Thursday, October 30, 2014

Food recap: Taipei eats

I was scrolling through my posts the other day and realized that I didn't have a single post dedicated to the delicious eats in Taiwan. How could I have neglected such an important category in my life? I predict this will be the first of many Taiwan food posts to come. :)

I first discovered Uncle Tetsu's Cheesecake when I noticed long lines at Taipei Main Station. The lines are the worst during rush hour but if you go in the middle of the day, the lines are relatively manageable. I personally prefer the ones that are straight out of the oven because I am a pig that brings them upstairs to the Breeze Food Court to eat right away - but there are ways to avoid the line if you are okay with cheesecake that was made earlier in the day.

Cafe Melange is known for their waffles. Last time I was here, waffles were only served Friday - Sunday so make sure you check for availability if you have your heart set on them. This place is pretty popular so you may have to wait for a table. 

Tung Hakka cuisine has amazing Hakka dishes and even more amazing desserts. Their chocolate souffles are impeccably beautiful and taste even better than they look. Their yam cake is also delicious.

In case all these sweets are starting to make your tooth ache, I decided to add in a savory item here. The food court in the basement of the Ding Hao mall in Taipei has a tiny little shop that makes the best spicy wontons. I typically eat multiple bowls when I make the trip here.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Finding a good work tote

As much as I love European designer handbags, I am more muted in my choice of work totes. I don't want to stand out with something too flashy or expensive, as my work environment is pretty casual. Plus, carrying a laptop around can be pretty hard on a handbag so I don't want a fussy bag that I need to be delicate with. For awhile, I was using a Longchamp Le Pliage tote. I love that it's roomy and zips all the way close. On the downside, the nylon material is so flimsy, I'm always afraid the straps will break off at some point. To be fair, it's never happened so I guess I'm just paranoid. I also dislike how ubiquitous the bag is - every woman I know seems to have the same bag.

Last year, I decided I needed a sturdier tote, so I bought the Kate Spade Charlotte Street Reena tote. I liked how it was similar in shape and style to the Prada Saffiano tote, but at a much more affordable price point - especially since I was able to get the bag at 25% off during Bloomingdale's Friends and Family sale. I also liked how the handles are long enough for me to comfortably wear the bag on my shoulder. While it doesn't zip all the way closed, there are two large spacious zipper compartments and one small zipper compartment to ensure that my small valuables don't slip out of the bag. There is a snap closure for the main compartment but that's pretty useless in keeping anything except my laptop securely in the bag. I just wish it weren't black! I have so many black bags, I was hoping for a more interesting neutral color, like caramel or grey. It's currently on sale in yellow, which is adorable but I just can't pull it off!

When Ann Taylor had a 50% off sale last week, I couldn't resist ordering the Ann Taylor Gallery tote. It's a popular bag in the blogging world but I have yet to see it on anyone in real life, so it's a relatively unique bag in my social and professional circles. I also love how neutral the taupe latte color is and yet different from any other bag I own (which just goes to show how boring my bag collection is). While's it's a bit smaller than the Kate Spade Reena, it's sufficiently large to hold my 12" laptop and other necessities. Unlike the Kate Spade Reena, there are no secure zipper compartments, so it's not as functional for me. But I think I'm being too picky - for $59, this should probably be an obvious keeper!

Meanwhile, Jeff naively asks "Don't you already have a work bag? Why did you buy another one?" Some days, I wonder if he knows me at all. :)

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A New Day, A New Beginning

Today is one of those days that I know God loves us so immensely and so completely. We are so relieved, so grateful, and still in disbelief at the good news.

"For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."
Jeremiah 29:11

Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, April 2008

Monday, October 27, 2014


I can't believe that after 12 years of wondering, agonizing, and planning together, we might finally get the SCA3 test results tomorrow. I say *might* because this process has involved so much waiting, it's hard for me to imagine there won't be further delays. So it's possible that after all my melodramatic pontificating, tomorrow will be just another day. But if it's not, I'm hoping for the best and preparing for worst. So here are a few of our next steps as preparation if things don't go as hoped for:

- Ask the genetic counselor for a retest with another lab to confirm the results.
- Provide the results to the endocrinologist and genetic counselor so that the genetic probe can get set up. I'm still not 100% sure how I feel about IVF but I can at least get the process kicked off while I think about it.
- Adjust our health, life, and long term insurance policies accordingly.
- Start house hunting for a home without stairs for easy accessibility. Ideally, we'd like a ranch style home but that comes at a huge premium in the Bay Area so we'll have to see what we can manage.
- Pray for peace, hope, and understanding to maintain our spiritual grounding and mental sanity.

