My Way or Galway

In my previous post about Dublin, I mentioned I visited the city yet again in the summer of 2013. This time around it was a lot more sunny so I took advantage of the amazing weather.

Firstly, because Trinity College was closed for the Christmas holidays, I was unable to visit the Book of Kells. FYI, the university will usually close from 23 December until after New Years Day. Naturally I went this time around. I suggest going very early to avoid long lines. Visitors are obviously not allowed to take photos of this medieval manuscript, but you can definitely take photos along the way.

 

Glendalough, Wicklow, and Kilkenny

There are plenty of day tours offered that depart from Dublin. I booked my day trip with Collins Day Tours, but there’s also Wild Rover Tours, Paddy Wagon Tours, and Hilltop Treks. I can vouch for Collins Day which provided a great overview of the surrounding nature. If I was not part of the tour group, I would have hiked through Glendalough all day. This tour also includes walking through a world famous 6th century monastic site, more commonly known as Monastic City.

Galway

During my second trip to Ireland I discovered that there were frequent buses travelling to Galway. I purchased a ticket through Citylink, which picks up people along the River Liffey. Citylink also offers numerous destinations besides Galway and picks up from Dublin airport as well. Visit their site for a complete list.

Dublin –> Galway:

  • Standard Ticket: €11.50 departure and €11.50 return if purchased online
  • Student Ticket: €10.50 departure and €10.50 return if purchased online.
  • Duration to Galway: about 2 hour 30 min.

Galway is yet another beautiful and quaint town in Ireland and is the destination you want to make if you’d like to visit the original Claddaugh makers. Do pay a visit to Thomas Dillon Claddaugh Gold, which also houses a tiny museum of the claddaugh ring. There are some affordable pieces…and there’s also not so affordable pieces.

 

I also did the very touristy thing of booking an open-top city bus tour which leaves from the main coach station in Galway. I booked with Lally Tours whose first departure time is 10:30am and last is 3:00pm. Once you purchase a ticket, it will be good for all-day and you can hop on and off at any of its points.

  • Adult Ticket: €12
  • Student Ticket: €9
  • Stops (not a complete list): Courthouse and Town Hall Theatre, Galway Cathedral, View over the city, Salthill Promenade, and more

 

Double Dublin

“The world is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

– W.B. Yeats

The more I travel the more I discover those magical things. I see them in the people I meet, the wilderness I explore, the cultures I experience, and in the increasing realisation that the world is both large and small. Large in the sense there is so much of the world to see, and small in the sense you have the chance to build connections (however small and fleeting) while travelling.

I visited the country of Yeats, Wilde, Joyce, Stoker, and I fell in love with Ireland, so much so that I visited it twice: first, during Christmas in 2012, and again in the summer of 2013.

The Highlights

I stayed at Avalon House during Christmas, and at Kinlay House during the summer. Both were fairly decent places but Avalon had the better breakfast, hands down.

Visit

Guinness Storehouse

You can’t visit Dublin and not visit this national treasure. You get a free taster during your tour and a voucher for a free pint, which you can validate at their fabulous Gravity Bar. FYI children can actually attend the tour but don’t expect them to have a pint.

Howth

Howth is a small fishing town that lies east of Dublin and easily accessible by a €5 train ride via the DART (similar to San Francisco’s BART). It looks like prices may have increased slightly. Feel free to purchase a ticket at your nearest DART station on the day of your trip or online. I got by just fine purchasing it at the station same day as my trip.

Dublin Writers Museum

If you’re a fan of Irish literature and poetry, do visit this quaint museum.

Millstone – I literally followed my nose into this place and was not disappointed. It’s a place for carnivores and vegetarians alike. They have a beef tasting plate, if you can’t decide on a cut!

Temple Bar district – Do experience the musical nightlife of Temple Bar and the surrounding pubs.

The Brazen Head – Established in 1198 (what?!) and Ireland’s oldest pub. Serves traditional pub grub but it’s nice to cross off your list. By the way, if like me you thought to yourself that if this place had to specify it was the oldest pub in Ireland, what is the oldest pub in the world? Look Here.

