellfish. The friendly chefs are always eager to share recipes and give private cooking lessons, so you can recreate your experience in Kerala with your newly purchased spices once you get back home.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. December 2017. 

First Look: Rose + Rye

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. December 2017. 

Seewai Sayavong welcomes me into a 12,000-square-foot Victorian mansion overlooking 15th street. “Tennessee Williams has lived here!” she says. Upon further research, I find that no one is quite sure whether this factoid is true or not, but the building, often referred to as “the castle,” was indeed a residence for many Atlanta artists back in the day. Sayavong, who hails from Laos and was once general manager for Thai fine dining concepts Nan and Tuk Tuk, gives me a cheerful tour of the newly renovated space. It’s clear she enjoys her new gig as assistant manager for Rose + Rye quite a lot.

For owner Thaddeus Keefe, who also owns the atmospheric 1KEPT Kitchen + Bar, the national historic site was an obvious choice for his new restaurant. “There’s always an artistic overtone to the concepts we create,” says Keefe, a writer and painter himself. “This is more about the painter and the muse which plays intricately to the history of the building.”

The space spans four stories, each with original hardwood floors, dramatic stone walls, and contemporary white and dark merlot contrasting furniture. The ground level, known as “the Grotto,” serves as a bar and lounge area where Keefe plans to showcase Atlanta artists and project classic black and white movies, keeping true to the building’s origins. One can totally picture a bunch of aficionados standing on the large patio overlooking Woodruff Arts Center, drinking wine and talking about the latest exhibits. On our tour, Sayavong also shows me the bedrooms upstairs; each is marked by a state emblem and all are now open for private parties of various sizes.

DSC3414REMADE CLASSIC: Chicken mole with braised chicken thigh, crispy rice cake, and wilted kale.JOEFF DAVIS

Rose + Rye boasts a vibrant cocktail menu with select wines and cocktails named after the works of Ernest Hemingway: Garden of Eden, Men Without Women, A Farewell to Arms. “We wanted to open with drink names that referenced Hemingway out of respect for the great one,” Keefe says. “As our drink list changes and evolves, you’ll see additional authors’ names and pieces of work involved.”

My server, Kat, recommends True at First Light ($14), a vodka mojito with champagne bubbles. She tells me that the staff gets a free drink at the end of each shift and this one, both solid and refreshing, is a popular choice. If you are not a whiskey drinker, the signature Rose + RYE ($13) may convert you. Delicate rose water, spicy star anise, and bitter orange peel balance off the edginess of the rye.

Despite its male ownership, Rose + Rye is run by an all-women culinary team, from its executive chef to its general manager. “It happened naturally,” says Keefe, noting that he saw a unique opportunity to showcase feminine talent and diversity in an industry often ruled by men.

DSC3592DRAMATIC ENTRY: Midtown’s “castle” was built by Ferdinand McMillan the early 1900s.JOEFF DAVIS

The seasonal menu pulls from the culinary team’s various backgrounds. Executive chef Lindsay Owens has been in the restaurant industry since the age of 15 and recently moved to Atlanta from Minneapolis, where she cooked at the Lynhall, Tilia, Unideli, and Creamery Café. Her French toast entrée ($14) is a play on a breakfast classic made with pickled chanterelle mushrooms, Parmesan cream, and tarragon on slices of country bread pan-fried with cream, garlic, black pepper, and vinegar. “I love to try new techniques and flavor combinations,” Owens says. “I play with food until it tastes great.”

Sous chef Anu Adebara draws on a Nigerian upbringing to bring her own spin to classic dishes. For her chicken mole ($22), she uses corn tortillas, a nice balance of fresh and dried spices, and tomatoes to make a rich chocolaty sauce, which she serves on a bed of crispy rice cakes. “I grew up eating West African cuisine, but I didn’t want to scare people off with the strong spices,” she says. “So, I created dishes that are approachable yet still stay true to the integrity of the dish.”

DSC3434FROM THE SEA: Seared yellowfin tuna, haricot vert, cured olive puree, and smoked yogurt.JOEFF DAVIS

The braised duck ($14) appetizer is an upscale take on typical barbecue, marinated in sherry vinegar and three kinds of peppers (pasilla, guajillo, and ancho chili) and served atop crisp polenta cakes and pickled red onions. The combination of spicy, sour, and sweet illustrates Keefe’s “yin and yang — rose and rye, get it?” theme well. Glazed pork belly ($14) is tenderized with soy sauce for four hours and complements the accompanying Parisian gnocchi. Together, the pork fat and velvety dumplings melt in my mouth like savory profiteroles.

