A Backpacker on a Cruise?

I really pride myself on being an independent traveler. Some call in indie travel, some vagabonding. This simply means that you do all the legwork yourself. You don’t use travel agents or take tours. You often don’t go to mainstream destinations. There is also a budget component, you usually stay in hostels, couchsurf or stay in cheap hotels. Buses, trains and hitchhiking are the norm for the vagabonder. On the menu is street food and cooking at the hostel. I’ve even taken food from other tables when they left the restaurant, I call it tablesurfing.

Tallinn, Estonia

Something I’ve heard on this trip is comparing types of travelers. My favorite is, “I’m not a tourist, I’m a traveler.” As if there is really a difference. There is even infighting among groups, “I’m a real backpacker because I only hitchhike.” Or, “I’m a real traveler because I eat <insert exotic food>.” I’m sure the first class type of traveler looks at us all as dirty hippies.

I try not to judge, if you have the means for the Marriott and five-star restaurants that is awesome. If you are the headphone wearing, double-decker hop on, hop off bus tour kinda person, great. Even if I had lots of money, I would still travel in much the same way. I love vagabonding.

Helsinki, Finland

So you can imagine my internal struggle when my Mom said she was going to come visit me in Europe and the idea of a cruise came up. I hate tours and being herded like cattle. I hate such a set schedule when on the road. I hate the ridiculous prices. However, Mom was helping with the finances, I do love the sea, it would be nice to have a real bed, and the food is unlimited and so good. Okay, I can set my indie travel manifesto aside for a minute.

Copenhagen, Denmark

The cruise turned out to be amazing! It started and ended in Copenhagen, Denmark and had stops in Rostock, Germany, Tallinn, Estonia, St. Petersburg, Russia, Helsinki, Finland, and Stockholm, Sweden.

St. Petersburg, Russia

We took tours in St. Petersburg and Helsinki and I tried to enjoy it, I did like certain parts. The food and room didn’t disappoint, I think I gained close to 10 pounds.

After the trip we stopped by London and Copenhagen and I could show my Mom my “travel skills.” I could be the guide in London as I’ve been so many times.

It was a really great trip. (Although the customer service of NCL was awful.) I’d do it all over again. If that makes me less of a “real” traveler, so be it.

Copenhagen, Denmark


The Difference Between Amsterdam in My 20s and 30s

I’ve been to Amsterdam twice now, but I really visited two different cities. How is that possible? I first visited Amsterdam in my 20s and then again in my 30s. Let me explain:

Amsterdam in my 20s

The Netherlands was the first non-English speaking country I visited. (I’m not counting all inclusive Mexican resorts full of English speakers). I was sweating bullets when the plane landed from London. I was meeting a former college roommate who is German, and doesn’t speak Dutch, but somehow I thought that would help. After taking the wrong train from the airport to somewhere in the countryside I eventually met him in the city. Turns out I was worried about nothing, as is often the case in travel, everyone speaks quality English in Amsterdam.

The other language they speak in Amsterdam is party. That is not a commentary on the locals as most I’ve met in my travels are quite reserved. But for the tourist, it is a one stop shop for all the party supplies you want…and some you don’t. My friend and I had a list of all the attractions that we wanted to see. Then we fell into an Amsterdam wormhole and the next thing we knew three days had passed. We left the city with doing absolutely nothing save a cattle drive of a canal cruise that neither of us enjoyed.

Of course we did things, we walked all over the city, tried lots of different foods (I distinctly remember an Iraqi restaurant that I really liked) and met other cool travelers from the world over. We accomplish nothing on our list of “must sees” but still had a good time.

Amsterdam in my 30s

On this trip I stayed with a friend and former Hawaii Pacific University Women’s Basketball player who was getting her master’s degree in Amsterdam. Staying with a resident gave it more of a local flavor although most of her roommates and friends were from somewhere else.

Yes, we partied too but I attacked this second crack at Amsterdam with fervor. I really enjoyed the Van Gogh Museum, which, you guessed it, tells the story of Vincent van Gogh. This is my favorite art museum to date because it is all about one person and you can follow his story all the way through. For a art newb like me the great museums of the world (that I have been to) like the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) in New York City, The Louvre and Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Museu de Arte de São Paulo in Brazil and the like are all great but much too big for me to follow for long.

