copenhagen travel guide: do the free walking tour

Our Norwegian Scandinavian cruise departed from Copenhagen, Denmark, on a Monday, so the hubby and decided we would fly down on Saturday and give ourselves some time to explore all that Copenhagen had to offer.

We got in on Saturday around 4pm, and we picked up our Copenhagen Card at the designated kiosk upon our arrival. (We didn’t find the directions to be super clear, but a nice fellow at the information desk pointed us in the right direction. We only went in circles a couple of times. ;))

copenhagen travel guide | stay in an airbnb, do a free walking tour

This was the view from our Airbnb our first night in Copenhagen. The sky was gorgeous.

The Copenhagen card granted us unlimited bus and metro rides for 48 hours, so we took the train to our lovely Airbnb (the train system connected to the airport was a little confusing, too, but I partially blame jet lag; we didn’t get much rest on the flight over, or so I tell myself to make our ineptitude ring a little better in my ears).

I cannot say enough about our Airbnb! It was light and airy and lovingly decorated and easy to find. It was super easy to pick up the key and our host, Ben, left us some guides on where to eat and things to do. There was a table in the kitchen where I enjoyed peaceful cups of tea in the mornings. There was a bus stop just a few streets over, so it was easy to hop on the next morning to head to the town square for our free walking tour.

copenhagen travel guide | do a free walking tour

On our walking tour, we learned a lot about the city’s history of burning down. Seriously, it’s insane how many times the old buildings in Copenhagen have been burnt and rebuilt. It took them a while to wise up and not build their houses from wood, apparently. We also learned about the Carlsberg beer company, which pretty much has a monopoly on the beer industry in Denmark. But J.C. Jacobsen, the guy who started Carlsberg, was very generous with his brewing knowledge and shared it far and wide; he also invested a lot in the science and innovation of beer-making. You can read more about the Carlsberg empire here if that’s something that interests you.

Our guide, Simon, also taught us about hygge, which the Danish credit as the key to their happiness. Danes are known to be some the happiest people in the world, despite living in what sounds like an awful climate with very little sunshine all year round (and I thought we had it bad in Michigan!), and if you ask them, they’ll tell you it’s because of hygge. In its simplest terms, it means “cozy,” but it’s really more than that—it’s a lifestyle. If you want to know more about this magic, you can read more about it here.

We stopped in Nyhavn, the charming and colorful canalside neighborhood you’ve probably seen in a million pictures of Copenhagen. It’s lined on one side with many restaurants, canal tours are run out of there, and there are some vendors’ stalls there, too: We bought a lemon-custard Danish (because when in Denmark, you must eat a Danish) and it was freaking delicious.

copenhagen travel guide | do a free walking tour
The colorful buildings canalside in Nyhavn. It’s charming as hell.

(We returned to Nyhavn for a few hours in between our ship docking and our plane home at the end of our trip, and it was sunny and warm and so lovely. We bought fresh lemonade from a vendor and sat canalside for a little while just watching the boats go by. It was the perfect way to while away a few hours in limbo. Oh, and we grabbed some traditional Danish hotdogs from døp hot dog stand while we were at it [it’s super convenient; you’ll find it on Strøget, the world’s longest pedestrian street]. Let me tell you, it was the most delicious hot dog I’ve ever had in my entire life. It had onions and fried onions and pickles on top with ketchup and mustard and it was heavenly.)

We ended our free walking tour at Amalienborg, the palace of the Danish royal family. And we were lucky, too, because Queen Margrethe was in residence while we were there, so we got to see the royal processional through the cobblestone streets on their way to the palace, followed by the elaborate changing of the guards. (These guards aren’t messing around, either. You can’t get too close to them, and they have bayonets on their guns, so why would you want to get close to them? But you’d be surprised how many people had to be sternly told to back off.)

copenhagen travel guide | do a free walking tour
The elaborate changing of the guard at Amalienborg Palace.

I wouldn’t say it was the best walking tour I’ve ever been on, but our guide was very informative and funny—and hey, it was free, so I can’t really complain all that much, can I? I will say, it was super convenient that he had a card reader on hand for tips—I wish they all did this so I wouldn’t have to carry cash! Plus, the tour gave us the lay of the land and made it easier for us to navigate around a truly lovely town.

In next week’s post, I’ll tell you about the things we did via the Copenhagen Card, and, more importantly, whether I thought that it was worth it! Stay tuned!

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the pros and cons of a norwegian cruise

I’ve decided that there are two types of people in this world: those who love cruises and those who don’t. After taking our Scandinavian cruise this summer, I’ve decided that I am most likely NOT a cruise person.

That’s not to say I disliked every part of the cruise, but it definitely won’t be my preferred method of travel in the future. In case you’re on the fence about going on a cruise yourself, here are the pros and cons of cruising, based on my experience cruising Scandinavia with Norwegian.

the pros and cons and a norwegian cruise | departure from copenhagen, denmark
We arrived in Copenhagen two days before our cruise set sail. Here we are at Rosenborg Palace in Copenhagen, Denmark: It’s where the royal jewels are housed!

pro: waking up in a new place every day & returning to the same place at the end of the day

My co-worker and her husband love cruises; I think they’ve gone on three in the last year alone. When I asked her what her favorite part of cruising is, she said she loves waking up in a new place every day. And that part was nice, but the thing we liked even more was returning to the same room at the end of every day. We could unpack our things instead of living out of our suitcases, we didn’t have to lug our luggage around from train to train or airport to airport…our little room with no window even began to feel a little bit like home.

the pros and cons of a norwegian cruise | stop one: warnemunde (berlin), germany
The first stop on our Scandinavian cruise was Warnemunde (Berlin). It took us 3 hours to get to Berlin by bus. Once there, they took us on a whirlwind tour of the city. And in case you’re wondering, those are Vespas on my dress.

con: we spent a lot of time on the boat & not enough time in each destination

One of my favorite things about traveling is staying in the city, wandering the streets at night, eating the local food…and we had so little time in each stop. Traversing this particular part of the world by cruise ship was convenient, but it was a less immersive experience than I would have liked. It felt like we spent more time on the ship than in each of our destinations, and I really wasn’t all that interested in all of the cruise ship activities (game shows, dance parties, and karaoke are totally not my jam).

