Alex In Wanderland http://www.alexinwanderland.com Working and playing around the world Thu, 20 Nov 2014 21:41:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.3 Ios After Dark http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/11/20/nightlife-in-ios/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/11/20/nightlife-in-ios/#comments Thu, 20 Nov 2014 15:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=32730

Ios is an island that comes to life after dark. I mean, the beachfront daylight hours are fairly epic themselves. But people don’t really come to Ios for the paddleboarding. It’s a nice distraction from the hangovers, sure. But for the most part, backpackers flock to Ios for one undeniable reason — to get their debauchery on.

As some of you may know, I consider myself somewhat of a connoisseur of world party scenes. So obviously, in my role as an online alcohol anthropologist, I had no choice to but to take a pulse on Ios’s nightlife scene. For research, guys. The things I do for science!

Ios Sunset

Due to the irresistible lure of Mylopotas Beach, I never once saw Ios’s town center, Chora, before dusk — and I’m not even going to apologize. However, I found myself there each of our three nights on the island to have dinner, go for a cobblestone wander, party my face off, or some combination of all three. One restaurant I’d be remiss not to mention is Sawadee, a chic and relatively affordable Thai restaurant — the first I’d seen in my weeks in Greece.

Ios Restaurants

Ios Chora

Ios Restaurants

After dinner it would be time to drop all pretense of civility and hit the town, hard. Now, this is the Ios photo one might send their mother:

Ios Nightlife

Yet this is the Ios photo that gives a much more realistic representation of what goes on in European summer party towns like this:

Fun Pub Ios

And in true Contiki fashion, even the guides got in on the fun. Have I mentioned how much I adored and admired our guides Ed and Paola? I heard a few people on the trip remarking that they had the world’s greatest “dream jobs,” and while I agree it’s a great gig, there is no denying these two worked their bums off to make sure all their charges had the vacation of a lifetime.

Ios with Contiki

Ios with Contiki

I don’t think there’s much I could say to explain a night out in Ios as well as these random snaps that I found on my memory card after a few hours of handing over my camera and unleashing it onto my fellow Contikiers.

Ios Nightlife

Ios Nightlife

Partying in Ios

Partying in Ios

Ios Nightlife

Ios Nightlife

One genius marketing aspect of the Ios nightlife scene was Singlet Syndrome — it seemed almost every single establishment we entered had a deal where you bought seven shots and after downing them all consecutively, you were given a bar branded singlet (or hat, in some cases) to commemorate your achievement. At 25 a round and the boys in our group heading home with an average of eleven singlets each, I think it’s safe to say our Contiki tour fed the families of several Ios bar owners that weekend.

Plus, it made for some seriously entertaining photos.

Soho Bar Ios

Partying in Ios

Traffic Bar Ios

While we mainly bar-hopped aimlessly into wherever caught our eye, I did develop a few fast favorites. We tended to start the night at Fun Pub, where there was life-size Jenga, occasional karaoke, and a general upbeat atmosphere to kick things off. Lost Boys was a tucked away gem that seemed to have a portal hole leading to Brooklyn hidden away somewhere, based on the amount of bearded hipsters milling about. Plus, they had beerpong.

I never really got a taste for Slammer Bar, where the signature shot involves putting on a helmet, taking a shot, and being hit over the head with various objects. Yeah, that just wasn’t my thing. But don’t get me wrong, I definitely think casual concussions are as rockin’ good fun as the next guy does.

Partying in Ios

Lost Boys Ios

Fun Pub Ios

Fun Bar Karaoke Ios

And finally, Traffic Bar was hands down my pick of the mix. It was crowded sweaty fun, the DJs were fantastic, and I was even inspired to complete the one and only seven shot challenge of my own there, earning myself a now-cherished black and gold trucker Traffic hat.

The moment where the DJ coaxed every single person in the wildly over-capacity bar onto the floor, held us there till we were practically pulsing, and then had the crowd spring back to roaring life as the beat dropped was one of my favorites of the trip, bringing back happy memories of Tomorrowland and reminding me why it’s sometimes worth it to stay out till the sun comes up.

Traffic Bar Ios

Ios Nightlife

Ios Nightlife

Ios promised to be a rocking good time — and it delivered! What’s your favorite spot for guilt-free getting loose?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Many thanks to Contiki for hosting me on the Greek Island Hopper. As always, you receive my honest opinion regardless of who is footing the bill.

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Falling For Far Out Beach Club http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/11/18/far-out-beach-club-ios/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/11/18/far-out-beach-club-ios/#comments Tue, 18 Nov 2014 15:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=32477

Mykonos was a Vegas-style blowout. Santorini was a peaceful retreat. But Ios may have been the stop I was most looking forward to on my Contiki Greek island tour. The island is a notorious stop on the world’s backpacker party circuit — sun and fun enthusiasts flock there every summer, lured by the promise of cheap drinks, white beaches, and proximity to other young hot people. I know, right? It sounds just terrible. Obviously, I had to see this place for myself.

At first I was disappointed to hear we’d be a twenty-five minute walk from the Chora, Ios’s tiny action center. Considering the island has all of five taxi cabs, I saw many self-pitying stumbles home in the dark ahead of me. However, like in Mykonos, I quickly forgave our distance from the action when I laid eyes on the location. I am not kidding when I say that I briefly considered scrapping it all, getting a bartending job, and moving into Far Out Village instead. (Not really. But basically really.)

Far Out Beach Club Ios

Far Out Beach Club Ios

Far Out Beach Club Ios

Far Out Beach Club Ios

Instead, I settled for vowing that someday, I will come back here for a minimum one week of play time. Far Out is broken into three separate accommodation areas at varying budgets, plus several restaurants, a watersports shop, a dive shop, a gym, a laundry, a beach club, multiple pools — it’s basically an all inclusive resort for the kind of people who don’t think they like all inclusive resorts.

