Travel | Rome

I emphatically recommend traveling with British people. To travel with a Brit is to become a Brit – if only for a long weekend– and doing so provides a thrilling respite from being the American tourist. You suddenly have license to roll your eyes at the loud Yankee accents on the metro. It's the best.

 As last August faded to a broiling end, I joined two of my very own Brits (this one and this one) to beautiful, sunbaked Rome. We rolled into the city near midnight, got inexcusably lost in the three-block walk from train station to Airbnb, and mimed our way through the house rules with our Italian-only nona of a hostess. The apartment was a black-and-white-tiled, artfully ramshackle museum of flea market paintings, philosophy books, and green house plants. A home-baked lemon cake waited for us on the dining table.

Emily and Naomi navigated the city with a paper map, which I probably found too quaint and novel. Our wanderings through the city's hyper-saturated palette affirmed one of my life's philosophical pillars: people love beauty. The concrete walls of Rome could be an untouched grey, but the vibrant Italian quintessence paints the facades in glowy apricot, mossy green, cerulean, and lemon. Beauty is instinctive.

The sharply slanting summer sun sliced the city's colors into shards. Walking the streets was a study in contrasts – this vivd orange building abuts that pale blue wall, glaringly sunlit streets twist into dark alleys, shiny new cars trundle down cobblestone roads. Rome's very personality plays a foil to itself. This historical juggernaut of conquest and institution seems to sing and laugh, refusing to take herself too seriously. She's nonchalant and unwound. She invites you to romp among the relics.

We wound through said relics to the dazzling Trevi Fountain, flooded with other tourists but totally stunning nonetheless. The sun was so hot and the fountain water was so blue that I almost took a dive in the spirit of one Miss Lizzie McGuire. We ambled over to the Pantheon in the Piazza della Rotonda – a vivacious square full of music and color. Standing in the milky cylinder of sunlight streaming through the Pantheon's oculus was worth the entire trip to Rome. I could have gone back to London then in perfect happiness.

Winding through the alleys of Rome provides little sense of orientation or direction, but the twisting path eventually spit us out in Piazza Navona. The piazza felt a bit like a film set – musicians played for change, artists painted at easels, and people strolled with gelato in hand. We ate pizza off blue checked tablecloths at Caffe Barocco, and I couldn't figure out if it was touristy or good, or both. Frigidarium, a highly recommended gelateria, was definitely good. We did very thorough research in the form of about four scoops each.

Even accounting for all the world famous pasta and pizza and gelato, I was most thrilled by Rome's drinking water. Brass spigots jutted from walls and fountains with sweet-tasting water just waiting to be drunk from my cupped hands. Exhilarating.

The next day earned us the distinct lifetime achievement of walking from one country to another. The sovereign Vatican City is surrounded by an enormous stone wall and you enter with a horde of other sweating tourists, but the experience is pretty singular nonetheless. The tour takes visitors through the Vatican Museum, which houses the Pope's personal art and antiquities collections. The beautiful Hall of Maps was my personal highlight and the Sistine Chapel was, of course, awe inspiring. It looked so different than I imagined. The famous "Creation of Adam" fresco is just a tiny section in a constellation of Michelangelo's equally mind-boggling paintings. 

We skidded into St. Peter's Basilica just before it closed at sundown. The church was one of those places too beautiful to process. At some point the brain meets its beauty quotient and a building becomes an exquisite blur of vaulted ceilings and gilded domes and mosaics. The sunbeams cascaded onto the marble floors and I felt both sad and happy that this place existed – a monument to God's worthiness of worship mostly empty of the actual worship. 

Tired and hot and happy, we walked (what seemed like) thirty miles to what would be one of the loveliest meals of my life. After the fifteen requisite detours to photograph ourselves in front of interesting walls, we reached La Matriciana, which was recommended by my brother after celebrating his 30th birthday there a few years prior. A happy waiter in a white dinner jacket seated us at a table right on the street, where the cooling evening air and purple sunset sky and soft chatter of passersby filled my heart to overflowing. Three hours. We sat at that table for three hours because none of us wanted that perfect evening to end. We laughed and twirled pasta around our forks and declared the tiramisu to be the world's best.

When life gets difficult, I remember that somewhere in Rome a person is eating a plate of black truffle fettuccine at La Matriciana, and I feel hope once more. I keep those white table cloth, flickering candlelight, olive oil scented hours in a special compartment in my heart.

