Posted on

The Diary of a Karate Kid

Shaolin Students

My interest in martial arts was always radiant. I remember when I was a kid, I always looked up to idols like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. I used to love their movies and aspired to be as good as they were. I began my martial arts studies when I was four years old, but I was never serious about the sport. Karate classes became more like playtime with my friends instead of learning. It wasn’t until I was in the seventh grade when I became more serious about training to become like my idols. I would stay at my local dojos for extra classes because I was eager to learn more. I even received a black belt from the local schools, but it wasn’t enough. I still wanted to learn more.
So, the summer after my freshman year of high school, my parents sent me to China.

The Shaolin Temple

I landed in a small city in the Henan province named DengFeng. It is home to the famous Shaolin Temple, where monks train in the traditional martial arts, Gong Fu. Not familiar with the term? You are probably more familiar with the term Kung Fu, which is the westernized form of the Chinese pronunciation Gong Fu.
diary-shaolinThe Shaolin Temple is a monastery located in the mountains of Dengfeng. It is a place where traditional Buddhist monks would go and practice martial arts. The temple is rich in history as it has been through many wars and has been rebuilt numerous times. There is a story behind almost everything there. Some of my personal favorites include the room where monks would stomp the ground to create dents as they trained, the tree where monks would train finger strength by punching the trunk with one finger, and the bathrooms just because they were mere buckets.
On tour, we had the chance to walk on a prestigious path where only the grandmaster—or ShiFu—would walk. It was a great experience to see the strict disciplines that monks in training would follow. The Shaolin Temple has also been featured in several Chinese films; several martial arts celebrities have crossed its paths. Most notably, Jet Li filmed a movie here that increased the temple’s popularity. It was really cool to walk in a movie set! In addition to the temple itself, there were several other attractions. One of the most interesting attractions was the Pagoda Forest. It is a collection of tombs for the different monks that have passed and is structured to exhibit a monk’s status before passing. The higher the tower, the higher a monk’s ranking was.
After the tour, we went to watch a Gong Fu performance. The purpose of the performance was to showcase an introduction of Shaolin Gong Fu. It introduced the various “Quan” or forms that are native Shaolin Gong Fu, the weapons used, and the applications of the movements in combat. The fun thing about the performance was that they picked audience members at random to come on stage to learn some of the movements. I remember sitting there practically jumping out of my seat because I really wanted to try! Sadly, they didn’t pick me.

Tagou School of WuShu

After the tour, we went to tour the most notorious martial arts school in China. The Tagou School of WuShu is a boarding school for martial arts as well as an educational institution. This school has produced many of China’s most well-known fighters and performers. They have students attend national competitions and even students who competed in the Olympics. Fun fact, Jackie Chan performed with one of the performance teams from this school. How cool is that? At first glance, I got ridiculously excited because I saw my favorite movie scene in real life—hundreds of students practicing martial arts in sync. It was the highlight of my life to find out that it was not just a scene in a movie. My mom told me that this is where I would be staying for the summer, and I couldn’t have been happier.
diary-tagou-school-viewThe school is gigantic. It’s so big that they had to split the school into two separate campuses. They have the old campus located next to the Shaolin Temple and the new campus at the foot of the mountain near the city of DengFeng. I chose to stay at the old school near the Shaolin because I loved the mountains, and it sounded way cooler to train in the mountains versus the city.
Students of Tagou School of WuShu come from all over the world to study there. Some native Chinese students even use the school for their primary education as well. The school offers intense training sessions and education levels from kindergarten to high school. It was completely different than what I was used to in the states. The students have a crazy training schedule. The students started the day at 5 a.m. and were not done training until almost 10 p.m., six nights a week. I thought that was insane coming from the U.S. where I take an hour-long class three days a week.

Lifestyle as a student of Tagou

Before I agreed to start summer school at Tagou, I honestly did not know what to expect. I thought it was going to be a summer camp-like experience, but it was more of a culture shock and a humbling experience. Before becoming a student, I never realized how privileged I was to be living in the states where we have access to machines that help accomplish chores or technology for entertainment. There was a lot that I had to get used to as a student. My body had to get used to a new diet; my brain had to learn how to cope with limited to no internet. I also had to become less lazy and actually do chores by hand.
diary-canteen-foodI remember my first year going; my diet consisted of eggs and bananas for the first few weeks because I was not used to the food in the cafeteria for the students. I don’t remember what about it made me so sick, but my body eventually adjusted to it, and I was fine by the end of the summer. I was not used to the way you had to grab food. There was not an orderly line to the different chefs. It was a fight to who can swipe their card first to get their canteen full of food. Yes, you read that correctly: a canteen. We did not have bowls or plates to gather our food; we had to stuff a canteen full to carry food. Of course, you could go back and get seconds, but that costed more money, and you would probably have to shove your way back to the front of the food line.
As a millennial, I live on the internet. I love surfing the web to see what the latest trends are, watching YouTube videos, and seeing what my friends are up to on social media. Having limited to no internet killed me. It was already annoying that China blocked a lot of sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Google, but you are able to get around that with a VPN. The thing that was troublesome was that, since we were in the mountains, internet from the town was not that great. Often, the internet would go out in my room and I couldn’t do the things that I wanted to do. Honestly, though, it was the best thing that happened to me. It forced me to get out of my room to explore the campus, talk to some of the locals, and hang out with my classmates. I learned so much about the diary-laundrydifferent cultures in my international group and I learned fun games that the locals play to entertain themselves! My favorite game that I learned was called “Duel the Landlord” and it was a very competitive game once you got the hang of it.
After my first couple of weeks there, I remember struggling to find clothes since I burned through most of my clothes. I was asking around trying to find the closest washing machine or laundry mat just to find out that there wasn’t one. I was challenged to actually wash my clothes by hand. I was not happy about this. I am so used to throwing everything in a washing machine and calling it a day. Additionally, there were no dryers either, so I had to wring the clothes out and let them air dry. It was not a fun thing to do, but it became a part of my daily routine that I got used to.
The one thing that I got used to quickly was the training regiment. I was sore for the first couple of weeks. The workouts were really intense, but I learned a lot from the coaches. The coaches are very strict and everything we did had to be perfect.
Honestly, it was tough. It is not made for everyone, but I’m more than grateful that I had this experience. After the first year, I went back four more times to relive the experience. It’s something that I hope I get the chance to do every summer.

Posted on

Exploring the Culture of St. Petersburg

Bridge St.Petersburg Russia

A City With Many Influences

To appreciate St. Petersburg, it helps to familiarize yourself with the variety of cultural influences that have impacted the city over the centuries.
Soviet Architecture – As with anywhere in Russia, you’ll see vestiges of the communist era, when the name of the city was changed to Leningrad (it was changed back to its original name in 1991). One of the most prominent symbols of this period are the many statues of Vladimir Lenin around the city. One of the most famous of these is at Finland Station.
German Settlement on Vasilevsky Island – Germans played a large role in the early days of St. Petersburg, with numerous people emigrating from Germany in the 18th and 19th centuries. One of the largest settlements was on Vasilevsky Island where you can visit the Zoology Museum and the Academy of Sciences.
French in St. Petersburg – French culture also had a huge impact on the city’s culture. As novelists such as Tolstoy chronicled, Russian aristocrats often spoke French as a second language. While the French influence has declined considerably since the Imperial Era, there are still remnants of French Culture in St. Petersburg in the arts and architecture of the city. For example, there’s a substantial collection of French art at the Hermitage Museum.
The confluence of cultural influences has produced a city that’s at once Russian and European. The unique ambiance and mixture of old and new make it an unmatchable place to explore the arts, literature, and history.

