The Catalina Island Guide For Everyone

My second time visiting Catalina made me fall even more in love with this island just off the Southern California coast. This time around, I was not pregnant and it was one of my first trips away from my infant daughter–meaning MOM WAS OFF DUTY! I was ready to dive into all the experiences on Catalina that I couldn’t do the first time around.

What always gets me is how This island is popular for all types of travelers–from the wee ones to the older set, the luxury seekers to the adrenaline junkies. With 48 hours to enjoy, I chose to do a little bit of everything.

THE OUTDOOR ADVENTURER

Highlights: I enjoyed a whole new perspective of Catalina from the treetops. The Aerial Adventure ropes course has routes for beginners to the experts. The beautifully designed courses subtly blend in with the surrounding nature. Challenge yourself to jump off platforms, maneuver around and balance feet above the ground.

Tips: Work up your confidence by starting with one of the two beginner routes. Once you get the hang of the ropes and clipping/unclipping, you can move on to the intermediate and advanced routes.

Cost: Adults, $49.95, Children/Seniors/Military: $39.95

Also check out: Zipline Eco Tour

THE LUXURY SEEKER

Highlights: The former Wrigley residence, the Mt Ada hotel is only accessible for those staying in one of the 12 guest rooms– unless you have a lunch reservation. Step inside this former Wrigley residence to enjoy a memorable lunch on their wraparound patio, which might be my favorite view of Catalina Island. The three course lunch includes your choice of champagne, wine or beer.

Tips: Take a golf cart up to the hotel for a scenic drive.

Cost: $62 per person

Also check out: the Island Spa Catalina to pamper yourself poolside.

THE WATER BABY

  • Kayaking off of Descanso Beach

Highlights: The waters around Catalina are crystal clear and a stunning turquoise shade of blue. Appreciate their clarity upclose from your own kayak. You can opt for a guided tour or just taking one out on your own and either way, you’ll be rewarded with a breathtaking coastal views and new appreciation for California’s rugged beauty.

Tips: Take the Journey to Frog Rock tour to be treated to insider knowledge on the island and a stop on a breathtaking beach only accessible by boat.

Cost: $22 Single Kayak, $30 Double Kayak; Frog Rock Tour: $54 Adults, Children 25% off

Also check out: Snorkeling

THE HISTORY BUFF

Highlights: I wouldn’t say I seek out every museum when I travel but I am sure glad that I toured the recently built Catalina Museum. The building itself is a work of art and the exhibits are fascinating. Walk through on your own or take a guided tour to learn about the stories that give this island its unique personality. From Hollywood starlets to presidents, baseball heroes to wartime tales–Catalina’s history is truly unexpected and exciting.

Tips: Come for one of their monthly outdoor movie screenings located on the roof. Do not miss the Bird Park exhibit that shares the quirky history of the exotic bird sanctuary that once existed in town.

Cost: $17 Adults/Children (under 15) Free

Also check out: Wrigley’s Catalina

THE FAMILY TRIP

Highlights: Just under the water, there’s a whole new world of marine life. Dive into it without ever getting wet on the Undersea Expedition. It’s a safe, comfortable way for an up close look at the vivid Garibaldi, the impressive kelp forests and maybe an occasional dolphin if you are lucky.

Photo courtesy of Catalina Undersea Adventure

Tips: Be prepared for lots of photo opportunities both in the submersible and above the water when they sail back on the surface.

Cost: $39.95 Adults/$37.95 Children

Also check out: Glass Bottom Boat Voyage

THE FOOD FOCUSED

Highlights: A circular bar, comfortable booths and water views, the Avalon Grille tastes as good as it looks. Menu signatures include the hangar steak and the pan seared scallops and I particularly loved the tempura green beans.

Tips: This restaurant is popular so definitely book ahead. And order yourself a Wrigley Martini for me.

Cost: Appetizers around $18, Entrées around $35

Also check out: Bluewater Grill

IMPORTANT TRAVEL DETAILS

Where to Stay: The Pavilion Hotel

Personally, I wouldn’t want to stay anywhere else. The waterfront location is an easy walk from the ferry and perfectly situated to access all the main spots in Avalon by foot.

I love the tropical courtyard where you can enjoy their included (hearty) breakfast spread in the cool mornings or toast to a fun day next to the fire pits during the complimentary wine hour. The crisp, nautical rooms are spacious and comfortable and the included bike rental was very helpful for getting around.

Cost:  $180 to $350 per night, dependent on season

Getting There: Catalina Express

The ferry ride is half the fun of going to Catalina, in my opinion. With many departures daily, this hour cruise covers the 22 watery miles in just an hour. Sip on bloody marys in the Commodore’s Lounge or soak up the sun on the outer deck. You might even spot a dolphin or a whale! Cost: $74.50 Adult Roundtrip/ $59 Children Roundtrip/ Under 2 years old Free

Winter in Vermont at the Woodstock Inn and Resort

Each time I go back to my little Vermont hometown, I am reminded that I basically grew up in a storybook. Woodstock, Vermont is a bucolic little village nestled amidst rolling hills, hugging a charming center green and a briskly flowing river.  Stone, brick and cape houses line the ambling streets that make up this 3000 person town, every bend of it steeped in time.

The Woodstock Covered Bridge

The Woodstock Covered Bridge

It’s no surprise that my fellow New Englanders know of Woodstock, VT. I’d even say, many beyond the Northeast are aware of this popular weekend hideaway. For such a small town, its reputation precedes itself — and for good reason.

The hectic, digital day-to-day stresses are buried beneath the quiet splendor of village strolls, breathtaking hikes up Mount Tom or afternoons spent skipping rocks along the river.

Though you do get cell service here now (we didn’t when I was growing up), you just might want to turn off your phone and enjoy the rare and simple pleasures of this place.

When asked about Woodstock, the one word that usually comes to my mind is “quaint.” But don’t get my wrong,  that doesn’t mean it is boring! There’s a lot of energy in this 350 year old town, and every time I return, I see that energy increasing. I’d attribute a lot of that forward progress to the town’s centerpiece, the Woodstock Inn and Resort. (My father runs his jewelry shop in the heart of town, and has for the last 30 years, and he definitely agrees that the Inn is a huge factor in keeping Woodstock so relevant.)

Gillingham’s, the town general store

Some iteration of the Woodstock Inn & Resort has been welcoming guests for 225 years.That is crazy! I’ve traveled all over the world, filming some of the world’s best hotels, and that type of hotel history very is RARE, especially in the USA.

The Inn started out as a small bed & breakfast, and over the centuries continued to expand and gain more and more popularity. In the mid 1900s, Laurance Rockefeller, a former resident of Woodstock, bought the hotel and it was under his leadership for 50 years. He definitely helped to put it on the luxury hotel map, in a big way.

I am very fortunate to have had such a legendary resort in my hometown backyard. It has been part of my family’s story forever, playing host to special dinners, celebratory breakfasts, parties and even prom!

Woodstock Inn during Christmas

It was such a treat to return to the Inn just after Christmas and share this special hotel with my daughter, Aurora. I look for different things in hotels now that I am a mom and I have to say, the Woodstock Inn & Resort surprised me with being exceptionally family friendly. They had undergone expansive improvements when I filmed the property in 2013 for my Get Lost in Woodstock series but now, they’ve added even more luxurious detail to all the public areas and the guest rooms in particular. 

 

Fireside Ambiance

Fireplace at the Woodstock Inn

Fireplace at the Woodstock Inn

Ever since I was a little kid, I was drawn to the oversized fireplace that greets you as walk through the Inn’s entrance. The cozy feeling with the couches and sitting areas, beautiful wall color and attention to detail, makes the entire main area of the Inn so welcoming. I wanted to sit in on each sofa and relax with a cup of tea (you can actually do that during their daily afternoon tea time). We of course didn’t have spare moments for that with a 6 month old, but it was fun to daydream about as I hurriedly walked past these lovely areas with my tired/hungry/active baby. 

 

Legacy Suites

Having a little one with a strict bedtime of 7pm complicates hotel life a bit for us parents. After 7pm, it is lights out (and complete silence) so having an additional room is more than necessary. We absolutely loved the newly renovated Legacy Suite. Ours in particular was the Frederick Billings Suite, the legendary local that was a pioneer in the farm industry and a famous face in Woodstock. It was situated in the main part of the inn and had tasteful decor that highlighted Vermont’s farm history. 

Woodstock Inn & Resort

As you enter, there’s a long tiled hallway to the bedroom and adjoining sitting room. (You can see a walkthrough on my Instagram stories here) I loved how the suite was situated far from the door, with the bedroom set back against a lovely view of the Inn’s snowy backyard. This distance made the whole suite feel more private and like our own apartment as opposed to a hotel room.

Frederick Billings Legacy Suite

The stone bathroom and rain shower with Zents products was modern and chic. The separate sitting room was decorated in rich hues and woods, making it feel like a cozy study. Though it had a wet bar, TV and pull out couch, this room became our daughter, Aurora’s room. The Inn provided a crib and we set up her changing area and toys in here. It was perfect! She happily napped here throughout the day and fell asleep at 7pm each night, and mom & dad could close the door and relax.

We were even able to order room service and hang out for a few more hours with my parents while Aurora happily dozed next door. This is a parents’ dream! We had the best of the Inn’s dining and didn’t have to disrupt our daughter’s sleep. 

Room Service dinner with the parents!

