First-Timer’s Guide to Santorini, Greece

For too long I’d scrolled through social media and been tormented by friends travelling through the Greek islands. My only visit to this Mediterranean nation was as a backpacker in 2005, when I revelled in the culture, kebabs and affordability of Athens for a week. Aside from the couple in my hostel room who got intimate most nights, I adored Greece and vowed to return when I got the chance. While I made several trips to Europe in the following years, Greece never quite happened. It was in fact only earlier this year that a friend’s wedding in London prompted a five week trip across the continent with my boyfriend. It was game on, Greece! 

If you regularly read my blog, you’ll know we found a seemingly excellent route from Italy’s Cinque Terre to Santorini but our flight was diverted at the last minute. We instead spent the night in Athens and caught the eight hour ferry to Santorini the next morning. We arrived exhausted, mid-afternoon in the middle of May. In one direction were extraordinary views of the Aegean Sea, and in the other was a parking lot filled with taxis and travellers moving towards a single road up a rocky, barren hill. Our four night holiday had become just two full days, but we met our driver, checked in to our villa and opened a bottle of wine. Let the holiday begin! 

overview

Santorini is the largest of a small group of Greek islands called the Cyclades, about 240 kilometres (150 miles) southeast of Athens. The island is just 20km (12 mi) long, almost a crescent shape with the caldera (volcanic crater) on western side. The three main villages of Fira (also called Thira), Imerovigli and Oia are in the island’s north and on the western side, hence have “caldera” views. The resort-style beaches are on opposite side in the south, with archaeological sites also in the southern half. Santorini has a local population of just 15,000, but numbers swell during the peak summer season (June – August). 

 Oia: a Mediterranean fairytale, even on a cloudy day
Oia: a Mediterranean fairytale, even on a cloudy day

Did you know Santorini isn’t the island’s official name? It was given to the island by the Venetians in 1153, who arrived and saw a chapel for Saint Irene (Santa Irini). The name stuck, but the island remains Thera on all official documents. The capital Fira is a variation of Thera. 

what to do

the views

Sweeping views of the Aegean Sea and the distinct architecture are arguably the number one reason people visit Santorini. From the whitewashed buildings of Fira and Imerovigli to the more colourful townscape of Oia, seeing these villages against the backdrop of the water is unforgettable. Appreciate the different views during the day, sunset and at night when the pools shine turqoise. You can take in the views poolside, over drinks or a meal, while hiking or on a cruise (more details below). Be forewarned – the majority of Santorini is rocky, barren and doesn’t appear on postcards. 

 Imerovigli: watching sunset from our villa on our first night was magic!
Imerovigli: watching sunset from our villa on our first night was magic!

hiking trails

If you’re feeling energetic, there’s a range of walks on the island. The rocky but flat path between Fira and Imerovigli is an easy 45 minutes (no shade) and you can continue north on the more challenging path to Oia. The total walk from Fira to Oia is 10km (6 mi) and takes around 3 to 4 hours. Bring water and sunscreen as there’s little shade unless you retreat to a cafe. My boyfriend and I were still fatigued from hiking in Italy, so we just did the short Fira to Imerovigli section on our first day.

Those who are more adventurous should head to Skaros Rock, accessed from Imerovigli. We didn’t have time during our trip but the hike takes around two hours, and is reportedly challenging at times due to steps and some climbing to reach the top. Only about half the groups we saw from our villa during our stay reached the summit. Bring sunscreen and water, and possibly snacks if you’re going to stay out there. 

 Hiking: views on the trail from Imerovigli to Fira
Hiking: views on the trail from Imerovigli to Fira

ancient sites

Take a history lesson and visit Santorini’s two archaeological sites, Akrotiri and Ancient Thira. Akrotiri is in the island’s south-west, near Red Beach. Entry is €12 or there’s a combined pass with other attractions for €14, although there are some free admission days throughout the year too. Read more here. Ancient Thira is on the top of Mesa Vouno mountain, in the south-east side of the island near Pirassa Beach.  Entry is €4 or you can also get the combined pass. Click here for more details. 

caldera cruise

We lost a day in Santorini because of our flight diversion, but otherwise I would’ve been cruising! While there are mixed reviews online, a work colleague who’d recently been to Santorini highly recommended my boyfriend and I see the island from the water. There are a few companies offering tours of the caldera and hot springs before finishing in Oia for sunset. One for next time! 

 Amoudi Bay: viewed from the top of Oia
Amoudi Bay: viewed from the top of Oia

amoudi bay (oia)

If you cruise the caldera, there’s a good chance your vessel will end in the port of Amoudi Bay at Oia. But you can also walk or drive down from the village and enjoy fresh seafood or a drink. I’m told this is one of the best swimming spots in Santorini. We only had time to gaze down at Amoudi Bay from Oia, and my heart broke a little. I told myself there’ll be other islands. 

beaches

I love the water and desperately wanted to be beachside after a mostly chilly month in Europe. You’ll find Santorini’s most popular beaches along the eastern (non-caldera) side, near the Ancient Thera site. There’s Kamari Beach, and then the resort-like strip of Perissa and Perivolos with sun beds lined up on black sand. We spent several hours lazing by Perivolos Beach but the water was too cold for me! It wasn’t busy, however it a cooler day during the shoulder season.

 Perivolos Beach: more resort style, with plenty of dining and bars opposite
Perivolos Beach: more resort style, with plenty of dining and bars opposite

Less for sunbaking and more for sightseeing are Red Beach and Black Beach. We followed signage while quad biking to reach the parking area for Red Beach, which is then a five minute rocky walk to a viewing area before another 10 minute walk to reach the beach itself. I don’t recommend the path for the frail or elderly. Black Beach is also in the south of the island, however we relied on Google Maps because there was no signage. We gave up after making a few wrong turns. 

 Red Beach: more for sightseeing than sunbaking
Red Beach: more for sightseeing than sunbaking

wineries

Being wine lovers, my boyfriend and I weren’t going to miss the chance to drink Greek vino! We booked a tour of Santo Wines weeks in advance and added on six glass of wine tasting and a food platter for sunset (€38 each). The walking tour was around 30 minutes and we learnt about the island’s unique grape growing method, where vines are woven into a basket shape to protect the grapes. Our group then watched a short video about Santorini’s history, which was interesting if a little cheesy. The best part was sitting outside and simply admiring the caldera views with my boyfriend while we enjoyed our enormous trays of wine samples and local produce. 

The wine itself was average and we weren’t tempted to buy any, but the overall experience was magical. Bring a jacket for when the sun goes down and also some spending money, as there’s a sizeable store selling pasta, olives, tomato paste and other produce. Our hotel arranged transport which was €20 return for the two of us. 

 Santo Wines: the six glass wine tasting & food platter
Santo Wines: the six glass wine tasting & food platter

shopping

The biggest collection of shops I saw were in Thira, but they were very touristy. Sometimes that’s fun though! There are plenty of stalls selling dresses, shoes and hats plus standard souvenirs. I was much more interested in the stores in Oia, which looked more artsy. 

food

 Pita: stuffed with fava at my request on Perivolos Beach
Pita: stuffed with fava at my request on Perivolos Beach

Visiting Santorini is like an immersive in the Mediterranean diet, albeit with more wine. Local highlights include:

  • fava: a dish made from split peas, similar to Indian dal or hummus
  • sesame stick: breadsticks coated in sesame seeds
  • capers: edible flower buds from the caper plant 
  • olives: and luscious olive oil

Seafood lovers will be in heaven and there’s no shortage of cheese or salads either. During our three night trip, we had everything from beachside pitas, grazing boards and wine, to fine dining with caldera views. The latter was a brilliant coincidence, as our accomodation Kapari Natural Resorts (see “where to stay” below) boasted one of Santorini’s top restaurants. It was too cold to sit outside, however we spent several hours enjoying three courses and a bottle of white wine recommended by the in-house sommelier. The bill came to just €110, including €45 for the wine. Excellent value – but be sure to book ahead! 