I have a feeling that when I return someday, I’ll probably end up in what our guide Paola (un)affectionately referred to as “The Zoo,” the budget zone with camping, dorms, and super basic bungalows — I might live a flash life in baht, but in euros, I’m still very much a backpacker. So I made sure to soak up every second of enjoying our flash digs in the Village Hotel section of Far Out.

Far Out Beach Club Ios

Far Out Beach Club Ios

Far Out Hotel Ios

Far Out Hotel Ios

Far Out Hotel Ios

Because our group was so large, some were staying up at the Hotel and Spa at the top of the hill towards town — the newest and nicest of the accommodation options. Personally, I loved being down by the beach and so close to the water, but could certainly understand why those at the top loved their views, modern rooms, and shorter walk home.

Far Out Hotel Ios

Far Out Hotel Ios

I couldn’t get enough of how genius the Far Out model was. We loved staying in the laid back Village, where we had a relaxing pool to lounge by, a nice restaurant to order from, and a quiet place to sleep. But we also loved the fact that we were next door neighbors to the Beach Club, where the party fired up mid-afternoon and carried into Ios town after dark.

Far Out Village Ios

Far Out Village Ios

Far Out Village Ios

But as delicious as all those pool scenes were, none of them could compare to the addictive waters of Mylopotas Beach. I could get used to waking up to this every morning.

Far Out Beach Ios

Far Out Beach Ios

While I’d been itching to get out on the Aegean since Mykonos, Paola assured us that the prices for watersports would be much easier to swallow in Ios — and she was right. When I heard my roommate Lauren had never been on a Stand Up Paddleboard before, we made our way directly to the rental shack.

Far Out Stand Up Paddling Ios

Far Out Stand Up Paddling Ios

Far Out Stand Up Paddling Ios

Far Out Stand Up Paddling Ios

Granted, we did as much Lounge Down Paddleboarding as Stand Up Paddleboarding, but what can I say? Far Out put me in vacation mode.

But the paddleboarding was just the beginning. Suddenly, I felt an irresistible urge to pay ridiculous amounts of euros to be pulled by a speedboat on a giant inflatable couch, a mission Lauren and I were even able to recruit Paola to join us for. When the staff tried to talk us into more exciting and adrenaline inducing options, we steadfastly resisted. “No, we want the couch. Yes, the one for babies. Perfect. Thanks.”

Far Out Ios

Watersports in Ios

Watersports in Ios

We were slightly excited, as you may be able to sense.

Meltemi Watersports Ios

Watersports in Ios

Meltemi Watersports Ios

Can we just take a moment to appreciate the backdrop this silliness was taking place in front of? Damn I love Greece. Something I also love? The pure elation on these faces.

Watersports in Ios

Meltemi Watersports Ios

Watersports in Ios

Early on in the ride, I suffered the tragic loss of hair tie. While it made for a serious hair snack while we were out on the water, it also resulted in some seriously entertaining images. I whip my hair back and forth, indeed.

Meltemi Watersports Ios

Watersports in Ios

Clearly, Mylopotas Beach is my kind of place. In fact, I’m already itching to go back. Summer 2015, anyone?

Playing in Ios

Next up… Ios outside Far Out beach club!

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Many thanks to Contiki for hosting me on the Greek Island Hopper. As always, you receive my honest opinion regardless of who is footing the bill.

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Photo of the Week 179 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/11/17/photo-week-179/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/11/17/photo-week-179/#comments Mon, 17 Nov 2014 13:30:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=32615

Greetings from Cambodia! I’ve spent the last week split between two of my favorite cities in the world, Bangkok and Phnom Penh. My time in Bangkok was a bittersweet goodbye to Thailand that hasn’t quite sunk in yet, but was filled nonetheless with temples, markets, movies (I finally saw Gone Girl!) and some world class pool and bar hopping. I’ve since landed in Cambodia’s capital, where I’m catching up on work, spending time with an old friend, and soaking up all the crazy energy that makes me love this place so much.

And now I’m off to wrap my brain around the fact that next week I’ll be sending this dispatch from the within the beautiful borders of New York State! Till next time, here are the Photo of the Week candidates…

Photo A

Muse Hotel Speakeasy BarFeeling on top of the world at the Muse Speakeasy Bar

Photo B

Alms Giving in BangkokWatching the morning alms giving

Photo C

Grand Palace, BangkokAn unusual portrait at The Grand Palace

Photo D

Viator Bangkok ToursBeautiful and bold in Bangkok

Photo E

Cambodia School Visit
A nineteen year old teacher in Cambodia

Which photo is your favorite?

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Gratitude at Twenty Five http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/11/15/gratitude-at-twenty-five/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/11/15/gratitude-at-twenty-five/#comments Sat, 15 Nov 2014 13:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=32475

One week ago, I turned twenty-five. A quarter century! I wanted to write something big to commemorate it. Something epic and meaningful. Something like this.

But honestly? I’ve found myself in a bit of a slump lately — with my writing, my work, and my travels. I used to laugh at warnings of the mythical quarter life crisis, but recently, reluctantly, I’ve accepted that I myself might be clumsily stumbling around in one. The good news, though, is that I’ve spent the past few months thinking about what path I’m taking next, and I’m excited about the future.

25th Birthday Post

One thing I’ve been focusing on lately? Living with gratitude. For the past month or so, I have made an effort to once a day say to myself very consciously, “I am grateful for this moment.” Sometimes that was gazing back at Koh Tao from my perch on a paddleboard, sometimes it was in the midst of a warm hug with a close friend, sometimes it was driving my motorkbike down the road when the sun shone through the palm trees at just the right moment.

And so, to start the next quarter century in style, a list of twenty five things that I’m grateful for today.

