What We Did

Bali Paradise

Bali, a name that is synonymous with Paradise, couldn’t possibly live up to that reputation.  Incorrect.  Bali is the single most relaxing place we’ve ever been.  Enough activities so you don’t get bored, cheap enough that you never feel stressed, easy enough so you never feel strained, and small enough that you never feel rushed.  We are HUGE Bali fans.

Of course, it’s also an incredibly romantic place, which was perfect because it was over our anniversary, and hilarious because Blakely’s little sister tagged along!  Thankfully, she’s the perfect travel partner who was up for anything and demanded nothing.

Bali sister trip

We started in the main city Semenyak.  Blakely booked our accommodations beforehand, and they were suspiciously underpriced for such good reviews.  The group was a little skeptical as we headed down a dirt driveway with cement walls and shacks on either side.  But then, the walls opening up to a gorgeous lawn and pool with a small boutique hotel and outside eating area.  We’d arrived at Kubu Cempaka and we were home.

Of course the first thing we needed to do was get our bearings and head to the beach. Thankfully, there are restaurants all along the beach so our dinner option was easy!  We soon found out that eating in Bali is spectacular because ex-pats from all over the world move to Bali because it is such a wonderful place to live. They set up restaurants from their native lands so the foreign fare is as authentic as it could be!  Add that to local delicious seafood and you’re set! 

Bali beach

Soon we formulated our plan. We decided to do a small loop which included Bali and neighboring island of Lombok.  After Seminyak we took a ferry to Lembogan, then to Gili Air and lastly Ubud.  Here are our highlights.

Yoga.  Bali is arguably the capital of modern yoga and you should take FULL advantage (while also paying attention to the types you don’t like. For example, we aren’t big Hatha fans. Too much breathing, too little action). By far, our favorite yoga place and a highlight from the ENTIRE world trip is the Yoga Barn in Ubud.  People travel to Bali solely for the opportunity to go to the Yoga Barn and we don’t blame them.  World-class teachers in a gorgeous open air studio, this place has a culture completely onto itself.  We started plotting our return before we left.

Photo from https://thenorthernboy.com/yoga-barn-ubud

While on the subject of activities, you should also find time to do some surfing and scuba diving. We surfed in Seminyak and loved it, but the opportunities are endless.  Talk to your hotel whenever you are near the ocean.  

Massages.  Take advantage of the incredibly inexpensive massages ($5 for 90 minutes.  Seriously.) on every block in every city.  Get a recommendation from your hotel or poke your head into a few to find your favorite.  Ryan is quoted as saying he wanted to be sick of massages before he left SE Asia, and in Bali he did his best!  In addition to full body, we recommend simply getting a foot massage every night, just because you can!

Bali Massage

Motor Bikes.  So fun.  We rented bikes in Lembogan and it was such a great way to spend the day and explore.  We went over to Le Pirate for pool time and fabulous drinks, and then Mamma Mia for delicious lunch!

Bali Motorbike

Beachside Drinks. Speaking of drinks, we absolutely loved the fresh fruit smoothies (we recommend the watermelon mint delight!) while looking out on the water.  For a more club-ish scene, we liked Ku de Ta in Semenyak, Le Piarate in Lembogan, and Deus ex Machina in Canggu.  One of our favorite tricks was to get everything mocktail.  We know it sounds lame, but this way you don’t have to limit yourself! And, as you can see, we didn’t limit ourselves!

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Lastly, the Art in Ubud is some of the widest variety that we’ve ever seen in one place.  Take advantage of the vast array of artists on all mediums and of all subjects to pick some pieces that can transport you back to Bali when you get home. 

Bali was the perfect recovery for our wild ride around China, and we couldn’t recommend it more highly. The people, sights, activities, food, and energy facilitate an atmosphere that will be the greatest memory of your time there.  We can’t wait to go back.

Bali Paradise

Our China Crash Course

Our adventure through China was an absolute whirlwind that covered almost 3,000 miles in 10 days. To see China in that amount of time is like taking a 10 day trip to see New York, D.C., LA, and Seattle. It was absolutely insane.

