Sun, sand and sweat: Exploring Martha’s Vineyard by bike

I thought I was so clever.

I’d devised what I thought was the perfect affordable Fourth of July weekend with my husband on Martha’s Vineyard, the summer enclave that numerous presidents and celebrities call home. I had chosen to book a modest room in an out-of-the-way area to save money on lodging. I picked activities that were mostly free or cheap — beaches, parades, coffee shop lunches, happy hours. I had planned for us to park four miles away from the ferry terminal so we didn’t have to pay an exorbitant daily parking rate. And I chose a budget-friendly method of on-island transportation: cycling on our own bikes.

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On the morning of July 4, I was in smug self-congratulation mode as we pulled into our $0 parking spot, hopped on our bikes, strapped on our backpacks and pedaled toward the Martha’s Vineyard Fast Ferry in Quonset, Rhode Island.

And then I heard a loud POP! and a slow hisssssss.

We were, I kid you not, just feet away from the Fast Ferry’s ticket office when a giant rusty nail punctured my front tire. I let out a few choice expletives as my mind immediately navigated to worst-case scenarios. Was my bike totally out of commission for the weekend? Would I have to cough up untold sums of money for a replacement rental? It was a holiday weekend — would there be any rentals left? If not, how would we get around, and would bus tickets and cab fares end up emptying our wallets? Did one stupid nail just ruin our entire trip?!

Then, Ian brought me back down to Earth. There would be numerous bike rental companies near the Oak Bluffs ferry terminal, he assured me, and they’d have no trouble patching up the tire quickly. Everything would be fine.

He was right, of course. Once we’d docked, it took us all of 30 seconds to find Anderson’s Bike Rentals, where a very nice employee replaced my tube for just $20. Less than a half hour later, we were on the road toward our Airbnb in the town of Vineyard Haven.

The temperature was high and the sun was blazing. As we biked down East Chop Drive with several pounds of belongings on our backs, we began dripping sweat. Yet there was nowhere else I’d rather be. The sweeping ocean views, charming shingled houses and nautical decor around every corner reminded me why I’d fallen in love with the Vineyard on my first visit a year earlier, when I signed up to join a yoga and photography retreat hosted by my favorite travel blogger, Alex in Wanderland. The island has a way of easing troubles, slowing time and illuminating the truly important stuff in life — for example, the sine qua non that is tracking down the cutest lighthouse and snapping a million photos.

Our Airbnb was a modest but relaxing room in Vineyard Haven, one of the island’s six towns. Vineyard Haven, the main village within the town of Tisbury, doesn’t get much ink in travel guides. That’s partly because it’s less eye-catching than the other major population centers of Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, and partly because it’s a semi-dry community: There are no bars here, and the restaurants require you to order food with your beer or wine. But even if you like a tipple, I think there’s a case to be made for staying in Vineyard Haven. It’s more affordable, it has some of the best restaurants on the island, it’s just a short jaunt away from the nightlife in Oak Bluffs, and it boasts an artsy, bohemian community of year-round residents.

That said, we didn’t stay long in Vineyard Haven on this particular day. Once we’d dropped off our stuff, freshened up and met our lovely host Betsy, we were on the road again.

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First, we doubled back to the bustling, colorful, delightfully kitschy town of Oak Bluffs, where we dismounted our bikes and wandered around the Martha’s Vineyard Camp Meeting Association. The name probably conjures images of tents and cinderblock bathrooms, but in reality, the MVCMA is a neighborhood of ridiculously Instagrammable gingerbread houses originally built in the 19th century. Once part of a summer religious colony, the houses are now privately owned — I stayed in one of them during Alex’s retreat! — and today they are unaffiliated with any organized religion. But the historic Tabernacle at the center of the neighborhood remains and still hosts regular religious services, concerts and talks throughout the summer.

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Mid-afternoon was upon us, and the temperature was approaching 90 degrees Fahrenheit; needless to say, we were more than ready for a dip in the ocean. We grabbed our bikes and set off on the dedicated trail connecting Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, with plans to stop at a stretch of sand somewhere along the way.

This trail is unquestionably the flattest, shortest and most easily accessible one on Martha’s Vineyard, so we expected we’d be sharing the road with mobs of other cyclists on this holiday. To our surprise, the two-wheel traffic was pretty light, and we were flying by cars sitting in gridlock. It was just a few minutes before we found the perfect spot on Joseph Sylvia Beach.

After a heavenly hour or so in the water, where nary a shark was to be found, we were back on our bikes and headed toward Edgartown, home of the island’s annual Fourth of July parade. We were a little early for the parade, so we killed time by checking off another classic Martha’s Vineyard summer activity: a lobster roll picnic lunch at the local church. We paid $20 each for a gigantic lobster roll, a bag of chips, a bottle of water and the best people watching of my life, which for this island is a screaming deal.

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We weren’t feeling the parade vibes, so we skipped the beginning of the procession to check out the town’s elegant and remarkably uniform shingled houses and shops. My first visit to Edgartown had been in late September, well after the end of the typical island season, and most of the million-dollar waterfront mansions had stood largely empty. This time, it was different: Every house on Water Street was filled to the brim with celebrating families and decked out in patriotic streamers. Even the beach at Edgartown Harbor Light, one of my favorite lighthouses of all time, felt festive that evening.

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Still not ready for the noise and crowds of the parade, we opted instead for frozen cocktails on the patio of the Quarterdeck Restaurant. In the spirit of the Fourth, they were handing out free bottomless chips and salsa. With nearly everyone in town lining the parade route at that moment, the bar was blissfully quiet. A light ocean breeze cooled us off. My entire body relaxed. It was official: We were on island time.

After catching the tail end of the parade, we made the short bike ride over to Bad Martha Farmers Brewery and grabbed a sample flight. Just like the bike trail, Bad Martha was surprisingly quiet when I expected it to be choked with crowds. We spent a leisurely hour chatting and watching butterflies flit around the brewery garden as late afternoon gave way to dusk.

We hightailed it back to Vineyard Haven, then we grabbed our bike lights and pedaled toward West Chop in search of a good sunset overlook. The neighborhood was fairly rural and nearly pitch black; for about a mile, our bike lights illuminated a heavy concentration of mosquitoes and little else. Then we came across a country club where people milled around in pristine all-white ensembles. Though we felt out of place in our T-shirts and lycra shorts, we followed the crowd to an overlook, just in time for a breathtaking sunset. When we could stand the mosquito bites no longer, we headed back to our Airbnb and slept soundly.

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The next morning, we woke early to nab a seat at Vineyard Haven’s Art Cliff Diner, an island favorite. I was extremely tired and sore from the 25 not-entirely-flat miles we’d covered the day before, but pleasant thoughts of hot, strong coffee lured me onto my bike saddle and spurred me to start pedaling. We arrived just a few minutes after the cafe opened, and I was surprised to see very few people queued ahead of us. (I’m still getting used to the fact that New Englanders just don’t seem to be as gung-ho as West Coasters about early-morning breakfasts — a comparable cafe in Santa Cruz or Seattle would have been packed by 7 with a 45-minute wait list by 8, even in the dead of winter.)

An hour later, fully sated and caffeinated, we were off to a day trip on Nantucket — a post for another day! We returned at dusk and completed our tour of Martha’s Vineyard breweries with a casual dinner at Offshore Ale Co. After sunset, we dragged our sweaty, sunburned selves to Alex’s darling yellow gingerbread house to catch up over rosé. Somehow, I forgot to grab a selfie with her — but I did remember to document this unfortunate sunburn. Fail.

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The following morning, our last on the island, we both woke up with screaming muscles and foggy heads. Though we used to bike to work every day under the often-intense Colorado sun, we hadn’t spent this much time on two wheels in at least a year and a half, and I think we had both overestimated our physical limits. Though we weren’t quite ready to call it quits, we vowed to take it easier today, stopping when we needed and taking cover in the shade when possible.

This time we set our sights inland, following arterial roads and smoothly paved trails to the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market. We hopped from one outdoor stand to another, sipping coffee, munching on pastries, admiring island artists’ work and sampling locally-grown food. We loved bearing witness to the commingling of people from vastly different backgrounds here: We spotted preppy young families, bearded fishermen, gray-haired couples clad in tie dye, and of course former Secretary of State John Kerry.

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After we’d tired of squealing about the John Kerry sighting (me) and sipping the Single Greatest Lemonade Of All Time (Ian), we walked our bikes down the road for a little town sightseeing. West Tisbury is much smaller and more rural than the three easternmost towns on the island, yet its three-block-long main road is still bursting with art, food and entertainment. We first stopped at the Field Gallery & Sculpture Garden, where some colorful abstract paintings caught our eye. Then we pored over endless entertaining piles of bric-a-brac at Alley’s General Store, an island mainstay for many decades.

