6 Charming Small Towns of Croatia You Need to See Right Now

For CheapOAir Miles Away blog. May 2017.

This Eastern European country has been popular among tourists because of its magnificent national parks, long coastline along the Adriatic Sea, and enchanting islands frequented by sailboats and yachts. But Croatia also has many small towns that offer natural beauty, authentic culture and local cuisine. Here are some places you need to check out.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

1. SAMOBOR

Located less than an hour drive from the country’s capital Zagreb, Samobor is a weekend getaway that mainly attracts hikers. Start your day fueling up on Kremšnite, the famous local fare — a flaky pastry filled sweet cream custard. Hike through the small town that is nicknamed the “Venice of Croatia” due to its colorful houses along the canal, while passing by the 15th century church of Saint Anastasia and quiet cottages with manicured gardens.

At the main square, visit Silvia Krajacic, at her souvenir shop Srčeko. She is among one of the 20 families in Croatia that still practice Licitar, the traditional art of making ornamental cookies in heart shapes. It is noted that in the 16th century, giving licitar was more romantic than giving roses! Down the street, Brigiti Mihina at Arko also carries on this tradition, which is listed in the Intangible Cultural Heritage for Croatian culture.

Snack on the local delicacy, Greblica, that looks like a flatbread stuffed with Swiss chard, walnuts and cheese, and wash it down with a glass of Bermet, aromatic red wine.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

2. VARAŽDIN

The former capital of Croatia may appear to be just a business town at first, but the old town with its castle, cobblestone streets and 13th to 18th century buildings has a unique European charm about it. Varaždin is known as “The City of Festivals” as there is at least one festival every month. There are Baroque nights through the summer where people dress up in historic costumes, parade and perform around the squares. You can’t miss the angelic installations adorning many of the buildings, created by a local artist, giving it another name of “The City Where Angels Sleep.” Visit the angel museum, Anđelinjaka, which houses donated angels from all over the world.

Ride a bike through the vineyards outside the city, stay at a family farm guest house, and soak in one of the many hot springs in the area. Stop by the craft square to pick up locally made honey brandy (rakia), handmade hats and souvenirs.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

3. ZAGREB

Though Zagreb is the largest city in Croatia, it still feels like a small town. The city is organized in a U-shaped network of parks, allowing for plenty of green spaces trimmed with flowers. It is easy to walk around town in a day and visit the squares, opera house, parliament, museums, churches, and take a few coffee breaks in between. Croatians love to take coffee breaks!

The Museum of Broken Relationships is one of the most unique museums in the world, displaying memorabilia of ordinary people whose relationships did not result in happy endings.

Zagreb also has a great nightlife scene with lots of restaurants, bars, and live music venues. Visit the Dolac Market in the morning for cheap local fruits and grab lunch of fresh fuji pasta with Istrian truffles in at Vinodol restaurant.  Nature lovers can spend a day at Maksimir Park walking around the meadows, creeks, and five lakes that make up the oldest public park in the city.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

4. SPLIT

The city center of Split is marked by Diocletian’s Palace, which was built by Romans in the 4th century and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Now, the labyrinth of streets inside the palace takes you through residential apartments, boutique stores, charming restaurants and heritage hotels. One can easily spend an entire afternoon wandering through the palace and stop for a coffee at one of the plazas overlooking the Roman ruins for people watching.

Another fun thing to do is hike or bike to the peak of Marjan where you can enjoy panoramic view of Split, the sea and surrounding hills.

Split is located on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia and has ferries running to many of the Adriatic Islands. Get on a party sail boat during summer and chill out with a beer or two.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

5. HVAR

The island of Hvar is only an hour-long ferry ride from Split. It has been an important tourist destination in Croatia since 1868, boasting beautiful turquoise waters, rocky beaches, and hills full of wild lavender and vineyards. Hvar City, located right at the port also has an active nightlife in the summer months, transforming this Venetian naval base into a modern party city.

During the day, discover the island by visiting old abandoned villages on a bike tour with local tour company, And Adventure and catch some spectacular views on the way. Break for lunch at a family run establishment in the countryside and continue to visit some of the wineries in the area. Swimming and sea kayaking in the Adriatic is also fun as the water is crystal clear in this area.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

6. DUBROVNIK

This is perhaps the most well-known town in Croatia due to its visibility on the TV series, Game of Thrones. The walled city is listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site and is nicknamed “Pearl of the Adriatic.” The best way to explore the Old Town is by walking on the city walls. It gives a good perspective of how the 40,000 or so people reside in the historic town as well as offers spectacular views. Don’t miss the Dubrovnik Summer Festival, with its outdoor theaters, classical music concerts and dance performances that transforms the city into a baroque town.

Just a few miles outside Dubrovnik are small villages worth visiting. Konavle offers agro-tourism destinations that have been run by families for hundreds of years, complete with lodging and dining, while the Pelješac peninsula is good for coastal drives and oyster and mussel farming. The medieval town of Ston with its longest city walls in Europe is a good place to stop for local seafood.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away blog. May 2017.

Looking for a Hollywood-Like Adventure? Take a Trip to South Jordan!

For CheapOAir Miles Away blog. March 2017. 

What do the movies The Martian, The Last Days on Mars, Prometheus, and Red Planet all have in common? They’re all science fiction movies set on other planets and they were all filmed in southern Jordan. In fact, from Lawrence of Arabia to The Hurt Locker, international filmmakers have been coming to the “lower half” of this Arab country for decades — drawn by its unique settings, tax incentives, and liberal mindset. But even if you’re not making a major Hollywood film, it’s a still a destination you should add to your bucket list.

ALL of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which a little bit smaller in square millage than the state of Maine, offers diverse landscapes and ancient cultural sites. From castles of Azraq and Amra in the East, Lake Tiberias and the Golan Heights in the North, Mount Nebo, Holy Land and the Dead Sea in the West, there is a lot of history and nature in Jordan.

