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Despite being a portion of the trip that featured my other favorite sight in Ireland, the city of Cork itself was underwhelming and frankly, super sketchy. I got off the bus from Galway only to realize I won’t be going out at night while I’m here. Keep that in mind: if you stay in Cork city, make plans outside of it.
I walked up the steep hill to Sheila’s Hostel. I couldn’t tell you who Sheila is, but she might want to update the place a bit. As I walked inside, thoughts of The Shining kept creeping into my head. I thought I'd legit run out screaming if I happened to come across a pair of child twins. "What the 'redrum' is going on here?" I kept asking myself. There’s something truly creepy about these older buildings, and this was definitely my least favorite of the hostels. They didn’t have lockers in the rooms. Instead, you could rent one on the bottom floor, so basically, I had to run up and down four flights of stairs anytime I needed to grab something from my locker. It was a great workout but a pain in the butt. I was only here two nights though, so at least it was a short stay.
The good news is that the two places I was planning to check out weren’t actually in the city of Cork anyway. My first full day I went to see the famous Blarney Castle. In addition to the Cliffs of Moher, this was one of my favorite places I saw on the trip. I really lucked out in terms of weather. It was a perfect, sunny day.
I took the 215 city bus for just under 3 euros over to the village of Blarney where the castle is at. To see the castle and grounds it’ll cost you 18 euros, and I’m telling you it’s totally worth it. Once you pay, you have free range to explore. The castle itself is surrounded by these incredibly beautiful gardens that’ll leave you feeling as if you wandered into a fairy tale.
My first stop was the castle itself. I first checked out some caves below the castle. While a cool experience, if you’re claustrophobic, avoid them. There's only one way in and out too, so you definitely get up and close and personal with your fellow travelers.
After that, I went up and throughout the castle. It’s one of the biggest castles I saw in Ireland. Now, if you’re wondering about the Blarney Stone, you’ll find it at the very top. I was fortunate that it wasn’t a busy travel season, so while the line to kiss the Blarney Stone may usually be very long, this time around it was a really quick wait. For reference, my trip was at the end of September and into the beginning of October.
Kissing the Blarney Stone is just one of those things you have to do in Ireland, but even the adventurer in me got a little nervous while doing it. They lay you down and push you over the edge at the top of this massively high castle. You’re there looking down at the ground below, then they tell you to lift your head and kiss the stone. The thing is though, you have to lean far enough over the edge to be able to it, so you’re counting on these people to not let go. One slip up and it’s a big ol’ Blarney splat. I will say it was a memorable kiss to say the least.
I then made my way into the gardens. It’s such a pretty area that it truly takes your breath away, and I don’t doubt that it was even more stunning with the sun out. Also on the grounds is the Blarney House, which looks like a castle itself, but rather one from the 1700s. In the high tourist season you can even go inside the house, but unfortunately it was closed until spring.
While I may have been lucky with the weather my first full day in the Cork area, my second day was the complete opposite. I got up early and my plan was to visit the seaside town of Cobh. Not only was it known for having a beautiful cathedral, but it was also where the Titanic made its final stop before heading out to sea. I had also heard there was a Titanic museum there as well that I was hoping to see.
I couldn’t help but notice the clouds setting in as I was on the bus to Cobh and like clockwork, then came the rain – and plenty of it. I got off the bus and was hit with heavy winds, cold weather, and rain. I walked over to Cobh Cathedral while simultaneously trying not to get blown out to sea. What was initially meant to just be a sightseeing stop, became a literal shelter from the storm.
The church itself was beautiful inside. Catholic churches are definitely known for having some exquisite architecture. There were a few other people inside but other than that it was pretty empty. I gave myself a good 20-25 minutes inside there, hoping the storm would let up a bit. After all, I didn’t want to spend my entire day inside there. No such luck. The rain seemed to get heavier and the winds stronger as the morning went on. Oh well. I figured I’ll fight it out and still walk around the town. Not even 10 minutes out in the elements and I was soaking wet, shivering, and utterly miserable. I decided my trip to Cobh was going to be much more brief than I anticipated. I went back to the bus stop and headed back to Cork city. I soon realized the rain was going to remain for the rest of the day, but I also didn’t want to stay cooped up in my hostel. I hit up a coffee shop to do some writing and checked out shops in the area. I was still soaking wet and cold, so I figured I could at least treat myself to a nice warm sweater.
I eventually made it back to the hostel on haunted hill as I began referring to it, where I got to meet one of my roommates. She is from Ireland and was in Cork for a short visit. It was really cool talking with her because I got to learn more about the history between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. While I knew about it somewhat, hearing about it from her and the real-life ramifications that Irish people have experienced was incredibly poignant to listen to. It’s easy to get caught up in seeing new places, but some of the most memorable moments are the people you meet and learn from while you're there.
The next morning it was time to head back to Dublin for one more day of exploring and of course, an epic final night out in Ireland. Stay tuned for the final portion of my Ireland adventure...
When asked what city I should spend the most time in, every person I asked gave me the same answer: Galway.
Galway is located on Ireland’s west coast, an area known to be one of the most scenic parts of the country. I left for Galway on the CityLink bus from Dublin. Thankfully, another easy find as the bus stop was located right near my Dublin hostel along the river. The ride is about 2 hours and 20 minutes, making it the perfect time for a busy traveler to get a nap in.
The fabulous thing about Galway is that it’s not a super big city and everything is very central. I only walked a mere 3 minutes from the bus stop to my hostel. Galway City Hostel is in a prime location at the corner of Eyre Square in the heart of the city.