 Kapari Wine Restaurant: my dish of fava, capers and tomato
Kapari Wine Restaurant: my dish of fava, capers and tomato

drinks 

 Kapari Natural Resort: complimentary wine and fruit
Kapari Natural Resort: complimentary wine and fruit

Everyone we spoke to (hotel staff, other guests) recommended a different bar but they can be tricky to find in the village mazes. In the end, we just drank whenever and wherever the mood struck us. The warm days called for Mythos beer while we drank local white wine at night. 

As mentioned under things to do, head to Santo Wines and do wine tasting at sunset. This was one of the most memorable experiences during our three night stay. If we’d had longer, I would’ve spent a day simply reading and drinking while occasionally looking up at the sea.

where to stay

There are three main options if you’re visiting Santorini for the first time:

  • Fira (Thira): the island’s capital and the biggest of Santorini’s three towns. Good for shopping, nightlife and central location. Closest to the airport and port. 
  • Oia: the northernmost and second largest town. It’s artsy, colourful and boasts Amoudi Bay. About 30 minutes (15km/9mi) drive from Fira.
  • Imerovigli: the smallest of three villages, but walking distance (45 mins) from Fira. It’s more like a cluster of cliff-side villas and restaurants than a town, although you’ll find a convenience store and some cafes at the top. In my opinion, it’s the most romantic of the three. 
 Kapari Natural Resort: incredible views in Imerovigli
Kapari Natural Resort: incredible views in Imerovigli

Here are some crude analogies if it helps. For those familiar with the Indonesian island of Bali, Fira is like touristy Kuta, Imerovigli is like the romantic and relaxed Seminyak while Oia is like the artsy and further away Ubud. For those who know New York City, you’d call Fira midtown, Imerovigli Chelsea (close by but less hectic) and Oia would be the East Village or Soho (further away but distinctive vibes). Feel free to dispute these or make your own suggestions in the comments section below! There are other towns to stay in of course, however if you’re visiting for the first-time you probably want to be centrally based with the greatest number of amenities and attractions.

 Kapari Natural Resort: the bedroom and bathroom in our enormous cavern-like villa
Kapari Natural Resort: the bedroom and bathroom in our enormous cavern-like villa

We splurged for the final leg of our Europe trip, staying at Kapari Natural Resort in Imerovigli for €330 (AU$510) per night. The price included a delicious buffet breakfast with made to order dishes as well, which we enjoyed outside overlooking the caldera. Our villa was spacious, cool and well equipped. The kitchen had a stove, kettle and refrigerator although no tea or coffee was supplied. The cavern-like style meant there were few windows, so we couldn’t see the caldera unless we stepped outside. Staff greeted us by name when we arrived and gave us a brief overview of the island and facilities. They continued to welcome us back each evening. 

We booked through boutique hotel website Mr & Mrs Smith which secured us free hotel transfers and a bottle of wine and welcome platter. The hotel’s pool was very small (but we soon saw this was the norm) and cold, but again, it was mid-May. Next time, I’d try find a villa with views from our room or stay in Oia for something different. 

 Map: supplied by our ATV company (click to enlarge)
Map: supplied by our ATV company (click to enlarge)

getting around

It’s easy to walk around Santorini’s villages, but the winding paths can make trying to find a specific location difficult. This is especially the case in Imerovigli, where the nearly identical white properties and low-lying walls can feel like a maze. As mentioned, Fira and Imerovigli are walking distance while Oia, the beaches and archaeological sites will require transport. Your options are buses, taxis and minivans although we only saw cabs around Fira’s main square. We were quoted €40 for a return trip from Imerovigli to Oia in a minivan, which seemed outrageous for a 15 minute journey. We declined.  

Rather, the best way to get around the island is to hire a quad bike (or “ATV” as they’re called locally). We arranged ours through our hotel for €56 for the day, which included a few Euros for insurance. There were cheaper bikes but we paid more for a sturdier option. We rode to the southern tip of the island, checked out Red Beach, had lunch on the eastern beaches before heading to Oia in the late afternoon. It was a memorable day, although the weather turned cold and rainy at the end. Be warned there’s no gas station in Oia so fill up at Imerovigli before going further north. 

getting there

 Santorini Airport: not exactly the paradise 
Santorini Airport: not exactly the paradise 

You can reach Santorini by ferry or plane. We attempted to fly and could see Santorini from our window (check out Getting from Italy’s Cinque Terre to Santorini) but ended up Catching the Athens to Santorini ferry instead. Our hotel included transfers from the port (about 20-30 minutes) and to the airport (about 20 minutes). I can’t speak to catching taxis or buses except to say the port was very busy. 

Santorini Airport is very basic. There’s a cafe inside but after clearing security, you’ll have a kiosk and plastic chairs with one lonely person in passport control. The day we left, our flight was delayed two hours because airport workers were on strike. 

money

Greece is part of the European Union and therefore uses the Euro (€). We paid by cash and credit card, only using an ATM once (there was one at the top of Imerovigli next to the convenience store). Santorini isn’t as cheap as you might assume. For example, I got a manicure and pedicure for €45 (AU $70) while my boyfriend got a 60 minute massage for €60 (AU $95). As mentioned, transport can also be expensive. 

language

English is widely spoken but be polite and learn some Greek. My head was already filled with French and Italian, but our waitress at Athens was kind enough to teach me the following: 

  • efcharisto (ef-ka-RIS-to): thank you
  • parakalo (parra-kar-lo): you’re welcome/ please
 Greek lesson: I got some tips from our waitress in Athens
Greek lesson: I got some tips from our waitress in Athens

other tips

  • Don’t expect all of Santorini to look like the postcards. The three main villages are small and beyond them, you’ll find mostly barren rock and the occasional industrial area.
  • There’s not much privacy either. You’ll be able to see the rooftop, paths and balconies of almost every other property around you from your doorstep. 
  • Dress codes are very relaxed. Think maxi dress and sandals for ladies, while guys will be fine in button-up shirts and shorts even for higher-end places. Leave the heels at home.
  • There’s no shade and the sun will radiate off the white buildings. My boyfriend and I can handle sunshine but we got seriously burnt on the return leg of our Imerovigli to Thira walk. 

I didn’t want to leave Santorini, and losing a day of our trip meant we barely saw Oia. The weather in mid-May was also too cool at times to lay by the pool. If we had more time, I would’ve climbed Skaros Rock, cruised the caldera, dined at Amoudi Bay and explored the beautiful art stores of Oia. But I’m grateful we made it to Santorini at all! It was 12 years since my first visit to Greece but I loved it just as much. And I guarantee there’ll be a third visit, although I’ll head to different islands and stay much longer!

QUESTION: Have you been to Santorini? If so, what’s your best tip for first-time visitors? 

Italy’s Incredible Cinque Terre: My Guide

About a year ago, my boyfriend and I sat down with a giant piece of cardboard, a handful of Sharpies and our laptops. We’d booked return flights to London to see one of my best friends get married and we had month afterwards to explore Europe! My dream was to cycle through French vineyards while my boyfriend wanted to visit Cinque Terre. I’d never heard of it. “It’s in Italy. It looks cool!” he said. He showed me some photos on Instagram. It looked incredible so it went onto our list.

Our plans progressed and in May this year, we boarded a train in Nice, France and five hours later arrived in Cinque Terre. It was a surreal moment, disembarking at Monterosso’s small train station at sunset and towing our suitcases along the beach path to our guest house. The days that ensued were absolutely magical. 