Jeff worries that our communication might break down and I'll shut him out. When we had our first serious talk about SCA3 as college juniors, I struggled with what I should tell him and what I should keep to myself. I was afraid that whatever I said might compel him to get tested for all the wrong reasons. I desperately wanted to know if he had SCA3 but I didn't want him to get tested and possibly ruin his life if he couldn't handle the results. There was a one hour train ride where we sat in silence because I couldn't trust myself to say the right thing. The memory of that train ride still haunts him. I had to remind him that I wasn't shutting him out, I was demonstrating a tremendous amount of maturity for a 20 year old under a lot of pressure!

It's hard to imagine that after tomorrow, our lives could be changed forever. I wish it didn't feel so binary - that it has to either be great news or terrible news. There is no in-between. It feels like my heart is about to burst from all the suspense of waiting. Hoping that it doesn't drop, break, and shatter from bad news. Feeling too scared to anticipate good news. I don't know if I will be ready to talk about it right away. We'll just have to take it one day at a time.

Woolamai Beach, Australia, 2011
I normally post random travel pictures to accompany these serious blog posts but this one is oddly appropriate. It seems like Jeff is facing the great big unknown all by himself but it doesn't mean he's alone - I'm behind the camera taking this picture. And I've got his back.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A Consistent Workout Routine

I never put in the effort to exercise regularly until I moved to the Bay Area, where it felt like everyone was super active and outdoorsy. I'm not either of those things, so it took a lot of effort for me to start working out. Over the years, I've tried a couple of different routines with varying degrees of success:
  • I started attending a hip hop class once a week, with the hopes that it would be funner and more interesting of a workout. It was fun until the regular instructor quit - I ended up quitting too, as I wasn't a fan of the new instructor.
  • One of the companies I worked at had a gym with nice equipment and towel service, which made it very convenient and pleasant to work out. I spent 40 minutes on the elliptical machine 3-4 times a week. When I quit my job, I also quit the regular workouts.
  • I bought a Groupon for one month of unlimited yoga at a nearby studio. When the month was up, I was too cheap to pay the regular monthly rate so I stopped going.
  • Jeff and I started hiking every week with a group of 6 other friends. We ended up hiking all around the Bay, with the goal of ultimately conquering Half Dome in Yosemite. After almost an entire year of hiking, we all made it to the top of Half Dome! I subsequently lost my motivation to ever hike outdoors again. Did I mention that I'm not an outdoors person? 
Yosemite National Park, August 2007

I could go on and on with more examples but I think you get the picture. I rarely exercised more than once a week - and when I did, I only did one type of exercise at any given time. I also found it hard to maintain a routine for more than a few months at a time. 

I'm still a long way's to go from a perfect routine but I've definitely improved quite a bit in the past few years. Here's what has worked for me:
  • Invest in my health  - For me, this meant joining an expensive gym. I know this sound utterly ridiculous but because the membership fee is so high, I feel obligated to go often to make it worthwhile. There are certainly other investments that are more cost-effective, such as buying workout props, equipment, DVDs, etc.
  • Find a routine that keeps it fun and interesting - Thankfully, the expensive gym has great classes and instructors that help me mix up my routine so I don't end up doing the same workout all the time. These days, I try to incorporate kickboxing, pilates, yoga, and running into my weekly routine. I spend most of my time running but I go to at least 1-2 classes per week to keep it interesting. I try to arrange my workout schedule to attend the classes and instructors I enjoy the most. I still haven't found a way to incorporate weight training into my routine though. I find it boring to weight train on my own and I'm too intimidated to try a Body Pump class. 
  • Make time for mini-workouts - I try to exercise 4-5 times a week but of course, life happens so that isn't always feasible. On days where I have long meetings and I can't do a regular workout, Jeff and I will take a brisk 20-30 minute walk after dinner. It's a great way for us to catch up and connect - we have some of our best talks during these walks. Other times, I will look for workout videos on YouTube to do a quick routine. Anything to get moving, even if it's not a full, sweaty workout.
  • Get motivated - If Jeff has SCA3, I want to be healthy enough to take care of him and any future children we may have. I don't want to be bogged down by health issues that could have easily been prevented. There are enough to worry about that can't be prevented.
I worry about how my routine will change if we have kids. We will probably invest in a treadmill so that we can work out easily and conveniently at home. I will miss the variety of workouts that my current gym offers though. Hopefully we'll figure out something that works if/when we get to that point. Now if only I could do something about my terrible eating habits...sigh. Another post for another day!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Still waiting...