I checked into my hostel and began what would be a mild flirtation/sarcastic report with the guy working the front desk. Hey, when in Ireland right?
This was also another very nice hostel - very clean, safe, and they even provide a free breakfast in the mornings. Did I mention this place also has a hair straightener and dryer on hand?
Upon entering my room, however, I quickly learned that while most people at hostels are thrilled to meet new people, the girls I was sharing a room with were the definition of anti-social. Not all was lost - there would be more people to meet eventually.
I took it pretty easy that first day. I walked around the city and checked out Galway’s famous Latin Quarter. Dinner was actually a pretty easy choice that first day. There was a great restaurant/bar right across the street from my hostel called Garvey’s. It had a really cool 1800's design inside. It was also very cozy, which made it the ideal spot to enjoy a meal, a half-pint of Guinness and a good book once the rain set in that evening.
The following day was the big trip to the Cliffs of Moher. I will start off by saying the Cliffs of Moher was without a doubt one of my favorite places I visited during the trip. I lucked out that it wasn’t a rainy day too – win!
I got on the 350 bus to get there. The bus station was located right around the corner from my hostel. The station is called Eyre Square Station. Again, I can’t emphasize enough how conveniently located everything was. Now, it’s worth noting that that Cliffs of Moher isn’t close. By bus, it’s at least a 2 hour ride. In fairness, they make stops in towns along the way, and the ride itself is quite pretty. You get to see a lot of the countryside and cows – lots of cows! I don’t think I’ve seen so many cows in my life. They are literally everywhere over there. Now, this bus advertises WiFi access, but from my experience, it was non-existent. Another opportunity to nap though…
Once you get to the Cliffs of Moher, you pay about 7 euros for access in and then it’s pretty much just a free-for-all.
They have a fence there in the technical sense, but it’s really just a series of short stacks of wood piled together. They aren’t even over the edge either. If you go on the other side of the ‘fence’, you can go right to the edge of the cliffs. You can bet that's what I did too. It’s really thrilling look out over them, though it's definitely not for the faint of heart or anyone with a fear of heights. I couldn’t help but wonder how many putz tourists fell over that thing though. I would hope that’s not the case, but these days, the travel influencers are doing anything for the ‘gram so who knows. All joking aside, the Cliffs of Moher are worth it. It was truly one of the most memorable and beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Sure, it’s full of tourists and not a hip, off-the-beaten-path find, but it’s a must when you visit Ireland.
When I eventually made it back to my hostel that evening, I was greeted by a fellow American, a med student named Erin who was studying abroad in England and taking a short trip to Ireland. We got to talking and went out that night to a pub called Tig Cholli. This pub was super fun and they even had live traditional Irish music.
Day 3. Aran Islands. Well, one island to be exact. The island I was heading to was Inishmore and apparently the rain wanted to join in on the fun. Sure, you’re probably thinking that’s Ireland!'. Fair point. The thing is though, the best way to experience Inishmore is to take a bicycle and ride around the island. When there’s nothing but rain, you’re obligated to take a van tour of the island and it’s just not the same. So, that would be my number one piece of advice for visiting the Aran Islands: make sure to go on a day when it won’t be raining.
In my case, I had already bought my ferry ticket before I left for Ireland, so dagnabbit I was going. Even though I had purchased the ferry ticket online, I still had to pick up the ticket itself at Kinlay Hostel in Galway. I bought my ferry ride round trip through Aran Island Ferries. I then caught the bus to that would take us to the ferry. Heads up: even that bus trip is about an hour.
As I mentioned earlier, the rain means your best option to see Inishmore is by van tour. The good news is that these are done by locals that truly take pride in their home. Our tour guide had lived on Inishmore pretty much his entire life. Considering this is an island with roughly 500-ish people, it’s definitely a lifestyle choice you have to really love. Knowing me, I’d go crazy with boredom being there all the time, but he really seemed to love it. I can't even imagine what dating must be like there...
Perhaps the most interesting portion of my Inishmore adventure was the ferry ride back to the mainland. The waves were super choppy, making it a very bumpy ride. While I loved the excitement of it, the majority of older people that populated that ferry were not having it. Some joked, while others made good use of those motion sickness bags.
The next day was my last in Galway. I figured I would stick around town. Well, that got boring fast. I had already seen most of Galway the first day, and aside from shopping and hanging out at a pub it was only Noon and I didn’t know what else to do. I decided to enlist the help of Google to look up small towns nearby that were a short train ride away, which lead me to Athenry.
I walked over to the train station, got my ticket, and made my way to this quiet little Irish town. It was adorable in its sleepiness. My first stop was Athenry’s heritage center, which is essentially a historic church and cemetery. While I was able to see the outside of the building, I couldn't see inside due to a ceremony going on. It wasn’t all bad though. After the heritage center, I went over to Athenry Castle. I’m always fascinated by these small European and British towns I’ve explored that have these centuries old castles sitting among them. The world around has changed immensely, but still they stand, a constant reminder of the past.
Upon arriving at Athenry Castle, I was greeted by the kindest lady. She assumed I was a student, but when I told her I was not, she still offered me the student price. I’m not sure what was more awesome: someone thinking I was a college student or getting that discount. Keep moisturizing kids.
Athenry Castle was incredible, and the best part is that there weren’t a bunch of tourists either. I was literally one of three people visiting the castle at that time.
I then wandered over to the priory, which was also hundreds of years old. Unfortunately, this one was closed off to tourists but the building itself is quite open, so you can still see inside really well.