If you’re looking for spectacular scenery, dramatic architecture and a relaxed village vibe, Cinque Terre delivers it all. Bonus: Italian food and wine! 

Orientation

Cinque Terre (“Five Lands”) is on the northern Italian coastline, about two hours north-west of Florence and 450 kilometres (280 miles) north-west of Rome. It comprises a string of five coastal towns, each a few kilometres apart. Cinque Terre is a national park and was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997 for its outstanding cultural value, along with nearby Portovenere and several islands.

 Corniglia: the only hilltop village in Cinque Terre. 
Corniglia: the only hilltop village in Cinque Terre. 

From north to south, Cinque Terre’s towns are: 

  • Monterosso: the biggest, made up of Old Town and New Town (about 10 minutes walk between them). It has a large beach area. 
  • Vernazza: arguably the second most popular village, and rivalling Maranola for most beautiful. Probably the most photographed, thanks to being an easy hike from Monterosso. Vernazza has an iconic pier and castle. 
  • Corniglia: the only town without direct beach access, it’s instead perched high on a hill. For that reason, it has the least number of tourists. Considered the most quant and peaceful. 
  • Manarolo (shown in the cover photo): another popular choice, often considered the most beautiful.
  • Riomaggiore: the most southern village in Cinque Terre, so the first one you’ll reach if travelling north along the coast.
 Vernazza: the village has an iconic castle (top right) and pier.
Vernazza: the village has an iconic castle (top right) and pier.

It’s worth noting the nearby towns, as they’re important for getting your direction right on train travel: Levanto is north of Monterosso and you’ll find La Spezia and Portovenere south/south-east of Riomaggiore. 

where to stay

My boyfriend and I found this one of the most difficult things to decide when planning our visit. Thankfully, a colleague had just been to Cinque Terre and recommended we stay in Monterosso’s Old Town. He said it was beautiful, and the only village big enough to handle the influx of tourists without feeling too crowded. He was spot on! Make sure you book accommodation as soon as you can. We were travelling in the shoulder-season and had limited options when trying to book three months in advance!

 Affittacamere Irene: view looking left from our window.
Affittacamere Irene: view looking left from our window.

We got a double room at the perfectly located Affittacamere Irene for 4 nights (Via XX Settembre 16, Monterosso | €130/night). It was one of four rooms at the family-run guesthouse and very spacious, just a minute or two from Monterosso’s bars, restaurants and bakeries. Our host was running the guesthouse for her mother and personally showed us to our room, along giving us an introduction to the region. She provided some great dining recommendations too! The complimentary snacks, tea and coffee were enough for a light breakfast before hiking and the small fridge was handy too.

If you’re struggling to pick a town, consider these factors:

  • 1. How much luggage do you have? 

Make no mistake – Cinque Terre is steep. While the main street may be wide and comparatively flat, guesthouses may be several flights of uneven steps so taking a cab (if available) isn’t an option. We had a 23kg (50 lb.) suitcase each but thankfully our accommodation was a 10 minute, flat walk from the train station. Corniglia is on top of a hill but the train station is at sea level. It’ll take you at least 10 minutes to go down the stairs, let alone going up with a bag! If you’ve just got a weekend duffel, you’ve got more options. 

 Corniglia: perched on a hilltop but the train station is at sea level, via a lot of stairs! 
Corniglia: perched on a hilltop but the train station is at sea level, via a lot of stairs! 
  • 2. How many bar/dining options do you want? 

Monterosso is the biggest of the towns, so if you like to explore different venues over a few nights, this is a good bet. We didn’t actually make it to the New Town area during our four night stay because we had so many local choices! We spent less time in Vernazza and Manarola, but there were multiple dining spots on offer too, both by the water and at higher lookouts. Corniglia is the smallest town although one of our favourite bars was here (see “drinks” below). Riomaggiore is the only village we didn’t eat or drink in, but only because it didn’t work with our hikes. 

  • 3. Will you spend more time hiking or beaching? 

Monterosso has the biggest beach area, made up of public and private facilities. Vernazza and Manarola have small harbours to swim in. As Corniglia is perched on a hill, beach access is possible but not easy. The town to train station stairs would be torture after a day of hiking and there’s no ferry access. Riomaggiore has a rocky, pebbly beach but the town is an excellent base for hiking, as you can continue further south to Portovenere.

 Riomaggiore: the southern-most village, photo taken from the ferry at dusk.
Riomaggiore: the southern-most village, photo taken from the ferry at dusk.

The best advice I can give is that ultimately, it doesn’t matter where you stay. None of the villages are particularly big, they all have similar facilities and the Regionale trains between them are cheap (€4), fast and frequent. If you like bigger towns and have a heavy suitcase, go for Monterosso. If you want the most quant and least touristy village, head to Corniglia. I felt Vernazza was overcrowded with tourists, but this may change at night once daytrippers have left. Manarola was a magnet for Instagrammers but honestly, most of Cinque Terre is selfie-central. It’s shame we only transitted through Riomaggiore! I’d possibly stay there or in Manarola next time, mostly to explore alternate hiking routes. My boyfriend said he’d happily return to Monterosso. 

what to do

Hiking

If you’re mildly active, you’ve got to do at least one hike in Cinque Terre. There are popular hikes, each 1-3 hours, connecting each of the villages as well as more challenging, professional paths. These footpaths have actually connected the villages for centuries. The most popular walk is the simple, two-hour hike between Monterosso and Vernazza. It’s a perfect introduction to the region and one of the most memorable experiences of my life. 

 Vernazza (with Monterosso in the background): you'll get this view when hiking to Corniglia! 
Vernazza (with Monterosso in the background): you’ll get this view when hiking to Corniglia! 

My boyfriend and I were keen to hike as much as we could, and we did four journeys in three days (each one harder than the last!). The scenery was jaw-dropping and breathtaking at almost every step and meeting travellers from all around the world was a bonus. Our daily routine became a morning hike, leisurely lunch, an afternoon hike and apertifs (see “drinks” below) before returning to Monterosso for dinner. I’ll do a separate, detailed post about our hikes shortly but in the interim, this website has detailed, accurate advice: www.incinqueterre.com/en/trails-advice.

Beach

Make your Cinque Terre trip a real vacation by spending a day at the beach. As mentioned, Monterosso has the biggest beach area (both private and public facilities) but you can reach the water from any of the villages with varying levels of difficulty. We spent an hour or so sunbaking on rocks at Vernazza, but in Manarola it was too chilly to swim in the small harbour. The beaches are more rock than sand, so bring a towel. 

 Vernazza: the view from the castle tower.
Vernazza: the view from the castle tower.

Churches

Whether it’s a sanctuary, monument or plain old church, each village has at least one place of worship. I saw two – a church in Vernazza we awkwardly walked through to get to a beach and another on our hike between Riomaggiore and Portovenere. I’ve seen enough churches and temples in my travels for a lifetime, but if this is your thing you’ll some options in each town.

Cooking classes

I love taking cooking classes abroad and Cinque Terre would’ve been exceptional! I looked into local schools and found most classes were around €130. When researching this post, I did see the cafe Nessun Dorma (see “where to eat” below) offered a pesto making course for €35. Amazing! If you offer or have taken a cooking class in Cinque Terre, please comment below.

where to eat

 Ristorante Ciak: the best meal I had in Cinque Terre!
Ristorante Ciak: the best meal I had in Cinque Terre!

Cinque Terre is in Italy’s Liguria region which is famous for its pesto! You’ll find the short, twisted trofie pasta on most menus, as the shape is apparently well-suited to the famous basil sauce. Sadly, pesto contains parmesan so I couldn’t try any but I ate a lot of other food! Spaghetti pomodoro, minestrone, salads, bruschetta, focaccia and dairy-free gelato! The menus were seafood heavy too, with anchovies a local specialty. The meat dishes are a great option if you need a break from carbs. 