I'm finally done with all my Italy and New York recaps, so it's back to the regular stuff for now until our next trip. It was fun to turn this space into a travel blog for awhile - if only I could be a professional travel blogger. :)

Jeff got the SCA3 test the week we left, but it's going to be another 2-3 weeks before we can get the results. Even though the date is getting closer, it still feels far away so the reality of it hasn't quite set in. I hate that there's so much time in between the testing and the results. I suspect they do that on purpose so that you take the time to weigh your decision and the possible consequences of either result. I've been thinking about this on and off for the last 12 years so I feel like I've had the time to digest our decision, although I can't say we'll ever be fully prepared for it. I can't guarantee we won't second guess our decision and back out of our appointment but as of right now, we're pretty determined to stay on course with our plans.

In the meantime, I've started taking some preliminary steps to get my body baby-ready for if/when that time should come. It may seem like we're counting our chickens before they hatch but I like to be (over) prepared and we need the distraction in the meantime.

I stopped taking birth control pills in September, as my doctor said it could be a few months before my body starts ovulating again. I reluctantly bought a Clear Blue Digital Ovulation Predictor Kit with 20 sticks for $35. They're expensive but highly rated and easy to use. I didn't realize until after I bought the kit that it doesn't confirm ovulation, it just detects the surge of hormones that typically precedes ovulation. Oops.

I have a 30 day cycle so according to the instructions, I should have started testing on cycle day 13. That seemed kind of late to me - I assume ovulation happens around day 15 so the hormone surge could be day 13-14, as it occurs 24-36 hours before ovulation. If ovulation happened any earlier, the OPK could miss the surge altogether so I decided to start testing on day 10. The smiley face came on day 13 so I'm glad I started a few days earlier and I didn't have to waste too many sticks until I got to the smiley face (which indicates the hormone surge). I tried doing some research on when to start testing but I found mixed opinions/ideas - start tests on day 6, wait until day 13, test twice a day, test first thing in the morning, test anytime except first thing in the was so overwhelming and inconsistent! Either way, starting on day 10 worked for me, assuming I didn't get a false positive.

I also started taking folic acid supplements with my regular daily vitamins, as my doctor says that folic acid is the only supplement proven to make a difference. In fact, women should start taking them a few months before they start trying to conceive so I'm not actually jumping the gun on this one. I'm also looking around for a pre-natal vitamin to start taking once I run out of my current vitamins. Even if the other supplements aren't "as proven" in terms of pre-natal health, it can't hurt to get more vitamins in my body.

Even with the distraction of peeing on sticks and finding vitamins, the SCA3 test results are always in the back of my mind. Still waiting, still praying, still holding for now.

Sydney Opera House, Australia, August 2011

Sunday, October 19, 2014

New York Day 3: 911 Museum and Memorial

In between days 2 and 3 in New York, we spent a day out in New Jersey to attend our friend Mei's wedding. It was a beautiful wedding at the Mansion on Main St - I love how weddings are a great excuse for everyone to get together. We had so much fun catching up with college friends with good food and good music. 

The morning after the wedding, we drove back to New York to spend a few hours at the 9/11 Museum and Memorial with Bryan. We purchased tickets online beforehand but we still had to wait a a bit to get into the museum, as they were fairly strict with crowd control. We were an hour late for our reserved ticket time but they still let us in anyway.

I had already moved away from New York by the time 9/11 happened and thank God I don't have any friends or family that were hurt in the attacks. Because of that, a part of me has always felt like I didn't have the right to be as affected and grieved by the events of that day. This visit to the museum was probably the first time I felt deeply affected and emotional about 9/11.

We would have liked to spend more time at the museum but we had to catch a flight back home to SFO. We definitely cut it close, as we didn't make it to the gate until 6:11pm for our 6:24pm flight. While I don't recommend it, I think it shows that we're good at making the most of our time, even down to the last minute. I can't wait to go back to New York and visit another European destination "on the way"! 

Friday, October 17, 2014

New York Day 2: Old friends and the Met

Jeff and I woke up on Day 2 and headed straight to Come Buy Tea in the Flatiron district for our morning caffeine fix. I love how so many of these Taiwanese tea chains are aggressively expanding into the US - it means that we have more access to authentic tea! From 28th St, we made our way up to midtown for lunch. Jeff was wary about walking 15+ blocks but I reminded him that walking was our only form of exercise while we were on vacation. I'm so glad we didn't end up getting unlimited ride Metrocards. The weather was fantastic and it was fun to share bits and pieces of my New York past with Jeff as we walked. 

