Istanbul in Transit

Istanbul in Transit

While tentatively searching for fares in deciding whether or not to attend the World Travel Market in London last month, I came across this offer–$700 on Turkish Airlines would let me fly into London and out of Brussels on the dates I wanted. The catch? Spending a total of an extra seven hours on the plane since I had to stop in Istanbul both ways. BUT for the same price, I could choose to spend the night in Istanbul.

I was in Istanbul with John last March celebrating our twenty (!)-year anniversary. The city’s exotic charm, sensuous smells and tastes, and rich culture were the perfect setting for our weeklong kid-free romantic getaway. Boarding our Turkish Airlines flight home, we felt like we only scratched the surface and vowed to return one day. Two things in particular I wanted to see: the arms room at Topkapi and whirling dervishes.

I didn’t dream that I’d be back later that year. Alone.


True to form, I bought the tickets, then spent the next few weeks second-guessing my decision. I rarely travel alone and some well-meaning friends and relatives (OK, and maybe some CNN reporters) planted a danger bug in my ear that was hard to shake off. Was I being an irresponsible mother? As I debated changing my flight, John persuaded me to go—this is why I have never regretted marrying this man.

Here’s how I spent my 21 hours in Istanbul.

4:25 Land at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul

After a great flight gorging on Asian romantic comedies (my guilty pleasure on long flights–when I can find them) and the surprisingly decent Turkish Airlines food, I bought my visitor permit ($25), sailed through customs as only a 40-ish woman with a Belgian passport can, and hopped in a cab.

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6:00 Arrive at Premist Hotel

Twenty dollars and 20 minutes later, I arrived at Premist Hotels, a small hotel on a narrow cobblestoned street just down the hill from Sultanhamet’s famous sites, the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi.

As I checked in at the tiny dimly-lit reception area, a number of guests were settled in drinking tea and eating pastries. I struggled not to take a photo of the short-haired elderly British woman that seemed to have transported out of a Merchant and Ivory movie. She held court in a dwarfing black hooded chair sipping tea and telling a long tale of her day’s dreadful road trip that was stalled by a donkey on the road.

Energized by the tea, I rushed to my room for a quick shower before heading out into the night.

7:00 Head out on the town

A quick climb to the top of the hill from the hotel put me right where I wanted to be for my pre-dinner stroll. I stared open-mouthed at the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia lit up against the chilly evening sky.


I wasn’t in a souvenir-shopping mood (for once) but lots of shops were still open at that hour selling the ubiquitous rugs, spices, scents, and fabrics.

As I rounded the corner from the market stalls into a small square, I heard musicians playing some traditional-sounding tunes before a small crowd. That’s when I saw him. In a twirling wisp of white fabric gently spinning as though above the air itself, was a magnificent Dervish.

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9:00-ish Dinner

Just around the corner from the Premist and recommended by the concierge, Cafe Rumist specializes in pide, a flatbread pizza topped with meat, onion, or vegetables, as well as Turkish mezze and grilled meat. For less than $20, I ate enough to embarrass myself (the picture below is my appetizer).

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Early the next day…

I woke up early, had a quick breakfast (included in the $73 room price, btw) and headed out for a morning walk.

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By 8:30, I was standing on line in front of the Topkapı Sarayı ticket window, which opens at 9:00. And here’s where things would have gotten very Griswold if I hadn’t been there before and had a good game plan. The place is huge. The first time, John and I strolled around for hours visiting both the palace and the harem and still didn’t see everything (thus the repeat visit). This time, I skipped the harem, took a brisk walk around the palace, and lingered in the arms room and the treasury. I was there for an hour before heading back to the hotel to grab my luggage and a taxi.


Leave for the airport for my 1:40 flight to London

Looking out the window, before settling in to another Asian romcom fest, I vowed once again to return to this wonderful city. I would love to share it with the kids.

And look what I just found–$900 fares to Europe this summer! But here’s the catch…



Passports with Purpose 2014

Passports with Purpose 2014

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Coming back from our travels, it’s a thrill to catalogue our experiences through photos, journals, stories, and for some of us, blogs. We share stories of the colorful people we’ve met, the mountains we’ve climbed, the fabulous meals we’ve eaten. But we rarely talk about those other images that are etched in our minds.