But if you’re looking for adventure, breathtaking landscapes, and awe-inspiring history, then you need to head south.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

The Surreal Landscapes of Wadi Rum

A little under an hour’s drive from the southern governate city of Aqaba (and only about 3 and half hours by car from Jordan’s capital city Amman), lies the sand dunes and colored cliffs of the Wadi Rum protected area. A Unesco World Heritage Site, Wadi Rum’s nickname is the “Valley of the Moon,” because it will make you feel like you’ve stepped on another planet, which is probably why it’s where movies set on Mars are often filmed. There are miles and miles of granite rocks and sandstone, with no other life in sight. Yet, if you look closely you might find thousand-year-old inscriptions carved into the rocks. If you time your visit during off-peak hours, you may also find yourself to be the only person out there, along with your Bedouin jeep driver of course.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

The Ancient Architecture of Petra

The Lost City of Petra was carved out of towering rose-colored rocks around 312 BC by the Nabataeans, an industrious Arab tribe. The city was abandoned after a series earthquakes in the 1st century and wasn’t discovered by the wider world until 1812. It’s among the “New 7 Wonders of the World” and, like Wadi Rum, is also designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Movie fans will likely recognize it as the temple that held the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and it’s one of Jordan’s most popular tourist attractions. Petra is a little over 100 kilometers north of Wadi Rum and you should plan on spending an entire day there to watch the rocks vary their shades from brown to pink and capture some wonderful photographic opportunities.

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Image via Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

The Thrilling Adventures of the Desert

Walking around and taking in the awe-inspiring scenery isn’t the only thing to do in Southern Jordan. One of the best ways to see Wadi Rum and Petra is by air and tourists can ride in their choice of  a helicopter, hot air balloon, or glider over the canyons and valleys.

For adventures on the ground, you should connect with the Zalabia Bedouin. They’re a local tribe that lives in Jordan’s desert areas and mainly work in tourism, leading trekkers, rock climbers, and camel and horseback safaris through the area with overnight camping under the star-studded Arabian sky.

Tourists can also rent ATV’s and 4-wheel vehicles for day trips racing through the sand dunes. Just be prepared to come across a Bedouin camp in the middle of nowhere, where you’re more than likely to be offered hot tea and handmade souvenirs.

If you prefer a package experience, Desert Paramours is a Jordanian family-run tour company that offers caravan style group trips. Their tours allow you trace the footsteps of great explorers, by riding camels or donkeys and staying with nomads in tents.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away blog. March 2017. 

We Bet You Don’t Know These 10 Things About Myanmar

For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. December 2016. 

The country of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is located in the South Asian peninsula, between China, India, Laos, Bangladesh and Thailand. Until recently, the country had an embargo on foreign visitors. Therefore, much of the land is still untouched by tourists. This off-the-beaten path destination has a lot to offer in terms of natural beauty, historic sites, delicious food and raw authenticity.

Here are some things you probably did not know about Myanmar (that’ll make you want to head there straightaway)…

You Will Be One of The Few Tourists There

Visiting Myanmar feels like stepping back in time, and participating in the life as it has been for decades. Many of the locals commute by ferry to the largest city and former capital of Yangon to work, wearing colorful sarongs (known as longyi). Here you can see hawkers selling everything from boiled quail eggs and dried fish heads, to mobile sim cards. Spot the nomadic fisherman living on traditional wooden boats. Travel by trishaw through the small villages, shopping for fresh vegetables and seafood in the wet markets. It is a country where you will experience the real culture, and not find many fast food restaurants, designer stores or name brands.

You’ll Be Surrounded By the Friendliest People on Earth

Burma was recently named the world’s friendliest country in the world by InterNations Expat Insider 2015, with more than 96% of respondents positively rating their affability toward foreigners. The locals are always smiling, making jokes and are very welcoming. Despite the language barrier, they will still try to help you in some way.

Did you know that the famous long-neck women wearing brass necklaces are originally from the Padaung Tribe in Myanmar?

You Can See All Different Kinds of Ecosystems

The geographical location of Myanmar makes it diverse in natural beauty. There are the Hengdun Mountains in the north, picturesque fishing villages on the banks of three major rivers, inland lakes and wildlife reserves, Buddhist temple complexes, expansive coral reef in Mergui Archipelago, to white sandy beaches along 1200 miles of coastline, Myanmar has it all!

Did you know that Southeast Asia’s highest mountain, Hkakabo Razi, at 19,295 feet, is located in Myanmar?

Myanmar is the Most Generous Countries in the World

According to the CAF World Giving Index by the Gallup World Poll, Myanmar is the most giving country in the world, with 91% of the population donating money, 55% volunteering, and 63% helping a stranger. Though Myanmar is also one of the poorest countries in the world, a widespread generosity comes from Buddhist teachings, which preaches that accumulation of merit through charity and good deeds (karma).

There is So Much History and Beauty to Uncover

The beautiful woman Myanmar in Kuthodaw Pagoda on after sunset blue hour, treaditional culture myanmar,Mandalay Myanmar

There are tons of historic and spiritual attractions in Myanmar. Stroll through the broad avenues dotted with colonial buildings with traditional wooden architecture in Yangon, and find yourself gleaming at a pagoda at practically every corner. Once known as “the garden city of the East” Yangon had public services and infrastructure on par with London by the early 20th century.

In Yangon, visit the world-famous 2,500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda, adorned with 5,488 diamonds and 2,317 rubies, and see one of the largest reclining Buddhas in the world at the Chauktatgyi Pagoda. With 1,000 Buddhist statues on its grounds and within its halls, the Kothaung Paya is impressive, to say the least. The city of Bagan looks magical with its 3000 pagodas and temples built between the 9th and 11th centuries. Mandalay, the second largest city and the last royal capital, is home to Buddha’s sacred tooth relic replica, and one of the oldest Buddhist temples in the world.

Did you know? Kuthodaw Pagoda in Mandalay is known as the World’s Biggest Book as the entire Buddhist scripture (known as Tripitaka) is inscribed on its 792 stone slabs.

Buddhism Is Everywhere

The population of Myanmar is 89% Buddhist. It is the most religious country in terms of the proportion of monks to civilians and the proportion of income spent on religious purposes. The history of Buddhism in Myanmar is over 2,000 years old. Until recently, all men were required to be a monk for at least two years. Even now, every male will go and live in a monastery for three times in his lifetime for at least a week at a time. Monks can be found roaming the streets and knocking at doors asking for their daily offerings. Also, a number of temples, pagodas and Buddha statues fill into the landscapes all over the country. There’s no escaping spirituality when you are visiting Myanmar.