I will say, however, that the weather impacted my feelings toward the whole cruise-shipping experience…

For the first half of our cruise, the weather was less than stellar (i.e. cold and rainy), so we were cooped up inside with 3,000+ people with little to do (but I guess if you’re into the aforementioned cruise ship activities this wouldn’t matter as much to you; I, on the other hand, escaped to the library for several hours on our first day at sea, just to find some peace and quiet). For the second half of our cruise, we had better weather, so we were able to sit outside in the sunshine and fresh air and do the mini-golf course and ropes course and shuffleboard.

(For this reason, I realize it’s entirely possible I would enjoy the “cruise” part of the cruise more if we’d had better weather and could enjoy the outdoor amenities more; being cooped inside was a little claustrophobic. Perhaps a Caribbean or South American cruise would be more my speed? The weather would be warmer so I could be outside more, and the places we’d visit wouldn’t have as much to see so I wouldn’t feel like I was missing out on as much?)

the pros and cons of a norwegian cruise | stop 2: tallinn, estonia
Our third stop was Tallinn, Estonia. I took this photo from the highest point in the city, looking out over the rooftops toward the Baltic Sea.

con: being on somebody else’s timetable

Leading up to our trip, I had a lot of anxiety, and I think a lot of it stemmed from my lack of control.

For some, going on a cruise is a great option because there’s so little you have to plan. You just book the cruise of your choice, select the excursions you want to do based on what the cruise line offers, and voila! your trip is all taken care of.

For me, the months leading up to the trip are almost as fun as the trip itself, because I love planning it from start to finish. (Also, in case it wasn’t clear, I’m a little bit of a control freak, and planning the trip gives me that control that I so desperately crave.) And while it might be relaxing for some people to be on someone else’s schedule, it frustrated me. Some of the logistics of the ports were baffling. Who makes Berlin a cruise destination? It’s 3 hours from the port—each way! Originally, we were supposed to dock in Stockholm, but apparently Norwegian didn’t know their ship was too big to dock there? So instead, we had to dock in Nynashamn instead, which was 40 minutes away from Stockholm. To save money, I’d planned on doing free walking tours in most of the ports, but being so far away from the city threw a wrench in my plans. I had nightmares of us trying to find our own way to Stockholm and not making it back to the ship on time and then having to find our way to the next destination, so we ended up spending additional money on an excursion through the cruise line just to abate my anxiety about the whole thing (see: I’m a crazy person, and really not a cruise person).

Bottom line: If you’re a control freak like me, you may not enjoy cruising.

the pros and cons of a norweigan cruise | stop 3: st. petersburg, russia
We had an overnight stop in St. Petersburg, Russia, which was one of my favorite stops on the whole trip. Everything in St. Petersburg is stunning, or on its way to being restored to its former glory. Can’t wait to tell you all about our two days in Russia! Here we are in Peterhof, one of St. Petersburg’s many palaces and referred to as the “Russian Versailles” (though I’ve been to Versailles, and I’ve got to say, this place was way prettier).

pro: complimentary meals (cost savings)

Although I haven’t yet done a cost-savings analysis on this trip as a whole (in other words, I’m not wholly convinced it was an “affordable” trip), I did feel like having complimentary breakfast and dinner took a load off of the financial burden of this trip, especially because Scandinavian countries, in general, are hella expensive. We really only had to pay for lunch when we were out on the town; all other meals were had on the boat.

The food on the ship, for the most part, was decent. Of course, it depended on where you ate. There were a handful of complimentary restaurants that we could eat at (and two more handfuls of places that were a la carte or had covers; but I was so annoyed by the unexpected extra costs we incurred prior to even leaving the US [see con below] that I refused to pay any extra for food on board); the buffet was pretty much what you would expect; three of the restaurants had the exact same menu, though it did change daily; and the other was a noodle bar with excellent potstickers but sub-par everything else.

We spoke to some frequent cruisers aboard our ship, and they said the food on other cruise lines is better, for what that’s worth. I had a couple of really fantastic meals—Cuban mojo pork with plantains and the short rib ragu really stand out as being phenomenal—whereas my husband had “the worst burger he’s ever eaten.” Where the quality in food was lacking, though, they really made up for with their impeccable service.

the pros and cons of a norwegian cruise | stop 4: helsinki, finland
Here’s a photo from our boat ride in Helsinki, Finland.

con: unexpected extra costs

Truth be told, I was annoyed before we even left, primarily because of unforeseen extra costs. When we booked the cruise, Norwegian gave us three options: A Wi-Fi package, a drink package, or $50 credits for shore excursions. We were advised to choose the shore excursion credit, but when I saw how much the excursions through Norwegian cost, I said Oh hell no. So my husband called Norwegian a few weeks before we left to see if we could choose a different package, and they said, Sure, you can do the drink package instead, but you have to pay gratuities up front. To the tune of $250. Which ends up being $13.88 per person per day. Which is actually very easy to meet on a cruise ship, so…kind of a good deal. Just, well, unexpected.