You won’t find McDonalds or sushi anywhere, and pizza is only occasionally on menus. I chuckled at the number of restaurants with signs saying “NO EGGS!,” referring to Americans’ love of a cooked breakfast. You’ll receive a bread basket everywhere – it’s included as part of the €2-3 per person service charge.

Our favourite places were: 

 Bar Terza Terra: lunch & drinks with a view! 
Bar Terza Terra: lunch & drinks with a view! 
  • Monterosso: Ristorante Ciak (Piazza Don Minzoni 6) served the most gobsmackingly delicious meal I had during my entire visit. I couldn’t finish my gnocchi (€14) so staff kindly packed it to go. Local white wine was €19 a bottle. You MUST eat here! 
  • Vernazza: We had a post-hike lunch at Al Castello, perched high near the iconic castle overlooking the town and sea. The food was fine, but it was the views and value that were impressive. We paid €14 for a bottle of house white and €8 for spaghetti pomodoro.
  • Corniglia: We walked past half a dozen restaurants before reaching the exquisitely located Bar Terza Terra. It was like we were on a private island, tucked around a corner with only a dozen other people taking in the incredible scenery. We had multiple Aperol spritzes (€6) paired with assorted bruschetta (€7) and focaccia (from €2.50). A real highlight! 
  • Manarola: I’d go back to Nessun Dorma in a heartbeat! This entirely outdoor venue is exceptionally popular due to its stunning views of the town. It was full of Instagrammers but was surprisingly good value given the setting. They had a range of drink and platters combinations from €11-20, focaccias at €6-7 and of course Aperol spritzes. This venue alone is worth a day trip to Manarola. 

drink

 Nessun Dorma: Aperitifs overlooking Manarola.
Nessun Dorma: Aperitifs overlooking Manarola.

We arrived in Cinque Terre after four days in France’s best vineyards but that didn’t stop us from guzzling Italian vino. While you can’t compare Grand Cru with the local Cinque Terre wine, we truly enjoyed everything we drank. My boyfriend and I ordered mostly local white wines, which were around €15-20 for a bottle and €4-8 for a glass. On one occasion we tried an €8 bottle of house white, which surprisingly good too. Beer lovers, there’s options for you too. 

Aperitif is something I’d heard of but not experienced. Consider it Italy’s cocktail hour, enjoyed pre-dinner with snacks such as chips, nuts or crackers. 

Recommended bars: 

  • Monterosso: La Balena Blue (or “the Blue Whale”). Our host suggested this place but it took us a while to find because the signage was quite small. I liked that Italians were drinking here, and people would simply drop in and say hello. A few people had their dogs with them. 
  • Corniglia: We had lunch at Bar Terza Terra, but I’d return just for drinks. And the scenery! 
  • Mararola: I’m repeating myself, but go to Nessun Dorma. You could stare at Manarola all day.
 Corniglia: Post-hike Aperol spritz at Bar Terza Terra!
Corniglia: Post-hike Aperol spritz at Bar Terza Terra!
 Wine list: a sample of local wines and prices (click to enlarge).
Wine list: a sample of local wines and prices (click to enlarge).

getting around

The Regionale train is by the far the easiest way to get between towns. The services are fast, frequent and only €4 per trip. Be sure to check the last train times (around midnight) to avoid being stranded after dinner. Click here for the timetable.

 Ferry from Portovenere to Montorosso (€18): it stops at all towns except Corniglia and takes about an hour.
Ferry from Portovenere to Montorosso (€18): it stops at all towns except Corniglia and takes about an hour.

A ferry also connects all the towns except Corniglia, and goes further south to Portovenere. The ferries are less frequent, every hour or so, and more expensive (€18 one way Portovenere to Monterosso) but it’s a nice way to see the villages from the water. Click here for the 2017 timetable.

Of course, you can walk between the towns too with each only 1.5 – 4km (0.9 – 2.5mi) apart. The villages themselves are best explored on foot due to their small size and steep inclines. 

getting there

The nearest major cities are Milan (220km/135mi) and Genoa (130km/80mi) in the north, and to the south-east Pisa (100km/62mi) and Florence (170km/105mi). As mentioned, Italy’s capital Rome is about 450km south-east of Cinque Terre (or a five hour train ride). The simplest way to reach Cinque Terre is to fly or catch a train to one of these cities, and then catch another train.

 Train: I became obsessed with photographing Cinque Terre's railway tunnels. So beautiful! 
Train: I became obsessed with photographing Cinque Terre’s railway tunnels. So beautiful! 

We travelled from Nice, France to Genoa (3 hours) and then onto Monterosso (1 h, 15 mins) which was €24.90 each, for both journeys. We pre-booked our tickets using the excellent website Loco2. Italian trains are frequently delayed so be generous with connection times. We were delayed by 20 minutes a few times and saw others delayed by 40 minutes. You could also hire a car but we found the train services were more than adequate.

 Manarola: the main street between the station and seafront.
Manarola: the main street between the station and seafront.

money

You’ll need Euros (€) for Cinque Terre, as it’s part of Italy. I was surprised at how affordable the area was, given it’s touristy and somewhat remote. For example, a basic pasta was often €8-10 and focaccias at a bar started from €2.50. Be warned: there’s only a couple of ATMs in each town, and they were frequently out of service. You can pay for trains and maybe half the restaurants by credit card, but smaller grocers and hiking fees for example were cash only. 

language  

I used our train ride to Monterosso to brush up on my Italian (learnt in Rome, 2006 while backpacking). English was widely spoken in Cinque Terre but to varying degrees. Either way, it’s polite to know the basics. Download the free app Duolingo to learn Italian, otherwise here are some essentials: 

  • Hello/bye = ciao (“chow”)
  • Thank you = grazie
  • Please = per favoure
  • Excuse me/pardon = scusi
  • Do you have a table for two? = Avete un tavolo per due?
  • May I have..? = Vorrei..?
  • White/red wine = bianco/rosso vini

other tips

Don’t buy stamps from postcard vendors. They’ll cost you €3 each (on top of the card) and are actually part of some private courier service. Instead, search for a post office here.

I left Cinque Terre feeling I’d had a once in a lifetime experience. The walks were spectacular and the villages, although touristy, were as unspoilt as the scenery. It was a fantastic way to stay fit while travelling and inspired me to explore much more of Italy and its regional cruises. To my boyfriend – thank you for choosing such a stunning, memorable destination! 

QUESTION: Where’s your favourite place in Italy?

Seeing Nice, France in Five Hours

How much of a city can you see in five hours? That was the challenge my boyfriend and I faced in Nice, France during our recent trip to Europe. Our train arrived on a Sunday at 10.30pm and we were leaving 2pm the next day. Allowing for hotel check-in, a decent night’s sleep and returning to the train station, we had a blank canvas from 8am to 1pm. I wanted to see all the attractions I could!

Nice is the capital of the French Riviera, just 30 kilometres (18 miles) from the Italian border and about 900km (560mi) south-east of Paris. It has a long history of being a tourist centre, thanks to its mild climate and ideal location between the Mediterranean Sea and mountains. Many of today’s attractions, such as Promenade des Anglais, were actually built in the 19th Century to cater for aristocratic visitors. 

 Nice, Cote d'Azur: beach, history, culture and shopping! 
Nice, Cote d’Azur: beach, history, culture and shopping! 

Working against us was the fact we were visiting on May 8, when the French observe Victory in Europe Day. This holiday marks the end of World War II in Europe and there are formalities across the country. We’d been warned at our previous stop in Beaune that some businesses would be closed, along with government agencies and services like the post office. I was still determined to make the most of our short stay!

