Alex In Wanderland http://www.alexinwanderland.com Working and playing around the world Tue, 30 Sep 2014 13:57:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.2 Once Upon a Time at Tomorrowland http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/30/upon-time-tomorrowland/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/30/upon-time-tomorrowland/#comments Tue, 30 Sep 2014 13:57:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=31773

Once upon a time, a blonde-haired wanderer heard of a magical place called Tomorrowland, in the faraway land of Boom, Belgium. She listened to dreamy tales and watched, transfixed, a beautiful thing called The Aftermovie, and she knew that someday, somehow, she too would join the sweaty, flag-swathed masses for her own Tomorrowland experience. Though many obstacles stood in her way, she slayed them mercilessly in pursuit of her goal. It can only be described as a magnetic pull, that thing which inspired this fairy tale sojourn to Tomorrowland; an irresistible urge that began with pressing play.

. . . . . .

I hope you guys read that in an appropriately wistful, Brothers-Grimm-narrator-style voice.

I mean come on, I can only keep up the third person fairy tale speak for so long! Yet it seems inexplicably appropriate, because from the moment I stepped foot in Boom — yes, the name of the town holding the festival is, indeed, Boom — I did feel that I was in some sort of magical fantasy land. This sensation was aided, no doubt, by the almost surreal lengths we’d gone to get there. Not surprising, we weren’t the only ones captivated by Tomorrowland’s charms.

Reportedly there were almost 1.8 million people pre-registered for ticket sales for Tomorrowland 2014 — the infamous EDM festival’s highly anticipated tenth anniversary. For those 1.8 million people, there were just 180,000 tickets up for grabs. So, statistically speaking, Tomorrowland is harder to get into than an ivy league university. After flirting with the idea of attending for almost a year, eventually wrangling fellow Yes Girl Heather into signing on board, and then spending months in an over-excited planning frenzy, I had more than a few sleepless nights in the week leading up to general sale wondering what I was doing hinging an entire summer in Europe on odds like that.

Well, Heather and I must have aced our karmic SAT scores, because pretty soon we were on our way to Belgium to take part in what I can only describe as a harmlessly hedonistic Alice in Wonderland-esque playground party.

Tomorrowland 2014

Tomorrowland 2014

Our planning and ticket purchasing saga — and trust me when I say that is was a saga that you’ll be hearing all about someday — involved choosing where to rest our heads during the three day festival. The choices ranged from pitching our own tent in the slums of DreamVille to staying at hotel in nearby Brussels or Antwerp to glamping in an affluent neighborhood of luxury tents. After much reflection on the merits of financial responsibility versus unrestrained indulgence and perhaps a glass of wine or seven — which, keeping in mind we were in different countries for the entire process, took place over Skype — we decided it was go big or go home. And going home wasn’t really an option.

Which is how we became the proud temporary residents of our own little yellow Dreamlodge on Sunset Boulevard, in the DreamVille Campground. The happiness we felt camping — okay, glamping in our case — alongside 35,000 of our fellow festival goers was such a profound part of our experience that it deserves a post of it’s own.

Dream Lodges at Dreamville

Camping in Dreamville

But if we thought we were ecstatic as we checked in to Dreamville on Thursday night, we had no idea the wide-eyed giddiness that lay ahead of us for the next three days as we passed through the rainbow-arched gates of Tomorrowland. With a maze of fifteen magical stages, a star-studded DJ lineup, a drool worthy list of edible experiences and smile-inducing surprises around each corner, it’s no wonder Heather and I spent the majority of the weekend sprinting around the festival like over-caffeinated toddlers at an attention deficit symposium. We quickly coined a catchphrase for the festival that summed up both our dumbstruck excitement and our insatiable appetite for more.

This is awesome… let’s go!

And go we did. To an almost transcendent set by Kygo at the intimate BlueFlame stage.

Kygo at Tomorrowland

To mail tipsily-composed complimentary postcards to our loved ones around the world.

Post Office at Tomorrowland

Post Office at Tomorrowland

To giggle at the so not-actually-naughty Chapel of Love. (Sorry Tomorrowland, but Burning Man has you beat when it comes to orgy tents.)

Chapel of Love

To marvel at the innovation that went into creating the various stage environments, from the nest-like Qult structure to the ever so intimately sized and hilariously named Rave Cave.

Tomorrowland

Rave Cave at Tomorrowland

To be pampered at the giggle-inducing Refresh Stations, which achieved the amazing feat of somehow making porty potties bearable.

Refresh Station Tomorrowland

To stumble on tucked away surprises like a mystical palm reader, a forest of trees made for hugging, or a Wall of Love photobooth for our camera-hamming pleasure.

Tomorrowland Fortune Teller

Tomorrowland Tree Huggers

Tomorrowland Wall of Love

Tomorrowland Wall of Love

To feast on a shockingly high-quality array of cuisines of the world, from Texas-style pulled pork sandwiches to soy sauce-slathered Asian stir-fries to a particularly indulgent Belgian chocolate dessert.

Tomorrowland Food

Tomorrowland Food

And finally, over and over again, to make our pilgrimage to the epic main stage.

Bubbles with a View

While we often made our way up to the front to get lost in the mosh pit of mayhem, on one occasion we treated ourselves to Bubbles with a View. For the mere price of a ridiculously overpriced bottle of champagne, we were spoiled with VIP views, a bit of breathing room to recharge in, and a bowl of strawberries to toss in our bubbly.