We met up with my dear friend Lulu from middle and high school (we go way back!) at Sakagura. I was eager to try their uni soba special - they only have 7 servings per day so I was worried that they would run out! I guess I didn't need to worry, as the dish was just okay. Their chocolate souffle and sesame creme brulee are fantastic though. It was so nice to catch up with Lulu - she just gave birth to an adorable baby girl so I appreciated her taking time out of her crazy schedule to meet us.

After lunch, Jeff and I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I have really fond memories of the Met, as it was a popular school trip destination when I was young. My favorite memory of the Met was when I came with a group of friends as part of a 7th grade art project. Ms. Rich sent us on a scavenger hunt to find various works of Japanese art throughout the Met. I was so bad at drawing that Ms. Rich couldn't identify my sketches of the art exhibits and gave me an A-. I had to do an extra credit assignment to earn my A for that class, as an A- just wasn't going to cut it for my tiger mom. 

Jeff and I spent quite a bit of time in the Japanese art exhibit as I reminisced about Ms. Rich's scavenger hunt through the Yamato-e period. It's only now that I appreciate what an awesome teacher she was and how I was able to learn art history at a world-class museum! We were also particularly interested in American art, as we see a lot of European and Asian art in our travels.

Once we finished up at the museum, we took the train to Flushing to Andrew and Laurie's to meet their new baby. After admiring their son, we walked over to Joe Shanghai to meet Jack for dinner. Jack, Andrew, and I were all violinists in an orchestra together in high school and have been friends since we were 14. It's crazy to think that we're now wives, husbands, and in some cases, parents!

In my biased opinion, Joe Shanghai has some of the best soup dumplings I've ever had in the US. I used to eat here all the time when I was younger, so I'm sure the familiarity and comfort contribute to my affinity for the food here. 

After dinner, we went to the Rose House for dessert. This place is clean, quiet, and fancy by Flushing standards so the prices are rather steep. The desserts were average but I did enjoy the tea, even if it was $12/pot. The company and conversation was silly, hilarious, and awesome and you can't put a price on that.

The older I am, the more I appreciate the people who knew me when I was younger. Does that just mean I'm getting older? :) 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

New York Day 1: Xi'an Famous Foods, Momofuku Ma Peche, and Midtown Madness

After saying goodbye to Italy, we hopped onto a plane and arrived at JFK in the early afternoon. We weren't in a rush and our bags were relatively light, so we took the Airtrain and subway to Bryan's Upper East Side apartment. We fought the temptation to nap and headed out for lunch at Xi'an Famous Foods in midtown. We got two bowls of spicy, tingly beef hand torn noodles and a mild cucumber salad. I love super spicy Asian foods and chewy noodles so this was heaven for me! Just a warning though - if you're unaccustomed to very spicy Asian cuisine, your stomach might not enjoy the food here as much as I do.

Afterwards, we took a walk through midtown, snapping some pictures as we passed by Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick's cathedral, and Grand Central Station. We had a lot of fun relaying silly messages to each other at the Whispering Ach in Grand Central. We also stopped by Tiffany's for a ring cleaning. Tiffany's now charges $50/item for polishing now...yikes! We got the complimentary cleaning for our rings and opted out of the polishing, convincing ourselves that it was better that our rings remain scuffed but retain more platinum. :)

(photo credit: Tiffany & Co.)

I grew up in New York City so every time I come back, I take it all in with a wistful nostalgia. I definitely took all these iconic New York attractions for granted when I was young! Unfortunately those happy nostalgic feelings quickly faded when we had an unfortunate incident in front of the Plaza hotel. Some crazy woman accosted me, started screaming at me for "getting into her space", and jabbed me hard in my collarbone with her elbow. To be fair, this is my first time getting violently attacked in New York so this isn't a common occurrence. As a New Yorker, you never want to aggravate the situation by fighting back, so we quickly sprinted "out of her space" and into safety at the next block.

We had dinner with Bryan at Momofuku Ma Peche. I was excited that Ma Peche takes reservations so that we could try some of the Momofuku favorites without waiting in line. Ma Peche is supposed to be dimsum style but the carts don't come around very often and the service is extremely slow (but friendly). I  didn't love their famous pork buns or jalapeno fried chicken but I was a big fan of the lobster fried rice and broccoli salad. We also tried some crack pie, a compost cookie, and a blueberry cookie from Milk Bar. Interesting but nothing super unique or out of this world. I love sweets but I don't think my palette for cookies and pies is that discerning, so I'm probably the wrong person to judge!