I figured my trip to Athenry wouldn’t be complete without a stop in a local pub, but I soon realized I should have just gone right back to Galway. I went into the first open pub I found, only to discover I was the only female there. It was me and a bunch of older, creepy men. Not exactly the scenario I was hoping for. Despite my initial desire to turn around and walk out, I wanted to be polite. Let’s be real: as an American right now, I feel an incessant need to be extra-considerate when traveling abroad. Yet my politeness was met with inappropriate comments, lingering stares, and more reasons why we need the Me Too movement. I was uncomfortable in every sense of the word, and I don’t think I’ve drank a Guinness faster in my life.
I hustled out of that bar and went directly to the train station, relieved to get as far away from there as humanly possible.
At least the day ended on a good note though. I met another fellow American back at my hostel and we went out for my last night in Galway to a bar called The King’s Head. It was the perfect last night in Galway. We were treated to live Irish music and dancing. I loved it.
Next up, it's off to Cork, where I explore Ireland’s most famous castle and have a very memorable kiss…
It’s safe to say Ireland has been on my bucket list for several years now. Back in 2017 when I was planning my Europe/UK birthday trip, I had originally planned to visit England, Scotland, and Ireland. However, some great advice from a friend pointed me to Paris instead, which was ultimately the best decision and then gave me the chance to see family again in The Netherlands.
Ireland was still on my mind though, so when I was looking ahead to my next overseas trip, I knew it was finally time to make that dream a reality.
Initially, I had hoped to meet up with a friend from New York who would be running the Dublin marathon, but I couldn’t get that time off with my TV producing job, which meant I’d be traveling on my own a month earlier instead.
At this point, I find it rather amusing to see people’s expressions when I tell them I’ve willingly traveled on my own - mainly because they just don’t realize how many people (including young women) actually do it. I could wait years trying to make plans with friends, so why not just go and meet new friends over there? Well, I ended up meeting quite a few fantastic people along the way, but more about that later…
The perks of my insanely early morning work schedule meant that I could still go to work and fly out that same day. I flew Iceland Air, and while other airlines are going for entertainment or comedy for their safety videos, these folks went a completely different route. Iceland Air’s safety video was like one of those prescription drug commercials. Am I learning to use the life vest or being sold Abilify?
I had a 45-minute layover in Iceland, and to be honest, I was super nervous about it. In my mind it was near-impossible to try and clear customs and get to the next plane in that amount of time. I’m sure even the McAllister family in Home Alone 2 didn’t have it that bad. Well, it turns out I didn’t have to worry about customs until Dublin and barely had to walk to the next gate. What began as a source of stress turned into relief – especially considering I wouldn’t have wait around at another airport. I literally walked off one plane and right onto the next one. So, if you find yourself with a tight layover in Iceland en route to Europe, don’t worry, you’ll be just fine. They’ve got a convenient system set up. Leave it to the Europeans to make even the littlest travel moments more fabulous.
Once I landed in Dublin, I was able to catch a shuttle bus into the city for just 7 euros right outside the airport. They have several options available as you exit the airport that are easy to find. After that, it was just a short walk from the bus stop to my hostel, Sky Backpackers. I know what you’re thinking: hostel? Seriously though, they’re not bad at all, I promise. Plus, it’s the best way to meet fellow travelers AND stay in a great part of the city.
Sky Backpackers is one of Dublin’s top-rated hostels, and based on its location, cleanliness, and what they offer, I’d recommend them in a heartbeat. Heck, they even have a hair straightener on hand that you can borrow . Win! Well, unless it’s a rainy day…
When it comes to hostels, you don’t have to worry about towels either. You usually pay a deposit for the towel during your stay and then get your money back at the end. It’s never more than like 5 euros.
Since I had some time to kill before check-in, I decided to grab a much-needed Guinness and meal at a restaurant/pub nearby called O’Connells right on Bachelor’s Walk. It was a gorgeous day, so I decided to sit outside. Probably a big mistake on my part though, since this non-smoker underestimated just how many people there smoke – and naturally they went outside too. As I was about to get up and remove myself from Lung Cancer Expo ’19, a trio of Guinness truck drivers sat down next to me and immediately struck up a conversation. This hilarious trio of heavy-set dudes were probably the most interesting introduction to Ireland I could get. What they lacked in teeth (I kid you not), they made up for in humor. These guys were a blast to talk to and they even gave me some great ideas for things to see and do. Here was I was having a Guinness with some of the fellas who deliver the stuff.
After I said goodbye to my new Irish pals, I was able to officially check in to my hostel. I was running on zero sleep and pure adrenaline, so after unpacking, I immediately went out to catch a free walking tour. It was a great decision because not only is it free, but I also got to learn about the city and Ireland’s history as I saw some of Dublin’s best spots. The tour was through a company called Generation Tours. They meet right off Bachelor’s Walk along the river. Even though it’s free, it’s recommended to give a tip at the end. Shout out to our tour guide, Dan. He was 28 with the soul of a 60 year old, dressed like some sort of fisherman/hipster combo, and was exactly how I’d imagine an Irish tour guide would be. Say what you will about the Irish, but they are definitely bad-ass.
I even met some other American girls on the tour, including two from LA. Needless to say, I was pretty envious I couldn’t also say I was going back home to sunny California after my trip. Now, when I say there’s a lot of American tourists in Ireland, it’s not an exaggeration. We are everywhere! Still not sure if I met more Americans or more Irish during my time there.
Afterward, one of the girls and I agreed to head out on the town later that night. After connecting with some other girls who were staying in my hostel room, we made it a group outing. That’s the cool thing about traveling and hostels: everyone’s up for making new friends and connecting with people.