 

Red Rooster

Breakfast at the Red Rooster

What a delicious way to start the day! My parents met us here at The Red Rooster for breakfast and we all followed our noses to the two rooms filled with a sumptuous breakfast buffet. Fresh fruits, made-to-order omelets, a variety of homemade pastries and specially crafted breakfast treats awaited our empty plates. I was especially excited to see the giant, serve yourself maple syrup stand! (As a Vermonter, it runs in my veins of course 😉 

VT SYRUP! YES PLEASE!


Happiest Hour

A favorite of my parents’ for decades, Richardson’s Tavern has not lost any of its signature warm ambiance. The dimly lit room is where you want to be to unwind fireside after a wintery day, holding a drink and enjoying pub style bite.

Red Rooster Cocktail Bar

Red Rooster Cocktail Bar

I also was impressed by the newer bar at the Red Rooster. A brighter version of the tavern, the bartender makes excellent cocktails here and I loved the elegant style of this space and its marble bar.

 

Retro Game Room

Game Room at the Woodstock Inn

Retro Game Room at the Woodstock Inn

Even in the game room, the Inn retains its personality here. This classy area showcased working vintage pinball machines and a long wooden shuffleboard table. There was a pool table, a fireplace and more–no wonder it was packed! These games might have been out of Aurora’s age range, but hey, they sure entertained her competitive parents very well.

 

Woodstock Athletic Club

I am very familiar with the Woodstock Inn’s Athletic Club as I used to be a part of the Woodstock’s high school tennis team and these were our home courts. All guests of the Inn have free access to the pool, gym, tennis courts and workout classes. We opted to take a dip in the pool as Aurora finds pool time SUPER exciting. I think she thinks we are all taking a big bath with her. We splashed around and enjoyed ourselves for a morning.

 

Suicide Six Ski Area

We left Aurora with her grandma and myself, my husband and my dad hit the slopes of Suicide Six! My first time of skis was on this bunny hill and I spent too many afternoons and weekends skiing all these trails with my dad and friends throughout the years.

Located just 15 minutes from the Inn, this mountain is perfect for those that are into a fun, laidback day on the slopes. A brand new quad eliminated any lines for us and their snowmaking and grooming made for excellent conditions on the trails that were open.

Skiing with my dad at Suicide Six, like I did as kid!

By no means is this a large mountain, but its trails are beautifully cut through the forest (I even saw animal tracks as I skiied down). The classic lodge makes you feel like you are back in time and reminded me that this is one of the oldest ski areas in the country.

 

Billings Farm & Museum

Aurora did join us for a tour of Woodstock’s signature Billings Farm & Museum. It was so nice that the Woodstock Inn provides all guests with free entry to this unique local historical site and working dairy farm.

We did a self guided tour of the stables, the goat shed, chicken coop and cow barn. DO NOT MISS THE BABY COW NURSERY. It might be one of the cutest, up close experiences I’ve ever had baby animals. The baby cows were unbelievably friendly and social–they kept licking Aurora and nibbling on my clothes. She (and I) was shrieking with delight!

We were fortunate to make the talk about cows with a farmer in the dairy barn. Aurora’s eyes widened as she viewed her first full grown cow. The farmer on site gave us a lot of amazing information about these cows, how Billings Farm cares for them, their breeding, and their personalities! Aurora and I even got to brush one! 

It was with a heavy heart that we checked out and had to bid farewell to Woodstock. However, just like it has been throughout my life, the Woodstock Inn & Resort was the perfect backdrop to so many special memories with my parents, my husband and especially, our daughter.

I still cannot speak more highly of this resort’s appreciation for its out-of-towners as well as its locals. 

There’s something about the energy of this hotel that just brings about the most joyful times, no matter what time of year.

On our next visit, Aurora will be walking (!) and I am sure that we will have a whole different story to tell! Hopefully, more baby cows and maple syrup will be included. 

 

 

Pienza Tuscany family trip

Baby Travel Essentials: How To Travel to Italy with a 5 Month Old

Taking a 5 month old on a 13 hour direct flight trip, across many time zones, for 10 days should not be taken lightly. But I’ve dedicated my life to travel so I wasn’t going to let that intimidate me (re: I was intimidated but pushed through). Why did we decide to put ourselves through that?

Pienza Tuscany family trip

  • My husband had time off, which he rarely does.
  • I had the opportunity to stay at an amazing Tuscan hotel (look up La Bandita Townhouse if you like luxurious, historic hotels in charming villages)
  • Italy is a special place for me as my grandfather was born in a small town near Naples (where the Ferro comes from) so pasta and red wine are in my veins!
  • My husband’s first time was last winter on our babymoon and he fell in love with the country too
  • We figured, the earlier that we start traveling with the better, the easier it’ll become for our baby, and us!

Italy family trip

After having the good and the challenging (ahem, 26 hours of flying with a 5 month old), I can say that it was one of the BEST trips we’ve ever had. It was completely different than the go-go-go style of my old life, but I embraced this new type of travel and had so much fun sharing Italy with my little one. Here’s how we did it.

 

Serious Preparation

I read tons of blogs, polled friends and basically, had Amazon boxes at my door every day. There’s a lot that you can do to make your travel easier and I was prepared to find all the hacks. 

Be an Organized Packer

This a big part of the preparation. Every piece of clothing (yes, even tiny socks) was rolled and placed in a labeled Ziploc bag. This made it much easier to dress her each day and keep the suitcase organized throughout the trip. Used clothing went back in the same bag unless it was very dirty, in which it went into a bag labeled “Dirty.” All of this organization helped us to change her quickly and not lose things while in transit. 

 

BRING

  • Large Suitcase for Checking
    • Get a large checked bag where you will put all your heavy items, your own clothes and things that you or the baby won’t need in transit. For me this was where we packed the clip on high chair, breast pump, monitor, nightlight, extra bottles, toys etc.

  • All Bedtime Essentials
    • Gather all the things that help your bedtime routine & bring them! I packed a our nightlight, monitor, her own sheets, extra lovees and pacifiers so I could make her sleeping situation as close as possible to home.
  • A good Baby Carrier
    • Our Tula Baby Carrier was my favorite because it was so supportive and worked well for dad or mom. It was a lifesaver on our walks around cobbled towns where a stroller would have been impossible.
  • A Clip on High Chair
    • This depends on the baby. Aurora was too small for most high chairs at restaurants so having our own helped. However, if you baby can sit up well on their own and fits in most restaurant high chairs, don’t bring one. If you do bring one, this Inglesina one is what I recommend.
  • Stain Remover, Soap & Detergent
    • I brought small bottles of each stain remover and soap from my favorite all natural line, Puracy. This was great so I could wash bottles in the sink without worrying about what soap would be available there. I also brought the Dreft Laundry detergent sink packets which came in handy when clothes were very soiled. 
  • An Extra Lovee or 2
    • We brought 3 and only came home with 2. Lovees get lost and they are very hard to replace when abroad.
  • 2 Outfits + 1 Pajamas/day 
    • Generally, I feel like aim for 2 outfits per day + 1 pair of PJs and you will have plenty. Not all will be too dirty to rewear and you can mix and match to make new “outfits.” Be sure to bring a few things that work for the opposite weather, as you’ll never know. It was way colder than predicted so I was very reliant on the warm jacket I brought and heavy socks!
  • A Well Organized Diaper Bag
    • Forget my own bag, this is the bag that I used all day, every day. My favorite diaper bag EVER is by Pacapod because not only are they functional, with cute (ie. MAP PRINT!) pods to house your bottles and diapers but these bags also are so stylish. I was not embarrassed to be carrying the Fortuna bag around Italy. No one could tell it was concealing lots of toys, blankets, extra socks, teethers and diapers.

 

DO NOT BRING

  • Travel Crib
    • They are heavy and another thing to carry that you don’t have hands for–your hands need to be on the baby! Call your hotel and ask for a crib or if you are staying a hotel, look into services where you can rent baby gear.
  • Diapers
    • I LOVE our eco friendly, super thin yet absorbent Bambo diapers. But diapers take up a lot of room. I brought a bunch in her diaper bag a few extra in my large suitcase for the first day or two until I could get to a grocery store. In our town, the options were limited (and no, these were not dye-free or all natural) but it was a temporary solution and worked well. Plus, we saved a ton of space. Hey, your baby is “going local!”
  • Too Many CUTE Outfits
    • I was excited for her outfits and for photo opps, so I overdid it on cute clothing and Aurora never wore the same thing twice. In retrospect, she could have worn a few of those super cute outfits again. I would suggest packing only a few of those “special outfits” and stick with more of the comfortable basics. Tutus are not comfortable in a baby carrier.
  • Too Many Toys
    • I limited it to 2 books and one Ziploc of small, lightweight toys. I even think this was too many! We ended up buying her a few things and of course, she was most interested in every day things as we were out and about (like water bottles, spoons, plants etc).

 

Consolidate Your Big Gear

Did you know that you can find a car seat and stroller in one? You can and it is called the DOONA! We didn’t know about it until I talked to the veteran baby travel mama, Natalie DiScala. (This blog post from GQTripping also confirms the love of the Doona).

We purchased Natalie’s Doona car seat/stroller as her son had outgrown it and it was a game-changer for us. This nifty little stroller folds up compactly into a car seat and was key for getting us in and out of the car quickly. We saved space in our trunk and didn’t have to deal with a stroller and carrying a car seat at the same at the airport. Aurora never loved being in the car but I felt that she didn’t HATE this car seat as much as others.