 After a day of aimless wandering and delicious eats, we treated ourselves to long, hot showers and some long-awaited sleep. Thank goodness the Upper East Side is pretty quiet. It's funny to think that you can have some relative peace and quiet in Manhattan. Crazy lady incident aside, I do love the culture, diversity, and uniqueness in every corner of New York. It's definitely a change of pace from the suburbs of Silicon Valley!

Italy Day 5: Naples

On our fifth day, we bid farewell to our beloved Sorrento and took the ferry over to Naples. The port in Naples was  a 15 minute walk to the Palazzo Decumani hotel, which felt longer because we were dragging our suitcases across cobblestone pavement while dodging dog poop. Needless to say, by the time we got to the Palazzo Decumani, we were cranky, tired, and a bit sweaty.

Since we only had 18 hours in Naples, our only plan was to do some shopping at La Reggia designer outlet and eat some delicious pizza. Unfortunately, getting to the outlet was more challenging than it should have been. According to the website, there are shuttles leaving Naples from 9:30am - 3:30pm everyday. I thought that meant there would be several shuttles running throughout the day in between those times so we arrived at the stop at 12:00pm. Turns out that there are only 2 shuttles - one at 9:30am and one at 3:30pm. Doh! We ended up wasting a lot of time and money taking a train and cab to get to La Reggia. Even though the shuttles are still 10 euros a person, it's still the best way to go.

The only stores I was really interested in checking out were Prada and Valentino, as I was looking to add to my Italian designer handbag collection. I wouldn't recommend designer outlet shopping for fashionistas that like to be on-trend. I can't pull off most trends anyway, so I don't worry about having the latest fashion. At these price points, I want to pick classic styles that I know I'll love for years to come.

As a point of reference for you global outlet shoppers - the Prada outlet at La Reggia was a lot smaller than the ginormous one in Arezzo but bigger than the one in Hong Kong. Back in 2011, a lot of the large leather Prada and Miu Miu totes at the outlet in Arezzo were 500-600 euros. This time around in La Reggia, I saw similar styles (and in some cases, the exact same styles) for approximately 50-100 euros more. I didn't find one that was right for me, as they were all large and slouchy and I was looking for a medium-sized structured bag like the Saffiano tote or satchel. They did have plenty of Saffiano wallets in a variety of colors. I got a blush colored saffiano wallet back in 2011 but it started peeling at the corners after 18 months so I decided not to get another one. I'm really careful with my luxury leather goods, so I was disappointed that the construction was so shoddy. So in retrospect, maybe it was better that I didn't find a Saffiano tote.

Luckily, I found a lovely Valentino tote for a great deal. It's an old style from a few years ago but I think the duffle bag style is simple and classic enough to be fairly timeless. At least I think it is, I can't guarantee people won't see me with this bag and think "omg she is so 2010!" Ah well, I never claimed to be on trend. :)

I typically only buy leather bags that can be worn on the shoulder and this duffle bag breaks both of those rules - but for 180 euros (marked down from 600 euros), I'm okay with that! I love that the black lace is different from anything else I own (not that I own very many bags to begin with) but is still practical (waterproof!) and easy to match. It's a little slouchy, which I normally dislike but somehow in this style, it works. I checked the label to confirm that it was made in Italy. After all, what's the fun of a European designer handbag if it's not actually made in Europe?

I don't really follow Valentino fashion so I'm not quite up to speed on their latest styles. I've seen lots of bloggers with Rockstud heels and bags in the last few seasons, which I didn't see at the outlet, but I did see some Rockstud sunglasses at Valentino. Ultimately, I decided to pass, as I knew that I couldn't pull them off. I would have liked to buy a few more things at La Reggia, given the steep discounts but I wasn't going to buy something just because it was a really good deal. Plus, my idea of good deal is not always the same as Jeff's! But even he agreed that the Valentino bag was a very reasonable price. 

We got back to Naples at 6pm, feeling hungry and ready for some delicious pizza. We decided to walk by the pizza place Elizabeth Gilbert raved about in Eay Pray Love, L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele. We had heard about the infamous long lines and resolved to skip it if the wait was more than a few minutes. After all, there had to be more than one delicious pizza place in Naples, the birthplace of pizza. Luckily for us, no one in Italy eats dinner at the ridiculous hour of 6pm so there was no line at all!