We ended up at a really cool, historic bar called The Norseman. One of the girls in our group was from Perth, Australia, and I can still recall the look of horror on her face when we described vacation time in the U.S.
The next morning, I packed up my things, checked out of the hostel, and walked over to the Jameson distillery for a tour of that venue. Their general tour is actually pretty cheap. It only cost me 15 euros, which is roughly about the same in dollars. Plus, it’s only 40 minutes long, so it won’t take up the majority of your day either. Contrary to the title of this Ireland blog series, whiskey isn’t exactly my thing, so when we were given three different shot-size whiskey samples, I could barely handle a sip. That being said, if you do enjoy whiskey, prepare to get totally hammered on this tour. The idea was to compare Jameson to other whiskey brands, but when they asked the group what they smelled like, I simply replied “alcohol”. I don’t think that was the answer the Jameson rep was going for, but I did make them laugh, so there ya go.
Basically, the tour teaches you about the history of Jameson and how they prepare the whiskey. Afterward, you can enjoy a complimentary drink. I ordered their mix of Jameson, ginger, and lime. It was really good! I would definitely recommend that combo, especially for those who aren’t big drinkers.
After the tour was done, it was time for me to catch the bus to Galway, and based on the experiences of friends, I was in store for something special…
It’s no secret that Michigan has terribly long, bleak winters. Even the most snow-happy Michigander has to get a little depressed come February when it’s nothing but gray skies and gray slush on the roads. That’s why taking advantage of Michigan when you can comfortably spend time outdoors is so important, which includes the social scene. I can’t tell you much about Detroit, and I’d be hard-pressed to recommend anything remotely interesting yet in Lansing, but I do know Grand Rapids. That bustling West Michigan mid-size metropolis that has morphed into a mini Portland in the last decade.
Areas of downtown Grand Rapids that were once sketchy as all get out are now filled with trendy bars, upscale apartments, and pedestrians in Lululemon attire. Looking at you, Bridge St.
All joking aside, it’s great to see my hometown thriving, and with all the new things to see and do, it’s the perfect environment for this travel writer to gather material in-between trips.
One of the coolest experiences in New York is grabbing a drink at a rooftop lounge. The drinks may be overpriced but the skyline is worth every penny. I know where you’re going with this. “But GR is no New York.” That’s absolutely true, but it doesn’t mean Grand Rapids can’t still rock a skyline on a smaller scale. So naturally, as the city – and its skyline – grows, there’s an opening for Grand Rapids to have its very own hip rooftop lounge: Haute at New Hotel Mertens.
Initially, I thought the name Mertens was Dutch, but the theme of the venue is French, so we’ll go with that. Don’t be confused by the hotel part either; it’s not an actual hotel. The downstairs consists of a small bakery and restaurant, but immediately you’ll want to take the elevator up to the rooftop lounge, Haute.
While they do have brunch available, at the time of publishing this blog post, they’ve ended that for the 2019 season. Good news is though, I didn’t get the brunch anyway, so I can’t say whether or not it’s actually worth it.
If you want an evening experience, you can head here during their normal hours, which is everyday 4 p.m. to late – whatever ‘late’ means.
If you’re in the mood for a cocktail, I’d personally recommend the Lady in Red. In addition to tasting really good, it also happens to be one of their cheaper cocktails at just $11. However, if you’re splurging, they do have a drink called the Haute Colada, which sounds incredible. That’ll cost you $16.
All in all, I’d say the vibe of Haute at New Hotel Mertens is upscale chic, and it’s great for plenty of different occasions. It’s a romantic date spot, but can also be a fabulous place to grab drinks with your girls after work. This place is a welcome break from the breweries and dive bars that frequent the Midwest.
Now, not to totally rip of Game of Thrones but winter really is coming, so you’ll want to visit here as soon as possible.
Coming up next month, the trip I’ve been waiting all year for: Ireland! Can’t wait to see what adventures are ahead.
It’s no secret that travel can be an expensive interest – even for those of us who are down to travel on a budget. That being said, you don’t always have to hop on a plane to feed your travel bug. Sometimes a weekend trip in your own backyard can satisfy your curiosity too. My ‘backyard’ used to be the west coast of the United States and then briefly the east coast. Well now, it's the Midwest. The go-to Midwest city experience is Chicago, but after that, you might be left scratching your head wondering ‘Where else can I go?’. You're then presented with the opportunity to think of cities and places you may have overlooked. Case in point: Cleveland.
I’ve heard a lot about Cleveland having a renaissance of sorts, so when my friend Amanda and I decided to opt for a location closer to home, we chose Cleveland.
Believe it or not, in all my years of traveling, I’ve never gotten to do an actual girls’ trip. Sure, you might meet up with friends along the way or make new ones, but a planned vacation just for the girls? Nope, never.
Needless to say, I was stoked to take a road trip with one of my oldest and dearest friends. We were ready for a much-needed weekend away from the grind, some great conversation, and exploring a new place.
We hit the road Friday afternoon after finishing up work at our individual jobs. Amanda, coming from Grand Rapids, picked me up in Lansing on the way. We were looking at about a 3 ½ hour drive from Lansing. Not bad at all for a weekend trip.
As far as lodging goes, we wanted something in the heart of the city where we could just walk around and not have to worry about driving. We opted for the Crowne Plaza Cleveland at Playhouse Square. As the title suggests, we were right in the heart of the city’s theater district – a win for this theatre major I must say. They had valet parking available, which cost us an additional $36 a day, but when you split the price, it’s not so bad.