Seared snapper ($26) is a bit overcooked and has little flavor, but the rehydrated cherries add a pleasantly sweet touch. Seared tuna ($28) offers the unusual flavor combinations of olive paste and yogurt.

DSC3364WOOD AND STONE: The Rose + Rye team recently renovated the historic Midtown building, creating a series of bars and dining areas.JOEFF DAVIS

Desserts, made in house by pastry chef Charity Everett (formerly of 1KEPT and Revel Pastry Company), also buck tradition. Buttermilk panna cotta ($9) is a bit runny but has surprise fig jam on the bottom that you can sop up with house-made rosemary cookies. A dark chocolate tart ($13) with bacon fat popcorn is bold and bitter with a nice crunch.

While Rose + Rye’s menu is still coming into its own, the restaurant’s concept inspires.

“It’s extremely empowering to have people that understand food in a way a woman understands it,” says Adebara. “It’s like a sisterhood where we take each other’s’ opinion seriously and thrive in a creative environment.” Adds chef Owens, “We’re a take-no-crap team and get things done. I love everything about it!”

Rose + Rye, 87 15th St. N.E. 404-500-5980. www.roserye.com

~ Written for Creative Loafing Atlanta. December 2017. 

This Is Where You Need to Start Your African Safari Adventure

For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. November 2017. 

Ready to explore the enormous continent of Africa but don’t know where to start? There are 54 countries in Africa, offering amazing opportunities to immerse in the culture, as well as view nature and wildlife. Most travelers flock to South Africa, not realizing it is farther, more expensive, and already packed with tourists.

If it’s your first time traveling to sub-Saharan Africa and your main goal is to see wild animals in their natural habitat, go to Kenya. The East African nation is well developed when it comes to tourism, with easily accessible flights to Nairobi.

Kiss Giraffes in Nairobi

Kenya Safari - Giraffe Center

The capital city is worth spending a day or two in. It will likely be your first stop in East Africa and will act as a gateway to other destinations around the country.

Nairobi is a bustling city with clogged roads and impoverished slums, juxtaposed to posh condos and luxury hotels. The large expat population (mainly working for consulates and NGOs) has paved way for a vibrant dining and nightlife scene in the city. Talisman, known as one of the best restaurants in Nairobi, is a fun place to grab a drink by the fireplace and taste globally inspired cuisine in an African-Arabic ambiance. Also, their Singapore chili soft shell crab is to die for. To take a break from the congestion, go to Amaniyajuu, a fair-trade restaurant and boutique located in a charming garden inside the city.

Kenya Safari - elephant orphanage

Watch baby elephants rescued from all over Kenya at Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage as they are fed every morning. If you’re an animal lover like me, you may end up fostering a young elephant for a $50 donation. Head over to the Giraffe Center for the perfect Instagram photo opp kissing a giraffe in its natural habitat.

Walk with Zebras at Lake Naivasha

An hour outside of Nairobi is a freshwater lake located on the elevated Kenyan Rift valley. Lake Naivasha is home to over 400 species of birds as well as a sizable hippo population. Lake Naivasha Crescent Camp is a good base to glamp (luxury camp) on the bank of the lake and take a boat ride to spot pelicans, eagles, storks, and cormorants.

For a unique experience, get off at Crescent Island Game Park and freely walk among wild animals. Zebras, giraffes, gazelle, waterbuck, and wildebeest are free to roam around as the park is not fenced in. Here you can find more animals per acre than any other park in Kenya and it’s completely free to visit.

Watch the Big Five in Masai Mara

Kenya Safari - Masai Mara

Over 4% of Kenya’s total area is made up of wildlife reserves and the Masai Mara game reserve is best known for its wildebeest migration, where millions of animals cross the Mara river during the months of September and October.

Plan to spend at least two nights in the Mara to see the famous “Big 5” game animals – lions, rhinos, elephants, leopards, and buffaloes. Sekenani Camp, located right outside the park’s entrance, is easily accessible within minutes. Individual tents come with comfortable beds, hardwood floors, private bathrooms, and even bathtubs. Fancy a hot soak while hearing the lions roar in the background? You can do it here!

Kenya Safari - Lions in Masai Mara

Ride in an open jeep during a game drive through the park (which is not fenced in like many other reserves in South Africa), as thousands of zebras, giraffes, gazelles, wildebeest, and impalas pass by. Given the open terrain, it’s easy to spot animals in the Mara. I was thrilled to see over 70 lions, cheetahs, and leopards hunting, mating, eating, roaring, and snuggling like kittens – up close!

