I dreamed about going to Hong Kong forever, and most of that was because of the skyline. Here’s a picture I took of it from some mountain above town.
Dive bars are like a boxes of chocolates. Or slot machines. You never quite know what you’re going to get.
By definition, dive bars are all rough around the edges on the outside. Often though, they are warm, welcoming, and some of the most genuine establishments in the world on the inside. But you never know for sure, so you just have to take a chance and walk through the door of a dive bar; and in a city famous for games of risk, Las Vegas happens to be home to a handful of darn good dive bars.
My favorite is the Double Down Saloon.
The Double Down Saloon. Just look at that name – I mean, you really couldn’t come up with a better one for a bar in Las Vegas, could you? It was the name that attracted me to the bar in the first place. One night while I was living in Las Vegas, I was strolling the streets near The Hard Rock when I spotted it. Based on the name alone, I figured there had to be something good hiding behind the rough-and-tumble facade. While the door guy working that night looked a little intimidating, my roommate and I decided to take a chance, and we hit the jackpot.
The Double Down Saloon dubs itself the ‘happiest place on earth’, and while some places would get a letter from Disney’s lawyers for such a nickname, they manage to get a pass. I’m guessing it’s because you’d never in a million years confuse the two.
No, the Double Down Saloon is no Disneyland. It’s a cave-like space with walls that feature ‘Day of the Dead meets Animal House’ type murals and signs with irreverent declarations like ‘Shut Up and Drink’, among others not fit for print. And if you hear ‘It’s A Small World After All’ being played, it’s being thrashed out by a live punk rock band.
No, the Double Down Saloon isn’t for the faint of heart, but don’t let that scare you for a minute.
While it may sound like a place that’s standoffish, everyone is welcome here, as long as you’re cool. And by cool, I don’t mean in the latest fashions or with a swollen bank account, I just mean down-to-earth and, well, just not a jerk. No, the staff at Double Down treats everyone like a king while they are shaking up cocktails, pouring beer, straining shots, and keeping an eye on the video gambling machines.
None of those things, however, are the reason why this place is the king of Las Vegas dive bars. What makes this place special is that even though it only opened in 1992, it manages to feel like a genuine throwback to Old Vegas. And when I say ‘Old Vegas’, I don’t necessarily mean the Vegas of Sammy, Frank, and the rest of the Rat Pack. I mean Vegas before it became sanitized, Vegas before it became an ‘Approved For All Audiences’ Griswold backdrop, Vegas when it was still a bit rough, and a little bit risky. The owner of the Double Down Saloon is so passionate about keeping this spirit alive, he’s even authored a couple of works of fiction on the subject, and trust me, you’ll feel it surround you the second you walk in.
The Double Down Saloon: go on, roll the dice and check it out, and tell ’em I sent you. Actually, don’t tell them that.
This post originally appeared on TravelPulse
One of Mexico’s pearls on the Pacific, Zihuatanejo (or ‘Zi-wa’ as many locals affectionately call it) is a chilled-out seaside paradise that still manages to fly a bit under the tourist radar. Well, with one huge notable exception, but we will get to that a little bit later on. I spent a few weeks there once, and ever since, I’ve been telling people they should zoom to Zihuatanejo for themselves. Why did I like it there so much? Well, I came up with six reasons and since the internet likes lists, that works out perfectly.
Obviously, all coastal locales are going to have some sort of beach, but the quality of the beach can sometimes get called into question. Not in Zihuatanejo, though. All the beaches here are home to powdery stretches and ideal swimming conditions. The town’s main beach, Playa Municipal, is home to a spacious strip of golden sand, along with a daily parade of fishermen and their catch that creates a truly authentic atmosphere. The nearby Playa La Ropa is the most popular beach in town, as it is home to a curvaceous and especially gorgeous stretch of sand set under swaying palms that faces fantastic sunset views.
The most fun-to-reach beach is Playa Las Gatas, which can only be accessed by a budget-friendly local boat, and as a result is an oasis of extra clear and calm water perfect for scuba diving, suntanning, and swimming.