Once we were settled in, Amanda and I were ready to grab some dinner and see some of the city. Luckily for us, the entire weekend was gorgeous in regards to the weather. We had our first meal outside at a place called The Republic, which was a few blocks down from our hotel on Euclid Ave. A nice way were able to save some money (and not waste food) was to split a meal between the two of us. The food here was awesome. We got the chicken, and I’d totally recommend it in a heartbeat.
After dinner, we hit up a cool rooftop bar/lounge near our hotel called Azure. Surprisingly, for being a chic rooftop bar in the heart of a city, the crowd wasn’t too douchey. Yeah, you know the type…
A drink at Azure ranges in the $10-$15 range, so not terrible considering the prime location. That was definitely a spot I’d recommend if you’re looking for a nice place for drinks in Cleveland during the summer.
The next day was our big day to really get lost in the city and explore. We had some suggestions as well as spots we looked up on our own. One area multiple people recommended to us was The Flats. This is a popular area along the water there.
We walked from our hotel to The Flats. It’s at least a solid mile walk from Playhouse Square but totally doable. We hit up the aquarium over there, where I tried and subsequently failed to touch a sting ray. Listen, I’ll go skydiving or climb a mountain, but apparently touching a sting ray somehow freaks me out. I guess my adventurous side comes and goes.
After the aquarium, we stuck around The Flats for a late lunch and ate at one of the coolest restaurants I've been to. It’s called Lindey’s Lake House, and as you can imagine, it looks and feels exactly like a gorgeous lake house along the water. It’s a very open restaurant, with both inside and outside parts to it. It's such a pretty spot, especially on a beautiful summer day. Granted I was with one of my good friends, but if you’re ever in Cleveland and also need a good summer date spot, this place is perfect. I imagine it’s just as great in the evening there too.
As far as food goes at Lindey's Lake House, I opted for the Chicken Tinga Tacos. They were delicious and even came with a cucumber salad, which I hadn’t had since LA. So good!
By the time we were done with lunch, the two of us were ready for a nap. A cool fact: you can catch a free trolley to take you to different areas of the city, which you can bet we took advantage of on our way back to the hotel. It was super convenient. There’s a trolley stop right by Lindey’s Lake House, and it takes you right back to Playhouse Square.
Once we rested up for a bit, it was time to enjoy our Saturday night. Shout out to my friend Amanda for discovering Chocolate Bar, which is located on Euclid and 4th. They have the coolest selection of unique martinis that you can pick from. If you’re looking for a cute place for a photo op, head right across the street to a restaurant-filled alley decorated with lights. It’s prettiest at night (obviously). We enjoyed some bar hopping and ended our Saturday night back at Azure for a great time.
After checking out of our hotel the next morning, it was back to Michigan – but not before stopping at the Christmas Story house. This was the one thing I had to see while I was there. A Christmas Story is my favorite Christmas film! I can think of an endless array of classic Christmas Story quotes as I type this. Even though the film takes place in Indiana, they filmed it in Cleveland – hence the name of the street Ralphie lives on is ‘Cleveland Street’. The house came decorated with Christmas lights and even that iconic leg lamp in the window. Talk about the ultimate Christmas in July experience.
If you’re wondering why the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame wasn’t mentioned, well, that’s because we didn’t make it there. That’s the thing about traveling with other people: sometimes you have to compromise.
And speaking of rooftop lounges, coming up in September, I’ll introduce you Grand Rapids’ hip rooftop lounge you have to experience while the weather’s still nice. And after that, it’s Ireland 2019! Stay tuned….
The last thing I remember about Niagara Falls was being 4 years old and getting pummeled by water on the Maid of the Mist, so this time around I was glad to skip that portion of the experience. I’m also not a fan of crowds in tight places. I imagined this boat experience would be less about meeting Leonardo DiCaprio and more about avoiding the iceberg that is pushy tourists.
When I say the only part about Niagara Falls that I remember is getting soaked, it’s totally true, so heading there again as an adult kind of felt like experiencing it for the first time. That being said, when I re-discovered Niagara Falls over Memorial Day weekend, it was not at all what I imagined. Now listen: this is a famous place that, yes, of course you should see it at least once in your lifetime. In my naïve mind though, it was going to be more of a nature experience. Instead, what I found was a hodge-podge Vegas/Universal Citywalk mash-up that had my adventurous soul feeling like I wandered into tacky tourist land. And yeah, I get it. These types of places are popular with a lot of people, but not me. Hey, you know what though? Live and learn. That’s what I’m sharing this with you. If you head to Niagara Falls, expect more of a tourist hub than an adventure spot.
On the plus side, the weather perked up, which was a welcome change from a chilly and rainy Toronto. After settling in, my folks and I made our way through the crowds down to where the actual falls were. It’s funny how you remember things bigger as a kid – even for those us who are practically still the same height as some children. While still cool to see, I genuinely found myself more fascinated by the fact that the state of New York was just across the way. As I began to reminisce about being in New York City at the same time last year, it suddenly occurred to this Superman fan that we were standing in a filming location for that 1980 classic Superman II.
For those of you unfamiliar with the film, toward the beginning, Lois and Clark are covering a story at Niagara Falls and posing as a couple on their honeymoon. Well, that also happened to be where my mom and dad took their honeymoon back in the day, so I thought it’d be fun to take a picture of them standing in one of the same spots Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve were at in the movie. Then, I could put the photos side by side as sort of a fun anniversary post for them. Well, I thought it was a cute idea anyway…
Easier said than done. The whole time I thought the pushy tourists would be confined to the boats. Meanwhile, there were plenty of pushy tourists on land. You could barely get through to the edge of the railing overlooking the falls. Unfortunately, we never got to make the photo happen, but we definitely had an adventure trying.