Race Donkeys in Lamu

Most travelers to Kenya choose to visit one of the beach towns in the Archipelago. Lamu is one of the oldest Swahili seafront towns and a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is where you can feel the Arabic influence on the architecture, food, people, and religion of the region. Walking through narrow streets dotted with hole-in-the-wall food stalls, ornate wooden doors, and modestly dressed women covered in veils, you may feel like you’ve gone back in time to the 17th century.

Lamu is also known as “donkey island”. No cars are allowed on the island, so all goods are transported on donkeys. As there are 6,000 of these beasts on the roads, there are also major donkey traffic jams!

Shela Village in Lamu is a quiet place to stay with renovated Swahili villas converted into rentable apartments. There are a handful of restaurants and you get to know most residents if you’re around for a couple of nights. During the day, enjoy secluded beaches, swim, snorkel, and taste freshly caught seafood, and at sunset, take a dow (traditional sailboat) with snacks onboard. The Lamu Cultural Festival held in August, with its donkey races, swimming, and dhow sailing competitions, attracts visitors from the mainland and abroad. The Village Experience, a socially responsible tour company, partners with local businesses and helps uplift impoverished communities around the area.

In Kenya, there are lots of opportunities to get up close to the animals and bring back lasting memories (as well as great Instagram shots). It is, no doubt, the best place to start your African safari adventure.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. November 2017. 

From Syria, with love

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. October 2017.

“Refugee cookies!” a 10-year old Syrian boy screamed from the front porch of an Oakhurst home. The shortbread style cookies, known in the Middle East as mamool and flavored with orange blossom, dates and pistachios, were an instant hit. In less than three hours, the entire batch sold: 45 dozen cookies in all. That was last fall.

Khaled and Ruwaida (last names withheld for safety reasons) are refugees from Syria. Along with their two young kids, Mohamad and Zainab, they lived in Jordan for four years, before coming to Georgia in July of 2016, sponsored by New American Pathways and co-sponsored by Holy Trinity Church. Back in Damascus, they owned two apartments and two electronics shops. Now, they live in a small rented apartment in Decatur. Khaled works a minimum wage job and the family scrapes by.

I meet Ruwaida, now 29, at the home of Amanda Avutu, a friend and advisor to the family. When a mutual acquaintance posted on Decatur’s Neighborhood Facebook page that he was looking for help to clean up an apartment for an incoming refugee family, Avutu and her kids volunteered. She offered to help stock their kitchen and drop off hot meals. Having no connection to Syria before, she began her job with a Google search: ‘What do Syrians eat?’ Then she purchased random items she wasn’t sure they would use. “I bought pomegranate molasses, orange blossom water, sesame, cooking oil, dried legumes and rice,” she recalls. “Later I discovered, there’s no way I can shop rice for [Ruwaida]!” She laughs at how particular Syrians are about their rice.

DSC0060FAR FROM HOME: Ruwaida points out the Syrian city of Damascus, where she is from, on a map.JOEFF DAVIS

We sit in Avutu’s living room sipping cardamom-spiced black coffee and munching on a plate of homemade mamool cookies. Wearing a head scarf and long dress, Ruwaida mostly smiles, shy to respond in her limited English, but Amanda translates key words to Arabic and encourages Ruwaida to express herself. “Cookies!” she exclaims, making hand gestures when I ask her about her new business, Sweet, Sweet Syria. She tells me she has been making these traditional Middle Eastern cookies at home since childhood and has sweet memories attached to them, hence the name. But until recently, she never thought anyone would actually pay for them.

Sweet, Sweet Syria’s humble beginnings took place in a similar setting. When Ruwaida’s family moved to Decatur, neighbors and community members came to welcome her, bringing food, toys, books and helping to set up her new apartment. Ruwaida would often offer homemade cookies and coffee to her new friends as a gesture of thanks. Her mother’s wooden cookie molds were one of just a small handful of things that she could bring from Syria when she fled, and serve as a bittersweet reminder of home.

“Wow! You need to sell these at the Oakhurst Porchfest,” one of the visitors remarked, encouraging Ruwaida to set up a table at the upcoming neighborhood music festival, where neighbors play music on their porches. As a traditional Syrian woman, Ruwaida has never worked outside her home or earned her own salary before. It was hard at first, she says, to grasp the concept of selling her food for money. But friends and family convinced her to take a chance. And when her cookies sold out before the music even started, she realized she just might have something: an opportunity to make money and help support her family as they acclimate to their new home.