The Laid Back Atmosphere
Zihuatanejo feels different from other Mexican beach resorts from the moment you arrive, and I like that. Cancun, it assuredly is not. Sure, Zihuatanejo has all the benefits of being a resort town, but it still has the relaxed friendliness and personality of a village where everyone knows everyone else and they are willing to help people out. Speaking of that …
We arrived in Zihuatanejo on an overnight bus from Mexico City, and we came out of the bus station in an absolute stupor of confusion. We were wandering the streets completely lost, when a local man stopped to help us out of the kindness of his heart. Not only did he know where the hotel we were trying to find was, he knew the owners. He told us to hop in his truck, and he took us over to the hotel. As we exited the truck and said our “gracias”, I knew we were in a special place. This was the rule during my time here, not an exception.
The Fishin’ Hole
Nope, not the local spot where folks reel in live ones, this is a little open-air corner bar in the center of Zihuatanejo, which was my favorite place to grab a drink in town. It’s definitely a dive, but in a really good way, popular among snowbirds and locals alike. The breezy Fishin’ Hole specializes in ice cold beer and margaritas, but they even whip up tasty chargrilled burgers and tacos, too.
Barra De Potosi
Not technically in Zihuatanejo proper, but just a short hop down the coast, is a tiny village that feels like it’s stepped back in time. Home to a wide beach and some wild waves, the village is also home to a set of beachside seafood shacks, which serve up the daily fresh catch. And if you get thirsty, you can’t go wrong with a Coco Loco – a coconut filled with a boozy concoction of juices and spirits.
Okay, You Knew This Was Coming: The Shawshank Factor
Confession: I hadn’t seen The Shawshank Redemption when we booked our tickets for Zihuatanejo. I know, I know, it was a crime. It wasn’t long before everyone I knew was telling me about the connection the town has to this iconic movie, and so I just had to watch it and see for myself. While apparently the last scene of the movie wasn’t actually shot here, it doesn’t stop you from posing for a picture on the beach polishing a boat like my boy Eric did, and for the rest of your life you get to tell people you’ve been to Andy & Red’s special place.
When you visit Kuala Lumpur, you are legally required to visit Batu Caves. Well, at least it seems that way anyway. It’s a cool place though, because there’s some steep steps, some mischievous monkeys, and a shrine to a god. Here’s a picture from the top of the steps of some statue and the metropolis of Kuala Lumpur in the distance.
Let’s just say you’ve decided to go ahead and come over to Europe. First off, congratulations for making that fabulous decision, you won’t regret a thing, ‘promise. I’d like to take this opportunity to humbly suggest that while you are probably penciling in going to places like Italy, France, England, and Germany, that you could always go to Romania.
Why? Well, Romania is home to much of what most of us come to Europe for in the first place. Medieval towns? Romania has it. Fairytale castles? Romania is rolling in them. Grand capital city? They’ve got you covered. Rich folk culture full of tradition? Definitely. Underrated wine? Oh yeah. Gorgeous mountains? That too. Heck, the Romanians even throw in beaches on the Black Sea.
So why haven’t you heard a lot of this stuff about Romania before? Well, I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know these things about Romania:
Transylvania is Tremendous
This region is without a doubt the rock star of any Romanian travel experience. Assuming you like storybook medieval towns, enthralling history, and majestic mountains that is. And if you don’t you should probably take a long look in the mirror.
Towns like Brasov, Sighișoara, and Sibiu are all travel-dreams-come-true home to cobbled centers and mountain surrounds. They were all settled by Saxons from Germany, and retain their traditional grandeur in spades. In sleepy Sighișoara, you will find twisty-turny streets and the birthplace of the real Dracula (Vlad ‘The Impaler’ Tepes) all in the shadow of the enchanting clock tower; Brasov stars with an uber-romantic town center and hikes to Mount Tampa that end in priceless views that pair perfectly with local wine at sunset; and Sibiu shines with its stoic town towers and sophisticated feel. You could even stay at this cool place in the mountains like we did.