Bubbles with a View

Bubbles with a View

Bubbles with a View

Bubbles with a View

And recharging was often what we needed. Four nights and three days of hard partying is not for the faint of liver heart, and so with the festival open for thirteen hours a day, we often returned to DreamVille for a few hours of what we dubbed “The Middle Party” before re-entering Tomorrowland after dark with a group of our new camping friends in tow.

And upon return, we’d find a completely different universe to explore. If things were playful and lighthearted during the day, it was safe to say a bit of chaos seeped in as the sun set.

Tomorrowland at Night

Tomorrowland at Night

Tomorrowland at Night

Riding the Ferris Wheel that marked the far side of the festival and looking out in awe over a video game-like explosion of fountains, fireworks, neon lights and color was a moment of euphoria that I won’t be forgetting in this lifetime. But while our days consisted of endless exploring and wandering, our nights belonged to the mainly belonged to the mainstage.

Can you blame us?

Tomorrowland Main Stage

Tomorrowland Main Stage

Tomorrowland Main Stage

This year, Tomorrowland tickets came in the form of electronically-chipped bracelets, and at certain special moments throughout the nights, a selection of them would start to pulse light in unison with the music. Then there was the time Steve Angello made 60,000 people crouch down on the ground and hold, hold, hold, just so we could all spring up together in roaring unison as the beat dropped.

These were moments that again, I fail at finding words to describe.

Tomorrowland 2014 Main Stage

Tomorrowland 2014 Main Stage

Tomorrowland Main Stage

And while wild dancing, uncontrollable stomping and general raging made up a fairly impressive portion of the evenings, there were a few moments where Heather and I made our way to a relatively quiet spot on the more sparsely populated section of the hill, took a seat, and just let the insane sensory overland sink in.

I have lots more to tell you about Tomorrowland — practical stuff like what it cost, what Dreamville was like and how to get tickets — but first, I wanted to start with a story.

Because once upon a time, there was a girl who dreamed of going to Tomorrowland.

Tomorrowland Guide

And this fairy tale had a very happy ending.



Marvelous news for a magical day. My dear friends and mentors over at Travel Blog Success are having a sale this week! You’ve probably heard me sing the praises of this online course for helping me make Alex in Wanderland what it is today, and it is the first thing I recommend to those who write to me for blogging advice. Travel Blog Success helped me move Alex in Wanderland from a hobby to a business. The secret member’s group gives me daily inspiration, feedback, and assistance (and a heavy dose of humor!) This is truly the warmest community in travel blogging, and all memberships are on sale now.

Click here and use the code “tbs25″ to 25% off memberships. Sale ends at 11:00 PM EST on Friday, October 3rd. Please note that I’m a proud affiliate of the program and thus will earn a percentage of your purchase at no extra cost to you. See you in the forums!

TBS

]]>
http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/30/upon-time-tomorrowland/feed/ 14
Photo of the Week 173: Koh Tao http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/28/photo-week-173-koh-tao/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/28/photo-week-173-koh-tao/#comments Sun, 28 Sep 2014 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=31083

I had this sudden realization this week that I have more time in Koh Tao behind me than ahead of me — at least for this trip — and it had me feeling all kinds of sentimental about this little rock in the Gulf of Thailand. While I had a long list of deadlines and a heavy workload, I often found myself closing my computer once the most urgent assignments were completed and leaving the rest of the to-do list undone in favor of sunset on the beach, paddleboard gossip sessions with friends, or sneaking off for a cheeky Thai massage. It feels pretty good.

Yesterday, I dognapped a friend’s pup for a hike across the island to Laem Tien beach. It was the first time I took my camera out all week. Happy Sunday, guys.

Photo A
Hiking on Koh Tao

Photo B
Boat on Koh Tao

Photo C
Koh Tao Thailand

Which photo is your favorite?

]]>
http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/28/photo-week-173-koh-tao/feed/ 30
Gorgeous and Beautiful Ghent and Bruges http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/26/gorgeous-beautiful-ghent-bruges/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/26/gorgeous-beautiful-ghent-bruges/#comments Fri, 26 Sep 2014 15:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=31086

With Tomorrowland fast approaching and my days in Belgium numbered, I was itching to see more of the country outside the capital of Brussels. I’d heard rave reviews for the medieval Flanders towns of Ghent and Bruges, and while in the perfect world I would have spent a few days exploring each, I had just twenty-four hours to spare. And so guidebook and camera in tow, I hopped on Viator’s Ghent and Bruges Day Trip from Brussels to get a crash course in Belgium’s most charming cities.

I was about to be wowed.

Ghent Belgium

From the first moment we stepped off the bus in Ghent, I thought to myself, now this is the Belgium people fall in love with. I kind of felt like I was in a Ye Olden Days of Europe™ Disney theme park. I mean come on! From the pristinely maintained castles to the fluffy white clouds dotting the sky, it could not have been better had good ol’ Walt designed it himself.

Ghent Belgium

Ghent Belgium

The tour guide led us on a brief walking tour around the city, though with such a large group size and my penchant for hanging back to take a billion photos, I kind of hung towards the back and did my own thing. I was beyond thrilled to simply wander the colorful streets and marvel at all the history seeping from every cobblestone.

I later learned that I had been in town right in the midst of the famous annual Gentse Feesten festival. It had been so early in the morning that there were nothing but hints of a celebration the night before — if only I had known! However, I now have a very good excuse to return to Ghent someday in the future.