But we had a good reason for the quickness—Blakely’s family came to join us and they only had a small window. We enjoyed the company (and the upgrade in accommodations!).

This sums up our Chinese invasion!

We started in Hong Kong, which is a great gateway into China since it is much more connected to the outside world. Reminder: the Chinese government significantly limits news flow of its citizens, and this makes them culturally cut off from the rest of society. While Hong Kong technically falls under Chinese jurisdiction, it was a British colony until 1997 when the Brits returned it to China. Hong Kong maintains a separate political and economic system from China, but the mainland significantly influences the legislation. China continues to broker more influence, and unfortunately protests don’t make much difference despite making international news.

Blakely and Ryan arrived 2 days earlier than the rest of the group, which was best as we were VERY dusty from our time in Nepal. We stayed at the Kowloon Shangri-la Hotel, which, as could be expected, were MUCH better accommodations than our norm.

We enjoyed the hotel then headed to explore the city. Of course, a highlight for us was the spectacular architecture. As city folk we really appreciate a good skyscraper, and Hong Kong has plenty of those! Hong Kong has a gorgeous skyline, with more skyscrapers than anywhere in the world, and Victoria Harbor elevates the view further. Ryan’s favorites were the HSBC Building, International Commerce Center, and Bank of China Tower. Then we went to Man Mo temple, which is dedicated to the gods of literature and war. The incense and atmosphere make it a calm and gorgeous stop.

That night, we headed to the fabulous SoHo neighborhood (not to be confused with the SoHo in NYC, this stands for South of Hollywood Road) which has one of our favorite features: escalator sidewalks. First we hit a wine and cheese bar, and then one of our favorite restaurants Little Bao. So fun, so delicious, and everything we needed.

Finally, the rest of the group arrived. We didn’t pause long before taking them on a walking tour the neighborhood. Then for dinner, we headed to the world renowned Din Tai Fung restaurant for delicious dumplings and noodles. Finally, we headed to Temple Street Night Market for a bit of chaos and shopping! Unfortunately the market is MUCH more glitz than glamor, and as many things in China, focused on the shiny quantity over quality!


The next day was a big one. We started on a tram up to Victoria Peak to see the sights. Due to the crazy fog, the view half-way up was better. Then we took a boat tour to see the floating village of Aberdeen and the temples there. Afterwards, a little tea time at the Peninsula hotel, then cocktails while watching the harbor light show.

Honk Kong China
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Next, we jetted off to Guilin and immediately went to the gorgeous Reed Flute cave. In case the natural structure isn’t enough, the gorgeous light displays make the cave even more mystical and impressive (though a few thought they were tacky and preferred the natural landscape!). In Guilin, we stayed at the beautiful Guilin Shangri-la Hotel.

Next on the itinerary was a drive out to Longji, with hiking to see the gorgeous rice paddies. Absolutely worth the hike (to say nothing of needing to work off those dumplings!), this was a trip highlight for all of us.

That night we took a light cruise around the lakes of Guilin. The Chinese LOVE a light show, and we were pretty impressed ourselves!

The next day was a highlight: A boat cruise along the Li River. This site has inspired painters and artists for centuries, and it inspired the artwork on the 20 yuan note today. Blakely couldn’t resist the beauty recreated by a local artist on rice paper, which is now hanging in our house!

After the day’s craziness, we took a flight to Xian and settled into the Wyndham Grand Xian hotel, another fabulous place!

Xian attracts visitors from all over the world with the incredible Terracotta Warriors. Even with all of the hype, they do NOT disappoint. Here’s the skinny:

When the first Emperor of China Qin Shi Huang died around 210 BC, he was buried with an army he commissioned to protect him in the afterlife. There are approximately 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots, 520 horses and 150 cavalry horses. Additionally, there are officials, acrobats, strongmen and musicians. All of the statues are life sized, uniquely carved and painted, and buried in different sized pits. The largest of the pits is housed in the museum for viewing. It is INSANE to see.

Even cooler: the army is just a portion of the remains left to be discovered. Excavation is ongoing, but ground-penetrating radar detects a larger city resembling the emperor’s imperial palace and court. Next we gobbled down some delicious beef noodle soup!