The other unexpected cost was the “mandatory gratuities.” Just the term grates on me; it’s an oxymoron. Gratuities, by definition, are extra. If we paid these “mandatory gratuities” up front, it was $13.99 per person per day, but if we paid at the end of the cruise, it was $15 per person per day. We paid up front of course, but it was another $250 we hadn’t anticipated spending. (To be clear: the people who work on cruise ships bust their asses–-they are some of the hardest workers I’ve ever encountered—so this wasn’t about tipping people who deserved it. It was that they were mandatory and yet it was extra; if a cruise line is going to require specific gratuities, it should be included in the cost of the ticket.)

the pros and cons of a norwegian cruise | stop 5: stockholm, sweden
I would go back to Stockholm in a second. It was dreamy. Here’s a photo of the hubs and me outside one of their Viking museums by the wharf.

the verdict

As you can see, the cons of our experience cruising with Norwegian outweighed the pros.

I do think part of the problem was that it was a European cruise; there just wasn’t enough time in each place, and there’s so much to see and do and eat and experience that I often felt like I was missing out. You might argue, Well, you got a taste of each place; now you know where you want to revisit, which is entirely fair. But I would have traded several hours aboard the cruise ship for more time in Stockholm or St. Petersberg in a heartbeat. As I said above, perhaps I would enjoy another type of cruise more, a beachier cruise full of snorkeling and warm weather, so I’m not going to discount cruises entirely after only one experience.

I think another part of the problem is that I’m very much an introvert and am not necessarily looking to make friends when I’m on vacation. Or, at least, I’m not looking to be friendly and outgoing all the time, and when you’re aboard a cruise ship, there are people everywhere, all the time. (Plus, germs.)

the pros and cons of a norwegian cruise | copenhagen, denmark
On the day our ship docked, we had a few hours to enjoy Copenhagen before our plane took off, so we took a walk around super colorful Nyhavn. It was a gorgeous day—warm, sunny, absolutely wonderful.

Don’t get me wrong, I love meeting people from other places and making friends when we’re on excursions, but I also love the quiet evening moments when it’s just me and my husband and I can just turn off. I didn’t feel like I could turn off all that often.

If you’re a little more extroverted, then you might enjoy the cruise part of cruising more than I did, too. (Of course, having a balcony room instead of a tiny windowless one might have made a difference there, too; I didn’t want to be in our room all the time because I couldn’t see outside, but I also didn’t love being around all the aforementioned people, so… Also, full disclosure: My husband and I were sick pretty much the entire time we were in Europe—just a nasty cold, sore throat, stuffy nose, just enough to be a bummer—so that may have colored our experience a little bit; though we made the best of it, it definitely made me a little crankier than usual.)

I realize a lot of the things I didn’t like about the cruise are definitely subjective, but I hope this pro/con breakdown will help you decide whether a cruise is for you if you’re on the fence. In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing the highlights from our Scandinavian adventure—because truly, we did see some really amazing places, and I can’t wait to share them with you!

Have you been on a cruise before? Do you love? Hate it? Tell me what you like or don’t like about cruises in the comments!

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new orleans travel guide: skip the oak alley plantation tour

We escaped the heat of New Orleans (well, a couple of degrees, anyway) for a few hours when we visited Oak Alley Plantation.

The grounds are lovely. Manicured lawns, beautiful flowers, old, towering trees.

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We grabbed some alcoholic lemonades, checked out the shop, and had some delicious gumbo at the restaurant, before our guided tour of the home.

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The description of the excursion said a “costumed guide” would take us around the house, which admittedly was part of the draw for me; I was picturing full-on antebellum dresses, ridiculous hats, and lace parasols…but alas, there was none of that.

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The tour of the house was interesting, I suppose, and…can you tell I wasn’t really a fan of this excursion? I literally have so very little to say about it. It wasn’t bad, per se, but it wasn’t worth the money.

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It definitely isn’t anywhere in the realm of must-dos in New Orleans, guys, I’m just going to be honest with you. It was my least favorite thing we did in New Orleans.

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new orleans travel guide: st. louis cemetery no. 1 walking tour

One of the most interesting and unique aspects of New Orleans is that they can’t actually bury their dead. Because they’re so far below sea level, the bodies, if buried, would sooner or later all emerge from the swampy soil, so instead, they bury those lost above ground in what they call “cities of the dead.”

New Orleans Travel Guide | St. Louis I Cemetery Walking Tour
Source: creynolds/pixabay.com

As I’ve said in previous posts, the ghost tour was what originally drew my friend and me to New Orleans for our girls’ trip destination this year, and a close second was the idea of exploring NO’s cemeteries at night. Alas, you actually can’t get into most of their cemeteries after the sun has gone down, largely because vandals took to wreaking havoc on what should be places of rest for strangers’ loved ones. Which was kind of a bummer, because let’s be real, cemeteries, while always interesting (in my opinion, at least), are lent an added layer of mystery under the cover of darkness.

New Orleans Travel Guide | St. Louis I Cemetery Walking Tour
Source: jc99301/pixabay.com

But in fact, New Orleans’ oldest cemetery, St. Louis Cemetery I cannot be accessed without a guide (it’s surrounded on all four sides by a wall, into which remains are also stored). We thought briefly of going to St. Louis Cemetery II, which is not as famous and doesn’t require a guide, but reviews of the area didn’t exactly give us warm fuzzies. So, in the end, we opted for a one-hour walking tour of Louis I, the oldest cemetery in New Orleans, and home to voodoo priestess Marie Laveau’s remains.