Maramures is Authentic with a capital ‘A’
The most mysterious of Romania’s regions, Maramures is cut off from the majority of the country by thick forests, and as a result, centuries-old folk traditions still survive and thrive here. In addition, the region is world famous for being home to steepled, eerily-beautiful wooden churches, with eight of them being deemed UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Bârsana Monastery is a great place to see one, which is also home to a myriad of fascinating murals.
The Castles Are High Class
Romania is second to none when it comes to castles, with Peles Castle often coming in atop the European castle power rankings. It was built as a playground for the royal family, and still stuns with its German New-Renaissance architecture and sweeping views of the the surrounding Carpathian Mountains.
While Pele’s Castle was more of a summer play house, plenty of castles in Romania were actual fortifications, and one such example is Bran Castle, dubiously dubbed ‘Dracula’s Castle’. There’s no real evidence that Vlad ever really lived here, but it’s still a fun day out. The most underrated may be the Gotch Corvin Castle, home to a large moat and drawbridge, which if you are like me, I used to think all castles had.
Not to confused with Hungarian capital of Budapest – even though tons of people do, including infamously Michael Jackson at a concert – Bucharest is home to grand boulevards, flowing fountains, and a fascinating albeit turbulent-at-times history. Much of its design was based on Paris, and it still shows.
The Transfagarasan is Entrancing
I honestly don’t know how this road isn’t a household name. Just one glance at the twists and turns in any image of the Transfagarasan Highway shows how special this motorway is. Regarded by many as the ‘best drive in the world’, a trip down the Transfagarasan isn’t solely about twists and turns, as it also offers a portal to Romania’s diverse wildlife and village life.
This post originally appeared on TravelPulse
The calendar is on its tenth turn, I’m wearing a checked shirt, grasping a frothy stein of beer, standing on a bench singing – well, mumbling at a very high volume – the words to German folk songs in a tent with thousands of other revelers.
Obviously, it’s Oktoberfest time in Munich again.
(here’s where the record scratch sound effect goes)
Nope, this time it’s the Cannstatter Volksfest in Stuttgart, or Stuttgart Beer Festival if you’re so inclined, and attending in 2015 may have just shaken all I thought I knew to be true about German beer festivals. Namely, that Oktoberfest is the undisputed champion. Dare I say that I even came home with the conclusion that the Cannstatter Volksfest might just be the finest ‘fest’ in all of Germany?
Why? Well, for a quite a few reasons actually.
First, the Cannstatter Volksfest feels more like fun fair first, beer festival second, and that makes for a really special atmosphere. The history of the festival is absolutely fascinating to begin with, and I definitely think it helps set the tone for things. Back in the early 1800s, there was some volcano that erupted somewhere in Indonesia and the dust cloud it coughed up was so large that it adversely affected harvests in Europe for a few seasons. When the newly crowned king of Wurttemberg – where Stuttgart is located – took the throne, he made agricultural advancement a major priority, and the festival was created to promote agriculture first, and revelry second.
Over the years, revelry gradually took over, but the history of the festival is still visible in the skyscraping and colorful fruit column – which is the giant symbol of the festival dedicated to its harvest history – and the fact that so many of the food stalls, small beer gardens, and cafes have been run by the same family for decades. One such example, a romantic diner called Cafe Grell (pictured above) located directly under a ferris wheel, truly epitomized the atmosphere of the Cannstatter Volksfest, and I had almost as much fun drinking a coffee here as I had drinking any beer during the festival.
Next, the setting of the Stuttgart Beer Festival is just gorgeous. The festival ground – called the Wasen – resides right next to the flowing Neckar River, and like the entire city of Stuttgart, is enveloped by hills crowned with soft green peaks giving way to clusters of homes and vineyards. The views from the top of the Ferris wheel were definitely second-to-none.