DSC0193EAT ME: Sweet, Sweet Syria offers samples of mamool cookies at their Emory Farmers Market booth every Tuesday.JOEFF DAVIS

Over the next few months, Avutu played an instrumental role in helping Ruwaida get her business off the ground, along with a team of volunteer advisors. They applied for a 14-week small business training program called Start:Me, run by Emory’s Goizueta Business School. Avutu accompanied Ruwaida to every class. They made a business plan, applied for various licenses and studied for the ServSafe exam. In the beginning, they would communicate through Google translator. Now, Avutu takes Arabic classes on Fridays and Ruwaida takes English classes on Tuesdays.

A recent GoFundMe campaign has allowed Ruwaida to rent a commercial kitchen, where she bakes her family recipes and supplies to local coffee shops and farmers markets. Ultimately, she’d like to have her own small restaurant where she and her family can cook together. Until then, she’s learning how to take orders, handle money and interact socially. Delicate shortbreads with coconut, chewy sesame rolled dates and strawberry pressed cookies are some of her most popular offerings. Sweet, Sweet Syria trio ($2.50) and half dozen ($5) samplers are available for purchase at Oakhurst’s Kavarna, Ebrik Coffee Room and Emory Farmers Market on Tuesdays. Orders by the dozen ($10) are also available at the Emory Farmer’s Market and can be placed online.

DSC0222TASTE AND SEE: An Emory student samples a cookie at the Sweet, Sweet Syria booth.JOEFF DAVIS

The family also hosts invitation-only gatherings at private homes to share a traditional Syrian meal. Here, they are forced to practice English, meet new people, and further understand the American lifestyle, including seeing how things work in other kitchens. “It is important to make a human connection and understand who they are,” Avutu says. Over the last few months, her kids have become friends with Ruwaida’s children as they get together for homework, sports and celebrations.

Near the end of our conversation, I ask Ruwaida what she likes most about being here in Georgia. She giggles and rattles off the names of several people who have come forward to welcome her and her family, and helped her get her business off the ground. Most of them were just strangers a few months ago. Now, they are friends.

For more information or to place a cookie order, visit sweetsweetsyria.com.

Written for Creative Loafing Atlanta. October 2017.

More than Dublin: A Roadtrip Through the Intriguing Irish Countryside

For CheapOAir Miles Away. October 2017

When I told my husband we were going to spend 12 days in Ireland, he was confused. That’s a long time to be drinking Guinness, hanging out in pubs, and partying in Dublin, he thought. In fact, most visitors to Ireland end up spending a majority of their time in Dublin, though some make day trips to nearby castles, churches, and cliffs. We decided to rent a car and drive around the country, exploring some of the most scenic routes and historic accommodations.

The different regions of Ireland are known for their own unique geography, architecture, and cuisine. Here are some of the most interesting places we discovered around the island.

A quick note of caution about driving in Ireland: You need to be comfortable driving on the left-hand side on narrow country roads. Sometimes the roads can get curvy with rocks on one side and no room for passing. Car rental companies lose an average of 700 left side car mirrors per week!

Modern Irish Cuisine in Cork

From Shannon airport, we made our way to the southeastern part of Ireland through Country Cork. Cork City, the second largest city in Ireland, is a university town built on marshlands. We found it full of upscale designer boutiques, international restaurants and cafes, and lots of live music. We drove further east to the village of Shanagarry and stayed at a traditional upscale Irish country farmhouse.

Ballymaloe House is a charming family home surrounded by farmlands, flower and herb gardens, fruit trees, and a granary. The owner Myrtle Allen (now 93), opened one of the first home restaurants in her own dining room serving modern Irish cuisine, a novel concept at the time. Because to serve liquor, she needed to have a minimum number of 11 bedrooms, she moved her family upstairs and opened an inn at her home. Fifty years later, the family still runs Ballymaloe House, serving farm-to-table meals created by Allen, a Michelin star chef. Next door is Ballymaloe Cooking School where students from all over the world come for 3-month intensives.

Rugged Coastlines of Kerry

More country roads lined with thousands of blackface sheep led us from Cork to Kenmare, a picturesque town in County Kerry. Park Hotel Kenmare is one of the oldest five-star hotels in Ireland, dating back to 1897. Dark red hallways, tall fireplaces, antique furnishings, and views of Kenmare Bay really make you feel like you’ve stepped back into the 19th-century. The hotel has walking trails and golf grounds on its premises, but they also organize hiking and horseback riding tours through the mountains at Killarney National Park.