The next day we had a gorgeous bike ride around Xian’s ancient city walls, which were built in the 14th Century and form one of the best-preserved fortresses in the world. After earning our treat, we had a walk through the Great Tang All Day Mall and celebrated with Popsicles and BBQ. This is a market of which we all approved!

After Xian we flew to Shanghai and got to visit the historic and beautiful Zhujiajiao village. We felt like we stepped back in time! We had a canal cruise, did a little shopping (of course) and went to see a historic mansion with traditional Chinese gardens.

Shanghai was absolutely our favorite city in mainland China, with a gorgeous skyline and metropolitan atmosphere. As discussed, we love cities. We walked along the river and had a fabulous dinner before enjoying one of THE most bizarre and fantastic shows we’d ever seen: The Amazing Acrobats of Shanghai. We will never be able to see another acrobat show again.

The following day the boys and girls separated, and the boys took a tour of the mind blowing Shanghai port. Afterwards we all flew to our last stop (WHEW) Beijing.

The next day was a highlight and it started with Tian’anmen Square. According to our official guide it is “the largest city square in the world” (it is actually only one of the top 10) “and the spiritual heart of China, where the national flag is raised exactly at sunrise every day.” Of course, what isn’t mentioned in the paraphernalia is that this square is infamous for the horrendous massacre of protestors in 1989. Troops with automatic rifles and tanks killed hundreds of demonstrators who were trying to block the military’s advance to the square (where a student protest was happening).

Today, Tian’anmen is a heavily regulated area and indicative of Chinese policy in general. Before entry, visitors and their belongings are searched and IDs checked. Protests are strictly forbidden, and discussion of the massacre nonexistent. Furthermore, in the 70s the square held ginormous portraits of 6 dictators (including Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and Joseph Stalin), but upon the death of Mao Sedong (founding father of the People’s Republic of China) the other portraits were removed and only his remains. Don’t worry, the other portraits are still brought out in a parade around the square on Labor Day and National Day.

For all its dark past, Tian’anmen Square allows entrance to one of the coolest places in China: The Forbidden City. The Forbidden City is a palace complex in Central Beijing and housed the imperial palace from 1420-1912. Now, it is a Palace Museum and provides an excellent snapshot of gorgeous Chinese architecture, artwork, and artefacts. Our personal favorite was the Hall of Clocks, a display of 200 clocks and watches from the imperial collection.

Forbidden City China

Last stop for the day, we visited the Temple of Heaven, a complex of religious buildings that was visited yearly by emperors to ensure a good harvest.

Ok. Now for the part we’ve all been waiting for. The famous symbol of China, an architectural wonder of the world, stretching 6,700 km and over 2,000 years old: The Great Wall of China.

The wall was constructed over many different dynasties to protect the ever-changing empire borders. The most extensive and modern construction occurred as recently as the 14th Century. Effectiveness of the wall varied, and our guide informed us that bribery decreased the walls success. Unfortunately, with the invention of air invasion, the wall was largely unproductive in modern era. That said, it is magnificent to see.

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You can see some of the family VERY small in this picture!

Though it can’t be seen from the moon (common misconception), it can be seen from space at a low orbit when the conditions are right.

Maybe one of our favorite parts was the ride down. Take a look.

To get to the wall we enjoyed the Sacred Path, which is lined with animals, mystical beasts and officials who serve the emperor in his afterlife. Sitting emperors perform rituals there for the ancestors once a year.

Our last stop in China was one of our favorites: The Summer Palace. This was an imperial summer resort of the Qing Dynasty and it has gorgeous grounds that are the recognized as the most splendid classical gardens of China. The incredible decoration on the buildings made us constantly look up, and we loved finishing our trip with such a gorgeous example of Chinese art. Our only complaint was that we visited on a holiday so we felt like all of China was there with us! One thing is for sure: China has a LOT of people!

So ended our blitz through China, and if you’re tired from reading it you can imagine how tired we were for doing it! The only answer: a blissful vacation to Bali.

Singapore - Welcome to the Future

Singapore is like stepping into the an episode of the Jetsons.  It's unlike any other place we’ve ever been, and it stands in juxtaposition to all other countries in SE Asia with its cleanliness, efficiency, and economy.  Needless to say, the nerds in us loved this place.