It is Called “The Golden Land” (and You’ll See Why)

With all the gold-layered palaces, temples, pagodas and Buddha statues, there is a lot of glam that makes Myanmar earn its title of the Golden Land. Gold leaves are sold outside the religious monuments where people can stick the gold on to the building or statue.  It is believed that by building or donating to the pagoda, you will receive blessings, and take a further step towards salvation.

Did you know – Yangon, though the largest city, is not the capital of Myanmar? The capital was moved to Naypyidaw in 2006 by the ruling military. 

You May Never Have Better Food After a Visit

Myanmar is an emerging foodie destination, and those who have tried the local cuisine can attest to the fact that it is spicy, diverse and delicious. With influences of Indian, Chinese, and Thai, regional Burmese dishes are largely based on rice, vegetables and seafood as staple ingredients. A typical meal would balance four primary flavors – sour, salty, spicy and bitter. Many dishes are served and eaten family style. Savory salads, rice noodles in thick broths, curried fish and prawns, spicy stewed lentils and grilled flatbreads are among a few staple foods. One of the most popular dishes is Laphet or fermented green tea leaf salad with sesame seeds, peanuts, fried garlic, dried shrimp and sesame seeds.

Your Money Will Go a Long Way

Traveling in Myanmar is quite affordable, with several hostels catering to backpackers charging $10 – $25 per night to 3 and 4-star hotels at $60 – $100 per night, with everything from guesthouses and boutique hotels in between. Food is quite inexpensive and there is a range of options from street food to upscale cafes ranging $0.20 – $5.00 per dish. Only the luxury hotels serving Western food are pricier.

Generally, hotels will take US dollars and the local currency, Kyat, for street and food purchases. As of recently, ATMs and credit cards are possible to use in the country.

Myanmar Is Now Open for Tourism

Direct flights to Yangon are available from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Qatar, Germany and India. Visas can easily be obtained online in a few easy steps. There are also many tour operators, hotels and resorts offering great deals throughout the country. Themed tours include food, diving, beach, spiritual, and yoga journeys, among others.

I traveled to Myanmar on Silverseas Discoverer Andaman Sea expedition inaugural cruise to the country. A handful of small cruise ships that can sail into Yangon through the Irrawaddy Delta are now offering itineraries that include stops in Myanmar. Cruising is a great way to experience some of the highlights of the country without having to deal with the hassle of local transportation, tours and hotels. Being an expedition journey, my ship arranged for offshore sightseeing with English speaking guide, internal flights, and authentic meals at local restaurants included in the cruise fare.

Whether you are seeking a spiritual, cultural or outdoor adventure, Myanmar is great destination to explore before the rest of the world gets there!

For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. December 2016. 

You *Have* to Eat This: Bangkok’s Best Street Food

For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. December 2016. 

There’s no doubt that Bangkok is one of the most bustling and abundant cities in the world when it comes to street food. The smells of steaming noodle soups, simmering coconut curries, slow roasting chicken and frying fish cakes draws crowds from near and far into an around-the-clock eating frenzy. Street hawkers, scooters with sidecars, designated food markets, roadside restaurants, everyone seems to be selling food all of the time! While some sell precooked meals and others make it to order, each one specializing in one unique dish and a recipe that has been passed on for generations. The street food here is fresh, hygienic, and cheap.

Since many of the vendors sell the same foods, it can be daunting to find which ones are the best, so I decided to go around the historic district of Banglamphu (also known as Old Town Bangkok), escorted by a local guide. Chinnapatt Chongtong aka Chin, who runs a local food tour company called Chili Paste Tours, knows the area quite well, as she tours the markets every single day. All of the vendors know her as their “sister” and offer samples of their best dishes. Here are some of the things that we eat on the streets of Bangkok

Rolled and Stuffed

At first I couldn’t tell the difference between all kinds of little rolled balls I saw on the streets. But after tasting, I realized each of them had a unique flavor ranging from savory to sweet, and sometimes both rolled into one.

Saku Sai Moo – These thin tapioca dumplings are stuffed with coarsely ground peanuts, and sometimes pork. There is also a variation made with butterfly pea flour that appear more white in color. The chewy bite-sized balls make for a great snack and is believed to be traditionally served to the Thai monarch.

Kaow Tom Mud – As I curiously observe the perfectly square banana leaves, one of the vendors starts unwrapping the leaf and offers me the mixture of sweet sticky rice it contained. Variations of this snack contain coconut, bananas and red beans. They are steamed inside the leaf for added flavor.

Kha Nom Krok –  Sweets snacks are collectively known as khanom and mostly made with coconut, palm sugar, cassava, jellies, and fruits. These sweet coconut and spring onion pancakes are cooked in a cast iron mold and served hot off the griddle. They are golden brown on the inside and soft on the inside.

Kha Nom Tom – The colorful rice balls found on street cars are made with glutinous rice powder, coconut sugar and boiled in water. Some include gelatin and artificial coloring.

Fried and Grilled

Generally, these kinds of meats will be cooked right on the street carts and served as you order. The meats are seasoned for hours with lots of spices including soy sauce, sugar, chilies, shallots, ginger, lemongrass, basil, lime, etc.

Kai Jeow – The deep fried Thai omelet is eaten for breakfast and as a snack. It can be cooked with chicken, pork or cucumber and seasoned with soy sauce. Order it with rice and chili sauce to make it a meal. It is always made to order.

Tod Mun Pla – These fish cakes are made with ground white fish and red curry paste and kaffir lime. Small patties are deep fried to perfection and have a kick that would awaken the taste buds. Believe it or not, the locals eat this for breakfast!

Gai Yang – BBQ lovers will enjoy grilled chicken that is marinated slowly in a flavorful bath of cumin, turmeric, coriander, pepper, garlic, lemongrass and fruit juice. Half chickens are placed on bamboo sticks and grilled to perfection over mangrove tree charcoal for added authenticity.