We spent a day driving through misty narrow roads along the rugged coastlines in the Ring of Beara. Even with the occasional clouds and rain, we still stopped to visit sandy coves, beaches, and had lunch at MacCarthy’s, which was the #1 rated Irish pub of 2016. Close by was also the Ring of Kerry, a 120-mile scenic circuit around the Iveragh Peninsula, which beckons visitors to see even more spectacular stone forts, waterfalls, and valleys.

Georgian History in Limerick

Heading north on the Wild Atlantic Way, the famous driving and biking route, we spotted places to kayak, kiteboard, paraglide, swim, and dive. After a brief stop for Murphy’s Irish coffee ice cream at the tourist-friendly town of Dingle, we arrived at Limerick, the third largest city in Ireland. We checked into No 1 Perry Square, a 1830’s Georgian townhouse that overlooks the people’s park and has been reinvented into a charming boutique hotel and spa.

A historic Viking town, Limerick is home to King John’s Castle on the banks of Shannon river. It also offers many venues to watch live Irish dance and music for free.

Majestic Cliffs in Clare

We made our way back to Shannon in County Clare for a luxurious treat at the Dromoland Castle, a majestic castle and the ancestral home of the O’Briens of Dromoland. Surrounded by 400 acres of golf courses, gardens, forests, and a lake, the dark blue limestone castle looked like something out of a fairytale. We ate at the Michelin star The Earl of Thomond’s Restaurant while listening to live harp, and we also learned falconry and archery and took a romantic horse carriage ride at sunset.

In the morning, we drove on to the small town of Doolin and met a local farmer for a guided hike to the iconic Cliffs of Moher, Ireland’s most popular natural landmark. With narrow trails, next to death-defying rugged drops, and gusty Atlantic winds, the 5-mile cliff walk is not for the ffaint-hearted. Most travelers go to the Cliffs visitor center, but the best views are from further away.

Driving through the Burren region was vastly different from other places in Ireland. Abundant with limestone hills, the area is home to three quarters of Ireland’s species of flowers. We found the tucked away Burren Perfumery, a good place to relax with a cup of tea and pick up some homemade perfumes to take back with you. A few hours at the Burren Smokehouse — a gathering place for drinks, pizza, and live music — was an amazing opportunity to interact with the locals.

Victorian Lake House in Galway

The road to Oughterard took us through scenic mountains, rivers, and lakes, arriving in a dense forest. Currarevagh House is the oldest family-owned Victorian country manor inn. We found it on the shores of Lough Corrib, a lake abundant in wild brown trout. Fishing is one of the area’s most popular activities. The Hodgson family still owns and operates the inn, serving traditional Irish meals made from local ingredients. Family portraits and collectibles populated the drawing room and library and the Hodgson offered us boats to explore the lake and Aran Islands.

Chilled Salmon in Mayo

Small villages around Connemara Mountains were perfect stops to snap a few great shots, We also found a few places to rent boats or simply walk along the lakes. Further north in County Mayo, we discovered the Ice House Hotel in the city of Ballina. At the turn of the century,  the iconic building was a salmon storage facility, with wild Irish salmon preserved in ice before being shipped to the markets in Dublin and Liverpool. Now, it’s a funky hotel with 32 spacious modern rooms and panoramic balconies overlooking the river Moy.

In Ice House’s trendy bar, we spied some of the original vaulted coves of the storehouse and ordered samplings of the local gin, on ice of course. Afterwards, we relaxed at the hotel’s Chill Spa, which was equipped with an outdoor cedar barrel sauna and seaweed hot tubs overlooking the river.

At the end of the road trip, my husband was completely surprised to see how the rest of the country was so different from Dublin. We both agreed that, to really understand the culture, people, and geography of Ireland, you need to get out of the big city.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away. October 2017

Creatively Traveling the World

For Cuisine Noir magazine. October 2017.

Eight ways to travel safer, cheaper and make a difference.

Wish you could travel more? Perhaps a limited budget and time is holding you back. Or maybe you are waiting for a friend or spouse to accompany you on your journey. Travel is an important part of our lives, an experience that opens our minds, makes us more confident and helps us be creative. But it doesn’t have to be something only the rich or retired can afford.

Here are a few ways you can travel more frequently, for longer periods of time, without breaking the bank. You can even use some of these tips to even travel for free.

Home Exchanges – Remember the 2006 movie, “The Holiday,” with Cameron Diaz who lived in Los Angeles and Kate Winslet in London, swap homes at Christmas after bad breakups with their boyfriends? If you have a house, condo or even a rented apartment, you can swap with another traveler from a different part of the world. It’s a great way to save money on hotels and you get to experience what it is like to live in that country. Just register on home exchange websites such as HomeExchange.com and iLoveHomeSwap.com, indicate where and when you want to travel, and send a request to exchange a home.

