Konnichiwa!

As always, I’ve put off posting for ages and now I have all kinds of stuff to post…. But for now, I am just here to introduce you to our new life in Okinawa, Japan!  We arrived on island about three and half months ago as the heat and humidity of the summer was starting to let up (mind you, it was still almost 90 degrees and like walking through a cloud of mist anytime you walked outside).  We ended up being able to live off base, which we are thrilled about, despite the fact that our house is even tinier than our house off base in England.  With lots of yummy restaurants and several beaches within a 2 mile radius, I’m happy to report we are surviving 😉

B started work almost immediately, and before we left England, I had been picked up for a fourth grade teaching position at a school on base.  I was not able to start working until the end of September, but since then, I have been beyond busy with lesson plans, teaching, and of course, exploring our new home.  I know we have only scratched the surface of Okinawa, but here are a few of our favorite things to do so far….

  1.  Beaches (DUH!):  Okinawa is a subtropical/tropical island covered with amazing beaches!  I was honestly a little nervous that our kiddos would not take to the beach and ocean well, as they were born in England, where beaches are not exactly tourist attractions.  However, they both pretty much immediately fell in love with the beach, and we typically end up at one at least once a week.

*We live about a mile from one of our favorite beaches, Toguchi Beach.  We end up here often, as it has an awesome little playground for the kiddos, a walkway by the beach that is great for bike-riding, and breath-taking sunsets!

 

*Another fantastic beach nearby is Torii Beach, located on one of the many military bases here.  We ended up there during one of their summer days festivals and had a great time.  There is a splash pad for the littles, water sport rentals, food, and again, a beautiful stretch of beach!

41869866_10160776954100632_7225236685343162368_n

*We also enjoy strolling along the seawall in various parts of the island.  The kiddos love the water, finding shells, and just hearing the waves on the beach.  We truly live in paradise!

 

2.  FOOD!  Y’all.  The food here is AH.MAAA.ZING. I personally love the ramen, but we have enjoyed everything from ramen to pancakes to burgers to pizza to ice cream. We have yet to be seriously disappointed by a meal.

 

3. American Village: this little area is such a fun place to wander.  It is full of little shops, restaurants, and of course, my kids’ favorite, the ferris wheel!  I love the colorful buildings, views along the seawall, and the fun, energetic vibes. Also, there is a store devoted entirely to Christmas…Oki knows the way to my heart!

 

4. Okinawa Aquarium Churaumi: this aquarium is about an hour and a half from our house, and is amazing (that’s saying a lot coming from me, as I lived in Georgia near the fantastic Georgia Aquarium!).  We’ve only been once so far, but we were so happy with the experience we purchased a year pass so we can visit whenever we want!

 

5.  Southeast Botanical Gardens: this cool little place is right around the corner, and currently has a dazzling display of Christmas lights.  Again, we have only been once, to see the Christmas lights, but plan on visiting again, as I’ve heard there are lots of fun things to do during the day too!

 

 

Needless to say, we are certainly enjoying our new home, though there are definitely things we miss about England (can someone please just build a Sainsbury’s here?).  I am definitely loving the mid-70 degree weather in December, though anything below 75 is beginning to feel chilly!  We can’t wait to continue exploring our island, as well as the rest of Asia–we already are planning a trip to mainland Japan in the spring to see the cherry blossoms and experience some of the rich culture there!  Hopefully I can be better at keeping up with this blog, but I am definitely not promising anything 😉  I still have quite a few European trips to catch up on…

Catch y’all on the flip side–and if you’re feeling a bit chilly wherever you are in the world, our door is open to visitors 🙂

 

Non-London Fun

While I love London, it’s not the only fun thing to do near where we live in the UK.  In fact, there are tons of amazing sights and sounds all within an hour or two of our house!  Some of my favorites are listed in this post…

Cambridge

We don’t visit Cambridge nearly enough.  We are only about 30 minutes away, and the city is absolutely beautiful!  There is so much to see and do there it’s unbelievable.  One of our most favorite things that we have done though is “punting the Cam“.  The River Cam is a river that meanders through Cambridge and runs along some of the most prestigious, gorgeous colleges in England.  You can hire a chauffeur to guide you along, or try it on your own!  We went with some visitors for my birthday one year and were not disappointed- our guide was knowledgeable and humorous and we had lots of great photo ops!