1. I am grateful for the privilege to see with my own eyes twenty seven countries and seventeen states — and counting. For the memories I’ve made, lessons I’ve learned, and people I’ve met in each of them. I’m thankful for recognizing my passion for travel so early in life.

2. I am grateful for a family that always calls me home. For a mother who has imbued me with creativity and kindness, a father who has taught me to be both successful and generous, and for sisters who inspire me, who make me laugh and who hold out a hand when needed. For aunts, uncles, grandmas and cousins who make up the rich fabric of family. I am ever so grateful that despite the fact that my parents are separated, we all remain a family. Sometimes I am overly critical of or impatient with my family, and I want to work on that. There is no one or no thing I care about more.

Family Portraits by My Lens 360 Philadelphia

3. I am grateful for a cold Diet Coke on a warm summer day, and a warm apple cider on a chilly fall one.

4. I am grateful for a passport from a country that gives me the green light to travel almost anywhere the world. I often take this for granted until I see the red tape my friends from countries with more “difficult passports” have to work through.

5. I am grateful for a body that is capable of bringing me up mountains, under the sea, and all over a yoga mat. I am grateful to find a natural enjoyment in physical activity, which makes at least one half of the staying in shape equation easier. (Though, you know, if I would magically develop an immunity to carb bloat, I wouldn’t be opposed to that too.)

6. I am grateful for what I’m convinced is the most amazing group of friends in the world, spread out all over the planet. I am grateful for the ability to accept them for who they are and what they are willing to give to our friendship, and for their patience and understanding of my endless wandering. I feel a deep connection with them even when I am physically very far away. It makes feel like I’ve done something right in my life to deserve these friends I have.

25th Birthday Post

7. I am grateful for what my sister Olivia and I call The Church Giggles — those times you laugh so hard you totally lose control and tears spring from your eyes and you feel you’ve had a slight workout after. I feel lucky to have a life that is full of them.

8. I am grateful for those rare books, movies and songs that leave me lost in thought.

9. I am grateful for the fact that, glaring exceptions aside, life has put a string of funny, interesting, big-hearted guys in my path. I’m kind of seeing one right now.

10. I am grateful for the ocean, and all the beautiful time I’ve spent living so close to it.

25th Birthday Post

11. I am grateful for having access to comprehensive health care, a family of experts helping me navigate the system, and the privilege of not having to base my health care decisions on my bank account. (Gotta get this one in while I still can — I roll off my parents’ health insurance in a year and I suspect I’ll be singing a different tune then.)

12. I am grateful for teachers who inspired me, nurtured my creativity and challenged me. From my Montessori educators to my public high school teachers to my Pratt professors, I owe a lot to the people who molded my little brain. (And I’m so proud that’s what my baby sis has been doing for the past two years!) I’m so grateful there were people out there fighting for my education before I was wise enough to realize how important it was for myself.

13. I am grateful for my sense of taste, which lets me savor ripe mangos, delicious avocados, and endless flavors of ice cream.

25th Birthday Post

14. I am grateful for access to a family car that gets me wherever I need to be when I’m stateside.

15. I am grateful for a childhood bedroom that still feels like home in a town I’m proud to be from. For couches, spare rooms and floors I’ve been offered by family, friends, and acquaintances all over the world.

16. I am grateful for sunsets, which always remind me that nature is my favorite artist. And mush my brain enough to give me a free pass on all kinds of cliche statements.

25th Birthday Post

17. I am grateful for the kindness from complete strangers that so often makes my day on the road.

18. I am grateful for two amazing dogs who have brought immeasurable joy to my life, and taught me the meaning of unconditional love.

19. I am grateful for the confidence to travel alone and the predisposition to wildly enjoy it. I am so thankful to enjoy my own company as much as I do.

20. I am grateful for strong holiday traditions that I grow more appreciative every year to have grown up with. I look forward to carrying on and continuing to create these traditions for the rest of my life.

21. I am grateful for rediscovering my love of singing. It was a goal of mine to get up and sing at an open mic night while I was in Thailand and once I got over my stage fright, it felt good. It has reminded me how much I miss creating — outside this blog, of course — and I’m even hoping to pick up a paintbrush again soon.

Creativity

22. I am grateful for being debt free, and the frugality and financial values my parents instilled in me. For the financial freedom my career gives me to treat myself occasionally to cheap Thai massages, fancy cocktails, movie tickets and all the other little splurges I enjoy so much.

23. I am grateful for days when I am productive and end the day proud of my work. For blogging, which has connected me to fantastic like-minded people the world over. For the fact that my lifestyle and career mean that days when I wake up to an alarm are few and far between (I’m a naturally early riser anyway).

24. I am grateful for the pain I’ve felt and the times life has truly tested me — they have shown me who I am and how strong I can be, taught me to appreciate periods of peace and joy, and prepared me for whatever comes next.

25. I am grateful for how easily 1,300 words of thankfulness came. I recognize that there are many people in this world for whom a similar list would be much shorter, and that reminds me to never take these things for granted.

25th Birthday Post

I’ll wrap this sap-fest up with one of my favorite quotes, from American Beauty. Most of all, I’m grateful that when I read through the list I just wrote, tapped out on my iPhone over the course of a few thoughtful days, I feel exactly like this.

It’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst… And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it, and then it flows through me like rain and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.

Thanks for being a part of my stupid little life, y’all. What are you thankful for today?

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Swinging Back Through Santorini http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/11/14/santorini-with-contiki/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/11/14/santorini-with-contiki/#comments Fri, 14 Nov 2014 15:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=32476

Pulling into the Santorini harbor felt like a warm hug from an old friend. We were in rough shape after the carnage that was Mykonos — I pretty much feel that this snap from the ferry says it all. I knew we’d come to the right place to recover. I’d already spent five blissful days here earlier in the trip, and knowing I’d be back so soon was the only thing that made that departure bearable. I had a feeling that seeing Santorini through the lens of my first Contiki tour would be a completely different experience — and I was right.