A quick back-story—Singapore was a British colony until granted independence shortly after World War II.  Unfortunately, the war had destroyed its infrastructure and the country was a mess.  The government merged with Malaysia in an attempt to get balance and upswing, but the two governments disagreed on huge amounts of policy.  The result was a vote in 1965 by the Malaysian Parliament to kick Singapore out of the club .  What happened next defies all normal standards.

Singapore was left with no economy, infrastructure, or organization of any kind.  A family friend, who has lived through Singapore’s tumultuous 50 years, describes the Prime Minister’s speech as saying “We are on our own.”  The government’s first stroke of brilliance was allowing the British forces to stay on the island at their base, therefore protecting the island from invasion.  With safety guaranteed, they fixated on economy.  To oversimplify, the government focused on making Singapore the ideal place to invest.  In the span of a single generation, Singapore moved from a third-world economy to first-world affluence.  Today, it is an international hub of commerce, finance, and transportation with the 3rd highest GDP per capita in the world. 

There is nowhere else like it.  The taxi drivers beam with pride when speaking of Singapore’s technology sector.  It’s illegal to chew gum or spit in the street (after going to the rest of SE Asia, we understand why…).  The Botanical Gardens alone are a testament to scientific achievement and advancement. 

Unfortunately it’s also expensive, so we were back on the hostel route so we could focus on activities.  First up was a walk around to get our bearings and admire the gorgeous architecture.  WOW.  Next we hit up a Blakely delight—the Gardens by the Bay.  Gardens by the Bay is a national park spanning 350 acres and is part of the strategy to transform Singapore into a “Garden City.”  The Gardens consist of three waterfront gardens that each showcase different flora and fauna.  They hold conservatories, themed gardens, a flower dome, children’s garden, and on and on. 

Singapore Skyline
Singapore skyline
Gardens by the bay
Gardens by the Bay
Gardens by the bay
Gardens by the bay
Gardens by the bay
Garden by the Bay
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The Supertrees deserve their own entry—they are vertical gardens for unique and exotic ferns, vines, and orchids.  They are outfitted with technology that mimics the function of trees—harnessing solar energy, rainwater, and even serving as part of the conservatories’ cooling system through intake and exhaust functions.  So.  Cool.  As if that isn’t enough, at night there is a music show called the OCBC Garden Rhapsody, and when we went it was Broadway themed.  Blakely’s heaven realized.

Supertrees
Supertrees
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Supertree Night Performance

In a world of juxtaposition, it somehow fits that besides efficiency, cleanliness, and economy, Singapore is known for its street food.  Our two favorite places were the Singapore Food Trail and the Maxwell Food Hawkers.  Absolutely delicious.

Maxwell Food Hawkers
Hawkers Food

To complete our garden tour, we headed to the famed Botanical Gardens, which holds the world-renowned Orchid Garden.  Of course, being Singapore, this isn’t merely a garden, but an opportunity for botanists and scientists to mix super-orchids.  Then, the PR team comes in to dedicate each unique orchid to a world celebrity.  Brilliant.  We even went back later for a picnic and performance by the orchestra!

Singapore Botanical Garden
Singapore Garden
Singapore Orchid Garden
VIP orchid garden
Singapore Orchid Garden
Singapore Orchid
Singapore Orchid Garden
Singapore Orchid Garden
Singapore botanical gardens

The last nature activity we recommend is a MUST: The Singapore Zoo.  You’ve likely been to zoos before, but none like this.  The cleanliness, organization, and range of animals are of course incredible.  But feeding the giraffes stands as a highlight of our entire trip.  Their purple tongues are huge and it was such a surreal experience (in a trip of many surreal experiences).

Feed Giraffe
Giraffe tongue
Feed Giraffe Singapore Zoo
Giraffe Tongue

When this next museum was recommended to us, we were a little skeptical.  However, it’s no exaggeration to say it was one of the most fascinating we’ve ever been to.  The Singapore City Gallery is a museum dedicated to Singapore’s development over the past 50 years (sounds like a snooze fest, but trust us).  Full of interactive exhibits and even an enormous model replica of the country, we never expected a development museum to be so cool.  Living in New York has given us a huge respect for city planning and efficiencies, and learning more about Singapore was invaluable in understanding its uniqueness.  The museum is an absolute must.