And just like that, it was time to pack up our stuff and go home. Before catching the ferry, we dragged our heavy backpacks into Mad Martha’s for a parting scoop of ice cream, then we briefly parked ourselves on a prime dog-spotting bench at Ocean Park to reminisce on the last few days.

We agreed that we had crammed too much activity, and too much bike mileage, into each day of this mini-vacation. Summertime in New England, in all its glorious brevity, tends to bring out the over-planner in me: I spend so many consecutive months in hibernation that, once the weather warms and the region explodes with events, activities and seasonal sights, I’m eager to do and see it all, to stock up on sunny memories that will propel me through the next hibernation period. But as I reflected on the long weekend, I realized that what endured in my memory weren’t the many pre-planned activities or the bike rides. They were the slow, spontaneous moments: our quiet happy hour in Edgartown, our afternoon swimming at the beach.

Was our long weekend celebratory and scenic? Yes, definitely. Was it relaxing and rejuvenating? No, not especially! Don’t get me wrong, I love being active while on vacation — but not so active that I wind up in a 24-hour stupor afterward. If we were to do it all over again — and I hope we do! — I would advocate for a week-long trip focused mostly on beachgoing, barbecuing, evening walks and one or two excursions to other towns. After all, in beautiful, seasonal, slow-moving places like Martha’s Vineyard, where the best moments involve sand, seafood and sunsets, the magic is in the dolce far niente — the sweetness of doing nothing.

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Celebrating love in verdant Vermont

In July 2018, on the eve of our second wedding anniversary, Ian told me he was whisking me away for a weekend. The destination, he said, was a surprise.

I was thrilled — I love a well planned surprise, especially when it involves exploring beautiful New England in my favorite season with my favorite person.

(That said — have you ever tried packing for a trip to an undisclosed location? I’m here to tell you it ain’t easy.)

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When we hit the road on Friday evening, I started narrowing down possible destinations in my head. I thought we might be headed to the Berkshires, which in the summer boasts not only natural beauty but also world-class culture: think classical music at Tanglewood and contemporary art at Mass MoCA. I also considered the possibility that we were on our way to the Hudson Valley, home of magnificent wineries, charming sleepy towns and an NYC-caliber restaurant scene.

But I was most convinced we were bound for Vermont, a state we both couldn’t wait to visit. On paper, Vermont seemed like exactly our kind of place: it had crunchy hippie roots, beautiful mountain scenery, a plethora of outdoor activity possibilities, and most importantly a lot of maple syrup and cheese.

As we crossed into the southeastern corner of Vermont — suspicion confirmed! — I was excited to see if the state would measure up to my Mt. Mansfield-high expectations.

Folks, it was love at first sight — literally. Within the first half hour, we hit this magnificent viewpoint:

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All at once, I realized why winter in Rhode Island felt so lackluster and why I missed Boulder so dang much: Because Rhode Island is as flat as a pancake! This was the first time I’d seen a mountain vista in six months. It was glorious.

As dusk descended, we pulled into the adorable town of Wilmington, where we’d be based for the next two days. “Town” is perhaps a generous descriptor of pint-sized Wilmington — it’s really not much more than a half-mile stretch of highway with a handful of restaurants, shops and adventure outfitters. Yet it has everything a discerning weekender could possibly want, including great food, an impressive roster of concerts and shows, and an amazing variety of handmade gifts to take home. Most importantly, it’s got that New England je-ne-sais-quoi about it — that woodsy, cozy quaintness I wasn’t sure existed beyond the pages of Yankee Magazine.

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After dropping our luggage inside the adorable Airbnb, Ian and I walked “across town” (read: two blocks away) for an uncharacteristically lavish dinner at Cask & Kiln, a relatively new restaurant housed in a historic brick building that had been ravaged by river flooding caused by Hurricane Irene in 2011. This place is as much about romantic atmosphere as it is about food, all low lights and leather tufted seats and Art Deco details. I loved that everything about the restaurant, including the decor, the menu and even the outfits of the servers, managed to feel at once contemporary and nostalgic, simultaneously casual and celebratory. The least classy thing about the place? Us — we had mostly packed outdoor adventure clothes and were easily the most underdressed people there!

The next morning, I woke up early to get the lay of the land. With a cup of coffee in one hand and a blanket around my shoulders, I read up on the area’s parks, attractions and seasonal events and consulted a map of the area. Soon I was fired up for a day of scenic hiking, kayaking, farmer’s markets and covered bridge peeping (it’s a real hobby!) — and I was already plotting return trips in the fall and winter, when the area appears equally gorgeous.

We kicked off Saturday morning with a Cajun-inspired breakfast at Jezebel’s Eatery and a brief tour through some of the town shops. Sometimes I feel like the same 50 books are on display in every bookstore, so I was pleasantly surprised by the eclectic and locally-focused displays at Bartleby’s Books. I think our visit here inspired about half of my holiday gifts in 2018!

After grabbing some local honey at a farmer’s market on the outskirts of town, we pulled into Molly Stark State Park — where we were stunned to discover we were one of just a handful of visitors that morning. After consulting a ranger and a trail map, we followed signs to the Mt. Olga Fire Tower, which promised sweeping views of the Green Mountains. Promise delivered.

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One thing I love about New England is its plethora of easy and moderate hikes. Many people who live in the West, particularly those in Colorado, approach hiking with a “no pain, no gain” philosophy and believe the best views can only be found by enduring grueling climbs. This 1.7-mile jaunt proves all those hiking snobs wrong.

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After Molly Stark, we reversed course, heading west on the state’s main southern highway with no particular destination in mind. Google Maps first led us to Woodford State Park, where we found a few-mile trail circumnavigating Adams Reservoir. Some families were paddling their kayaks and canoes on the calm waters, and we dreamed of returning here in the fall to do the same.

After relaxing for a while at the reservoir’s picnic area, we continued west and grabbed lunch at a bohemian coffee shop in Bennington. Wondering where to go next, we pored over the local tourism guides for inspiration. Almost immediately, we zeroed in on Bennington College — the alma mater of several big literary names, including Donna Tartt. We’d both recently read “The Secret History,” which was based on her time there, and we were intrigued to see if the place felt as mysterious as it had been portrayed in her novel.

The campus was beautiful, austere and almost disturbingly quiet in the middle of summer. We spent a pleasant couple of hours imagining spots where Tartt’s characters might have held their bacchanal or crossed the quad for Greek lessons.

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Back in Wilmington, we hit up Red Fox Shop, a local wine, cheese and gift store, to assemble our own ploughman’s dinner. The place was so unexpectedly delightful that we stayed almost an hour chatting with the owner, browsing funky cheeses and shopping for gifts. Then, we took our finds back to the Airbnb and lounged on the riverbank until the mosquitoes chased us inside.

On Sunday morning, we weren’t quite ready to return to the real world — so we took the scenic route home. Our first stop was a charming covered bridge near Brattleboro, the first one I’d ever seen on the East Coast.

After crossing into Massachusetts, Ian suddenly remembered one of his favorite area destinations from a previous trip here. Drawing largely from memory, he navigated us to the Montague Bookmill, a former 19th-century grist mill that is now home to a sprawling complex of used books, cafes, food stalls and local artists’ pop-up shops.

We had another three hours of driving ahead of us, otherwise I might have spent the entire day here. I loved everything about this spot — the sun-soaked reading nooks, the unpretentious vibe, the vibrant art, the friendly and talkative people.

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Needless to say, this weekend confirmed my assumptions that I’d love Vermont. Despite never having visited before, the Green Mountain State felt familiar to me. Maybe it’s because Vermonters seem so much like Santa Cruzans, filled to the brim with local pride and refreshingly far removed from the career-focused hustle of the I-95 corridor. Or maybe it’s that they spend so much more of their time outside, even in the depths of winter, like in our previous home of Boulder. Whatever it was, I know one thing: I’ll be back soon.

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READ NEXT: Two years in Rhode Island

Two years in Rhode Island

It’s not worse. It’s different.

That’s the mantra I tried to force-feed my brain in 2019, my second full year in Rhode Island.

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This time last year, as I recapped the last 12 months, I realized I had few positive things to say about my new Northeastern home. That’s not totally surprising, given the way the year began: When Ian and I moved to Rhode Island in January 2018, we were greeted by a bomb cyclone and bitter cold — not optimal conditions for moving large, heavy boxes on our own! For a few months, we bounced from one temporary housing arrangement to another as we struggled to find a year-round rental. Due to work commitments, Ian was absent for days, sometimes weeks, at a time, leaving me alone with my thoughts. And when we finally found more permanent housing, it was a basement apartment with only four north-facing windows, and its darkness plunged me even farther into a seasonal funk.