Read my other post to learn about my second trip to Dublin and my first visit to Galway.

Beauty in Beijing

Whenever I travel solo I don’t always like to be restricted to having concrete plans. When I arrived in Beijing a week before my marathon, I ventured out of my hotel and fell in love with the beauty of everyday life. I walked along Dongsi W. Street until I arrived at the Forbidden City, which was a madhouse: lots of people, lots of tours. So I ventured across the street to Jingshan Park.

Families, tourists, and locals all congregated at this public park, which was about a 2 – 5 Yuan entry – super cheap! I was fascinated by how many locals arrive each weekend to meet with each other and sing, dance, or play music. No matter where you were in the park, you could hear drums beating in the distance, or the soft echo of a choir. These are locals who meet not for the amusement of tourists, but simply because it’s what they do for pleasure. An added bonus is the ‘Everlasting Spring Tower’ which is the highest point in the park, and will also provide you with a fantastic view of the Forbidden City.

The following week, I visited the Temple of Heaven as part of my tour group. Like Jingshan Park, people here also relaxed and played music:

I came across a few tourists who preferred Shanghai and other, more metropolitan cities, but there’s something special about exploring a new city, simply for discovery and immersing yourself in local culture.

An Art Fan?

Do visit the National Art Museum of China. It’s free entry as long as you show your passport at the ticket kiosk. My favourite exhibit was from Wen Lipeng, whose oil paintings were beautiful to say the least.

Where I Stayed

Tucked away in the Dongsi district is the Beijing Double Happiness Courtyard Hotel. The staff was super friendly and incredibly helpful. When you’re ready to leave, the staff will arrange for a taxi upon request.

For Potterheads Only – Hogwarts in the Snow

From 19 November 2016 to 29 January 2017, the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter is currently decked out for the holidays. I had the pleasure of visiting the studio, located north of London in Leavesden, in November. While I was able to schedule a tour through my university, those based in London can take a tour bus directly to the studio or you can head to Watford Junction and book a shuttle bus. You can book from Trip AdvisorGolden Tours, or through Visit London. Please be aware of any pick-up and/or drop-off points.

The first question I am asked when people I found out I visited the studio is “Was it worth it?” I have to say, as a huge Harry Potter fan, yes! Yes, it was worth it. I literally spent HOURS walking around the lot and saw original sets, original costumes, molds from the creatures which made Harry Potter magical, and I even took a few interactive photos. Imagine sitting on a broom in front of a green screen, because that’s exactly what happened. The sets and props that are outdoors are the Knight Bus (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), Lily and James Potter’s home in Godric’s Hollow, Hogwarts Bridge, Mr. Arthur Weasley’s Ford Anglia, and of course, Number 4 Privet Drive (prop). While there are two different food courts (at the beginning and the back lot), they only serve one version of Butterbeer, and unlike the Wizarding Worlds in Hollywood and Orlando, there is no Fire Whiskey.

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Post-Camp Breakfast

20160821_122730Please, if you ever find yourself in Big Bear, California (either camping in the summer or snowboarding/skiing in the winter), do yourself a favour and visit the Teddy Bear restaurant.

I first visited this delightful, tiny, and family-owned place, in August 2016 after a great weekend of camping at Hanna Flats. Expect a long wait, but I assure you, it’s worth it.

Lion Around

At the tail end of my Peace Corps service in the summer of 2012, I found myself in Pretoria and fellow volunteers were headed to the Lion and Safari Park, which is north of Johannesburg. Some of the park’s attractions: Hyenas, feeding giraffes, playing with lion cubs, and observing white lions. The park is not easily accessible for Peace Corps volunteers who have no car, so we rented one and drove ourselves.

You can book guided tours or take the more economically efficient option of self-driving. Which is what we did.

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Wine Me Up Before You Go-Go

Once upon a time I blew through the remainder of my student loans to take a quick trip around Europe after I completed my Master’s back in 2013 #NoRegrets. I started out in Paris, flew to Verona, then took a train to Florence, and finally Rome. The highlights of said trip were definitely an open air opera in Verona, a restaurant in Florence, and a wine tour in the breathtaking surroundings of Tuscany.