House Rentals – If you are not comfortable with swapping your place to complete strangers, you can still rent a home or a room on your next vacation. Websites such as Airbnb.com, HomeAway.com, and VRBO.com allow you to rent directly from homeowners by the night, week or month, cutting out the middle man.  Hosts will often share the best local spots in the city to eat, visit and party, as well as which areas to avoid. Also, having access to a kitchen means you can save money on eating out.

During a solo trip to Italy last summer, I stayed with a couple in Naples through Airbnb. They mapped out my daily explorations so I would avoid the not so safe areas of town and be able to take a more scenic route. They even guided me to the best pizza places in town that the tourists didn’t know about.

Volunteer Travel – Many for-profit and nonprofit organizations organize one-week to a few months long volunteer tours that include lodging, meals and sightseeing for a small price. Volunteers Initiative Nepal charges roughly $10 per day to place with a host family in exchange for helping in the villages with construction work, teaching or health care. Vaughan Town covers your hotel stay and 3-course meals in charming resorts across Spain and Germany if you teach conversational English. By engaging in volunteer work you get to meet locals and other travelers, so you will never feel lonely.

I have volunteered abroad in a dozen countries through Go Eat Give and other organizations. What I the enjoy most is the ability to meet people from all realms of society and understand their issues on a deeper level. As tourists, we don’t get a chance to see beyond the pleasurable side of the destination.

Farm Stay – Many families are turning toward farm stays to have productive bonding time, teach the kids important values, be close to nature, and experience country living. Help harvest grapes, press olives, make wine, rear pigs, milk cows or make cheese in exchange for free food and accommodations in Italy, Canada, Australia, France and more paces. On WWOOF.net, you can find opportunities to work on organic farms in 120 countries.

Barter for Work– If farming is not your thing, but you still want to exchange your skills for room and board and have a culturally immersive experience, register at Workaway.info or HelpX.net. Some of the projects listed on the sites include developing a community center in Italy, running a hostel in Brazil, and dog-sitting in South Africa. By working abroad, you get to understand the local culture, practice the language and make new friends.

House Sit – This involves the least amount of work and gives you access to some of the most luxurious homes around the world, for free! All you have to do is keep the house safe and clean, water the plants, take care of the pets (if any), and enjoy the facilities. Look at HouseCarers.com, MindMyHouse.comand Trustedhousesitters.com for where you can go.

Work on a Yacht – Can’t afford a yacht but love to sail? At the sites FindACrew.net, CrewSeekers.net and DesperateSailors.com, you can find yacht delivery jobs around the Atlantic, Caribbean, Mediterranean and more, as well as captains looking for extra nautical help onboard.

Working Holiday Visa – If you are between 18-30 years old, you can get a working holiday visa in countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, France, Ireland and Singapore. This allows you to work and stay for up to a year without having to apply for work permits or sponsorships. Working part time at a bar, restaurant or theme park means extra cash in the pocket to make your vacation last longer.

~ Written for Cuisine Noir magazine. October 2017 digital issue. 

Need a Unique Vacation? Train to Be a Yamabushi (Mountain Hermit) in Japan!

For CheapOAir Miles Away. September 2017. 

If you’ve been to Japan, you’ve probably been overwhelmed by enormous crowds walking through streets filled with skyscrapers and glistening neon lights, mechanical sounds of pachinko slots, and colorful plates of weird looking creatures passing around on conveyor sushi belts. Stepping out of Tokyo, you may have visited majestic Buddhist temples, Zen gardens, and the iconic Mount Fuji. But on your next visit to Japan, you can try a completely new experience that has only recently opened to foreign visitors.

You can sign up for a Yamabushi vacation.

What is a Yamabushi?

Yamabushi are Japanese mountain ascetic hermits who, according to traditional Japanese mysticism, are believed to be endowed with supernatural powers. They have also served as sendatsu, or spiritual mountain guides, since medieval times for pilgrims. Like Native Americans, they connect with nature by living in the forest and hiking for days. Their practice, known as Shugendō, evolved during the 7th century from an amalgamation of beliefs drawn from local folk-religious practices, embodied in Shinto, Taoism and esoteric Buddhism.

The Japanese people have been doing Yamabushi training for 1300 years. In fact, many Japanese take solitary retreats in the mountains to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. While it was more popular among older Japanese men to embark on Yamabushi getaways, younger generations are realizing the importance of taking a break and connecting with nature. Many professionals go for Yamabushi to relieve themselves of stress and find better focus at work. It’s the Japanese alternative to a spiritual retreat!