Singapore City Museum
Singapore skyline
Singapore Skyline

We didn’t only tour and nerd out—one night we dressed up and headed to swanky cocktails at Mischief and the fabulous Marina Bay Sands casino for a taste of how Asians gamble.  VERY bizarre experience.

Marina Bay Sands Casino

Gambling is HUGE in Asia, where luck and superstitions are constantly considered when making everyday choices.   Even casinos in the U.S. have caught on and market heavily to Asian tourists as well as provide food and entertainment to interest them.  But this Singapore casino was far from the Vegas experience—no smiles, no loud voices, and we were the only ones we could see drinking.  The blackjack dealers don’t give advice based how close you are to 21, but how lucky the numbers are that you’ve been dealt.  The patrons took their gambling seriously, and it was clear that this was not a game to them.

Our last favorite was one of luxury, and cheating on the roughing it theme of our adventure.  But when spending 12 months in transit through foreign lands, these breaks become necessary.  We treated ourselves to a full American diner dinner, a walk around one of the gorgeous luxury malls, and a full movie in blissful air condition.  Worth the cheat night.

Singapore Luxury Mall
Singapore American Dinner
Singapore American Dinner

This break was especially necessary because of where we headed next.  Continuing our current theme of contrasts, we headed to a country that is possibly Singapore’s opposite:  India. 

Bolivia - Our Quest to the Salt Flats

This is the tale of our quest to see the spectacular Bolivian Salt Flats.  And yes, it was a quest.  Renowned around the world for their striking beauty, it’s a testament to their draw that so many travel so far to see them.  They are in the MIDDLE of nowhere.  No, not even the middle.  They are in the outskirts of nowhere.

The adventure starts in San Pedro de Atacama, which is a desert town that bears a striking resemblance to a Wild West movie set.  The town’s main claim to greatness is that it has a combination of high altitude and dry air, which makes it the perfect star gazing spot.  This past Spring, San Pedro de Atacama became home to the world’s largest astronomy observatory, which allows scientists to probe deeper into outer space than ever before.  Nerd’s delight.  

We took a tour of the night sky by SPACE Star Tours which has the largest telescopes in South America and wonderfully entertaining guides.  Words fail when it comes to the wonder that is outer space.  Our awe at our galaxy, and the galaxies beyond, is as indefinable as the limits of space itself.

They even had a photography telescope so Blakely was able to snap this picture of the half-moon!

HUGE telescopes to see CRAZY things!

The other main activity in San Pedro was obviously planning our next step in the adventure to see the salt flats.  None of the companies will book online, so you have to book in person, and the travel reviews range from fantastic to positively terrifying.  We did our research in San Pedro before booking our transfer, and thankfully, there is a wonderful tourism office that helped enormously. 

We took a day-long transfer in a very dusty car up to Uyuni, Bolivia.  We thought San Pedro was a tiny town, until we drove through the dusty roads leading to Uyuni where there isn’t a sign of street names or human life in sight.  We realized this is officially off the beaten path.  Thankfully the scenery is as breathtaking as the roads are bumpy.

In Uyuni we stayed at a simple hotel called Oasisa Blanco and it paid for itself in its recommendation of a reliable tour company for the salt flats.  We walked around the dusty town negotiating and finally booking our tour for the next day.  It is hard to imagine any place being worth the time and (butt) pain it took to get here, but we would soon be able to decide for ourselves.

The salt flats.  An area twice the size of Rhode Island, this natural phenomenon beats all others.  It doesn’t make any sense to me, but here is the scientific explanation of how on Earth this is even possible:

So, about 40,000 years ago (!), there was a large lake where the salt flats are today.  Over the next 20,000 years, the lake transformed and eventually evaporated, leaving behind all of its salt content. Even today, water sits just under the salt layer, which ranges from 10s of inches to a few meters.  As the water under the salt continues to evaporate, it causes these crazy hexagonal shapes in the salt, which continue as far as you can see.  The entire area (which covers a crazy 4,086 square miles) is exceptionally flat and only varies one meter in altitude.  But then in contrast, the surrounding Andes Mountains explode out of the Earth.  It is THE craziest natural phenomenon we’ve ever seen.