Ghent Belgium

Ghent Belgium

Ghent Belgium

Ghent was simply gorgeous, and I was shocked how quickly the time went by there. I longed to spend longer; however I reminded myself that I hadn’t wanted to choose between Ghent and Bruges and thus would have to make some sacrifices in order to see a small bit of each.

Upon arrival in Bruges, lunch was our first stop. Meals were not included, so together with the my seatmate from the bus we decided to ditch the group restaurant and look for something a little more inspiring. As soon as we turned the corner and found Salad Folle, I knew we’d made the right choice. I was happy to have found another chick around my age traveling alone on the tour, and we bonded over our European travels, the upcoming Tomorrowland madness (she was going too!) and the best salads we’d had in Belgium.

Salade Folle, Bruges

Salade Folle, Bruges

Fully sated, we met back up with the group just in time for the Bruges canal tour. While technically an optional excursion, for just 7.60, I don’t know why anyone would skip it — and I don’t think anyone in our group of fifty did. While waiting for our turn to fill one of the adorable little boats, I let out a significant snort at the German translation of “boat trip.” What’s that you say? You didn’t realize that I’m actually a fifteen year old boy? I’M NOT MADE OF STONE, YOU GUYS.

Canal Tour Bruges

Canal Tour Bruges

I had assumed that the canal tour would be touristy in the extreme, and I mean technically I guess it was, but that didn’t hinder my enjoyment even a single degree. The sights were beautiful, the weather was perfection, the driver was engaging and the whole thing was just all around fabulous.

Canal Tour Bruges

Canal Tour Bruges

Canal Tour Bruges

Ghent and Bruges_17

Yup, I was falling hard for Bruges. Overall, you guys have probably gotten the impression that I’ve always felt a little “meh” about Europe. And that’s because I’ve always felt a little “meh” about Europe. I know it sounds ridiculous to write off a full continent like that, but it’s just that other areas of the world — namely, Southeast Asia and Latin America — have always called out to me more loudly. Much more loudly.

In fact, this whole summer jaunt was my first ever trip to Europe that wasn’t with either my family or the family or friends of my Scottish ex-boyfriend. I was starting to get what all the fuss was about. Breaking news: Europe is kind of pretty. I just couldn’t stop wondering what movie set I’d wandered onto.

Canal Tour Bruges

Canal Tour Bruges

Canal Tour Bruges

Canal Tour Bruges

After our boat trip came to an end, it was time to explore by foot. Again I took off with no map and no real destination, just enjoying getting lost. I’m not sure if it was the time of day or if Bruges is just more popular, but there were significantly more tourists mulling about than there had been in Ghent.

Still, in a place as special as Bruges, you kind of understand the crowds. I was more than happy to share.

Bruges City Tour

Bruges City Tour

Bruges City Tour

Bruges City Tour

Bruges City Tour

Streets of Bruges

Ghent and Bruges charmed me to the core, and I couldn’t be happier that I was able to get an overview of both despite the brief amount of time I had left to play with. For those looking to do the same, this tour is a good value (considering a small cup of frozen yogurt in Bruges set me back the equivalent of $13 bucks, $60 for a ten hour day tour is pretty good deal) and will get you to and from Brussels comfortable and efficiently.

However, I did accept on this trip that this kind of tour just isn’t for me. Due to my time constraints I didn’t have my options, but in the future I will attempt to avoid big bus tour groups of this size. It probably didn’t help that days before I had taken one of the best tours of my life, but I found this guide monotone and mechanical, and didn’t appreciate being herded into a tourist trap restaurant when there were hidden gems around the corner, or being led to a generic, shopping-mall style chocolate shop when Belgium is literally bursting at the seams with local, high quality chocolatiers.

But that’s the beauty of travel — learning what you love and what you loathe and everything in between, and being pleasantly surprised to learn that sometimes you had it wrong all along. As the bus pulled back towards Brussels and I flipped through my photos from the day, I suddenly found myself daydreaming about cities I’d never given much thought to before — Amsterdam, Prague, Zurich. The list suddenly seemed endless. Europe, you finally got me. Or rather, I think I finally got you.

I blame Bruges.

Bruges City Tour

Are you a Europhile? If so, what city tipped the scales for you?

I am a member of the Viator Ambassador initiative and participated in this tour as part of that program.

]]>
http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/26/gorgeous-beautiful-ghent-bruges/feed/ 70
Where To Stay in Thailand: Yonderbound and Beyond! http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/25/travel-planning-with-yonderbound/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/25/travel-planning-with-yonderbound/#comments Thu, 25 Sep 2014 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=31786

Lately, I helped my good friends Amy and Jordan plan their honeymoon to Southeast Asia as my wedding gift to them.

It was such an incredibly rewarding process, from our initial Skype call brainstorming session to watching with excitement as the trip rolled out on Instagram. Yet some of the in-between bits reminded me how clunky and disorganized travel planning can be for such a special trip. Picking a hotel meant opening a more and more tabs in my browser — to review sites, booking engines, maps — and making a million bookmarks I couldn’t find an hour later. As I put together endless pages of messy word documents with dates, hotel choices, links to blog posts I had written and more, I remember thinking to myself, “There must be a better way.”

And then I found Yonderbound.

Yonderbound

Yonderbound is more than a hotel booking engine. It kind of functions like a travel planning scrapbook, allowing you to save hotels you’re interested in into various Yonderboxes while you daydream. You can keep these boxes private or share them with others. So had I been a Yonderbounder back when I was planning that dream honeymoon, I could have put together a Yonderbox called “Amy and Jordan’s Honeymoon,” and saved my hotel recommendations for each leg of the trip. Best of all, you can organize possible hotels by date and add tips for each destination into the notes, effectively making it a beautifully presented , perfectly organized trip itinerary. They could review it as often as necessary, and book with the click of a button.