By some miracle, I looked at events in Verona prior to flying over and saw that the Arena di Verona was performing Romeo and Juliet. Can you say fate? I quickly purchased a ticket and it became my only planned activity, as I don’t always like to plan everything in advance. It was amazing! While Romeo and Juliet is no longer playing, I definitely recommend booking a ticket to see one of the Arena’s open air operas. And what do you know, they have a festival in the summer of 2017. Did I mention this Arena was built in the first century? Bring comfortable cushions to sit on!

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During the Romeo and Juliet Performance

After Verona, I took a train to Florence. Once I dropped off my things at the hostel (Ostello Santa Monaca), I quickly headed out to hunt for some food. I was walking in the rain so I stopped at the first restaurant I saw which happened to be Osteria Santo Spirito. I took a seat outside in their sheltered patio and began salivating as I saw and smelled all the dishes pass me by. This was, hands down, the best place I ate in all of Italy and all I had was a simple pasta pomodoro. I actually didn’t take photos of my food because I was too busy getting my culinary world rocked. But please, if you find yourself in Florence, eat at this restaurant!!!! (Multiple exclamation marks for emphasis)

When I returned to my hostel I looked at their tourist brochures (as one does), and saw they worked with a local travel company that organised day trips to Tuscany. Um yes please, sign me up! The hostel staff assisted with booking for the next day but feel free to do so on your own here. I opted for the San Gimignano, Siena, and Chianti tour. The tour included pick up and drop off at the main train station in Florence, a visit to medieval towns and monasteries, and of course wine tours, complete with grappa (the Italian tequila).

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Who Run the World?

For the international runner out there – this one’s for you. If like me, you are seeking to run a marathon in every continent, may I recommend this behemoth of a marathon? The Great Wall Marathon boasts to be one of the most difficult in the world. Indeed, organizers have suggested adding about 2 hours to your regular finish time. I had the privilege/horror/mistake (however you want to see it), of running this marathon in May of 2016.

The first 10k is spent running up the mountain to the actual Great Wall entrance, and back down towards the surrounding villages. If you run the Half Marathon that’s all you will do, but the full marathon requires you to run back up that very same mountain and run the stairs of the Great Wall yet again. Me being the stubborn person I am ran the full. It was hot. It was dry. People passed out and dropped out. A huge plus is that there are frequent water stations which I definitely took advantage of. Completing this marathon is such a huge victory and the chance to meet runners from around the world was amazing.

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Done? Haha, joke’s on you. Full marathoners head back to the Wall instead of the finish line.

The Logistics

I arrived in Beijing a week before the actual marathon to acclimate to the weather as well as the time difference (I would recommend doing this). I booked my flights and accommodation on my own for this period until my actual tour started, which brings me to…

… Travel Packages.

I signed up for this trip through Marathon Tours & Travel, however, the main organizer for this event is Albatros Adventure Marathons. My own package was well organized and I was able to select some great tours as part of the package such as visiting the Forbidden City, Ming and Qing Dynasty Tombs, among others. See MT&T’s 2017 travel itineraries here. Both these agencies will include a 10k walk along the actual marathon route on the Great Wall a few days before the marathon in order to mentally prepare you….or scare you off, I’m still not sure. My only critique was that the meals which are included in the packages are not exactly vegetarian friendly, despite my noting I was a vegetarian prior to travel. So if you’re a meat eater, have no fear! Even as a vegetarian, you can easily get by on your own. (Ramen and Tofu? Yum!)

If you wanted to travel within China while you are there, I recommend visiting Ctrip for domestic flights (and flights around Southeast Asia). They’re like the Ryan Air or Easy Jet of China so travel at your own risk, but I got by just fine!

First time Runner?

There were actually several runners I met who chose the Great Wall Marathon as their very first marathon. Woah. But more power to you because if you can run this marathon as your first one, you can run any marathon.

My doc once recommended this FREE marathon training guide: Hal Higdon Training Program.

So say it with me, Who run the world?! You do, my friend. You do.