Oh, the flats also serve as a breeding ground for several species of flamingos.  Yes, seriously. 

The breathtaking terrain also serves as a dream opportunity for cheesy photo enthusiasts.  In our group we had some VERY enthusiastic participants, and we obviously couldn’t resist some of the gimmicks. 

During certain times of the year, large portions of the flats flood and create a beautiful reflective surface.  We made it for the very beginning of the season so a small portion of the flat was flooded and served as a backdrop for the most spectacular sunset you can imagine.

Yes, the ridiculously difficult trip to get to the salt flats was very worth it (and that’s saying something).  It is a place that can only be described as otherworldly.  Our trip has been full of natural wonders, but this one is by far the most unique.

Chilean Adventure

Chile is a fantastic country that is full of every type of attraction, fascination, and even contradiction (HOW is Chile so skinny, while making us so fat?).  It’s a fascinating place, with incredibly warm people, and we loved it so much that we came twice!  Our first trip was in the south to Patagonia, but we couldn’t resist all that the rest of Chile had to offer.

We crossed through the Andes to get to Chile and there were some pretty tight turns along the way!

Our first stop was also one of our favorites.  It’s a small city called Valparaiso that is unlike any place we’d been before.  Valparaiso was a major port town until the Panama Canal made it obsolete.  As its citizens abandoned the town and over time artists moved in and took over.  What they’ve built is magical. 

Imagine a hilly port town covered in graffiti.  Sounds awful, huh?  Now, instead of the amateur graffiti most cities deal in, imagine gorgeous, large-scale art murals covering all of the walls and buildings.  The murals differ hugely in style, color and size, and yet somehow they blend together to create a magical place where, around every cobble-stoned corner, a new adventure awaits.

Valparaiso, Chile

We stayed in ViaVia Boutique Hotel, which, besides being a charming lodging, is home to the famous ViaVia Café.  It was a delight from start to finish, and between the great room, delicious food and fun atmosphere, we never wanted to leave.

We took a walking tour around Valparaiso with “Tours for Tips,” our absolutely favorite tour company in South America.  They operate with volunteer guides, who are young, energetic and knowledgeable.  We’ve loved every tour we’ve taken with them.

Though we hated to leave Valparaiso, leave me must.  Next, we spent a brief two days in fabulous Santiago, where we enjoyed another tour from Tours for Tips.  Their walking tours are such a fun way to get acclimated in a new place and learn history at the same time.

Santiago has some incredible murals of their own!

Santiago even has art in their Subway stations.

In Santiago, we stayed at an awesome guesthouse called Hostel Amazonas Riveras.  A redone Tudor mansion, it has tons of ambience and clean simple rooms.  Plus, they were great help with activities and transfers. 

After Santiago we flew to North Chile to enjoy our favorite: Adventure.  

Jerusalem

Many call Jerusalem the center of the world, and it’s hard to argue since all eyes seem to be trained on it.  The city is wonderfully modern and fairly safe—a first for us since Cape Town and definitely a relief.  The Old City, separated from the rest of Jerusalem by beautiful limestone walls, holds more awe-inspiring attractions than any other place in the world.  

The Old City is divided into four quarters:  The Muslim Quarter, Christian Quarter, Jewish Quarter, and Armenian Quarter.  The ancient, cobblestoned streets wind through a fairly small place that holds precious places for three major religions.  It’s not difficult to see how complicated the city would be to regulate.

We started our time in Jerusalem our favorite way: a bike tour (was a whiter sentence ever said?)!  But not any bike tour, a sunrise bike tour!  The tour’s early hours allow access to crowd-free sights and streets in both the Old City and modern city.  It was the perfect introduction and gave us an appreciation for the wonders in store for us.  At one point, we were standing over where the Last Supper occurred, beside the building that holds King David’s tomb, looking out over a sunrise on the Mount of Olives, with the Dome of the Rock and Temple Mount to our left!    