Also, I still use this a lot now for quick trips when I don’t have our car seat, and just used it on a recent trip home for the holidays. Aurora was very comfortable in it and even slept in it a few times. Anything to cut down on the big gear makes traveling easier. You can find it here on my travel tips list on Amazon

Pienza, Tuscany

 

Use a Baby Carrier

I mentioned this already, but the quickest and easiest way to move around a new destination is with the baby strapped on! My girl loves it especially now that she can face out and see the world. This kept her engaged and happy as we toured through towns. My husband ended up wearing her more because he liked it.

We’ve used 4 different carriers and this Tula is my pick for Aurora’s weight (16lb) and for wearing a baby for a long time. It is more supportive than the others and the baby feels very securely fastened. I also like that it has a little pocket for your phone or wallet in the front. She seemed very comfortable in it!

 

Stay in One Spot

Before baby, my trips were FAST PACED. I’d spend a night or two in spot and then move on to the next place. I’ve even done two week long work long trips where I’ve moved hotels EVERY night. Not ideal, but totally doable… without a baby.

Now with Baby A, we decided to find ONE home base. Be careful when choosing this location as you will be spending a lot of time there! It will be your jumping off  for day excursions (and it’d be nice if you can walk out your door to things. I loved that we could walk to happy hour with the baby, or I could jet out to shop while she napped and my husband stayed in.

Keeping your new “home” in one spot, will really help your baby to adjust to the new environment, schedule and time zone. She will get used to the new rhythm and her new space. Plus, you’ll save yourself the headache of packing everything up, transporting your family and then unpacking again if you limit it to one spot.  

Once you are settled, you can enjoy more!

We chose Pienza, a small but not too small village in Tuscany, that was smack in the middle of the picturesque Val D’Orcia. This region is a UNESCO World Heritage site for its stunning rolling hills, farmhouse and cypress trees. It is exactly what you picture when you hear “Tuscany.”

Pienza also happened to be about 15-20 minutes from many medieval villages and famous towns like Montepulciano and Montalcino, which was the perfect length for day trips.

Note: Some babies like the car and won’t mind longer car trips. For us, Aurora hates the car so we really could only handle 30 minutes max in a car as it was often a loud, stressful ride…

 

Consider Your Accommodations

We got lucky that our incredible boutique hotel, La Bandita Townhouse, almost felt like our own swanky Italian apartment. We had a magnificently modern suite, with a separate room for Aurora. This meant that nap & bedtime, we could close the door and read, relax or even one of us could go shopping (guess who that was… :).

It also had a lovely lounge and honor bar, just outside our door and our monitor reached here! This meant we could both sit in the lounge, listen to records, have a glass of wine and plan our next day, all while baby Aurora snoozed peacefully just steps away.

Another huge benefit of this hotel was the location. We were literally on the best street in town, so we could walk out the door for coffee, a snack or just a stroll, without ever having to get the car. This made us feel much more free and allowed us to use our windows of awake time with Aurora wisely.

Not all hotels will be this baby friendly. Having a separate room is crucial, so looking into rental houses or apartments, would be very wise. Also, having a kitchen would have been great. We managed just fine with a mini fridge and espresso maker, but a kitchen is certainly important when your baby is moving onto solids too.

Put Your Baby on the Right Schedule for the Destination

We decided to make Aurora’s schedule 9am to 9pm to accommodate the Italian lifestyle and allow us to go out to dinner. As were crossing time zones, her time was all messed up anyway so it was almost easier to do this than force the usual 7 to 7.

Do One Big Excursion Per Day

During the day, maximized her awake and napping time. In the morning, we always did breakfast at our hotel then a quick walk outside. After, we had a little floor time in our room so Aurora could stretch her legs, then it was nap time. During the first nap, one of us would go out and explore town while the other plotted where we’d be off to when she woke.

 

After she woke up, we’d take a bottle for the road and drive to a new town for lunch and exploring. Lunch was our big meal out as she was rested and happy. We’d walk around the town, maybe make another stop at a farm, vineyard or village on the way home and then get her back to the hotel so she could get a solid afternoon nap.

Very few times she fell asleep in the car, and in those instances, we’d continue to drive around the beautiful valley. We never strayed too far from home though just in case we had to get back right away.

After her second nap, we’d go out for a happy hour drink or a sunset stroll. Then, play time back at the hotel and a cat nap. She’d wake usually around 630pm so we’d get her ready for an early dinner in town. We always just walked to a nearby spot, which was a huge benefit of our town and hotel. The Italians did think that we were crazy wanting to eat dinner at 7pm or 730pm and often we were the first people in the restaurant–but at least we got to eat out!

 

Just Roll With It

There were many times were the schedule did not go so smoothly. She’d miss a nap or wake up early, or just fuss her whole time awake. That happened and though it was stressful at the time, we still reminded each other how awesome it was that we were even there. Sure, she was fussing but we were in Italy, eating amazing food, seeing beautiful things and we were together, so felt like it was all worth it. I’d rather be with a fussy baby in Italy than a fussy baby at home, right?!

One night in particular while we were out at the one dinner we had to drive 10 minutes too in Bagno Vignoni, Aurora was especially cranky. She wouldn’t be contented, no matter what we did–walked her around, held her, bounced her etc. It was very stressful as this was a very nice restaurant and it also was…very quiet. Not a great combo for a cranky baby.

The older Italian couple at the table nearby turned to us and said, “We’ve all been there. Don’t even worry. She is perfect.”  They even offer to hold her, which we took them up on. She was giggle and we exhaled. In those heightened moments, it was the perfect reminder that babies will be babies and most people get that and aren’t bothered as much as we were.

 

Trust us, it is worth it!

Each day was an adventure but each day was so special and memorable. I know Aurora might not remember the piglets she petted or her first taste of mozzarella or Tuscan bread, but I do think it impacted her ability to be versatile and open-minded to the new. She smiled at strangers, looked intently at everything from her baby carrier view and settled into her new sleeping situation and timezone faster than we could imagined.

 

The biggest hurdle was of course, the flight, but I need a whole other post to talk about that…coming soon!

 

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What are your tips for traveling with a young baby? Please drop your comments below!

 

Xoxo

Kelley

 

Best (and worst) Food in Setouchi, Japan

I am not ashamed to admit that the quality and variety of food factors greatly into my overall impression of a place. As someone that seeks out groceries and restaurants that are as clean and close to the source as possible, I have high expectations when I travel. To be honest, I often find that international destinations actually do have less processed cuisine than use over here in America.

Miyajima street eats

Well my experience in Japan took local food to a whole new level. I had been to Japan once before, exploring the Tohoku Region with CNN. It was there that I realized that Japanese food is not just sushi. However, the sushi still is really good but on this 2 week exploration in Setouchi, I had two very good reasons to push the boundaries of the culinary side of Japan.


Firstly, we were shooting one entire episode just on the best local food and local drinks in the Setouchi region. Secondly, I was pregnant during the entire shoot, which greatly limited my fish intake to those with low levels of mercury (and I hate to say it, a lot of seafood around the world is very high in mercury). So I was ready to dive into noodles, tempura, local game, river fish and various wild looking snacks that I grabbed from street vendors on the way.

You can watch the video to go deep into all the top dishes, restaurants and traditional cuisine of Setouchi. However below, I’m going to recap my personal favorites.

 

Udon Noodles: Thick and Thin

I got quite the education in Japanese noodles. I had no idea how many types of noodles this country could lay claim too! Also, many of the regions in Japan have their own signature noodle. In Setouchi, it was udon. To understand the intricacies of this chewy, satisfying, slurpy noodle, we went to the source: the Nakano Udon School.

Nakano Udon School

 There, classroom style, we learned about udon, from the ingredients to the finished product. Our very entertaining teacher was strict, in a funny way, and she required that after we prepared our noodle dough out of flour, salt and water, we had to wrap it and dance on it to make it soft. Yes, dance. She blasted “YMCA” and other 70s dance hits, all while yelling at us to keep dancing.

I definitely burned off the calories to eat my creation, which we did at the end. After the dancing, we flattened and then folded the noodles so we could cut into long, even strands. Mine weren’t as perfect as hers, but they did taste good!

Hiroshima Udon

We also ate super thick, gelatinous Shinsho-ji Udon at a Gokando, a beautiful garden in the Hiroshima prefecture. The was a whole different style of udon, rolled as thick as 3 straws and placed in a communal hot water pail. From there, we used wide chopsticks to fish out one long noodle strand and place it in our own bowl. There was a selection of delicious toppings, which you can add to your taste. I loved the salts and chilis!

Shinshoji udon

 

Soba Noodles (Handmade by a singing mountain local)

I love all sorts of noodles but I think that Japanese soba noodles are my favorites. I love the buckwheat flour used in them, giving them that earthy flavor and grainy texture. I also usually love the salty broth that they are served in. 

My favorite soba noodle award goes to the lovely woman below, who cooked a lunch feast for us in her home/restaurant in the Iya Valley.

Handmade Soba in Iya valley

Located on the edge of a cliff road, we took off our shoes and walked into what felt like her home (her home actually was attached). She watched us with delight as we ate all the deliciousness that she had prepared for us, including heaps of these soba noodles.

Our dessert? A song! She was a famous singer and unprompted, she stood up and starting singing a ballad in Japanese. Now that is a memorable way to end a meal.

 

Matcha Tea

Matcha tea iyaI drank copious amounts of tea while in Japan–it is served at every meal! But I developed a new love of matcha tea when we tried it at a roadside stop of another tiny mountain town in the Iya Valley. We were welcomed in with song, dance and costume by the proprietor, a spry, smiley older woman that is known for her enthusiasm.