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Those first few months had me wondering why anyone would prefer to live on the East Coast rather than in the West. To me, a native Californian who’d only ever lived in the Pacific and Mountain time zones, everything out West was better — the weather, the food, the lifestyle — and everything back East was worse.

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My best memories from that first year in Rhode Island happened in the summer, when I finally thawed out enough to start exploring all that this region has to offer. All the wonderful activities and scenery I discovered made me come around to the idea that New England wasn’t worse than the West, per se — it was just different, and enjoying Northeastern life to its fullest would involve a big mental shift.

And so, by the time the 2018 holiday season came around, I decided that my New Year’s resolution would be to adopt this mantra: Different, not worse.

I’m not going to lie and say that this mantra helped me learn to love winter in 2019. But I will say that the cold months seemed slightly more bearable than the year before. I learned that the New England tradition of hunkering down inside isn’t for me; instead, my personal best remedy for the winter blues seems to be getting outside whenever it’s clear, temperature be damned. I found that even a simple short walk around the neighborhood on a sunny day helped put things in perspective.

A few fun winter outings also lifted my spirits. There was my birthday trip to Salem, where Ian and I took in the town’s dark history and enjoyed a Valentine’s Day-themed ice sculpture and chocolate festival. There was a cozy day in nearby Newport, where we browsed the oldest continuously operating library in America, had afternoon tea and toured one of the island’s famous Gilded Age mansions. And in March, there was a nerdy date night in Boston celebrating Bach’s birthday with a concert and cupcakes.

That said, regional excursions alone couldn’t cure my perpetual shivering. I also needed family and old friends. Oh, and warmth.

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I escaped to milder climes twice over the winter, and it felt good. In February, while Ian flew to a conference in Puerto Rico, I flew west to spend a low-key week with my family in Santa Cruz. It wasn’t balmy by California standards, and it rained quite a bit — yet it still felt like paradise to me. A month later, I caught up with close friends for a long weekend in Las Vegas. I’m not a gambler, but I am a sun-worshipper: I almost cried of happiness the minute I stepped outside the airport terminal and felt the warm breeze on my face.

But enough about the weather. I realized that it wasn’t the cold alone that brought my spirits down that Rhode Island winter — it was also the struggle to find my own friends, something all adults grapple with when they move to an unfamiliar new place. That trip to Vegas, with friends around whom I felt so comfortable, motivated me to work a little harder to forge more geographically convenient friendships. I went out when I’d rather have stayed home with the cats. I invited myself to gatherings without knowing for certain that everyone wanted me there. I conjured group outings from thin air and asked people to go with me. All of this was supremely uncomfortable for this introvert…and worth it.

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With a newfound social life, my perspective on Rhode Island shifted. The people I knew turned me on to neighborhoods, bookshops and restaurants that made me realize it’s not such a bad state, I’d just been spending time in the wrong places. My blanket assumptions about cultural differences between East and West were dashed as I met ever more people who had more in common with me than not — ignoring their strange attachment to Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee, of course.

Another positive shift came in September, when Ian and I moved from East Greenwich to South County. I had long wanted to call this laid-back, beachy part of the state home, but I worried the long commute would wear on me. When we started to find ourselves coming to South County nearly every weekend in the summer, we knew we had to pull the trigger. Now I know that living a 15-minute bike ride away from the beach does wonders for my mental health.

Like in 2018, this summer was one heady highlight reel of bike rides, kayak paddles, ice cream cones and afternoons playing in the waves. The extreme seasonality of Rhode Island bothered me at first, especially in less populated areas where whole villages close up between October and April. Now, I enjoy it: I’ve adopted the New England tendency to save up my energy for summer’s long days. Like the natives, I squeeze every last drop of enjoyment out of every waking hour of warm sun through the end of September.

One last major perspective shift I experienced in 2019? The urge to plan big trips closer to home. I’ve only ever longed to take big, elaborate journeys through Southeast Asia, Central America and the Mediterranean. Now, a good portion of my travel bucket list doesn’t even require a time zone change: I dream of a week biking around Prince Edward Island, a kayak tour through the Everglades, a long weekend taking in the spring flower bloom in Charleston.

That’s thanks, I think, to Ian’s and my blissful few days in the tiny town of Sorrento, Maine, in August. It was here that I discovered my ideal vacation: One with no internet connection, no heat or air conditioning and very little on the agenda. Except for one fun day spent biking through Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor, we had no plans for our time here. We whiled away the hours lazily canoeing from one tiny island to another, reading and collecting shells, boiling lobster, talking about music and reading up on local history. It was a reminder that, not unlike many New Englanders, I derive happiness from simple things — sun, saltwater, seafood. It was my favorite memory of the year. It was the moment I realized I might finally get this place.

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Photo by Jill Kimball

Where to eat and drink on Tulum Beach

Photo by Jill Kimball

Back in March of 2017, my husband and I spent a whole blissful week exploring and relaxing in Tulum, the Yucatán Peninsula’s most stylish and bohemian resort town. As the destination’s popularity among Americans has grown, so has the number of friends asking us for recommendations on what to do, see, eat and drink while they’re in Tulum. After drafting a couple of mile-long emails, I realized I may as well make my list of recommendations public and official here!

The thing about restaurants and bars along Tulum Beach road? They’re all beautiful. Some boast straw roofs, sandy floors and sweeping views of the impossibly turquoise waves. Others sit ceilingless in the dense, tropical jungle across the road, open to the stars and sultry air. But while almost every establishment in Tulum’s romantic, naturally aesthetically pleasing environment is Instagrammable to the max, only a few can claim both style and substance.

Before I dive in, I’d like to share a few general tips about eating and drinking along Tulum’s beach road:

  1. Always, always bring cash…in pesos. Many restaurants take debit cards, and almost all take U.S. dollars. But if you pay using either of these methods, you’ll be charged significantly more, as restaurants calculate the dollar value of their dishes using an unfavorable exchange rate. Save your hard-earned money by hitting the ATM regularly and withdrawing local currency. Note that you’ll have better luck at the ATMs in the actual town of Tulum; along the beach road, the density of foreign tourists causes machines to run out of cash and malfunction regularly. We always used the machine inside the gas station at the intersection of Avenida Coba and the Tulum-Cancun highway.
  2. Don’t wear high heels. As I explained in my last post, Tulum isn’t a dressy town. You’ll look and feel out of place if you try to go full glam. (Plus, who really wants to ruin their nicest shoes on that dusty, gravelly, pothole-ridden beach road?) Stick to flip flops, flat sandals or espadrilles.
  3. Eat early. We found that Tulum’s dining schedule is pretty much the opposite of Portugal’s. It isn’t a late-night town — probably because it’s not on the Mexican electrical grid and thus is quite dimly lit at night — so its best restaurants fill up well before dark. If top-notch food is what you seek, plan to eat dinner around 5:30 or 6 p.m., unless you’re able to make a later reservation. If you’re full of energy after your meal, fear not: There are a few places where you can grab post-dinner drinks before turning in for the night.

And now, without further ado, here are some of my Tulum favorites!

Photo by Jill Kimball
Margarita at Eufemia in Tulum, Mexico, Photo by Jill Kimball

TAQUERIA LA EUFEMIA

Situated right on the best stretch of sand in Tulum, Eufemia is the ultimate destination for those who need midday sustenance but don’t want a break from beach-bumming. The sandy hut serves up a variety of fruit juices, margaritas, brunch foods and delicious yet extremely affordable tacos. Customers who opt for meat, fish or veggie tacos can visit Eufemia’s extensive toppings bar to add fresh salsas, fruit and crema to their food. From there, they can choose to sunbathe on the beach, sit at an umbrella-shaded table or stay cool inside the hut, where the most coveted seats face the waves. Visit closer to lunchtime and you’ll practically have the place to yourself; visit around 3 p.m. and you’ll find yourself competing for space with dozens of scantily-clad, sunkissed and chic twentysomethings who have biked in from town.

Photo by Jill Kimball

Casa Jaguar

Looking for post-dinner drinks? Allow me to recommend Casa Jaguar, an open-air restaurant on the jungle side of the beach road. I can’t comment on the quality of the food here — reviews of the eats were so-so, so we skipped out — but I can say that the cocktails were creative, delicious and beautiful. The decor, all southwestern-print pillows, candles and young palm trees, wasn’t too shabby, either!