The next morning took us to the Colosseum, a spot so famous that you can't quite believe you are actually looking at it in real life. In our imaginations we filled the amphitheater with Roman spectators felt the energy that must've charged the air as gladiators rushed into the arena. I thought about the Hunger Games a lot that day and felt very confused by humanity's appalling track record of entertainment consumption. I also thought about how I never miss an episode of the Bachelorette, which made me judge the Romans less harshly.

After more pizza and more gelato, we poked around the Roman Forum and its surrounding ruins. In my travel experience, you hit a point in which another ruin (despite its significance to modern democracy or philosophy) can no longer compete with the prospect of a caffeinated beverage. We hit that point at the Forum and quickly located Sant'Eustachio Il Caffè, which sources (i.e. Naomi) call Barack Obama's favorite cafe in Rome (i.e. he went there one time). Three shakeratos (and a pistachio gelato) later, we ventured to the Spanish Steps. The sunlight was hitting the Piazza di Spagni at the perfect angle and a man was blowing bubbles and a clique of teenage girls was giggling and all was right in Roma. 

Rome is a highly walkable city; we only used the Metro once on the final morning of our trip. We had grand plans of checking out the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art, so we traveled all the way to Villa Borghese only to discover the museum was closed on Mondays. Nevertheless, we enjoyed a walk in a shady green park and a beautiful hilltop view of the Piazza del Popolo. We muscled through one last bowl of gnocchi at Antica Osteria Brunetti, then met up with some honorary Romans at the heavenly and highly Instagrammable Giolitti. The catch-up with my beloved friends was as sweet as the grapefruit gelato.

 A late night flight back to London brought our magical Roman holiday to a close, but many days I revisit warm Roma in my mind. If any city's got to be the Eternal City, I'm sure glad it's Rome.

Travel | Budapest

It was hot. That is the single deepest impression Budapest left on my scape of memory. I know heat well – Alabama Julys are hard to forget – but this was a different kind of hot. It was full and inescapable and distinct. The kind of hot you can see shimmering forth from old photographs in scrapbooks at your grandmother's house. It was a good heat, a heat that accentuated that famously bright Bohemian spirit.

Liz and I rolled into the center of Budapest as the sky pinked and hunted down our airy, white, perfectly European flat – a single, top-floor room with two mustard yellow chairs and a clawfoot bathtub. We'd rationed a half-sleeve of melting Hobnobs during the long train ride from Prague, so the hanger was settling in fast and finding food became priority one. Lost in the maze of crumbling, candy-colored buildings, we were drawn in by the siren's call of Anker't, a stupidly hip restaurant built into the ruins of... something. A hospital? Maybe a tenement? Someplace grungy and ironically chic. The lanterns in the crumbling courtyard must've attracted every millennial in Budapest because the wait for a burger was over an hour. So on we tramped to delicious Menza, a polished throwback to midcentury design and dining, where I ordered a top-notch lamb burger with blueberry mayo.

That night Liz and I made the mistake of watching the first few episodes of Broadchurch, which we would later find out was not available on UK Netflix. So if you know who killed Danny Latimer, PLEASE TELL ME.

The next morning began with breakfast at Bluebird Cafe, a sweet little spot in the Jewish Quarter with great food and even better murals. As we wound through the grid of city streets, I felt we were living on a movie set. Each building and street lamp and wrought iron fence was worn and weathered in the most charmingly imperfect way. Every door seemed to be its own kind of interesting – forest green herringbone or bright goldenrod starbursts decorated entryways all over town. A well-placed red vespa never failed to add the perfect accent to each street scene.

Did you know the Danube splits Budapest into two sides – Buda and Pest? We crossed the beautiful Széchenyi Chain Bridge into Buda and the city's personality immediately morphed into something quieter, older, and calmer. An old wooden and brass funicular carried us up to the gorgeous Hungarian National Gallery, an incredibly rich art collection located in the old Royal Palace. We spent hours enjoying the air conditioning – I mean, the art and culture. The French Naturalism exhibit was absolutely perfect and I want to return to those marble corridors. 