Matcha Green Tea Iya Japan

She showed me how to grind the matcha using a traditional grinder, then she placed heaping spoonfuls in my cup, covering them with hot water.

As I sipped this rich, green liquid, she pointed out the window at the verdant mountainside across the river. That was where the tea leaves of this same matcha were grown. It only made it taste that much better.

 

Tempura

I’d had tempura before in the States so I thought I “knew” tempura. Well, I was wrong. Tempura in Japan is not the thick or greasy style that I’d had before. It is instead, delicately battered and just lightly fried, which only brings out the flavor of whatever delicious vegetable, starch or meat that was lucky enough to be “tempura-ed.” I loved all the tempura vegetables that we tried specifically the lotus, pumpkin and squash.

Tempura Shrimp Onomichi

However, I think my favorite was the tempura shrimp which we enjoyed in Onomichi (see above). The most exotic? Tempura wild deer. It was actually delicious!

 

Shabu-shabu

What a perfect meal! Shabu-shabu is also known as hot pot. It is when a large pot of lightly seasoned broth is served boiling with various raw vegetables, starches and meats. The meat is usually very thinly sliced beef to make for quick cooking. Not only does everything taste so flavorful, it is prepared exactly as you like it! And I love that it felt relatively light since no oil is used!

Shabu Shabu JapanWe enjoyed Shabu shabu feast up in the mountains of the Iya Valley, at our kominka. A local woman prepared so many dishes, in addition to the shabu, all from locally grown, raised and hunted sources. I never wanted to stop eating!

Shabu Shabu Japan

 

 

Kobe Beef

Of course this beef has international acclaim but I have to say, it lives up to the hype. I enjoy a good steak every now and then, but the grass fed, tenderly aged kobe beef is a totally different dish.

We went to Kobe Misono, the restaurant that launched the worldwide chain known as “Benihana.” It was fun because we were able to watch the expertly trained chefs prepare and cook the kobe beef right in front of us. What was impressive was how little was need to transform these perfectly cooked morsels into some of the best meaty bites I’d ever have. Just a little salt, a drop of oil, a sear on all the sides and done. Pop that in your mouth and you’ll know why kobe beef has such a big fanclub.

kobe beef kobe misono

 

Arima Cider Teppo Water

Arima Cider Teppo Water

In the hot spring town of Arima, everything revolves around the legendary hot springs. Not only do you soak in these therapeutic waters, but you can DRINK them too! Grab a bottle of the Arima Cider, made from the local hot spring water, and you’ll feel like a kid again with that bubble gum flavor! I don’t love soda but I did love this drink!

 

Favorite Meal: Kaiseki at Ryokan Kurashiki

There wasn’t one dish that I loved here–it was all of them. The whole 4 hours of this tasting menu experience was made memorable by the exquisite service and talented chefs behind each bite. I shouldn’t be surprised, the Ryokan Kurashiki is known to be one of the most luxurious ryokans in Setouchi! There was no detail overlooked.

Ryokan Kurashiki Kaiseki

The menu is seasonal and since it was late fall, early winter, we enjoyed root vegetables and wild game, as well as locally caught fish. The presentation of each course was mind-blowing. Tiny personal grills allowed us to grill our own meat, individual shabu hot pots and ornate bites displayed in fruits. There was even a wasabi root on the table with a grater so we could grate our own fresh wasabi!

 

….Dishes that I did NOT love:

Just for fun, I wanted to include a few things that I tried that I did not love so much. Every culture is bound to have food that you don’t like (see you later, France’s foie gras) and there are many American dishes that I despise too. But in Japan the list was short. Here are a few.

Kakiwai Miyajima

Fermented Oysters

Miyajima is known for having fresh oysters and you see them in every style. While I don’t go crazy over an oyster, I don’t mind them. However, I found out that I do not like them fermented. We went to a lovely coffeehouse overlooking the slope down to the sea on this magical isle. It was there that I tried their signature fermented oyster. Not only was the visual not appetizing to me, I did not enjoy the taste. I ate it to be polite and of course, for the camera, but to be honest, I did not go back for another bite. Those I was with did like it a lot so clearly it was just a matter of taste.

 

Salt Ice Cream with Red Bean

Salt Ice Cream Red Bean Paste Japan

Ice cream is everything to me so I had to try the popular salt ice cream with red bean paste when we stopped at one of Japan’s roadside food marts (they are incredible by the way!). So the verdict? It definitely looks better than it tastes. This soft serve ice cream is extremely salty–so much so that it was hard to swallow. The slightly sweet red bean paste had little flavor and was an odd textural combo with the ice cream. I didn’t despise it but I definitely didn’t see the appeal, particularly with how much sodium must be in each lick!

 

Calpis Water

Don’t be fooled, this is not water. This opaque, white drink is actually made with milk and lactic acid, so it is fermented milk water. It has a strange, slightly fizzy feel on your tongue and the flavor was not enjoyable in my opinion. I prefer the green teas or sparkling waters that I found at the food marts instead!

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Have you tried any of these before? Tell me what you thought!

 

xo

Kelley

torii gate

Top 5 Adventures in Setouchi, Japan

Japan might be synonymous with gardens, temples, sushi and cherry blossoms, but did you also realize that it is home to a wild variety of adventures? I spent 2 weeks exploring the Setouchi Region in Southwest Japan, which is famous for its breathtaking landscapes so it’s no surprise that outdoor adventures are plentiful here. I had no idea that Japan looked like this! We explored beaches and coasts, clear waters, rugged mountains, sweeping valleys and iconic cities throughout this region, and it is the adventures that stand out to me most. Here is a list of my favorite experiences throughout the region. Note that since Setouchi is all about the Seto Inland Sea, each of these experiences have to do with water in some way.

  1. Kayak the Floating Gate

torii gate

 

You’ve probably seen images of this incredible gate, the entrance to Itsukushima Shrine. Itsukushima is a Shinto Shrine and World Heritage Site, and I think it is a marvel unto itself. Built to honor the gods of the sea, it has been a popular place of worship for sea travels ever since the Edo period. This outdoor shrine is located on the shores of the sacred Miyajima Island, constructed near and even in the water. But this particular torii gate might be one of Japan’s most iconic images. The gate is built right on the water so during high tide, when the water surrounds it, it appears to be floating. High tide is the perfect time to see it up close, by kayaking!

Itsukushima Shrine

We rented kayaks from a small shop, right in the center of town. They helped us bring the kayaks out to the shore and provided a guide to help us paddle and navigate the two-seater kayaks. It was helpful to have help paddling since I had to stop a few times to take photos! I couldn’t believe how stunning the gate was as we passed through it. The vermillion color, the ornate carvings and the striking backdrop is even more tremendous when you experience it on the water. I will cherish the photos I took of this kayak adventure forever.

 

2. Fly in a Seaplane

Setouchi Seaplanes flight seaplane

The Seto Inland Sea is home to thousands of islands and it is probably the most dramatic part of this entire region. To take in the breadth of the sea as well as the beauty of the terrain, a seaplane gives you an incomparable perspective.

Setouchi Seaplanes

I couldn’t recommend Setouchi Seaplanes more. This company has an ultra hip, ultra modern checkin counter and lounge, complete with complimentary drinks and snacks. Check out their cute selection of souvenirs from their gift shop.

From there, you are guided onto the dock for a quick security check and then onto the seaplane. With one seat on either side, and 3 rows behind the pilots, our group of 6 had plenty of room. There are two amphibious aircraft available and I was excited that we flew in the bright red and green “L’ala Rossa.” As we took off from the water, it was exhilarating to see the islands, roads, and bridges get smaller and smaller. What I didn’t expect was how photogenic the landscape would be from this angle. I was captivated by the glittering sea, the uninhabited islands and the miniscule speeding boats as are we soared for 50 minutes. The pilots pointed out highlights along the route and I felt the entire service was very professional and the planes were very well maintained. Let’s not forget, it definitely pumps the adrenaline too!

 

3. Bike the Shimanami Kaido

Shimanami Kaido Biking

With over 37 miles of paved bike paths, it is no wonder that cyclist flock to Setouchi for their biking vacations. Not only are the paths very well constructed, they are extremely scenic as well! We picked up our bike at our homebase, the Hotel Cycle in Onomichi, and from there we biked along the coastal paths. This allowed us to stop at beaches, admire water views, cross some of Setouchi’s many architectural bridges and hop from island to island. We biked to Ikuchijima Island to explore the vivid Kosanji Temple. And if you are hungry, check out the delicious tempura restaurants in town!  

 

4. Cruise the Oboke Gorge

Oboke Gorge Iya Valley Boat

Yet another water adventure can be found away from the Seto Sea, up in the mountains of the Iya Valley on Tokushima Island. Surrounded by what seems to be endless, wooded peaks, this region is already spectacular. But try experiencing it by boat.

Oboke Gorge Iya Valley

We embarked on a sightseeing boat to explore the Oboke Gorge, a crystal clear part of the Yoshinaro River. The cruise was very relaxed and peaceful. It was such a lovely way take in the fresh air and surrounding nature of the Iya Valley. Plus the water is so clear, you are can see wild koi fish splashing about under the hull.

 

5. Cross the Kazura Bridge

Kazura Bridge Iya Valley

You wouldn’t expect a bridge to be an adventure, but this one is! The Kazura Bridge is a hanging rope bridge that spans 50 feet above a river. It is thought to have been built by the samurai that lived in these mountains, who chose to built it out of vines and ropes so they could cut it down in case they were being trailed by attackers.