New Orleans Travel Guide | St. Louis I Cemetery Walking Tour
Source: dh_creative/pixabay.com

The day was blazing right off the bat. It was in the mid-90s by 10 o’clock, and there is very little shade in the cemetery. But our guide was just lovely; in addition to being extremely informative about the cemetery, she lent me her fan, which was an absolute godsend.

New Orleans Travel Guide | St. Louis I Cemetery Walking Tour

We learned about the different kind of tombs, from condos (tombs that are four or five ‘stories’ tall, with a story for each family member) to houses (a ‘coffee table’ resides in the center, and the bones are ground into dust and swept into troughs on either side, along with the ashes of that person and other family members). Most of the tombs in Louis I are from the 18th and 19th centuries, though Nicolas Cage’s future resting place is there, in the shape of a pyramid.

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Yes, women actually kiss Nicolas Cage’s tomb [insert puking emoji here]. Cemetery attendants need to clean the lipstick off daily so that it doesn’t permanently bake into the marble under the blazing sun.
Speaking of Nicolas Cage…there’s a story about the crumbling tomb that resides to the left of his pristine, snow-white Atlas Obscura: There’s a party scene from Dennis Hopper’s film Easy Rider that was shot in Louis I Cemetery. From what we were told, it’s trippy as hell, an out-of-control party, and one of the extras decided it would be funny to crawl into the open ‘story’ of one of the tombs, where he got stuck and promptly passed out. No one was sure if he was alive or dead, so they tied a bell to his toe (a system they used in the olden days to determine if someone was buried alive—true story) and stationed someone in front of the tomb for several days; if I remember correctly (feel free to correct me), the man remained in that tomb for four days, beneath the blazing New Orleans sun, before his toe finally wiggled, and they removed the large man from the tomb. Crazy, right?

New Orleans Travel Guide | St. Louis I Cemetery Walking Tour

We did a one-hour tour, which, in my opinion, was plenty (it’s a very small cemetery), though they also offer two-hour tours. Ever since the hubs and I stumbled upon a random and super-old cemetery in the Swiss countryside, I’ve found cemeteries to be fascinating; normally, I’m happy just to wander and study all of the tombs, spinning stories about the people who rest there, but I will say in this case I’m glad that we had a guide. Learning about the various types of tombs and the stories of some of the famous people interned there definitely lent some valuable and interesting context to the experience. I highly recommend doing the St. Louis I Cemetery Walking Tour when you’re in New Orleans!

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new orleans travel guide: the national wwii musem

The day after our late-night ghost-hunting tour, we had a late start. (Late as in, we missed breakfast altogether, which wasn’t a problem for Amanda, but is blasphemous for this breakfast-loving girl!)

We decided we would go to the National World War II Museum that day. Amanda was a little skeptical about the awesomeness of the museum and thought three hours would be plenty of time to see all there was to see. (I, though not a museum lover, was skeptical that three hours would be enough, but I also didn’t want to be a jerk and drag her through the museum for hours upon hours if she wasn’t into it. It was her birthday trip, after all, and I’m selfless like that. ;))

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Well, let me tell you, we were there the entire three hours until closing time, and we only made it through one of the FIVE buildings. Yup, you read that right. Amanda and I, the two non-museum lovers, were there for three hours and we barely scratched the surface. There’s a reason TripAdvisor lists the museum as the #1 attraction in New Orleans, you guys. If you’re at all into World War II, then you’ll have to be dragged out of that place just like we were.

You start your museum-going journey by being assigned a soldier; you’re given a card that you can use at various interactive points in the museum that allows you to follow your soldier’s story. (You can also go online later and use your “dog-tag number” to find out more about your soldier.) You get on a “bus” (no, not a real bus; hence the quotation marks), and it gives you a quick, immersive intro into their newest exhibit, The Arsenal of Democracy, which

explore[s] the road to war and then how the war was fought on the Home Front. Allied victory was an epic undertaking fueled by stateside industry, ingenuity, and the labor of millions of patriotic Americans. Through multimedia and interactive displays, and drawing on artifacts and oral histories from the Museum’s extensive collections, The Arsenal of Democracy creates countless opportunities for visitors to make personal connections with the men and women who helped win the war (via the National WWII museum website).

One of the best revelations, for me, as we explored this exhibit, was just how much footage there is. Every few feet, there was a short video focused on a very specific aspect of the war. I love looking at historical artefacts and photos, but footage just makes it so much more real for me. But even aside from the videos, the exhibits themselves were inventive and interesting. For instance, one exhibit had a podium, behind which a hologram of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was projected delivering the “Infamy Speech,” which he delivered after the bombing of Pearl Harbor; one either side of the FDR hologram, there were stats from Gallup polls about Americans’ feelings about joining the war at various points in the months leading up to America’s declaration of war, among other things.

We loved the National World War II Museum so much that we decided we must go back another day to explore the other four exhibits we hadn’t had a chance to see that first day. The museum is nice enough to offer a re-entry pass for $6!

The first thing we did on our second day at the museum was the “Beyond All Boundaries” 4D experience (you guys, it’s narrated by our most beloved actor, Tom Hanks!) at the Solomon Victory Theatre. But really, it’s quite impressive. The folks who curated the film spent years doing so, combing through soldier’s and journalists’ correspondences and hundreds of hours of footage, and it’s a quite impressive, condensed yet all-encompassing look at the war and its far-reaching effects upon the entire world, and definitely worth experiencing if you have time while you’re at the museum.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the other exhibits: The Road to Tokyo, the Road to Berlin (it’s funny how I always forget that Russia was actually aligned with the Allies and Italy with the Axis powers) and the D-Day Invasion of Normandy, and a cool exhibit on Bob Hope, all of which are housed in the Campaigns of Courage building.

