The “Non-Vegas” Person’s Guide to Las Vegas

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I hate how so many people love Vegas. It’s a superficial oasis. Nothing natural about it. Going to there was never on my list until earlier this year…my two cousins, Maria & Belle, suggested that we all see Mariah Carey’s concert at Caesar’s Palace in August. I’ve only been there as a kid and I didn’t think much of it.

Oh whale. Why knot. It’s another opportunity to hang out with them and that was worth the alcohol I’d have to consume to feel part of the group.

I booked my ticket and the boyfriend and his roomie joined us. Fast forward to two weekends ago, I was nervous about going and being a party pooper. I secretly strategized my getaway plan for when we go to a bar and shots magically show up in front of me, eyes staring me down to tank my drink and down the shot. Ugh. I’m too old for this, I told myself.

We arrived at the Bellagio and the first thing I smelled was smoke. Cigarette smoke. Ugh. Disgusting. I couldn’t handle how strong it was (I’m probably spoiled by Hawaii’s no-smoking within 50 feet of a building law). I’m so sensitive to smell, guys. I can’t stand it and it makes me feel nauseous. I’d say it’s the number one reason why I would never stay at the Strip again. Aside from going out with my cousins, boyfriend, and his roommate, I avoided Las Vegas Boulevard at all costs. I didn’t care how glamorous people dressed or how grandiose the hotel displays were…I wanted to get out of there. The whole experience was a bit impersonal, to be honest, which is why I forced my cousins and bf to join me in my search for real experiences.

I’ve compiled a list of places and eateries that I did enjoy. This list is for anyone who dares venture off the infamous Strip. Thanks to Yelp for saving me money and my sanity.

Chinatown, Las Vegas

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Chinatown in Las Vegas? Yeah, I never heard of it before. But it’s like brand spanking new. This is the first clean and oddly spaced out Chinatown I’ve ever been to. It looks like everything was built a couple of years ago. Most of the shops and eateries are located on Spring Mountain Road, a convenient three minute ride from the swanky Strip.

We walked around and ate at Magal BBQ, which was obviously not Chinese, but they had great Korean bbq and our server so happened to be from Saipan. Score! He treated us to a bottle of soju, which he happily drank with us. We walked our full bellies off across the street to J’s Karaoke Bar, a Korean (there’s a pattern here, we go to Chinatown for Korean food and soju, obviously) hiphop themed bar. My cousins and boyfriend had a great time singing and taking shots in the dimly lit room we reserved for ourselves.

On another night, we went to Sushi Kaya, where you can eat unlimited sushi for $28. Let’s just say they lost money with us. I never order sushi inland, but this place obviously flew in their fish and uni. I was peer pressured to try uni for the first time here and it wasn’t bad.

I promised myself I’d try a good Chinese restaurant, the Pho Kim Long pho restaurant, and the tea shops next time I visit.

Seven Magic Mountains

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Prior to arriving in Vegas, I noticed at least four people that have been here in the last few months. I read up on it here. You can see the colorful rocks from the freeway and it’s only fifteen minutes away from the Strip (without traffic). It’s really in the middle of nowhere and that’s the beautiful part. The art installation will be up for the next two years. I highly suggest visiting this if you need a break from the casino.

The bf rented a car specifically to drive me out here because it’d be ridiculous to Uber it and have our driver wait until we were done taking photos. We spent about 45 minutes here taking photos, touching the rocks and talking to a few locals.

Downtown Las Vegas – Arts District

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I learned that Downtown Las Vegas was the “old Vegas.” The bf took me through Fremont Street, which was a tackier-but-cheaper version of Vegas. It still wasn’t for me. We then rolled through the arts district and saw lots of murals and hipster-esque eateries with no lines (yay! no waiting!) and free parking. This is where the locals are. I was sold. This is my kinda place.

Viva Las Arepas

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Venezuelan food was not on my list when planning our weekend getaway to Vegas. By the third day, I was over the endless lines at eateries on the Strip and I wanted food that was authentic and an atmosphere that was less chaotic. I quickly Yelped “best cheap lunch” and came across Viva Las Arepas, a Venezuelan eatery that had five star reviews and it was just a five minute Uber ride away from the Bellagio.