We continued our first day with an afternoon tour of the Old City from Tours for Tips.  WOW again!  The brief introduction (two-hours was NOT enough!) only reiterated that we needed to get busy!

It was Ryan's birthday and his parents gave us a special treat: Dinner at Notre Dame of Jerusalem, which has a rooftop cheese and wine restaurant that overlooks the Old City.  It was a feast!

The next day, we took a quick day trip to Bethlehem.  Bethlehem is in the West Bank, a Palestinian territory, so we weren’t sure what to expect (again, we were here during a time of increased tension).  While we never felt threatened, we did have to pass through a guard station to get into the area.  We felt grateful that we could pass in and out of the territory freely, while this is much more difficult for others.  Plus, the streets of Bethlehem were eerily quiet and empty, as their tourism has been affected greatly while people worry about the clashes between Jews and Palestinians.

Bethlehem is a quiet city with stone streets that haven’t changed since Mary and Joseph first arrived on the scene.  It was a marvel to walk where they would’ve walked!  

The Church of the Nativity is built over the stable where Jesus was born.  Unfortunately the church was under restoration construction, but we were still able to glimpse the beauty behind the tarps.  History tells us that the stable where Jesus was born was actually more of a cave that would be under the main house.  We were able to go down into the cave where the altars hardly conceal the humble beginning of God’s son. 

The cave was divided amongst the Catholic priests in one corner, the Greek Orthodox in another section, and the Armenians in a third section.  Each denomination’s territory had strict property lines and hours of operation.  While hundreds of people line up, the Armenians performed communion before the cave opened.  Then, the cave wasn’t open thirty minutes before the Catholic priests closed it to hold a private communion.  The hundreds of people waiting would just have to wait a bit longer.  I heard many tour guides explain to their groups how viciously each denomination fought for dominion over territory.  It was a mess and a disgrace.  This is the face we show the world?  We have no excuse to fight amongst ourselves like this, but we tried to not let this detract from standing in the place Jesus was born.

Anyway, after our short trip to Bethlehem we headed to Jerusalem’s fabulous street market for our favorite activity: picnic preparation.  The selection was amazing—blueberry walnut bread (that tastes fantastic, by the by), cheese of every type (including a truffle honey situation we couldn’t afford), and an Israeli wine we dared to try. Whether in Central Park or Jerusalem, these are all of the ingredients for a fantastic picnic.

After our picnic we went to the world class Israeli museum.  WOW.  It has more artifacts than could be imagined on its well organized and laid out grounds.  Everything we could’ve wanted!

Blakely with a model of the Second Temple and the Holy City before the Roman destruction in 66 A.D.

Among many other things, this one museum holds the Venus Berekhat Ram (the oldest artwork in the world dating back to at least 230,000BC), a world-class Fine Arts Wing, and an Archeological Wing that literally tells the story of the world.  No biggy.  But main event for us?  The Shrine of the Book.

The Shrine of the Book holds the famous Dead Sea Scrolls, which contain the oldest biblical scrolls in the world.  These scrolls date back from 300 B.C. and into 1 A.D.  While pictures weren't allowed inside the vault, we can tell you this: they had better handwriting than us.

The vault entrance.

The next day was the main event: A tour of the holy sites of Jerusalem.  Get ready!

Check out the full Israel Gallery here.

Our Road trip through Jordan

Jordan shouldn't exist the way it does.  It shares borders with some of the craziest countries in the news: Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Syria.  And yet it handles the refugees and violence at every border with patience, and sometimes even a dry sense of humor.  It has a peaceful monarch who the Jordanian people love, who handles matters of state responsibly and is a leader who foreign governments respect.  In all, it’s the perfect halfway mark in our Middle Eastern tour.

First thing we loved: the roads are safe and well organized.  As you drive, there are security stops every half hour with armed guards in impeccable uniforms.  They check your passport, and when they hand it back, they smile and say, “Welcome to Jordan.”  Why, thank you!