Explore the Metro

One of the best ways to experience St. Petersburg is to travel by metro. The St. Petersburg Metro is one of the most beautiful in the world. Each station is like a room in a museum, with a variety of architectural styles, ornate decorations, and extensive historical information. In a city as large as St. Petersburg, the Metro is often an efficient way to get around. It’s also a prime example of the city’s artistic style.

Take a Literary Tour

Many of the great Russian novels of the 19th century, such as Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, are set in this great city. There are, of course, many more recent books set here as well. One of the best ways to get yourself in the right frame of mind for your journey is to read (or reread) some great books set in the city.
Volkovskoe Cemetery -This famous cemetery has a special section reserved for famous writers and other celebrities.
Literature Museum in the Pushkin House – This museum is devoted primarily to the writer Alexander Pushkin but also has artifacts and exhibits dedicated to other Russian authors.
Nabokov Museum – This museum is located at the birthplace of modern Russian author Vladimir Nabokov.
More literary destinations – You can also do your self-guided tour and follow in the footsteps of your favorite Russian literary characters or visit the sites of authors’ homes. For inspiration, Russia Beyond publishes a map of 10 Key Places from St. Petersburg’s Literary Map.

Museums and Historic Buildings

Here are a few of the great museums not to miss when in St. Petersburg.
The Hermitage Museum – Created by Catherine the Great in 1764, this is one of the iconic attractions of St. Petersburg. In addition to having a great art collection, it also houses the Winter Palace, where the Tsars of Russia lived. It is one of the world’s oldest, largest and most comprehensive museums, where you’ll find exhibits covering art from classical to modern times.
State Russian Museum – This is another very large museum that is dedicated to Russian art. It includes several buildings including the Mikhailovsky Palace, the Marble Palace, the Stroganov Palace, and the Benois Wing. Some of the most crowded exhibits are those dedicated to popular Russian artists such as Kandinsky and Malevich.
Peterhof Palace and Gardens – Peterhof Palace is about half an hour out of the city but it is a day trip well worth taking. The summer palace of Peter the Great, this impressive structure was inspired by Versailles in France. The grounds contain numerous beautiful gardens, paths, sculptures, and fountains. There are also great views of the Baltic Sea. You should have at least a few hours to stroll the gardens at a leisurely pace.
Mariinsky Theater – This is the place to come for a traditional St. Petersburg experience of theater, ballet, or opera. Open in 1860, many of Russia’s top plays and concerts have been performed here. The building itself is a work of art on both the inside and outside with its neoclassical design and huge stage and auditorium. It’s best to buy your tickets as far in advance as possible (you can order them online) as performances are often sold out.
Fabergé Museum – This is one of the world’s greatest museums devoted to decorative arts. It’s located in the beautiful Shuvalov Palace, which is itself a work of art. Among many other holdings, the museum has the world’s largest collection of Fabergé eggs. This is a great place to get a feel for the wealth and opulence of 19th century St. Petersburg.


St. Petersburg has some of the world’s most beautiful churches. While the Russian Orthodox Church was an offshoot of the Greek Byzantine Church, the architectural styles of St. Petersburg churches are quite distinct from those you’d find in Orthodox churches in Greece or Turkey, with a variety of influences.
Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood – One of Russia’s most ornate churches, but not one of the oldest, having been built in the early 20th century on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated. The church was closed during the Soviet era and converted into a museum. Aside from the remarkable architecture, you can spend hours appreciating the incredible mosaics.
Saint Isaac’s Cathedral – The largest Orthodox cathedral in the world, Saint Isaac’s is officially a museum rather than a church. However, services are still held here on major holidays. The church is beautifully decorated with paintings, an ornate stained glass window portraying Resurrected Christ, and mosaic icons. You can get spectacular views of the city if you climb to the top.
Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul – St. Petersburg’s oldest cathedral, consecrated in 1704, shortly after the founding of the city. The architecture of the church reflects the eclectic influences apparent throughout St. Petersburg. The overall style is Baroque, with elements borrowed from Dutch Protestant churches. One of the highlights of any visit to the cathedral is the Bell Tower. If you climb to the top, you’ll be treated to panoramic views of the city. The fortress walls are also quite impressive.

Experience the Vibrant Culture of St. Petersburg

We’ve covered some of the ways to experience the unique and diverse culture of St. Petersburg. Few cities have aesthetic values built into so much of everyday life, from the buildings and squares to the Metro. You can spend many days or weeks exploring this large and multifaceted city. While you can visit St. Petersburg as part of a wider tour of Russia, make sure you leave yourself enough time to take in some of its unrivaled charms.

Posted on

Quebec City Cathedrals: A Canadian Treasure Hunt

Quebec City Cathedral

You don’t have to be on a spiritual quest to enjoy these amazing places. History buffs, art lovers, musicians, and ghost hunters all love to visit cathedrals when they are traveling. If you’re curious, in Quebec City, Quebec, there are an abundance of gorgeous cathedrals to visit that will inspire you with their soaring spaces and untold treasures.

The Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec

The Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec first opened it’s doors in 1664. Some of the most noted architectural features are its two asymmetrical towers, a neo-classical facade, and a baldachin of gold which appears to float over the main altar. Bask in the colorful glory of the incredible stained glass windows, as well as three Casavant organs.
The cathedral has seen its share of trials and tribulations. During the British siege in 1759, the church was bombarded and burned down, and then rebuilt exactly according to the original plans. It burned down again in 1922 and again was rebuilt exactly as before.

Standout Experience

Visitors can see the “Holy Door”, one of the only seven Holy doors in the world officially recognized by the Vatican. It is a very significant symbol of a spiritual experience, giving pilgrims the chance to collect lost parts of their lives. The Holy Door has a life-size relief of Jesus Christ in it, whose hands are worn from thousands and thousands of pilgrims touching them over the course of the centuries. Currently, the door is closed until next Jubilee in 2025.

How to Visit

The best way to enjoy this cathedral is through a self-guided tour. A map will guide you to all the cathedrals highlights and give you in-depth information on them. Visitors can explore daily from 7:00 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. weekdays, 7:00 a.m. until 6 p.m. on Saturdays, and 8:00 a.m until 5:00 p.m. on Sundays. Quebec City’s Notre-Dame Cathedral is located at 53 Rue Sainte-Famille, Québec, QC G1R 3V6, Canada.

The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity

This is the cathedral of the Anglican Diocese of Quebec. Tucked in the heart of Old Quebec, The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity was built between 1800 and 1804 in the British Palladian style of architecture. The classic, austere exterior, gives little hint to the marvels that exist inside. The carved white columns and soaring proportions are just the first thing that catches the eye. An amazing array of stained glass, sculpture, and artwork awaits while strolling the interior of the cathedral.

Standout Experience

Listening to the famous bells at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity is and experience that is not to be missed. The bells began ringing in 1830, and they are the oldest bells of their kind in Canada. They were forged by Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the same London foundry that made Big Ben and the Liberty Bell. The Quebec City Guild of Change Ringers, a team of 8 people, is required to ring all eight of the heavy bells. For the full effect, visit on special occasions like Christmas, New Year’s Day, and Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day.

How to Visit

Over 150,000 people visit the cathedral each year, and there are several types of tours available. The public is welcome to take free, self-guided tours any time the cathedral is open, mid-May through mid-November, 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Guided tours are available for $6 mid-May through mid-November, Monday – Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and on Sundays from 12:30pm to 16:30 p.m. It is also possible to arrange a group tour any time of the year with a reservation.

Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré Basilica

This cathedral is 19 miles outside of Quebec City, and according to over a million and a half visitors each year, it’s worth the trip. According to the Catholic Church, Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré Basilica is said to be the place of many healings and miracles in its 350 year history. It is one of the only 5 national shrines in Canada, and is one of the oldest pilgrimage destinations in North America.
The cathedral’s soaring towers can be seen for miles around. They stand above the St. Anne’s Fountain, near the site where a crippled man was said to be healed by placing three stones in the church’s foundation. The fountain was installed in 2008 as part of the 350 year anniversary celebration of the cathedral. Another unique site is the “Scala Santa”, a staircase that is an exact replica of the Scala Santa in Rome that Jesus ascended to meet Pilate.