Can I just say arepas top burgers any day?! I loved it. Everything was cheap too. We saved a lot of money on this trip and still ate to our hearts content. We ordered the roasted pork butt, reina pepiada, and the wood fire beef arepas with an empanada. I can’t even describe how satisfying it was after a night of peer pressured drinking and debauchery. It definitely beat long lines and mass-cooked dishes.

Neon Boneyard Museum

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I know this section merits more than what I’ve experienced, which was just a side tour of the museum, but it’s really worth checking out if you’re exploring Downtown. We pulled up to the half empty parking lot at the Neon Museum and walked into the main lobby. The girl at the counter told us that they are booked for tours for the day (really….the parking lot was barely filled). Apparently, they try to take care of the old neon signs by limiting the amount of visitors. The only section that was open was a small section of their property that had the old Golden Nugget sign and a bunch of others that were neat to see (touching is prohibited).

That’s my list of non-traditional Vegas things to see and eat. If I was given a ticket to Vegas, I’d definitely stay at a smaller hotel and eat at Chinatown and Downtown daily. I’m sure there’s lots more Vegas can offer to those weary of large crowds and glam lifestyle.

Note: All photos taken with my iPhone 6+. Not bad, Apple. Not bad at all. 

Eating Pretty

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There’s something attractive about a colorful sort of clutter, especially when it comes to food. I grew up in a predominantly Asian household in Honolulu. We mainly ate Chinese and Korean food for lunch and dinner, so there were always lots of little dishes around your main entrees. Dishes such as pickled radish, umeboshi, choy sum in oyster sauce, fermented soy and chili pastes…you name it, they were on the table.

No meal was complete without a sauce to dip your protein in, a crunchy vegetable element, or some fruit to clean your palate.

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Lately, I’ve been posting some of my own cluttered meals on Instagram. They’re really simple things like a breakfast bowl with granola and an egg on the side. I dress things up a bit with fresh fruit from the market or from our backyard.

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This summer, our mango tree is producing fruit like no one’s business. We have mangos falling off the trees because we can’t keep up with the picking. To switch things up in the morning, I incorporate other fruits that make their way onto our kitchen counter (thanks to my uncle) and some savory breakfast items such as rice with furikake and tsukemono.

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I also have a ton of scarves and fabric laying around the house. I used to have a scarf fetish (yes, I live in Hawaii) back in the day. I’d use them to dress up small tables, hold my hair in place, or function as a pareo at the beach. They definitely brighten up an early breakfast.

Wander | Lust

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I’m experiencing a restless period of the adventure-free doldrums.

I often find myself Googling, Pinning, and Insta-searching via hashtags the many things I could be doing other than my mundane routine of sorting through the same work outfits I’ve worn the week before, shopping for healthy lunch alternatives, and rushing my way through the static Honolulu traffic to make it to my crossfit class after work. I know what you’re thinking…

Yes, Di, that’s life.

I’m not bored. It’s not that I don’t have enough to do. I have too much, if anything. But the repetition of the same routine makes me restless and long for something different. My heart pines away for adventure often. Usually, I know when it’s coming, but this time, I promised myself to work hard and save money for another long adventure. That takes time. Lots of people go through some sort of post-travel depression, or more like feeling bummed they’re not on a train to the next country or stumbling upon a local fish market that will cook whatever shellfish or creature you purchase.

I’m really not writing this to complain. But rather to show that I’m not one of those people that hop on a plane every month. I have a job at a place that rebuilds lives. I have to save money to afford my keep and explore the world.

It’s life. You earn, you splurge.

I’m a firm believer in balancing work and recreation to live a healthy life.

I recreated hard, so I must work hard.

Such is life.

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Hawaii Summer Essentials

The weather has been extremely hot and humid lately. I can’t wait until I have some free time to head to the beach and FLOAT for a few hours. Haha! My summer essentials are simple: sunblock from The Face Shop, sunnies, iced tea, roasted hazelnuts and fresh fruit. We have some seriously lovely summer fruit here in the islands (lychee, mango, papaya, etc.) and I can’t get enough of it!

Omiyage from Arizona

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We made our way back to Phoenix with some beautiful healing crystals, cactus candies, bundled sage, prickly pear tea and jelly from my friend Nox, a magnet for mom, teal and lavender turquoise pendants and flat arrowheads.

Whenever I travel, I always bring my family some tasty treats and trinkets from the city. My colleagues picked up some goodies from Trader Joe’s and snacks that we don’t get to enjoy in Hawaii.