One of the most surprising things we discovered in Niagara Falls was just how expensive it is to eat there. And sorry kids, no Trader Joe’s to be found. So, if you’re traveling on a budget, definitely bring your own food to save yourself some money.
Something else to check out though is Niagara Falls at night. They light up the falls with different colors. Thank you, Dad, for the suggestion on that one.
We closed out the Niagara Falls portion of our Memorial Day weekend trip by indulging in a little cheesy tourism… by going through one of those haunted houses they had near the falls. Hey, I wasn't lying when I said this place was like a knock-off Universal Citywalk in LA. I have to admit, while I had gone through haunted houses before with friends, experiencing it with my folks was downright hilarious. It felt like something straight out of an Ellen Show segment with her producer, Andy.
All in all, I’ve had my fill of Niagara Falls, but I’m happy to report that since their honeymoon, Mom and Dad have upgraded their travels. And while I didn’t make the Superman II photo happen, I can at least dedicate this blog post to my parents and publish it on their anniversary. Happy 36th wedding anniversary, Mom and Dad. I love you guys! May we all be so lucky to find someone wonderful to take adventures around the world with.
Even though almost all my travel adventures involve seeing the world on my own as an adult and the friends I go with or meet along the way, there’s something to be said about a good old-fashioned trip with the family. After all, that’s how I developed the travel bug in the first place. Despite being back in Michigan for a little while, life can get crazy busy and having the chance to actually spend some time quality time with my parents can still feel few and far in-between. As a television producer, time off is about as rare as it gets, so when you can take it, you TAKE IT.
We used my 3-day Memorial Day weekend to go on a short trip. The question though, was where to go. We were down to the wire trying to figure out something cool when it was my mom who suggested Toronto. I hadn’t been to Toronto since I was a little kid, which really equates to not remembering much of it at all. It was the perfect idea. It’d be like discovering the city again. Plus, it still counts as international travel too, so there you go. My folks, who are enjoying trips all over Europe and Mexico in their retirement, are well-versed in booking Airbnb, so they set it all up while I was just counted the days to the mini-vacation.
The pre-Memorial Day Friday rolled around and my folks swung by my apartment and away we went. Because of my crazy work schedule, I happily volunteered to nap in the back seat. It was just like the old days - except for instead of being a kid tuckered out from playtime, I was an adult tuckered out from an overall lack of sleep. Life, am I right?
Anyway, after a few “Are we there yets?” we finally made it to our Airbnb in Toronto that evening. We took it easy that night so we could hit the ground running the next day bright and early.
Saturday morning was the start of our big day to really explore the city. We had some suggestions and used those as a reference point for places to check out. Now, let me tell you something, navigation is always an adventure, but perhaps even more so when you’re with your parents. To be honest, I’m not sure what we spent more time doing: seeing the sights or trying to figure out how to get there. Oy vey. Either way it felt so good to be back in an actual city again. You think you’d never miss a subway after living in LA and New York, but you’d be surprised how much you do. God bless decent public transportation. Michigan, step it up.
Eventually we made our way near St. Lawrence Market, which was recommended to us. The surrounding neighborhood kind of reminded me of Soho in New York, with some similar architecture in parts. Before heading to the market though, we stopped to grab some coffee. As we sat there trying to map out our day, a super-friendly local guy (who clearly could spot these confused Americans a mile away) must have overheard our conversation and proceeded to give us some great tips on things to do. Canadians really are as friendly as you’d think.
As I began to wonder if universal healthcare truly was the key to friendliness, it was time to go St. Lawrence Market. Basically, it’s an indoor market inside a building that is, according to my research, over 100-years old. It’s a pretty cool space actually. Inside though, it was super busy, so if tight crowds aren’t your thing, you’ll probably just want to appreciate it from the outside. All in all, it’s a spot worth checking out and grabbing a bite to eat, but it’s not a place you’ll need to spend a long time at.
After St. Lawrence Market, we headed over to the Distillery District. The aesthetic here is brick roads and old-school brick buildings. It’s a neat place to walk around and maybe even grab a drink but like the St. Lawrence Market, you won’t need a ton of time to explore.
Our final stop of the day was the Kensington Market, which was my favorite place on the trip. This felt more like a neighborhood really than a confined market space like St. Lawrence. It has much more of an eclectic, hipster vibe to it, which might be why I gravitated toward this place more. Unfortunately, shortly after we arrived, so did a thunderstorm and downpour of rain. We got cover inside a local bar, where we ended up meeting some fellow Americans in town from Buffalo, New York. Shout out to William and Leola. They were really cool. That’s one of the best parts of travel for me: those unexpected, awesome people you meet along the way.
Stay tuned for Part II in Niagara Falls, including our attempt at recreating a famous movie moment.
Coffee shops in Grand Rapids are popping up more quickly than ever. With all kinds of new places around town, it's hard to keep up with what Grand Rapids coffee shops there are to check out, so two of the city's top entrepreneurs and creatives joined forces to make it a whole lot easier. Nicole Kosheba (@nico_sheba) and Santiago Gomez (@santiagoproperties) are the authors behind the digital guide book Espresso the Love, which breaks down all of Grand Rapids' best coffee spots. Read on to find out more about Nicole and Santiago, their new book, and what they love most about Grand Rapids, Michigan.
