Contributor: Stephanie Bonilla

If someone told IMG_4108me a year ago that I’d be sitting in my tiny apartment writing about my recent adventure in Thailand, I’d giggle. Since college, I joked with close friends about going to Asia. At that time, taking a trip to the other side of the world was unimaginable. Sure some of us had already gotten a taste for international travel. But for some reason, the Orient always felt so foreign, so distant. In our minds, taking a trip to Asia meant we had made it. Not only in the financial/successful sense since any ticket over $300 at that time would have over drafted our bank accounts, but also in the transformative sense. We knew then that a trip like that would be life-changing. So naturally, when I venturesomely embarked on my Thailand adventure, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride. I had made it and I would never be the same.

Thailand was truly everything I had dreamed of and more. This trip will forever hold the number one spot in my heart. Most of you must be thinking I’m speaking too soon. I haven’t been to every single place in the world (yet), so how could I make such an uninformed decision? Well, you don’t have to be coupled with every person in the world to choose your soul mate, right? Sometimes, “you just know”. So when you get your chance at speed dating with Thailand, here’s how you can fall in love:

Cycle – Bangkok Style

Bangkok is a vibrant city, offering a wide range of cultural activities and historical attractions to choose from. Although this colorful metropolis is mostly known for its lively nightlife, there are plenty of places to explore during daylight. My favorite experience while in Bangkok was the most unexpected: “Follow Me” Bike Tour. I must admit that I was extremely apprehensive about participating when the idea initially presented itself. I am not keen on bike riding, especially not in a city that houses over 10 million people and has the busiest rush hour I have ever experienced. But when in Bangkok…right?

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There are various tours to choose from. My friends and I selected the “Siam Boran” tour, the company’s most popular route. This excursion allows you to experience Bangkok like a true local.  Our ridiculously awesome tour guide, Matthew, took us up, down and across the ancient Chao Phraya River, allowing us to explore Bangkok’s lively Chinatown district, vegetable and flower markets, local temples and surrounding slums. For just 1200 baht (approximately $34), riders get a bike, ferry transfers, pictures, drinks, Thai snacks AND get to dip their feet in a fish foot spa—the Thai are just awesome like that. Group sizes depend on how many people sign-up, but we were lucky enough to be the only ones on our tour.

We took this tour on our very first day in Thailand, and I can’t think of a better way to start a trip with a bang! We learned the correct way to enter and sit in a temple, how to fold a real lotus flower; we ate fried grasshoppers, were able to make an offering to Buddha and even left with an irreplaceable keepsake: a piece of the Buddha’s robe. I have never felt so at peace in my life—even when I was sweating my life out, literally IN bumper to bumper traffic with thousands of cars and scooters during Bangkok’s infamous Friday rush hour. Most importantly, I met some of the friendliest locals ever (our tour guide included) who welcomed us to their country with open arms and infectious smiles.

Dine In The Sky

Although it’s very Hangover 2, you should definitely experience one of Bangkok’s sky-high restaurants. Besides serving delicious dishes incorporating juicy steaks, lamb and seafood, these restaurants offer guests a bird’s-eye-view of this magical city.  Teetering on the expensive side, this was the most money we spent on a meal during our stay. However, the amazing views and ambiance were worth every penny (or baht). We dined in style on the 61st floor of Vertigo and Moon Bar under the glimmering stars above and million sparkling lights below. If you’re afraid of heights, mentally prepare yourself. This skyscraper was built to allow the restaurant to be completely exposed, with no walls or structures blocking any views. You really feel like you’re dining on top of the world here.

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Hang With Monks

There are more than 400 wats (or temples) in Bangkok alone. Fortunately, many of the temples are located near each other, making them easy to find. I mean, who can really miss a towering building topped with shiny gold?