Great Yarmouth

We haven’t done a lot of exploring in Great Yarmouth yet, but it is definitely a place I want to return to!  The day we visited, it was one of those rare almost-80-degree-sunny-with-no-clouds days in the UK, so it was perfect for walking around and relaxing at the beach.  It has a super boardwalk-carnival type feel, complete with rides, games, kitschy tourist shops, beach restaurants, and of course, beaches.  If you’re looking for a laid-back day during summer, this is your spot!

Duxford Air Show

Last year we went to the Duxford Air Show at the Imperial War Museum just outside of Cambridge.  They have air shows there a few times a year, and have permanent military-related exhibitions in their museum.  It was pretty chilly the day of the show, but the planes were awesome and there were lots of great food vendors and collectible kiosk shops!

Colchester Zoo

Colchester Zoo is probably one of the best zoos I have ever been to!  We went with a few other couples and their kiddos (I think there were 7 adults and 4 kids, all under 4-years-old).  All of the kids {and all of us adults} had a great time!  There were tons of animals to see; Benjamin especially loved the penguins!  We went in the spring and the weather was pretty good so lots of animals were out and about.

For the past year we have had an English Heritage pass, giving us free or discounted access to many historic English buildings, monuments, and other sites.  Some are fairly close to where we live and provide a nice afternoon out:

Audley End House

The Audley End estate is huge and beautiful!  There is a lot to see and do there- you can wander through parts of the decadent mansion, check out the nursery {with toys! Benjamin enjoyed it!}, see how the kitchen used to look and function, stroll through the amazing gardens, and see horses in the stables area.  The grounds are breathtaking on their own, worthy of an afternoon picnic (or an afternoon of sketching or painting for the artists out there!).  We got extra lucky, as there was an old car show going on the day we were there, so B was in heaven checking out all the beauties!

Framlingham Castle

Framlingham is also a great spot for a relaxing afternoon out.  There are castle walls you can climb and walk around, giving fantastic views of the surrounding area.  The interior has a huge grassy area with some outdoor games and there were sword-fighting shows the day we were there.  There is a small museum area as well.  It looks as if the castle hosts various events throughout the year too.  The town surrounding the castle was cute as well, we stopped for lunch and ice cream nearby!

Castle Rising

We actually visited Castle Rising before we got the English Heritage pass, but it is one of their properties.  While the castle is actually fairly small, it is really cool, and the surrounded landscape is gorgeous.  The castle, which is now mostly ruins, was built in the 1100s and many of the walls are still standing!

 

Trading Turkey for Tapas: Thanksgiving in Barcelona

Ahhh Barcelona.  Spain’s second most populated city.  It has definitely claimed itself a spot in my top cities that I have visited so far.  The architecture, the beaches, the excitement and commotion of the city, everything appealed to me.

I apologize in advance, as this is a long post…we thoroughly enjoyed our time in Barcelona and I of course took a bazillion photos :).  Some of the highlights I talk about and highly recommend include:

-La Sagrada Familia

-Park Guell

-The Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus Tour

-Font Montjuïc

-Barceloneta/beach area

This past Thanksgiving, we decided to forgo our normal tradition of having a huge turkey dinner with our overseas “framily” and opted to travel with them instead.  We tried to get all of our friends to join us in Spain, but alas, only four of them were able.  Anyway, the seven of us (six adults and 1-year-old Benjamin) found a great apartment on AirBnB {almost always the first place I check for accommodations when traveling!}.  Unfortunately, the listing is no longer available, so I can’t post a link to it, but it was perfect for our group!  It was just outside of the super touristy part of the city, making it quiet and relaxing, but easily accessible via public transport and the Hop-On, Hop-Off bus [which I will talk about in a moment].  The apartment had a fantastic balcony, which was used extensively by our crew, especially in the evenings in conjunction with some adult beverages.  {Once again, I was pregnant and unable to enjoy the many perks of such grand travel destinations….I will be back to Spain one day, if only to enjoy a Sangria!}