For starters, this time, I’d be based in the heart of Fira, Santorini’s capital. Our digs, New Haroula Hotel, were the simplest of the trip, but the location could not be beat — a three minute stroll into the town’s main square. Despite this being my third trip to Santorini I’d barely spent any time in Fira, and couldn’t have been more excited about being based there.

Fira, Santorini

We had three nights and about two and a half days. With tons of freedom of movement and lots of flexible time, Santorini was a very relaxed tour stop on the tour for me. I caught up on work poolside, I grabbed lunch and a manicure with one of my favorite new girlfriend friends on the trip, and I ate more than one gyro while sitting hunched over the street curb laughing at someone’s antics. It was very similar to how I would have spent my time if I was backpacking Santorini independently, and I liked that. I also liked the exceptions.

Contiki offered two Me Time optionals for Santorini. One was a sunset excursion to Oia — I gave that a pass, as once was simply enough. The second was Santorini Island Chill Out, a day tour that I was pretty pumped to see included a whole host of things I’d never seen/done on the island before. One thing that I loved about this Contiki was that if I was traveling independently, signing up for a day tour like this would be a total gamble. Whoever you share your bus seat with can make or break it, and so you just have to hope you’ll get lucky. Whereas here, I was going on a private day tour with thirty or so of my new crew of hilarious friends. Fun was guaranteed.

Our first stop was Profitis Ilias, the highest point in Santorini. While I admit I actually think the views are better from the crater rim, we had a pretty darn good time goofing around, and checked one major Santorini tourist attraction off the list.

Santorini Viewpoint

Santorini Viewpoint

Next up, the town of Pyrgos. This was the stop I was most excited about. I started foaming at the mouth with excitement a little bit when we reached the picturesque little village, and lost the entire group in record time while fiddling with F-stops on my Rebel T2i. It wasn’t an intentional move, but I shrugged my shoulders and kept shooting.

What a magical place to wander.

Pyrgos, Santorini

Pyrgos, Santorini

Pyrgos, Santorini

Pyrgos, Santorini

Pyrgos, Santorini

Pyrgos, Santorini

Pyrgos might just be my new favorite spot on Santorini. While I wouldn’t stay there — accommodation and dining options would be extremely limited, and it’s not exactly anywhere near the actions, it was a lovely place to get lost. It has all the charm of Oia, with none of the crowds. It’s a must-see, for me.

Pyrgos, Santorini

Donkey in Greece

Pyrgos, Santorini

And I made sure to carry on my Greek tradition of either one frozen yogurt or one nutella crepe per day. Sometimes both. Always delicious. Rarely good for my waistline.

Frozen Yogurt in Fira

Next up we piled back into the bus and made our way to Akrotiri and the Red Beach. Having already been to Akrotiri, I chose to head directly to Red Beach, as did all but four on the tour. While I had an absolutely fantastic experience at Akrotiri, I can’t really blame them for skipping it — I do believe it is the kind of place that’s mind blowing with a great guide, and mildly boring without one. And with only about fifteen minutes available for them to stroll through, they wouldn’t have the time to get the full scoop.

We didn’t have time to go down to the Red Beach, which I was kind of okay with considering the mixed reviews I’ve heard of it in the past — apparently the crimson sand is pretty dirty — but I did love the view from the top.

Red Beach, Santorini

Red Beach, Santorini

Red Beach, Santorini

Red Beach, Santorini

Our next stop, however? They couldn’t have stopped me from going in. Santorini was the first place I’d ever seen black sand, though I’d yet to get the chance to dig my toes in it. This Black Sand Beach was the undoubted highlight of my day, and I briefly considered launching a toddler style tantrum when it was time to leave.

I simply couldn’t get enough of the Aegean.

Black Sand Beach, Santorini

Black Sand Beach, Santorini

Black Sand Beach, Santorini

Black Sand Beach, Santorini

Finally, it was time to get our inner winos on. While I’d already taken an entire Santorini winery tour, Santo Wines was a new stop for me. While this tasting was far less personal and educational than the eight person ones I’d done led by a professional sommelier, there was tons of enthusiastic cheers of “Yiamas!” and I loved both the modern design of the winery and the insane views of the caldera it was perched on.

It was the perfect end to what was one of my favorite add-on tours of the trip. A sampler platter of all things Santorini.

Santo Wines, Santorini

Santo Wines, Santorini

Santo Wines, Santorini

Santo Wines, Santorini

Santo Wines, Santorini

One side of the island that I got to experience completely for the first time? It’s nightlife. My first trip to Santorini involved just eleven hours in port off a cruise ship, and my second involved nursing a week-long hangover post-Tomorrowland. And regardless, Santorini is known more for honeymoon romance than hectic raging.

I had a feeling this Contiki crew would find a way to work around that — and I was right again.

Santorini Sunsets

Santorini Sunsets

Santorini Sunsetsphoto courtesy of a fellow Contiki-er

Fira’s nightlife might be relatively tame if you compare it to Mykonos or Ios, but it’s still a damn good time, and it’s impressive how almost anywhere can become a sign of after dark carnage if you really put your mind to it! I’m pretty sure I saw that on a motivational poster once.

Santorini Nightlife

Santorini Nightlife

Santorini Nightlife

No surprises here — I loved Santorini all over again, and found even more reasons to gush about this magical isle and daydream about my eventual return. Most of all, though, I loved sharing it with a special new group of friends.

Santorini Crater

Santorini with Contiki

Next stop, Ios!

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Many thanks to Contiki for hosting me on the Greek Island Hopper. As always, you receive my honest opinion regardless of who is footing the bill.