Photo by Jill Kimball

Casa Banana

We may never have visited this Argentinian restaurant had it not been so conveniently located right across the road from our hotel, Nueva Vida de Ramiro. Argentinian food, after all, tends to be beef-forward…and I’m, well, not. Lucky for me, red meat isn’t all they do well here. I ordered a whole roasted fish and was delighted with it: the buttery flesh melted in my mouth, and the skin was perfectly crispy. Like many other excellent destinations in Tulum, the cocktail list was adventurous and aesthetically pleasing; my mezcal drink came with a sparkler that doubled as a stir stick when the flame died down.
Photo by Jill Kimball

I Scream Bar

Walk by this funky, casual place after dark and you’ll hear locals and tourists luring you in with chants of “I Scream Bar! I Scream Bar!” Answer the call and you won’t be disappointed. This wonderfully unpretentious shack sells bottled beer for $2 and offers a variety of ceviches and tacos. But the real star of the show is its vegan ice cream, which is served in creatively upcycled beer bottles and comes in both traditional and wacky flavors, from cacao to coconut to mango ginger. Pay a little extra and the bartenders will mix in some mezcal or tequila.
Photo by Jill Kimball Photo by Jill Kimball Photo by Jill Kimball

Hartwood

Tulum’s most popular and buzzed-about dinner spot absolutely lives up to the hype. The menu changes daily, but you can always count on fresh seafood, unexpected herbs, homemade juices and cocktail mixes, and impeccable flavor.  Our ceviche, octopus and local fish dishes were scrumptious, and our cocktails were lovely and refreshing. Hartwood opens daily at 5:30 and doesn’t take reservations, and you’ll see a queue start to form quite early. To guarantee a table for two, show up 20-30 minutes before opening; if your party is larger, try to get in line by 5.
Photo by Jill Kimball

RESTAURARE

As a lifelong vetegarian-recently-turned-pescatarian, I’ve always loved seeking out great meatless restaurants. Restaurare, an entirely vegan establishment, was one of the best I’ve visited — and not just because it was drop-dead gorgeous. The coconut ceviche and mole-inspired curry were to die for, and the restaurant’s own all-natural, homemade bug spray at every table was such a nice touch! Sadly, I just learned that Restaurare closed last year after its landlord hiked up the rent. This happens to far too many vegan and vegetarian restaurants in hip, desirable places, and I find it heartbreaking. If you’d like to give vegan food a try, I encourage you to patronize places like Raw Love and Charly’s Vegan Tacos while you’re in Tulum. Let’s work together to keep these healthy, inclusive and yummy restaurants in business!

Drinking a coco frio on Tulum Beach, Photo by Ian Bishop
So there you have it — my top eating and drinking picks for Tulum Beach! What’s at the top of your list? And if you’ve visited Tulum before, what were some of your favorites?

READ NEXT: What to pack for a week in Tulum

Chasing classical music history in Paris

In Paris, art is everywhere. It’s not an exaggeration to say every block inside the city limits boasts a little bit of eye candy — whether it’s a world-class museum, a row of elegant Haussmann-designed apartments, a sweet arbor covered in pink roses or just an attractive café.

With all this visual stimulation, visitors to the City of Light may momentarily forget the other four senses. (Okay, the other three: In this town, you won’t soon forget taste!) But doing so altogether would be a mistake, because this magical place is as sonically pleasing as it is aesthetically pleasing. After all, it’s been home to some of the greatest composers who ever lived.

Though Paris’ reputation for world-class art is due in large part to Debussy, Rossini and other famous music masters who resided there, few tourists will learn much about their legacy. That’s because sites dedicated to the city’s musical history have to compete with world-class art museums, shopping and restaurants. And not even the biggest classical fan wants to spend a day stalking Satie if it means missing the Mona Lisa or Moulin Rouge.

Luckily, as my most recent trip to Paris proves, it’s easy to make time for the classical alongside the classics. If you’re a music lover, you can have your macaron and eat it too. Here’s how to walk in the footsteps of Debussy, Chopin and other classical greats while still staying on the tourist trail.

Artwork at the Musee D'Orsay in Paris, photo by Jill Kimball

MUSÉE D’ORSAY

A trip to the Musee D’Orsay, where some of the world’s most famous Impressionist paintings are housed, is a must on any trip to Paris. Luckily, the museum houses a few delightful classical-themed gems for those who are as excited about Liszt as they are about water lilies. Here you’ll find portraits of Erik Satie and Hector Berlioz, Degas’ rendering of a night at the Paris Opera, and Franz von Stück’s arresting Beethoven mask, which I’ve hoped to see in person since childhood. Even when the D’Orsay isn’t paying outright tribute to the most famous Parisian composers, it still feels as if you’re floating through the visual equivalent of Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun” — especially on the museum’s famous fifth floor, which is all dreamy water lilies, soft lines and pastel landscapes.

Outside the Moulin Rouge in Montmartre, Paris, photo by Jill Kimball

MONTMARTRE

If you’re a first-time visitor to Paris, you’ll probably end up in Montmartre at some point during your trip. Home to heavyweights such as the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur and the Moulin Rouge, this hilly neighborhood was once the international capital of bohemianism and creativity. Among its famous residents were the painters Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh and Henri Matisse. Naturally, writers and musicians flocked here, too, holing up in cabarets by night and philosophizing over coffee and cigarettes by day. More than a century later, it’s still easy to see why Montmartre’s romantic, winding lanes and colorful storefronts attracted artists of all kinds.

Here in the 18th arrondissement, fitting in a taste of the belle époque musician’s life between visits to major tourist sights is easy. Just blocks away from Sacre-Coeur is Rue Cortot, where Erik Satie — he of the dreamy “Gymnopédie” piano pieces — once lived. And right around the corner from the Moulin Rouge sits Le Carmen, an elegant nightclub that was once the home of Georges Bizet. The grand foyer opens up to a massive bar area, which offers opera-themed cocktails (spicy “Habanera,” anyone?) and countless flavors of infused gin.

Chandeliers at the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, Paris, photo by Jill Kimball

VERSAILLES

A day trip to this over-the-top palace, built just outside Paris by King Louis XIV in the late 17th century, is popular for a reason: Its interiors are jaw-droppingly opulent, and its acres of manicured grounds provide hours of free entertainment. For more than a century, Versailles residents’ fashion sense and food tastes set international trends, some of which persist to this day (macarons, anyone?).

So, too, did Louis XIV’s tastes in music. Jean-Baptiste Lully, the composer of the lively, balletic operas “Armide” and “Phaeton,”  was the Sun King’s composer-in-residence for decades, filling the palace with incomparable music on a regular basis. Versailles quickly became a must-visit destination for the biggest names in the biz, including Mozart and Charpentier.

Today, there are several ways to soak up Versailles’ classical history. If you’re already planning to tour the palace, simply grab a free audio guide on your way in and you’ll be treated to clips of the same music Marie Antoinette once heard, along with a few facts about the concerts that took place in the palace’s heyday, from sacred music in private chapel ceremonies to big parlor concerts. But the best way to connect with this estate’s classical history by far is to attend a live concert on the grounds. Held in the evenings after the crowds are gone, these concerts include music from the 17th century and today and often feature big-name soloists. In the warmer months, the palace sometimes moves the festivities outside, pairing the sweet sounds with a lighted fountain show.

Rossini's grave at Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, photo by Jill Kimball

PÈRE LACHAISE CEMETERY

Most tourists visit this beautiful park to pay their respects to rock star Jim Morrison, probably the most famous figure buried here. That’s good news for classical fans, who might be more interested in the cemetery’s other rock stars. Chopin, Rossini, Cherubini and Poulenc are among the composers who rest here — and their intricate, hand-carved mausoleums don’t disappoint. Once you’ve gawked to your heart’s content, walk to Belleville or Le Banane for a bite — these neighborhoods are home to some of the city’s hippest bars, restaurants and coffee shops.

Arc de Triomphe in the evening, Paris, photo by Jill Kimball

EVERYWHERE ELSE

While you’re touring around Paris, keep an eye out for other tiny hints of the city’s rich classical history. While walking between the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, I spotted a street sign dedicated to Léo Delibes, whose lush Flower Duet has found its way into countless commercials and films. And as we strolled near the Moulin Rouge, we turned a corner and came eye to eye with a large sculpture of Hector Berlioz. And Chopin is everywhere in this city, from monuments in the Luxembourg Gardens and Parc Monceau to an entire small museum within the Polish Library.

Of course, the best place to see classical history come alive in Paris is at the Opéra National. I wasn’t lucky enough to attend myself…but it’s at the top of my list for next time!

Have you been to Paris? What was your favorite experience? Sound off in the comments!

Read next: Five cities that surprised me

Photo by Jill Kimball

Different spokes: Test-riding Seattle’s three new bike shares

Photo by Jill Kimball

 

 

Seattle is a famously bike-friendly city, yet in the five years I lived there, I probably went on a grand total of five bike rides.

I have numerous excuses for this error in judgment, some of them silly (exercise is too hard; I don’t have any padded shorts) and some legitimate (the weather is terrible most of the year; the city is famously hilly; Seattle isn’t quite as bike-friendly as many would have you believe). Since moving to Colorado and becoming a full-blown cycling addict, I’ve wanted to return to Seatown and rectify the mistake…but I haven’t quite known how.

Until now.