Standout Experience

There is nothing like this cathedral’s basilica anywhere else in the world. The Romanesque Revival cathedrals historic basilica will leave you amazed. The roof rises 100 meters into the air, and it is decorated everywhere you look with stained glass windows. There are over 240 stained glass pieces depicting an incredible array of scenes and stories. The basilica’s copper doors were created by the artist Albert Gilles, and the sanctuary itself is filled with additional sculptures and paintings dating back centuries.

How to Visit

The public and pilgrims are always welcome to the cathedral, located at 10018 Ave Royale, Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, QC G0A 3C0, Canada. You can visit the Basilica, Shrine Store, Information Center, and other chapels and shrines year round, 8:00 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. The information center is open July through May, and the Monestary’s Reception Desk is open year-round to answer visitors questions..
Any trip to Quebec is greatly enhanced by taking a tour of the city’s magnificent cathedrals. They are an intimate part of Quebec City and the surrounding area, tying visitors to the past with their architecture, craftsmanship. Canada is an an amazing country to visit and full of surprises, and the cathedrals of Quebec will take truly your breath away.

Posted on

3 Magical Towns in South Africa For Art Lovers

African Towns For Art Lovers

The bigger cities are cultural meccas of colorful creativity, individual expression, and vibrant invention. Many wanderers have been stopped and enthralled by the treasures found there, yet artists are often drawn to smaller towns where the quiet calls and even the skies seem airbrushed by a painter’s hand.

Clarens is Playful

Clarens is often referred to as the “Jewel of the Free State,” but those familiar with the enchanting town know it as the ultimate artist’s hideout. It rests comfortably beneath the Maluti mountains, a craggy range that embodies the American West. Multi-colored sandstone formations and pristine rivers and streams dress up the landscape. Nature here is canvas enough for outdoor enthusiasts to take advantage of trout fishing and white water rafting on the Ash River. Scenic cycling trails and bird watching adventures also await.
The town of Clarens is an eccentric town full of quirky character that is just a few hours from both Johannesburg and Bloemfontein. The village square is bustling by day with over fifteen unique art galleries, charming antique stores, and cafes. You may want to check out the Robert Badenhorst Gallery where both emerging and established fine artists are showcased. Stop by the Highland Coffee Roastery for a cup of heavenly coffee. Clarens is a friendly and walkable community, so you can take your time and explore.
In the evening, Clarens transforms from lively to subtle, quietly enticing the romantic and hungry to experience fine dining. You can reserve a table at Clementines with its upscale country menu and relaxing ambiance, or keep it cozy and casual at The Artist’s Cafe. There are several lodging options in town when you are ready to call it a day. You can sleep in style at the Mont d’Or Hotel, a luxury boutique hotel with all the frills, or opt for a quaint B&B like Patcham Place in the heart of the village. Self-catering cottages are also available.

Prince Albert is Crafty

Prince Albert in a hidden gem in the Karoo Desert where craftmakers, photographers, and story-weavers animate imagination. The picturesque Swartberg Mountains in the distance frame a living gallery bursting with cultural pride and rich history going back to the year 1762. Be sure not to bypass the Fransie Pienaar Museum where you will be mesmerized by the extensive collection of earthenware, fossils, and olden musical instruments. An onsite distillery produces local moonshine, called witblits, available for tasting and purchasing at the museum’s shop.
The off-the-beaten-path town of Prince Albert is alive with an artistic vibe spanning the creative genres and straining the poetic norms. Karoo Looms is not to be missed on a visit to town. The weavery was established in 1983 and has since delighted all with its highly-skilled spinning and weaving of beautiful mohair rugs. You can take a stroll down Kerkstraat (Church Street) with its quaint woodworking and pottery shops as well as outdoor cafes.
Dining choices are plentiful in Prince Albert, and a slow relaxing dinner with a glass of local wine at the Gallery Cafe is the perfect way to close out the day. Owner Brent Phillips-White uses ingredients from local sources including those from his own garden, planted to supply the restaurant. You might want to try the black wildebeest fillet for an authentic South African experience. You can stay the night at one of the community’s unique lodging establishments like the historic De Bergkant Lodge. The tranquil Cape Dutch homestead offers comfortable, spacious suites with elegant features and cool antique accents. Large swimming pools and natural green terraces invite peaceful relaxation.

Nieu Bethesda is Dynamic

Nieu Bethesda is mostly known for The Owl House, a tribute to outsider art by Helen Martins. The friendly, small village is also home to a growing number of creative types who appreciate its serene lifestyle and breathtaking vistas. The gurgling of fresh spring water running through the town’s working furrow system serenades while Compassberg, the Eastern Cape’s highest mountain, keeps vigil over the idyllic setting. You can take a leisurely donkey cart tour with Jakob van Staden who cheerfully shares his extensive knowledge of his hometown and its history.
Nieu Bethesda may appear to be a sleepy village at first glance, but the interesting and talented characters who have gathered there bring a colorful animation to the area. Charmaine Haines, an acclaimed South African ceramicist, was inspired by the natural environment and chose to open her studio in the village as did renowned sculptor, Frans Boekkooi. The Bethesda Arts Centre is an incredible testament to textile arts celebrating Bushman mythology through vibrant tapestries crafted by the indigenous artists of ǀXam descent. You might also want to check out Dustcovers Bookshop for rare books sourced from all over the world.
The Brewery and Two Goats Deli is the ideal spot to enjoy a delicious lunch and a cold glass of ale in the shade of pepper and pear trees. The almost-hidden rustic pub makes its own cheese, hand-roasts its coffee, and brews its own craft beer for a fresh and authentic experience. Dinner at The Tower Restaurant finds you comfortably seated in a quaint old tower with a pleasantly mysterious ambiance. The menu is varied and includes Karoo Lamb, Cottage Pie, and vegetarian dishes. Accommodations in Nieu Bethesda are homey and sometimes quirky. Self-catering cottages like Murrayfield Guesthouse and Rustpunt Cottage are clean and affordable options for a one-of-a-kind South African adventure.
South Africa has much to offer both travelers and residents, from its rich diversity to its awe-inspiring landscape. Cities like Cape Town and Johannesburg exude cultural charm and modern amenities, but sometimes it’s a good idea to take the roads less traveled. You never know what treasures you may find there.

Posted on

Skip the Hotel: 7 Lodging Options That are Anything but Boring

hotel alternatives treehouse

It’s time to mix things up. Whether you choose a house, a castle, or even a converted jail, thinking outside the box will reward you with a trip you’ll be talking about long after you return home. Take a look at some of our picks for unique places to stay on your next vacation.

Live like the locals and rent a house

It should be clear by now that we think that one of the best ways to experience a new location is to live like the locals. To really experience the local life, skip the hotel and rent a house or apartment outside of town. It may be convenient to stay at a hotel on Main Street, close to the popular attractions, but staying in town often limits you to seeing the area as a tourist. When you stay in the residential areas, you will have the opportunity to chat with your neighbors, visit the local grocery store, and explore the quaint little cafes that only the locals know about. From your standard 3-bedroom house in the suburbs to a penthouse apartment in Asia, there’s something to please everyone. Head to Airbnb or VRBO to get started.

Camp in style in a Yurt

If you want to be outdoors but aren’t sold on the idea of sleeping in the standard tent, consider a yurt. The yurt has been around for thousands of years, originally used in Mongolia. The structure has many key features including portability, a cloth roof, and circular shape. If you want peace and seclusion in the Colorado mountains, consider a yurt where you’ll have a fireplace, kitchen, and the ability to ski and hike to your heart’s desire. Looking to try a yurt but still have some of the luxuries you would find at a hotel? Try the Inn and Spa at Cedar Falls where you will have a private bathroom, hardwood floors, and of course access to a luxurious spa.