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Causing Mayhem on Mykonos http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/11/11/mykonos-with-contiki/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/11/11/mykonos-with-contiki/#comments Tue, 11 Nov 2014 14:30:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=32179

I couldn’t help but let out an involuntary whoop as Mykonos appeared on the horizon. Despite the fact that it was already day three of my Contiki tour, it felt like the trip was really just beginning. Most of my time in Athens has been spent buried in work, running frantic errands, and attempting to get to know my group whenever I took a harried break from my laptop. But the idea of being back on an island soothed me, and the salty air filled me with excitement for the three days ahead.

Welcome to Mykonos

Aphrodite Beach Hotel, Mykonos

Aphrodite Beach Hotel, Mykonos

We were starting our island hopping in style. The itinerary of the trip was two nights in Athens, three nights each in Mykonos, Santorini, and Ios, and one final night wrapping things up back in Athens. My whooping started up again — seriously, I need to work on my involuntary noise emissions — when I saw our beachfront digs in Mykonos. We were basing ourselves at the Aphrodite Beach Hotel in Kalafati Beach, about a twenty minute drive from Mykonos Town. While at first I was skeptical of being so far from the action, within moments of arriving at Aphrodite I vowed to leave the grounds as little as humanly possible.

I mean, there was a lot of ground to cover. There were the deliciously breezt sheets of my charming whitewashed room, there were the inviting waves of the turquoise sea, and there was the shimmering calm waters of the saltwater pool. All demanded plenty of attention.

Aphrodite Beach Hotel, Mykonos

Aphrodite Beach Hotel, Mykonos

Does it get any more Greek than this?

Lobby at Aphrodite Beach Hotel, Mykonos

Lobby at Aphrodite Beach Hotel, Mykonos

Understandably, I spent every second of our free time at Aphrodite. While some of that was due to work obligations, some of it was due to the unmistakably magnetic pull of the ocean and the lure of beachfront bonding with some of the girls I was quickly growing to love. Much of the group joined me in this water-side vigil, while others chose to catch the bus into Mykonos town for some daytime exploring.

Our time in Mykonos had two official optional excursions and one impromptu ones thrown together by Paola and Ed, our guide extraordinaires. The first, ambitiously named The Hidden Treasures of Mykonos, involved a sunset stroll through charming Mykonos town, a traditional taverna dinner, and a night on the town with — and this is key — an included early hours bus transfer back to our hotel. Mykonos is notorious for its shortage of cabs and public transportation ceases in the evenings, so nothing short of Hercules himself coming back to life and sweeping me off my feet was going to stop me from that call time.

Contiki Greek Island HopperPhoto courtesy of a fellow Contiki-er

Mykonos Town

Mykonos Town

Mykonos Town

While I admit that in such a large group it was nearly impossible to hear our local tour guide’s insights, I quite happily fell to the back and got lost in seeing the whitewashed town through my lens. I had been to Mykonos once before, on a Mediterranean cruise with my mom, and it was exactly as I remembered. I was thrilled to be getting a second look.

Mykonos Town

Mykonos Town

Mykonos Town

Mykonos Town

I wish I could wax poetic about the traditional Greek dishes we dined on that night at dinner, but frankly my brain was completely overcome with elation at our very special dinner guest, Petros the Pelican. I started letting out high pitched shrieks the moment he waddled towards the table — here we go with the unintentional peep-making problem again — and they reached a pitch heard only to canines when he boldly strode into the kitchen and demanding scraps. The unamussed chef chased him out with a spatula in hand, and I nearly passed out from the excitement.

Mykonos NightlifePhoto courtesy of a fellow Contiki-er

Mykonos Pelican

Mykonos Pelican

And then the bar hopping began. We worked our way en masse through a serious of bars, starting in little Venice and winding our way through the star-lit streets from one dance floor to another. It was our first big night out as a group, and I quickly realized how and why Contiki earned its reputation for knowing how to party. I loved seeing how our tour guides were greeted like old friends by bouncers and bartenders alike — they really do know these islands inside and out.

Mykonos Nightlife

Mykonos Nightlife

Our next day was spent exactly as earlier described — rotating between beach and pool lounger with laptop in hand. By the time evening rolled around, I was ready for a little excitement and eagerly signed up for the mega-club excursion Paola and Ed had arranged. While the 50€ price tag had me pulling a face at first, I gave myself a pep talk that could be more or less summed up by the acronym “YOLO,” only infinitely less annoying. While almost the entire tour group had joined the previous night, only about fifteen of us made it on this particular evening. I’m not sure if this night of debauchery is what cemented it, but this crew turned out to be my go-to group for the rest of the trip.

We were still raging when our 5am alarms went off to signal it was time to head back to the bus.

Paradise Club Mykonos

Paradise Club MykonosPhoto courtesy of a fellow Contiki-er

Paradise Club Mykonos

Paradise Club Mykonos

Our final day in Mykonos was one of the most highly anticipated of the trip. Thanks to the low price tag, just 12 per head, every single person in our group signed on for the day part at Paradise Beach. Still smarting from the lack of sleep the night before, I was relieved to arrive to a fairly low key beach scene. But I was well aware things were just warming up.

Mykonos Day Club

Mykonos Day Club

Paradise Beach Club Mykonos

As the afternoon wore on, the music turned up, the drinks flowed more freely, and what seemed like the entire male population of Italy flooded through the doors. The scene was Vegas pool party meets Ibiza nightclub. And it was wildly entertaining.

Mykonos Day Club

Mykonos Day ClubPhoto courtesy of a fellow Contiki-er

I’m in the “what happens at Mykonos day parties stays at Mykonos day parties” camp, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Italian ex-pornstar MC known colloquially as “The Elephant Man” — perhaps the photo above will give you a clue why — and a Contiki-wide love affair with a certain blow up flamingo.

By the time the sun went down and it was time for our bus to pull away, my abs were actually stinging from the burn of too much laughter.