The little girl with no shoes struggling to carry a toddler sibling who is way too heavy for her. The dried out field that promises another season of low to non-existent crops for a hungry community.

We come back wishing we could do something to help.

Passports with Purpose (PWP) was founded by travel bloggers to do just that. We’re proud to partner with them for the third year to make a difference in the world we love to roam around. We believe that our collective power as a traveling community (and that includes you!) can make a difference.

This year, PWP will be addressing the serious issue of malnutrition in Honduras.


Teach a man to fish…

What we love about this year’s project is its long-term sustainability and impact. Our partner, Sustainable Harvest International, is helping curb malnutrition in Central America by teaching communities to plant organic vegetable gardens and fruit trees and build fish ponds and chicken coops, while protecting the environment.

How you can help

For just $10 you can make a donation to directly support SHI’s work in Honduras. For every donation you make, you can enter to win a prize.

Wait, there’s are prizes?!

Yep. And ours is a doozie.

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Hershey, Pennsylvania, one of my family’s very favorite East Coast destinations, is sponsoring an incredible family weekend, including a two-night stay, admission for four to Hershey Story, the Antique Auto Museum, the Pennsylvania National Fire Museum, and more. PLUS a $100 gift card that can be used for admission to Hershey Park. In other words, the perfect family getaway.

And this prize is just one of dozens contributed by travel bloggers and their corporate partners. Take a look at the prize catalog and make a donation for a chance to win.

Good luck! And if you win, please let us know about your trip. We’d love to hear all about it.

A heartfelt thanks to our friends at Visit Hershey & Harrisburg for donating this amazing prize and to Passports with Purpose for their dedication to helping bloggers and their partners make a difference in the world.


Hotels in Raleigh, NC

Rated America’s fastest growing city by Forbes, Raleigh increasingly is spreading out. Keeping in mind that Raleigh is part of the even bigger (and growing) Research Triangle that encompasses nearby Chapel Hill and Durham, the distances become even greater. To get a feel of what Raleigh has to offer, and enjoy some time outside of your car, consider booking a downtown hotel.

Raleigh has a surprisingly good (and green) transportation system, and the Capital Area Transit system will take you just about anywhere you need to go in the downtown area. Here are our top picks for downtown area hotels, depending on your preferences.


Holiday Inn Raleigh Downtown – Capital

Originally built in 1969, this recently remodeled hotel has an exterior that definitely exudes a retro flavor. The huge, round tower is a dead ringer for Los Angeles’ iconic Capitol Studios. Rooms have a reasonable price. Try to get a room on one of the top floors for a spectacular view of downtown Raleigh and beyond.


The Carolina Inn

If you’re looking for that southern charm, you can’t go wrong with the Carolina Inn. Built in 1924, it sits near North Carolina State University, and you will see many of the students’ relatives there on parent weekends. The hotel has a decidedly traditional style, filled with antique furniture and artwork. The property is part of the Five Star Alliance.


Sheraton Raleigh Hotel

A recent renovation has freshened up this convenient hotel. It has everything you expect from a business hotel, including convenience to the convention center, and a lovely heated indoor pool and fitness center.

Hampton Inn & Suites Raleigh Downtown

If you’re traveling with kids and you’re not a fan of retiring to bed at 8 p.m., having a suite can make or break your hotel stay. The Hampton Inn is a great option since it not only offers the space you need, but has an indoor pool to tire the little ones out before bedtime.


DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Raleigh – Brownstone – University

A recent renovation has put some modern flair into the DoubleTree’s design with an expanded lobby and bright furnishings. Their junior suites are a great option for families or groups of friends traveling together. Each suite has a private balcony. But really, with free cookies at check-in, none of that matters.


Although Raleigh spreads out, it is possible to stay in the middle of the action and get around using public transportation and the occasional taxi. You won’t want to miss some of the outstanding cultural offering, including the North Carolina Museum of Art and outstanding local theaters such as the Raleigh Little Theatre, one of the oldest in the country.

This post is part of the #HipmunkCityLove campaign by Hipmunk.