Embrace your inner child in a treehouse

Sleeping in a treehouse is no longer just a childhood dream, it’s an adult reality. But unlike the treehouse of your childhood, these treehouses are not small constructions nestled in the backyard oak tree. Instead, some of the most luxurious treehouses feature amenities like jetted tubs, king size beds, balconies, and fireplaces.
If you want to relax and immerse yourself in nature check out this remote treehouse on the Big Island of Hawaii. The floor to ceiling windows will surround you with the lush greens of the island. If you are looking for something with more of a funky vibe, head to Canada and rent a tree sphere. Free Spirit Spheres offers the tree house experience with a more sophisticated touch. These houses feature a unique spherical design and are suspended by heavy duty cables. Choose one of the three designs and fall asleep to the sound of the outdoors.

Live like royalty in an ancient castle

If you’re traveling abroad, consider staying in a castle, because let’s be honest, who hasn’t dreamt of living like royalty at least once in their life? If you are looking for a truly magical experience, visit the Ashford Castle. Located in Ireland, this 800-year-old castle was once the home to the Guinness family. It now features 83 rooms, a world-class spa, and dining in its 16th-century wine cellars. Guests can enjoy a wide range of activities on the 350-acre estate. Take in a movie at The Cinema, enjoy a round of golf, or go ziplining.

Choose a lighthouse and fall asleep to the crashing waves

Is there really any more soothing sound to fall asleep to than crashing waves? Sure you can rent a hotel room that is kind of close to the beach and vaguely hear the waves in the distance, but if you really want to experience the coast, look into renting a lighthouse.
There are many options available. Stay at a bed and breakfast in renovated keepers quarters or be the keeper and take on duties like raising the flag, doing minor maintenance, and keeping a log. From atop the lighthouse, you will experience breathtaking panoramic views and see the ocean in a way many others do not. From Oregon to New York, it’s easy to find a lighthouse that will welcome you as a guest. Just be sure to plan ahead as room is limited and the experience is in high demand.

Spend the night behind bars

Did you know that prison hotels are a thing? In fact, you can find these unique renovations all across the globe. But these upgraded clinks are far from dingy cells, hard mattress, and questionable food. On the contrary. Take the Lawyer Suite at the Het Arresthuis just outside of Amsterdam. Chic decor, top of the line amenities, and onsite world-class dining will make you forget that this hotel once housed dangerous criminals.
Traveling down under? Do some time at The Old Mount Gambier Gaol in Australia. The high brick walls and bars throughout the building will give you a more authentic experience. Most rooms have been converted from actual jail cells. The rooms are small, as the original cells were, but they do come with additional amenities like electric blankets and private bathrooms. If you are looking for more space, book The Cottage or The Lodge, former homes to the warden and his staff. Don’t worry, this visit won’t stay on your record.

Experience tiny living in a capsule hotel

If you’ve ever seen the movie, Ready Player One, the look of a capsule hotel will be somewhat reminiscent to “the stacks.” Rooms are lined up, one next to another, one on top of the other. The capsule hotel is not your typical hotel room. It’s not really a room at all. Instead, guests stay in small pods, or capsules. Each capsule typically contains a bed, electrical outlets, and possibly a tv or alarm clock. There is usually a communal bathroom area and often a shared kitchen, living space, and sauna. The design is minimalistic, providing a simple, affordable option for travelers.
Capsule hotels originated in Japan. Today the hotels are found most prominently throughout Asia, but locations are beginning to show up in areas like the US and Russia. Though the same basic design stays consistent throughout most hotels, many capsules are being decked out in unique and fun designs. Book and Bed in Tokyo will make you feel like you are sleeping in the middle of a bookstore with each capsule situated behind shelves of books. The books are available for guests to purchase and each pod has its own reading light. The City Hub in Amsterdam goes for the futuristic feel with sleek colors, high speed internet, touch screens throughout, and it’s very own app to help users check in.
Keep in mind, a capsule may not be the best choice if you are claustrophobic, are traveling with a large group, or are carrying a lot of luggage. However, these hotels are great for solo travelers, business travelers, or lodgers looking for a quick, cheap place to stay.
Shake things up on your next stay. Choose an adventure above or find something of your own. Bundle up in an igloo, or resist the temptation to eat a house made out of chocolate. Get creative and have fun. Adventure can be had inside the lodging you choose, just as much as it can be outside your accommodations.

Posted on

How to Live Like the Locals in Finland

Finland Snow

Now consider option two. Those who are pursuing option two will ditch the travel guides, book an Airbnb, and leave the laptop at home. They will immerse themselves in the local activities, find the hole in the wall restaurant that serves the most amazing food, and get lost (possibly literally) in the city.
If option two is what you’re looking for, read on. Though option two requires more spontaneity and less planning, a little background on the country and tips about its local specialties can help you truly maximize the local experience.

Pack smart

Finland Forest

It’s important that you pack appropriately when traveling to Finland. The country can have some rather extreme weather. In Helsinki, the winters are long, running from November to March. Temperatures are cold, typically staying below freezing the entire winter. Heavy jackets are a must and warm gloves and long underwear are highly advised. If you are traveling during the summer, you can leave the parka (and long underwear) behind, but be sure to bring layers. The days are mild, typically hovering around the mid-sixties, but the nights can still get quite chilly.

Live locally


One of the best ways to experience the life of a local is to live where they live. Look into renting an apartment while in the country. Not only will you surround yourself with local residents and immerse yourself in a neighborhood you may not have otherwise seen, but you will also save — A LOT. Finland is more expensive than many destinations, so avoiding the hotels and checking out Airbnb can free up funds to go explore.
Nature lovers can enjoy an escape from the city life and opt for a cottage. Staying in a cottage is a great way to experience the beauty of Finland. Take in the breathtaking views of the star-filled skies, catch a fish, or take a plunge in the frozen lake (more on that below).
While in Finland, it may be helpful to be able to talk to the locals. It’s unrealistic to expect to learn a new language before visiting a country but it can be very helpful to learn a few key phrases. Phrases like “hello”, “thank you” or certain directional words can make your stay a lot easier. Here are a few to get you started:
Hello: Hei
Thank you: Kiitos
Yes: Kylla
No: Ei
I’m sorry, I don’t speak Finnish: Anteeksi, en puhu suomea
Where is__?: missä on__?
Bus Station: Bussiasema
Subway: Metro

Hit the Spa

Finland Sauna

Finns love to sweat — in saunas that is. To live like a local in Finland, visiting a sauna is a must. Don’t worry, you won’t be scouring the country to find one; Finland has a staggering 3.3 million saunas. That’s a lot considering its population is only slightly greater at 5 million. And while Finns like to enjoy the sauna in the buff, it’s understandable to be a little shy on your first trip. If you are looking for a sauna that provides more of a spa experience, try Löyly where swimsuits are required.
If you are looking to really get the local experience, you can’t pass up the chance to take a plunge in the frigid local waters. That’s right, the Finns often pair a trip to the sauna with a dip in ice cold water. It may seem crazy to voluntarily submerge yourself in the unbearable cold, but the people of Finland have been doing it for centuries. Avanto, as the locals call it is said to be invigorating and may even be good for your health. There are many locations throughout Finland that provide accommodations to try out this Finnish tradition.