Pla Pao – Some of the street vendors specialize in a dish of whole fish on the rotisseries. These are seasoned with sea salt and wheat flour, then chargrilled until the skin in dark. It is served with a sweet and spicy dipping sauce made with bird eye chilies, sugar, and lime juice

Noodles and Salads

Made with egg or rice, noodles are an important part of Thai cuisine. On the streets of Bangkok find vermicelli noodles, thick glass noodles, flat rice noodles, fried noodles, Chinese rolled noodles, noodle soups, and much more.

Bami Haeng Pet – Juicy braised duck meat known as Ped Thun, served with egg noodles, makes for a perfect lunch. It can also be ordered over steamed rice and hot chili sauce.

Laab Plaa – My guide Chin walks behind one of the kiosks to mix her own fish salad. She debones a roasted catfish, removes the meat and mixes it with roasted rice, chili, green onions and kaffir lime to make a traditional dish from Isan region in northeastern Thailand.

Khao Gang – These are curry rice restaurants that offer a selection of curries of the day served with rice. There is no set menu and you can get whatever is available at the time of the visit. Many locals pick up an assortment of salads, rice, noodles and curries individually packed in plastic bags to take home for a complete meal.

Fruits and Drinks

Being a tropical country, Thailand enjoys a bountiful array of fruit that’s in season throughout the year. Street vendors sell sliced fresh pineapples, pomegranate, watermelon, papaya, mangoes and jackfruit… And all for only a few cents! Also, try the cold-pressed juices and fresh coconut water.

Khao Neeo Mamuang – It is impossible to pass up the ubiquitous Thai dessert, sticky rice with fresh mango. The rice is steamed in coconut milk in a bamboo hat and served with a creamy sauce of coconut milk, sugar and salt.

Cha Yen – Thai iced tea is a popular drink found at train stations and restaurants. It is a cold beverage made with brewed black tea, sugar, condensed milk, orange blossom water, star anise and tamarind. Additional flavors such as chocolate, coconut, strawberry, and tapioca may be added on order.

For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. December 2016. 

Volunteer to Preserve the Coral Reef in Bonaire on Your Next Dive Vacation

For The Huffington Post. October 2016.

Are you a diver who wants to make a difference and have a luxury vacation at the same time? Harbour Village Beach Club is located on a four-acre private peninsula on the unspoiled Caribbean island of Bonaire. This luxury resort is not only equipped with 38 Dutch-Caribbean style suites nestled amid lush tropical gardens, a white-sand beach, and an open air beachside restaurant. It also touts on-property aquatic amenities, such as a first-class, PADI 5 Star Instructor Development Center, water sports center, 64-slip marina with mega-yacht dock, and Kasa Coral Swimming Pool.

What makes Harbour Village unique is the ability for travelers to volunteer with a coral conservation program right on site. Harbour Village is the official resort of Fabien Cousteau’s Ocean Learning Center, a nonprofit organization based in New York City. Named the 2016 Diver of the Year by the international Seakeepers organization, Cousteau has set many milestones including breaking his grandfather’s record of living at the bottom of the ocean for 31 days! He has appeared in and created many scientific documentaries and spearheads conservation programs across the globe.

The satellite Ocean Learning Center at Harbour Village keeps guest updated on ongoing research, public awareness initiatives, global summits and special projects centered around how to protect and preserve the planet’s waters, endangered marine habitats, and marine life. The coral preservation efforts are also a great way for guests to volunteer their time to help conserve the reef during their stay.

Here are few cool restoration techniques they have implemented at the resort…

3D Coral Printing

Reef growth is enhanced and damaged areas are repaired using an innovative 3D coral print technology. The printed reefs have the same shape, texture and chemical make-up that attract free-floating baby coral polyps. Creating a lush, colorful coral garden, these “crown jewels” of the tropical seas sustain other aquatic life such as algae, anemones, octopus, crab and more.

Bio Rock

Transplanted coral species are attached to metal structures with low voltage DC current, which stimulated new and fast coral growth. It ultimately helps protect islands, coastal erosions and rising seas levels. Harbour Village already have 16 such rock piles fitted with underwater research webcams.

Coral Nursery

The resort dive masters spend a few hours each week caring for the underwater coral nursery of Elkhorn and Staghorn corals. Recreational divers can also help out hanging the coral on the trees, cleaning, and transporting corals from the nursery to the rock piles. Snorkelers are welcome to take a look at the preservation efforts and come back each year to watch the expanding corals.

10 Reasons to Travel to Armenia Right Now

For CheapOAir. September 2016.

Located in Eurasia’s South Caucasus region, and nestled between Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Iran (along with a couple others) lays Armenia. Home to some of the world’s oldest monuments, breathtaking vistas, a hospitable culture with a rich history and a delightful food and drink scene, Armenia offers a gamut of travel experiences that will not disappoint. It’s also not overcrowded with tourists yet, a fantastic ingredient in the recipe for a unique and awesome modern day travel experience.

But in case you were looking for more motivation, here are reasons to travel to Armenia… RIGHT NOW:

It’s Great for History Buffs

The history of Armenia dates back to early civilization. Visit the Areni cave, home to the the 4000 BC-year old wine-producing facility and the site where the world’s earliest known leather shoe was discovered 5,500 years ago. Stargaze the old-fashioned way at Carahunge, also known as the Armenian Stonehenge, estimated to be 7,500 years old (about 4,500 years older than Stonehenge). It’s believed to be the oldest observatory on the planet.

armenia stonehenge

The Carahunge astronomical site. Image via Go Eat Give‘s Amanda Villa-Lobos

It’s Got Some Serious Religious Significance

Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as a nation in 301 AD, though the religion was practiced before that. It is also believed that Noah’s ark landed on top of the biblical Mount Ararat after the Great Flood. There are over 3,000 churches and monasteries in the country, giving it the highest concentration of Christian monuments per capita in the world. Etchmiadzin Cathedral (Armenian Apostolic Church) is considered to be the oldest cathedral in the world.

Tatev monastary

The Tatev Monastery. Image via Go Eat Give‘s Amanda Villa-Lobos

The Silk Road Went Through Here

The historic Silk Road was about 7,000 km long, and a large portion of it passed through Armenia. As you drive through the countryside, you can see ruins of old bridges and caravanserais (rustic hotels) that were used by traders between 114 BCE and 1450 CE.