(Amy and Jordan, don’t feel dissed by that beautiful word document now. I pinky promise to make you a Yonderbox for your second honeymoon!)

Yonderbound Hotels

My Yonderboxes

One of the most common questions I get via email from readers is, “Where should I stay in Thailand?” When I first started playing around with Yonderbound, I was thrilled to realize I finally had a way to stylishly and easily answer that question.

Yonderbound

I started with Where to Stay in Bangkok. I’ve stayed in more hotels in Bangkok than I have in any other place in the world, and I’m always amazed at both the range and the quality of accommodation in this fabulous city. While I have a few favorites I keep going back to again and again, I love checking out new hotels here — and I added a few of the ones on my wish list to the list too, as a personal goal. While I thought I had a pretty thorough pulse on the Bangkok sleep scene, I was surprised to find a few new ones on Yonderbound that I can’t wait to check out.

Where to Stay in Bangkok

Next, I moved on to Where to Stay in Koh Tao. This is definitely the area you guys ask me about the most, and I always hesitate to dole out recommendations as I rent apartments and long term accommodation here and don’t typically stay in hotels. But let’s be honest — it’s a small island, and I’ve crashed a few pools. While I might not have personally stayed in all these places, I added what insight I have into my notes and curated a collection of hotels I’d send my family and friends to if they were here for a visit.

Where to Stay in Koh Tao

And then, just for fun, I put together a final Yonderbox of some of my favorite hotels around the world. I love looking at this list — it reminds me to be thankful for a life of travel!

Favorite Hotels Around the World

What I Like About Yonderbound

The primary benefit to Yonderbound is an obvious one — the ability to save your searches and favorite results in one tidy place for future reference. For me, travel planning is usually a process that involves coming back to my ideas a couple times before I’m ready to book. Yonderbound was built for that.

Another favorite? That Tripadvisor reviews are integrated into the hotel descriptions — there’s no way I could ever commit to a hefty hotel booking without seeing what my fellow travelers had to say. I’m happy not to have to open another tab to find out.

Also, I love that when I search for a destination, public Yonderboxes created by other users that feature that destination pop up. I think, dream, and breathe travel — naturally, I’m nosy as to what other people are up to when they’re doing the same.

Hotels in Bangkok

Room for Improvement

My one gripe with Yonderbound? That your search must include specific dates. The ability to search via flexible dates or even better, with no date constraints, would make it a lot easier to use the sight to just daydream and plan trips that don’t have a solid itinerary yet. Sometimes I wasn’t sure if a specific hotel I had in mind was unavailable on the dates I was using or unavailable on Yonderbound altogether — I had to test several different dates and still couldn’t be totally sure if it didn’t show up.

Also — and this is an issue that will solve itself naturally as the site expands and grows — I’d love to see more budget and hostel accommodation options. I was happy to see some of my top choices for Bangkok hostels available but when I poked around for a few of my all time faves in other parts of the world I came up empty. Often though, when I’m backpacking I don’t bother to book ahead. It’s the bigger trips that I take with family and friends that I tend to really plan thoroughly for, and that’s where midrange and high-end hotels come in anyway.

Yonderbound

Basically, I’m loving this new travel tool. I’m excited to have a great new resource to point people to when they ask for accommodation recommendations in my favorite places, and who knows — I might just fire up that honeymoon planning service I joked about starting for my friends after all! In the meantime, if you need me, I have a trip to Cambodia for myself to plan…

How do you stay organized when planning your trips?

This post was written by me and brought to you by Yonderbound. I will earn a small percentage of any bookings made through the links in this post or through my Yonderboxes — at no extra cost to the traveler.

]]>
http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/25/travel-planning-with-yonderbound/feed/ 22
A Taste of Belgium: The Brussels Chocolate Tour http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/23/brussels-chocolate-tour/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/23/brussels-chocolate-tour/#comments Tue, 23 Sep 2014 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=31084

Brussels and I got off to a rough start. But I can never hold grudges for long — especially against a country as delicious as this one. Ask any traveler with a Belgian stamp in their passport about their experience and it’s likely they’ll get a hazy look in their eye as they dreamily recall waffles, beer, fries, and most ubiquitously — chocolate.

So when I was researching things to do in Brussels and I came across Viator’s Chocolate Walking Tour and Workshop, I knew it was a non-negotiable must.

Brussels, Belgium

On my first sunny day in the city — a good omen for a great tour if I’ve ever known one — our small group gathered in the stunning Grand Place, or Grote Markt. Our meeting point in the famous square was the world’s very first Godiva chocolate store, which opened its doors in 1926. I immediately fell just a little bit in love with our guide, Nadia, whose accent was as charming as her winking descriptions and bubbly insights into life in Brussels.

We didn’t linger long — there was chocolate to be eaten, after all.

Brussels Chocolate Walking Tour

Architecture of Brussels, Belgium

Our first stop was at Corné, an old pharmacy turned chocolatier in one of Brussels’ grandest shopping arcades. To get there, we’d popped down a hidden alley I’d never have noticed had I’d been on my own, peeked in the window of the city’s oldest (and, according to Nadia, most expensive) bar, and ducked through an 80′s-tastic strip mall. In just a few minutes I felt I’d seen more of Brussels than I had in the several days I’d already been in the city.