Here’s what we did: 

first stop: 9am – Castle Hill

I set an alarm for 8am, skipped a shower and threw on my gym gear to head to Castle Hill, one of Nice’s top attractions. This was the city’s original site until King Louis XIV ordered soldiers to dismantle the castle in 1706. 

Castle Hill Park, or Parc du Chateau, opens at 8.30am and it was 30 minutes walk from our hotel. We went via the winding streets of Nice’s Old City Vieille Ville before going up several sets of stairs in what seemed to be a residential area. There was no signage so it was almost a surprise when we reached a small, rear entrance to the park. It was only marked by a gate and had a list of rules fixed to it. There were more stairs beyond the gate but they only took us a few minutes.

 Castle Hill: a waterfall was such a surprise in a city park! 
Castle Hill: a waterfall was such a surprise in a city park! 

The air was fresh and the sky was cloudy but we had the place almost to ourselves. We followed a main path, which had signs pointing to attractions and facilities. After walking for 10 minutes or so, we could hear water! We followed our ears and discovered an impressive man-made waterfall. We continued walking one viewing platform, took some photos, then went to another. The views were such a reward for our (relatively) early wake up! 

 Castle Hill: offering spectacular views across the city to the mountains.
Castle Hill: offering spectacular views across the city to the mountains.

You get glimpses of the city and sea from the park, so it’s easy explore without a map. While our itinerary didn’t allow for a picnic, you could easily enjoy a coffee or bring lunch here as there were lots of benches with panoramic views. Entry was free too!

 Castle Hill: one of several lookouts across the city. We had a bizarre, cloudy morning.
Castle Hill: one of several lookouts across the city. We had a bizarre, cloudy morning.

How to get there

 Castle Hill: part of the main staircase down to the beachfront. 
Castle Hill: part of the main staircase down to the beachfront. 

Put Hotel Süisse (15 Quai Rauba Capeu) into Google Maps as the park’s main entrance is right next to its front door. After five or so sets of steps, you’ll be directly at the park’s main viewing area. There were plenty of fitness enthusiasts going up and down the stairs and we even saw some extreme mountain bikers, but you’ll be fine in flat shoes and jeans.

Alternatively, you can take a rear entrance via some winding staircases near Montée Menica to reach Allée François Aragon. A few times we thought we were reaching a dead end or entering someone’s backyard, but we reached the park by following our instincts – it’s hard to miss the city’s biggest hill. This route worked well for our city loop. 

Hours: 8.30am – 8pm April to September (6pm October to March) | http://en.nicetourisme.com

9.30am – Beachfront

There was no time for a swim and it was a cool 12°C (53 °F), but seeing Nice’s beachfront was awesome! We descended Castle Hill’s main staircase and reached the waterfront near a giant #ILoveNice sculpture. I actually saw one man snorkelling, despite the temperature! We took a short stroll among the runners, dog walkers and tourists before moving on. If you had more time, you could continue to the famous Promenade des Anglais.  

 Beachfront: viewed from the main staircase entrance to Castle Hill. 
Beachfront: viewed from the main staircase entrance to Castle Hill. 

10am – Breakfast

We’d skipped breakfast so by this time, I was ready for some food! I’d spotted Paper Plane cafe on Yelp the day before so we went there from the beachfront (about 15 minutes walk). Unfortunately, it was closed because of the holiday. It was also starting to rain. We grabbed a quick coffee and Earl Grey at a nearby bistro instead and adjusted our plans. We would need to get lunch before that 2pm train!

10.30am – Hotel check-out

It was time to return to our hotel near Nice’s main train station Gare de Nice Ville, shower and check-out before 12pm. Thankfully we could store our bags at reception, giving us a few extra hours to explore the city without luggage. Full accommodation details are under ‘Where to Stay’ below. 

11.30am – Avenue Jean Médecin

Our hotel was close to Avenue Jean Médecin, which is one of Nice’s main north-to-south thoroughfares. It’s lined with shops and cafes and despite the holiday, most places were open and there were lots of people out. We made a quick but necessary stop at Monoprix grocery store for some healthy train snacks. I grabbed a French lentil salad, my boyfriend got a pre-made chicken poulet wrap and fruit. The pastry selection was impressive, and there were savoury tarts too. You could skip this part of Nice sightseeing, unless you’re catching a train that afternoon too!

 Beach art: this sculpture attracted a lot of selfie sticks and Instagrammers!
Beach art: this sculpture attracted a lot of selfie sticks and Instagrammers!

12pm – Lunch

 Lunch at Place Massena: I was in salad heaven! 
Lunch at Place Massena: I was in salad heaven! 

We saw plenty of cafes along Avenue Jean Médecin but time was limited and the French don’t rush mealtimes. We’d been in serious Bourgogne meat, cheese and bread territory for three days and were craving something fresh. I spotted a few tables of people eating big salads at So Green (11 Place Masséna), so we went inside. Choose your salad base, choose your toppings and add your sauces – I went crazy over the variety! Chick peas, raisins, sundried tomatoes, beetroot, sesame seeds, chilli flakes and rocket. Lunch was around €35 for two with sparkling water, but it was exactly what we wanted. The 20 minute break in the sunshine was a welcome bonus.

12.30pm – Place Masséna

We could squeeze in one last attraction before our 2pm train. While there wasn’t much to see in the centre of Place Masséna apart from a fountain, I was glad we could tick off another landmark. Grabbing lunch nearby and people watching was the right was to appreciate the area. But our time was up. We reluctantly returned to our hotel, collected our luggage and walked to the station for our train to Italy. We’d been in Nice just 15 hours but had seen a lot! 

 Place Massena: Nice's town square, about 10-15 minutes from the beachfront.
Place Massena: Nice’s town square, about 10-15 minutes from the beachfront.

next time

If we’d had a few more hours, I would’ve loved to have walked along Promenade de Anglais and looked at the shops around Place Masséna. Nice also boasts a lot of museums, including Musée Matisse (dedicated to 20th century painter Henri Matisse), and the Museum of Contemporary and Modern Art (Musee d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain) or MAMAC. A beachfront dinner would’ve been nice too – but there’s always next time! 

practical info

Getting there

We travelled to Nice by train from Beaune, Burgundy (€62, first class). The direct journey was a pleasant, six hours on SNCF. We used the excellent website Loco2.com to book all our train travel before leaving Australia. If you’d rather fly, Nice is well serviced by air. A direct flight from London takes about 2 hours or its 1.5 hours from Paris. Nice Cote d’Azur Airport is 7km from downtown.

Where to stay

There’s a cluster of hotels near Nice Ville train station, including our choice Ibis Centre Notre Dame (41 Rue Lamartine). It was clean, modern and basic but good value for one night (€67). The location was ideal, as it was just five minutes walk from the train station and 20 minutes or so from the beachfront. Next time I’m in Nice, l’d stay by the sea for the views or Place Masséna for its centrality. 

Where else?

If you’re looking to add on to your Nice vacation, head north to Beaune, the wine capital of Burgundy or venture across the border to Italy’s Cinque Terre (my guide is coming soon!).

 Nice beachfront: viewed from sea level near the #ILoveNice sculpture. 
Nice beachfront: viewed from sea level near the #ILoveNice sculpture. 

Seeing a city in five hours isn’t ideal, but when life gives you a layover… make travel lemonade! Our brief visit gave us a taste of the French Riviera, which is starkly different to the forest and villages of central France. I’d love to return to Nice and spend a few days by the beachfront, going for a morning run, having a leisurely lunch and spending my afternoons at museums and shopping malls before romantic evening meals. Merci pour un petit mais gentilé visite Nice! 

QUESTION: Where’s your favourite part of France? 

