Our Best of the Best #2: favorite places to stay and cities for good food

Deciding what has been our best in almost every category involved a lot of discussion with a few notable exceptions: one was “favorite places to stay” and another “cities for good food”. We knew exactly what those would be, no discussion required.

Our best place for cheap eats: Hoi An, Vietnam. We stayed in Hoi An for two weeks and ate very, very well. What a surprise! For the amazing low prices we paid, and the great food we dined on, we’ll always remember Hoi An as our favorite town for dining well – and best of all, on a budget.

We ordered at Baby Mustard and then watched them out in the farm field gathering the produce for our supper. How's that for fresh?

After we placed our order at Baby Mustard,  we watched a woman go out into the farm field to gather the produce for our supper. How’s that for fresh?

Our best city for mid-priced dining: When we went to Paris, we had high expectations. Same for Rome, Tokyo, and San Francisco… But our best so far is Lima, Peru. We read that Lima had many great restaurants and couldn’t wait to try a few. We stayed in the Miraflores district and walked a short distance to a highly rated place for our first meal in a city famous for good food. It turned out to be one of the worst of the trip! But after that, we discovered one gem after another, and right in our neighborhood.

We ate at Edo Sushi twice. The melding of Japanese and Peruvian cuisines is brilliant.

We ate at Edo Sushi Bar and then went back again. The melding of Japanese and Peruvian cuisines is brilliant.

We also ate at La Mar twice. The first time we enjoyed sitting at the seafood bar where we watched the finishing touches added to dishes before they were served – at the same time watching Euro Cup soccer on the TV monitor. Great food in a relaxed setting!

We also ate at La Mar twice. The first time we enjoyed sitting at the seafood bar where we watched the finishing touches added to dishes before they were served – at the same time watching Euro Cup soccer on the TV monitor. Great food in a relaxed setting!

We read that Lima has 3 restaurants in the top 50 restaurants in the WORLD. Maido ranks #13. When we discovered this, we emailed a request to Maido for a table the next week, knowing that it usually takes many weeks, if not months, to get a reservation. A few days later we got a call saying that if we could come on Monday at 1pm, they had an opening. Yes! And how was it? Superb!

 

Our best places to stay: La Paloma Lodge in Costa Rica and 2 lodges in Tanzania

For us, best places to stay have to be in great places to visit. Ten years ago (too many years ago to have good digital photos), we visited La Paloma Lodge on Drake Bay in the Osa Peninsula of Costa Rica. Our 5-day stay was perfection and will always be the benchmark to judge all others. So far, nothing has come close.

The lodge could only be reached by small plane, which landed on a grass airstrip. Staff in a jeep met us for a brief rough ride through a stream before we reached the water’s edge. We boarded a small boat for the trip down the river to the La Paloma Lodge, perched on a hill over the Pacific Ocean. A true get away!   Days were spent with guides at Corcovado National Park or snorkeling in the Pacific. The food was healthy and wonderful and the staff pampered all their guests. Our stay could not have been better.

We spent an afternoon kayaking on the river at La Paloma Lodge in Costa Rica.

We spent an afternoon kayaking on the river at La Paloma Lodge in Costa Rica.

We usually stay in budget or moderately priced lodgings so were astounded with some of the lovely, luxurious, and amazing places we stayed on our Tanzania trip, arranged by Mark Thornton Safaris  in Tanzania.   The lodges were set in the most scenic of places, where we felt transported to another place and time.

We stayed at Maramboi Tented Lodge near the shore of Lake Manyara in this little cottage.

We stayed at Maramboi Tented Lodge near the shore of Lake Manyara, Ernest Hemingway’s favorite lake in Africa.

The view from the porch at Maramboi was the lake, but we kept a look out for all the wild animals roaming nearby. One, right outside the window, woke us from our nap.

The view from the porch at Maramboi was not only the lake, but all the wild animals roaming nearby.

Another lodge where we stayed in Tanzania, Lemala Tented Lodge, was inside the Ngorongoro Crater.  The crater is 2,000’ deep with an area of 100 sq mi. It’s like a virtual zoo for animals with about 25,000 large animals living there.

We stayed in a huge tent in this most amazing place. This tent is not like 2-person tent we use for camping in the US. Just look at our tent bathroom. This is tenting at it finest!

We stayed in a huge tent in this most amazing place. This tent is not like the 2-person tent we use for camping in the US. Just look at our tent bathroom. This is tenting at it most luxurious!