Furthermore, when it comes to the beer-drinking (and let’s not kid ourselves, I was there to drink some beer), there are lots of different options. Of course you have the big beer tents with all the partying, but you also have the cutest (did I just call beer gardens cute?) beer gardens in the adorable (did I just say adorable?) Alpine Village.
Also, even though the Stuttgart Beer Festival has all the hallmarks of a German beer festival – traditional dress, large beer tents, millions of people attending – yes I said millions – the fest still manages to feels ultra-friendly. The Cannstatter Volksfest is definitely world famous, they even have a mini-one in Philadelphia, but the festival itself is still an absolute breeze to enjoy. We attended on weekdays, and we just simply strolled into the tents and grabbed the first seat we found.
Oh, and last but not least, they have these amazing things called Swabian Ravioli – which are like typical ravioli but bigger, and stuffed with onions, meat, spinach, and seasonings – and just trust me, you are going to want to eat a handful.
So, to the big question: is the Stuttgart Beer Festival the best beer festival in all of Germany? Well, it is certainly looking that way, but to reach a final decision, I think I am going to need more research.
Yes – liters, I mean lots, of research.
This post originally appeared on TravelPulse
When I touched down in Las Vegas for the first time, I was genuinely surprised to see mountains ringing the city. Now, I suppose I should have known that Sin City was circled by peaks, but it had just never occurred to me. I honestly thought Las Vegas was a sandy place with dunes a la the deserts of North Africa, and I’m supposing the fact that Vegas was home to casinos called The Sahara, The Aladdin, The Dunes, and Desert Inn for decades prior to my arrival may have also helped me to this conclusion.
Well, the tallest of those mountains looking down on Las Vegas is Mt. Charleston. And when I ended up living in Las Vegas a few years later, the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area Mt. Charleston is located in became my favorite place to breathe in some refreshing mountain air, hike, smell some pines, and not hear anything resembling the sound of a slot machine.
Mt. Charleston is truly one of Las Vegas’ best kept secrets (besides of course where the mobsters buried all those bodies back in the day), and a trip there while you are in town will allow you to catch your breath after a – hopefully – long winning streak. So, here’s my mini-guide to Mt. Charleston.
Why Go to Mt. Charleston?
The tallest peak in the Spring Mountains, the area around Mt Charleston is regarded as a ‘sky island’ as it juts up dramatically from the desert floor below. Not only does this lead to a diverse range of flora and fauna you won’t see in the dry desert, the temperature there is also typically 20-30 degrees cooler than it is on The Strip, despite the fact that it’s only a short drive from Las Vegas. You can imagine how good it feels at Mt. Charleston when Las Vegas is boiling in the summer, and in the winter, there’s a very good chance of being able to play in the snow and ski there.
In a nutshell, going to Mt. Charleston just feels like a whole other world from The Strip. Majestic mountains covered by Pines, Aspens, and Ponderosas, awash in hiking trails, wildflowers, wildlife, and waterfalls.
How to Get There
Mt. Charleston is around 35-45 minutes from The Strip, so there’s no need to beat around the bush here; you are going to need a car to see it. Rental car is obviously the best option, as daily deals can be had from the numerous rental car agencies with outlets on The Strip. If you are rolling in dough from the night before at the casinos, you could always take a cab.
What to Do
Hiking is the most popular thing to do at Mt. Charleston, with trails for all skill levels. Mary Jane Falls is perfect for beginners and families, as it’s only an hour long and rewards you at the end with a seasonal waterfall. A slight step up is the 3 mile return journey Cathedral Rock trail (pictured directly above), with steep ascents and stunning views over Kyle Canyon.
Furthermore, scenic driving and picnicking among the chipmunks, deer, wrens, and hummingbirds that call the mountain home are also fun ways to spend the day.
Where to Grab a Drink
The nearby Mt. Charleston Lodge is a warm and welcoming place with a fireplace and a sunny deck, perfect for a refreshing beer or hot chocolate after your drive or hike. If you decide to stay the night because you are having so much fun (a distinct possibility), they also provide two dozen cozy cabins.
This post originally appeared on TravelPulse