Retreat participants train with a Yamabushi master and many find that, while they’re likely NOT to attain supernatural powers, they can resolve a lot of challenges, questions, or decisions in their life.

The Yamabushi retreat I attended, designed by the Japanese company Megurun and called Yamabushido, is the first of its kind to led by an English-speaking master, and included exposure to Japanese culture and cuisine, along with authentic Yamabushi instruction. Yamabushido’s 3 and 5-day programs run throughout the year and range from 150,000-300,000 Yen.

My retreat was run by a 13th-generation Yamabushi, Master Hoshino, and a business professional turned Yamabushi, Master Takeharu Kato, in the sacred mountains of Dewa Senzan in Yamagata prefecture, an hour flight north of Tokyo.

Discover the there’s more to Japan than Tokyo and read our post Small Towns & Cities of the Japanese Countryside You Need to Visit.

Prayers by Zen Buddhists. Photo by Sucheta Rawal

My Yamabushi training took place during an impending typhoon in the area. We spent a day at a Zen temple learning from a Buddhist monk how to maintain proper posture, meditate, and pray. Then we practiced applying focus and being in the moment through the art of calligraphy. During the next three days, we stayed at a pilgrimage lodge which provided very basic, shared facilities.

Dressed in all-white Yamabushi attire, we climbed the three sacred mountains of Deva in the pouring rain, each mountain symbolizing death or letting go, ascension into heaven, and rebirth or the future. We climbed what seemed like hundreds of steps, rocky boulders, and wooden paths across Mt. Haguro, Mt. Gassan, and Mt. Yudono, surrounded by towering beech and cedar trees.

During the hikes, we were encouraged to remain silent and feel our surroundings. We also stopped to pay tribute at the different shrines along the way and chanted the Heart Sutra at some of the pagodas and temples.

Hiking in Mt Haguro. Photo by Sucheta Rawal

Yamabushi training involves pushing one’s physical and emotional limits so that you can learn to put mind over matter. Waking up before sunrise, eating very little, hiking for hours, bathing in a freezing gushing waterfall, and meditating in a smoky room – are all part of the challenges one needs to overcome to graduate.

At the end of the training, we jumped over a small fire to represent rebirth into new life. Then we shared an elaborate lunch of over 15 dishes and sake with our masters while they commented on how they saw our progression during the program. Though our journey was mostly in silence, the masters could tell when we were struggling and what we needed to do to better in our lives.

Master Tak and Master Hoshino at graduation lunch. Photo by Sucheta Rawal

We finished the last day at a boutique ryokan in Tsuruoka, relaxing in the mineral-rich hot springs, and dining on beautifully crafted seafood dishes.

Don’t make a faux pas on your Japan! Read our post Watch Your Manners in the Japanese Countryside.

After the program, I felt stronger and accomplished. Others whom I spoke to told me they had renewed energy, a deeper appreciation and higher sensitivity to surroundings. Whether you are an avid hiker who enjoys nature or a city dweller looking to push your limits, Yamabushi training can be a wonderful experience, both spiritually and physically rewarding.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away in September 2017. 

Why Georgia (the Country) is the World’s Best Kept Travel Secret

For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. August 2017.

While most people know of Georgia, the peach state in the southern US, very few are aware of Georgia, the former Soviet republic that’s tucked between Europe and Asia. The country is one of the oldest in the world, and has a rich culture that has managed to survive foreign occupation by Persians, Ottomans, and Russians.

Nowadays, tourism is beginning to develop in Georgia, so things are relatively cheap and uncrowded. Here are a few very good reasons to go to Georgia NOW before the secret gets out!

Diverse Offerings

The best way to see Georgia is by driving through the country. You’ll pass by lush green valleys, a sprawling wine country, the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains, thick forests, and black sand beaches – all located within a few hours’ drive.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

Walk around the capital of Tbilisi through its winding, narrow cobblestone streets, charming bazaars and cafés offering local cuisine, drinks, and hookah. Spend a weekend at one of the lakeside resorts in the Kvareli region. Enjoy the romantic town of Sighnaghi, which offers picturesque views of the Alazani valley and even has a round-the-clock wedding chapel. Find a quiet spot along the beaches by the Black Sea, or gamble all night at a casino in Batumi.

Ancient Sites With Interesting Stories

Georgia adopted Christianity as a country in the 4th century and even today is predominantly Georgian Orthodox. It’s believed that Saint Nino carried a cross made of grape twigs from Cappadocia (in Turkey) to Georgia, converting many of the locals. The first Christian church in the country was built in Mtskheta, Georgia’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Due to its historical significance and numerous ancient monuments, the “Historical Monuments of Mtskheta” became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.