Let us know what your own “best of the best” are so it’s our turn to get inspired!

 

To be continued…with best destinations for food and places to stay. Our previous post covered…. best wildlife, beaches, and snorkeling.

 

 

November 2016

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Our Best of the Best: wildlife, beaches, snorkeling

As soon as people hear that we’ve been traveling nonstop for almost 4 years, they immediately ask “What’s your favorite country” or “What’s your favorite… ?” (Then they fill in the blank: destination to view wildlife, beach, places to snorkel, ancient ruins, cheap eats, etc.) We finally figured out how to answer that favorite country question, so we started to ask ourselves: which places are the best we’ve experienced (in our opinion, of course). Here’s a start to answering those questions.

Our best wildlife destination: Absolutely, without a doubt, our Tanzania safari was the best! Did it help that we saw so many more animals and birds than we could have imagined? We had the greatest guides and stayed at wonderful places, too – so, yes, it was the best!

We’d never before seen a dazzle of zebras. Mark Thornton Safaris arranged it all for our friends and us.

We’d never before seen a dazzle of zebras. Mark Thornton Safaris arranged it all for our friends and us.

Also very good, and worthy of mention, were our trips to Manu Biosphere Reserve (Peru), Corcovado National Park (Costa Rica), and the Galapagos Islands (Ecuador).

Visiting the Galapagos Island is like stepping into a “National Geographic” photo spread. What a wonderful opportunity!

Visiting the Galapagos Island is like stepping into a “National Geographic” photo spread. What a wonderful opportunity!

 

Our best beaches: Let’s just say we love Bermuda, Sanibel, and Whangaparaoa but for different reasons.

No one else was on the fine pink sand beach in Bermuda when we arrived. The water temperature was perfect in early September, and we still remember the colors of the water and sky. This is a beach for luxurious relaxation.

No one else was on the fine pink sand beach in Bermuda when we arrived. The water temperature was perfect in early September, and we still remember the colors of the water and sky. This is a beach for luxurious relaxation.

We can never resist searching for the best sea shells and watching birds as we walk on the long beach at Sanibel Island, Florida.

We can never resist searching for the best sea shells and watching birds as we walk on the long beach at Sanibel Island, Florida.

Huntington Gardens

You can find the town of Whangaparaoa on a little peninsula north of Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island. Most days we headed to one of a half-dozen beaches, all an easy walk from our AirBnB. Surprisingly, they were all different. Some had shells, others had tidal pools, some were long stretches of perfect sand. One thing they all had in common: perfectly clean. These beaches offered us variety and allowed lots of discoveries in a pristine environment.

 

Our best snorkeling: With snorkeling experience limited to seven major destinations around the world, we can definitely say the islands of Aruba and Bonaire had everything we were looking for: lots to see below the surface, calm and warm water, and easy access from a beach. Baby Beach in Aruba and a night snorkeling trip with Renee in Bonaire remain our most memorable.

Dropping off a platform or boat to snorkel is not our preferred method (as we did at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef).  We most enjoy snorkeling from a beach in fairly shallow water.

Dropping off a platform or boat to snorkel is not our preferred method (as we did at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef).  We most enjoy snorkeling from a beach in fairly shallow water.

 

Let us know what your own “best of the best” are so it’s our turn to get inspired!

To be continued…with best destinations for food and places to stay.

 

October 2016

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A treasure is not always where you expect it to be

We headed out in Land Rovers to see the petrified forest near Bahia Bustamante, in a remote area of Patagonia. We knew it would be interesting, but, in a fairly arid landscape, what could we see other than the old forest, now turned into rock? Then we arrived and started to look around.

You might be wondering – just what is petrified wood? It’s wood that has gone through the process of turning into stone. Long ago, there were volcanoes here in Patagonia, and the ash from an eruption buried the wood cutting off all oxygen so the wood did not decay in the usual way, but turned into mineral rock.

You might be wondering – just what is petrified wood? It’s wood that has gone through the process of turning into stone. Long ago, there were volcanoes here in Patagonia, and the ash from an eruption buried the wood cutting off all oxygen so the wood did not decay in the usual way, but turned into mineral rock.

One of the first gems we found was a petrified piece of tree branch with something petrified inside (mineral or salt?) – which looked like little crystal beads.

One of the first gems we found was a petrified piece of tree branch with something petrified inside (mineral or salt?) – which looked like little crystal beads.