Sedona, Arizona

Photo by Kris Alcordo

My team at work had been planning our trip to Phoenix, Arizona for some time. We were scheduled to attend two internal conferences that would help us network, share ideas and strengthen morale within the fundraising divisions across the nation.  In the midst of our usual lively banter at lunch hour, one of my colleagues, Tatsu, suggested we (Kris, MJ and I) should visit Sedona if we had time. He described the location as spiritual and majestic, something not to be missed if one should ever find him or herself in Arizona.

Kris, MJ and I quickly looked up photos of Sedona on Instagram and Pinterest. After seeing that it was only a couple of hours away from Phoenix, we looked at flights and managed to cram a day trip into our itinerary.

We had no plan. We Googled lots of things on the way over to Sedona. Sometimes not having a plan presents the best experiences when traveling. Kris and MJ were the perfect adventure buddies, we’re all so laid back and silly, it made the experience even more enjoyable!

Here is a list of what we did and a few helpful suggestions…

Take a tinkle break at Red Rock State Park.

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A bathroom break is necessary if you’re driving for hours, so be sure to stop at Red Rock State Park for a clean experience. You’ll understand why the rocks and mountains are red, how there’s running water below the terrain, and gather some tips on how to access these famous rocks.

Visit the open market in Oak Creek

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I’m a frugal gal who will look for the best deals. Let me tell you how I held back on buying geodes and turquoise by the satchel before realizing the vendors are actually reasonable compared to the extremely marked up goods in Sedona. MJ and I found that the shops in the heart of Sedona were really expensive. Good thing the market was on our way out and open until 5 p.m., I went back and purchased a few more pretty crystals, Native American textiles, and cactus candies.

Walk around the Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village

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I’d hate to admit it, but this is a tourist trap worth visiting. Just don’t buy anything there. We walked around peeking into all of the shops, taking silly photos and frolicking around the outdoor wind chime gallery. Then we saw that there were Jeep tours that would take us to the top of the mountains, overlooking Sedona and other mountain ranges. We had researched that most tours cost $100+/person but this Jeep Tour service only charged us $50/person. Our instincts told us to book a tour there. Totally rad find.

Book a two-hour jeep tour and have the ride of your life.

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Photo by Kris Alcordo

I’m kind of a closeted adrenaline junkie. I was stoked that the tour along Schnebly Hill Road was only $50/person, most places that I researched online were $100+/person. Sedona Jeep Tours really gave us a good deal and were able to accommodate us that day.

We greeted our guide and boarded our dusty, open Jeep. Kris took ownership of the DSLR and started snapping away. The tour was bumpy, entertaining, and amazing. We learned so much about the plants, the history behind some locations that were used for filming various movies, and some deep thoughts about how certain rocks resembled a toilet, shit, and Snoopy.

Photo by Kris Alcordo

The view at the top of the mountain range was majestic. It was chilly, quiet, and overlooked Sedona and other mountains. Being at the top makes you feel empowered…gives you that “Simba, everything the light touches is our kingdom,” type of feel. Oh yes I went there.

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There are tons of tours you can book in Sedona, from hot air balloon rides to spiritual vortex type of tours. But save your money, they can get pretty expensive.

When in a hurry, eat at the Secret Garden Café

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Yelp proved to be our best friend in Sedona and Phoenix. We needed a quick bite to eat before we took off on the jeep tour. Seeing that the Secret Garden Café was open and empty, we told them we have 30 minutes before we had to board the jeep. The staff quickly sat us, suggested the three top popular and quick dishes. We all ordered the BLAT, which was mind-blowingly good. I know, how can you mess up a BLAT? Well they took it to another level with sourdough and pine nut bread and jam-packed that avo like it was the main protein. I loved it and I would go back if there weren’t other good places to eat in Sedona.

Save lots of money!

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We realized its best to set some priorities when you go to Sedona. An afterthought was that we should have saved a little more money (I wanted to go on a hot air balloon ride, but it was $220/person).

 

Palermo, Sicily

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La Vucciria

We arrived in Palermo on a Sunday. We worried that most locals and shop-owners would be at home kicking it with the family, but we were determined to find out where the locals hang out and shop on their day off.