Another building, a short walk away from the main cluster of museum buildings, features refurbished military airplanes. The last building focuses on the ways in which science (STEM) impacted the war, from ambulances to tank upgrades; it’s intended for kids mostly, I think, but it was still really interesting! These last two buildings took us maybe an hour and a half altogether; they’re less extensive than the exhibits housed in the other two buildings.

Altogether, we spent about seven hours, over the span of two days, spread out over five buildings, exploring New Orlean’s National WWII Museum. It was, hands-down, my favorite thing that we did in New Orleans and should be at the absolute top of your list if you’re planning a trip to N.O. I want to stress how much time it really takes to fully absorb and appreciate the museum, though; you know, unlike those two silly girls who thought three measly hours would be enough… Plan accordingly!

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new orleans travel guide: the ghost-hunting tour

So you may be wondering how we settled on New Orleans for our Girls Trip 2018, and the answer is that it all started with the idea of a ghost tour.

I get emails every week from TravelZoo, and one week several months ago, Savannah, Georgia, was the highlighted destination, with ghost tours being one of the things to do there. Amanda wasn’t so interested in Savannah, but New Orleans, on the other hand…

So, on our second night in New Orleans, we did this four-hour ghost-hunting tour in a house on Royal.

Once our guide had us seated in a cramped circle around the living room, she began telling us stories of the spirits who inhabit the house, which at one time was a makeshift hospital: It’s where Johnny died in the 1850s from several stab wounds. A young girl named Chloe died there in the 1700s when she fell down a well. A man named Kurt also resides there; he likes to wait in the teeny tiny bathroom and pinch people’s butts. And in the upstairs apartment, Philip, who died in the ’90s and likes old-school rap, and Samuel, a young artist who died in a warehouse fire in 2010.

Before the real hunting began, we had a few, erm, weird things happen: When we were in Philip and Samuel’s quarters, one of the women (who wore a “This is my Ghost-Hunting Shirt” tee shirt, which is awesome, BTW), claimed something grabbed her foot from under the bed. When we were testing the audio equipment, there was a high-pitched hissing sound that no one could explain. And one of the other women in our group was convinced that the little girl Chloe touched her side.

Meanwhile, I was grateful that no spirits touched me because I probably would have flipped my shit; I spent the entire four hours vacillating between being excited and terrified that I would experience some otherworldly being.

Once we split off into groups, the creepy factor increased even though nothing crazy really happened. Each group had a Mel-meter, which is supposed to pick up electromagnetic and temperature changes generated by spiritual beings. We would ask the spirits questions, ask them to turn the lights off and on, and that sort of thing. We also had a voice recorder and a video recorder with infrared. The camcorder battery died twice, to which the guide told us that spirits like to “eat up” batteries…if you can believe that. (Can you hear my skepticism?)

None of us got any recordings on the video or voice recorders, so we reconvened at the end in our living-room circle. Our guide busted out a spirit box and asked the spirits in the area to respond to her questions—to which we got a couple of dubious responses amid a lot of static (there are some freaky videos on YouTube of people using spirit boxes, but we didn’t experience anything like this).

And then, the last-ditch, hail-Mary pass—the diving rods. I held the short end of the rod, and our guide asked Chloe to move the rods if she was with us. And—swear to God, the rods moved when our guide asked Chloe to move them. At one point, I was holding one rod and another gentleman kittycorner to me was holding another, and Chloe MADE THE RODS CROSS WHEN PROMPTED. I have no other way to explain what happened. It was spoooooky as hell.

Our tour ended shortly thereafter, at 2 a.m. In all honesty, I think it was at least one hour too long. It could have been the group we were with—Amanda and I got stuck with an older couple—which would have been fine, except that the husband wanted nothing to do with the tour, and the equipment kept dying or malfunctioning. Though it started off promising, the night ended up being a little lackluster, definitely not what I expected. Part of me was glad that I didn’t have any paranormal experiences because that shit really freaks me out, but the other part of me was disappointed that nothing crazy happened.

When the hubs and I go to New Orleans, I would be open to trying a different ghost tour. Maybe it was the group we were with, maybe it was the guide, I don’t know, but it wasn’t quite the experience I had hoped it would be. This one actually sounds pretty cool: It’s the same tour company, but it’s a haunted mansion. If we ever do it, I promise I’ll tell you all about it. 😉

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new orleans travel guide: do the swamp tour with cajun encounters

Before I visited New Orleans, my knowledge of the place was pretty much limited to three things: Mardi Gras, po’boy sandwiches, and the bayou.

How many books have I read about the dark things that happen in the swamp? Countless. (Apparently, it’s a great place to hide bodies. The gators eat up all the evidence.) Okay, sorry, that got really dark, really fast. Apologies. But in my defense, it was all I really had to go on.

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Anyway, what I’m trying to get at is that it seemed crazy to go to New Orleans and not do a swamp tour. So on our first full day in NoLa, we were whisked out of the city to the bayou, in all its humid, gator-filled, murky-watered glory.

Really, the tour had everything I could have wanted: We were on a boat (I love boats), we got to see some gators up close, and our guide was pretty funny and definitely informative.

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As we glided through various waterways, Captain Clutch (not his real name, but apparently it’s what he goes by? I couldn’t tell if he was serious) regaled us with stories of the biggest gators that live in that particular swamp and other wildlife that live in the area (snakes, boars, raccoons) and pointed out the different plants and their origins and the different kinds of homes folks live in in the swamp.

