This holiday season while in the Outer Banks with family, Sam surprised me with the best Christmas gift yet, a very sweet and well-planned proposal! We are very excited and are looking forward to spending 2017 as an engaged couple.
And of course as the crazy-planner that I am, I can’t wait to dive head first into wedding planning.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit Singapore, a country I knew little about. Thanks to some quick Googling, I quickly learned that the country is practically on the equator, meaning year round summer heat and humidity. I knew there was more to learn, so after a very long flight, I joined a free walking tour to learn about the history and modernization of Singapore.
When visiting new-to-me cities, especially in a land so foreign, I’ve found that getting your bearings on day 1 is extremely beneficial throughout the rest of the trip. The SneakPeak Singapore walking tour was no different. Darren, our tour guide, explained the long history of Singapore, British colonization, and the modernization of this tropical city. I admit that it can be a bit awkward to join a group walking tour as a solo traveler at first, but soon I was talking up fellow travelers from Spain, Australia, and Canada.
Due to the colonization, some of the historic buildings looked more like Charleston or New Orleans than any other Asian city. Then you turned the corner and walk into dozens of modern skyscrapers. The city was a real mix of old and new.
After my Seoul, South Korea trip just a few weeks before, I was expecting to find that nobody spoke English and all food and culture would be strictly from Singapore. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Seoul and Singapore are complete opposites. While Koreans protect their cultural identity – including food, pop culture, language, etc., Singapore invites in international influences. The whole city was a melting pot.
We walked through Chinatown, which featured Buddhist temples, skyscrapers, and historic row homes.
A few hours of walking city streets in 100°+ heat will really wipe you out. I was excited when our guide led us to a local Hawker Center, an open air food court, and invited us to take a snack break. The group ordered made-to-order sugar cane juice (yellow drink below) to rehydrate, fried plantains, and a vegetable and peanut wrap.
This was the extent of my Singapore food sampling during the trip. Most of the food I ate was asian of sorts, or something I could find back home – like pizza and pasta. So visiting a Hawker Center, where the locals eat their daily meals, was a nice.
The walking tour finally came to an end 4.5 hours later… by which point I was hungry, thirsty, sore, and drenched with sweat. I vastly underestimated the heat in Singapore. Just stepping outside of a building, I was hit by a thick and humid heat wave that wiped me out. The whole trip was hard to handle due to the intense heat, it was unlike anything I’ve every experienced. It was scary to realize that December was their coolest month of the year. I think that night of the walking tour I drank a giant bottle of water and passed out at 5pm.
Later in the trip I went to see the city at night and had dinner at Chijmes, a charming historic complex of white buildings. All lit up at night, the white buildings and church looked beautiful. Throughout the walking tour and my time exploring, I fell in love with the historic buildings and beautiful city. Next door to Chijmes was Raffles Hotel (right), the historic hotel that invented the Singapore Sling, decked out in Christmas decorations.
Even more impressive in Singapore was the vegetation. Due to the tropical location, Singapore is full of the most beautiful plant life. In recent years the city has made an effort to make the city more green and it has paid off. The whole city was covered in palm trees, colorful flowers, and crazy plant life. It reminded me of Hawaii.
On my final day in Singapore I wanted to see the plant life up close, so I walked to Gardens by the Bay, the popular botanical gardens across from Marina Bay Sands where I was staying.
The Gardens are famous for the Supertree Grove, gigantic metal tree structures, climbing with plant life and connected by a pedestrian pathway.
I was most excited to see the beautiful plants up close. So many beautiful trees and flowers that I’d never seen before. My favorite were the tall palm trees with striped red-orange colored trunks. Throughout the modern and bustling city there was so much beautiful vegetation. It was like Miami and Hawaii mixed to create Singapore, it was really neat.
Finally the main event of my trip had arrived… I was finally able to check into Marina Bay Sands hotel, famous for the world’s largest and highest infinity pool, which overlooks Singapore. After a extremely long flight and a busy week in the heat, I had rewarded myself with a stay at the (not so cheap) hotel so I could spend a day at the famous pool. I checked in early to beat the crowds and rushed to the pool deck.