This summer, it became insanely easy for anyone–visitor or resident–to cycle around Seattle. No fewer than three bike-share startups popped up in the Emerald City this year, and they’re so eager for your business that they’re practically giving bike rides away. (By “practically,” I mean “literally”–my husband and I took about 10 rides in three days, and the companies’ generous free-trial policies meant we never paid a penny.)

All three of these companies–Limebike, Ofo and Spin–operate in much the same way: They’re all dockless, meaning their bikes are scattered across the city, parked on sidewalks, in parking lots and along multi-use trails. Once you’ve unlocked one with a simple QR code scan or smartphone tap, you’re free to ride as long as you please. When you’re done, you can leave it pretty much anywhere that doesn’t obstruct car or foot traffic. Well, except in the middle of a lake or up a tree.

So, to recap: It’s easy. It’s convenient. It’s cheap, if not free. In other words, there’s literally no reason not to try out a bike share the next time you’re in Seattle. (Well, except for the helmet issue…which I’ll address later.) But which bike should you choose? Read on to find out what I thought about each company!

LIMEBIKE

If you live in Seattle and haven’t yet seen LimeBike’s green and yellow frames gracing the sidewalks, driveways and trails of the city, you probably live underground. Back in the summer, LimeBike boasted the biggest presence of any bike-share company in the city by far.

Limebikes are classic cruisers with swept back handlebars and Dutch-inspired step-through designs, which means it’s easy to hop on and off whether you’re in slacks or a skirt. A Limebike comes with eight gears, and shifting between them will be painless and intuitive for pretty much anyone who’s ever ridden a bike. The bike comes with a loud, satisfying bell, and it too is easy to use.

There were a few things I didn’t like about LimeBike. For one thing, I had to add payment information as soon as I downloaded the app, even though the company immediately granted me five free rides upon download–and that slowed down my momentum a bit. For another, the suspension on LimeBikes is terrible…although they’re not alone in that regard. And finally, there’s my least favorite feature: the seat post. While the seat of a LimeBike is adjustable, it doesn’t move up high enough to comfortably fit anyone who’s even remotely tall. I’m 5’8″, and I sat so low on my LimeBike that every little hill was a slow, laborious climb. (Update: Limebike has now fixed this issue, and biking around town is much easier! However, pedaling will still feel a bit laborious to anyone who’s used to sitting up high on a road bike or hybrid.)

COST: $1 per 30-minute ride. Your first 10 rides are free, and you can earn another few free rides by swapping promo codes with a friend.
BEST FOR: People who love the feel of a beach cruiser
BAD FOR: Tall people

OFO*

Unlike the other two Silicon Valley startups, Ofo is based in China and already has robust dockless bike share systems in 170 cities worldwide. Ofo differentiates itself from LimeBike with a solid yellow frame and black handlebars, boasting a look that’s a bit more sophisticated and less cartoonish. The design is something between a Dutch step-through and a commuter hybrid, which appealed to me–I’d love to see more companies designing cute commuters. I thought adding a cup holder to the basket was a fun touch, especially considering Seattle’s coffee fixation.

Ofo impressed me in the areas where Limebike fell short: Its seat actually adjusts to fit a variety of heights, making for a much less physically demanding ride. And rather than asking for payment upfront, Ofo let me get on a bike immediately after I downloaded the app.

However, Ofo, too, had its drawbacks. Like LimeBike, the suspension was terrible. The basket was too shallow to hold my purse. I found the handlebars to be a bit too close together for someone of my height. The gear shifters worked fine, but they were a little bit less intuitive than those on LimeBike. I didn’t like that the app asked me to enable Bluetooth, and I found it annoying that I had to shuffle between my Settings and the app to give Ofo permission to use my camera, when for the other two all I had to do was press “allow” within the app.

Yet even with all these drawbacks, I’d choose Ofo over Limebike in a heartbeat for the better seat adjustment alone.

COST: $1 per hour, with a first-timer promotion of five free rides
BEST FOR: Tall people and coffee drinkers
BAD FOR: People who carry large purses

SPIN*

At the time of my visit, Spin’s bright orange bikes were probably the most difficult to track down. For every dozen LimeBikes I encountered, I’d see a handful of Ofo bikes and just one Spin. Yet I was the most interested in trying this company, as their bike design probably hews closest to that of a standard commuter bike, my preferred model.

So you can imagine my frustration when my search for a Spin was unsuccessful.

It’s true–I never actually got to ride a Spin bike at all. After a pleasant Ofo ride to Golden Gardens Park one afternoon, I downloaded the Spin app and spotted one of their bikes near the beach parking lot. But when I arrived at the bike and scanned its QR code, I found out someone else had already reserved it.

With reservation capabilities, Spin has made itself a two-wheeled Car2Go, giving it an edge over the competition. It’s great for, say, commuters who want a solid transport plan in place before they head out the door. But it’s not so great for spur-of-the-moment riders or first-timers like me–people who don’t yet know the rules and are destined to be confused and annoyed to find the only bike nearby is already taken.

Like Ofo and unlike LimeBike, I didn’t have to provide my credit card information up front on Spin’s app, which was a plus. I liked the bike’s nice deep basket–it’s perfect for a purse or a grocery bag. My husband, who was able to ride on a Spin, noted the gear shifter was a bit sticky (a common complaint); I, panting behind him on a LimeBike, noted with envy that his bike frame was larger and his seat higher than mine. But given I didn’t actually give Spin a test ride, there’s not much more I can say.

COST: $1 per 30-minute ride. Over the summer, Spin was giving away 10 free rides to new customers.
BEST FOR: Commuters and regular riders
BAD FOR: One-off riders

Photo by Jill Kimball

THE HELMET ISSUE

That visitors and locals alike have taken to bikes with abandon thanks to dockless bike share is really exciting. That none of these companies plan to offer helmet rentals in the future is…mildly concerning.

There’s always been a debate about whether wearing a helmet while biking really is safer. But regardless of what you believe, the irrefutable fact of the matter is, it’s illegal to bike without a helmet in Seattle.

That obviously poses a problem for almost every potential bike share user, from local residents looking for a spur-of-the-moment ride home after a night out to tourists looking for a fun way to cruise between sights without the hassle of traffic and parking. Most people don’t pack helmets in their carry-on luggage, nor do they stash one in a purse or backpack on the way to work every day. I admit that even I didn’t wear a helmet during any of my rides around Seattle, and I felt a bit on edge without one–back home, I wear one every day during my commute to work.

There’s a huge disconnect between the city’s bike laws and its open-armed welcome to these three companies–and that has to be addressed sooner rather than later. Until then, tourists and casual riders will have to choose between flouting the law or making a temporary investment in a helmet.

Jill Kimball

My Seattle biking getup.

Have you ridden any of Seattle’s shared bikes? What did you think? Sound off below!

*Update: Both Ofo and Spin announced in August 2018 that they would leave Seattle, citing high permit costs. For now, that means Limebike is the only bike-share option in the city — however, Curbed Seattle has noted that electric Jump bikes may soon be available there.

Cabanas Beach in Cabanas, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill Kimball

A relaxing weekend in the Eastern Algarve

We woke up at 4:30 a.m. to find a thick blanket of fog hanging over all of Porto. Sleepily, we went through the motions. Shower, last-minute packing, grab the free soap, scour the Airbnb for anything left behind. We donned our warmest clothes–jeans, hoodies, flannel–but still winced when we opened the door and a rush of chilly, damp air greeted us.

We sped north in the dark, barely registering the Italian pop music blaring from our cab’s speakers. The train station was sterile, cramped and barely open at this early hour. Our hopes of grabbing a hot coffee at the snack stand were immediately dashed.

But we didn’t care much. After all, we were on our way to the Algarve.

Anyone who knows a little about Portugal’s southern coastline probably hears the word “Algarve” and immediately conjures mental images of Cancún-like resorts and thumping clubs packed with European twentysomethings.

But the truth is, the Algarve contains multitudes. Sure, in the height of summer, the central region’s countless resorts and overpriced pubs fill up with holidaymakers. But travel far enough east or west and you’ll find wild landscapes, untouched beaches and blissful quiet…sometimes even in August.

Frankly, our last days in Porto had been so cold that I probably wouldn’t have cared if the beach we picked was strewn with red cups and coeds, so long as it was warm. But in retrospect, I’m glad we traveled off the beaten path in search of peace…because we found it in spades.

Cabanas Beach in the Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill Kimball

We’d found Forte de São João da Barra in a hotel search many, many months before our trip, and we couldn’t let it go. The 17th-century fort’s quiet, whitewashed austerity was unique and beautiful. Its location, right along the water and wildlife of the Ria Formosa Natural Park and a two-minute boat ride away from an expansive island beach, was perfect. And the others who had visited, judging by their reviews, seemed a lot like us–people looking for a mix of culture, nature and good old-fashioned beachgoing.