As I mentioned, Benjamin joined us on this trip, and though it wasn’t his first flight, he did amazing on the plane!  We flew into Barcelona El Prat airport on Thanksgiving Day (November 26) and landed around 11am.  {For those curious, we generally fly out of London Stansted Airport, which is a little over an hour away from where we live, and we typically use Ryanair  flights, as they are cheap!}  Once we arrived in Barcelona, we took the Aerobus from the airport to city centre, then had about a 20 minute walk to our apartment.  We got our luggage situated at the apartment and found some lunch at Piazza D’Italia.  It was DE.LI.CIOUS!  Seriously, a perfect way to kick off our weekend of overindulgence. 🙂

After lunch, we sort of just wandered around to get a feel for the city.  I don’t think any of us realized how big Barcelona is.  There are lots of different districts with different vibes.  We somehow ended up down by the coast, so we decided to take a boat tour of the harbor.  This could have been a really enjoyable experience, but we did not do our research well enough.  First, B had to use the restroom really, really, really badly, and we bought tickets so quick that he didn’t have time to find a bathroom before we boarded the boat.  [I won’t go into detail on how that problem was solved…]  Second, the weather had been incredibly nice all day, but the sun was starting to set and it got really chilly, really fast.  We were definitely all a bit unprepared for that.  Third, we booked the 45 harbor minute tour instead of the 90 minute one, thinking that it would be a nice, relaxing quick ride, and that we didn’t need to be on a boat for an hour and a half.  Well, the 45 minute ride only took us around the marina and shipping yard area of the harbor, not out by the actual beaches and such.  It was a relaxing little break from all of the walking we had done that day, but we definitely should’ve looking into it a bit more.  Oh well, ya live and ya learn, right?

As the sun set, I did get some really great night photos by the port of Barcelona area!

We ended our day with “Thanksgiving Dinner” tapas at Maitea Taverna, near the apartment–highly recommended by our AirBnB host.  B and I had never really gotten into the tapas fad in the states or elsewhere, so we weren’t exactly sure what to expect.  We tried lots of different tapas, usually bread or toast topped with various toppings (most of which we had no idea what it was).  While we enjoyed a lot of them, we both agreed that we aren’t really “tapa people”, as we much prefer a full, hot meal for dinner.

Our whole group decided to do the two day Barcelona Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus Tour Friday and Saturday.  We all agreed that it was well worth it- because Barcelona is big and somewhat spread out, there is no way we would’ve seen nearly as much as we did without the bus tour.  With a one-year-old in a stroller, the hop-on, hop-off bus was also ideal– he loved sitting in our laps on the top deck, watching everything around him.  He even snuck in a nap or two on the bus!  I thoroughly enjoyed the audio commentary- very informative for my nerdy self!  There are two routes included in the tour, an East route and a West route.  Conveniently, there was a stop just a couple of blocks from our apartment.

12301455_10156240451585632_2020164879644521267_n

We started our Friday at La Sagrada Familia, probably Antoni Gaudi‘s most well-known work of architecture.  We purchased tickets in advance for 10am, another smart move on our part, especially with a stroller.  The outside of the basilica is absolutely incredible–and it’s not done yet!    I have seen a lot of cathedrals in Europe, but this one was really different- Gaudi’s style definitely shines through!

I was actually fairly surprised by the interior.  It was much more modern-looking than I expected.  It was still incredibly beautiful!  The way the light reflects and infuses the entire place is almost ethereal.  I love the peace and tranquility of the inside of a church, no matter where in the world you are.

From the Sagrada Familia, we hopped on the bus toward Park Guell.  Though there is a “Monumental Zone” that costs money to enter, we just wandered around the free area, meandering through the beautiful landscape.  The park is nestled on a hill, so we came upon some breathtaking views of the city.  Even at the end of November, the weather was perfect– mid-60s and sunny!  In Park Guell, we also picked up some street art- B and I try to get street or local art as souvenirs from our travels- we eventually want to create a gallery wall filled with our adventures {but for now we are using every extra dollar to continue traveling…framing and hanging shall wait :)}

We stopped at Lata Berna for a yummy lunch, then headed back to get on the bus.  After the lengthy walk around Park Guell earlier, we were happy to sit on the bus, listening to the commentary as it chauffeured us around Barcelona.  We saw and heard about many of the historic and famous sites, such as Casa Batllo {another Gaudi masterpiece–we did not visit} and Plaça Catalunya, the central square in Barcelona.

At Plaça Catalunya, we switched to the other route to see the other side of Barcelona.  This route took us uphill through Parc de Monjuïc.  This gave us fantastic views from the opposite side of the city.  I didn’t realize how varied the landscape of Barcelona was.  It contains a little bit of everything!