So by the time we plucked our almond hazelnut pralines off the elegant tray that was presented to us at Corné, we’d worked up a proper appetite. (Right? Right.)

Corne Port Royal Chocolate, Belgium

Shopping in Brussels, Belgium

Shopping in Brussels, Belgium

Delirium Cafe, Brussels, Belgium

While I adored window shopping around the elegant shops of the arcade, Corné wasn’t my favorite stop of the day. That was just fine though, as I was about to meet at unlikely but formidable contender. I raised an eyebrow when we paused outside Chocopolis. It didn’t seem to have much in common with the sophisticated chocolate stops I’d seen scattered around Brussels. But you know what they say, never judge a book candy shop by it’s cover ridiculous name,  so I braved on inside.

And what do you know? The mango passionfruit milk chocolate — yes, mango passionfruit — was one of my favorite treats of the day, and I would soon become somewhat of a regular around good ‘ol Chocopolis.

Chocopolis, Brussels

Next up was a pause from the choco-boutique browsing for a more hands on portion of the day — the mini chocolate making workshop. As we were ushered into the tour headquarters, it felt like we were arriving at the cozy apartment of a friend. We took our seats along an oversized wooden table and watched transfixed as Nadia’s colleague artfully demonstrated how to make pralines. Then, while a documentary on the production of cacao played in the background, we played with the treats on the table in front of us — chocolate, fruit, nuts, salts and spices, and more.

Brussels Chocolate Walking Tour

Chocolate Workshop, Brussels

Brussels Chocolate Walking Tour

And soon we were back on the streets, pounding the pavement in search of the most irresistible chocolate Belgium has to offer. And from the gushing descriptions of our next stop, I was confident that at the very least, we were about to try our tour guide’s favorite.

Brussels Chocolate Walking Tour

Pierre Marcolini is the Lamborghini of luxury chocolates. (Sidenote: I literally had to Google “luxury car brands” in order to make that analogy. Wherever the loop is I am out of it.) It just smelled opulent in this place. I have to hand it to them, when it comes to branding, packaging, and creating a beautiful product, Pierre Marcolini was the winner of the day.

While our complimentary tasting was of a selection of the shop’s dark chocolate specialties, as soon as I saw the specialty macaroon counter I knew there was no way I was leaving without a rainbow-colored selection. And holy WOW — it was the first of three separate trips I’d make to that counter over the next week, each one as blissfully extravagant as the last.

Pierre Marcolini Brussels

Pierre Marcolini Brussels

Pierre Marcolini Brussels

Pierre Marcolini Brussels

Pierre Marcolini

Personally, thanks to a lifetime of training, my body can withstand amounts of sugar that would tranquilize a small child. However, I know others can be sensitive to so many sweets, which is why I found this tour to be the perfect balance of snacking and walking off the indulgence.

Unsurprisingly, our route brought us by Brussels’ bizarre mascot Mannequin Pis.

Brussels Chocolate Walking Tour

Brussels Chocolate Walking Tour

Brussels Chocolate Walking Tour
Next on the docket was Elisabeth, which charmed me with its casually elegant atmosphere. We stayed just long enough to taste a truffle and then move on, as the tiny shop didn’t have enough room for both us and the eager customers hoping to stock up on adorably-packaged treats.

Elisabeth Chocolate, Brussels

Brussels Chocolate Walking Tour

Elisabeth Chocolate, Brussels

Elisabeth Chocolate, Brussels

All too soon, it was our final stop of the day. And in many ways, we saved the best for last. I still get shivers just thinking about the champagne truffles we tasted at Mary’s — another item that quickly made it into my rotation of Brussels daily indulgences.

Mary Chocolate, Brussels

As we all started to hug goodbye — yes, hugs were given after just a few hours, that’s how awesome this group was — our creations from the workshop earlier in the day were hand delivered the door.

I truly can’t describe how much I loved this tour, and how positively it colored by time in Brussels. I’ve taken Viator tours around the world, from swimming with manatees in Florida to white-water rafting in Bali, and this was by far the most outstanding of them all. Much of that credit goes to our fabulous guide Nadia, who is all the things any good tour guide should be — passionate about her subject, genuinely happy to be spending time with her clients, and madly in love with her city.

After this tour, I could start to see Brussels through that lens — quirky and delightfully delicious. And I don’t think it was just the sugar rush talking.

Brussels Chocolate Walking Tour

Are you booking a flight to Belgium yet?

This post was brought to you by the iPhone video editing app Together. I am a member of the Viator Ambassador initiative and participated in this tour as part of that program.

]]>
http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/23/brussels-chocolate-tour/feed/ 64
Photo of the Week 172: Koh Tao http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/22/photo-week-172-koh-tao/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/22/photo-week-172-koh-tao/#comments Mon, 22 Sep 2014 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=31082

It has been an emotional week on Koh Tao. At one point, my dad reminded me of a wise quote from a community recovering from tragedy decades ago. “We will laugh again, but we will never be young again.” This island is dusting itself off from a great blow. For me, the solution to working my way out of the fog I’d settled into since waking up last Monday morning was switching offline and plugging back into the real world. So this weekend, I turned off the news and shut the laptop. I hiked, I dove, I paddleboarded, I went to yoga and to Muay Thai. I called my family. I spent quality time with dear friends. I reminded myself of all the reasons why there’s been a Koh Tao sized stamp on my heart since the first time I stepped foot here in the summer of 2009.

And so as the media continues to swirl with ridiculous stories and speculation, I want to remind the world that this is a special place and a heartfelt community that won’t be defined by the actions of one. Koh Tao may never be young again, but we will laugh again – we’re starting to smile already.