Standing on the Kazura Bridge

Now it is a picturesque tourist destination for it’s Iya Valley views but also for the bragging rights of crossing it. I am not going to lie, I was a little scared when I stepped on it. I had not expected the vines to be so far apart, making me very aware of the 50 foot drop between each step. The bridge also sways with movement and with the wind, so hold on!

 

The best way to understand these adventures is to see them!

Check out my Adventure video where I dive into all these Setouchi experiences and even more that I didn’t mention! 

Kauai Sheraton Aulii Luau

Top 5 Things to do on Kauai, Hawaii

Hawaii and I are in a serious relationship. We just met last spring, when I first landed in Maui with my husband. We spent 10 days roaming her grassy hills, sand swept beaches and lush jungles. Eager to return and explore more of Hawaii’s shores, I returned to Oahu, just a few months later. This time I was on a film assignment so it was I was accompanied only by my camera. Together with our rental car, we saw all ends of the most populated island–from Waikiki to Kailua to the North Shore.

Maui sunset

Just recently,  exactly one year from my first trip to these paradisiacal islands, I flew back to Hawaii yet again. This time I was visting Kauai. What made it even more special was my mom was joining me. I couldn’t wait for her to experience the state that I loved so much. An added bonus was that since I am pregnant, this was a little mother/daughter babymoon!

Babymoon in Kauai

I’d heard all the rumors that Kauai was “the best” and I assumed that there was a reason that this verdant island was the top pick for honeymooners. But I thoroughly loved Maui and Oahu, both for different reasons; how could Kauai really compete?

From the moment I stepped outside of Kauai’s Lihue airport, I felt a big difference in just the air! The air was fragrant and more humid than other islands. As we drove to the South Shore for our stay at Ko’a Kea Resort, we passed through many lush landscapes which could have been out of Jurassic Park (it was filmed here after all!).

Koa Kea Resort Kauai pool

Our resort was a stylish boutique and it was small–which I loved. It felt totally laid-back and manageable–not a huge box style hotel. Poipu Beach was calm, clean with a good amount of sunseekers, but it not packed to the gills. There was even room for the seals that nap on the beach just about every afternoon.

Driving on Kauai

To me, Kauai is the more rugged, natural and chill version of the other islands. I’d maybe describe it as the hippie little sister with a lot of wild beauty and spiritual depth. In just 6 days, my mom and I put over 1000 miles on our car so it’s safe to say, we covered a lot of ground. However since my mom and I were not in a condition to hike, we limited activities to those accessible by easy walks, drives or boat rides. The following were the five highlights of our trip that I’d recommend to everyone–suitable for all ages and abilities. And next time I return, I plan to embark on some epic hikes, cruise the rivers on kayaks and take to the skies by helicopter.

 

  1. Snorkel with Seals 

Underwater snorkeling Poipu Beach

Poipu Beach is located in the sunny south of the island, which has the least rainfall on the island and thus the best conditions for snorkeling. It also helps that the waves are generally mild, making it family friendly and easy to see the world that is brimming with life just under the water.

Seals on Poipu Beach

I was staying just steps away from this beach at the Ko’a Kea Resort, so it made it easy to head out there each morning when the water was at its glassiest. To my surprise, the schools of brightly colored schools were just steps from the shore. I was barely standing in 4 feet of water and all I had to do was look down to see hundreds of multi hued fish! To be immersed in the marine life, snorkel between the shore and the small island off of the beach. But definitely try to get there early as many tourists know about this spot as well.

Since the seals seem to love to sunbathe on this beach, you might get lucky and be in the water as they pass by. These graceful creatures are still wild and respect them by giving them their space. If one comes near you, don’t try to touch it or swim near them. We are the outsiders in their home so we need to be good guests.

 

  1. Experience a traditional Hawaiian Luau

Aulii Luau Kauai

I love how Hawaii’s history, traditions and stories are still such a strong part of the islands today. The vibrant culture unlike any other state in the USA, let alone any other place in the world. It is so special to see how it is still alive and I think one of the best ways for mainlanders to understand it is through a luau.

Aulii Luau Sheraton Kauai

It was our first night on Kauai, we were lucky enough to attend the Aulii Luau on the South shore. My mom was giddy –this would be her first luau ever and she’d always wanted to experience one. The outdoor party was taking place at the Sheraton Kauai, just steps from their pink sand beach, in a prime spot for one of Poipu’s signature sunsets. The gold, pink, purple and orange of the sunset was just the opening act for a memorable, Hawaiian evening.

Sunset at the Aulii Luau Kauai

We had Premier seating, which allows you reserved seats at one of the front tables. General seating is at one of the long tables further back and it is first come, first served.  I recommend the Premier if you are most interested in dancing. You might be the farthest from the food, but you are closest to the stage and thus can appreciate all the details, especially the expressions on the dancers’ faces!

Kalua Pork Buffet Aulii Luau Kauai

The buffet dinner included a lot of fresh, local dishes and Hawaiian specialities. I tried the purple poi for the first time and enjoyed the kalua pig. Following the meal, there is a whole dessert table. The pineapple upside down cake was the winner there for me! We had to walk to get our own drinks which included mai tais, blue Hawaiian’s and beer and wine options. As I was pregnant, I did not indulge but my mom enjoyed a mai tai and the white wine.

But not surprisingly, the show itself was the best part. The talented dancers gave skilled, emotional performances, each one very different from the one before. The bright and wild, costumes and the tiki stage design was a sensory overload. I particularly loved the coed performance with the grass skirts. And of course, the fire dancer brought the audience to gasps, oohs and ahhs. What a way to spend our first night in Kauai!

 

  1. Cruise the Na Pali Coast by Boat

Na Pali Coast Holo Holo

This might be one of the most well-known areas of the island but no one lives here and there are no roads. The 15 miles of coastline is nature at its most beautiful. Sheer, jagged cliffs, soaring mountains and rocky coves meet the swells of the sea along this magical stretch. It is no wonder that it is such a sacred part in Hawaiian legend.

We chose to explore the coastline by boat. We embarked with Holo Holo Boat Tours, a highly rated  boat tour company that operated out of nearby Port Allen harbor. Our vessel was a 65 foot power catamaran– the island’s fastest tour boat. It was very spacious and had plenty of spaces to sit, which came in handy on this 4 hour tour.

Na Pali Coast Holo Holo Charter

The route was up to the coastline and then back, but along the way, we had quite a surprise show. Whales were jumping out of the water, slapping the surface and diving down deep, showing off their tales. I have been on whale watches before I’d never seen so many whales, so close!

Na Pali Coast tour with Holo Holo

Once we made it to Na Pali, the boat slowed down so we could fully appreciate the drama of this place. Our captain told us more about the landscape, pointing out sites of importance for the Hawaiians and even spotting a sea turtle swimming in a cave. As we cruised back down, the sun was setting and an onboard dinner was served–chips, guacamole, cheese and crackers and some delicious kalua pork tacos. This was a memorable way to spend an afternoon on Kauai and we were happy to have sailed with Holo Holo. Just note, it is a bumpy ride so be prepared for a roller coaster style ride and to get wet!

 

  1. Wake up with Waterfalls and Breakfast Bowls

Acai Bowl Kauai

The island has hundreds of waterfalls in its rich jungles, but there are five that are the most well known for their grandeur and convenience. Since we were not hiking on this trip, we chose the easiest one to drive too: Opaeka’a Falls. Located just near the cute town of Kapaa, you drive just off the main Highway 56 to a convenient parking. From here, you can view the falls from above. The 151 foot falls are 40 miles wide and lovely for a photo opp.

Opaekaa Falls Kauai

After, make sure to stop for breakfast or lunch in Kapaa. I strongly recommend the salads and coffee at the trendy Java Kai. Or if you want a cute back patio vibe with banana trees and chickens running around, EatHealthy Cafe was as delicious as it was adorable. My coconut bowl there was very memorable but their entire vegan menu looked great.

EatHealthy Cafe Kauai

 

  1. Explore the North Shore

Hanalei Bay North Shore Kauai

We stayed on the South Shore, but I had to check out the legendary North Shore of Kauai. My mom and I drove up early on a Saturday, knowing that it’ll take over an hour and it did! We headed to the town of Hanalei, nestled at the foot of vibrant green mountains and next to the surfer’s paradise of Hanalei Bay. The town had a laid-back, slightly touristy vibe, with charming shops, cafes and restaurants. We snagged a few t-shirts and some coffee before settling on a food truck for picnic lunch to go.

Fresh Bite Kauai Hanalei

Don’t be fooled, the Hanalei food trucks are excellent and we loved Fresh Bite, which served up locally grown greens and organic meats in their salads, sandwiches and poi bowls. I highly recommend grabbing your lunch to go so you can enjoy it on the sand of one of the nearby beaches. (Need more info on the food trucks? Go here.)

Mai Tai at the St Regis Princeville

After your beach day, check out a hotel icon and have drinks at the St. Regis Princeville. We were hit with a sudden rainstorm, a common occurrence on this side of the island, but that didn’t dampen our outdoor happy hour! We had a dry seat overlooking the bay and were delighted to witness a complimentary Hawaiian song and champagne sabering just before sunset.

Happy Hour at St Regis Princeville Kauai

 

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Kauai is a stunning island and for us, it was restorative, natural and just uplifting. It has an overall ambiance that is very positive if you are open to it. For a babymoon and a mother/daughter trip, it was PERFECT. But I would recommend it to all sorts of groups of friends, families, couples and adventurers! If you have any tips, please let me know for my next trip!

