Our travels got off to an extremely slow start this year. Apart from a few local weekend getaways earlier in the year, we stayed firmly planted in L.A. for the first three quarters of 2015 with our first trip abroad not taking place until October. Prior to that, we hadn’t ventured out of the country since our trip to Europe last spring although we stayed very busy in 2014 with lots of backyard travel.
But still. The fact that we hadn’t stepped foot out of the U.S. since last spring had me on the verge of kookoo by the time we finally set off for South America in October. As much as I love getting to know L.A. more intimately and exploring California and other states, nothing quenches my wanderlust quite like foreign travel.
Despite our slow start, we still managed to visit five countries this year (we’re celebrating the holidays in Jamaica as you read this), so I’m by no means ungrateful for what we’ve managed to accomplish this year in travel.
Since I really enjoyed writing my 2014 Instagram travel wrap-up, I figured that I’ll make this a tradition on the blog. So here are some of the best takeaways from my travels this past year as seen on Instagram!
Best Architecture | Dubai
When you think of Dubai, you instantly think of its innovative architecture. Thanks to the Burj Khalifa which stands proudly at 2,722 feet, Dubai has the tallest skyline in the world. Jave and I got to watch the sunrise from the top of this architectural wonder one morning during our trip, fulfilling one of Jave’s greatest travel dreams. But Dubai’s architectural marvels don’t stop at the Burj Khalifa or even the Burj Al Arab for that matter. In spite of all its skyscrapers, I was honestly most impressed by Dubai’s extraordinary Islamic architecture which can be seen in Al Bastakiya – one of Dubai’s original neighborhoods that’s been restored – and in many of its everyday buildings including mosques and shopping centers.
This morning we greeted the sun from the top of the @burjkhalifa. As we left, @javeskitchen told me that today, one of his lifelong travel dreams came true. What better way to start your day than by fulfilling a dream? || Thanks for unknowingly inspiring our visit @ladyandhersweetescapes || Snapchat ?: thatgirlcarmel
Best Art | The Mosaic Tile House
I first read about The Mosaic Tile House in Venice years ago, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that I was finally able to visit. The house is a real house occupied by the artist-owners who’ve transformed their house into a work of art whose façade is comprised of broken dishes, glass, ceramics, and just about anything you could possibly imagine. It’s impossible to visit The Mosaic Tile House and not be awed. But the absolute best part of our visit was the one-on-one conversation we were able to have with the husband-wife artist team, Cheri and Gonzalo. They are a fascinating couple to spend an hour with and they were very open about letting us pick their brains about their relationship and their creative process.
Exploring the kooky, quirky, colorful, vibrant, and oh so ingenious Mosaic Tile House made of broken dishes, silverware, bottles, shards of glass, tchotchkes and everything in between! #keepexploring A photo posted by Dana Carmel (@thatgirlcarmel) on
Best New Spot Visited in L.A. | Doheny Mansion
I bought tickets for my parents and I to visit the Doheny Mansion (Jave had to work), because when Jave and I go on our frequent city explorations, my dad often says, “I wish you had invited us to go…we would’ve liked to experience that too.” A few days leading up to our mansion visit, my mom said that she was going to bail on us to attend a fundraiser luncheon instead. So my dad and I set out on a Saturday morning to catch a tour of this beautiful historic mansion in L.A.’s West Adams Historic District. I absolutely love exploring historic homes and seeing how people lived in times past, and getting a glimpse into the home and life of an über wealthy oil tycoon who was a pioneer of L.A. was quite insightful.
Best Weekend Getaway | San Diego + La Jolla
In the world of entrepreneurship, you rarely hear stories about entrepreneurs burning out. With the launch of Time Card Express® and the Guide to Better Airfares earlier this year, by the end of the first quarter, my brain was fried. Fried, I say. So Jave and I decided to treat ourselves to a two night escape to San Diego where we literally holed ourselves up in our hotel room, binge watched Naked and Afraid, tried new restaurants, drove down to Chula Vista for a bit, and took long walks at Balboa Park and the beach in La Jolla. It’s exactly what I needed – to recharge. The best part about our getaway was that I didn’t take my laptop and avoided social media. It was a simple itinerary-free getaway, and it was perfect. I’m looking forward to more escapes like this in 2016.
Best Travel Moment | Ecuadorian Day Trips with Andres
Several posts ago, I wrote about the perks of having a good tour guide. I’ve been fortunate to have had some excellent experiences with tour guides this year, but my absolute favorite guide was Andres who we had the pleasure of spending two days with as we ventured through different parts of Ecuador. The funny thing is that we weren’t originally booked on a tour with Andres, but the company we booked through ended up sending him our way to guide us through our adventures.