7 Post-Workout Rewards (That Aren’t Food)

What’s the first thing you do after a big workout? I usually exercise in the morning on an empty stomach so my first priority is breakfast. I love a big bowl of oatmeal and a cup of Earl Grey. After a weekend sweat session, I upgrade to avocado, wholegrain toast and beans. Better yet, I’ll go to one of my favourite cafes and have a long, leisurely brunch. A shower is second on the list. 

While I absolutely believe in refuelling after exercise, I’m trying to broaden my post-workout rewards beyond breakfast. Don’t get me wrong – I’ll run 10K for a bagel and demolish an Acai bowl after BodyAttack. But I wanted to find more ways to nourish my body, without in turn hurting my wallet.

Here’s what I’ve discovered: 

1. Treat Your Feet

 Foot soak: budget-friendly and effective! 
Foot soak: budget-friendly and effective! 

Taking your sneakers off after a workout is a great feeling. Looking at your feet may not be so great. Every few weeks, I’ll soak my feet for an hour while I work on my blog or read a magazine. It helps relieve tension, soothes dry skin and best of all, it’s relaxing! My favourite product is The Body Shop’s Peppermint Foot Fizzies*, which is made from effervescent salts and has a gorgeous cooling effect.

Here are some other ideas, depending on your budget: 

  • Save: Soak your feet in hot water. Add epsom salts, essential oils or a bath bomb.
  • Spend: Sephora’s Foot Masque ($6) comes in single-use socks you wear for 20 minutes. The Almond (Comforting & Repairing) formula is softening and has a nice, nutty smell. 
  • Splurge: My favourite treat for my feet – get a pedicure! 

*Unfortunately when researching this post, I discovered The Body Shop has discontinued its Foot Fizzies. They were $2.95 for a two-pack, so I used to buy in bulk.

2. Hit the Beach

Whether you’re covered in sweat or want a relaxing afternoon, hitting the beach is always a treat. I live 10 kilometres from the coast and conveniently, that’s my current running distance. The route has some serious hills but I’m re-energised when I get my first glimpse of the ocean. A post-workout swim is super refreshing, but you could also cool down with a barefoot stroll in the sand. If you’ve been at the gym, why not grab a towel and stretch by the beach on the way home?

Best of all, the beach doesn’t cost a thing (except maybe parking). 

 The beach: perfect for a post-workout swim, stroll or stretch.
The beach: perfect for a post-workout swim, stroll or stretch.

3. restorative/yin yoga

 Yoga: thank your body by moving slowly & stretching.
Yoga: thank your body by moving slowly & stretching.

Taking a yoga class might sound like more exercise but hear me out. I used to treat yoga like a workout, pushing my body to the limits to try build strength and burn as many calories as I could. But then, guided by various teachers, I realised yoga was a chance to listen to my body. What’s tight? Where are the aches? How can I release that tension?

Changing my approach from cardio to kindness helped me identify problem areas and most of all, learn to slow down. I do an hour class straight after my workouts a few times a week. It really helps with recovery and feels like a luxury in today’s busy world. Read my post on Your First Yoga Class if you need. 

  • Save: Do yoga at home. My favourite app is Pocket Yoga, where you can choose from three styles and 30, 45 or 60 minute sessions.
  • Spend: Head to a dedicated yoga studio. I love MindBody to search and book nearby classes.
  • Splurge: Go to a yoga workshop or a weekend retreat. 
 Coconut water: one of my favourite post-workout rewards.
Coconut water: one of my favourite post-workout rewards.

4. Coconut water

Technically this is a drink, not food, so I’m putting it on the list. Coconut water is my favourite way to hydrate after a long run and perhaps because it’s so lusciously tropical, it totally feels like a treat. Bonus: a 250ml (8.5 oz.) carton only has around 60 calories!

  • Save: Grab a one litre carton from the supermarket ($4-6) and enjoy all week.
  • Splurge: Buy a fresh coconut from the supermarket or Asian grocery store. Put in a fancy straw and savour the electrolytes. 

5. Massage

This is my ultimate post-workout reward. I recently had a massage booked for a Thursday night and all week, I trained SO hard. It felt amazing! But you don’t need a masseuse or lots of cash to enjoy a massage. A good friend or partner and essential oils will do the trick. Other ideas include: 

  • Save: Give yourself a massage. Try Lush Cosmetics Wiccy Magic Muscles ($14.95) which heats up the area you apply it to.
  • Spend: Get a remedial or sports massage. If you have private health cover, you may be able to claim a rebate. I got a 30 minute massage this week and only paid $10.
  • Splurge: Hit a day spa. If you’re in Perth, I’ve had excellent massages at Keturah Day Spa (multiple locations) and Crown Spa (Burswood).
     Lush Cosmetics massage bars: affordable, natural and they smell amazing!
    Lush Cosmetics massage bars: affordable, natural and they smell amazing!

    6. fresh flowers

     Fresh flowers: they make me smile all week!
    Fresh flowers: they make me smile all week!

    This won’t directly benefit your aching quads or hamstrings. But occasionally I go to a gym which is close to several florists. I love buying a fresh bunch of flowers on the way home! Maybe you prefer magazines, visiting a farmer’s market or heading to a craft store. Pick up something after your workout that will make you smile later in the week. 

    and finally…

    7. sleep

    It’s a sad reflection of modern life, but sleep and rest are a precious commodity. After five days of alarms going off to hit the gym at dawn, knowing I can sleep in the next day is one of the best rewards I can get.  

    QUESTION: What’s your favourite post-workout reward? 

    Bali for Beginners

    My first trip to the Indonesian island of Bali was with my Dad when I was about 10 years old. My parents told me it was a reward for learning to swim – in reality, Dad probably wanted some time out and was granted a getaway if he took one of his four young children. I was so excited, having heard about all the wonders of this exotic place. The famous Waterbomb Park, haggling with street sellers and all the different Fanta flavours. Oh, and room service!

    I had an incredible time but it was more than 15 years before I returned. Honestly, Bali wasn’t attractive. Hoards of Australians were going there thanks to the advent of budget airlines. The thought of spending any holiday surrounded by people from my home country was unappealing, especially if they’re wearing ripped singlets, swearing, and snapping their fingers at local workers. But with a permanent job and not much annual leave, in 2012 I decided to give Bali a go. I booked a four night trip with my boyfriend, sister and best friend and you know what? Bali exceed all expectations! 

    Massages, sunshine, some stunning beaches and top quality dining – I couldn’t believe I’d had Bali on a blacklist for so long! I’ve since returned twice with my boyfriend and once for a family vacation. With Bali only a three hour flight from Perth and airfare deals from AU$150 return, it’s an affordable and rewarding destination for a short break. 

     U Paasha in Seminyak: sunrise on the hotel's rooftop before a complimentary yoga class
    U Paasha in Seminyak: sunrise on the hotel’s rooftop before a complimentary yoga class

    If you’re considering a trip to Bali, here’s my advice for first-timers:

    1. Where to Stay

    Bali is really diverse. You can stay by the beach, in the middle of a forest or right next to nightclubs. The most popular tourist areas are Kuta, Legian and Seminyak which are all beachside and close to the airport, along with Ubud which about an hour inland. For a first-time visit or short break I’d recommend staying in Legian, especially if you’re with a group or on a budget. For romance or food, Seminyak is best but rest assured, it’s only a short AU$1-2 taxi ride to get from one to the other anyway. If you have a week, you could spend half your time in Legian or Seminyak and then head to Ubud for total relaxation. 