Walking through the streets of Palermo wasn’t as clean as we thought it’d be. The tourist areas such as the duomos, or cathedrals, and the marketplaces were clean. But when you walked through the narrow streets, you notice the linens and laundry hanging above you between apartment buildings, delicates strewn from balconies, and the scene is just a tad bit darker and dirtier than what I had imagined.

I noticed on certain streets, there were little shrines for the streets named after saints, some even carve a figure of the saints out of the building.

We were given a map when we disembarked off the ship. The city is easy to navigate and explore on foot. Our first stop was at La Vucciria. Of course, being a Sunday, everything was closed except for a gelato shop on the left.

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One of the cathedrals we passed on our way towards the marketplace.

I read that Mercato Ballaró, an open market on Via Ballaró, was open on Sundays, so we walked towards it and passed a few intricate cathedrals, one of which we said a prayer for my Uncle who had recently passed that week.

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Olives, spices, and fresh vegetable stalls were the most fragrant at Mercato Ballaró.

We lost our way a bit through the narrow streets and saw locals with green, plastic bags. They pointed us towards the mercato and we found long streets full of blue and orange tents and lots of locals doing their grocery shopping.

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Fresh seafood salad

My Aunt, Uncle, and mom had so much fun looking at the fresh produce. We watched trucks drive in and deliver fresh seafood from the port. Vendors quickly collected their share and prepared the mussels, squid, octopus, prawns, and fish.

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Aunty Reen bites into a fresh focaccia pizza bread.
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Trinkets and clothing can be bought further down Via Ballaró.

Palermo is full of colorful buildings and things to see. Even on a Sunday, we found ourselves stumbling upon great places to explore, such as the Piazza Pretoria, which boasts the precious Fontana Pretoria, an elaborate fountain with scantily-clad statues.

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Shakas from Palermo!
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The absolute BEST calamari in the whole world!

Right outside of the Piazza Pretoria is a yummy restaurant named Pizzeria Bellini. A must if you’re in Palermo! You have the option of dining on their beautiful yellow tables outside or cozy up to a hot, fresh pizza inside.

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When in Palermo, you must dine outdoors at Pizzeria Bellini.

I really enjoyed Palermo. While my family didn’t care for the dirty streets, they enjoyed the food, sights, and how the city embodied everything we thought Europe would be like. The fresh seafood they serve at the mercato and the restaurants is so fresh and rich tasting, you can’t help but order a few dishes to accompany your tasty bellini or vino rosso.

Cagliari, Sardinia

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Embarking on our trip!

We left Barcelona on the Norwegian Epic. If you know my aunt and uncle well, you’d expect they’d take me on a cruise because it’s the best way to see so many cities in a short time. I thought cruising was for an older crowd, but I saw passengers from all walks of life aboard the Epic: families from China and India, young couples from Canada, Russian singles, groups of friends from the U.S., and the occasional single senior citizen.

The ship embarked on its journey towards Cagliari around sunset and had a party on deck with drinks, a dinner buffet, live music, and these awesome frozen yogurt machines! I know. I’m pretty tacky when it comes to ice cream or frozen yogurt. I caved.

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I believe this is the Chiesa di Sant’Antonio Abate, located along Via Giuseppe Manno, a popular street with lots of shopping.

We arrived in Cagliari early in the morning. Once the captain of the ship announced that we were clear to disembark, we packed our scarves (just in case) and cameras. Right off the ship, tour buses swarmed the exit and tour guides pressured us into taking their one-hour tours of the city’s most popular sights for $10 per person. It wasn’t exactly the trap that I thought it’d be. We headed towards Poetto, the famous beach where the tourists go during the day and the locals party at night. The tour guide pointed out some pink flamingos that inhabit the swamp area across the beach.

View of Cagliari

We rode through Castello, or the Old Town, of Cagliari. The island served as a military base for Italy and Spain, its name literally means “Castle,” and now serves as a point of commerce for Italy.

Pulpito di Guglielmo nella Catedralle di Caglari

We passed through the Pulpito di Guglielmo nella Cattedrale di Cagliari, an interesting cathedral shaped like an octopus. Our bus tour ended in a plaza below Castello, where there were lots of shops, eateries, bakeries, and street vendors.

I loved the colorful, older, pastel buildings in the city.

We noticed the touristy part of the city is aged compared to the clean cut streets beyond the university zone. We got lost trying to find our way back to the ship, but found their business district is very modernized compared to Castello and the plaza below.