Photo A

Fraggle Rock Koh TaoHiking high over Sairee Beach

Photo B

Magestic Spa Koh TaoAn afternoon pedicure date

Photo C

Jellyfish Koh TaoScuba diving days

Photo D

Scuba Diving Koh TaoBeautiful underwater patterns

Photo E

SUP Koh TaoLocal kids playing at sunset

Which photo is your favorite?

]]>
http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/22/photo-week-172-koh-tao/feed/ 69
A Bumpy Start to Belgium http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/19/brussels-belgium/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/19/brussels-belgium/#comments Fri, 19 Sep 2014 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=31081

Twenty-five, I thought, as the plane prepared for landing. Twenty-five. I made it. While I’m much more about racking up experiences than passport stamps, I couldn’t help but smile at the fact that upon arrival in Belgium, I had reached my goal — albeit a very casual one — of visiting twenty-five countries before my twenty-fifth birthday. I looked out the window and smiled contentedly.

Belgium is one of those countries that I found myself in more or less by accident. In fact, I’d never felt so much as an inkling to go there until I became obsessed with attending the Tomorrowland festival. Yet once tickets were secured, I didn’t want to just jet in and out for four nights on the campground — I wanted to see a bit of Belgium. So, using Brussels as my base before and after the festival, I tacked on another five days to my plans.

Traveling to Brussels

Yet as my post title implies, things got off to a rough start. My hostel was a disaster, it rained non-stop for days, and massive email server issues that had me teetering on the edge of a mental breakdown. All of those would have been minor blips soon forgotten though, had it not been for customs-gate.

I arrived in Brussels to the news that the massive box of Tomorrowland supplies I had shipped myself from the US was nowhere to be found. All my carefully curated costumes, my lovingly collected camping supplies, my painstakingly arranged festival supplies — gone. Not to mention the time, money, and effort I had put into assembling and mailing it all. Considering Tomorrowland was my single most expensive travel indulgence of all times and I was now completely unprepared, to say I was frustrated was an understatement.

Originally I believed the box to be lost in the mail but after much investigation — and trudging around the city’s post offices — I learned it was being held in customs. Frankly, due to the language barrier and the fact that every single sodding person I spoke to gave me conflicting information, I’m still a little confused as to why. But from my understanding, it had to do with incorrectly filed paperwork. They asked me to produce receipts for every item in the box in order to determine how much I’d have to pay in duties — when I tried to insist that I didn’t really have the paperwork for the Camelbak I bought for Burning Man a year and a half ago, it fell on deaf ears. Having mailed things to and from Peru, Thailand, The Cayman Islands and other far flung corners of the world, I can confidently say this was the most ridiculous bureaucratic postal struggle I’ve ever encountered. (The best part? Months later, the box still hasn’t been returned to the US as promised. So on Monday, I get to start playing mail detective again! Suffice it to say, the Belgian customs is dead to me pretty much forever.)

So rather than wandering the Magritte Museum, taking a free walking tour of the city, and joining in the pre-festival merriment at my hostel, I spent a fair portion of my four days in Brussels waiting in line at mail offices, on the phone with bored postal employees, and writing pleading emails to the customs office, and then eventually accepting defeat, replacing what I could, and accepting I’d have to do without the rest. Looking back, I do regret how strongly I let the situation effect my overall emotional state — it was an ugly reminder that I don’t handle disappointment very well.

Traveling to Brussels

Thankfully, there were a few moments where I was able to snap out of my contagiously sour mood. For example, when my search was halted by a total shut-down of public offices for Belgian National Day, and the lovely Sofie and Yvonne of Wonderful Wanderings and Under the Yew Tree, respectively, dragged me away from my pity party planning in order to take a peek at the festivities.

And so it turned out that once again I unintentionally lucked into a colorful local celebration.

Belgian National Day

Belgian National Day

Belgian National Day

Belgian National Day

Belgian National Day

Belgian National Day

Belgian National Day

When the parade-watching crowds grew too thick, we set off to seek out two of Brussel’s most famous attractions — a waffle stand and a tiny statue of a peeing man. Yes, Manneken Pis is inexplicably beloved by Belgians and tourists alike, and even has a special outfits for various occasions. I can’t say I truly got what all the fuss was about, but I did have a good laugh at the endless pis-inspired souvenirs and the massive crowds surrounding the miniscule statue.

Belgian National Day

Belgian National Day

We finished off our afternoon of Brussels-inspired bonding with a beer at Delirium. Many of you know that I’m no beer drinker myself, but you know what they say — when in Belgium. With more than 3,000 beers on tap, there was sure to be something I could stand. On Yvonne’s advice I went for a sweet cherry version and to my own surprise, finished the entire glass. In the end, it was people like Yvonne and Sofie and a few sweet strangers who saved my time in Brussels. Sofie in particular spent endless hours on the phone trying to negotiate with the post office for me in Dutch, a kindness that I was truly touched by.

Delirium Brussels

Coming full circle at the end of my trip, I returned once again to Brussels, this time with fave travel buddy Heather in tow. We checked into the colorful Hotel Pantone, and I knew this time would be different. Considering we were recovering from an intense bout of festival-ing (stay tuned for coverage!) we chose to spend quite a large percentage of our time lounging around in our multi-hued home.

Pantone Hotel Brussels

Pantone Hotel Brussels

Pantone Hotel Brussels

Pantone Hotel Brussels

The designer in me was obsessed with the Pantone theme, but my love went beyond surface level. The hotel’s location was perfect and while rooms are simple, they are a great value compared to other hotels in the area.