Eat like the locals

Anthony Bourdain said of traveling abroad, “You want to go to a place where there are locals only. No photos of the food, the menu is not in English and there are people eating there that look like they go there a lot.” And it’s true. The best way to experience the local cuisine is to follow the locals, ask for recommendations, and go where the regulars go. And please, please, please, stay away from the chain burger joints and coffee shops.
With this in mind, you’ll want to try to find a few local specialties. Fried Vendace is a popular street food. A small white fish that is lightly battered and pan-fried, the crispy salty taste is balanced with a side of mayonnaise and lemon. Also be on the lookout for reindeer. Try a reindeer kabob or steak and experience a gamey flavor, similar to venison.
Local markets are always a great way to meet residents of the country you are visiting as well as get a taste for some of the freshest produce and seafood of the region. Grab a cup of coffee and a pulla (a sweet cinnamon bun) while you peruse the Old Market Hall in Helsinki. This landmark has been open for over a century. It’s a great place to meet local farmers and is open seven days a week.

Experience the country

Auroras in Southern Finland

Did you know that Finland is a great place to view the Northern Lights? While many people think of Iceland or Norway when they think of the Northern Lights, Finland has a pretty good view itself. A trek to Lapland in northern Finland will give you the opportunity to view the lights up to 200 days a year. Visit from August to April if the Northern Lights are on your bucket list.
If you are a music lover there are many options for you. Check out Flow Festival in August for a weekend full of local indie music. Make a trip to Tuska in Helsinki or Sauna Open Air in Lakeland if heavy metal is more your style. Whatever your taste there is sure to be a festival to meet your needs.
Finland is a country filled with beautiful scenery, eclectic people, great food, and an abundance of activities. Whether you choose to see the reindeer in Lapland or go hiking in Kuusamo, Finland will provide an experience that will bring you that much closer to living like a local and wanting to become a local yourself.

Posted on

How to Live like the Locals in Bulgaria

Bulgarian Mountains
Belintash Bulgaria

Because of this, many different tours take visitors to some of the more famous sights, which can be fascinating, but sometimes to truly get a feel for a country, you have to break away from the pack and forge your own adventure. This guide will show you how to live it up like the locals do in Bulgaria.

Sleep Like A Local

Guest houses are everywhere in Bulgaria, are generally less expensive than hotels and are about as close to living locally as crashing on your Bulgarian friend’s couch—without the discomfort of actually crashing on someone’s couch. Most offer traditional home cooked meals along with your room, allowing you to experience contemporary local cuisine.
Hostels are another housing option that allows you to experience the local culture a little more first hand. Many hostels offer both bunks and private rooms, and all offer that one of a kind Bulgarian hospitality that comes with food, laughter, drink, and a smile.

Eat Like A Local

If you’re a foodie, you may want to seek out even more local food than can be found at the local guesthouse. Luckily for you, Bulgaria has no shortage of delicious local foods and many of them can be found freshly made if you do a little looking around.
Generally, breakfast is a lighter meal often consisting of just coffee and a pastry, sometimes with meat or cheese. A typical breakfast might include of banitsa, a delicious pastry that contains cheese and sometimes meat, leeks or onions, and boza, a sweet drink made from fermented wheat or barley. Because it is a fermented drink, boza does contain minute amounts of alcohol, around 1%ABV.

Bulgarian Lunch

Lunch is a lighter meal as well and is often just a quick snack like lutenitsa, a spicy mix of peppers, tomatoes and a few other ingredients. Most commonly people will spread the spicy mixture onto bread and place cheese on top before devouring, but this mixture is extremely versatile and used in many ways throughout Bulgarian cooking, from sauces for meat to sides for your lunch salad.
Dinner is by far the most important meal in Bulgaria, often consisting of several courses and accompanied by the drinking of much Rakia earlier in the evening, and later wine or beer. Some traditional dinner dishes include gyuvech, a hearty stew named after the pot it is cooked in and meshana skara, or mixed grill.
If you need a remedy for all that Rakia the next morning, shkembe cho rba is a spicy soup that has long been used as a local cure for a hangover. Often served early in the morning with a beer to combat the spiciness, this soup is a tasty pick me up even if one hasn’t been drinking.

Drink Like A Local


If you haven’t already been offered a glass or three at the guest house you are staying in, once you’ve filled up on delicious local treats, you may decide to have a drink or two and if you want to drink like the locals, you’ll definitely come across a strong spirit called Rakia. Most Bulgarians abide by the rule of “liquor before beer, you’re in the clear. Beer before liquor, never been sicker.” As such, the evening is usually started with Rakia, a strong brandy produced from a plethora of different fruits depending on the variety.
While it is not historically proven as of yet, Rakia is thought to have originated in Bulgaria itself, and Bulgaria is currently trying to claim Rakia as its official national drink. However, as with anything steeped in a long history of local lore, there are some customs that should be observed if you want to truly drink like a local.

  1. Never toast with an empty glass, it is considered impolite.
  2. Eye contact is also important, during the first toast maintain eye contact with your toasting partner until you both have taken your first sip of the drink.
  3. Drink slowly, Rakia is incredibly strong. It is often served in shot glasses but it is intended to be sipped.

Beach Like A Local


While Sunny Beach sounds like the perfect place to enjoy the surf and catch some rays, it is also the most well-known beach in Bulgaria and is very often crowded with tourists. There are many less crowded beaches that will give you a much more serene and authentic experience. If you are looking for a place to lay your towel, the beach in old Sozopol is a lovely place to relax on the Black Sea. The older parts of Sozopol also have great local shops and restaurants that serve fresh seafood.

Skiing in Bulgaria

Hit the Slopes Like A Local

Since Bulgaria’s sunny beaches get most of the attention, its fantastic ski slopes tend to be a lesser-known secret frequented more by locals than tourists. But there are a few great places to catch some powder if you are visiting Bulgaria in the winter months. Borovets offers a great variety of terrain and a few spots for working on jumps and rails as well.

Celebrate Tradition Like A Local

Nestinarstvo is an ancient fire-dancing ceremony that takes place in the first week of June in Bulgaria. It involves an elaborate barefoot dance on a bed of hot coals. While some hotels and restaurants will recreate this festival, locals insist that most traditional Nestinarstvo ceremony occurs in Bulgaria, although smaller and perhaps less crowded Nestinarstvo ceremonies may take place in small villages around the Strandzha area during that time.
A person’s name day is another incredibly important tradition in Bulgaria, often held in equal reverence as one’s birthday. Children bring chocolates to school, and everyone is welcome at a name day party, no invitation needed! However, if you are planning to attend, gifts of wine or candies are appreciated.
If you are looking for an authentic local experience in Bulgaria, step off the beaten path and enjoy Bulgaria the way the locals do; with good drink, great scenery, delicious foods, and smiling faces.

Posted on

How to Live Like a Local in Ecuador

Amazon colorful apartment

Here are some of the best ways to live like an Ecuadorian, even if you’re only going to visit for a short time.

Live Like a Local in Quito

The capital city has lots of fascinating historical and cultural attractions. However, if you want to experience it like a local, you can also enjoy some of the everyday pleasures of the city.

Rent an apartment

One of the benefits of visiting Ecuador is that it’s quite reasonable. While there are some luxury hotels, you can find cheap apartment rentals by the day, week, or month. This gives you a chance to live in a residential area and experience local life for a while.

Explore the city by bus, bike, or on foot

This is how most people get around in Ecuador. It can be fun to discover new neighborhoods off the beaten path. Cities such as Quito and Cuenca have a cheap bus service with bus lanes making transportation quite efficient. Quito is extremely bicycle-friendly, with many streets closed to car traffic on Sundays.

Enjoy the parks

One of the nice things about Quito is that it’s full of green spaces right inside the city. For example, Parque El Ejido is known for its spontaneous volleyball and soccer games as well as weekend art shows. The city’s locals take advantage of the parks and you can as well.

Experience nightlife of Plaza Foch

This is a busy area where you’ll find lots of cafes, restaurants, bars, and clubs. Locals enjoy this area for late night fun and partying.