I went to the Heineken Experience which is less typical brewery tour (beer is no longer brewed on site) and more museum of one of the world’s more recognizable beer brands. Heineken is not my beer of choice but as a armchair beer expert I really enjoyed the overall visit.

Speaking of Art I also visited the Rijksmuseum which is the Dutch art and history museum that gave me a better understanding of the place in bygone years. Encouraged by the Van Gogh Museum experience I also toured the Rembrandt House Museum which was a museum dedicated to Rembrandt van Rijn that is set in his old house where he lived for 20 years.

As luck would have it I was in town for Koningsdag or King’s Day. It is a national holiday that celebrates the birth of of King Willem-Alexander. In practice it means everyone takes to the streets wearing bright orange (the national color). My friend and her social circle organized a private canal cruise and we saw the city in full celebration from the water and had a ton of fun.

Yes, you can do things in Amsterdam that will earn you a death sentence in other parts of the world but it is really so much more. I had a great time on both my visits but if I had to pick, I’d redo the trip in the 30s.

The Problem with Paris

In my 20s I was just starting to discover Europe, I knew virtually nothing. I asked people about various destinations, whenever the conversation shifted to Paris a similar refrain was recited. “The problem with Paris is they don’t like Americans there. The people don’t know English and even if they do they won’t speak to you if you don’t speak French with them first.” Even a guy who was born and raised in Paris flat out told me, “Don’t come here unless you can speak French.”


All these people certainly couldn’t be wrong so on my first three trips to Europe I stayed away. If they didn’t want me there, then I didn’t want to be there!  I surrounded France with multiple trips to England, Germany and Italy and single visits to Belgium and Spain.

During this around-the-world trip I decided that even if it was an awful experience I at least wanted to see some of the world class attractions that Paris has to offer. As I have found too many times during my wanderings, the perception of the place didn’t match what I found once my feet were on the ground.


It really would have been difficult for the people to greet me any more warmly. Almost immediately I met a girl on the train who sorted me out and took me to an art museum (Musée d’Orsay). I was hosted by a Couchsurfer who opened her home and, more importantly, her life to me. We spent the evenings with wine, cheese and her photo albums. A friend of a friend took me to the Eiffel Tower and explored more of the city. A guy who I hosted in Hawaii took me to the restaurant he owns and I tried my first vegan burger. It was actually good. Who knew? If you visit Paris make sure you visit: Hank Vegan Burger


Yes, not every person I met on the street or shop owner knew English but even they greeted me with the international language: a smile. The cold and impersonal Paris was not what I found. It has inspired to me visit more of France in the future and speak positively when people ask me about it.

More often than not, places are not what you think they are going to be. I think that is what always keeps me going to the next place, you never know what awaits you. The real problem with Paris was I didn’t visit years ago.


Quest for World Suds-premacy

Some people’s motivation to travel is to try the different foods from around the world. I too have enjoyed the various dishes from different corners of the globe. However, I have never been a “foodie.” I like beer. I set out to try as many different beers as I could on this trip.

Variety is the spice of life they say so I only count each beer once. I have friends that drink 10 Heinekens on the weekend all year long. For this exercise, that counts as one beer. So before before people start saying I have a drinking problem understand I’m only having one or two beers a day. Actually, I do have a drinking problem, it is when I’m in a country and I can’t find any new beers.

With the help of the Untappd app I have been able to keep a very good record of my quest. To date I have had 752 unique beers in 461 days or an average of 1.63 different beers per day.


I have had at least one beer from 59 countries. I’ve only been to 40 countries so far so obviously I’ve been able to snag a few imports from neighboring nations. Here are the major contributors:

Germany- 121

USA- 65

Belgium- 57

Poland- 51

South Africa- 36

Turkey- 34

Netherlands- 29

England- 28

Brazil- 26

Czech Republic- 25

Romania- 25

Israel- 16

Slovakia- 14

Ukraine- 13



Bosnia- 12

France- 11

Italy- 11

Bulgaria- 10

Croatia- 10


Germany’s 121 seems like a big number but I didn’t even scratch the surface, I could easily get triple that number with minimal effort. Turkey on the other hand, 34 is about the best I could do. I looked high and low over a period of months and that was the best I could come up with. I also left a lot on the table, or bar in this case, in the USA, Czech Republic, and Belgium. I am pretty proud of my totals in Poland, South Africa, Romania, and Brazil. Italy is an interesting one as I had 11 but didn’t even enter the country.