Not far away someone found an armadillo’s tail, not a fossil.

Not far away someone found an armadillo’s tail, not a fossil.

Most Patagonian animals and bugs hide in plain sight – like the bug in the photo. Can you find it? We only saw it when it leaped like a grasshopper.

Most Patagonian animals and bugs hide in plain sight – like the bug in the photo. Can you find it? We only saw it when it leaped like a grasshopper. (Hint: it’s just to the right of the center.)

Our group of 8 adults and 4 children – all guest at Bahia Bustamante – hiked up to the base of a tower.

Our group of 8 adults and 4 children – all guest at Bahia Bustamante – hiked up to the base of a tower.

Our guide, Nicolas, confirmed that birds safely nest at the top of the tower, and the evidence could be found at its base. He searched on the ground and within a few seconds showed us the bones of a tuco tuco (a small rodent), regurgitated by the raptors that nest at the top of the tower. What a find!

Our guide, Nicolas, confirmed that birds safely nest at the top of the tower, and the evidence could be found at its base. He searched on the ground and within a few seconds showed us the bones of a tuco tuco (a small rodent), regurgitated by the raptors that nest at the top of the tower. What a find!

Nicolas spotted a little lizard which stopped long enough for a photo.

Nicolas spotted a little lizard which stopped long enough for a photo.

Here’s a closeup to admire the lizard’s skin coloration and to show how easily it blends into the rocky setting.

Here’s a closeup to admire the lizard’s skin coloration and to show how easily it blends into the rocky setting.

Seeing a petrified forest was a rare sighting for us. The treasure trove of everything else we saw – and were able to photograph – was totally unexpected.

 

November 2016

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Nice to finally meet you

As we travel we love to see new animals and birds. Generally we keep our expectations low and that seems to guarantee great happiness when we are lucky enough to actually spot something new. What were our expectations when coming to Patagonia? We read somewhere that sightings are easy since there’s not a lot of cover for animals and birds in the short shrubby landscape, but conditions aren’t conducive to large numbers of animals and birds. Bad news for us, we thought.

The good luck was in choosing to come to Bahia Bustamante. 480,000 acres of land, many miles of coastline, and stewardship of both means there’s a lot of wildlife. On one of our first days we went with other guests and a guide to “Penguin Island”. The timing had to be just right since we needed to walk over to the island at low tide. We were all offered walking sticks and that helped as we balanced on slippery rocks making our way to the island.

When we arrived we wondered where the penguins were. Low bushes covered the interior of the island and at first we didn’t see any penguins. Then, we saw where to look.

We know it just looked that way - but this penguin seemed happy to see us.

We know it just looked that way – but this penguin seemed happy to see us.

Most of the 80 pairs of Magellanic penguins nested under the brush.

Most of the 80 pairs of Magellanic penguins nested under the brush.

Males and females traded time on the nest. When not on the nest, they fed in the sea.

Males and females traded time on the nest. When not on the nest, they fed in the sea.

We walked slowly around the bushes on little paths, seeing penguins on nests at every turn, many only a few feet away from their neighbors’ nests.

When we emerged from the brushy area, we saw a lone penguin working its way down to the sea.

When we emerged from the brushy area, we saw a lone penguin working its way down to the sea.

Another day we took a boat ride to see other islands of the Malaspina Bay, each primarily occupied by a distinct species. The Magellanic penguins are on another island, as well. We used binoculars to watch the sea lions on their island. Steamer-ducks, gulls, and neotropic cormorants occupied different islands.

Two other species of cormorants – rock and imperial (also called blue-eyed) – made this island their home.

Two other species of cormorants – rock and imperial (also called blue-eyed) – made this island their home.

A pair of Chubut Steamer-ducks came close to the boat. Their range is limited to two very small areas along the Patagonian coast, so we counted ourselves lucky to see them.

A pair of Chubut Steamer-ducks came close to the boat. Their range is limited to two very small areas along the Patagonian coast, so we counted ourselves lucky to see them.

On walks from our little cottage every afternoon, we saw many things of interest: fading seashells on the beach; shore birds; new flowering plants; and exotic animals to us, like mara (an animal that looks like a cross between a kangaroo and rabbit) and armadillo.

We never imagined we’d spend so much time and be so close to the penguins. We realized at Bahia Bustamante that each time we met a new bird or animal or plant we had time to get to know it. It’s a rare place that offers that kind of experience.