Mykonos Day Club

Mykonos Day Club

Mykonos Day Club

Mykonos Day Club

Mykonos Day Club

As much as I loved Mykonos, the prices were starting to wound me by the time day three came around — not the mention the lack of sleep. I was very much looking forward to returning to the healing embraces of my dear old friend Santorini. Someday, I’m sure I’ll return to Mykonos again and experience a slightly more civilized side — take a day tour of Delos, rent a jeep and drive around the island — but damn, am I glad I got to experience the sun and fun for a few days.

And I can’t think of a better crew to have done it with.

Mykonos with Contiki

Have you been to Mykonos? What side did you see?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Many thanks to Contiki for hosting me on the Greek Island Hopper. As always, you receive my honest opinion regardless of who is footing the bill.

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Photo of the Week 178: Koh Tao http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/11/10/photo-week-178-koh-tao/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/11/10/photo-week-178-koh-tao/#comments Mon, 10 Nov 2014 15:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=32229

Apologies for the light posting again this week, guys — it’s been an emotional roller coaster around here! In the past week I turned 25, showed one of my favorite travel buddies of all times around Koh Tao, and said goodbye to the island that I never quite seem ready to leave. My friends on Koh Tao and around the world made sure I was ridiculously spoiled with love on my birthday — I still can’t believe what a special few days it was. However, that only made it harder to say goodbye to my little island family. The past two and a half months have been the happiest and most content I’ve felt in quite some time, and I’ve long been in denial about them coming to an end.

I’m currently in Bangkok, where I’m bidding farewell to my favorite country in style for a few days before flying to Cambodia for a week of catching up with an old friend. Then it’s home for the holidays — a fact that my brain still hasn’t quite wrapped itself around. I promise to actually write more than one post this week — pinky swear, in fact.

Much love and happy Monday!

Photo A

Sai Nuan Beach BungalowA birthday getaway at Sai Nuan Beach

Photo B

Aminjirah Koh TaoAdmiring the ocean

Photo C

Thailand PhotographyTouchable textures

Photo D

Koh Tao SunsetMind-boggling sunset views from Aminjirah

Photo E

Loy Krathong Koh TaoMy friend Katy making wishes for the new year on Loy Krathong

Which photo is your favorite?

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Playing Well With Others: Traveling with Contiki http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/11/07/contiki-greek-island-hopper-tour-review/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/11/07/contiki-greek-island-hopper-tour-review/#comments Fri, 07 Nov 2014 18:55:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=32177

I’m a yes girl. I’ve always prided myself on that. Travel has been a natural extension to that facet of my personality – I love how it continually pushes me out of my comfort zone and forces or invites me to try things I’m not sure how I feel about. In some cases, I’m lucky enough that something I assumed I’d loathe – camping or cruising, for example – turns out to be unexpectedly entertaining.

This is what I told myself as I stared at the ceiling in a dark hotel room in Athens, Greece, wracked with nervous insomnia, tossing and turning the night before checking in for my first ever group travel experience – a Contiki Greek Island Hopper. I’d just wrapped up my first week in Greece in what is more or less my usual style – independently, slowly, and either solo or with a temporary travel buddy. It was sublime. And I was about to switch gears entirely.

Twelve days. Four stops. Eighty people. One group.

Greece Group Travel

Greece Group Travel

My yes girl ways had gotten me this far – when Contiki invited me to join one of their trips anywhere in the world, I certainly wasn’t going to start no girling then! — but in the weeks leading up to the tour I started to doubt my decision. I confided in close friends that I thought I’d made a mistake – how was I, an independent traveler with a control freak streak and a penchant for eye rolling, going to enjoy two weeks under the thumb of a tour group? I started to descend into panic – what was I even going to write about?

Thirteen days later, I was back in that same Athens hotel, staring at the ceiling once again. But this time, I was smiling.

Greece Group Travel

Greece Group Travel

Santorini Tour

Guys. I can’t even explain the warm fuzzies I have when I think about this trip.

You’re going to hear all about the mouth-gapingly gorgeous beaches, the world-famous beach parties, the whitewashed cities and the dreamy sunsets. Yet when my mind wanders to this trip, something else comes up first, and it was the aspect that had actually stressed me out the most, pre-departure: the group itself. I was terrified there would be no one there I’d connect to or click with, and I’d spent the bulk of the trip muttering sarcastic jokes to myself while everyone else jovially toasted their new found friends over ouzo.

Contiki Tour Review

Turns out, my fellow Contikiers were amazing. The vast majority were Australian, though there were Americans, Canadians, Brits and other passport holders strewn about as well. I was impressed with what a wide range of backgrounds and careers the group came from, from medical field graduate students to tech geniuses to high school teachers. But what I came away with most of all? What an overall smart, funny, and genuinely sweet and lovely group of humans they all were. Months later, I’m still in touch with a fair amount of them – the close group of girls I bonded with has a Facebook thread where we update each other on our lives, while a larger group of the full crew we partied with keeps me regularly giggling. Upon parting, many of us made plans to visit and/or travel with each other again – and I genuinely plan to do so.

When I was describing the trip to a somewhat skeptical long term expat friend of mine, I kept coming back to one description: refreshing enthusiasm. To my knowledge, I was the most well traveled person among the 80ish people on my tour. But rather than feeling frustrated by that, I felt refreshed by it. Many on the tour were in the discovery phase of their great love affair with travel, and I loved the keen conversations that took place every day about big dream trips, travel bucket lists, and where we were all headed next. There was no one-upmanship, no jaded pretension, no cheaplympics — just a bunch of people cheering each other on in their plans to see the world in whatever way they got excited about.

Contiki Tour Review

Why Contiki?