Pantone Hotel Brussels

Pantone Hotel Brussels

Pantone Hotel Brussels

Pantone Hotel Brussels

Pantone Hotel Brussels

Pantone Hotel Brussels

In giving Heather a mini-tour of my Brussels highlights (chocolate, waffles, fries, macaroons, and cherry-flavored beer, basically) I suddenly saw the city through the eyes of a traveler instead of a fired-up adversary of the customs office — and I much preferred this view.

Traveling to Brussels

Traveling to Brussels

Traveling to Brussels

Traveling to Brussels

Sadly, we didn’t have time to check off all the Brussels bucket list items I’d missed as our one full day there fell on a Monday when museums are closed. But that’s okay, because I already know that someday, Brussels deserves a second chance.

Next time, I’m not mailing so much as a postcard.

How do you deal with frustration and disappointment when you travel?

Many thanks to Pantone Hotel for hosting us and to Blacklane Limousines for providing transportation. As always, you receive my honest thoughts and opinions regardless of who is footing the bill.

]]>
http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/19/brussels-belgium/feed/ 61
Swinging Through South Malta http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/17/swinging-south-malta/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/17/swinging-south-malta/#comments Wed, 17 Sep 2014 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=30328

It was my last day in Malta. Despite the island’s diminutive size, I had yet to step foot along its South Coast, aside from landing at the airport. With an early afternoon flight and one last day with the rental car, Anders and I set off early to hit up as many last minute Southern sights as possible before I departed.

Our first stop was the colorful Sunday Fish Market at Marsaxlokk.

Marsaxlokk Fish Market, Malta

Fishing boats in Marsaxlokk, Malta

Fishing boats in Marsaxlokk, Malta

I’d heard rave reviews of the market and was excited to go somewhere that Anders had never been — though the island is small, Marsaxlokk and his home base of Buġibba are basically on opposite ends. The market sells not just fish but also fresh produce and the usual tourist junk and handicraps (I’m still under the impression that I coined that term, and hope to never be disillusioned.)

In fact, I was kind of surprised how many stalls were catering to tourists rather than local restauranteurs. It seemed the ratio of shotglasses to shrimps was three to one.

Marsaxlokk Fish Market, Malta

Marsaxlokk Fish Market, Malta

Marsaxlokk Fish Market, Malta

Marsaxlokk Fish Market, Malta

Aside from the patchwork of canvas-draped stalls, the harbor is also a main attraction. The rainbow-hues of traditional Maltese fishing boats have graced a thousand postcards, and had me running ’round the docks waving my camera around with joy.

Fishing boats in Marsaxlokk, Malta

Fishing boats in Marsaxlokk, Malta

Marsaxlokk Fish Market, Malta

Anders was extremely excited to find a boat just for me.

Fishing boats in Marsaxlokk, Malta

To be honest, while these pictures make it look pretty fantastic (see how I just casually gave myself a huge compliment there on my photography skills?) we were a little disappointed by Marsaxlokk. On the upside, I did love seeing the still-in-use traditional fishing vessels and watching locals bargain passionately in Maltese over the price per kilo for fresh eel.

Yet the market seemed to cater heavily to tourists, and the authentic bits — where there were actual fish for sale — kind of depressed us. Being enthusiastic divers and seeing how relatively devoid of sealife Malta is, we couldn’t help but think how much more beautiful a barracuda is under the water than on a chopping block.

Marsaxlokk Fish Market, Malta

But there was more to explore. On the tip of a local friend we followed the vague directions in our guidebook a short drive away to Peter’s Pools. We were quickly catching on that most beaches worth going to in Malta involve a precarious drive along a one-lane dirt road followed by a sweaty hike to the sea. We were also catching on that they were so insanely worth it.

I mean come on.

St. Peter's Pool, Malta

South Malta_13

St. Peter's Pool, Malta

As I was getting on a flight in a few hours and didn’t have anywhere to shower before doing so, we had planned to just walk down to the pools, take a few photos, and move on. And then I saw that water. Handing the camera to Anders, I bolted back to the car to get our swimsuits.

How could we resist?

St. Peter's Pool, Malta

St. Peter's Pool, Malta

St. Peter's Pool, Malta

St. Peter's Pool, Malta

St. Peter's Pool, Malta

St. Peter's Pool, Malta

Despite the swimming hole’s difficult access, it quickly began to fill with savvy locals and in-the-know tourists. But we didn’t begrudge sharing the beauty with our fellow bathers — it only added to the relaxed but lively Sunday atmosphere.

St. Peter's Pool, Malta

St. Peter's Pool, Malta

And yes — hell yes! — I jumped too.

St. Peter's Pool, Malta

St. Peter's Pool, Malta

We pretty much had to tear ourselves away from Peter’s Pools. Should I return to Malta someday, I’d pack a cooler and plan an entire day in this blissful spot.

St. Peter's Pool, Malta

But we were starving and Anders, ever the excellent tour guide, had a few more highlights to show me before it was time to check in for my flight. Next on the list? The famous Blue Grotto.

Blue Grotto, Malta

Blue Grotto, Malta

Though we only had time to spy it from the perfectly-placed viewing platform, and not to take one of the regular thirty-minute tourist boat rides into it, I was awed. I wrote in my post about Gozo that Malta just kind of feels like Mother Nature showing off, and this was yet another example. Seriously.