    Here’s a bit more detail about each area:

    Kuta & Surrounds:

    • Kuta: is the most touristy part of Bali. Plenty of bars, nightclubs and cheap accommodation. 
    • Legian: slightly north of Kuta. Still touristy but fabulous proximity to the beach and decent  nightlife.
    • Seminyak: is renowned as a place for couples or those who want to relax. It’s foodie heaven, full of private villas and boutique shops too. It’s the most chilled of the three tourist areas but a little more expensive. 
    • Canggu: is further north still. It’s less developed but getting more tourist attention, with restaurants and beach clubs popping up. 
     Monkey Forest in Ubud: hold on to your valuables!
    Monkey Forest in Ubud: hold on to your valuables!

    Greater Bali:

    • Ubud: the most popular inland destination. There’s no beach but it’s ideal for retreats, culture and nature-lovers. It’s also home to the famous Monkey Forest (pictured above). About an hour’s drive from the airport.
    • Nusa Dua: is more exclusive and up-market, about 45 minutes from the airport. This is where you’ll find most of the top hotels and resorts. I’m yet to make it to Nusa Dua, but hope to try the all-inclusive experience one day.

    There are other areas in Bali I haven’t covered such as Sanur, the Gili Islands and Jimbaran Bay. But this is Bali for beginners! More on those in future editions. 

    2. Accommodation

     O-CE-N Hotel in Legian: the view from our apartment's front door! 
    O-CE-N Hotel in Legian: the view from our apartment’s front door! 

    You can spend as little or as much as you like in Bali. Accommodation is plentiful, mostly cheap and the service is wonderful. Many hotels include a free buffet breakfast with toast, cereal, fresh tropical fruits, some Indonesian food such as nasi goreng (fried rice) or noodles and an omelette/pancake station. Choosing accommodation as a first-timer can be overwhelming, so things to consider are:

    • Which area is most appealing? 
    • Do you want to be walking distance to the beach? 
    • Is there a pool and how much sun does it get?
    • Is breakfast included? 
    • What do other travellers say about the hotel? 

    I consistently find third-party websites such as Expedia and Agoda are cheaper than booking direct, but check the hotel’s website for special offers. However, don’t fall for promotions such as a free welcome drink or massages. These are cheap and readily available around Bali, so they don’t represent great value. Think of them as a bonus, not a motive for your booking. 

    I’ve stayed at U Paasha in Seminyak and Ananta Hotel in Legian with my boyfriend, and at O-CE-N Hotel (now FuramaXclusive Ocean Beach) in Legian on a family holiday. I highly recommend all of them for value, location and amenities. I’ve also stayed at Amadea Resort in Seminyak. Service was excellent but it was half hotel, half villas and it felt a little intrusive walking past a long line of enclosed properties to reach our hotel room. The pool area was also average. It was fine – but I’d rather explore other properties. 

    3. What to Do

    Relax

    If you’re only in a Bali for a few days, this is probably your main focus! Grab a book, sit by the pool, and enjoy a cocktail. Go for a walk along the beach or take a local yoga class. If you need a break from the sun, unwind in your hotel room with the mini-bar at your side. It’ll be well-stocked and affordable, with a Bintang or Heineken beer only costing AU$4 or so. 

     U Paasha: Fresh coconuts every day!
    U Paasha: Fresh coconuts every day!

    Massage/Beauty

    I get a massage every day when I’m in Bali. Seriously! Plus a facial or two, and my nails done. In the tourist areas, you’ll find spas right outisde offering full body massages from AU$7 for an hour, while a manicure and pedicure will set you back about AU$8 -$15 for both. The surroundings aren’t flash, service can vary from highly professional to giggling teenagers, but the establishments are hygienic enough and treatments are reasonable quality too. 

    Want to splurge (by Bali standards)? Check out BodyWorks in Seminyak, where an excellent 60 minute facial cost me AU$20. A massage at Jari Menari, also in Seminyak, is out of this world with a rhythmic, artistic style that’s almost like art. I had a 90 minute, “Perfect Massage” which cost about AU$50. So did my boyfriend, but he actually preferred the one he got at BodyWorks (AU$27). 

    Eat

     Ku De Ta, Seminyak: heavenly dumplings with black sauce!
    Ku De Ta, Seminyak: heavenly dumplings with black sauce!

    You WILL NOT starve in Bali! Food is everywhere, ranging from cheap bars/cafes serving $2 Bintangs alongside pizza, burgers and some Indonesian dishes right up to world-class dining. There are so many options I’ll do a separate blog post on Bali Eats in coming weeks, but until then, here are a few tips:

    • Seminyak’s informally named ‘Eat Street’ is a foodie heaven. Whether you want Italian, Indian, Thai or Moroccan, it’s all here. I’ve never had a bad meal! Walk along at night and browse the menus, stepping in where ever takes your fancy. My latest favourite is Batik, where I had a perfect tofu red curry (AU$4) and wine ($8) with a view! 
    • Mozaic in Ubud: is one of the best dining experiences I’ve ever had in my life. Six, glorious courses where every mouthful made my jaw drop because there was so much flavour. It was exceptional. 

    There are plenty of convenience stores too where I stock up on Indonesian snacks specialties like chilli nuts, seaweed potato chips, cassava chips and BEER. If you’re lactose-intolerant or vegan, there’s plenty of soy milk in Bali too!

    Drink

    Chances are your hotel will have a mini-bar, a bar by the pool and a downstairs bar too. Bintang is everywhere and really cheap (think AU$4-6 for 700ml at mid-range places). On my trip to Bali last month, my boyfriend and I drank beers with another couple by the beach for about four hours. The bill? AU$100 and that included a pina colada and some fries too! I go crazy for cocktails when I’m in Bali, not just because they’re cheap but because they’re packed full of fresh fruit. Wine drinkers be warned: your options are limited and it’s expensive. Bring a bottle with you, if you must. 

     Bean bags on the beach: one of the cheapest, most comfortable nights you can have in Bali
    Bean bags on the beach: one of the cheapest, most comfortable nights you can have in Bali

    Day Trips

    If you need a break from the massages, mojitos and noodles, there’s plenty of places to check out around the island. Consider the Monkey Forest in Ubud (AU$4 entry) and exploring the local area, or hiring a driver to take you to Jimbaran Bay and watch the sunset at Ayana Resort’s Rock Bar before a romantic dinner. My boyfriend went on a dive trip to U.S.S. Liberty Shipwreck and recommended it. I’ve never made it to the Gili Islands, but several friends have raved about them too! 

     Jimbaran Bay: Ayana Resort has sensational venues, including the famous Rock Bar
    Jimbaran Bay: Ayana Resort has sensational venues, including the famous Rock Bar

    4. Transport

    Taxis are cheap and plentiful. Some will happily use the meter, others will want to negotiate a price before you ride. My preference is metered taxis but for those who prefer haggling, go for it! Tip: ask your hotel for approximate fares beforehand, so you have a rough idea.

    It’s easy to walk around Bali too, although footpaths are uneven and not always wide enough for two people. Streets aren’t well marked either, so download or screenshot Google maps before heading out or note the name and address to ask for help along the way. If you want to hire a private driver for the day (such as a trip to Ubud), your hotel can help out. Rates are reasonable.

    As for the airport, it’s about 20-30 minutes from Kuta/Legian/Seminyak and costs around AU$10.

    5. Currency

    Indonesia’s currency is the rupiah (“IDR”). AU$1 = 10,000 IDR and US$1 = 13,300 IDR. 

    Prices are commonly abbreviated to 10K, 130K and so on. A trick that helps me convert to Australian dollars is to just mentally put a decimal point before the last number. For example 10K = $1.0, and 130K = $13.0. Other times, prices are written in full. Just ignore the last three digits then put a decimal before the last number. Or just download XE Currency

    Taxes usually aren’t included in prices, indicated by “++” after the price. Be warned: they can range from 12.5% up to 21%! Credit cards are widely accepted but if you need cash, ATMs are common too. I’ve never used a money changer but I do keep some Australian dollars in case of an emergency.