The Beautiful and Diverse Landscapes

Though Armenia is a small country about the size of Maryland, it has a great variety of landscapes including semi-deserts, alpine meadows, snow-capped mountain, lush green forests of Dilijan, red rocks of Norvank Canyon, and expansive turquoise Lake Sevan, the second highest lake in the world after Titikaka.

Lake Sevan

Lake Sevan. Image via Go Eat Give‘s Amanda Villa-Lobos

The Oldest Cultural Capital

The capital of Armenia, Yerevan, founded in 782 BC, is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. During the day, you can visit Yerevan manuscript and art museums, Tsitsernakaberd Genocide Memorial and Museum, and at night, mingle with the locals at the Independence Square, the Cascade art center, or the Opera House. There are also tons of bars, restaurants, cafes and casinos in Yerevan that are open all night long.

The Food Is Healthy AND Delicious

The geography and climate of the country allows for the bountiful growth of fruits, nuts, and vegetables that are perhaps more flavorful than anywhere else in the world.

Every meal is a festive occasion in Armenia, where families and friends come together to dine on piles of fresh tomato and cucumber salads, homemade cheeses with herbs, baked lavash and Georgian bread, sweet eggplant with pomegranate, hearty bean stews, juicy tender lamb roasts, and sliced peaches, apricots and pears.

They Have Good Cognac and Wine

It seems everyone in Armenia makes their own wine and harvests their own honey. The wine-making tradition has been going on for 6,000 years, so it’s pretty much ingrained in Armenian culture to make and drink wine, no matter how much wealth you have.

Armenian wines are slowly emerging on the global wine scene. Wine country tours are now offered where travelers can taste unique rosés, crisp whites, full-bodied areni, robust pinots, as well as sweet ice wines and pomegranate wines, across the many valleys.

Armenian cognac is the only drink in the world that has been given the privilege of being labeled as such, even though it is not produced in the Cognac province of France. It was the favorite drink of Churchill and Stalin and is still highly valued all around the world. Take a tour of the Ararat cognac factory in Yerevan where you can learn the distillery process, sample a few varieties, and buy bottles to bring home.

The Russian-Built Thermal Spas

Sanatorium are spa resorts that also offer medical services that are typically not covered by medical insurance. Visitors from Europe come here to vacation, get health check-ups (like a complete physical), enjoy therapeutic massages, and use amenities like the gym, pool, Jacuzzi, sauna, and more offerings.

Armenia has a lot of thermal springs spread across the towns of Jermuk, Bjni, Dilijan, Sevan, Arzni and Hrazdan.

It Is THE Place for Outdoor Enthusiasts

Adventure travelers will love the many options to explore the rugged land and picturesque surroundings of Caucasus mountains. In the summer and fall, visitors can drive old Soviet jeeps and go off-roading through the mountains, visiting castles, monasteries, cemeteries, and petroglyphs on their way. They can also hike, or rock climb the gorges of Dzoraget and Debed, mountain bike across ancient villages, bathe in the cool waterfalls, and enjoy traditional campfire cookouts by night.

Armenia roads

Image via Go Eat Give‘s Amanda Villa-Lobos

During winter, skiing and snowboarding are in season on 32.5 km of slopes located across the country’s three ski resorts. The ski resort town of Tsaghkadzor is the most popular with an elevation ranging from 1,966 to 2,819 meters, and one-day tickets only cost $20.

It’s Safe and Affordable

Armenia as a travel destination is affordable and not overcrowded with tourists as of yet. Hostels in Yerevan are as little as $10 per night, and even the most expensive hotels are a little over $100. High-end restaurants cost $10-30 per meal, while delicious local fast foods serving shawarma and lahmajoun will only set you back $2 – 4 per meal. Buses and subways can be easily accessed for $0.20 a ride, while taxis are ridiculously cheap. The locals even prefer to hitchhike, as it is perfectly safe to do so.

Armenia is bordered on the north and east by Georgia and Azerbaijan, and on the south and west by Iran and Turkey. Though its political relations with its neighbors have not been so good in the past, it is now a peaceful and safe place to travel.

For CheapOAir Miles Away blog. September 2016. 

Mongolian Cuisine Is a Carnivore’s Dream Come True

For CheapOAir. August 2016.

Mongolia is one of the few countries where nomadic culture still thrives today. As I drove through the country, I saw nothing but grasslands with free roaming herds of animals accompanied by a nomad or two. They lived in traditional gers (also known as yurts) and survived on whatever the land offered them.

Even Mongolians living in the city flock to the countryside during weekends and summer vacations. They visit nomadic relatives, stay in ger camps, ride horseback, and enjoy the fresh air.

When I asked one of the nomadic women what she cooked and fed her family, she said that their diet consisted mainly of meat and dairy, as well as some things made of flour. She rarely ate any fruits or vegetables, as that would mean an expensive trip to a supermarket in the city.

The Mongolian diet consists mainly of meat (beef, horse, goat, sheep, yak, marmot and camel) and milk, yogurt and cheese derived from animals they raise. During my visit, I was able to taste some authentic Mongolian dishes that are served at homes, camps and restaurants.

Here are Some Notable Dishes from The Land of Genghis Khan

mongol-Amanda2

Süütei Tsai – The first thing you are offered at any home or restaurant is tea. In Mongolia, the tea is hot, salty and milky, with a mild hint of a green tea taste. There can be variations in flavor depending on the area of the country. In one version, the tea has dried beef, butter, quinoa and salt, along with cow’s milk, making it taste more like a pungent soup.

Boortsog – These are fried snacks that are often served as chips or bread before meals, they are sweet and salty at the same time. The dough is made with white flour, yeast, milk, butter, sugar and salt. Boortsog can be dipped in Süütei Tsai, munched on as a snack, or eaten as dessert. I found them rather addictive!

Khuushuur – This stuffed empanada-style fried dumpling is made with raw meat (beef or mutton) and deep fried until the crust is crispy and the filling is cooked. It is the main dish at the famous Naadam festival that takes place every July. You can find kids snacking on Khuushuur as they walk back from school and adults eating it with their hands on their lunch break. No sporting event or picnic is complete without it! If the USA has its hot dog, Mongolia has the Khuushuur.