After a relatively  uninspiring dinner, we ended our day at the Font Mágica/Font Monjuïc.  It has a phenomenal light and fountain show each evening, choreographed to music.  All of us enjoyed it!!

Saturday was our second day of the Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus Tour, and we set out mostly to just explore the hustle and bustle of the city.  We found an amazingly deliciously scrumptious and indulgent {to say the least} sweets shop called Chok.  Holy cow, guys.  Find it.  Indulge. Love it.  I got a pastry topped with Nutella and mint chocolate shavings….I’m drooling just thinking about it.  The shop was located right along Las Ramblas, the main touristy strip in Barcelona.  There were lots of little kiosks, shops, restaurants, and bars along this boulevard, which is busy day and night.

Our next stop was La Boqueria, the most well-known market in Barcelona.  It reminded me a little of Borough Market in London {one of my favorite places!}.  I love how lively, bright, and colorful markets are!

It was a gorgeous afternoon, so we hopped on the upper deck of the bus and rode down to the beach area of the city.  Ironically (or maybe not, who knows?), we found a Mexican restaurant for lunch overlooking the water.  I really wish I knew the same of the place, as I would definitely recommend it!  Eating Mexican in Spain with a view of the ocean is a memory I won’t forget!

B and one of his friends had tickets to the FC Barcelona soccer football match Saturday afternoon, so the rest of us headed to the zoo to entertain little man for a bit.  Once again, we should’ve done our research a bit better, as our timing wasn’t great.  We got in just fine and began walking around, but shortly after we arrived, they made an announcement saying they were closing in 30 minutes.  We got to see a few animals, but I was overall not incredibly impressed.  The big cats (jaguars, etc.) were all in tiny areas and quite a few of the animals (elephants, hippo, giraffes, etc.) were nowhere to be seen at all.  There was a petting zoo that we visited, but Benjamin was not a huge fan of the goats!

The soccer football match was over as we were leaving the zoo, so we met back up with the boys at the apartment.  One of the guys decided to call it a night, but the rest of us headed toward the Barcelona Cathedral to see the Fira de Santa Llúcia Christmas Market.  The city was all lit up at night with Christmas decorations, which I loved {I am a bit of a Christmas junkie!}  The market was cute, but not overly exciting (especially compared to the grand Winter Wonderland in London!!).  We bought some Christmas ornaments and watched some street performers before heading to find a yummy Italian place for dinner.  All of us cleaned our plates, stuffing ourselves full of delicious pasta and garlic bread.

Sunday morning, 3 of the members of our group headed back to London, so the rest of us checked out of the apartment and into our hotel for the night (by the airport, since we were flying back to London early Monday morning).  We planned the day to be kind of a relaxing day since we had been so busy all weekend.  Once we got back into the city, we made our way toward the beach area again, checking out Barceloneta, a cute little area with shops and restaurants.  I absolutely loved this neighborhood.  It felt really authentic and reminded me of some of the hipster kind of areas in Atlanta and other cities I’ve been to.  We had lunch there and spent most of the early afternoon wandering the streets and beaches.  The old ladies in Spain adored Benjamin.  I can’t tell you how many googly-eyed ladies ogled him–I even had a handful of broken Spanish conversations with a few admirers who just went on and on about how cute he was.  What can I say, B and I make cute babies 😉

*Sidenote: speaking of speaking Spanish, I did pretty well for myself conversing with the locals, even though the area speaks mostly Catalan, which is a bit different than traditional Spanish.  There were definitely a few cab rides and interactions that may not have gone quite as smoothly had I not known as much as I did!  High-five, high school Spanish classes! 

Our last stop in Barcelona was the aquarium.  I think I was spoiled living in Atlanta, as the aquarium there is amazing!!  The one in Barcelona was ok; there were lots of fish, sharks, and some penguins, as well as a pretty cool interactive area for kids.  Benjamin seemed to enjoy himself, which was the ultimate goal.  🙂

We made it a relatively early evening, as we were exhausted from the excitement of the weekend and had an early flight the following morning.  It was bittersweet to leave Barcelona; I hope to visit again one day [after I make it to all of my other bucket list destinations!].

Barcelona Travel Journal