We stumbled upon the cozy and highly recommended Pest-Buda Bistro & Hotel and tucked into a delicious kemenceben, a kind of Hungarian pizza. Happy and full, we spent the remainder of the afternoon soaking in the spectacular view of Parliament from the Citadel, a glowy white fortress built on Buda's highest point. The Citadel's archways were the perfect place to watch the city buzz and breathe. 

Looking for relief from the heat, we trundled down the metro line to the Széchenyi Thermal Bathsa strange and wonderful cluster of public thermal pools. I find few things more off-putting than strangers in Speedos, but the Baths were a refreshingly unique travel experience! The theme of new experiences followed me into the evening, which I spent on my very first food tour. Liz is a veteran food tourist and quickly sold me on the idea of shamelessly eating at six restaurants in a four-hour span.

Our Budapest Urban Walks group convened in the Jewish Quarter at a little grotto of a restaurant where we began our tour with a gorgeous spread of locally sourced charcuterie and cheese, homemade bread dipped in olive oil, and piles of figs. Our fellow foodies hailed from all over the globe and quickly located common ground as we talked travel and food. We then did my favorite activity: eating food while on the way to get more food. We grabbed an amazing apple-based stew en route to Karavan, a colorful food truck park with innovative updates on old Hungarian dishes. Our fourth stop offered some traditional goulash and a part of a chicken that I never want to eat again. (I only ate it because I wanted to impress the man on the tour who looked like a tough Santa Claus!) We swung by a ruin pub, a type of bar unique to the Jewish Quarter that uses only abandoned spaces and scavenged furniture, and finished the night with some Hungarian sweets and coffee at a Baroque cafe. The food tour ranks among my very favorite travel memories.

Our final day began with flower-garnished charcoal pancakes (yeah, I still don't understand what they were) from Szimply Food  and a trip to Alexandra Bookcafe. I always find a thrill from looking at familiar books in a foreign language. After stopping into a fun, design-y pop-up shop, we took a long walk to the Great Market Hall. The hall was impressively large and a few vendors had some beautifuk local produce, but most of the stalls seemed to sell the same four or five bits of tourist fodder. As our London-bound flights loomed, we grabbed one last iced-coffee-flavored taste of Budapest at the crazy cool My Little Melbourne cafe.

As we approached the metro station, I finally mustered the courage to take a sip from the public drinking fountain and felt, if only for a moment, bohemian.

Travel | Oahu

 

I was afraid we might run into Santa coming down our chimney this Christmas just gone. My sister, mom, aunt, and I awoke to 3:50am alarms on the morning of the 25th to make a 5:30 flight to Hawaii. I didn't unwrap any presents this Christmas, but I still got some pretty great gifts – sand and sunshine and a purple lei around my neck at the Honolulu airport.

After meeting up with my cousins and grabbing a Loco Moco at Zippy's, we scooted our tiny white rental cars up the eastern edge of Oahu and would later laugh at the breathtaking views we whizzed by in total ignorance during the late night drive. We stayed in a perfectly simple, newly renovated, neon colored Airbnb house perched right on the tip of Laie Point, a craggy finger of land that reaches into the agitated December Pacific.

Jetlag shook us awake in time to catch the sunrise, which came with a rainbow between bouts of sideways rain. We then met up with cousin Will, whose wedding gave us the excuse to visit Hawaii, and ate breakfast in cute Kailua at the Nalu Heath Bar & Cafe . Each day since I have dreamt of those acai bowls with a wistfulness I've rarely known. They changed my life.

We wandered around hip Hekili Street, which is a fantastically fashionable place to spend time and money. We also saw a girl sharing a table and plate of crepes with a wild chicken which I considered my personal Christmas miracle. At a nearby beach we watched the waves toss wind boarders here and there. Barack Obama was reportedly staying a few miles away, but he didn't answer my texts to hang out.

 
 

Skydiving (spectating, not participating) was next on our agenda. Watching blood relatives jump from an airplane is equal parts entertaining and stressful. We eased our nerves with a stop by the insanely crowded food truck park in Haliwea. Outside of New Orleans, Dat Cajun Guy had the best po'boys and red beans and rice I've ever had. We also visited the Snow Factory truck for "snow" (a shave ice/ice cream hybrid), the wonders of which we discussed in depth almost every day of our trip.

Wild Laie Point didn't exactly show off the famous Hawaiian sunset, but we found it the perfect place to watch the day fall asleep. As the clouds rolled in and the wind whipped up and the waves churned harder, we reflected on the enormous blessing it is to feel small next to a big ocean.