 

xo

Kelley

48 hours in Tokyo: Unexpected Eats in the City’s Trendiest Neighborhoods

 

Tokyo is a massive city and if you only have 48 hours, you aren’t going to see all of it. The city can be overwhelming with its sky high buildings, intimidating language and maze of concrete. But you can crack this Japanese edamame pod, you just need to start small. My best advice? Instead of trying to criss cross the city like a pinball, stick to one or two neighboring areas and DIG IN.

 

On my first trip to Tokyo, I did not follow my own advice. When I boarded my return flight to California, I carried a mental snapshots of standout locations (Asakusa, the top of the Park Hyatt, the Shibuya Crossing) but I had trekked across the city in my limited time to get these, which meant that my most prominent memory was navigating the metro system. The metro is super efficient and clean, but they aren’t always easy during rush hours, those cars will be packed so tightly, you’ll think sardines have a room life.

MoCHA cat cafe

For my second trip, I did it right. Harajuku and Omotesando are two iconic Tokyo neighborhoods that seem to be on the pulse of the city’s modern culture. They also are scenic, walkable and have a slew of fantastic shops and restaurants. And in two days, you will have time to wander the pedestrian friendly streets, check out some notable hotspots, snap photos of Japanese fashion and maybe even pet a cat or two.

 

Day 1: Harajuku

 

Harajuku is synonymous with the wild, often cartoonish, street fashions of Tokyo and Takeshita Street is the epicenter of it all. It is a shiny, bubble gum pink, cute overload — just people watching makes it worth the visit. Wander through the out-of-this-galaxy shops and pick up some unique gifts for friends at home.

Takeshita Street

Forgo the more gimmicky crepe and rainbow colored ice cream shops to indulge in the very popular Japanese trend right now: pancakes. These aren’t just any pancakes—they come in every shape, size, color and flavor. Go to Gram, on a side street just off of Takeshita. Don’t bank on sitting right away, they only serve 20 every time, starting at 11am, 3pm and 6pm. I came at 11:30am and was able to get a reservation for 3:30pm. Nothing like a mid-afternoon snack of pancakes! More on that later..

Gram Pancakes

While on Takeshita, you can experience another famous Japanese trend: the cat cafe. Cat Cafe MoCha is one of the highest rated with very clean facilities and well taken care of kitties. You leave bags and shoes in lockers at the front and head in with your cameras. The whimsical decor looks straight out of Wonderland, but I was too distracted by the orange, grey, brown and black fluffy patrons sauntering by. The cats here are VERY used to people and are not too interested in having you pet them, unless you catch them asleep. I did notice that if you have treats, you instantly become their best friends. As they charge by the 15 minute interval, make sure to check your watch every now and then.MoCHA Cat Cafe Tokyo

 

Since pancakes will be today’s dessert, have a solid lunch to start. I opted for The Great Burger, a vintage Americana style burger joint, located on some winding streets in between Harajuku and neighboring Omotesando. Their homemade milkshakes are simple and just right, while their 35+ options for burgers will definitely make choosing hard. There are plenty of other options, including vegetarian friendly meals, but if you eat meat, do yourself a favor and get one of their perfectly crafted patties.

Great Burger Tokyo

Dessert time! Gram’s signature pancakes here are not what you’d expect.  The originals are served in threes, and they are thick, almost souffle like quality. The airy softness of the cake jiggles as they are presented in front of you, topped with a mound of butter and sidled with a carafe of maple syrup and healthy helping of whipped cream. The restaurant was very quiet because everyone was too absorbed in each melt-in-your-mouth bite —or they were busy Instagramming their plates. I managed to do both at the same time.

Gram Pancakes Tokyo

Shops in the area stay open until late so work off your delicious day with retail therapy. Personally, I found Kiddyland to be a fun, uniquely Tokyo spot that was perfect for gifts for all the nieces and nephews in my life. Each of the 5 floors was dedicated to different Japanese characters and popular animated figures. Don’t miss the Hello Kitty and Star Wars sections.

Keio Plaza Tokyo

For a comfortable stay, I chose the Keio Plaza, a large hotel located right near a metro station just a few stops from Harajuku. Though it might not have the most character as a boutique, the rates are good and the views from the upper level rooms are jawdropping. Plus, the restaurants inside are quite impressive!

 

Day 2: Omotesando

 

If you are taking the Metro, get off in Omotesando for breakfast at Bills Pancakes. This Australian eatery is located many floors up in the Tokyu Plaza Omotesando. Though very popular, it’s worth the wait for the fresh green juice, the melt in your mouth omelettes and the caramelized banana pancakes. Actually, every single thing that went by looks too good so don’t worry about what you order. For a kick, their flat whites are a must though.

Bills Pancakes Tokyo

After, head over to Cat Street where you won’t actually find any cats but you will find a lot of trendy stores, both international and local boutiques. The alleys twist and turn, but don’t worry, just get lost. There’s an adorable mom & pop artisanal store or a high end clothing shop around every corner.

Gong Cha Tokyo

While here, grab an iconic bubble tea at Gong Cha. Schoolchildren and fashionable elite all congregate here for cups of the sweet, caffeinated teas. I loved that they are completely customizable, down to the amount of ice, type of milk and sweet level.

Mmmozza Tokyo

After, nearby Mmmozza is a sliver of an Italian panini shop whipping up delicious mozzarella and prosciutto sandwiches on freshly made bread. Certainly a different flavor profile than most Japanese cuisine, it’s a tasty change and won’t hold you up on your day of exploring.

 

For a sweet treat, Dominique Ansel’s bakery is just a few twisty turns away! The chocolate chip cookies or legendary Cronuts will out a smile on your face.  

Fuerza Bruta Wa!

Bonus: For a wild night, head to Fuerza Bruta Wa! Though not in either neighborhood, this new artistic spectacle-meets-show-meets interactive play art is sure to awe. You might get wet but you won’t be bored for a second of this non-stop performance. To understand more about what Fuerza Bruta Wa is like, take a look at my video here or below!

 

Tokyo is always changing but this eating guide should make sure you dine well and enjoy the experience! Don’t worry, in a few months, there will be more trendy spots to try out!

 

A Sky High Dinner Party at the InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown

It’s not difficult to find the brand new InterContinental Los Angeles Downtown. All you have to do is look up. Soaring 73 floors high, in the tallest building west of Chicago, this sky scraping hotel has a bird’s-eye view over Los Angeles. And in a city where buildings are usually shorter than the palm trees, the InterContinental LA Downtown literally stands out above the rest. The backdrop of the the 70th floor lobby, the open air Spire 73 bar, and each individual room, is naturally , the panoramic views of this expansive city. And each window has it’s own display of LA’s starlets: the Hollywood sign, the Staples Center, LA Live, Echo Park, and the San Gabriel mountains. Of course at night, all these stars twinkle across the skyline.

Spire 73 InterContinental Downtown Los Angeles

I’ve been lucky enough to check out some of the brands within the IHG family of hotels, staying at the brand new Holiday Inn Express in Waikiki and covering an event last year at the business focused Crowne Plaza near LAX. This time I was eager to see what the posh InterContinental brand was bringing to the table. I knew that InterContinental has been a leader international luxury brand for over a century, and this DTLA opening puts the property count at 190 InterCons worldwide. As you might have guessed, my expectations were almost as high at this 1100 foot building. Not only was the architecture notable, but the impressive listing of dining and drink options within hotel has had LA buzzing about it since its opening in June of this year.

Spire 73 InterContinental Downtown LA IHG

Last week, I was finally able to experience the dizzying heights for myself as a guest at the IHG Rewards Club and Mastercard #PricelessExperiences dinner. My ears popped as the high tech elevators transported us up 70 floors in the air, in just under 40 seconds. As the doors opened, we stepped out into the chic lobby, with reservationists standing in front of floor to ceiling windows. Up 3 more floors and we were standing under the stars at Spire 73, the highest open-air bar in the entire Western Hemisphere! Its no wonder every seat was taken with all the classy cocktails, tantalizing appetizers and DIY s’mores plates I spied passing by. The twinkling lights of LA wrapped around glass walls, hugging the bar with the most impressive backdrop. I couldn’t believe that I was actually looking down on all the skyscrapers and helipads of downtown.

InterContinental Downtown Los Angeles

Just opposite Spire 73, the other half of the rooftop was reserved just for our IHG Rewards Club and MasterCard Priceless Table event. An al fresco party with 180 degree views all to ourselves–my excitement levels continued to rocket up.

Alex Ott alchemist InterContinental Downtown Los Angeles

The evening began with the probably the most creative libations I’ve ever seen firsthand, courtesy of “sensory ringmaster,” Alex Ott. Alex started off by introducing us to a special elixir, pure Spilanthes flower extract, which claims to be a miracle food, aiding in everything from hangovers to cancer.

Spilanthes Flower Alex Ott alchemist InterContinental Downtown Los Angeles

At $800 per drop, we were careful not to spill as Alex placed just a few milligrams of this golden liquid on our fingertips. But one drop was plenty to feel an unusual tingling on my tongue, which apparently was the stimulation of my salivary glands. I half expected to turn into Wonder Woman and fly off the rooftop, but I’ll settle with having our palates cleansed. Tastebuds prepped, we now were able to fully appreciate the complex flavors in Alex’s curated list of signature cocktails. Ingredients like kava kava tea, levigated pearl and R-Lipoic Acid infused each cocktail with beneficial properties that ranged from improved memory, increased energy and calming relaxation. Benefits aside, the ones we tried were perfectly balanced, not too sweet and thoroughly enjoyable.