We ordered two normal margherita pizzas, as we love cheesy pizza. Looking back at these pictures, we probably should have tried a double mozzarella. But normal was still good! The dough was salty, which Jeff complained about. But he was in a bad mood from shopping and from all our transportation mishaps of the day so I think it skewed his perspective of our meal. He feels like I should know better than to fall for luxury branding and ridiculous price markups - after all, I work in marketing! A conversation for another day...:)

After a long day, we went back to the hotel and redeemed our free drinks at the bar. The staff was also gracious enough to serve us complimentary sfogliatelles - they were delicious! And with that, we made our way up the winding staircase to our room and concluded our final night in Italy. While I'm not typically big on old world charm, I thought this was a really cool view.

This trip to Italy was pretty short but still awesome. I can only hope that we're lucky enough to return to Italy one day!

Monday, October 13, 2014

Italy Day 4: Herculaneum and shopping in Sorrento

Unfortunately, Jeff started feeling sick on our fourth day so we scrapped our plans to hike up Mount Vesuvius. That was just fine with me since I'm not a fan of hiking. We decided to take it easy so we took the Circumvesuviana train to Ercolano Scavi to visit Herculaneum, a resort town for the wealthy Romans that was also destroyed by Vesuvius' eruption in 79 AD. Herculaneum is much smaller and better preserved than Pompei.

We found the audio tour very hard to follow in Pompei (there was too much to see and the audio guide didn't help us focus in on the key sites) so we opted for an actual human guide this time around. She really helped to make Herculaneum more enjoyable for us. There were lots of online travel forums that suggested visiting Herculaneum over Pompei. While I found Herculaneum a lot more manageable, I think I would still prioritize Pompei. But I would suggest doing research or going with a guide who can focus in on the must-see highlights of Pompei so that it doesn't feel like hours of exhausting, aimless walking. Anyway I digress - back to Herculaneum...

Here are some of the colorful mosaics they had as home decor in Herculaneum. It was so posh there, they even had plumbing and sewers.

There were even skeletal remains in Herculaneum. We couldn't get a good picture of that area, since it was fenced off so they were only viewable from a distance. Still, that gives you an idea of just how well-preserved Herculaneum was.

Afterwards, we headed back to Sorrento and did some shopping in the old town area. Here's what we picked up:

- 2 pairs of adorable flats (the ones in the picture below were only 10 euros)
- a glass oil dispenser bottle with handmade designs
- a set of espresso cups and saucers (which we'll use for tea)
- a cute jacket from Benetton (who-hoo, excited that I only paid $89)
- spice and seasoning packets for pasta sauce from the Inn Bufalito store to give to friends (we also got two for ourselves)

I really wanted to buy more but I knew that our luggage space was limited, since we were still aiming to have carry-on luggage only. Jeff and I are extremely vigilant about not checking in any luggage if we can help it. We hate how long it takes to claim luggage from the baggage carousel and I've had the airline lose my check-in luggage before so we know it's not worth the hassle if we can help it!

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Italy Day 3: Capri

Despite feeling a bit woozy from all the boat rides, this was one of my favorite days on the trip. We used this itinerary as a starting point and then improvised where we saw fit. While there was the beautiful scenery everywhere in Capri, the Blue Grotto was a truly unique experience.

There are ferries from Sorrento to Capri every 10-20 minutes so it's pretty easy to get there. Once we arrived, we signed up for a boat tour of the island. The tour guide didn't provide much commentary so we just sat back and enjoyed the view. My favorite was of the Green Grotto.

We concluded at the Blue Grotto, where there were tons of boats waiting to get in. There wasn't really a line so I don't know how they decided who got to go next. We waited about 45 minutes before it was our turn. I'm not complaining though - the day we went was the first time the Blue Grotto had been open in 6 days! Depending on weather and water conditions, it's not always open to visitors so we got extremely lucky. Admissions into the Blue Grotto are not included with the boat tours and the boaters are not shy about demanding a hefty tip, so we ended up paying almost 40 euros total for a 5 minute boat ride! It was worth it though. The blue glow is completely natural, gorgeous, and surreal.