How long have you called Grand Rapids home?
Nicole: Roughly 20 years
Santiago: 25 years, 10 months and 2 days
What inspired you to write Espresso the Love?
Nicole: We're both coffee lovers who love exploring our quickly growing city. In the book's introduction, we mention that there was a day where we were looking for a "hidden gem"
coffee shop - something we hadn't yet discovered. That moment sparked the idea and the rest is history!
Santiago: Like Nicole mentioned, that day we were searching for a "hidden gem" that we hadn't yet discovered really started the conversation and ideas flowed from there.
Do you focus solely on locally-owned coffee shops?
I love that it breaks it down by neighborhood, which makes it easy to read. How do the coffee shops between Grand Rapids neighborhoods differ?
Nicole: I'm not sure that the neighborhoods necessarily encompass coffee shops with a similar vibe, but, there are certain coffee shops that are long known neighborhood staples for example; Sparrows on Wealthy, Common Ground on the East end of Fulton, The Bitter End on the West end of Fulton.
Santiago: I'd say we brought the neighborhood aspect into play more as a way of making it easier to read like you mentioned. People tend to go to coffee shops that are near where they live, so breaking it down by neighborhood just seemed logical.
Right now, this is available in digital, which is great if you’re on the go. Do you guys plan to publish a printed version as well?
Nicole: We have certainly looked into it! :-)
Santiago: Stay tuned ;-)
What do you love most about Grand Rapids?
Nicole: I love that Grand Rapids is a growing city and that we get to be a part of it's growth. I also love the cleanliness. Whenever we travel we always include some city exploration - we've been to some really great places, yet time and time again, we come back to Grand Rapids and it always feels good to be back; the air is clean, the streets and sidewalks are busy, but clean. It's great. All large cities eventually encounter challenges with trash and dirtiness, I hope that as GR continues to grow we as a community will continue to find ways to maintain the beauty that is here.
Santiago: I love the small town community feel, yet it's still big enough to have a variety of really excellent restaurants, breweries, and of course, coffee shops.
Grand Rapids has grown so much in the last decade. What’s the biggest change you’ve noticed?
Nicole: There are so many new restaurants and shops popping up that we can't keep track. On top of that, I've notice a significant amount of increased traffic everywhere we go.
Santiago: All of the neighborhoods, including the ones that some may have once considered to be less desirable, are becoming vibrant and thriving.
Do you think you’ll release other types of guides for Grand Rapids?
Nicole: Perhaps! We haven't ruled it out! :)
Santiago: Stay tuned ;-)
Last but not least, do you have a personal favorite coffee shop feature in the book?
Nicole: Aaahhh the question that everyone asks! :-) Honestly, I have my favorites, but the whole coffee experience is so nuanced and subjective that it wouldn't be fair for me to promote any one over the others. I keep telling people that that is up to them to decide, and I encourage readers to do the same- go visit some of these shops and determine what you like best :-)
Santiago: It's hard to pick a favorite!!
When asked the question “What is your favorite food?”, I’ll answer “Mexican” probably even before you finish saying the word ‘food’. I love travel and trying new dishes from all cultures and places around the world, but when it comes to what I’ve loved most, it’s definitely Mexican food.
That being said, I’m a bit of a snob when it comes what I deem ‘good’ Mexican food. Having lived in Puerto Vallarta and visiting Mexico over 20 years, I've been exposed to some of the best Mexican food one could imagine. Delicious tacos, quesadillas, mole, ceviche, fresh fruit, shrimp - you get the point. It was incredible! Therefore, when I go out for Mexican food now, I’m looking for as close to authentic as possible.
The good news is that people living in or visiting West Michigan actually have a really great place to go, and let’s face it, when it comes to the best Mexican food in Grand Rapids, go authentic or go home.
Tacos el Cuñado is a small, local restaurant at the corner of Burton and Towner on the southwest side of Grand Rapids. It can get a little confusing since there are multiple venues with this same name. I couldn’t tell you if all the locations are owned by the same people or it’s just a coincidence they share the same name, but the venue I’m sharing with you is definitely where it’s at. Plus, it's more of a hidden gem, and if you're looking for something that not everyone else already knows about, then consider this your insider Grand Rapids travel tip.
Immediately upon walking in, I felt like I was back in Puerto Vallarta grabbing a meal – well, minus the palm trees, warm weather, and ocean – but other than that it felt familiar!
You can order items à la carte or a full plate of food. Tacos run for only $2.50 and honestly, just a couple tacos and you’re full. I ordered one shrimp taco and one fish taco. If you’re going to be authentic, you’ve got to order it with cilantro. They serve the dishes with pieces of lime as well, so be sure to squeeze some lime juice onto your taco as well. If you haven’t tried that yet, trust me you will love it! It adds some great flavor.
I enjoyed those two tacos with the delight of kid on Christmas morning, occasionally distracted by the Latin sports announcer yelling “Goal!” from a nearby television set.
Last but not least, you MUST top off your meal by ordering horchata to drink. This is a traditional Mexican drink made out of rice, milk, vanilla, and cinnamon. It’s one of my favorites!
You can bet I’ll be back at Tacos el Cuñado again. One trip just isn’t enough and I’m so in the mood for some ceviche now...
You’d think growing up a mere 3 hours from Chicago, I would have experienced a St. Patrick’s Day there already, but no. Shortly after I was old enough to even have a Guinness, I was packing my bags for Los Angeles. So, upon returning to the Midwest I made it a point to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago, which is notorious for going all-out for the annual Irish holiday. Even though I handle alcohol about as good as Aunt Becky’s kids handle college admissions, I still like to get in on the spirit of the day.