 Alex Ott cocktails InterContinental Downtown Los Angeles

Appetites whetted, we still had a dreamy, 4 course dinner awaiting us, courtesy of Chef Ray Garcia. As this year’s Esquire chef of the year, I was familiar with Chef Garcia but had never tasted his cooking. I was impressed that IHG had not only secured such a notable “chef of the moment,” but they also selected someone who is such a big part of the burgeoning local scene. Downtown LA has quickly grown to be a foodie hotspot, with new openings and star chefs, like Ray Garcia.

Chef Ray Garcia

I couldn’t resist snapping many photos of the two long tables, perfectly set for our dinner. They were meticulously adorned with a collection of exotic flowers, hued in graduating colors from vibrant reds to vivid corals, then on to bright oranges and popping yellows. The elegance of the tables was only elevated when the masterful string quartet began by playing familiar pop songs in a soft, classical style.

Priceless Tables IHG Rewards Club InterContinental LA

With the full moon beaming down on this truly #Priceless scene, I grasped how moments like these were what the IHG brand was all about. This evening’s magic could not be recreated, and that was precisely the point. The ambiance, the quality and setting was all carefully crafted in order for each member attending to experience an exceptional night. The same way that the InterContinental focuses on the highest level of luxury, tonight was all about pampering, surprising and delighting. Overwhelmed with the breathtaking scene, I felt grateful to have a seat at this table and be part of something so special–and I hadn’t even tasted the food!

As I mentioned, my hopes for dinner with as high as our tables and Chef Garcia’s menu went ever further above and beyond. A vegetarian ceviche, using cauliflower, was a surprising and flavorful start. It was very delicate in preparation and I didn’t even miss the fish!

Cauliflower Ceviche Chef Ray Garcia

The second dish that followed, ended up being my personal favorite of the whole night. We enjoyed a giant scallop with molé blanco, sunchokes and hazelnuts. Each bite of the seared, locally caught scallop, literally melted in my mouth. Chef Garcia paired it so beautifully with the earthy flavors of the nuts and sunchokes. And though you think one scallop might not be enough, think again. This was easily the largest scallop I’ve ever seen, or eaten.

Scallop Chef Ray Garcia

For the main, Chef Garcia played on typical “carnitas” with a meaty combination of prime beef short rib, foie gras, truffle and bone marrows. Does it get any more carnivorously decadent than that? I enjoyed this dish but did find myself overwhelmed by the richness of it all.

Carnitas with Truffle Foie Gras Chef Ray Garcia

We ended with a not-too-sweet profiterol, topped with unique pale green, fig leaf ice cream. I’d never thought about tasting fig leaves but in ice cream form, it was delicious! Each bite of this dessert was an adventure of different flavors, like brown butter, stoneground chocolate and juicy raisin.

profiterol Chef Ray Garcia

As we toasted to new friends, delicious food, healthy cocktails and a stunning hotel, one word came to mind: hospitality. Strangers sitting next to me felt like friends. A top chef and a famed alchemist engaged in open conversations with the guests. The staff anticipated all our needs before we even realized them, including bringing me a blanket as the evening temperatures started to cool.

InterContinental Downtown LA IHG

Of course, IHG is a diverse family of hotel brands, each with it’s own traveler type and personality. The Holiday Inn Express brand has modern efficiency, the Crowne Plazas offer upscale convenience, and the InterContinental hotels celebrate their location through luxury. But as much as they are different, all the hotels share an intense feeling of hospitality. This goes beyond the requisite greetings and smiles that you find in the “hospitality industry.” There’s a genuine sincerity in every interaction, an actual desire to make your stay as welcoming as possible. That is not easy to find at most hotels around the world. With the IHG Brands, you are more than just honored guests, you are family.

Firepits on the roof of InterContinental Downtown LA

This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG). The opinions and text are all mine.

If any of my musings has made you want to experience an IHG hotel for yourself, I encourage you to enter their trip giveaway! Share a #TravelFirsts on Instagram or Twitter to be entered to win a trip to NYC, Las Vegas, New Orleans, or here to LA. Let me know if you enter and I’ll cross my fingers for you! Link to learn about the contest is here.

More photos from the evening below:

Sunset Beach, Oahu

Oahu, Hawaii Travel Guide

I was positively giddy as I caught sight of those volcanic islands erupting from the expanse of blue out my airplane window. It was only my second time to Hawaii, my first trip being to Maui a few months earlier, and now I was going to be making Honolulu my home for one week. As I was traveling solo, I did a lot of research and created a pretty packed itinerary. I wanted to see, eat, hike, swim and explore as much as I possibly could.

oahu from the plane

Working with the Oahu Tourism Board definitely gave me a leg up on awesome activities and standout restaurants. But I dove in even deeper, reading blog posts from my travel blogger friends, watching videos from travel vlogger buds (thanks Cailin!) reaching out to those that I know visit Oahu often (looking at you Captain & Clark) and profiling all the Yelp and Tripadvisor reviews that I could find.

 

Ready for a day of exploring!

 

WHAT TO DO: 

Explore the North Shore

For me, renting a car and being able to explore was paramount to my whole trip. I found the driving to be relatively easy, though there is more traffic than expected and by the way, the island is big! It especially came in handy when I set off for a day of exploring the famous North Shore. A good hour drive from Honolulu, I took in some incredible mountain scenery and had the freedom to stop and take photos along the way.

North Shore Drive

North Shore Drive

Definitely head into Haleiwa to check out the cute shopping and great restaurants of this cowboy-meets-hippie surf town. I also stopped at beautiful beaches, saw the famous Banzai pipeline, hiked, swam in waterfalls and basically had one of my favorite days!

 

 

Under the Wahii waterfall

Swim under the Waterfall in Waimea Valley

For that waterfall I was talking about, head to Waimea Valley. This is not the hidden, off the beaten path waterfall that I was expecting. It actually is very much on the beaten path, but as I arrived early (around 10am) the crowds were pretty light. The valley spans 1800 acres and is a sacred site in Hawaiian culture. There is an admission to get in ($16 USD), but you also get to walk through a beautiful botanical garden and see ancient archaeological sites.

The Waihī Waterfall

The Waihī Waterfall

However, most people go here for the waterfall. An easy walk on a paved path takes you to a 45 foot waterfall, Waihī. With lifeguards and mandatory life jackets, this is not the rugged waterfall in the woods that I had hoped for, but jumping into the cool water and swimming under the falling water made me forget about all the other tourists, at least for a few moments.

 

On top of the pillbox

On top of the pillbox

Hike Lanikai Pillbox Trail

Diamond Head gets all the fame but I much prefer the Lanikai Pillbox trail. The dusty trail starts steep but once get to the top of the ridge, all you have are 365 degree views. The Pacific and postcard worthy Mokulua Islands are on one side, and the lush Oahu interior on the other. And of course, you have to check the colorfully graffitied pillbox. These WWII bunkers have been given a facelift by local street artists, and I personally think that the graffiti added to their charm. You can climb inside of them, climb on top or just snap a photo, but they definitely added to the magic of this hike.

What a view!

What a view!

 

Go to a Luau 

Hawaii is known for luaus and having never done one, I was excited to start at the top. With the Royal Hawaiian being one of Oahu’s most famous, historical hotels, I was so excited to get to experience my first luau here. Oh, and did I mention this luau is oceanfront! The hotel has a special grass lawn that rolls out onto the beach for this Hawaiian feast and performance.

Aha Aina Luau at the Royal Hawaiian

Aha Aina Luau at the Royal Hawaiian

I suggest paying up for the premier seating so you can have full view of the fantastic dancing and performances. This show is called “Aha Aina” and it actually tells a story of the Helumoa, the ancient playground of Hawaiian royalty on the ground where the show takes place! In addition to the talented performers, there was a lovely live band and an entertaining emcee. Not only that, nature puts on a show as well when the setting sun turns the sky a beautiful shade of pink over the ocean–not unlike the iconic pink of the Royal Hawaiian Resort itself.

Quite the plate

Quite the plate

This certainly is a feast too. The buffet spread was impressive in size and in quality. It included fresh, Hawaiian dishes like locally caught fish, poke and kalua pork. I felt that each offering was just as delicious and well presented as a made to order restaurant and the dessert spread was the cherry on top. All the drinks were great too–I loved the mai tais but was glad to see top shelf wines and spirits available too.

I attended a Monday evening show, but they also now have Thursday night shows. I highly suggest you book early and show up early to guarantee that you’ll get the best spot!

Experience the luau with me in my video below!

 

WHAT BEACHES TO VISIT:

Sunset Beach, Oahu

Sunset Beach

Sunset Beach

You know when you look around you and literally gasp at how beautiful some place is? That place is Sunset Beach. It was hot and I had just hiked so I was in desperate need of a dip in the ocean. Using my Google maps, I pulled off on what said Sunset Beach, having no expectations. I was simply blown away by this magical slice of paradise. Crystalline, white sand, turquoise gentle waters and very few people scattered around–I couldn’t believe what I’d found! Needless to say, I stayed on this beach for hours. I didn’t have time to stay for the sunset, but I know I’ll be returning to this beach some day.