Brush Up on Your Spanish

If you want to live like locals and mix with them, you need to speak their language. If you’re already fluent in Spanish, you have this covered.

If not, this is the perfect opportunity to do some studying. There are quite a few tools to help you. If you don’t have time to take formal classes, you can get a language learning app for your computer, tablet or phone. Don’t worry about speaking perfectly. People will appreciate your effort if you address them with the Spanish phrases you’ve mastered.
Spanish is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world so learning it will serve you even beyond your trip to Ecuador.

Sample Local Markets and Street Food

Locals don’t usually dine in restaurants every day. They shop at supermarkets and local markets. Ecuador has an extraordinarily rich tradition when it comes to markets. You can find all kinds of delicacies such as vegetables, fruits, meats, and sweets. There are lots of bustling open-air markets where you can find both familiar and exotic items. There are also street foods you can buy from vendors for a quick meal. Here are just a few of the foods you should try while in Ecuador.

Street Food

Empanadas – These are South America’s version of the wrap that’s filled with meat, vegetables, and all kinds of spices. Ecuador has its own unique version of empanadas which are especially popular in Quito.
Llapingachos – This is a delicious potato omelet stuffed with foods such as cheese, eggs, salad, avocado, chorizo, and spices. This is a satisfying street food you can enjoy any time of day.
Churrasco – If you want a typical hearty Ecuadorian complete meal, order Churrasco (there’s also a Brazilian version which is slightly different). You’ll get a grilled steak served with eggs, rice, avocado, vegetables, and a spicy sauce.

Buy Food at Markets

Fruits – You can find a dazzling array of tropical fruits from street vendors and market stalls. You’ll recognize some of these fruits such as papaya, watermelon, coconut, and bananas. Some lesser known but equally delicious fruits include uvilla (a berry), pitahaya (related to dragon fruit), mora (a type of blackberry), chirimoya (similar to guava), and the tomato-like naranjilla.
Potatoes – Many Ecuadorian recipes use potatoes. Since the country grows more than 500 varieties, you might want to buy some at market and cook them yourself.
Meat – South Americans are big meat eaters. You’ll find all kinds of animals for sale at markets. Unlike what you’re used to in America, you’ll often see whole animals on display. You’ll see, for example, a whole pig head rather than pork that’s already been cut up for you. You can get extremely fresh meat in Ecuador but you may also have to overcome any squeamishness.
Fish – Seafood is another staple in Ecuador’s cuisine. You can find all kinds of fresh fish and other seafood on display at markets such as shrimp, clams, shark, mahi-mahi, corvina, and much more.
It’s nice to have some type of cooking capability where you’re staying so you can shop at local markets and prepare some of the fresh ingredients you find at markets. If not, you can still sample many amazing dishes from street vendors. Markets are also great for finding arts, crafts, gifts, and wearables. Otavalo Market is one of the country’s premier markets for traditional art.

Enjoy Festivals and Celebrations

There are countless festivals and holiday celebrations in Ecuador. Some of these are large and celebrated throughout the nation while others are more local. Carnival or Carnaval is the most festive time of year throughout Ecuador. No matter where you are in Ecuador, there will be a Carnaval with lots of colorful costumes, parades, performances, and all-around partying. Be warned that it’s common for kids (and even adults) to spray strangers with water and other liquids during Carnival season.

The Andes region has quite a few distinctive festivals. The largest of these is Mama Negra, which is celebrated in both September and November. During these celebrations, you’ll see long parades of costumed characters representing ancestors. This is a multicultural festival that recognizes a variety of traditions that have influenced Ecuador, including African, Incan, Spanish, and Mayan.
There are also many other religious and cultural festivals in Ecuador. Before your trip, make sure you check the calendar and find out what’s happening during your stay.

Become a Soccer Fan

Soccer, known as football (or Fútbol in Spanish) is one of the most popular national pastimes in Ecuador. If you want to blend in with the local culture, it helps if you learn a little about the teams and current rivalries. Of course, if you want to make friends, make sure you root for the right team! The best-ranked football teams in Ecuador right now are Barcelona SC, LDU de Quito, and Delfin SC.
During football season, games will be on display everywhere. A good way to pass a few hours is to sit in a restaurant or bar with a game going on. Ecuador has over 200 football clubs so it can be a bit confusing if you’re not familiar with the scene. However, soccer is a fairly easy game to follow. Even if you’re not up to date with all the rules and teams, you can follow games and cheer for the local team. You’ll find that the enthusiasm is contagious.
These are some of the best ways to experience Ecuador as the locals do. This doesn’t mean you should skip the popular tourist attractions. However, it’s also nice to learn about the traditional customs of the country and get insights into the culture and everyday life of its residents.

Posted on

How to Experience Hungary Like A Local

Hungary Parliament

“The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see”— Gilbert K. Chesterton.

To get the best experience in Hungary, you really need to live like the locals. Slow down, strike up a conversation with your neighbor, and explore. Once you have experienced the culture, taken a minute to deeply inhale the wafting scents of paprika, and soaked in the thermal waters, you will come away with an appreciation that far surpasses the thrill of having another stamp on your passport.

Find your home base

Just like the locals, you will need to decide where to stay. Whether finding a room at a hotel or renting an apartment, you will want to consider your location. The most popular destination within Hungary is its capital city, Budapest. Budapest straddles the Danube river and provides some of the richest cultural experiences. One side of the river lies Buda, an area with a quiet vibe, beautiful hills and some of the city’s great architectural wonders. Pest lies on the opposite side of the river. A residence in this area will provide you with easy access to the city’s nightlife and their numerous ruin bars, as well as the Jewish District.
Hungary’s public transportation is reliable and efficient and provides an affordable option to travel throughout Budapest and to sites outside the city. Arguably, the best way to get around is through the metro system. Another great option is the trolley system. The yellow streetcars have been running in Budapest for over 125 years. If you are looking to get a broad view of the city’s main attractions, hop on tram number 2, which runs down the Danube river.
If you do choose to rent a car while visiting, be sure to stop by a local gas station or pick up a vignette (or rental car). This will save you the shock of receiving a rather large bill for all the tolls accrued throughout the city.

Pack a lunch and visit a local park

A trip to the park is a great way to meet locals and get the insight into the places only the residents know about. Begin your morning by visiting The Great Market Hall. Pick up some salami, fresh bread, pickles, and maybe a bottle of Tokaj wine. Head to The City Park, behind Hero’s Square, and enjoy a view of the lake as you relish in your market treats and do a little people watching.

Relax at one of Hungary’s thermal baths

Aside from its food and architecture, thermal baths are one of Hungary’s most popular draws. Whether you are recovering from jet lag upon your arrival or a másnaposság (hangover) after a week of visiting the city’s ruin bars, a dip in a local thermal bath is a great way to relax. Over 150 thermal spas exist in Hungary. They are packed with minerals and are said to relieve arthritis and other ailments. Be forewarned, soaking pools have become increasingly popular through the years, with many spas being overwhelmed by tourists. The Széchenyi Baths are the largest and most popular baths in Hungary featuring 15 baths, 3 pools, and 10 saunas. Try Veli Bej Baths located in district II, for a more peaceful and authentic experience.

Grab a bite

Hungary is more than goulash. Though this famous dish can be found in many restaurants throughout the country, the cuisine offers an array of options to savor. Chicken paprikash rivals goulash as a favorite among locals. Halászlé (fisherman’s soup) is great as well. Try Pest-Buda for some of the best chicken paprikash in Budapest. If you want the best selection of street food, go to Karavan. Be sure to try a langos, fried dough covered in sour cream and cheese.