And then we watched Hallmark movies and fell asleep at 8pm, because vacation is still vacation.

 
 

The North Shore becomes the surfer's Mecca in December, so we laid down towels on Banzai Beach to sit and watch the men and women worship the enormous winter waves. You know those big waves that get so tall and curl in over themselves so that a surfer can glide through the inside tube? We saw those!

Shark's Cove, a naturally enclosed pool of ocean, was our afternoon spot for wading and people watching. As we got lunch from the North Shore Shrimp Truck, I pondered if it was acceptable to be receiving 75% of my meals from the window of a vehicle. And then I got a rainbow shave ice. From a truck.

 
 

Will and Carissa's rehearsal dinner was wedged between emerald mountains and turquoise shoreline at the Kalama Beach Club. Under twinkling lights, we ate and drank and laughed and prayed in celebration of this upcoming wedding. 

The next morning took us to Waimea Bay, a gorgeous semicircle of sand and sea dotted with enormous rock formations. Several rapid, intermittent showers brought us a rainbow, which inspired lots of cartwheeling. Just across the street, a gorgeous walk through the lush Waimea Valley, a reserve full of indigenous flora, brought us to Waimea Falls. 

Rain-soaked and mud-splattered, we realized the late hour and rushed home to get six women ready for the long awaited wedding! Of course, we weren't in too much of a rush to miss out on another acai bowl from (you guessed it) a food truck.

The wedding was perhaps the most beautiful celebration I've ever attended. The evening was as lovely, organic, and authentic as the bride and groom. Sparkling lights, long banquet tables, delicious food, warm ocean breezes, LOTS of cake, crowns of greenery,  and a getaway vespa trailed by tin cans. A night can't get more perfect than that.

 
 

Classic Hawaiian Tourism was the theme of the following day. After an unsuccessful visit to the inordinately crowded Diamond Head State Parkwe scooted over to famous Waikiki Beach because it is, of course, required. Ever the entertainers, Natalie and Shannon rented a surfboard and took turns riding some "waves". We grabbed lunch at a nearby foodcourt (SO MANY Asian meal options, which I loved), then headed to Hanauma Bay.

During my last visit to Hanauma Bay, the water was a nearly oversaturated shade of blue, so I was a little disappointed that December had stolen some of the bay's colors. With only 45 minutes left to rent snorkeling gear, we grabbed our equipment and floated out as a little glob over the gorgeous coral reef. That shivery, giggly afternoon was my absolute favorite. I even saw an eel, which was both thrilling and damaging.  

 
 

I was sad that we visited Hukilau Cafe in Laie on our last full day in Hawaii. If we had discovered it sooner, I would have eaten their coconut pancakes for at least ten different meals. Top five pancakes of my life – and I've eaten a lot of pancakes.

We swung by Oahu's incredibly beautiful, jungly Macadamia Nut Farm which offered free samples galore and even allowed visitors to try cracking their own macadamia nuts! 

A breathtaking drive through the misty green mountains brought us to Pearl Harbor, my favorite Oahu destination. A kind of peaceful, quieting veil rests over Pearl Harbor. A mind can't quite reconcile that the glittering Hawaiian harbor is the gravesite of thousands. The pristine USS Arizona memorial powerfully conveys the story of December 7, 1941, and I could have spent hours pacing its length. The wreaths laid by President Obama and Prime Minister Abe the week before still stood at the front of the memorial.  

 

We skidded our Nissan into the Dole Pineapple Plantation just in time to grab a Dole Whip before their early New Year's Eve closing time. We obviously chose the ice cream over the plantation tour because we have our priorities in line. The Whip didn't disappoint.

As our late night return flight loomed near, we made one final stop in downtown Honolulu to see the Hawaiian State Capitol, which is reminiscent of a very stylish volcano.

We stopped by Iolani Palace, the only palace on U.S. soil, and gave a wave to the Queen Liliuokalani statue. After a quick swing from the branches of a banyan tree, we faced the reality that our Hawaiian holiday was coming to a close. 

Our plane was somewhere off the coast of California when the clock struck midnight on New Year's Eve. Shannon tapped me on the shoulder from her seat behind me and we gave a little cheer to 2017.