Blue Grotto, Malta

Blue Grotto, Malta

Blue Grotto, Malta

The final stop on our South Coast road trip was Għar Lapsi, a popular dive site and swimming spot for locals. It was fun to see a place Anders spends so many of his work days, and add yet another item to the long list of reasons to return to Malta someday.

Ghar Lapsi, Malta

Ghar Lapsi, Malta

All too soon, it was time to fly away from the island it seemed I’d just arrived on. And with one more sad but now familiar goodbye, I was on my way to Belgium. I hadn’t known what to expect from Malta, but left with a smile. It was exactly the week I’d needed — unplanned, relaxed, spontaneous and with so many surprises around every corner.

Thank you for hosting me, Anders — and thanks for being amazing, Malta!

Many thanks to the Malta Tourism Authority for proving me with a rental car throughout my stay.

]]>
http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/17/swinging-south-malta/feed/ 61
Photo of the Week 171: In Memorial http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/16/photo-week-171-memorial/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/16/photo-week-171-memorial/#comments Tue, 16 Sep 2014 17:10:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=30696

As many of you may know, two days ago, Koh Tao woke up to news that rocked this tiny island to its core. Almost anyone that calls Koh Tao home works in the tourism industry, as I once did during my year here in 2011. For us, it is a joy to show our slice of paradise to those that come to visit it as tourists, just like so many of us were the first time we stepped on the rock. So it goes without saying that we as a community are in mourning over this horrific crime against two of the island’s visitors. An unthinkable tragedy has occurred and our hearts break for the victims and their loved ones.

The media is currently swirling with sensationalist speculation and flat out mistruths, which I hope to address in the near future when the official police investigation is complete and I have had time to process the emotional events of the past forty-eight hours. However, considering my inbox is already flooded with messages from travelers now hesitant to come to Koh Tao, I would like to offer those with travel plans here a confident assurance.

The close-knit community on this small, tranquil island is what has always made it so special for me. The fact that we along with the world are so shocked by this tragedy is a testament to how peaceful Koh Tao really is, and how unheard of something like this is here. As a woman traveling alone and once again temporarily settled here, I feel as safe and welcomed as I have since I first came in 2009. One isolated crime does not change that. This kind of brutal violence could happen anywhere in the world. We are beyond heartbroken it has happened here, but it will not change our love for this island — and as we heal, we look forward to sharing that love with the world, as always.

/ / /

It doesn’t really feel appropriate to post photos of anything else right now, so this week’s photos are from various memorials that have been held on the island as locals and expats gather to pay their respects to the victims. Their families and friends remain in my thoughts.

Koh Tao Memorial

Koh Tao Memorial

Koh Tao Memorial

]]>
http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/16/photo-week-171-memorial/feed/ 57
Stumbling Upon A Summer Festa in Valleta http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/12/stumbling-upon-summer-festa-valleta/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/12/stumbling-upon-summer-festa-valleta/#comments Fri, 12 Sep 2014 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=30327 Summer Festa in Valleta, Malta

“What should we do this evening?,” I asked Anders as he flopped down on the couch after work. I’d been working on writing projects all day and was eager to get out and explore. We tossed around a few ideas while I absentmindedly flicked around online, and eventually stumbled upon the perfect solution.

We were going to a summer festa in Valleta.

Sunset on Valleta, Malta

Valleta, Malta in Black and White

Festas are a huge part of the summer season in Malta, when villages honor their parish’s patron saint with parades, fireworks, and over the top festivities. It just so happened that on the night in question, Valleta was hosting its annual celebration.

I had yet to step foot in the tiny nation’s capital, and this was the perfect excuse to do so.

Beautiful Valleta, Malta

Beautiful Valleta, Malta

Beautiful Valleta, Malta

We had absolutely no idea where to go or what we were looking for, so just decided to take a wander around the romantic walled city, and surely we’d stumble upon a clue. Our first stop was the Valleta waterfront, where we gazed over the channel to Vittoriosa.

Though we were losing daylight fast and I felt a little guilty for not seeing more of the city in all its brightly-lit glory, the soft pinks of sunset convinced me we’d come at exactly the right time.

Beautiful Valleta, Malta

Valletta, Malta

Valletta, Malta

Valletta, Malta

Valletta, Malta

Valletta, Malta

Gardens in Valleta, Malta

Eventually, we tore ourselves away from the gardens in search of the festa we’d come to see. After wandering down many quiet streets with not a soul in sight to ask for insight, we started to wonder if we’d misread the schedule.

Colorful Streets of Valleta, Malta

Colorful Streets of Valleta, Malta

And then we heard it. Rounding a corner, we pinched ourselves at our luck. We’d arrived just in time to see the pious procession being — the state of the village saint was carried with great ceremony out of one of Valleta’s beautiful churches. The crowd was intense, but between Anders’ height allowing him to see over people and mine allowing me to duck around them, we managed to get some great views.

Summer Festa in Valleta, Malta

Summer Festa in Valleta, Malta

Summer Festa in Valleta, Malta

We followed the crowd down the winding cobblestone streets, not a clue where we were going, and not a care either.

Summer Festa in Valleta, Malta

Summer Festa in Valleta, Malta

Summer Festa in Valleta, Malta

When the fireworks died down and the crowd dispersed, we were left with the warm glow of knowing we’d been lucky enough to stumble on something special.

Do you seek out local festivals when you travel?

This post was brought to you by the iPhone video editing app Together.

]]>
http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/09/12/stumbling-upon-summer-festa-valleta/feed/ 42