When the tour concluded, we grabbed a quick lunch and then took multiple forms of transportation to get around and explore the views from various parts of the island - bus, chairlift, and funicular. The bus up to Anacapri was the most unpleasant one - the wait was very long and the ride was crowded, uncomfortable, and unventilated. Still, the beautiful views all around were worth it.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Italy Day 2: Amalfi Coast

I didn't realize until I started doing research for this trip that Sorrento isn't technically part of the Amalfi Coast. It's a great and beautiful city in its own right though, and very much worth visiting! It's also ideally located right in between a major city/airport (Naples) and the Amalfi coast. Some of the Amalfi coast towns were a bit too quiet for me so I knew I would want to stay somewhere a bit more lively - what can I say, I'm a city girl at heart. I had explored a few different options for getting from Sorrento to the three Amalfi towns (Positano, Amalfi, and Ravello):
  • Public transportation (bus and ferries) - This would have probably been the most cost-effective but I had heard that the buses and ferries aren't timed in such a way to allow for easy, fast travel between the cities. 
  • Bus tour - I was hoping to find a bus tour through Viator or other travel sites to get the best of both comfort and price. Unfortunately, they were really hard to come by. The one bus tour I found wasn't able to stop in Positano due to lack of parking, so we would only be able to experience Positano through a drive-by window view. 
  • Rental car - We had read that the roads are extremely narrow, windy, and difficult to drive so we didn't really consider this option. 
  • Private driver -  Our friend Nicolr recommended Guemar Travel, who quoted us 250 euros for a 9 hour day with a personal driver.
I really wasn't looking to shell out the money for a private driver but in the end, I felt like the splurge was worth it. While I am a pretty budget savvy traveler, I also believe in paying the premium for convenience, time, and the best experience possible! I got quotes from a few other car companies but they were all much higher, so that helped to justify the cost too.

After a quick and delicious breakfast at Bar Veneruso (chocolate croissants for 1 euro!), we met our driver and the Mercedes in front of our apartment at 9am. We didn't specifically seek out a Mercedes; most of the companies in Sorrento and Amalfi offer luxury vehicles with their services.

First stop: Amalfi

Second stop: Ravello

Third stop: Positano

Keep in mind, these are all just iPhone pictures so they definitely don't do the views justice. I have yet to start sorting through our SLR pictures...I'm sure one of us will get to it at some point! I'm just not sure we'll find the time to do so anytime soon. :P

In between the major cities, we also made a few other stops:
- We stopped at a delightful lemonade stand for a refreshing drink. It was smartly situated at a scenic point with a beautiful view, so of course we took tons of pictures.
- We visited one of many ceramic stores that featured home goods and furniture made of volcanic stone with a glaze finish. While the goods were lovely, it doesn't quite fit into our home decor so we didn't take anything home with us. Our style is more modern and classic a la Crate and Barrel / Room and Board.
- Our driver recommended a lunch spot in Positano with a lovely view (as seen in the last picture). The food was pretty average for Italy so I didn't take particular note of their name or location.What can I say, we were spoiled by some pretty high quality food in Italy!

After a long day on the road, we made it back to Sorrento and wandered into a supermarket. After admiring the mouthwatering, fresh produce, pastas, and mozzarella, we scooped them all up and took them home with us to make dinner. It sounds crazy to waste a meal in Italy with our own mediocre cooking but honestly, the ingredients are so delicious there that even our cooking tasted better. Plus, our apartment was well-equipped with most of what we needed to put a meal together so it was nice to give our wallets a little break. Another plus for Airbnb!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Italy Day 1: Pompei

While I loved the apartment we booked on Airbnb, there was one inconvenience of not booking a hotel. We got into Sorrento too early to check in and there wasn't a reception desk to hold our bags for us, so we had to lug our stuff around as we wandered around looking for breakfast. Luckily for us, Bar Veneruso was across the street from the apartment and open fairly early on a Saturday morning, with pizza and pasta dishes available all day! We really wanted a more savory, substantial meal so we ordered a couple of pizzas. To be honest, the pizzas weren't awesome but it was a good place to chill as we fought fatigue and waited for check-in. As we were eating, we saw locals and tourists coming in for their morning espresso and pastry - a much more typical Italian breakfast.

(photo credit: Virtual Tourist)

Once we finished up, we made our way over to the apartment to meet our Airbnb host and drop off our bags. Our apartment was still being cleaned since the previous guests had just checked out so we couldn't take a shower and nap like we so desperately wanted to - but that was for the best because it forced us to go out and explore.

We decided on Pompei as our destination of the day, so we walked the 10 minutes to the station to board the Circumvesuviana train. Even though Sorrento is the first stop, we never managed to get a seat so we stood for most of the 40 minute ride to the Pompei Scavi stop. Loud musicians and pushy panhandlers are a regular part of the train ride experience. At some point, there were a few rude teens puffing away on their cigarettes, despite all the no smoking signs. I had been warned about pickpockets on the train, so I was vigilant about keeping my bag close to me at all times. This whole experience made me grateful that we didn't take the train from the airport.