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He told us a little bit about Katrina (which was 13 years ago, if you can believe that) and its effect on the swamp, and how you can still see evidence of the damage left behind by that devasting storm, even all these years later.

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As the piece de resistance, Captain Clutch fed some of those gators nice and close to our boat. It’s amazing how much air they can actually get, considering they only use their tails to propel them forward (see, I learned something new; I just assumed they used their feet for swimming, but nope, it’s all in the tail). You can watch a video of the aforementioned feeding below:

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It was an enjoyable and entertaining way to spend a couple of hours. It’s one of the things I would do again whenever I bring my husband to New Orleans (I’ll tell you about some of the stuff I wouldn’t bother doing again when I go back in future posts.) If you like boats and like learning about wildlife and a different way of living, then you’ll enjoy this tour. So go do it already!

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Vertical lift drawbridge in Slidell, Louisiana, built in 1933 (which was also probably the last time it was painted). Bridge operators need four hours’ warning to lift the bridge. 

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new orleans travel guide: two chicks’ brothels, bordellos, and ladies of the night walking tour

A few weekends ago, my friend Amanda and I jetted down to New Orleans for a five-day girls’ trip.

When we were first contemplating where we would go for our girls’ trip this year, we almost nixed New Orleans because we didn’t know how safe it would be for two women to be wandering around by themselves.

But NOLA was calling us; we had our hearts set on it. So I did some research (naturally), and if safety in New Orleans is something that worries you and/or makes you not want to visit, let me assure you: New Orleans is just like any other city—there are simply areas you want to avoid. Avoid them, be aware of your surroundings, and I promise you’ll be fine. (See also: “Things Not to Do When in New Orleans.”)

And New Orleans is really pretty easy to navigate once you get the hang of it. We walked everywhere (in 90-degree-plus-humidity weather, mind you; even the locals were complaining about how hot it was). I think the longest we walked to any given destination was 20 minutes.

We had nothing specific planned for our first night in New Orleans, aside from having a lovely meal for Amanda’s birthday (we went to the House of Blues, per her request; but just a heads-up, the music venue and restaurant are actually separate).

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When I get to a new place, the first thing I like to do is a walking tour. We started out researching voodoo-related walking tours but landed instead on a Brothels, Bordellos, and Ladies of the Night walking tour, because why not learn about the seedy underbelly of a destination first thing?

We had just enough time to get some freaking amazing grilled cheese at St. James Cheese Company, promptly lose a hundred bucks at the casino, and then we were on our way to the meeting point beside the famed Cafe Du Monde across from Jackson Square Park.

Our guide gave us a history of the city of New Orleans, setting the scene, before heading to Storeyville in the French Quarter. Prostitution is currently illegal in New Orleans, so it wasn’t quite like wandering around the Red Light District in Amsterdam; we didn’t see any “action.” It was more about entertaining us with the stories of famous prostitutes and madams as we walked along the Quarter’s cobbled streets.

We stopped at a local/hole-in-the-wall bar about halfway through for alcoholic watermelon lemonades and sat around a courtyard while our guide handed around some informative books and a replica of New Orleans’ “blue books,” which essentially promoted the madams and prostitutes (you can read more about it here, if you’re interested; it’s really quite scandalous).

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It was an entertaining and inexpensive two hours and gave us a little taste of New Orlean’s sordid history and helped us get the lay of the land. I wouldn’t say this is a “must-do” when you’re in New Orleans, but we got a kick out of it, and if you like walking tours and are fascinated by the “world’s oldest profession,” then you could do a lot worse, trust me.

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While we were walking, we came across a second line parade, full of boisterous, brassy music and folks dancing in the street and having a grand old time. It was pretty cool to watch, though I guess for the locals, second lines are everywhere, all the time. 

In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting about the other things we did in New Orleans, like our ghost-hunting tour, our tour of St. Louis Cemetery I, our swamp tour, our plantation tour, and probably my favorite, the National WWII Museum (I know what you’re thinking—a museum? Seriously Ash? The answer is: Seriously. We loved it so much, we went back a second day just so we could see it all. But more on that later!)

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a perfect weekend in new york by way of jersey city

Oh, hey there. It’s been a little while, hasn’t it? My writing mojo’s been missing, so I was just taking a little break, zooming through books, and planning our end-of-the-year escapades to Australia and New Zealand. (I’m not counting down the days, not at all.) But now I’m back, and I’m going to tell you about Memorial weekend in NYC by way of Jersey City. And this coming Saturday, I’ll be jetting off for 5 days in New Orleans, so you’ll have those posts to look forward to, as well (there I go being presumptuous, just assuming you look forward to my posts—you’ll allow this girl to keep the dream alive, won’t you?).

So, back to Memorial weekend! I flew into Newark to visit one of my best friends and favorite people in this world, Kate. I make it sound breezy, but it wasn’t so much, at least not the getting-there part. We left the house two and a half hours before my flight. It should have been fine. An hour there, an hour to get through security and to my gate before we boarded. But no. Highway traffic on the Friday before the holiday weekend had other ideas. It took us two hours to get to the airport. That’s right, I tucked and rolled out of my mother-in-law’s still-moving car promptly at 3:30 pm. Boarding was supposed to end at 3:45 pm. Commence harried begging at security to get me through faster, a sprint through the Westin entrance in the Delta terminal, and a barefoot-slapping, arms-full-of-crap, almost-left-my-license-behind, panic-filled sprint through the airport. Oh, and did I mention I was on standby? No? Oh, well, that just added another fun layer to an already fun experience. So I skidded up to the desk, panting, coughing, and asked frantically, “Did I miss it?” The attendant looked at me dubiously and asked, “Miss what?” To which I, of course, responded, “My flight to Newark.” (Subtext: “DUH.”) And he looks me with what could have been pity and said, “We haven’t even started.” To which I exhaled a whoosh of breath, which prompted a charming coughing fit (I am not a runner, in case you’re wondering). BUT friends, I made it! I made it through security and to my gate in less than 10 minutes—so, you know, in case you’re wondering, it is possible, if not heart-attack-inducing. And then we sat on the runway for 45 minutes because of something involving snack service and an out-of-order bathroom. Good times. BUT I made it to Jersey City in one piece, so I can’t complain too much.