Kailua Beach

Kailua Beach

Kailua Beach

This was my go-to beach–I came here twice during my week on Oahu and found it to be just right both times. I loved that it is mostly populated with locals and travelers “in the know” as it the entrance is somewhat hidden. On the beach, I saw a high school girls outrigger team practicing, which I decided is the coolest high school sport around. The main attraction though was the clean, white sand, the crystal waters and lack of waves. It was very calm and the water is so clear you can see the fish darting by your toes. I also have to mention that the view of the two islands from the beach really adds to that remote tropical paradise feel. Parking on the residential streets near the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it entrance is free and usually pretty easy to find.

Sunset on Waikiki Beach

Sunset on Waikiki Beach

Waikiki Beach

Of course you will see Waikiki Beach and you should. The sunset there is simply stunning. However, it is a crowded beach in the water and on the sand. Hotels and restaurants line it so it can be tricky to walk the whole thing without being blocked by a hotel. However, if you need a quick dip and some refreshing sun, it does the trick. I also was told the waves there are a great for beginner surfers.

 

WHERE TO EAT:

Mahina & Suns

Located in the trendy, impeccably decorated Surfjack Hotel, Mahina & Suns is the type of place you want to go to every week. I felt like I was in a living room of a really cool, stylish friend. Located just off the pool, the restaurant was busy, mostly with locals and outside guests. The word about their food is out! I’d love to try their breakfast and lunch next, but I was blown away by their dinner. This is a casual restaurant with serious food. The menu focuses on “elevated home-cooking,” which basically means the type of stuff Hawaiian mamas make, but even better.

Incredible cocktails at Mahina & Suns

Incredible cocktails at Mahina & Suns

Having a hard time choosing between Kauai Shrimp & Grits, the Kuahiwi Ranch burger or the Naked Pig Pizza, I caved and ordered the Mahina family feast. This feast starts with kualoa oysters, then moves on to a whole snapper, either steamed or fried, plus a slew of local sides like delicious roasted roots. I opted for the steamed preparation, which had an Asian flair in it’s soy dressing.This snapper was a beauty to behold and even more delicious to eat. It was more than enough food for two people–I had to take some home in a doggie bag. I didn’t even get to the second best part, the dessert! The macadamia nut pavlova with fruit and cream was like eating a heavenly cloud. The only frustrating part was at this point, I was already quite full.

Mahina & Suns Family Feast

Mahina & Suns Family Feast

Their cocktails were the best I had on the island. Do yourself a favor and order the Unkle’s Rum Punch. If you need any more convincing, they also have live music every night!

 

Pioneer Salon

After my hike up Diamond Head, I was looking for a nearby restaurant that offered the signature Hawaii Plate Lunch. I wanted something fast, fresh and casual. Step in: Pioneer Salon. From the start, I loved this place. Maybe because of the quirky taxidermy and laidback, tongue-in-cheek vibe of the interior or maybe it was because half the menu is scrawled on scraps of paper and slapped on the wall. But I could see that this was a local favorite and for a Tuesday lunch, it was quite busy.

Pioneer Saloon

Pioneer Saloon

You order at the counter and there are an overwhelming number of options. As the menu skews Japanese, I went with a local Miso Black Cod plate, which came with rice and a side. You can pay extra for brown rice, which I’d recommend as it had delicious little beans in them. I found the fish to be fresh and flavorful and the portion was a good size. Note that since it’s all made to order, it is not the quickest lunch around but it is definitely high quality. Though it was expensive, I felt like it was worth the money.

 

Kono's on Kailua Beach

Kono’s on Kailua Beach

Kono’s

I still think about this kalua pork on a regular basis. There are several Kono’s on Oahu but I checked out the one in Kailua. Known for their surfer atmosphere and 12 hour slow roasted kalua pork, I stopped in for a lunch to-go. Though the “Breakfast Bombers” looked tempting, I had the “Pig on Grass,” which was a mesclun salad with a pile of kalua pork on top. I brought this to the beach and enjoyed every last bite on the sand.

 

The Local's natural shave ice

The Local’s natural shave ice

The Local Shave Ice

Nearby in Kailua is The Local shave ice shop. I actually entered a surf shop to find that The Local shared a space next door. Attracted by their cute logo, I walked over and I’m very glad I did. I was told by the friendly staff that The Local uses only fruits grown on the island and all their syrups are homemade and natural. I have to say, I was previously turned off by the brightly colored, artificially flavored shave ices I had tried around Hawaii and this one was a breath of fresh air. Getting to choose three flavors, I tried Kula Strawberry, Pineapple and Ginger. It was extremely refreshing and not too sweet. Thank you for changing my mind about shave ice, The Local!

 

Leonard's malasadas

Leonard’s malasadas

Leonard’s Bakery

Friends told me I had to go to Leonard’s to try their malasadas. What is a malasada? Good question. This doughy, sugar covered dessert is a Portuguese specialty and basically, a really good, large donut. I waited in line at the retro, pink and white striped bakery for a chance to taste these treats. I chose three flavors out of their many–chocolate, coconut and cinnamon. Still warm, I tried each one in my car and got sugar everywhere, but it was worth it. The cinnamon was classic and delicious but the rich chocolate filled one was my favorite. I didn’t like the coconut because it had an artificial taste to it. Overall, these were good but knowing that they weren’t very natural with their flavors definitely made me dock a point.

 

WHERE TO DRINK:

 

Maui Brewing Company

An upper level, huge restaurant right on the strip in Waikiki, the Maui Brewing Company was popping on a Wednesday night. I had been to their Maui location and had enjoyed the calm, dark bar scene and a flight of beers. This restaurant was a whole different animal. Huge, modern and jam-packed, I couldn’t believe this was the same chain. However, busy usually means good and in this case, it definitely did.

The watermelon martini and fish taco

The watermelon martini and fish taco

The only seat I could get was at the bar, but as I was dining solo, this was perfect. As I am not a huge beer fan, I was attracted by the coral colored martinis the bartender was pouring. When I inquired, I found out that they were spicy watermelon martinis called “The Street Fighter.” Yes please! These were so good, I had to order a second one.

The food was also incredible. They have a more robust menu than the previous pub menu I experience on Maui and I was impressed with all the options. Wanting something lighter, I opted for the Fresh Mahi Tacos. I could taste how local the fish was and it was only elevated by being on homemade, soft corn tortillas, with a healthy dollop of guacamole. And they give you 4! Overall, I had a great experience with the food and would come back with friends for a rowdy, tasty night.

 

Duke's Waikiki mai tai

Duke’s Waikiki mai tai

Dukes Waikiki

It’s touristy, it’s crowded but it IS right on the beach and the mai tais are incredible. I’ve been to three Duke’s at this point: Duke’s Malibu, Duke’s Maui and now, Duke’s Waikiki. I was pleasantly surprised with the nice service and the mai tais are the best here. My fish tacos were a little lacking but did the job. The ambiance is fun and happy–people seem ready to party here!

 

Drinks with a view of surfers at The Point

Drinks with a view of surfers at The Point

The Point, Turtle Bay Resort

I made a point (pun intended) to check out this resort around sunset when I was on the North Shore. I have to say, the resort itself was a bit underwhelming, but the location of the outdoor bar, The Point, was spot-on. I had front row views of this perfect surf break and took in an expensive cocktail as the surfers caught wave after wave in front of me. The location alone gets this on the list.

 

WHERE TO STAY:

 

Holiday Inn Express Waikiki

I can’t say enough good things about the budget friendly, brand new Holiday Inn Express Waikiki. Just a few blocks back from Waikiki Beach, the location is close enough to the action for easy walking but removed enough for a less hectic feel. The open air lobby is inviting and well designed and the rooms were simple but great. I loved the clean, plush bed and the water views. The coffee maker, mini fridge and modern, all white bathroom were definite standouts.

Holiday Inn Express Waikiki rooms

Holiday Inn Express Waikiki rooms

 

Daily included breakfast was consistently solid, with fried eggs, make your own pancakes, cereals, yogurts, fruit and more. Plus, the dining area featured a lovely, lush patio.

Skydeck at the Holiday Inn Express Waikiki

Skydeck at the Holiday Inn Express Waikiki

Definitely the highlight of this hotel is the 5th floor skydeck. A large swimming pool, whirlpool, deck chairs and cabanas await you and make it easy to lounge here for the day. The kid in me also loved the miniature golf and shuffleboard set up. On this level, there is access to a very well-equipped, spacious fitness center as well.

Mini Golf at the Holiday Inn Express Waikiki

Mini Golf at the Holiday Inn Express Waikiki

Overall, I think you get a lot of bang for your buck by staying here when you visit Honolulu.

 

Honolulu from the top of Diamond Head

Honolulu from the top of Diamond Head

 

This pretty much sums up my favorite things on Oahu. That was quite the week!

If you have any questions, please leave a comment and I’d be happy to give my personal opinion and more tips. Just writing this has made me start to wonder how soon I can get back to that island…

I love you Oahu!

I love you Oahu!

 

xoxoxo

Kelley

Food Guide: Basel, Switzerland

Fondue, pretzels, flammkuchen, leckerli, beer… there is no shortage of deliciousness in Basel! Along with Swiss specialties like fondue, there’s also great international food in this diverse culinary hotspot. Of course, you’ll taste influences from nearby Germany and France, but the result is a unique type of quality Swiss food that you can only find in Basel.

I ate my way around this city, from breakfast, to lunch to dinner, to many sweets, pretzels, cocktails and beer in between. Trust me–bring your appetite and check out this video for suggestions of Basel’s best, before you go.
Featured: Confiserie Bachmann, Berower Park, Kunsthalle Basel, Walliser Kanne, Ueli Brewery