The last time I went to Pompei was 16 years ago - and it was just as hot and dusty as I remember! Pompei can be a bit overwhelming, as there's so much to see and the site layout and audio guide don't do a very good job of guiding you to all the highlights. It didn't help that we were incredibly jetlagged, so I lost the motivation to explore as much as we probably should have. Still, it's expansive and impressive, and seeing the plaster casts of the people that perished was still pretty powerful. I've already posted some pictures from this visit in this post so I don't want to be to repetitive or redundant.

We spent a few hours wandering Pompei before heading back to Sorrento. We went to the Inn Bufalito for dinner, per our friend Nicole's recommendation. The buffalo mozzarella and the pasta were both amazing - this was probably our favorite meal in Sorrento. We noticed that restaurant prices in general for both Sorrento and Naples were much lower than the prices we saw in northern Italy in 2011. It helps that the dollar is stronger now - not sure if there are any other contributing factors to the price discrepancy. Either way, we're not complaining!

(photo credit: Inn Bufalito)

After dinner, we passed by the shops in the side streets and admired all the beautiful scarves, leather, ceramics, and lemon-themed goods. We knew we wanted to bring home some souvenirs but we didn't have the energy to shop that very first night so we ambled our way back to our apartment, took our desperately needed showers, and crawled into bed after a long 30 hour day!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Italy: Flight and Hotels

I'm finally back home and ready to blog about our trip. Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast have been on our list for awhile - beautiful coastline, Italian cuisine, and discounted designer handbags are my ultimate vacation trifecta!

When we found out we were going to New York for a wedding this fall, I started poking around on Kayak to see what kind of flight deals I could get from New York to Europe. When I saw that Meridiana Airlines had direct flights from JFK to Naples to $685, I knew I had to jump on it. Not only is $685 an amazing deal, but I had done some research and knew that this flight itinerary would be the easiest, fastest way to get to Sorrento. From Naples, you can take a train, bus, ferry, or taxi to Sorrento - we took a taxi and it was about 75 minutes. Direct flights from anywhere in the US to Naples are extremely rare, so most people fly into Rome, take a one-hour train ride to Naples, and then find another mode of transport to Sorrento. On top of that, there aren't any direct flights from SFO to Rome, making the trip that much longer and more painful! So given that we were going to be New York anyway, we knew we had to make this trip happen.

For those who are finicky about their travels, be warned - Meridiana is a very simple budget airline with old planes. Our flight didn't have personal TVs for each seat and the meals were rather sparse. While this isn't an ideal experience for a 9 hour flight, it was totally worth it to me, as I had plenty of books on my tablet to keep me occupied. I also bring my own food on long flights, as I absolutely cannot stand the smell of airplane food. For me, I just need the flight to be safe and relatively on time - we'd flown them before from Milan to Santorini and the experience had fulfilled both criteria.

I had researched a lot of options for getting from Naples to Sorrento (do you see a pattern here with the obsessive research?). The train, ferry, and bus options didn't work for us because we were getting into Naples airport at 6am and they didn't start running until 9am so I reluctantly started looking into taxi and shuttle options. Luckily, I came across Seahorse Car Service and reserved a door-to-door shuttle for 25 euros per person. They said that the first shuttle wouldn't leave until 7:30am but our driver arrived at 7:10am so it wasn't too bad. We were lucky enough to be the only passengers that morning so we were the only stop! This was definitely a steal, since all the taxis quoted me at least 100 euros per ride (but normally more). I would highly recommend them!

As for hotels, I started looking about 5 weeks before our trip and found out that a lot of hotels were already fully booked. I was pretty horrified to learn that of the hotel rooms that were still available, the average price was $250-300/night. Anything nicer and more comfortable was easily double that price, and a fair number of hotel rooms went for $1,000+/night. I was so discouraged at these prices, I almost started to regret booking the tickets. At this point, I went on Airbnb to see what the options were. Even on Airbnb, a lot of hosts apologetically replied to let me know that they were already booked for my dates. Luckily, we found a newly renovated 2 bedroom 2 bath apartment available in a great location for only $190/night! Let me know if you would like the info - I would happily recommend this apartment and would definitely stay there again if Jeff and I were lucky enough to go back to Sorrento one day.

Bay of Naples, September 2014