In celebration of these great conditions, we rented a car and explored to our heart’s delight.  We skipped the capital city Amman for the smaller and more interesting Madaba.  We stayed with the charming and incredibly helpful Chef Odeh at The Black Iris Hotel.  Odeh knows everything you need to do and he can organize the perfect itinerary.  Along with being a fabulous shopping spot (which we’ll get to later!), Madaba prides itself on the peaceful relations between its large Christian population and Muslim population.  Lastly, Madaba’s central location makes it the best jumping off point for the country’s top sights!

First up:  The Wadi Mujib Siq, which has a fun hour-long hike up-river to a waterfall.  As you scramble over rocks and swim through pools, crane your neck up to the towering siq walls around you.

Next, we headed to the famed Dead Sea.  Whether the water and mud actually have any healing powers is up for discussion.  We certainly didn’t feel anything but dehydrated (though Ryan claimed fluency in Gaelic, the effects wore off).  Regardless, the Dead Sea can’t be missed and the buoyancy you feel while swimming is remarkable.  Warning:  Avoid the floating Russian tourists that soak for hours.

Fact: The Dead Sea is Dying.

After our float, we went to Mount Nebo which is where Moses looked upon the Promised Land for the first time.  After standing on top, it makes perfect sense.  The dry air allows sight over great distances to create a remarkable and humbling vista.  Mount Nebo is also where Moses's body was laid to rest (though the exact location of his body is unknown).

Our last sight was in Madaba proper—it’s the Church of St. George, which has a gorgeous mosaic floor that is a map from 600 A.D.  It is the oldest original map of the Holy Land and its depiction of Jerusalem is especially impressive. 

We moved on from Madaba for the main attraction: Petra.  On the way, we drove along the beautiful King’s Highway and we stopped at the impressive Kerak Castle, which was a Crusader fortress in the 1100s.  It’s one of the largest castles in the Middle East and so much fun to explore!  The views aren’t too bad either…

Finally, we made it to Petra.  Blakely treated herself to a cooking class with Petra Kitchen on our first night.  It was a blast.  The food was delicious, the chefs were entertaining, the other guests fun, and the atmosphere warm. 

In Petra, we stayed with wonderful and kind host Mosleh at his creatively named hotel, Cleopetra.  The rooms are simple and clean, but what makes this place exceptional is the host.  Mosleh is exactly what you want in a host and we’re so grateful to have met him!

Petra is a huge park full of ancient tombs.  “The Treasury” is the most iconic building, though by no means the only highlight.  But before you can even enter Petra, you must pass through the siq entrance that leads you through a natural, twenty-minute build up to the highlight.  Then, around a rock crevice, you see it.  A gorgeous façade carved into rose-gold rock. 

Exploring Petra is an all day affair (two or more days if you’re lucky).  Start your days early and enjoy when the crowds disperse after the Treasury.  It’s as if you’re discovering the ancient city on your own!

Our favorite was the hike to the Monastery.  The steep, 45-minute climb was well-worth it!  It is magnificent!

After Petra, we drove to Wadi Rum.  We partnered with Rum Stars and the owner Ahmed treated us more as honored guests than clients!  We explored the desert in the day and hiked, climbed, and even sand boarded through the gorgeous terrain.  We had no idea deserts could be so beautiful, or so fun!

Picture from the top!

Almost made it!

Victory!

After our day exploring, we spent the night at the Rum Stars Bedouin Camp.  We enjoyed a traditional Jordanian feast (where the food is buried with a fire beneath the sand for hours until it is tender and delicious!), we snuggled into one of Ahmed's cozy Bedouin tents for a well-deserved night rest.  Who knew a desert could treat us so well!

Our last night in Jordan, we headed back to visit Chef Odeh in Madaba where we had a couple more things to check off our list.  Not sites this time, these attractions were purely commercial.  By recommendation, we headed to Yosef’s Shop around the corner.  Yosef partners with the women in neighboring villages to produce hand-made textiles in different local styles.  Not only is Yosef fascinating to talk with (our shopping excursion quickly turned into a coffee treat), he provides employment to hundreds of women, and promotes their continued tradition of weaving.

Our time in Jordan was far too short, but Israel was calling!  Next up: Nazareth!