The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral here is said to house Jesus’ robe that was recovered after his crucifixion. The cathedral has also played an important part as a site for the coronation and burial of the kings of Georgia.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

About 45 miles away is Ananuri castle complex, another notable historic site that’s beautifully perched amidst turquoise river water and towering mountains.

The 14th century Holy Trinity Church near Gergeti village, located on a steep mountain cliff, is an iconic symbol of Georgia. It’s noted that, in times of danger, precious relics were brought here for safe keeping.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

Vardzia, a spectacular cave monastery stretching along the slopes of the Erusheti Mountain and which once housed 2,000 monks, is another must-see.

You can witness Georgia’s rich history in many such monasteries, churches, and cathedrals that are spread throughout the country.

Tons of Fun for Outdoor Adventurers

Georgia is a great destination for those who are looking for active vacations on a budget. There are abundant opportunities for hiking, trekking, and skiing in the Caucasus. Drive through the Goderdzi Pass for high adrenaline off-roading, where you can also enjoy views of mountains covered with wildflowers, thick pine forests, and well preserved remote villages.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

In Gudauri, you can rent a room at a traditional B&B including meals for $30/night, while ski lift passes go for an average of $30/day.

Another beautiful and much easier drive is on Georgia Military road that runs between Tbilisi (Georgia) and Vladikavkaz (Russia). Passing alongside the Aragvi River, you can enjoy beautiful views of fertile green valleys, crystal clear rivers, and majestic snow passes.

Many travelers enjoy the comforts of an upscale mountain lodge, like at Rooms Hotel Stepantsminda ($100-150/night), before heading on to trek Mount Kazbek, the third-highest mountain in Georgia at 5,034 meters. Here, you can see snow-covered peaks year-round.

Kazbegi is also home to one of the world’s most spectacular marathon routes.

Unbelievable Food

Every meal in Georgia is a feast, called Supra. Fresh baked breads, assorted salads, and farmers’ cheese (called sulguni) are staples. Then comes badrijan nigzit, eggplant with walnut paste; khinkali, drum shaped dumplings with soupy minced meat, cumin and pepper; or shashlik, tender grilled pork.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

The Georgian national dish is khachapuri — bread stuffed with cheese. While it’s made differently across the country, the most popular one is adjarian khachapuri, baked boat-shaped bread filled with gooey, melted, tangy cheese, a whole egg yolk, and some slivers of butter.

Meals in Georgia last for several hours, with multiple shared plates and endless toasts. Dried and fresh fruits are always served for dessert. Of course, everything is fresh, locally grown, and oh so tasty!

A Very Old Wine Culture 

Georgians have been making wine for at least 8,000 years in traditional methods by storing grapes (including skin and seed) in large clay barrels (known as kvevris) underground.

As a result, the wine has a dense and robust flavor. This method has been listed in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. There are hundreds of varieties of indigenous grapes that aren’t found anywhere else in the world.

Kakheti is the most fertile wine region in Georgia, known for Kindzmarauli wine, a semi-sweet red variety. There are several local wine makers in the area. Winery Khareba is one of the largest winemakers and offers factory tours where they take you through their cold underground granite cellars. Pheasant’s Tears is an award-winning winemaker, producing artisanal natural wines, owned by an American-Georgian couple.

One of the monasteries I visited, Saint George Monastery of Alaverdi, has been making wines since 1011 AD and the monks residing there still grow and sell their wine for $50/bottle.

While in Georgia, also try Cha-Cha, a local distilled alcohol made from wild grapes. Due to its high alcohol content (45-60%) it’s also called “Georgian vodka.”

Pure Water Everywhere

The first thing you’ll find out when you arrive in Georgia is that, not only is it okay to drink the tap water, it’s actually good for you! Mineral water is Georgia’s number one export and you can get all these rich minerals for free straight from any tap.

At Azarfesha restaurant in Tbilisi, expect to find a “water menu” as part of the wine and beverage list. Originating from Georgia’s different regions, the water selections are described as “soft and silky”, “saline notes,” and with “lactose like sweetness.”

The capital of Tbilisi (meaning ‘warm water’) was first built around hot Sulphur springs. Even today, you can find dome-covered public bath houses in the old city where you can enjoy a hot bath and a scrub.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

Borjomi is another popular spa resort town known for its hot springs and mineral waters. People from all over Eastern Europe flock here to fill their bottles with Borjomi water, which is believed to have medicinal properties.

Written for CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. August 2017.