The plan was to spend the weekend in Chicago. I’d leave Friday morning and come back Sunday. I’ll admit, the Midwest is still catching up with the whole public transit thing, so routes aren’t always as convenient or as frequent as say New York, but thankfully I was able avoid taking a car.
I caught a bus from Grand Rapids to Kalamazoo and then a train from Kalamazoo to Chicago. I bought my ticket through Amtrak, so technically the bus was part of that booking. You just need to transfer onto an actual train once you reach Kalamazoo. Don’t ask me why.
The Kalamazoo train station is an interesting place full of characters. To be honest, it had me feeling like I was back in LA all over again. A word of caution: I’d definitely avoid the Kalamazoo train station at night.
The train for Chicago finally arrived. The only warning the conductor issued was to avoid the back car due to the noise factor. It was then that it hit me: I was on a train full of people going to the Big Ten game, to party, or both. It was like an Irish Spring Break.
I arrived in Chicago safe and sound and puke-free. I was staying with a good friend of mine who’s a local, so it was perfect. Since I was so tuckered out, we kept it low-key on Friday, and then I would hit the ground running on Saturday.
Saturday morning, our first stop was the to see Chicago’s famous green river, but not before grabbing some coffee first. I clocked this in at exactly 8:15 am. There was a line outside…of a bar…at 8:15 in the morning. If you had any doubt about Chicago taking St. Paddy’s Day seriously, reference that tidbit.
Okay, back to the river. Every year the city dyes the Chicago River green in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, so naturally, everyone is trying to get a good look at it. Thankfully, other onlookers were pretty cool about sharing the space. I mean, how long do you need to look at a green river? It’s not changing colors anytime soon.
After that, we grabbed brunch at Beatrix downtown, just a block over from Michigan Ave. It’s a cool, kind of swanky place that’s great for a nice brunch spot. If you’re into the healthy food options, you’ll want to go here. I haven’t seen avocado toast on a menu since Los Angeles. I wanted to be adventurous though and try something new, so I went with the rainbow toast. It sounded fun and I had never heard of it before. Good news: it was delicious too. Basically, this toast comes cut into three sections. They all have ricotta cheese and each section is topped with a different colored fruit, hence the whole ‘rainbow toast’ name. You get one with strawberries, one with pineapple, and the third one with blueberries and blackberries. I definitely recommend both the rainbow toast and the restaurant itself. The best thing about this place is that considering the prime location and the good food, the prices are super reasonable. My toast only cost about $5! Budget travelers for the win.
Following brunch, I was on my own until it was time to meet up with another friend later in the day. I had the afternoon to explore Chicago, and it was the perfect day to do it. We had sunny skies and it wasn’t too cold, which for Chicago is a blessing.
I walked along the coastline until I reached Navy Pier. Lake Michigan is not the first place I would think of to have turquoise blue water, but it was absolutely gorgeous that day with the sun shining.
Navy Pier was fun. It’s one of those tourist spots you kind of have to check out when you go here, but it has great views of the water. I walked along the pier, where I saw boats, a Ferris wheel, and even a 20-something’s Instagram photo shoot. Not sure what was most entertaining.
After the pier, I made my way back uptown to the Hancock Building. Now, this is one of those great Chicago spots where you can get a skyline view of the city. My plan was to head up to the building’s Signature Room and Lounge, grab a drink, and check out the view. Unfortunately, I soon discovered it was also the plan of a bunch of other people too. I wasn’t keen on the idea of waiting in a long line, so I figured I’d check out the view and head out. The good news is that there’s no cover, so you can just go up there and not worry about paying for a view. When I was up there though, I learned a travel tip that you’ll definitely want to remember when you head to Chicago: the best view in the entire venue is in the women’s bathroom. I kid you not. If there was ever a reprieve for the long bathroom lines women have had to deal with over the years than this was it. I even asked if the men’s room had the same view. Nope, just the women’s one.
After that, it was time to meet up with another friend of mine over in Wrigleyville. If you’re looking for the party area of Chicago, this is definitely it. The neighborhood was alive for St. Patrick’s Day with the smell of whiskey and the sound of frat boys trying to start fights with each other. There were pubs with lines out the door all along Clark Street. If you do find yourself on Clark Street, keep walking though, because eventually you’ll hit Wrigley Field where the Chicago Cubs play and that’s pretty awesome to see. We ended up going to a bar called Casey Moran’s. No cover but a terrible DJ.
Once Sunday rolled around it was time to head back home, but per usual, the adventures didn’t stop there. Once again, I had a stop-over at the Kalamazoo train station. This time I even had to report a woman smoking in the bathroom. Full disclosure, I slightly feared for my safety here and was never more excited to get on a crammed bus to Grand Rapids.
Upon arriving in Grand Rapids, I called a Lyft ride, where I was met with a driver who looked like a serial killer version of Wallace Shawn from The Princess Bride. After all, St. Paddy’s Day is anything but dull.
Jill Zwarensteyn is a television producer, writer, and comedian who has been featured on Amazon, truTV, The New York Times, Matador Network, BUST Magazine, Tiplr, ARTRPRNR Magazine, YourTango, Thought Catalog, GoMad Nomad, Mashable, The Daily Mail UK, the Cannes Film Festival, LaughFest, Women's Lifestyle Magazine, and the Funny Women Festival LA. For more info visit: http://www.jillzwarensteyn.weebly.com