Our stay at the fort was by far our biggest splurge in Portugal. In a country where $60 buys you a night at a small, stylish Airbnb in a nice neighborhood, we felt a little silly plunking down more than twice that.

Until we arrived.

Front door of the Forte de Sao Joao da Barra in Cabanas, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill Kimball

The front door looks giant…until you realize it’s actually the tiny metal one on the bottom left.

The minute we stepped through the (comically tiny) front door and gazed out at the sun-soaked courtyard, I swear I felt my whole body relax. The whole place was still, save for some palm trees rustling in the breeze. Everything was simple and spare–an old well in the center, some fading bougainvillea creeping up the stone wall of the main house, not much else. There were no car horns or children’s voices, no music or sirens. For a moment, it was as if we were the only two people in the world.

Courtyard of the Forte de Sao Joao da Barra in Cabanas, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Ian Bishop

Photo by Ian Bishop

Then we met Cecilia, the hotel manager and the sassy grandmother you always wanted. We were too early for check-in, but she ushered us into a room anyway. (“Where are your bags? What, that’s it?” she said as she spied our two backpacks.) A half hour of chatting later, we were up to speed on local land disputes, in the know about the best restaurants in town and furnished with towels and umbrellas for the beach.

There were only a few hours of sunlight left, so we headed straight to the sand. In high season, the hotel ferries passengers over to the beach on its own boat. But we were there in low season, so instead we walked five minutes west to catch the town ferry, which pretty much operates on demand as long as the weather’s good and there’s no Primeira Liga football on TV. (Seriously.)

The boat ride took all of 90 seconds and docked at the barrier island’s north side. After a short walk on an elevated ramp through grassy dunes, we grabbed beers at the subdued snack shack and set up camp on a sparsely populated stretch of sand.

Elevated walkway to the beach from Cabanas town, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill KimballBoats along the elevated walkway to the beach from Cabanas town, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill Kimball

A couple of blissful hours later, we headed back to the fort to watch the sky darken from the old battlements, now used exclusively for lounging and pool swimming rather than for defense. I put down my book and just stared ahead, still captivated by the place’s eerie calm.

Once we’d worked up an appetite, we strolled down the town boardwalk to a no-frills seafood restaurant Cecilia had recommended. It was probably the least touristy dinner we’d experienced thus far, and for that we were grateful: We actually got to practice speaking some Portuguese!

The next morning, we found the outdoor breakfast area deserted save for one other guest. We happily sipped coffee and juice and munched on fruit, yogurt, bread, cheese and sweet treats at a table overlooking the water, laughing at the reviews that had complained the breakfast selection wasn’t adequate.

 

View from the breakfast area at Forte de Sao Joao da Barra, Cabanas, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Ian Bishop

Photo by Ian Bishop

It was another warm, sunny day, so we immediately set off to the beach again. The wind was strong that day, though, so we set up towels and snacks farther inland among the sand dunes, where the gusts were nothing more than light breezes. It was the perfect setting for a lazy day of swimming, reading, napping and making shell art.

Once my skin was good and crispy (whoops), we crossed the water back into town to secure a dinner reservation at Noelia & Jeronimo’s, the best restaurant in town and quite possibly the entire region. If you visit Cabanas without eating here, you’re doing life wrong. We had squid-topped risotto and seared tuna on mango rice, respectively, and it was pure heaven. We both agreed it was the best dinner we had in Portugal.

Our third day at the fort was cool and cloudy. We skipped the beach–the ferry probably wasn’t running anyway–in favor of a day trip to nearby Tavira. This charming cobblestoned town is effectively the capital of the Eastern Algarve, and it’s a pleasure to get lost in the small maze of streets here.

Street in the town of Tavira, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill Kimball

A light rain started to fall as we left the train station, so we killed some time by ducking into some cute gift shops on Rua Liberdade. After the rain passed, we explored the attractive main square, Praça da República. The cobbled amphitheater and stately stone bridge matched the steely sky, and the pool-like fountain seemed piercingly blue in such gloomy light.

Fountain at Praca da Liberdade in Tavira, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill Kimball
Ponte Romana in Tavira, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill Kimball

As we wandered through a nice public garden, sun-induced sleepiness from the day before began to take hold. We were determined to see more, though, and after a quick espresso, we set our sights on the highest point in town.

Stairs to the castle in Tavira, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill Kimball.

Tavira’s castle dates back to the 1200s, but it’s not much more than a few ruined walls these days, thanks to the 1755 earthquake that also wiped out Lisbon. There’s not much of the castle itself to see, but the view from the top can’t be beat, and the gardens inside are lovely.

As we wound our way back down through the town’s quaint tangle of lanes, we grew even more tired and resolved to leave soon. But there was one more thing I had to see before we went, and it was a bit off the beaten path.

Biblioteca Municipal dos Campos Alvaros in Tavira, Algarve, Portugal. Photo by Jill Kimball

Tavira’s Biblioteca Municipal Álvaro de Campos isn’t your average public library…because it used to be the town prison. About a decade ago, the long-neglected building’s cell walls were knocked down to make room for a large, light-filled book gallery. Its stern front facade still stands and today serves as a noise-blocking cafe courtyard. The new entrance’s corten steel and glass design works so well with the original facade–both are minimal and angular, unobtrusive yet statement-making. The architect apparently wanted his remodel to be like a book itself: attractive enough on the cover to draw inital attention, but enigmatic enough to pull the reader in long-term.

Tavira's public library used to be the town jail. Photo by Jill Kimball

By now, we admitted to ourselves that it was time for a nap. We headed back to the fort for a few hours of much-needed rest–including, for me, a relaxing bath.

That third night in town was eerily quiet, even by Cabanas standards: Bad weather really does seem to shut the whole place down. We passed absolutely no one on the way to dinner, so it was surprising to find our restaurant of choice, Cecilia’s third and final recommendation, not only open but also buzzing with business. We were thrilled we finally had an opportunity to order the seafood cataplana, an Algarve specialty. The giant stew, which typically contains three or four types of whatever seafood is freshest that day and some hearty vegetables, arrived at our table piping hot and still in its round copper pot, as is tradition. We ate happily until we couldn’t move.

Cataplana at a restaurant in Cabanas, Algarve, Italy. Photo by Jill Kimball

And just like that, our time in the Eastern Algarve was at an end. In retrospect, I could have spent a week here, rain or shine; there are so many charming towns, beautiful beaches and natural wonders to explore. I hope we’re back someday.

Photo by Ian Bishop

READ NEXT: Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

Photo by Jill Kimball

What to pack for a week in Tulum

Photo by Jill Kimball

Stunning turquoise waves. Mayan ruins and cenotes. Artsy, delicious cocktails. There’s no place quite like Tulum, Mexico.

Earlier this year, my husband and I spent a week in the Yucatan Peninsula’s capital of beachy, laid-back cool, and we had the most amazing time. Even though it’s just 90 minutes south of Cancún’s giant family resorts and sleek nightclubs, Tulum’s a world apart. It’s the kind of place where you’ll find more sunset yoga classes than bars open late; where vegan meals have never tasted so delicious; and where outdoor adventurers are just as welcome as lazy beach bums.

Ready to pack your bags? Read on to find out what to bring for a week in Tulum!

General Guidelines

Pack for humidity. Even in dry season, and even right by the beach, Tulum gets very humid… so you’ll want to pack lots of light, breathable clothes. Cotton’s absorbency makes it the ultimate humidity fighter. Linen and rayon clothes, though often more expensive than cotton, are also ideal. Leave your silk, polyester and wool pieces at home; those fabrics tend to trap heat and make you miserable.

Hang loose. You know what else traps heat? Tight-fitting clothes of any fabric. For maximum comfort, stick to loose, flowy outfits. Think maxi skirts, button-up shirts, drawstring shorts, stretchy-waist paints and trapeze dresses. Rock any of these looks and you’ll fit right in with the bohemian-chic locals.

Leave the high heels at home. Thinking about getting all dressed up for dinner? Think again. If you dress to the nines in Tulum, even in the evening, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb. You’ll probably be uncomfortable, too: The main beach road is sandy and uneven, which is a nightmare to navigate wearing anything but flat sandals or sneakers. Plus, almost every restaurant here is open-air, lending it an exceptionally casual vibe. If you’d still like to dress up a little to mark the occasion, I recommend a pair of cute sandals and a patterned maxi dress.