Buuz

Buuz – Just as is in in neighboring China, Mongolians love their dumplings. Buuz are steamed starchy dumplings filled with meat (generally ground beef or lamb), mixed with onions and salt, that have a thicker texture than potstickers. I even found a vegetarian version of it at a restaurant in Ulaanbaatar.

Shul

Shul – Temperatures in the Gobi Desert can drop to -40°F, so soups and stews are warm and filling on those chilly days. Soups are generally simmered with meat, along with the animal fat, so it can taste a bit gamey. The flavorful broths are sometimes enhanced by vegetables like potatoes and carrots (depending on accessibility). Noodles or dumplings are added to make it a hearty meal.

Tsuvian

 

Tsuvian – Generous portions of thick homemade noodles are stir fried and mixed with meat and vegetables in this delicious entrée. The noodles are homemade and cut short. Carrots, eggplant, mushrooms, or any vegetables at hand may also be added. The dish is mostly dry as Mongolian cuisine doesn’t call for any herbs or spices.

Khorkhog

Khorkhog – One of the most popular cooking techniques in Mongolia is heating stones and adding them to a large pot. Chunks of meat (generally lamb, sheep or beef) are then layered with vegetables such as potatoes, carrots and cabbage. Some water is added and the dish steams for an hour. As a result, the meat is tender and juicy. Khorkhog is easy to make when out camping.

Did you know Mongolian BBQ is a Taiwanese creation? Though the only reference to Mongolian cuisine in the West is BBQ restaurants, they bear no resemblance to the food in Mongolia. It is believed that the Taiwanese were inspired by the nomads and created a stir fry dish of meat and veggies circa 1950s. Now, Mongolian BBQs, which are neither Mongolian nor BBQs, offer a combination of meats, seafood, vegetables, noodles, or rice cooked on flat hot iron griddles (similar to Japanese teppanyaki).

Boodog – Similar to Khorkhog, the Boodog style of cooking uses hot stones to grill the meat. The meat and vegetables are placed inside the abdomen of the animal instead of a pot. Boodog is a typical meal enjoyed by a group of campers. Once the cooking is completed, the diners rub the warm greasy stones between their palms, which they believe, increases stamina and eliminates fatigue.

 

Airag – The national drink of Mongolia is fermented mare’s milk. Airag has an alcohol content of up to 7%, and a sour acidic flavor. It is served during weddings, festivals, and other special events. Mongolians believe that drinking Airag ensures good health as it helps resist pathogenic microbes in the body.

Aaruul – Diced pieces of hard white cheese are generally offered as welcome treats at homes and at festivals. These are made of curdled milk that is dehydrated and dried. Sugar or salt may be added for flavor. Aaruul can last for a long time, therefore makes for great snacks during the harsh winters.

Travelers can also experience day-to-day life as a Mongolian nomad through local tour operator, Voyage Unique Mongolie. You can learn to prepare some of these dishes, as well as make your own yurts, and have one on one conversations with the locals. 

Have you been to Mongolia and dined on a unique dish we didn’t mention? Share it with our readers in the comment section below!

Written for CheapOAir, Aug 2016 issue. 

15 Reasons To Put Chile On The Top Of Your Travel List

For The Huffington Post. July 2016.

Chile is unlike any other country I have visited in South America. Because of its natural beauty, high literacy rate, and fairly stable political situation, it can be best described as the Switzerland of the south. Chile is a paradise for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. Within the country, one can find a diverse variety of landscapes including vineyards, volcanoes, deserts, beaches, lakes, glaciers and forests. Nature, culture, food and people just are few of the reasons to visit Chile.

1. Unexplored Destination – Chile has been relatively cut off from the rest of the world due to its remote location. Therefore, the number of oversees tourists is not as overwhelming as in many other places, and there are areas in the country where you can find yourself to be the only visitors. People are friendly and there is no eminent danger. It is easy to move around the long country by air or road. Adventurers may rent a car (with or without a guide) and explore the entire stretch of 2,700 miles from north to south. Picture yourself in the next Motorcycle Diaries?

2. Santiago – Most visitors arrive in the nation’s capital, a city bustling with boutique hotels, restaurants, shops, art and nightlife. Santiago compares to other South American metropolis in terms of bottleneck traffic, but the city itself has a European feel and stands at an elevation of 1700 feet, surrounded by the Andes mountains.

Travel tip: Make Hotel Le Rive, a charming mansion style boutique hotel, your base and make day trips to the nearby Pacific Ocean and wine country. 

Hotel La Casona at Matetic winery

3. Wine Country – Though Chile has been growing wine for a long time, Chilean wines entered the international wine scene only in the 1990s. From Elqui Valley in the north, Casablanca, Maule and Colchagua Valleys in the center, to Maipo Valley in the south, Chile is producing crisp Sauvignon Blanc, robust Cabernet Sauvignon, spicy Carménère, bold Syrah and smooth Pinot Noirs. In the last decade, biking wine tours of Chile have become very popular where visitors can enjoy the countryside, indulge in paired food and wine tastings, and spend overnight at villas in the vineyards.

Travel tip: Stay at Hotel La Casona in Casablanca Valley where you can bike through 6 miles of the farm, and drink award-winning organic and biodynamic wines at Matetic winery.

4. Pucon – This charming alpine town in southern Chile is best known for still active Villarrica Volcano where you can ski, snowboard or snowshoe all though winter. The trail from its peak to Lake Villarrica below is a scenic 1.5-2-hour ski, and hikers can spend a few days exploring the caves in the area. The volcano is surrounded by forests which are still home to the indigenous people who own the land.

Travel tip: Stay at upscale Hotel Vira Vira. This year-old Relaix and Chateau affiliated property boasts contemporary villas with fabulous views of the Licura river and the flaming volcano. Stay includes farm to table meals, activities such as yoga, horseback riding, guided hikes and cooking classes.

5. Indigenous Culture – The city of Temuco (near Pucon) has the highest indigenous (known as Mapuche) presence in Chile. In this region of Araucanía, visitors can see traditional huts made with paja and get a glimpse how they have lived for centuries. The Mapuche people are best known for their textiles, and it is also possible to visit the workshops of women who weave handlooms using sheep wool in traditional ways passed on from generations.