Raleigh: A Big City Getting Bigger

Recently rated the fastest growing city in the U.S. by Forbes, Raleigh is known mostly for new construction, urban sprawl, and general lack of personality. But scratch below the newly-built surface and you’ll find a city with a vibrant arts scene, live music, and homegrown brews.

The Visual Art Scene

The North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) is the one of the leading art museums in the American south. Its collection spans over 5,000 years of world art. The museum’s 160-acre outdoor Museum Park is a great place to see some unusual oversized sculptures and enjoy a picnic, especially nice if you’re traveling with kids. The museum offers free admission to its permanent collections.

If smaller art galleries are more your speed, make sure you visit ArtSpace at City Market, a gallery space with a chic industrial look. In addition to the six or so changing gallery exhibits, there are activities for every age group, from art classes to special events.

Local Brews

Chatting with folks over a pint of home-town brew is a great way to get to know the locals while you travel. Raleigh has lots to choose from. A good option is a visit to the taproom at Raleigh Brewing Company, North Carolina’s first female-owned brewery. If you’re looking for more danger in your beer, try the Lonerider, which serves up some tasty brews with names like Shotgun Betty, Peacemaker, and Most Wanted.

Maybe you’d like a gourmet burger with that ale? Take a short drive to nearby Durham, and Bull City Burger and Brewery will hook you up. Everything on the menu is made from scratch, including the pickles, the buns, and even the hot dogs.

Live Theater

You can catch a traveling Broadway show at the gleaming North Carolina Theatre, but if you want to see local talent in a more intimate setting, try one of Raleigh’s smaller live theater venues. Raleigh Little Theatre is one of the oldest community theaters in the country and stages about a dozen shows a year. If you’re there in the spring or summer, make sure to visit their enchanting rose garden.

A bit on the edgier side, the acclaimed Burning Coal Theatre Co tends to perform modern plays or overlooked classics. Located in a former armory building on the edge of Pullen Park, the Theatre in the Park performs a mix of original productions and beloved classics.


North Carolina has a rich bluegrass tradition, and Raleigh is no exception. From days-long festivals to intimate shows, you will most likely be able to catch a show during your visit. Irregardless Café has live music and dinner service nightly, including lots of bluegrass shows. The city is also host to a number of bluegrass festivals, including the mammoth international Wide Open Bluegrass Festival, which draws over 140,000 people annually. If you’re traveling during the Festival, make sure you book your hotel room far in advance.

You don’t have to go far to find local flavor and personality in Raleigh, a town that is buzzing with newness and growing larger by the minute.

This post was created as part of Hipmunk’s #HipmunkCityLove project.

Bookalokal: Local Dining Adventures with a Global Twist

Bookalokal: Local Dining Adventures with a Global Twist

We glanced at each other as we waited for the elevator door to close in a nondescript apartment building in Adams Morgan. “Are you going to the dinner?” I said tentatively, though I already guessed the answer. “Yes, I think it’s on the sixth floor,” she replied.

We were greeted at the door by one or our two hosts, Jackie, who immediately offered to make us a caipirinha, a Brazilian drink made of cachaça (sugar cane liquor), fresh limes and lots and lots of sugar. While Jackie greeted and chatted up arriving guests—there were about a dozen—Vanessa was cooking up a storm in the open kitchen, over pots of steaming stew, sizzling greens, and cheese pastries.

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There’s been a lot of buzz about these sorts of dinners, home cooked meals in a stranger’s house. Bookalokal started in Brussels (IKR) just a year and a half ago and they have recently expanded to DC.

The concept is simple. A host posts a profile and a description of their dinner, members sign up and pay online (most meals cost around $20). And voila. You have dinner plans. But Bookalokal gives you much more than that. It gives you the chance to:

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Discover a new cuisine. I’d never had Brazilian food or drinks before, although I have a host of never-before-met relatives living in Brazil. Feijoada is a stew made of beans, pork, and beef. It was served with fresh collard greens and light-as-air traditional cheese buns. Bookalokal hosts come from a variety of backgrounds and include some professional chefs.