No temple in Thailand lacks majesty, making it difficult to choose which ones to visit. We were fortunate enough to see a lot of them during our stay; most of the famous ones, a few off the beaten path, each one with its own charm. The temple I favored was Wat Kanlayanamit, also known as the “best friends” temple. Unlike the more well-known temples, this house of worship had no crowds and no designated number on one of those “10 must-see temples in Thailand” lists. In fact, you will rarely find this sanctuary on any list. Visited mainly by locals, this is where I got to experience Buddhist rituals and practices. Clusters of bright orange robes surrounded me, as we all kneeled in front of the “awakened one”. I can still hear their penetrating chants today. It’s an indescribable event and one you truly have to experience to understand its greatness.

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Become a Budding Cook

I hear friends talk about how much they love Thai food all the time. I apologize in advance for sounding “braggy”, but you’ve never truly experienced Thai food unless you’ve been to Thailand. Specifically, until you’ve taken a cooking class there. We took ours during our stay in Chiang Mai, and let me tell you, I had THE BEST massaman chicken curry and pad thai there! During this jaunt, we got to shop for our food at a local market, cook 6 different meals–which included Thailand’s yummy mango sticky rice– and got to take swigs of our Chang beers as we devoured it all.  You will never eat Thai food anywhere that is not in Thailand or in your kitchen again.

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Hug a Tiger

You know how they say you can never feel more like a Disney princess than paying a visit to Magic Kingdom? Well, that was true until I visited Tiger Kingdom in Chiang Mai. I have never felt more like Princess Jasmine than laying face to fur with a real tiger. Although there are a ton of allegations on handlers drugging tigers to keep them tranquil, I myself never saw any mistreatment or foul play. Since I don’t want to make this a controversial piece, I will stick to my visit.

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There’s no experience more exhilarating than hanging out in a cage with 5-6 carnivorous killing machines—let alone laying with them, touching them and even playing with them (only the baby tigers are allowed to play with humans).  This is one you have to answer for yourself. If you’re incredibly concerned about animal abuse and this just doesn’t feel right, then it probably shouldn’t be on your list. If you’re skeptical and want to see for yourself, then go give a tiger a high five.

Walk With Gentle Giants

Processed with VSCOcam with c2 presetElephant Nature Park was my all-time favorite experience in Thailand. This park is a rescue and rehabilitation center for abused and orphaned elephants. Their mission is not only to provide a sanctuary for these gentle giants, but to educate visitors on the plight of this endangered species. There is a dark side to elephant tourism that most of us are unaware of. If you’re ever interested in learning why you shouldn’t ride an elephant or have them doodle a picture for you, do your research.

We were lucky enough to have done ours before the trip, which led us to this wonderful pachyderm haven. At Elephant Nature Park, you get to be a trainer for a day. Meaning you get to feed, bathe and play with these magical creatures! As an elephant lover, this was a dream come true. It was an incredible and humbling experience to roam freely alongside these magnificent creatures. I can’t encourage you enough to add this one to your bucket list.

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Indulge in a Rubdown

Go to any spa anywhere in the world and you will most likely see “Thai Massage” on the menu. I am still unsure as to why Thai massages became so popular, but I can vouch that the Thai have perfected their craft. There are almost as many spas in Thailand as there are 7-eleven’s, so choose carefully. We waited until we arrived in Phuket to treat ourselves. From the minute we entered the spa, a sense of serenity could be felt. We were immediately handed cool towels and a list of spa treatments to choose from.  Not only did we indulge in massages, we all took deliciously warm milk baths in our own private rooms to help hydrate our skin. After sweating so much, your skin will love you for it.

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Island Hop

Processed with VSCOcam with k1 presetEver watch Leo DiCaprio’s movie The Beach and imagine yourself sitting on the sand, looking out into the distance at dramatic limestone cliffs peaking their heads out of glimmering turquoise waters? Yeah, we all have.

If you find yourself in Phuket, you MUST hop on one of those rustic long tail boats and explore the surrounding islands. We opted for a snorkeling trip (shout out to Nudi Tours), allowing us not only to explore the different islands, but the exotic marine life too. I have never felt like I was living in a postcard until I embarked on this journey. We had died and gone to beach heaven.