     Seminyak Beach: working up a sweat with an 8am walk
    Seminyak Beach: working up a sweat with an 8am walk

    6. Language

    I learnt Indonesian at primary school, meaning I’m actually qualified to write the following paragraph. Indonesian is pronounced exactly as you read it, except the letter “c” is pronounced “ch”. Here are some basics: 

    • Selamat pagi – Good morning
    • Terimah kasih – Thank you
    • Bagus – good
    • Ayam – chicken
    • Ikan – fish
    • Daging sapi – beef
    • Daging babi – pork
    • Nasi goreng/ mee goreng – fried rice / fried noodles
    • Tempe – Tempeh (fermented soy bean cake)
    • Warung – local café

    Other stuff

    Dress codes are really relaxed. I bring swimwear, shorts, a few t-shirts and a couple of dresses for five days, along with one pair of flip flops and a nice pair sandals for dining out. A maxi dress with flat shoes is perfectly acceptable attire, even for more expensive restaurants. As mentioned, Balinese footpaths are uneven so wedges and heels aren’t advised! For men, boardshorts and singlets are fine during the day and at plenty of bars at night too. Think ‘resort casual’ if dining at fancier places. My boyfriend’s never had a problem in a short sleeve, collared shirt and shorts. 

    No visa is required for Australians visiting for up to 30 days, but check the latest government advice just to be sure. 

    And that, in about 1000 words, is my best advice to first-time visitors. As mentioned, I’ll do a separate post on Bali Eats sometime because the food scene is huge, ever-changing and delicious! 

    QUESTION: What’s your advice to first-time Bali visitors? 

    Three Days in Santa Monica, California

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    Santa Monica is the absolute embodiment of California culture. Health foods, sunshine and bohemian beach fashion are everywhere. My boyfriend had been there before and assured me I’d love Santa Monica. He was right!  We stayed three nights in February as part of our three week California-Mexico trip. Despite being winter, each day was glorious and sun-soaked and Santa Monica formed some of the best memories of the holiday. If you’re looking for a base in Los Angeles and want to be beachside, I can’t recommend it enough.

    Three days would be plenty, although my “do it in a day” suggestion is below too. If you’re not a shopper or sun-lover, you could sub a day with other LA sightseeing, like Hollywood Strip or Universal Studios. More on those another time. For now, here are my Santa Monica highlights!

     Santa Monica Beach at sunset
    Santa Monica Beach at sunset

    DAY ONE 

    Santa Monica Beach

    The sandy shores of Santa Monica Beach span far and wide. Embrace the Pacific Ocean with a surf, swim or stroll before paying homage to Muscle Beach, which spurred the US fitness revolution from the 1930s. There’s some equipment if you feel like a work out, otherwise watch the talents of athletic types, circus folk and ordinary citizens. It was too cold to get in the water during our February visit, but people watching and having sand between our toes still felt pretty good. 

    Santa Monica Pier 

    It’s the most iconic feature of Santa Monica and you can’t miss it! Santa Monica Pier boasts a ferris wheel, rollercoaster, arcade, plenty of restaurants and a few stores. There are historical walking tours on weekends but I adore the atmosphere of carnivals after dark, and the Pier is perfect for an old-fashioned date night. We walked the length of the Pier one mild evening and rode the famous ferris wheel. To be honest, the ride was a bit disappointing as it only went around a few times and didn’t reach that high. But it sure was romantic to snuggle up and take in the night lights.

    If you haven’t experienced American fair food, you can get your funnel cake fix or root beer float right here. If you prefer sit-down dining, restaurant options include Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Read more about the Pier here: http://santamonicapier.org.

    DAY TWO

    Go Shopping

    Repeat after me… THIRD STREET PROMENADE. Every retailer you could ever want is in this glorious street and when I’m in the United States, that’s exactly what I want! This pedestrianised, open air mall spans about three blocks and features Urban Outfitters, Banana Republic, M.A.C., Victoria’s Secret, Apple, Lululemon, Zara, Tiffany & Co., Free People and Anthropologie, along with Barnes and Noble, Paper Source and Papyrus. I literally spent an entire day here, stopping briefly in Starbucks to refuel around 4pm when my hotel buffet breakfast had worn off. 

    Most stores are open until 9pm so you can literally shop all day, all night. There’s also a movie theatre and plenty of dining options around too, along with a valuable set of public restrooms near Athleta. Click here for a directory of Santa Monica Place, and here for another broader list.

    All that shopping is bound to leave you thirsty, so head to West 4th and Jane and sample the best local beers. It was this venue where my boyfriend and I first discovered “sours,” a type of beer that’s tarty and almost cranberry like. Staff kept replenishing the paddle with other feature brews while we played a fierce competition of Connect 4.  

     Cycling the Santa Monica coast
    Cycling the Santa Monica coast

    DAY THREE

    Cycle the Coast

    Whether it was the sunshine or exercise endorphins, cycling along the Santa Monica coast was an absolute highlight of the trip. We rented our retro bikes from Santa Monica Beach Bicycle Rentals on 4th Street for US$15/each for the day (and yes, it’s right near the aforementioned West 4th and Jane pub).

    From there, we cycled on the grass-lined, coastal footpath of Ocean Avenue before making our way down to the beach path. We continued at a leisurely pace past runners, families and tourists to another famous LA beach, Venice. Cycling was such a good way to take it all in, and we kept riding until Marina Del Ray (about 4 miles or 6 kilometres). Getting across the Marina looked like it’d take some time, so we turned around and had lunch in Venice.

      Simmzy's:  Beer served in skateboards
    Simmzy’s: Beer served in skateboards

      Simmzy's:  Quinoa, edamame and peanut bowl plus BEER
    Simmzy’s: Quinoa, edamame and peanut bowl plus BEER

    There was a huge line outside Venice Ale House so we went to Simmzy’s, which had great online reviews and importantly: BEER. The daily selection was served to us on a skateboard (yes, a skateboard) and the food was great as well. We asked staff if we could try another round of beers and they were happy to oblige. I think we went a third round too. The cycle back was a bit wobbly but we survived.

    ONLY HAVE ONE DAY?

    Start with hiring bikes and cycle along the coast to Venice Beach. Try some beers and food, cycle back and check out Third Street Promenade. As the sun sets, head to Santa Monica Pier.

    GETTING THERE & AROUND

    Santa Monica is about 30 minutes by car or cab from LAX Airport. Once you’re there, you can easily get around on foot. We relied on buses, trains and ridesharing to get us to other parts of LA as the Santa Monica Metro station was still under construction during our visit (it opened three months later, in May 2016).

    WHERE TO SLEEP?

    We stayed at the DoubleTree Suites on 4th Street, mostly because of its location. The hotel is 10 minutes walk to Third Street Promenade and 10 minutes walk to the beach. My boyfriend also had Hilton Honours Diamond membership, meaning we were guaranteed an upgrade, free Internet and free breakfast. We had a 10pm flight so baggage storage was also important to us, something not guaranteed with Airbnb.

    Our king bedroom suite (US$250/night + 11% tax) was bright, spacious and while the style was a little dated, the fit out felt fairly new. The breakfast buffet was huge – cereals, breads, pastries, fresh fruit, cold cuts, hot items such as beans and sausage, and made to order omelettes. It was for this reason we hardly ate lunch during our stay! The gym was also near new (although I did most of my cardio on Third Street Promenade). 

    Staying in Santa Monica was a real insight into just how diverse LA is and gave me such a real appreciation for Californian lifestyle. Given flights between the US and Australia are so cheap lately, there’s a good chance I’ll be passing through this city again soon. I know where I’ll be staying! 

    QUESTION: What’s your favourite ‘hood in LA?