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Discover a new neighborhood. Okay, so for us, it’s wasn’t really a new neighborhood but rather rediscovering an old favorite. John and I lived in Adams Morgan right after college and it was fun to walk down memory lane. Bookalokal has events in all different parts of the city, including some closer to our neck of the woods.


Get out of your social comfort zone. There is nothing uncool about living in the suburbs, driving three boys around in a minivan, and writing from home in your pajamas. Obviously. But every once in a while, it’s good to get out there and mingle. With other people. That you are not related to. I bonded with a woman who had lived in Eritrea as a teen (I lived in Ethiopia at the same age) and chatted with a woman who had just moved to DC from Haiti, where she worked with refugees.

Plan a trip. While I was sitting on the living room couch getting some excellent tips for my upcoming London trip from a woman who had spent eight years living there, I couldn’t help but overhear a similar conversation going on next to me. My couch neighbor, who has relatives in Portugal, was sharing travel advice with someone who was planning his trip to Lisbon. To say that this group was well-traveled would be an understatement.

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Learn a cooking trick or two. I loved that the kitchen was open and I got to watch Vanessa as she prepared our meal. I’m not saying I could replicate it tomorrow—she obviously has a practiced hand—but watching the process makes it at least feasible. I did learn how to make a mean caipirinha.

Bookalokal is a great alternative to a traditional restaurant meal. It’s a cultural experience, from the food to the fellow guests.

Ukes Galore

Ukes Galore

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I have always liked ukuleles. I personally own three, including a ukulele sized banjo that is tuned like a ukulele; a banjolele, if you will. On the back of it is a sticker for the company, the Magic Fluke. I looked into the company , and they make 3 different types of ukuleles (and most recently a violin): the Firefly, the banjo, the Fluke, a uke with a triangular body, and the Flea, very similar to a classic pineapple uke but with a flat bottom. Another thing I found out was that their headquarters and factory were in Sheffield, Massachusetts. I had to go there.

A few years after I got my banjolele, my family was going through New England on our way to Maine. Before the trip I had realized what was in New England and asked to stop at The Magic Fluke. On the outside it looked like just a big farm mansion, common in Massachusetts. Before we go in let me explain a bit about ukuleles. Ukuleles (yook-oo-ley-lee), (ook-oo-la-ley) are Hawaiian instrument, similar to a small guitar. Unlike a guitar they have only 4 strings, strung G C E A. Ukes are fairly easy to play, leaving most people thinking you can only play simple chords on them. Of course, this is completely wrong and anyone who’s ever heard Jake Shimubukuro, the best ukulelist in the world, knows it.

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Anyway, back to the Magic Fluke, as you enter the house you immediately notice the giant 10 foot tall ukulele in the corner. The front room is covered in ukulele posters and flyers for music festivals. It’s kind of like a bulletin board at the back of a coffee shop; cluttered with flyers and posters but somehow neat, except it’s all ukulele themed.

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Along the walls of a long, wide hallway there are Flukes, Fleas, and Fireflies with every design on them from moons to spider webs, from tikis to cogs and gears, from pineapples to cowboys. There are even a few Cricket violins. The best part about it is the people there let you play any instrument you like. They also have all kinds of ukulele accessories, like shakers, stands, straps, tuning pegs, tuners, kazoos, and all sorts of other things. They have posters telling the history of ukuleles, which is surprisingly interesting.

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This is not only a store but also the factory. We asked the extremely nice staff to give us a tour around the factory. It looked like if Santa’s workshop specialized in ukuleles. A guy showed us all the printing machines and laser inscribers for the designs. The crew of about three were hand making everything and it did not feel at all like a factory. There were racks of unfinished ukuleles and all kinds of prototypes. They seem very satisfied with their jobs, since they’re allowed to make pretty much any ukuleles they want. They even let us try out their attempts at an electric banjolele. It was a good place for a uker.

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(At age 12, Jacques is our youngest guest blogger to date. Besides playing ukulele, he enjoys riding his bike, swimming, rock-climbing, and making claymation videos featuring a pickle named Dill).

The Magic Fluke is located in Sheffield, MA, and is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.  Stop by to see the factory at work and browse the retail hallway. They have several instruments available to play and purchase (firsts and seconds), as well as an extensive selection of ukulele songbooks and accessories.