 

November 2016

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It took us 7 years to get here

We read an article about Bahia Bustamante, the “poor man’s Galapagos”, seven years ago in “The New York Times” and we were hooked. We saved the article and placed Bahia Bustamante near the top of our “places to go” list. It took a long time – mostly due to its location in faraway Patagonia – but we finally made it!

What’s so special? Bahia Bustamante is remote, reachable by a half hour’s drive down a gravel road. No cell phone access and forget wifi. It’s huge (200,000 acres ) and pristine landscape with many animals and birds – and no evidence of people apart from the handful of staff and guests.

The white-rumped sandpiper on a beach at Bahia Bustamante in Patagonia.

The white-rumped sandpiper on a beach at Bahia Bustamante in Patagonia.

Who does live here? On the land we might see rhea, armadillo, grey fox, mara, and guanaco. We also were certain to see some of the 25,000 sheep at Bahia Busamante.

Large breeding colonies of Magellanic penguins (60,000 in breeding season) and lion seals (3,500 in breeding season) are two of the marine inhabitants.

Large breeding colonies of Magellanic penguins (60,000 in breeding season) and lion seals (3,500 in breeding season) are two of the marine inhabitants.

And there’s a lot more, too, but the most important is a 60-million year old petrified forest.

There are only a handful of cottages for guests who are well-fed in a quaint dining room looking out to the Bustamante Bay. Excursions are planned for the guests each day.

There are only a handful of cottages for guests who are well-fed in a quaint dining room looking out to the Bustamante Bay. Excursions are planned for the guests each day.

This what we knew before we came. We planned an extravagant 6-day stay at the end of our 7-month trip to South America. It was a true vacation for us!

We took a boat ride on Malaspina Bay to see islands teeming with sea lions, gulls, cormorants and ducks. Another day we drove in Land Rovers to see the Petrified Forest.

On a sunny day we walked along a beach, hiked up a short hill, and then back down through sand to “Toboggan Beach”, a perfect place to swim (if you don’t mind cold water).

On a sunny day we walked along a beach, hiked up a short hill, and then back down through sand to “Toboggan Beach”, a perfect place to swim (if you don’t mind cold water).

We stopped to see a pilot whale that died on the beach five years ago, confused by a fishing vessel’s radar.

We stopped to see a pilot whale that died on the beach five years ago, confused by a fishing vessel’s radar.

Afternoons were spent taking walks and a few photos, napping, and reading.

On one walk we almost missed this little flower because it was just a few inches tall. Due to the harsh conditions, many plants are on the small size.

On one walk we almost missed this little flower because it was just a few inches tall. Due to the harsh conditions, many plants are on the small size.

Did Bahia Bustamante live up to our expectations? Actually, it exceeded them!

To be continued…

 

November 2016

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Patagonia (which one?)

We’re now in Patagonia (the place and the clothes). We flew into Trelew early in the morning and picked up a rental car to head straight for the Valdes Peninsula. It was cool and windy – and we were both snug and warm, outfitted in our Patagonia R1 jackets.

We had never heard anything about Valdes Peninsula before doing research and then we wondered – why had we not heard about it before? It’s a huge nature reserve and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We had seen guanaco in the Andes Mountains of Peru and hadn’t realized they are commonly seen in Patagonia, too.

We had seen guanaco in the Andes Mountains of Peru and hadn’t realized they are commonly seen in Patagonia, too.

If you can picture the map of Argentina, the Valdes Peninsula is about 2/3 of the way south, jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean.

If you can picture the map of Argentina, the Valdes Peninsula is about 2/3 of the way south, jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean.

To get to the peninsula, we drove across the isthmus of Carlos Ameghino.   A welcome sign was quickly followed by a tollbooth, collecting 680 pesos ($45 US). A bit of a surprise – but fair enough. After a short drive down the road we stopped at a helpful visitor center. We traveled down a side road to an overlook for Bird Island. In years past, visitors could walk over to the island at low tide where thousands of nesting birds made their home. The disruption to the environment caused that policy to end, so now a visit to Bird Island means visitors observed the island from the shore using binoculars. All we could see from such a long distance were a massive number of kelp gulls.

The wind picked up and another Patagonia clothing layer was added – this time, a rain jacket. Brr! We hopped back into the car and drove on into the one little town in the Valdes Peninsula, Puerto Piramides, population: less than 500.