Processed with VSCOcam with k2 presetThe trip consisted of alternating between snorkeling and basking in the sun –each time on a new island. We were able to see an array of beautifully colored fish and explore islands such as: Phi Phi Don, Maya Bay and Monkey Island. If you ever want to check “Utopia” off your list, make this tour a priority.
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Something happened to me on this trip—it’s almost as if the lens on my glasses changed to a brighter, rosier tone. Thailand helped me build my confidence enough to believe that I can do anything. Therefore, I can do everything.

Hopefully now you get a better understanding of my love for the land of smiles!

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The Celebrity Equinox, docked in Istanbul, Turkey.

The Celebrity Equinox, docked in Istanbul, Turkey.

How disappointing would it be to fly overseas to catch your cruise ship, only to be denied entry into the country? Foreign Visa requirements are just one of the many items covered within the first few pages of your Cruise Passenger Ticket/Booklet. And, whether you book yourself, book online or use a travel agent (our recommendation), it’s always a good idea to look through your Cruise Docs. Often, we (especially veteran cruisers who have been to the same location) overlook reviewing the cruise docs, except for the correct spelling of our names and other pertinent “official ID info.”

A great example is our most recent cruise, a one way trip from Istanbul, Turkey to Civitavecchia (Rome), Italy. I booked it myself, and, as a veteran cruiser with family who visited Istanbul a couple of years ago, I did not immediately skim through the Cruise Docs. Thankfully, I viewed them with over a month to go before our flight and discovered that an E-Visa was necessary for entry into Turkey. That stipulation was NOT in effect when my family members visited Istanbul. Celebrity Cruises made it very easy to obtain the E-Visas, with links via their own website.

Contributor: Stephanie Bonilla

pic001Florida is a clever little sucker. Let me tell you why. As a self-proclaimed “weekender,” I regularly study maps of Florida in search of my next mini getaway. My eyes tend to gravitate towards the peninsula’s coasts, hoping to lay themselves on our next beach-town adventure. I have never seen Anna Maria Island (AMI) marked on any of the maps I’ve carefully analyzed, which is why I was caught off guard when my boyfriend gifted me with a weekend stay on the island for my birthday. Had my eyes failed me? Was this a premature sign of ageing hitting me in the wake of my 28th birthday? I quickly grabbed my laptop for validation. Although AMI was not listed on any map, I soon learned a lot about this hidden paradise and the state it resides in: they are both really good at keeping secrets.

Another Day In Paradise

Approximately 40 miles south of Tampa, tucked along the Gulf of Mexico, sits this subtropical nirvana. The teeny island houses less than 15,000 residents and 3 tiny communities: Anna Maria (north), Holmes Beach (middle) and Bradenton Beach (south). With only one main road running north to south of this 7-by-2 mile island, AMI is the epitome of a small town. It proves, however, that big things really do come in small packages.

Our journey to paradise began very early. I got out of bed as soon as the alarm went off at 4 a.m. Before allowing my mind to go to a really dark place, I quickly reminded it that in just a few hours, we (my mind and I) would be laid back on a beach adding color to that wonderful tan we work 104 days a year for.

Since we were extremely excited about exploring the island, it wasn’t long before we arrived. We didn’t even stop for coffee, a common occurrence in all of our road trips. Catching sight of the Cortez Bridge, we knew we had arrived. The bridge is the only thing that connects the real world to this magical oasis. An old, historical fishing village is sprinkled just outside the bridge’s entrance, as if it was left there to remind incoming visitors that remnants of old Florida still remain. We drove directly to our hotel as soon as we crossed the bridge, our eyes slowly adjusting to the colorful beach cottages that served as a backdrop.

Our place wasn’t ready when we arrived– apparently even housekeeping live on island time. It didn’t faze us. We were in no rush to take refuge in our hotel room anyway. The property manager and his buddy were taking a break from the island’s heat in the inn’s office. After finding out it was our first time visiting AMI, they excitedly advised us of local eateries, bars and shops to check out. For the remainder of our stay, we used their informal itinerary as a guide for our exploration of the island. I’ll be forever indebted to them for leading us to some of the most perfect places I’ve ever visited. I hope this article does the same for you. Here’s what you should do:

Ditch Your Cottage, Explore The Landscape

A mix of colorful cottages and shady palm trees dominate the island’s landscape. The most challenging part of your day will be deciding on your transportation. You can hop on the island’s FREE trolley, rent a bike or scooter from one of the local rental shops, or use your very own two feet. Whatever your choice is, you will find plenty to look at.  One thing you won’t see on the island is high-rises. This modest beach community has been successful at maintaining its true old Florida beach feel by keeping developers and chainy hotels OFF of the island. It’s as if time was paused here 30 years ago and never started up again.