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Shopping along Via Giuseppe Manno in Cagliari, right below Castello.
Pastel everything!

Our last stop was at a touristy pizzeria near the port. It wasn’t the best pizza, but the melanzane was decent. More to come!

Barcelona, España

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La Sagrada Familia

I’m in love with Barcelona. This marvelous city was everything I imagined it to be. It’s colorful, artsy, and there was just too much to see in a few days. I really had to prioritize everything I wanted to see and experience.

We arrived in Barcelona early in the morning. Somehow my Spanish (hadn’t used it in a few years), kicked in and we were able to get around the city easily via taxi and the metro. We stayed at the Hilton Barcelona hotel on Avenida Diagonal, a few minutes from the main downtown area of Barcelona. It was alright with us since it was near Park Güell, a few minutes away from La Sagrada Familia and La Boquería.

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Grabbing some gelato at La Boquería.

La Boquería was one of the places I couldn’t get enough of. It’s a hub catered to both locals and tourists seeking fresh groceries, cheap eats, sweets and spices. This is the one place you go to for groceries and a quick bite. I bought some saffron, tried some gelato and salivated over the cute plastic-toy-like sweets. It’s amazing what you can do with sugar!

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Dulces

The second day, we went to La Boquería again and saw the bar that Anthony Bourdain visited during one of his shows. We ventured further into the marketplace and found that it was surrounded by numerous paella shops, seafood vendors and butchers that would sell paper cones full of jamón and cheese!

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The front of La Boquería
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Numerous bars like this line the outside of the marketplace, making it easy to grab a seat, order some tapas or a plate and wine. 

We tried so many different tapas in Barcelona. From toasted bread with tomato to baby squid and razor clams. The food here is very different. It seems fresher, less preservatives, simple and salty from the ocean. The seasonings are so simple: sea salt, saffron, garlic, olive oil, white wine. I have yet to try something I didn’t like.

Souvenirs from Spain and Italy

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Aloha!

I’m finally back home in Hawaii. I’ve been so busy since I returned. Work and family are keeping me busy so I put off unpacking and downloading photos until now. I’m going to start this series of travel-related posts with some of my favorite (non-food) things I took home from Spain and Italy.

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The first photo is of a shell dish that I picked up at La Boquería in Barcelona. It was cheap and so touristy but I wanted something from the Mediterranean Sea since it was too cold to dip my toes in it when I was there. Inside of the beautiful shell are clay figurines of things you’d find at the market, or mercato, in Napoli. The busy and grimy city of Napoli was exciting, mostly because of the little things we found on the Via dei Tribunali, a popular street with bakeries, eateries, and tiny shops. Along a side street of Tribunali, we stopped at A. Ferrera, a shop owned by clay artist Ferrara Antonietta. The clay figures were adorable and so cheap. I couldn’t resist buying a few.

The second photo is of a book (and a Barcelona metro ticket tucked in the front) that I bought in Palermo. Pan de Limón con Semillas by Barcelona-born writer Cristina Campos. I wanted something local and from a common bookshop/newstand that locals go to regularly, so I chose this literary gem that is based in Mallorca. I’m going to start reading it after this coming week…after all my projects that I must catch up to.

The little tan journal is something very special that I bought in Florence. After we visited the Duomo, we ventured towards the local market, lined with vendors of all sorts. One of the first vendors, unique as hell, was selling customized real leather journals. He stamped my name inside. I was only able to bring a couple of these back since they were going to weigh my luggage down, but I thought it was the perfect thing to bring back to some special people. The journals were not cheap, but they were worth every penny.

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This third photo is just more of the beautiful figurines from Ferrara Antonietta. Artichokes are all over Italy and they’re served fried, baked into pizzas, and steamed. Their artichokes are also different colors, which I thought was beautiful.

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Ah. This last photo is of a few things I picked up in Mallorca. Shopping in Europe isn’t really my thing…just yet. It is quite possible that I haven’t hit the real local shops, but Zara and H&M are huge with the Spanish. Aside from the mauve fringe earrings on the right, everything is from Sfera at El Corte Inglés, which is a huge multi-level department store in various cities. It’s like a Macy’s, that’s the only type of department store I can compare it to.

Stay tuned for the real travel shots…I have so much to share!