Visitors arrived in buses all through the day to go out on whale-watching excursions. Tractors towed the boats out into the ocean.

Visitors arrived in buses all through the day to go out on whale-watching excursions. Tractors towed the boats out into the ocean.

We hiked up a hard dirt surface that was totally embedded with seashells, as were the cliffs next to us. As we stood looking out to sea, we saw Southern right whales breaching in the bay. What a show!

We hiked up a hard dirt surface that was totally embedded with seashells, as were the cliffs next to us. As we stood looking out to sea, we saw Southern right whales breaching in the bay. What a show!

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The next morning we set off to drive around the peninsula – a drive that would take the entire day due to gravel roads and a 60 kph (36 mph) speed limit. That sounded slow enough but the reality was we needed to drive even slower on the rough road. Dust swirled across the road and seeped into the car as we headed north.

At Punta Norte we watched the sea lions sleeping on the beach at low tide. Had we been there at high tide, we might have seen the orcas (killer whales) that come to prey on the sea lions and sea elephants that use this beach as a breeding ground.

At Punta Norte we watched the sea lions sleeping on the beach at low tide. Had we been there at high tide, we might have seen the orcas (killer whales) that come to prey on the sea lions and sea elephants that use this beach as a breeding ground.

Another bird sighting made even better by a great name: the carbonated sierra-finch. Sounds more like a refreshing drink than a little black bird with personality.

Another bird sighting made even better by a great name: was it the carbonated sierra-finch? Sounds more like a refreshing drink than a little black bird with personality.

We continued our circuit drive of the peninsula.   The already strong wind picked up and when we got out of the car to observe the wildlife, we had trouble using our binoculars and cameras – or standing up straight. Many things we hoped to see stayed hidden from view.

The next day was calmer with a clear sky and only light wind. We drove back to Trelew. Across the street from our little hotel was a city square where we saw many new birds we’d never seen before – almost as many as we’d seen on the Valdes Peninsula! We’re guessing that in Patagonia, weather and sighting conditions require a bit of luck. Our visit to the Valdes and Trelew was just the beginning. Time to move further south…

 

October 2016

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Every day we take a walk

We set off from our apartment in Buenos Aires every day to take a walk. The joy of being outside and exploring the neighborhood, always on the lookout for some marvels to see and maybe photograph, became the center point of our day. Our goal is to walk at least 10,000 steps. For us – that’s about 3.75 miles (6 kilometers).

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On one of our first walks in our Recoleta neighborhood, we headed for El Ateno Grand Splendid, on the recommendation of our friend, Jack. El Ateno is one of the most beautiful bookstores in the world – converted from a grand theatre built in the early 1900’s, with a capacity of over 1,000 seats.

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On days when rain threatened, we dashed a half-block from our apartment to walk in Recoleta Cemetery. When it did start to rain, we could be back inside our apartment in no time.

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Spring came to Buenos Aires during our visit, and, on warmer days, our walks became longer and longer.

Many cities have large parks, but we’d never seen anything quite like Reserva Ecologica Costanera Sur, an 865-acre park on an “island” wedged between a canal and the river. Paths are long with limited access and much of the park is a huge wetland – making it an ideal wildlife habitat.  It took us an hour to walk to Costanera Sur, through chic neighborhoods and then by high-rise buildings. Once we arrived, the city was behind us, and we discovered we were in the great outdoors.

argentine black + white tegu

We saw 5 Argentine black and white tegus one day as they crawled across the path.   They’re hard to miss at well over 3 feet (92 cm) in length.

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By the time we had walked well over 15,000 steps, we found a bench to sit down and have a snack. Hold on! Beth almost sat down on this (rather large) bug. Instead of pulling out our snack, we went for our cameras.

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Many steps later, we sat down at a bench next to this little bug which we mistakenly thought was a ladybug. But it isn’t.

We took 5 walks to Costanera Sur to see just how much more we could see. We watched nutria, eating their way down channels of water clogged with greet vegetation. A muskrat ambled by within a foot of us while we rested on a wall. A pair of pampas cavy munched on grass a few feet off the path. And, of course, there were always more bird species to see.

Cuckoo, Guira

On our visit we spotted over 80 different bird species (of the 300+ that are there). The Guira cuckoo was one of our favorites.

After our last visit to Costanera Sur, we noted that we had walked over 27,000 steps just that one day. Our daily walks were worthwhile in every way.

 

October 2016

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