And it was all worth it. The pool deck was beautiful, but the view of the city from my seat was the best. I ordered some lunch, grabbed a book, and started sunbathing for the afternoon.
After warming up in the sun, I was eager to jump into the pool water. It was amazing to look over the edge and see the city I had been touring the past week below. I had that lay of the land from my walking tour on day 1, so I looked down and identified the sites below.
And when you travel solo, sometimes you have to befriend the nice people next to you and ask them to take a picture. Because you don’t fly half way around the world to the most famous pool view and not get a picture of yourself.
Selifes help too.
I could have stayed in the pool for hours. The view below and people watching were top-notch.
The Marina Bay Sands hotel was not cheap, but the infinity pool is the most famous attraction in the city and one I could enjoy by myself. And yes, it was totally worth every penny. It was like sightseeing and relaxing poolside all at one.
After many hours of lounging and by the pool, I could feel my skin frying in the equator-strong sun. So I sadly had to pack up my beach bag and headed back down to the hotel to prepare for my journey home back to snowy weather in DC. Thank you for my rare winter-time suntan, Singapore!
I consider myself a world traveler, but up until this month, Asia was still unchecked on my travel bucket list. All that changed when I headed to Seoul, South Korea for a weeklong trip for work and to see the city.
Leading up to my trip, I was nervous to be in the city alone, not able to speak the language. But mostly I was nervous about what in the world I’d be eating! How do you order something off a menu you can’t read?
So to beat my food-nerves, I prearranged a local food tour of the Gwangjang market in Dongdaemun neighborhood of Seoul. I found Janet’s Cooking Studio & Seoul Food Tour on TripAdvisor, the best decision I made on the trip. Janet, a former Northern Virginia resident herself, was beyond helpful, warm, passionate, and thoughtful as she showed me around the market that day.
We went from stall to stall, as she told me about the history of Korean cuisine and food traditions.
She instructed me to ask her any questions, so I asked her everything on my mind so I would be prepared for the week ahead. Do you really just use chopsticks? Why don’t you have bars in Seoul? What do you like to cook on a daily basis for yourself? What do you recommend I eat for dinner by my hotel tonight? Do people really eat dog meat?
She had me try everything, pushed my comfort level with odd-looking but delicious tasting foods. I loved the pork and regular mung bean pancakes, eaten with bites of pickled onions and kimchi to cut the grease in between.
One stand was filled with colorful containers of salty side dishes to be eaten with rice. Janet had me sample a full-shell baby crab, spicy octopus, garlic knots and more – food I would never have known to try on my own.
Next we stopped for dumplings – yum, blood sausage – not so much, fish stew, chewy rice cakes, and a chicken foot. I tried it all!
Hands down my favorite market stop was for “bungeoppang,” a sweet fish-shaped waffle dessert, filled with red bean paste or cream. Hot off the stove, the sweet treat was almost too cute to eat.
The food tour was both helpful and delicious. Next time I’m in a brand new city with a different food scene, I will definitely be booking a food tour on the first day again.
Later that week, once the meetings had come to an end, I had chance to explore Seoul. My colleague had offered to show me around for the day. Overwhelmed with so much to see in a short span of time, we got hop on-hop off tour bus tickets.
Once you enter the main palace gates, you get to explore the large palace grounds. The historic buildings were all brightly colored with intricate designs, so beautiful. Crazy to think of how old Korea and the rest of the world is compared to America.
You could peak inside to the open air homes and see what life was like during that time. My colleague said her grandparents who live in the rural part of South Korea still sleep on the floor and live in a similar style home.
We stopped for bibimbap for lunch, a rice bowl with beef, pickled vegetables, and a fried egg. So delicious. I’d become a chopstick pro by this point.
Our final stop of the day was N Seoul Tower, the spire overlooking the city. I snapped a photo of two young girls dressed in hanbok at N Seoul Tower. Apparently it’s a big trend with teenagers to dress up and do amateur photoshoots through the various historic attractions of Seoul, so we saw a lot of these beautiful dresses all weekend.
The tower had a great view of the city below, which I was finally starting to get a feel for. I loved the thousands and thousands of love locks along the gates of the tower, colorful and overwhelming.