Rethink your toiletries. Unlike overdeveloped Cancún, Tulum beach isn’t connected to the power grid. That means that instead of electricity, the town runs on solar and wind power, and it gets potable water from large trucks that drive through town every day. In all but the top-of-the-line luxury places, you can expect to find few lights on after sunset, no pools and brackish (part freshwater, part saltwater) showers. Your hotel is doing its part to keep Tulum clean, quiet and beautiful, and so should you! Before you leave, get in the eco-friendly spirit by seeking out all-natural shower and beauty products. Chemical sunscreen, i.e. most of the stuff you’ll find at the drugstore, is banned in the Yucatan’s crystal-clear cenotes, so make sure to stock up on mineral sunscreen. It can be found at Pharmaca stores, health-food stores or in the kids’ aisle at regular chain stores.

What I Packed

(Disclaimer: The photos you’re about to see are in no way professional or, well, good quality. Some of them are also presented slightly out of order with the text. Apologies; I’m a noob.)


Tops: For casual purposes, I brought two versatile black shelf-bra tank tops, one loose patterned crop tank top and one pajama tank top. I also packed one plain, loose green T-shirt, one patterned crop T and one very loose gray T. For dressier options, I brought a beautiful embroidered crop top and a striped, roll-sleeve button-up. Due to the terrible sunburn I got my very first day there, I ended up wearing that button-up nonstop to cover as much of my skin as possible; in retrospect, I’d have brought more light cover-up options like that. I also brought a patterned green oversize cardigan (not yet pictured), but I should have either nixed that or brought more clothing that matched it.


Bottoms: I kept it very simple in the bottoms department, with two pairs of shorts for day–one shorter and tighter; one looser and schlubbier–and two pairs of shorts for lounge, sleep and exercise–one pair of yoga shorts, which I did indeed wear to yoga, and one pair of dolphin shorts, which I used mostly for hanging out on the porch in the morning. I also brought my trusty Target maxi skirt, pictured below–along with that green sweater I never used.


Dresses/Onesies: I wear dresses like crazy, so I admit I went a little overboard here. As a Certified Tall Person, I save money by adopting the belief that beach cover-ups are just dresses you’ve shrunk in the wash and can no longer wear in everyday life. Thus is the case for the two dresses in the top picture, which hit the tops of my thighs. They worked great for beach days, because they’re easy to slip on and off, they’re loose and light, and they’re still decent enough to wear to a daytime beach bar without feeling self-conscious.

For non-beach daytime and evening wear, I brought my stretchy Prana dress, which I wore on a hike around the Muyil ruins; a red kaftan I bought at World Market (yep, you read that right), which I wore endlessly for dinners and happy hours; and a pink striped maxi dress, which was the perfect blend of casual and dressy for nighttime. I also brought a short black dress from Brandy Melville, which saw little wear, and the blush maxi dress I almost considered wearing at my wedding. In retrospect, I’d have left those last two at home; one’s too clingy to be comfortable in the sticky jungle, and the other has a silk-like underlayer that felt gross on my skin in that humidity.

You’ll have to scroll back up to see the patterned romper I brought and wore repeatedly. Again, the loose factor proved key–I would never bring a structured romper on a trip like this.


Swim: As girly-girls like me are wont to do on beach trips, I way overpacked in this category–but I don’t regret it. I had already owned the three bathing suit tops and the one brightly-patterned bottom before this trip, so I rounded out my collection with two basic, cheap bottoms (one of which proved too big, so I only wore it once) and a cute black one-piece. I also brought the small sarong I got 15 years ago in Kauai. I never once used it as an actual sarong, but my husband and I used it repeatedly to cover our heads while walking on the beach (scalp burn is real)  and our laps while reading (thigh burn too).


Shoes: I brought just three pairs of shoes on this trip, and all three proved perfect. The first pair, which I also wore on the plane, were Chacos. The cushioning and traction was great for hikes around ruins, excursions to cenotes and bike riding. Then there were my Sanuk Yoga Mat flip flops, which are perfect for getting to the beach and taking short walks on the beach road in the afternoon. The third pair was a slightly dressier option for dinner and drinks, and I did indeed wear them out at restaurants every night. If you’re a minimalist like me, I promise this is all you’ll need–but if you have a little more room in your suitcase, it wouldn’t hurt to pack your Chacos/Tevas and instead wear sneakers on the plane, especially if you live somewhere cold.

Underthings: I kept it really comfortable by packing mostly bralettes and just one wired bra–a strapless one, for versatility. I always pack way more underwear than I think I’ll use, especially in sweaty weather like this. Underwear take up next to no room in a suitcase, so there’s no harm–but if you’re really strapped for space, you can just use your toiletries to wash dirty underwear; keep reading to find out more.


Plane outfit: These were by far the warmest clothes I brought with me. While it felt silly to arrive in Tulum wearing full-length leggings, I sure was glad to have them on when we returned to windy, chilly Denver. I opted for comfort over style with a sports bra, a loose gray T-shirt, a basic hooded sweatshirt and Zella leggings.


Miscellaneous: In the days following my terrible sunburn, I was glad to have brought my wide-brimmed hat with me–although I wish it had been straw instead of felt! The only purse I brought with me was this small, plain one, although I would have regretted not packing a tote bag for the beach had our hotel not given us one…or three. I brought two pairs of sunglasses for variety and in case one broke or got lost. For entertainment, I brought a journal (used regularly), two books (same) and a pack of playing cards (never used; the beach was too windy). Things that seemed practical in concept but not in execution: a bike light (unless you’re visually impaired, there’s still plenty of light at night to get around) and a collapsible water bottle (much to my chagrin, our hotel didn’t provide a water station, and neither did any local businesses).

Toiletries: As indicated above, I tried hard to bring as many natural toiletries with me as possible. I opted for LUSH solid shampoo and tooth powder, Nourish Organic face wash, paraben-free and scent-free body wash (which can double as gentle laundry detergent for undergarments!), L’Occitane sulfate-free conditioner, and natural moisturizer with sunscreen in it. I stocked up on mineral and non-mineral sunscreen before the trip, because I heard it was marked up big time in Tulum–and it is. I wish I’d brought some aloe with me, because I needed it badly and it too was expensive in town. One thing I wish I hadn’t brought? Makeup. I didn’t want to use it at all.

Gear: Like any 21st-century citizen, I brought along my iPhone and charger for pictures. Wifi was fairly hopeless, especially on the beach, so don’t expect strong internet while you’re here. I brought a drybag for storing electronics during aquatic adventures, but in the end I left my phone back at the hotel during said adventures because I was too scared it’d be lost, stolen or destroyed. I also brought along my own snorkel, fins and mask, since cenotes and snorkel shops will charge you a small fee every time you rent these–but if you don’t foresee a lot of snorkeling in your post-Tulum future, I don’t think this purchase is worth it.

…So there you have it: everything I packed for a week in Tulum! I hope this was helpful for anyone who’s headed there this year. If you’ve been before, what do you recommend taking and leaving behind?

READ NEXT: KAYAKING IN LAGOS, PORTUGAL

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

Sure, the water isn’t as clear and warm as it is in the Maldives. True, the sand isn’t as white and powdery as it is in the Caribbean. But you’d be hard pressed to find a sight more magnificent than the beaches of Lagos.

While planning our honeymoon, my husband and I struggled to figure out which Algarve destination was right for us. We’d read that major destinations such as Lagos and Albufeira attracted loud, hard-partying spring-breaker types and were built up so densely with resorts that they’d lost a lot of their charm. By contrast, the eastern coast was still relatively quiet, attracting mostly families and older couples in search of lazy beach days and bird-watching.

Given that this was the one and only relaxing leg of our trip, finding the perfect quiet beach was our number one priority. If I’m being honest, avoiding drunken college kids was priority number two. I knew in my gut that the towns east of Faro would be best, but my heart ached at the thought of missing the western Algarve’s stunning sandstone cliffs.

Sandstone cliffs of Lagos, Portugal

So we came up with a compromise. Instead of traveling to just one place for five days, we split up our coastal time into three parts: three days of beach-bumming in sleepy Cabanas, one day kayaking in scenic Lagos, and one day sightseeing in Faro, where we’d catch a direct train to Lisbon the next morning.

Let me tell you something you’ve probably already figured out: One day in Lagos is not enough! I mean, how was I supposed to tear my eyes away from this view after less than 24 hours?

Sunset at Ponte da Piedade, Lagos, Portugal

Because our time here was limited, we thought we’d make the most of the town’s best feature–those gorgeous cliffs–by getting out on the open water. And what better way to do so than on a kayak?

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

A three-hour kayak and snorkel tour with Kayak Adventures Lagos was pretty much the only activity we booked in advance of our trip. Typically, we like to play things by ear, sketching out a tentative itinerary and adjusting according to the weather, our mood and other factors. But we West Coast natives were desperate for some paddling action, and we knew these tours booked up weeks in advance, even in shoulder season–so we took the leap.