I also like to try different styles, I’ve had 64 different type of beer. Here are some of the big ones:

Lager- 250+ (the app only tracks to 250)

Pilsner- 108

Hefeweizen- 39

Blond Ale- 32

Cider- 29

IPA- 28

Pale Ale- 25

Non-Alcoholic- 24

Radler- 21

Dunkelweizen- 17

Fruit Beer- 17

Dubbel/Tripel/Quad- 16

Amber/Red Ale- 16

Porter/Stout- 13

Bock- 13

Strong Ale- 12

Witbier- 11


Most people I meet on this trip know about my quest and often are very helpful in finding new beers, or least drinking with me. Some people will even come to me with questions as a “beer expert.” However, the most common question is, “What is your favorite?” I just can’t answer that, it is like picking your favorite family member.

The quest is far from over but I’ve already learned so much. Sit me down an a bar and I can most likely tell you where each beer is from and the style. Not sure this knowledge is useful but I’m having a blast doing it and that is the main goal.


Off the Tourist Trail

Places like London, Istanbul, Paris, and Dubai are fantastic places to visit. They are among the most popular tourist destinations in the world for good reason. I have visited each on this trip and enjoyed my time there.

Yet, I desire to be a little dissimilar and have different postcards on my figurative refrigerator. So I try to get a little more off the beaten path and explore underappreciated destinations. My extra effort has always been rewarded with amazing experiences in places I often can’t even pronounce.


Football (soccer) on the beach in Muscat

Muscat, Oman- I will admit that Dubai isn’t among my favorite places on earth. Yes, the buildings are cool to look at and the obvious wealth is quite impressive. However, unless you are a rich shopper there isn’t much substance behind the flash. It reminds me of Las Vegas, just without the gambling and drinking. However, just a few hours away is the capital of Oman. Muscat is also very modern and safe, not what you might think about when talking about Middle East travel. The seaside, the historical part of Muscat and the towering mosques all make a visit worthwhile. The people are also much friendlier than Dubai, there is not such a stuck up attitude.


Hello zebras!

Malkerns and Manzini, Swaziland- South Africa is quite possibly my favorite county I’ve visited of the 31 so far on this trip. Still, I had some preconceived idea of what sub-Saharan Africa should look like and South Africa wasn’t it. The game drives I went on in South Africa were truly breathtaking but after days with a group in a jeep for hours and hours I yearned to explore alone on foot. Swaziland was perfect solutions for these “issues.” Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary only has the hippo of the “Big Five” so I could hike for hours in relative safety. Although the park was home to several species of cobras, mambas, adders and a host of other venous snakes. Not to mention lakes dotted with large crocodiles and hippos. Although there were no big cats or elephants or other well-known safari animals the place was teeming with life. It was quite a rush to hike alone in silence and turn the corner only to be face-to-face with a zebra or wildebeest. The city of Mazini had all the sights and sounds that I pictured Africa to be including great food and kind people.


Mileștii Mici, over 125 miles of wine!

Moldova- Trivia question: Where can you find the biggest wine cellar in world? Moldova! You can probably find better wine in Italy, France or in the USA but for the value Moldova might have the best wine in the world. The quality of wine is quite good, but don’t take it from a beer guy like me. Queen Elizabeth and Jimmy Carter are both known to enjoy wine from Moldova. Toss away the wine in a box and grab bottle with a mid-1980s vintage for under $10! Plus, no one looks at you strange when you have several glasses of wine with breakfast.


Beach in Odessa

Odessa, Ukraine- I recently saw an article that was being passed around Facebook that ranked the “Top 10 Most Dangerous Countries in the World.” I had a hearty chuckle when I saw Ukraine made the list. Yes, there is an armed conflict going on in the northeast part of the country with thousands of dead. You might not have heard much about it, probably because they are not Muslims. Point it, it is very easy to avoid. Ukraine is a huge country. Odessa is an amazing city and 100% safe but many tourists don’t find it on their list. From the cultural gems such as the opera house to the relaxing beaches on the Black Sea to top quality restaurants, Odessa is a place that I won’t soon forget. If you know me, you know I look for value and I’m ready to declare Ukraine the best value in the whole of Europe! European Culture at sub South American prices, simply unbeatable!

As I pen this I sit in Sighisoara, Romania which also belongs on such a list but I’ll let the adventure fully unfurl before I commit it to paper.


Following the Impalas down the trail in Swaziland