Enjoy the nightlife

After a long day of seeing the sites, it’s time to treat yourself to a drink. There is no shortage of places to enjoy a refreshing beverage in Budapest. While in the city, it would be borderline criminal not to visit one of its famous ruin bars. Ruin bars often inhabit abandoned buildings throughout the Jewish District. They each are adorned with one of a kind wares, with each location providing its own distinctive vibe. Szimpla Kert is the most popular ruin bar, and though it has a high tourist draw, it is still worth your time to visit this original ruin bar. Try to include DZZs Bar and Mazel Tov as you explore.
Enjoy yourself and unwind, but be careful not to clink your glasses for a toast. Legend has it that after the failed rebellion of the 13 generals in 1849, the Austrians celebrated victory by drinking beer and loudly clinking their glasses. Because of this, Hungarians vowed not to clink their glasses for 150 years. Though this time frame has now expired, many Hungarians still find it disrespectful, so you are best to avoid this practice. Instead, a firm glance at your neighbor and Egészségedre (Cheers) are customary.
Odds are, if you are looking for the local experience, you will find yourself staring down a glass of Palinka. In fact, if you find yourself invited into a Hungarian home, there’s a good chance you will be offered a glass of Palinka first thing in the morning. Be prepared—Palinka is a strong drink. Called the moonshine of Hungary by the New York Times and Hungarian Brandy by Visit Budapest, it has an alcohol content ranging from 37% to 86%. The New York Times wasn’t far off when they compared the drink to a “slap in the face”

Take in a festival

The International Wine Festival in Budapest runs in early September. The festival features various wines from Hungary’s 22 wine regions, as well as a vast collection of wines from around the globe. Concerts run throughout the festival and food is offered as well. The festival is family friendly with a good amount of activities for kids. If you are planning on attending this event, you can order your tickets in advance online and purchase a souvenir wine glass.
If you are visiting during the winter holidays, be sure to stop by the Christmas market on Vorosmoty Square. The market runs from the middle of November to the end of December and is ranked as one of the top Christmas markets in Europe. Try a chimney cake and discover the unique gift of the region.

Escape the city buzz

Don’t be afraid to venture outside of Budapest. Though the capital city is over seven times larger than the country’s next biggest city, that doesn’t mean you have to stay in town. The city of Eger is a two-hour train ride from Budapest. Here you can enjoy the city’s baroque structures and appreciate their place in history. Stop at a local vineyard or relax at Eger’s thermal bath.
The Baradla Cave can be found on the border of Hungary and Slovakia. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the caves offer breathtaking views and a cool retreat on some of Hungary’s hotter days. Aside from the caves, there are hiking trails, a playground, and food and gift stalls.
If any country was made to be seen as a local, it’s Hungary. With architecture that will make you want to wander the streets for hours and a nightlife without compare, Hungary will have you planning your return trip before you even leave.

Posted on

Southern Hospitality Rediscovered: Barbecue, Breakdowns, and the Unexpected

Southern Restaurant "Peace-N-Hominy"

Travelers well know the charms of iconic southern spots like Savannah, Charleston, and New Orleans. Beyond the pages of the well photographed plantation homes and the gentile invitation of historic coastal row houses, I rediscover southern hospitality on a recent weekend getaway. In the process I realize that the south has many surprises to offer in unexpected places. Fear not, the south is living up to that famous saying, and then some.

A new baby nephew sparks the family to pile into the car and head from Atlanta to Charlotte, NC. Save a few glimpses of beautiful Lake Hartwell just across the Georgia-South Carolina border and numerous billboards promoting a burgeoning moonshine industry – yes, this is the south – the drive between Atlanta and Charlotte is largely unremarkable. The first sign that we are getting close was the Peachoid, a gigantic water tower that is both shaped and painted to look like an over-ripened peach.
We plug on, and eventually arrive to the outskirts of Charlotte where we are greeted by our family at their new home and set in to spend time with their new baby boy.
Babies are cute, and as the father of three girls I am fascinated to play with my three year old nephew (and his toys – sadly my girls aren’t into Iron Man) while my wife held the new little guy. With the new baby and all, we decide to order in. “Barbecue? I’m asked by my sister-in-law. Um, Yes, please! It isn’t a grand to do, nor a special search for the best barbecue in North Carolina. We just seek out the nearest local barbecue joint – and those are just the kind where you can discover something unexpected.

Peace N’ Hominy

My brother-in-law and I head to pick up the order from Peace N’ Hominy, where they describe their love of barbecue as “the peaceful coexistence of all bbq and corn, be it hominy, maize or grits,” a clear tout to their corn bread, creamed corn and cheesy grits. Here I discover the first great surprise of the overnight trip. Barbecue, generally speaking, is a culinary conundrum. Styles and variations pervade this great country from east to west and each has their own signatures that should not only be appreciated, but outright honored. North Carolina’s take on southern barbecue, has two predominant styles: Eastern style and Lexington style. True to their name, Peace N’ Hominy throws the rule book in the smoker, and pursues fantastic flavor, the rules be damned.
In the world of southern barbecue, preparation, cooking style, and serving are each, on their own, relatively straight-forward (although not easy to execute). Taken together though, they present a challenge that can only be conquered by someone who’s earned the pitmaster title through years of blood, sweat and smoke. The quality of the ingredients used is paramount to good southern barbecue and their absence can be detected, even by a novice, more so than almost any other style of cooking. Fortunately, Peace N’ Hominy has us covered.
We arrive to Peace N’ Hominy, an unassuming little building with patrons buzzing about (a good sign to be sure). We walk in the rear entrance, a little back porch offering a spot in the shade with a few small tables. Maybe on my next visit during the fall, I think. Making our way inside, the small interior is full and we saunter up to the counter to secure our order. After the usual pleasantries, payment, and a brief exchange inquiring about an extra side of hot barbecue sauce, we thank them and are stopped by a young man as we turn for the car.
Nevermind that we’re two capable, grown men, he informs us that he will carry our takeout box to the car, no, he insists. While walking to the car we explain that we really can carry the box, that it is an unnecessary jesture. We are quickly informed that their policy is both clear and strict – customers with large take out orders are to be helped to car. There is no room for interpretation. We thank him again and I can’t help but wonder if this would happen back home in Atlanta. Sure, Atlanta is still most certainly the south, but it is increasingly an international city (mostly for the good). While there are pockets of old southern charm, it isn’t something you encounter everywhere you go. This experience at Peace N’ Hominy is the south – and I like it.
We make the quick drive home, the smell from the backseat taunts us to press the pedal a little faster. Into the house and a quick impromptu buffet setup later, it is time. The amazing spread is anchored by pulled pork and carved brisket (that’s beef for those of you in Bar Harbor), smoked in a blend of apple and hickory wood. The mains are surrounded by a heart-stopping assortment of side dishes: creamed corn, 6 cheese mac & cheese (um, for the kids, just for the kids), an additional style of chili-mac, because in the south one mac & cheese just won’t do, bourbon beans, and crowned with a pan of corn bread and rolls.

The Peace

The pulled pork is well prepared and very good. Though, in a head-to-head battle, the carved brisket delivers a knock out and takes home the title. The flavor of the bourbon beans oozes with brown sugar molasses and pork. The contents of my plate begin to intermingle as the meal moves on and the brisket, beans and the sauce unite in an exceptional song of southern barbecue goodness.

The Hominy

I like corn bread, sure. It isn’t a food that I would normally write about though. This cornbread, however, makes we wonder if Aunt Bea from Mayberry might have been squirreled away in that kitchen (interesting note: the real town of “Mayberry” made famous by the Andy Griffith Show is located a little more than an hour up the road in nearby Mount Airy, NC). Sweet, not overly dense, and full of real corn flavor, it is a great execution of an old favorite. So skip the rolls and go straight for the corn bread.