The first day, we journeyed to the equatorial line in Cayambe, we boated around Laguna Cuicocha, and we explored the colorful market in Otavalo. The next day, Andres picked us up bright and early in his jeep and drove us to some incredible lookouts so that we could watch the sunrise over the city followed by a day spent exploring Baños – Ecuador’s adventure capital. All along the way, Andres was always pointing out key sites, explaining the country’s history and culture, and sharing stories about the three years he lived in the Ecuadorian Amazon. On our last day in Quito, he even woke up at an ungodly hour to drive us to the airport about 45 minutes outside of the city. Our days spent with Andres in Ecuador were so personal and made our time there incredibly special.
Meet Andi. Andi was our Ecuadorian tour guide who road tripped with us for two days through different parts of the country. From Otavalo to Baños and local spots in between, he made sure that we had a very personal, intimate experience of his country. And he’s so knowledgeable about all things Ecuador…the 3 years he spent living in the Ecuadorian Amazon didn’t hurt! After being temporarily confined to his bed after a really bad accident awhile ago, Andi now dreams of one day opening his own tour company for disabled travelers. Some travelers turn their noses up at using tour guides because it’s perceived as “touristy”. But smart travelers know that relying on the expertise of guides like Andi can make a good trip great. Our time with him was definitely one of my best travel experiences of 2015. || Here, Andi’s pictured in a traditional festival mask from the Imbabura Province.
Best Outdoor Experience | Hiking Ancón Hill
There are so many reasons that our hike up Ancón Hill was my best outdoor experience this year, but the main reason is because the hike was a celebration of our first morning back in Panama City after 28 long years of being away. To be able to hike through this part residential, part jungle former “Zonee” neighborhood that my mother once worked in at a nearby hospital brought back so many memories. And although our hike was hot and sweaty, the views of the city as we made our way up and from the top of the hill were so rewarding!
Views like this made our morning hike up Ancón Hill well worth the sweat. Click my bio link to read my latest post about our hike to the top for stunning views of Panama City… A photo posted by Dana Carmel (@thatgirlcarmel) on
Best Accommodation | Dos Palmitos
I recently wrote about our stay at Dos Palmitos, so I won’t say too much more about it except to say that our stay there reaffirmed my love for boutique hotels and B&Bs. Keep in mind that we stayed in several nice hotels this year, but it’s the intimacy and personal touches of small hotels like Dos Palmitos that make hotel stays truly memorable. Our host, Jacques, went out of his way to ensure that our time back in Panama City was extra special, and to top it off, we only paid $78/night since we stayed during the low season. If you’re heading to Panama City, I can’t recommend a stay Dos Palmitos highly enough!
Best Restaurant in L.A. | Bao Dim Sum
I recommended Bao Dim Sum House to readers of The Sophisticated Life in a post earlier this year, but I never got a chance to share this gem of a restaurant on this blog until now. Oh-em-gee! Jave and I went to Bao for a date one evening and we took the liberty of ordering several dishes from the menu – dumplings, BBQ pork buns, rib tips in black bean sauce, and a few other dishes. But the dish that stole the show? The Singapore Noodles. They’re full of pork and shrimp, they’re perfectly savory and spicy, they’re perfect in every way. Simply put: the food at Bao Dim Sum House blew us away and it’s by far the best restaurant I ate at in L.A. this year.
Two words: Singapore Noodles. *drops mic and walks away* // @baodimsum in Los Angeles A photo posted by Dana Carmel (@thatgirlcarmel) on
Best Restaurant Abroad | Sambusek
Sadly, Jave and I didn’t have that many great restaurant experiences this year. Don’t get me wrong – we ate at our fair share of restaurants, but with the exception of a few (like Bao Dim Sum House), most didn’t really wow us. But during our recent getaway to the UAE, we had the chance to eat an amazingly gluttonous Lebanese meal at Sambusek, an excellent restaurant inside of the Rosewood, a luxury hotel in Abu Dhabi. I’ll soon be sharing more about this excellent restaurant find abroad on the blog.
Thinking back on our delicious, over the top Lebanese dinner at Sambusek @rwabudhabi. It was definitely one of the best restaurants we ate at this year with amazing food and impeccable service! A photo posted by Dana Carmel (@thatgirlcarmel) on
Best Street Food | Cartagena
Wow – there are so many stories I have yet to share about our adventures in South America, one of which is the street food tour we took through Cartagena’s Gestemani neighborhood. I won’t give away too much about Gestemani or Cartagena’s street food scene just yet, but just know that if I lived in Cartagena, there’s no doubt that I’d gain several pounds making daily rounds at some of the street food booths we got to try during our tour.