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My favorite mural in JC.

On Friday night, we did what best friends who live far apart from each other do: We grabbed a giant pesto pizza from a place a few blocks from her apartment and caught up while plowing steadily through it. Previous visits to see her were a little more jam-packed with touristy things—on my first visit, we did Top of the Rock, we saw some Shakespeare in the Park, we picnicked in Central Park, we window-shopped along Fifth Avenue; my second visit was to attend BookCon with the express purpose of seeing BJ Novak interview Mindy Kaling following the release of her book, Why Not Me?—but we didn’t really know how all that works, so we didn’t get there three hours early to wait in line, so needless to say—womp, womp—there was no Mindy Kaling for us that day, but we did see Nick Offerman and Aziz Ansari, and that was pretty cool. I think she and I also saw Chicago on Broadway that visit (it’s weird to say I saw Chicago in New York). And on my third visit, my husband came along, so he and I did Top of the Rock and visited the Guggenheim, and had expensive chocolaty goodness at Max Brenner’s, and we all walked the High Line and hiked through a park in Brooklyn (not in the same day). But this trip was a wonderful balance of hanging out at her apartment—catching up on shows like Younger and Jane the Virgin that, had we still been roommates, we would have hung out and watched together in younger years, and chatting away like only old friends can—and hitting the town for some New York-y things.

On Saturday, we had lunch in Greenwich Village at the White Oak Tavern, which was all leather seats and chandeliers from the ’20s and dark paneled walls. It seemed like a place Hemingway and Fitzgerald might have hung out in to write back in the day—or maybe that’s just me projecting my Lost Generation fantasies on the place (I do it in Paris, too). I had a fantastic burger, and she had a super-healthy ancient grain salad with salmon that she said was also fantastic. We worked off our lunch with a little walk through Washington Square Park, mostly so that I could see that famous arch, and then along a few other charming leaf-copsed Village streets before we caught the train to World Trade, where I fulfilled my gelato dreams and got myself a cup of Crema di Grom (seriously, I dream about Grom gelato) before we caught Book Club at the nearby cinema.

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Me and the bestie in Washington Square Park.
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The Washington Square Arch.
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The fountain in Washington Square Park.
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That’s me in the green dress in front of the Arch. I look tinier than usual.
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Under the Arch.

 

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Our founding father and homebody George Washington adorns the, erm, Washington Square Arch. (Duh.)
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A French restaurant in the Village.
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Y’all know how much I love taking pictures of doors…
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Emma Lazarus lived here.
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…and doors…
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…and a peace sign made out of foliage of some kind…
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…and fancy doors…
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…and windows with shutters and flower boxes…
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…and hella old windows…

On Sunday, we went to see the Mean Girls musical at the August Wilson Theatre—and it was SO GOOD. Kate says it’s second-best musical she’s ever seen—and she’s seen a lot of shows since she’s moved to New York. Mean Girls was the perfect musical for us to see, too—it harkened back, again, to our roommate days, when we would watch that movie together. I had a smile on my face for the entire show. I’ll admit, I was a little skeptical when I heard that they made Mean Girls into a musical, but man, they really pulled it off. The production value was off-the-charts. They had a curved screen in the back which efficiently and effortlessly changed sets between scenes, or sometimes during song-and-dance numbers. SO MANY COSTUME CHANGES. And it was straight-up hilarious. (Not that I expected anything less from that comedic genius Tina Fey.) And the girl who plays Regina George, Taylor Louderman? That girl can belt it out. My arm hairs stood on end a couple of times when she really nailed those high notes! Moral of the story: Go see Mean Girls. Who knows how long it’ll be on Broadway (though 12 Tony nominations should be enough to keep it around for a little while, at least); it’s totally worth the hundred-something dollars you’ll spend on the cheap seats!

After the show, we hit up Eataly for dinner. Every single time I’ve gone to New York and come back, my co-worker promptly inquires whether I went to Eataly that time, and up until this time, I’ve always responded in the negative. Well, I wasn’t going to disappoint her this time, you guys. And thankfully it was Memorial weekend and the city was dead everywhere that wasn’t Times Square, or else we might not have made it happen. We ate at the first restaurant we happened across upon entry, one of the pasta ones on the main floor; I had pea ravioli with a mint bechamel sauce—delectable—but there are a handful of different places you can sit down and enjoy a meal in Eataly, including a place upstairs with nice views. Eataly is interesting, because it’s part-restaurant(s) and part market, so you can buy fresh meats and seafood and cheeses, and you can also buy pasta and canned sauces and the like. We topped off our visit with some creamy gelato—I got the lemon and it was super refreshing. I don’t know that it lived up to the hype my co-worker created around it, but it was a cool way to spend an evening and was like a little slice of Italy right there in the big city.

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Deadpool 2/Gummy Bears Advertisement in Times Square, because why not?