We ended the day in Insadong, a shopping district home to the Ssamziegil craft mall.
After dumplings for dinner, I parted way with my new friend, thanking her for giving up her free day to show me around.
Before I left Seoul, I had one final item on my checklist… makeup shopping! Not even the youtube haul videos of Myeongdong could prepare me for the bustling streets filled with makeup and cosmetic stores. Similar to how we see multiple Starbucks across the street from each other in the US, Myeongdong had the same big major Korean beauty chains around every corner.
They lure you into their store with bribes of free samples and $1 face masks, which totally worked on me. Within a few minutes my arms were heavy with shopping bags full of gifts to take home. Facial cream, eye liner, lipsticks, face masks, hair cream, foot masks, and more.
I found delicious food, beautiful sights, and amazing shopping in Seoul. But even better were the people. Everyone I met during my trip, from Janet to my colleague, were so hospitable, thoughtful, and friendly. My first trip to Asia was a definite success and I can’t wait to go back to Seoul again one day soon.
A few weeks back I had to visit the Calgary, Canada area for a business trip. After seeing so many beautiful photos of the nearby Banff National Park, I knew I could not fly all the way out to Alberta without extending my visit to see the park as well. It didn’t take much convincing to get Mom & Devan to fly out to join me for girls weekend in scenic and surprisingly snowy Canada.
We spent the first afternoon in downtown Calgary. The city was expecting the first snow storm of the season, so we walked along the Stephen Avenue pedestrian street, looking for gloves, hats, and scarves for the weekend ahead. I had packed for cold weather, but didn’t properly anticipate the freezing cold snow.
Bright and early the next day we headed north for Banff National Park. I had seen such wonderful photos of bright-blue lakes and towering mountain peaks. But we quickly realized the incoming snow storm was turning our view of the mountains into low-hanging clouds.
Our first stop, Lake Louise, was covered in a gray fog. It was still beautiful, so we spent the morning hiking around the lake.
Snapping photos of the picturesque boathouse, straight out of a LL Bean catalog.
Thankfully the snow clouds started to clear and showed off the beautiful blue lake and snow-covered mountains. Finally, a glimpse at what we came all the way to Alberta for!
After hiking Lake Louise, a quick hot chocolate and wifi break at the Fairmont Hotel reenergized us for our next stop.
Moraine Lake, Banff National Park
Moraine Lake is also known as Valley of the Ten Peaks, since you can see all 10 mountain caps from the blue lake below. Due to the intensifying snow storm that day, I’d change the name to Valley of the One Big Gray Mountain. The snow was much thicker at this stop, so we were quite disappointed after being spoiled by the colorful Lake Louise.
To see the best views of Moraine Lake, they recommend you climb the trail to the top of the rock pile. Thanks to the cloud cover and freezing weather, I was considering skipping the hike. But when you fly to national park in Alberta, a place so remote and distant from home, you don’t skip the main event, even in the snow.
We hiked on, past the bear warning signs…
And arrived to the most serene view of Moraine Lake. No, you can’t see any of the 10 mountain peaks in the gray clouds. But the hike was worth it to see the lake water, turned crystal blue when viewed from above. And the snow-covered pine tree mountains placed us right in the north pole.
We had planned to visit Johnston Canyon, but it was closed for the season, and Emerald Lake was too far. Our time seeing the beautiful scenery of Banff National Park was not long enough. I would love to go back and see Lake Louise and Moraine Lake during a clear day.
Banff Upper Hot Springs
After lunch in the most-charming lodge town of Banff, we headed to our final stop of the trip – Banff Upper Hot Springs. 45 minutes in line and $8 later, we were changing into our swim suits and walking into the freezing weather to get into the pool.
The springs were crowded with large family and friend groups, way more crowded than my time at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland. When you first enter the pool, it feels nice and warm since you’re coming in from the snow. But you quickly adjust body temperatures and the water feels BOILING. Miserably hot. So we relaxed in the springs for an hour or so, and decided to call it a day.
That night we stayed in Kananaskis, ski resort town between Banff National Park and Calgary. The next day we made an early drive back to Calgary to return back to reality after our weekend in the beautiful snowy wonderland.