Why do people chose group travel? I expected that for most, it was because they were uncomfortable with the idea of traveling independently, or at the very least more comfortable with the idea of traveling on a tour. And that was true. But there were answers that surprised me — some were backpacking Europe independently all summer and simply wanted a vacation from their travels. Some typically traveled solo and wanted a built-in party crew for the Greek isles. Some were couples looking for a stress-free getaway — and even one set of honeymooners. And there was at least one pesky travel blogger constantly asking all kinds of “what motivates you to travel?” style questions.

While I don’t have much to compare it to, there were a few things that I gave Contiki kudos for:

• A Niche Audience. Contiki is known for being fairly nightlife oriented and specifically targets the 18-35 crowd (the group I bonded with was mostly 23-30). For the most part everyone knew exactly what they were getting into, and there was an upbeat and youthful vibe. Even those that didn’t party like rockstars were laughing over the recounted antics at group breakfast the mornings after.

• Great hotels. Our Athens digs had a gorgeous rooftop overlooking the ocean, our Mykonos hotel was Mediterranean chic, the Santorini base was seconds from downtown Fira, and our Ios accommodation was so amazing I plan to return for a minimum of a week someday in the future.

Contiki Tour

Contiki Greek Island Hopper

• Flexibility. My Contiki itinerary included all breakfasts, no lunches, and one dinner per island. It was a perfect mix of guaranteed group time with no negotiations or planning necessary, and free time to grab a quick gyro or go out with a smaller set of friends. During the day, you could choose to do your own thing or join one of what Contiki calls Me Time optionals, add on extras such as a traditional Greek dancing dinner in Athens or a sailing trip around Ios. Because I was going all in on this whole Contiki thing, I only skipped two out of the trip’s eight optionals – a tour of the Acropolis and a sunset in Oia – because I’d done them both before.

• Convenience. No lies: My friend Heather and I, who have probably two decades of travel experience between us, were nearly frustrated to tears by the experience of booking one ferry from Santorini to Athens in the week before the tour departed. And the one we booked turned out to be a nightmare. Handing over the reigns to someone else to make all the travel arrangements – and score us the perfect seats on the best boats – felt deliciously good. Even, or perhaps especially, for this typically micromanaging control freak.

• Amazing Tour Guides. Because it was the middle of high season and our group was so large, we had two tour guides at the helm – Ed and Paola. Both blew me away from the first meeting with their knowledge of our destinations, their no-nonsense advice, and their seamless handling of a group the size of a small graduating class. (The sassy lectures Paola gave on alcohol serving sizes in Australia versus Greece and the expectations of aggressively flirtatious Italians in Mykonos had me begging her to quit her job and travel the world with me. She was like the sassy older cousin everyone wishes they had.)

Contiki Tour Guides

Contiki Tour Guides

What not Contiki?

I adored this tour and thought often of friends back home who I thought it would be the perfect fit for, mostly those who are curious about traveling internationally but aren’t quite ready to jump into a big independent backpacking trip. Yet I can see why it wouldn’t be for everyone.

• Pace. While the Greek Island Hopper is slow paced in Contiki world, we still moved insanely fast for my taste – I was extremely grateful I had spent five days in Santorini beforehand, or I would never had had time to do everything I wanted to on that island.

• Partying. This was an incredibly party-heavy trip. I both expected and wildly enjoyed that – after all, Mykonos and Ios are world renown nightlife destinations. But I could see how it might be off-putting or ostracizing for those that didn’t realize what they were in for. And, sidenote, the Contiki Cough is real — I don’t know a single person that escaped immune system completely intact after putting their body through so little sleep and so much travel and play.

• Price. This trip is a splurge. What you get in return is good value — generally I was blown away by the hotels, we traveled on the best ferries and the included meals were for the most part great — but it’s still undeniably pricier than if you went solo and hosteled it the whole time. You get what you pay for, however, I do wish that some of the add-on excursions had been slightly more reasonably priced.

• Politics. Take seventyish girls and seven guys, add several servings of alcohol and a dash of travel exhaustion, and blend well for one week. A bit of drama is inevitable. I would have to say for me personally, as someone who works and travels alone the vast majority of the time, I took some guilty pleasure in this aspect of my Contiki. What can I say? It was kind of like watching a really juicy TV show! (I mean like are you guys watching Scandal or what? Discuss in the comments.)

Contiki Greek Island Hopper

Am I hanging up my independent traveler title to sign on to an endless string of Contikis? No. I love traveling solo, I love getting lost. I love the hunt and I love the challenge. But damnit, sometimes I love having a stress-free fun, too. I will absolutely consider group travel again in the future, should I need a break from planning (for example, basically anywhere ferry schedules are involved), should I be visiting a region where I like the idea of a built-in crew of travel buddies, or should I head somewhere that is either unpleasant or unwise to travel alone as a single woman.

Waiting for my flight out of Greece, I dedicated a quick Facebook status to my Greek party crew. I think it pretty much says it all.

I consider myself a bit of a one woman wolf pack when it comes to travel, so imagine how surprised I was to be all broken up saying goodbye to these fools. Thanks for reminding me how to play well with others (and how to contract bronchitis). Lots of love.

And now, let’s head to the islands, shall we? First stop, Mykonos…

Contiki Tour Review

Contiki Greek Island Hopper

Have you ever been on a group tour? What was your experience like?

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Photo of the Week 177: Thailand http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/11/02/photo-week-177-thailand/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/11/02/photo-week-177-thailand/#comments Sun, 02 Nov 2014 15:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=32178

Greetings from Koh Tao! I’m basking in the glow of post-Halloween happiness, and well as the joy of being back on my favorite rock. Heather and I wound down our trip with a few final days in Chiang Mai temple hopping, getting creative at a leather making workshop, hiking through Doi Suthep National Park, and making a religion of daily massages. Now we are back by the sea, and I’m loving introducing Heather to this island I love so much, and all the people that make it so very special.