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But don’t let my description confuse you. Not everything on the island is kitschy and old. Although they are no higher than 3 stories tall, jaw dropping cottages have been built around the island, serving as both residences and lodging for visitors. Though beautiful, these new and improved bungalows still fit the “quiet money” mold exhibited throughout the island. AMI got the memo. Upscale just doesn’t jibe with beachy.

Overload On Island Grub

Like most islands, seafood is the prominent food of choice on AMI. You will not find any golden arches here. Local eateries take pride in serving domestic meals to seafood lovers, delivering shrimp, fish and oysters fished directly out of Florida’s waters.

But AMI doesn’t only do seafood right. A popular gem known by every local can be found just off the main road on the north end of the island. The Donut Experiment, a tiny boutique donut shop, allows mad scientists of all ages to create their own cake-based dunker. From key lime glazes to maple bacon or Sriracha toppings to choose from, the world really is your oyster at this island shop.

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Favorite Breakfast Spot: The Donut Experiment

Favorite Breakfast Spot: The Donut Experiment

Best Oysters: Anna Maria Oyster Bar

Best Oysters: Anna Maria Oyster Bar

Favorite Lunch Spot: The Waterfront Restaurant

Favorite Lunch Spot: The Waterfront Restaurant

Drink Like A Local

Bars can be found all over the island, ranging from rustic beachside tiki bars, to laid back establishments nestled in-between eclectic art shops displaying tropical motifs. Best way to describe AMI’s nightlife:  A Key West feel sans the rowdy crowds. When deciding what to wear, think: “What Would Jack Johnson Do.” In a land where flip-flops and shorts are standard and overloading on piña coladas is expected, packing should never be a cause of panic. Always choose comfort.   

The main thing to look for when bar hopping is live music. Be prepared to nurse your beer as you sway to a live rendition of Brown-Eyed Girl or a funky version of Rapper’s Delight. Unlike Key West, the local musicians don’t just croon Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville for a buck–they truly get to know their audience. We went from nervously calling out requests, to taking shot after shot with our entertainers and fellow escapees. Definitely check out AMI’s popular Bridgewalk area. Some of our favorite bars were located there:  Bridge Tender Inn and Waterfront Bar.

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Experience A Golden Hour – West Coast-Style

Florida’s west coast is infamous for its spectacular sunsets. As long as you’re on the west side of the island, you can pretty much catch nature painting the sky “magic” from anywhere on the island. Establishments like Sandbar crowd up just as the sun is about to set, prizing lucky guessers with a complimentary drink should they predict the correct sunset time. If there were ever a photo opp on the island, it would be during sunset. After all, sunset lighting is the best lighting, right? I’ll let the pictures work their magic.

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Soak Up The Rays

The “wake up slow” mentality is alive and well on Anna Maria. You won’t find many beach goers catching rays earlier than 10 a.m. There is plenty of space on the sugary white sand, so don’t worry too much about reserving a spot. The translucent turquoise water is just the right temperature to refresh those in need of a cool down. Swooping pelicans plunge into the pristine water in hopes of catching their next meal, while bottlenose dolphins grace observant beach bums with impromptu cameos. Make sure to pack lots of sunscreen and yummy drinks to get you by, but be sure you leave all alcohol behind in your cottage. Alcoholic beverages are not permitted on AMI’s beaches, unless you’re sipping it while sitting at one of those cute oceanfront tiki bars.

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Anna Maria Island turned out to be a very special place. If you’re looking for a slower, simpler Key West, this is the place for you. Something else I learned from this vacation: I apparently can’t keep a secret.