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

After a windswept walk from the Lagos train station to our simple Airbnb rental, we headed down to the small but hopping Praia Batata (literally “potato beach” in English), where Kayak Adventures gave us some preliminary instructions and two kayak paddles. We stuffed everything we had in the shared drybag they provided, keeping only the adorable waterproof disposable camera we’d received as a wedding gift. (Yep, that’s why most of these pictures look oddly vintagey.)

Once our group of about a dozen had all arrived, our British guide greeted us with a few funny icebreakers and gave a short lesson on paddling for the newbies. Even though I’d kayaked before, I was grateful for the refresher; My only paddling experience was in a one-person, sit-inside kayak on a relatively calm lake, and this was going to be my first time negotiating the open ocean on an open-faced, two-person kayak.

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

It was slow going for about five minutes after our guide pushed us off the beach as the two of us tried to get our bearings and get our paddling in sync. But the guide seemed unconcerned, and once I saw that most of the other couples with us lagged behind and tried in vain to face the right direction, I felt much better about my own struggles.

Things went smoother once we had all left the beach and reached the seawall, at the end of which was perched a stately red lighthouse. Around the corner, we glimpsed the cliffs I’d only seen in pictures thus far, and my heart skipped a beat.

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

The next hour and a half flew by. As our guide described the geological phenomenon that eroded the sandstone cliffside into the shapes of natural bridges and narrow columns and explained the way the tide etched ribbons of red and orange across the face of the cliffs, we glided slack-jawed through archways, caves and grottoes.

We traveled all the way to Ponte da Piedade, where the cliffs turn from red to white, before turning around. When it was time for a snack break, our guide led us to the impossibly beautiful Camilo Beach–so named, she told us, for a camel-shaped rock formation in the cliffside. Once the two of us had had a bite to eat, we grabbed the masks and snorkels on offer and swam out from the beach. Unfortunately, the water was pretty cloudy and colder than we’d expected, so our quest didn’t last long…but the ocean made a great backdrop for a photoshoot with the last few frames our camera had left!

Swimming at Praia do Camilo in Lagos, Portugal

Swimming at Praia do Camilo in Lagos, Portugal

…aaaand that’s when the film ran out.

We spent the last few minutes of our break exploring nearby caves and ducking through archways that led to adjoining beaches. Then, we hauled our damp selves back into the kayaks and onto the water for another half hour of ocean paddling and basking in the warm Algarve sun.

Three hours later, saltwater-soaked and happy, we arrived back on Batata Beach, thanked the guide and turned in our paddles. The sun had begun to set, and it was time for a well-earned beer back at our apartment and a sunset walk to the cliff’s edge.

Sunset at Ponte da Piedade, Lagos, Portugal

For anyone who’d like to follow in our footsteps, I highly recommend booking the kayak and snorkel tour with Kayak Adventures. As you’ll see when you arrive at Batata Beach, Kayak Adventures has a lot of competitors–but it’s one of the longest-standing and highest-rated companies out there, so you really can’t go wrong with them.

If you go on a sunny day, make sure to bring tons of water and sunscreen. If you’re especially sensitive to sun, wear a hat and UV-protective clothing over your swimsuit. No matter the weather, I recommend you bring as little as possible with you to the beach; take some snacks, some money and your keys, and leave phones and non-waterproof electronics at the hotel.

READ NEXT: TIPS ON TRAVELING TO PORTUGAL

Sunset at a beach at Ponte da Piedade in Lagos, Algarve, Portugal

Tips on traveling to Portugal

Tips on traveling to Portugal

Boasting a wealth of cultural sights, a world-class wine region and some of the most remarkable beaches on the planet, Portugal deserves to be at the top of just about everyone’s travel bucket list. Yet compared to some of its European neighbors, it still flies under the radar. This is great news for trailblazers but somewhat frustrating for overplanners like me, because it means there’s criminally little information out there about all of Portugal’s cultural quirks–you know, all those little things you wish someone had told you before you made an utter fool of yourself by counting with your thumb or wandering into a church with a miniskirt on.

(For example, why didn’t any of the guide books mention that the center of Porto is so crowded that you’re basically SOL if you don’t have a Saturday night dinner reservation? That would have been great to know.)

So here I am, filling the void. Without further ado, here are all the things I wish I’d known before landing in Lisbon.

Port glasses at Sandeman in Porto's Ribeira district

Slow it down

If you’re looking for fast-paced food service, you’ve come to the wrong country. Like others in Southern Europe, the Portuguese believe going out to eat isn’t as much about the food as it is about connecting with one another and taking some time to unwind. (They also seem to believe it’s rude to drop off the bill before you’ve asked for it, so don’t expect it to magically appear once the plates are cleared like it does in the U.S.) During our two weeks in Portugal, we often spent one and a half or two hours enjoying lunches and dinners, and we really didn’t mind the languid pace: We used that time to bask in the sun, admire a wonderful view, talk about life or plan out the rest of our day.

Cypress tree at Lisbon's Jardim do Principe Real in the Bairro Alto

Take a hike

If you’re headed to Portugal for a city break, be prepared for hills…LOTS of hills. With many of its popular sights and neighborhoods situated hundreds of feet above the sea-level city center, Lisbon gives San Francisco a run for its money…and Porto isn’t exactly flat, either. Just like in SF, many tourists get around by riding the cities’ adorable historic trolleys, but unless you’re visiting in the dead of winter, those get so crowded that I recommend skipping them altogether and hoofing it if you can. The view’s better anyway–what’s a trip to Lisbon without a glimpse at its many historic staircases and romantic, narrow alleys? Just make sure to wear comfortable, cushioned shoes and be careful on rainy days…those tiled sidewalks can be mighty slippery!

Giant meringues in a pasteleria in Coimbra, Portugal

 

Break out the Lactaid

If you, like us, elect to stay in apartments instead of hotels while you’re in Portugal, you’ll probably end up hitting a pasteleria or two for breakfast. Whether it’s the famous Pastéis de Belém or a nondescript shop around the corner from your temporary home, here’s what you can expect to find: eggs, cream, sugar, eggs…and more eggs. I knew Portugal’s most famous dessert was the pastel de nata–a tiny, delicious and delicate custard tart–but I had no idea its signature pastry was just the beginning of this country’s sugar-and-egg obsession. Almost every takeaway breakfast item you’ll find involves sugar and eggs, whether it’s in the form of a sponge cake, a custard or a giant meringue. Portugal sure has a sweet tooth–but if you don’t, I recommend finding a grocery store when you arrive and stocking up on crusty bread and deli meats, fruit and yogurt or cereal and milk.

Sunset on the boardwalk in Cabanas, Algarve, Portugal

Dine in the dark

Just like their neighbors in Spain, the Portuguese wouldn’t dream of sitting down to dinner before sunset. Even though restaurants in the major tourist centers open for dinner at 7 p.m., you might prefer to embrace the local late-night ways and shoot for a dinnertime of about 9:30. Those who eat later and venture farther from the city center will get a better glimpse of real Portuguese life…and probably better food, too.

Crowds in a well at Quinta da Regaleira, Sintra, Portugal

Prepare for crowds

I have no idea why, but Americans almost never visit Portugal. When I asked my Facebook friends for advice on where to go, only a tiny handful had information to share. I reasoned that since so few Americans would be there and we were traveling in the off season, we’d see practically no tourists. Um…I would like to take this moment to admonish Past Me for making such America-centic assumptions.

While the Algarve was blessedly quiet and there were more black-caped students than white-sneakered foreigners in Coimbra, both Lisbon and Porto were packed TO THE GILLS with travelers, especially groups from the UK, Germany and France. We were so surprised and overwhelmed by the crowds that we found ourselves skipping out on a handful of major sights just to avoid the constant close proximity with other people. I later found out that the number of annual visitors to Portugal has actually eclipsed the country’s population of 10 million, and it’s only getting worse. Had we known this ahead of time, we might have planned ahead a bit more with dinner reservations and earlier mornings.

Sunset at a beach at Ponte da Piedade in Lagos, Algarve, Portugal

Layer up

I’m from Northern California, where the surfing is great…as long as your wetsuit is thick and you’ve got the neoprene boots to match. So I was thrilled to find out the sea temperature in the Algarve would be around 70 degrees Fahrenheit in October. Room-temperature water is basically like bath water, right? Wrong! While Portugal is known all over Europe as a beachy resort destination–and make no mistake, summers get extremely hot there–you won’t find the sort of tantalizingly warm water that Ibiza or Sicily boasts. While it’s just as far south as its Mediterranean neighbors, the southern coast of Portugal actually lies along the wild, untamed Atlantic Sea, where waves are a lot chillier than in the Med. If you’re sensitive to cold water, consider bringing a rashguard to keep warm, or try kayaking instead of swimming.

What do you wish you’d known before traveling to Portugal? Or, if you’re Portuguese, what do you wish tourists knew before traveling to your home? Share in the comments!

READ NEXT: Seven non-touristy things to do in Lisbon