Happy November, guys!

Photo A

Hiking in Doi SuthepPurple flowers, black fingers in Doi Suthep National Park, Chiang Mai

Photo B

Hiking in Chiang MaiA bronze figure placed atop a supposed footprint of the Buddha in Chiang Mai

Photo C

Leather Workshop Chiang MaiA leather workshop in Chiang Mai

Photo D

Hiking in ThailandPerfect patterns in nature

Photo E

Halloween in Koh Tao…and a Happy Halloween selfie from Koh Tao!

Which photo is your favorite?

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All Aboard for Athens http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/10/31/weekend-in-athens/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2014/10/31/weekend-in-athens/#comments Fri, 31 Oct 2014 13:30:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=32332

Santorini was not easy to say goodbye to. Things got a little emotional as we boarded the ferry and watched that stunning volcanic isle disappear in the distance. Still, Heather and I had one last stop on our joint European adventures to enjoy — a weekend of urban adventures in Athens. I loved this city something fierce on my first trip several years ago, and was extremely excited to return for another round.

Athens, GreecePhotos courtesy of Heather Holt

Athens, GreecePhotos courtesy of Heather Holt

We absolutely adored our apartment rental in Santorini, and were thrilled to continue the theme in Athens. This time, we went with a spacious designer loft found on Flipkey for a fraction of what a high end hotel would cost. While there were issues — the building was fairly sketchy and it’s definitely a one bedroom apartment with a second bed awkwardly placed in a master bathroom — we loved using our own kitchen and washing machine, having enough space for impromptu midnight dance parties and pretending we were super trendy Athens locals for two nights.

And really, any complaints aside — if only you could find apartments like this in New York starting at $150 a night!

Athens Apartment Rental

Athens Flipkey Rental

Athens Apartment Rental

This was my first time using Flipkey — they invited me to test out the site after I bonded with some of the team at a travel event in NYC — and I loved it. It had a super clean interface, it’s integrated with Tripadvisor (one of my favorite travel sites of all time), and they had a great selection of properties.

My family and I are already using it to plan a big reunion next year in Florida — we found houses on Flipkey that didn’t know up on any of the other standard rental sites.

Athens Flipkey Rental

Athens Apartment Rental

Athens Flipkey Rental

We kicked off our first night in Athens in style by popping around the corner — literally — from our apartment for sunset drinks at Fresh Hotel, where Heather was hit with her first ever glimpse of the Acropolis. Yamas! (That’s cheers, if it’s not all Greek to you.)

Nightlife in Athens, Greece

Sunset in Athens

Sunset in AthensPhoto courtesy of Heather Holt

Our next stop? Zappeion Gardens for a midnight movie at an outdoor theater, one of my favorite memories from my first trip to Athens. While the cinema experience lived up to my own personal hype, the attached restaurant has gone downhill compared to my rose-colored recollections.

Still, you simply can’t miss visiting one of these countless open air theaters on a summer trip to Greece.

Zappeio Gardens Athens

Zappeio Gardens Athens

The next morning, we mostly ran errands and enjoyed doing cartwheels in our cavernous accommodation. Eventually though, we made our way to another one of Athen’s mega-hip hotels, New Hotel, for an avocado-laden late lunch, and then worked off the calories with a window-shopping stroll though the charming Plaka district.

New Hotel, Athens

Finally, it was time for the big one — visiting the Acropolis itself. Having already been once myself, I was still excited to return, especially with a fellow photographer in tow. We were running late, as usual, and arrived just as the crowds were thinning out and the golden hour of lighting was settling in over the hill.

It was perfection.

Acropolis Photography

Acropolis Photography

Acropolis Photography

One of the many things I love about traveling with Heather? She takes the most amazing candids. Look how deep and contemplative I look through her lens, when in reality I was probably mulling over the maximum amout of gyros it is socially acceptable to eat per day.

Acropolis PhotographyPhoto courtesy of Heather Holt

Acropolis PhotographyPhoto courtesy of Heather Holt

Photographers — save the Acropolis for sunset. I can’t imagine a more stunning time of day. We practically floated back down to the streets when the guards finally kicked us out.

Acropolis at Sunset

Acropolis at Sunset

Acropolis at Sunset

Acropolis at Sunset

Acropolis at Sunset

We decided to celebrate our perfect Parthenon experience with a night in Gazi, Athens’ hip and happening nightlife district. With no real insight on where to go or what to do, we simply bar hopped in whatever direction the wind (and wine) took us, from bro-tastic mega bars to hipster-inspired speakeasies tucked down discreet alleys. From what we could tell, we were the only tourists around.

Going out in Gazi yourself? Cartone and Plastiko were two of our favorites.

Nightlife in Athens, Greece

Going Out in Gazi, Athens

Nightlife in Athens, Greece

Going Out in Gazi, Athens

Going Out in Gazi, AthensDon’t ask

Eventually, we cabbed it back to the more tourist-friendly — and much closer to our accommodation — Psirri district. Here, we discovered two more of our favorite finds of the night, Six Dogs and the rooftop bar of A is for Athens. While A is for Athens was a hotel bar and thus filled with a healthy mix of tourists and Athenians, hidden away Six Doggs definitely had the same local flavor we had found in Gazi.

Nightlife in Athens, Greece

Nightlife in Athens, Greece

Acropolis at Night

All too soon, our forty eight hours in Athens were over and it was time to part ways with Heather — though not for long, as we already had plans to join forces again in Thailand a few short months later. And while Heather was off to Germany, Iceland, and beyond, I was thrilled to not be crossing any borders for a few more weeks.

And with that, I was off to next installment of my Greek adventure…

Weekend in Athens

Happy Friday!

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Many thanks for Flipkey for providing me with a booking credit. As always, you receive my honest opinions regardless of who is footing the bill.

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