Monday was Wonder Bagels for breakfast and walking along the water so I could see Lady Liberty and chilling out at her place and watching The Greatest Showman before I had to catch my flight. My husband was flying in from his weekend in LA, so I actually got to meet him at his gate when he deplaned, which is really rare post-9/11 and was kinda cool. If I’d been really cool, I would have made some kind of jaunty sign with his name on it a la Lily and Marshall from How I Met Your Mother—but alas, I did not…

20180528_104621So, as previously mentioned, I’ll be exploring New Orleans next week, so be on the lookout in the coming weeks for an itinerary and some individual posts on the things we’re going to do there—like a ghost tour, because that’s apparently the thing to do there, and I’m simultaneously terrified and excited (ghosts really freak me out). Till next time!

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hawaii travel guide: pearl harbor

Like many people, I am very interested in World War II. It’s a fascinating, if not completely bonkers, section of history, and I gobble up pretty much anything that has to do with it—be it historical fiction (like All the Light We Cannot See), or actual biographies (like Unbroken), or films (like The Imitation Game or Valkyrie)—the list is endless.

When my husband and I were in Paris, we took a day trip to Normandy, which was intriguing and devastating and breathtaking (more on that later), so when we decided to go to Hawaii, we also decided we couldn’t fly all the way there and not see Pearl Harbor. So we spent our week on Kauai (not nearly enough time) and planned to fly to Oahu just for the day before flying that evening over to the Big Island.

Hawaii Travel Guide | Pearl Harbor

The difference between Kauai and Oahu was immediate and stark: For one thing, Oahu is much more built up than Kauai, with homes tightly packed into mountainsides; the air is also not as fresh (Honolulu is a big and bustling city, after all); and traffic and parking were downright awful. The hubs was almost immediately in a sour mood when we stepped foot in Oahu (not that I blame him); the hustle and bustle stole away any relaxation we felt in Kauai.

We slowly made our way to our meeting point (did I mention traffic sucked?) and then struggled to find a place to park that wasn’t going to take our remaining $20 in cash (we found a structure, went all the way to the top, parked for three minutes to locate a cheaper place to park, went all the way back down, and had to pay $5 for the actual fewer-than-five minutes we were parked there—true story [my husband is still a bit sore about it]).

Hawaii Travel Guide | Pearl Harbor

So we finally found a place to park our car for the day and made our way to the hotel meeting point for our Honolulu Double Decker Sightseeing Tour Including Pearl Harbor. And we waited. And we waited. And finally a bus pulled up, the driver hopped out, and she told us that our tour had been canceled. No, she couldn’t tell us why it was canceled. It was just canceled. No notice, just “Hi, sorry, canceled, BAM.” Strike 2 for Oahu. (Although I will say, the driver was very nice and took us to Pearl Harbor and dropped us off so we didn’t have to mess with parking again. It also looks like the company we [tried to use] is no longer in business, because the link to the tour on Viator is no longer available [big surprise]).

So we ended up exploring Pearl Harbor on our own. And I’ve got to say, we were both kind of disappointed. Okay, maybe disappointed isn’t the right word. We weren’t impressed. Okay, that’s not great, either, because I wholly understand and appreciate the enormity of what happened there. It just didn’t have the emotional impact on me that Normandy did (specifically the American cemetery in Normandy, with its sea of white marble crosses).

Hawaii Travel Guide | Pearl Harbor
WWII submarine, the USS Blowfin

We first bought tickets to explore the USS Blowfin for a “close quarters look at life aboard a WWII-era submarine,” which was actually pretty cool. (Maybe don’t go down there if you’re claustrophobic though.) Even being aboard the Blowfin, though, it’s hard to fathom what it must have been like for soldiers to be crammed in there like sardines for days and weeks at a time. (Shiver.)

Then we checked out the USS Arizona memorial (tours are offered every 15 minutes, and “there are 1,300 free tickets given out each day on a first-come, first-served basis,” per the Pearl Harbor website). You take about a 15-minute boat ride, then see a 20-minute documentary which includes interviews from survivors, and then you see the wall of the names of men who died during the attack. To this day, there is still oil leaking out from the wreckage below the memorial in rainbow circles (which is just insane to me; surely there’s a way to stop the oil from continuing the pollute the water 70 years later?), and you can see the tips smokestacks stacks still poking out of the dark water, crusted over with barnacles.

The Pearl Harbor Visitor Center also features a few museums you can stroll through if old artifacts are your thing (they are ours).

Part of me wonders whether the experience would have been different if we’d been able to do our guided tour as planned rather than exploring Pearl Harbor on our own, but of course, that’s hard to say. Did we feel it was worth the cost and hassle of flying into Oahu for the day just for the experience? Honestly, no. It was interesting to see, of course, but it didn’t have the same transcendent feeling that Normandy did. Of course, Pearl Habor is a bit smaller-scale in comparison and maybe that’s why it had a lesser impact, but again, it’s hard to say. If you’re really into WWII and feel that it’s worth your time, by all means, go there and see it for yourself—but maybe do a guided tour to see if you get more out of it. I’d be willing to bet that would have increased our experience tenfold.

Hawaii Travel Guide | Pearl Harbor
View of the coastline and Visitor Center from on board the USS Blowfin.

We finished the day with a yummy dinner at the Maui Brewing Company in Wakiki before we left for the airport. Although I long to go back to Hawaii, I don’t necessarily have a burning desire to return to Oahu. And perhaps it’s just where we were on the island; if the scenery in Forgetting Sarah Marshall has anything to say about it, Northern Oahu is freaking beautiful, so maybe it was just Waikiki that left a bad taste in our mouths, I don’t know. I think if we went back to Hawaii, we’d spend at least another week on Kauai and maybe check out Maui, too, since it’s the only island we haven’t explored yet…

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