Come for the bright, beautiful architecture. Stay for the street food. #Cartagena A photo posted by Dana Carmel (@thatgirlcarmel) on
Best Beach in L.A. | El Matador State Beach
Living in L.A., I have no small shortage of beaches to choose from when I need some therapy in the sun and sand. For convenient beach walks, there’s Dockweiler State Beach or Playa del Rey, for post dinner strolls in the South Bay, there’s Hermosa Beach or Manhattan Beach, for bike rides and people-watching, there’s Venice Beach, and for stunning vistas, there are the beaches that hug the coast of Rancho Palos Verdes. Yet, I kept hearing people rave about El Matador State Beach, so Jave and I finally decided to head out to Malibu to see if it lived up to the hype. What did I discover? My new favorite beach in L.A. with sea caves, large rocks, high bluffs, and lots of peace and quiet – it’s simply stunning.
A photo posted by Dana Carmel (@thatgirlcarmel) on
Best Beach Abroad | Playa Blanca
I have yet to write about our journey to Playa Blanca – a beach with perfectly white sand and crystal clear waters – on the blog, but what I’ll say for now is that this beach which is about a 45 minute speed boat ride directly from Cartagena, is well worth the rough waters we endured to get there (at several points along the way, I thought our speedboat was going to snap in half). Playa Blanca is located on Isla Barú, one of many islands that comprises the Islas del Rosario which is one of Colombia’s beautiful national parks. Our day trip to Playa Blanca made for the perfect beach escape from Cartagena – I only wish we were allowed more time there to soak up this beach’s beauty.
Best Underrated Destination | Santa Marta
Santa Marta. This isn’t really the kind of city that makes its way onto your itinerary for the sheer fact that you want to explore it, and it alone. Most travelers only come to Santa Marta because it’s the gateway to Colombia’s Tayrona National Park. So I certainly wasn’t expecting for Santa Marta to pull on my heart strings, but man – it got me. There’s something about the city’s laid back Caribbean vibes, the unhurried pace, and the colorful facades of homes and buildings that made me fall in love with it. Maybe it was the late night romantic salsa we heard being played from a restaurant’s upper veranda, maybe it was the low-hanging trees that line Parque de Los Novios, or maybe it was the energy I felt while walking the malecón filled with shops and restaurants. Whatever the case, I can easily say that Santa Marta is not only the best underrated destination I visited this year, but it’s my favorite destination of 2015.
Night falls in Santa Marta…the first Spanish settlement in Colombia, the second oldest city in South America, and my favorite destination of 2015… A photo posted by Dana Carmel (@thatgirlcarmel) on
Best U.S. Destination | San Francisco
Aaah…I left my heart in San Francisco, so it was so great to finally return to one of my old stomping grounds this year. You’d think that living in L.A., San Francisco would be an all-too-frequent getaway destination for me, but that’s just not so. Jave and I have been so focused on exploring other parts of the world and other parts of California that I’ve failed to prioritize San Francisco. So it was so refreshing to get back to the Bay Area where we based ourselves in my beloved Berkeley and spent the majority of our extended weekend getaway exploring The City as it’s affectionately called. What can I say – San Francisco has it all: rich history, a distinct free-thinking/hipster/startup culture, an amazing food scene, natural beauty, incredible architecture, and some of the most down-to-earth people you’ll meet in all of California. It’s hella cool.
Marveling at San Francisco’s architecture during our insightful tour with @boutiquetraveler. Join Time Card Express for free and get 15% off any Boutique Traveler tour. || Click bio link to join A photo posted by Dana Carmel (@thatgirlcarmel) on
Best City | Quito
As I researched our South America itinerary, I had a strong feeling that I was going to fall for Quito, and I was right. Although I have yet to write about Quito here on the blog, I was quite impressed by the city’s hilly landscape, its history (the city itself is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site), its friendly locals, and its ridiculously cheap cost of living. I mean, $3 full course lunches?! You can’t beat that! More to come on Quito in future posts…
A photo posted by Dana Carmel (@thatgirlcarmel) on
Best Country | Colombia
As you can see from this list, many of my favorites in 2015 travel took place in Colombia. In a country whose name is synonymous with drugs and violence, we found a wealth of natural beauty, friendly people, and an abundant history. That’s not to say that drugs and violence aren’t still a problem in Colombia, because they most definitely are. But as a whole, Colombia is a destination that offers such varied experiences that it’s just not a country that you should skip when visiting South America. Plus, Colombia is really trying to overcome the stigmas of its past as it continually invests in improving its touristic infrastructure. So while I’d encourage anyone traveling to Colombia to use an abundance of caution and common sense, I strongly encourage every traveler to GO TO COLOMBIA!
Lazy days in colorful Guatapé… A photo posted by Dana Carmel (@thatgirlcarmel) on
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