Fall colors in the Región de la Araucanía

6. Región de la Araucanía – Bordering with Argentina, this forest area is home to hundreds of Araucaria Araucana, also know as monkey puzzle trees. With a backdrop of snow capped volcano, these thousand-year-old trees are referred to as living fossils. Fall is especially beautiful in this area as the region is covered with fiery red, yellow and orange leaves sloping along a winding road.

Torta mieloja in Pucon

 7. Manjar – It is believed that Chile invented the famous Dulce de Leche or sweet milk caramel during the Colonial times. In Chile, you can find many desserts prepared with manjar. There are hole-in-the-wall Pastelerías, as well as Swiss style bakeries serving torta mieloja (Napolean style pastry with layers of dulce), brazo de reine (a Swiss cake roll with caramel), and of course, alfajores.

Beer tasting at Kunstmann brewery

8. German Culture – Since Chile opened up immigration to the Germans in the 1800s, entire towns in southern Chile have been taken over by German settlers. Here you can find traditional homes, churches, and schools that will transport you to Bavaria. German restaurants and breweries have also popped up. One of the most famous ones is family run Kunstmann brewery in Valdivia. Locals and visitors flock here for beer tastings, brewery tours and huge portions of currywurst and burgers.

Travel tip: Eat kuchen (cake) and apples strudel at Winkler Family Kuchenladen in the charming German town of Fruitilliar.

9. Chilean Food – The food across Chile differs by region, with more meat dishes in north and seafood in the south. Fried and baked varieties of empanadas stuffed with ground beef and cheese are perhaps the national street food of Chile. Sopaipillas (fried bread), casuela (meat and veggie stew in clay pot), pastel del choclo (corn and beef Shepard’s pie), and cordero al palo (whole roast grilled lamb) are also traditional comfort foods.

Sunrise on Llanquihue Lake as seen from Hotel Cumbres

10. Puerto Varas – One of the most beautiful cities in Chile, located on Llanquihue Lake, acts as the gateway to Patagonia. Summer time is packed with Chilean tourists laying on the beach, kayaking, or picnicking on boats. Winter is bustling with skiers who come to enjoy the 8,700 feet tall slopes of Volcan Osorno.

Travel Tip: Get one of the balcony rooms at Hotel Cumbres and wake up to see a beautiful sunrise over the lake.

Restaurant El Espantapajaros in Puerto Octay

11. Wildlife – Don’t be surprised to see a huaso (Chilean cowboy) riding down the streets in the countryside. Most of the drives in southern Chile offer picturesque views of rolling hills and grasslands filled with free roaming cows, sheep, llamas and donkeys. In the north, you can see guanacos, alpacas and flamingos too. Remember, not to feed the wild animals!

Travel tip: Take a day trip to family-run Restaurant El Espantapajaros in Puerto Octay, where you can eat homemade German food against a scenic backdrop, and visit the farm animals up close.

12. Patagonia – Torres del Paine National Park is home to beautiful mountains, large glaciers, lakes and rivers. Located in the southern extreme of Patagonia is the largest ice field in the world, Glacier Grey, which creates colorful blue and green icebergs. Get ready for some serious hikes for the best views. This is the perfect place to be one with nature.

Life on Mars is similar to the Atacama

13. Atacama Desert – Due to its high attitude, dry air (driest non-polar place on Earth), lack of pollution and lack of cloud cover, Atacama offers the most spectacular star gazing on the planet. Feel surreal in the vastness of the Mars and Moon valleys, and see the colors in the desert change drastically at sunset. The Atacama Desert is rich in minerals, as well as dramatic lakes filled with salt.

Travel trip: Stay at Awasi Atacama, a boutique resort that combines local architectural elements with 5-star comforts. Personal guides take guests on archeological, star watching, hiking and biking tours.

14. Easter Island – The remote Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean is home to more than 800 Moai Statues created by the early Rapa Nui people. Visit the ancient sites, learn about the indigenous people, and enjoy views of the cliffs and water by biking or hiking around the island.

15. Photographer’s Dream Destination – Many travelers look for destinations where they are inspired to practice their photography skills. In Chile, one doesn’t need to go far to see varied landscapes, animals, people, and food. From star studded skies and dry cracked Earth, to snow covered volcanoes, alpine lakes, and glaciers, there is a great variety of panoramas in this country.

Note: All of the photos in this article were taken with an iPhone 6.

You really need a month to travel around the country and experience all that it has to offer. Custom tour operators such as Yampu Tours can create unique itineraries guided by locals, where travelers can experience the destination, learn about the culture, and interact with the locals. Family-run tour companies like Yampu realize that responsible tourism means supporting these destinations and sustaining their environments and communities for generations to come.

To read more about my travels to Chile, visit my blog, Go Eat Give.

8 Reasons to Fly Norwegian Air – The Discount Airline of the 21st Century

For The Huffington Post. July 2016.

New York City to Oslo for only $150 round trip! An Airfare alert hits the screen. Your first reaction is to book the flight but then you think, what’s the catch?

While many discount airlines are offering unbelievable deals on airfares, often times you get what you pay for. I like to do a little background check before clicking on the reservation button.

With Norwegian Air, not only did I keep my doubts aside (on time departures, no lost luggage, great meals and friendly service), I actually had a better flying experience than I have had in a long time.

1. FAST AND AFFORDABLE

Little did I know that Norwegian is not only cheap, they have better planes than many of the well known brands in the airline industry. I flew the brand new 787 Dreamliner from New York to London in only five hours. The flight was so quite and smooth that I didn’t even realize when it took off and never felt the need to put on my noise cancellation headphones. The 787 Dreamliner is a faster airplane that consumes less fuel. The best part is, Norwegian decided to pass the fuel cost savings to their consumers, therefore the flights are much more affordable.

2. MORE LEG ROOM

There are only two classes offered on Norwegian – Economy and Premium. The main difference between the two is the number of seats per row, allowing for extra room, as well as superior meal service. The Premium seat (there are only five rows) I was in, reclined enough to stretch my legs and each seat had its own charging area with USB and electric outlets. Expanded overhead bins had more room for carry on bags, so there’s no hassle of looking for storage space.