The Southern Barbecue Surprise

The big surprise of the meal is the chili mac & cheese. My brother-in-law insists we try it and I oblige. I’ve had chili mac before mind you, and it has never been my cup of tea. Like Jack Nicholson’s show-stealing performance over lead actor Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, this side dish, turn superstar, takes the spotlight. No kidney beans or thick tomato sauce here, this is more aptly titled Beef Mac. The ground beef is beautifully minced with a wonderful blend of spices, and just a hint of heat, then chunks are slightly layered into the mac & cheese. Enough to get a good bite of the beef, but not enough to overpower the penne-style noodle. It is simply fantastic.
To a purist, the spread from Peace N’Hominy isn’t traditional carolina southern barbecue, but I am never one to get caught up in rules and formality, and besides, this sure is darn good barbecue.
One evening in, a few great southern barbecue surprises, delightful southern hospitality, and a sleeping baby. This is shaping up to be a great weekend.

The Peachoid

We wake to a nice breakfast of homemade cinnamon rolls, bacon and Davis Special (a simple traditional family recipe from my wife’s side of the family consisting of pan-friend sausage and scrambled eggs that undoubtedly goes by a thousand different names in a thousand different families, but is nevertheless tasty). We spend the morning with the kids at the pool, sit and talk some more, then pack into the ol’ family truckster around noon to head back to Atlanta for work on Monday.
Remember the big Peach-looking water tower?
Apparently the kids didn’t get enough to eat at breakfast, and okay, I am hungry again too, so we stop about an hour into our drive back for lunch at a chain restaurant that sat underneath the Peachoid. We put the car into park, and well, it doesn’t park. The car is stuck in gear and the gear shifter just flops around (if this is happening to you right now, it is a broken shifter cable, yes, that’s a thing). Making this doubly frustrating, we had this exact problem repaired in Atlanta just three days earlier. On the verge of a hangry group, we decide to put the parking break on, turn off  the engine and head in for lunch. We’ll sort it out while we grab a bite.

Gaffney, SC

The small town of Gaffney, SC sits about half way between Charlotte, NC and Greenville, SC. Not to be the condescending city folk type, but there isn’t a lot going on in Gaffney, especially on Sunday. We walk into the restaurant with limited expectations, just glad to be in the air conditioning, and inform them of our car trouble. The manager greets us genuinely, and warmly, assuring us it is no problem, that we should come on in and sit down. Our minds race with worries of rescheduled appointments, canceled kids’ activities, and figuring out how to get our car fixed and it and us both back home. The manager’s gentleness helps to diffuse the stress of the situation.
We sit down and our server picks up where the manager left off, bringing us some cool drinks with a warm smile. We order and begin to make phone calls. First, the repair shop in Atlanta explains that they can’t do anything about their shoddy work unless we get the car back to them. Unfortunately, that is 180 miles away. We quickly discover that in Gaffney, SC very little is open on Sunday.

Meet Warren, Southern Hospitality Personified

My wife connects with the owner of a local repair shop, Warren, who can’t help us at the moment (because it is Sunday, and they are closed, and he is about to into a movie with his family – and we remember why all businesses used to be closed on Sunday). Warren gives us the name of a towing service that can take the vehicle to his shop and promises to check back in with us in a few hours to make sure everything is worked out. We aren’t interested in a local tow, we need to get the car to Atlanta (so the local mechanic can fix his errors). We call the towing service, who again, is very kind, but unable to tow it that far. They give us another name and we call. They’re open, but it sounds pretty clear that they don’t have full staff on Sunday. A 180 mile tow job would be a stretch. They kindly ask if they can check with their staff to find a driver and call us back. Pinned down like Davy Crockett at the Alamo, but resigned to get home, we have little choice but to agree and hope that we fare better than Davy.

Edward To The Rescue

A short while later we receive a call back. Edward, the owner of the tow service would make the trip and get us home, personally. Relief, we’d be late, but we’d get home tonight, much to the childrens’ disappointment who thought that a night in a hotel sounded like a great adventure. Note: To be fair, my 13 year old daughter wanted absolutely nothing to do with us or another night away from home and her laptop.
We enjoy our lunch and the great service and conclude just as Edward pulls into the lot with his honking big F-450 flat bed tow truck. The rescue is here. Introductions complete, Edward positions the truck as we explain that the car is stuck in gear. After a few head scratches he simply says “well… they didn’t tell me that.” Uh oh. Long story short, this throwback to a time when men were men puts his body on the line to manually disengage the gear under the car while I stand on the brakes. He states without emotion, “the worst that will happen is that it will roll over my arm.” This is insanity. My wife is near panicked at the thought of him being crushed. We all pray the car doesn’t roll down the slope of the parking lot, crushing Edward, once the gear is released.
The breaks hold. Once he is free from the undercarriage, I slowly guide the car, rolling backwards to line it up with the tow truck bed.

We all cram into Edward’s hulk of a truck and say goodbye to the Peachoid, the odd peach water tower landmark that many have passed, but few have actually sat underneath (for several hours). Wanting a bit more space for the family to make the drive home, we plan to stop at the Greenville-Spartanburg Airport about 35 miles down the road where a rental car is hopefully waiting for us (again, nothing open on Sunday in Gaffney). Barreling down I-85 in Edward’s black beast, the smell of Marlboro 100’s is thickly fused into the upholstery. While brave, and courteous, Edward wasn’t much for conversation, simply responding to my wife’s curiosities with a polite Yes, Ma’am or No, Ma’am.

The Wizarding World of Car Rentals?

Normally, the prospect of going to the airport to pick up a rental car ranks somewhere between a root canal and watching your wife try on clothes. You have to do it, but you aren’t going to like it. I’m sure this will be an hour long exercise in frustration. Yet another surprise – this airport isn’t a nightmare – at all. A lovely tree-lined drive that easily, and without fanfare, brings you to the terminal building marks the approach to Greenville-Spartanburg Airport. We approach the terminal and I jump down (literally) from the massive truck and head into the parking garage to find the rental car counters while my wife settles up some payment details with Edward. The distance from where I launch myself from Edward’s truck to the rental car counter is about a 40 second walk. Wow, that was easy.
I approach the Enterprise Car Rental counter and Drew, the Manager, offers a friendly welcome.  Drew pulls up my reservation as I share some of our misfortunes, thankful a vehicle is available on such short notice. As if a graduate from a some mysterious school of wizardry and manners, Drew couldn’t be nicer or more engaging. Sometimes, plain old friendliness, is the hallmark of southern hospitality. He lists a few vehicle choices that he can make available to me for the same rate, and one sparks my interest. Yet another surprise. He happily and efficiently completes the rental and directs us to our vehicle – a Ford F-150. Awesome, I’ve always wanted a pick up truck, but have never bought one. The day is finally looking up. Our car is being towed home and I’m sitting in big, bad, slightly jacked up pick-up!

Southern Hospitality In Action

We cruise down I-85 in our sweet pickup (that is surprisingly smooth) and meander through town towards home. The phone rings, uh oh. Phew, it’s one of my daughter’s friends asking if our car is on a tow truck. Good, Edward still has it! Just as we turn onto our street the phone rings again and my stomach sinks a touch. My wife answers and it is Warren, his trip to the movies with his family no finished. He wants to check back in to make sure everything is under control. We thank him for the follow-up and assure him all is now well.
We make it. The family piles out of the Ford and into the house, the welcoming sound of barking dogs signal the road trip is complete. Just as we begin to settle in, Edward pulls up to the house. As he lowers the car into the drive, we offer thanks for the bad day that turned into one full of good surprises .
Southern barbecue, southern hospitality and two kick-butt trucks. I do love the south. If you are ever rolling down I-85 between Charlotte and Atlanta, I recommend a visit to Gaffney, SC, even for a quick bite, to enjoy what southern hospitality looks like in the real world.