PHOTO BY SUCHETA RAWAL/ GOEATGIVE.COM. Larger windows and seats on 787-9 Dreamliner.

3. SMARTER PLANES

The interior of the 787 Dreamliner plane is designed to reduce jet lag and keep the air well circulated. Clever cabin lighting system changes with the time zone. Electro chromatic window system allows each passenger to control how much light they want to come in. If you wish to take a nap, you can block the sun out completely and make the window appear dark. The viewing area is also 65% more than other planes.

Norwegian has 30 Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner on order for its long-haul operations, so you are more likely to fly on a new plane. 

4. FREE WIFI

Perhaps the biggest perk for 21st century travelers is that all Norwegian Air flights within Europe offer free wifi to all passengers. I used it on the London-Helsinki leg and had no issues connecting with my iPhone and laptop.

5. MODERN ENTERTAINMENT

Flat screen televisions on Norwegian are easy on the eyes and touch screen enabled, though the selection of movies and games is limited. Though with free wifi, you can connect your device online and watch movies, chat with friends or get some work done.

6. HEALTHY MEALS

Most airline food these days (specially in coach) is rather inedible. Norwegian Air offers fresh and healthy choices such as salads, fruit, fish, sandwiches, and vegetarian pasta. Passengers can pre order meals in short haul economy (flights under 1 hour 20 minutes). Snacks are also available for purchase (Visa and MasterCard only) through the TV monitor.

PHOTO BY SUCHETA RAWAL/ GOEATGIVE.COM. Healthy meal choices onboard

7. NO DISCRIMINATION

Norwegian is an upscale discount airline, which may not appeal to business and luxury passengers. The seats are comfortable throughout the plane and not much special attention is given to one class over the other. There is no champagne on arrival or designer amenity kits. Expect to receive only a cozy blanket and headphones, and great service of course.

8. CARE FOR THE PLANET

Norwegian Air started in 1993 and is voted the best value environment friendly airline. They are the third largest low-cost carrier in Europe with 5,500 employees and operate over 400 routes to more than 130 destinations across Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, Thailand, the Caribbean and the US. Norwegian is remarkably dedicated to the environment and focuses on how airlines can contribute to less pollution and emissions by flying new and fuel efficient aircrafts.

As a spokesperson for sustainable travel, I am personally impressed by Norwegian’ dedication to sustaining the planet, while running a profitable business. As a frequent traveler, I like the fact that there is a reliable flying option that can take me to my destination faster, cheaper, and more comfortably.

Ten Ways To Make Your Kids Global Citizens

For The Huffington Post. July 2016.

Given the current situation across the world, it is more imperative now than ever before to teach our kids about tolerance and friendship. The next generation must learn not only about world history and geography, but also understand diversity and culture.

Here are ten simple ways in which parents can teach impressionable young minds about the world in fun and educational manners.

1. Learn a New Language. Speaking a second languages is no longer a nice to have, but a “must have” skill. Free language classes are offered by cultural institutions and consulates in practically every city. There are Sunday schools for kids to learn languages, music, arts and culture. Enroll your kids in German, Spanish or French school each year and they will even expand their circle of friends.

2. Make a Pen Pal. Kids of same ages from different parts of the world can be paired through certain subscription based websites. This allows them to practice their writing skills as well as make a connection with another child. If your kid is a member of a homeschooling association, scouts or 4-H, you can use the club’s resources to find a pen pal. Older kids can also use video chat enabled websites to practice languages or just interact with kids abroad. It is a great way to promote cross cultural learning using modern technology.

3. Attend Cultural Festivals – In my city, we have annual Greek, Polish and Vietnamese festivals where people from those countries put together events to showcase their food, music, dance and art. They wear traditional costumes and recreate the ambiance of that country. There are always designated kids areas with lots of fun activities as well.

4. Travel Abroad – Make your family summer vacation count with a trip to a foreign country. There are many cost effective ways of traveling as a family by doing home exchanges, Airbnb or volunteer vacations. Traveling opens up the minds of little ones as they learn life skills such as patience, communication, and adaptability. Almost all parents who have taken their kids to third world countries have told me that their children tend to demand fewer material things and are generally more grateful for what they have after a trip to a third world country.

5. Incorporate Cultural Learning Into School Projects – My elementary school teacher picks a topic for the week to diversify her class’ learning experience. The topics range from animals, foods, costumes or countries of the world. The students do hands-on activities around it such as making paper cutouts or drawings, watching movies or a kid-friendly cooking class.

6. Read Storybooks Based in Other Countries – Popular fantasy tales such as Arabian Nights, Sindbad, and The Jungle Book not only entertain kids, but also provide insightful knowledge about other cultures. They are fun and educational at the same time. Parents can discuss the cultural aspects of the stories after reading the book or watching the corresponding movies.

7. Eat at Ethnic Restaurants – Instead of going to the same family favorite joints, make a plan to dine at an unfamiliar restaurant once a month. Have your kids do some research on what are some of the foods from that country, so they are excited about ordering. You can even try cooking international recipes at home together. Who knows, you may inspire your kid to be the next Master Chef Junior!

8. Celebrate Different Holidays – Growing up, my family and I celebrated every religious holiday, though we were practicing Catholics. We would light fireworks on Diwali, cook rice pudding on Eid-ul-Fitr, and attend the communal lunch at a Sikh temple on Gurpurav. You can research how the festivals are celebrated and recreate them with traditional food, decorations and customs.

9. Organize Themed Parties – Instead of doing the same old superhero and princess themed birthday parties like every other kid, you can encourage your kids to be more creative. Wear sombreros and hang piñatas for a Latin Fiesta, or ask everyone to dress up in kimonos for a Japanese tea party. The kids will have so much fun and learn something new along the way.

10. Decorate Meaningfully – One of my favorite painting tips is a world map mural with pictures and pins. I also like gifting interactive globes, and dolls from different countries. Incorporating toys and souvenirs from all over the world will inevitably make your kids curious about cultures.

Understanding how the rest of the world lives makes kids smarter and friendlier. Starting early means their personalities are impacted and they become open to trying new things as they get older. It also helps them grow up as informed global citizens.