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Our rental house in Soriano nel Cimino circled in white

You’ve probably realized by now how much we loved renting apartments in Europe. I’m going to write a post soon on why and how to find a good one, but this post of our favorites is mostly for us so that we can remember the great times we had in these apartments.

If you click on the city names, you’ll be taken to the current listings with more pictures and information in case you’re interested in staying there too. The prices I list are what we paid at the time, including any service charges and cleaning fees. The prices for some of them, especially the ridiculously cheap ones, have since gone up as they become more established and build up positive reviews, but there are always great deals to be had almost anywhere with some digging and luck. And most offer significant discounts for longer stays, whether a week or a month. These rentals are in no particular order since I found it too hard to rank them.

 

Flinders Chase National Park, Kangaroo Island ($62 USD a night, sleeps 4)

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I’ll start with the Postman’s Cottage, which is where the postman used to stay when he came to the western side of Kangaroo Island to deliver mail. Now it’s part of Flinders Chase National Park and rented out to visitors. I already gushed about the fun old-fashioned wood stove and other appliances here.

Favorite part: the koala we found sleeping in a neighboring tree

 

Budapest, Hungary ($47 a night for 6 nights, sleeps up to 4)

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I had to drag myself outside to go sightseeing because I loved this apartment so much. It was beautifully decorated and the friendly, helpful owner obviously put a lot of thought into making the experience as comfortable as possible for us. She also gave us a free bottle of Hungarian wine. The location right next to St. Stephen’s Cathedral was amazing.

Favorite part: high ceilings and huge old-fashioned European windows provided tons of light

 

Vienna, Austria (well, we booked that studio but the landlord gave us this bigger one for the same price of $63 a night for 2 nights)

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This apartment was spotlessly clean and full of gadgets, like the fancy TV and stereo system and the espresso machine (unfortunately without any espresso included).

Favorite part: The best gadget of all was the shower. Scott and I still talk about that shower. It had a built-in radio that you could tune while taking your shower and all sorts of features with different sprays and even a steam sauna function. Did I mention we loved that shower?

 

Bruges, Belgium ($29 a night for 4 nights, sleeps 2)

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The price we got on this cottage was pretty ridiculous for the area. Technically it was a little outside Bruges and required a car to get to, but even with having to rent a car it was cheaper than it would have been to stay inside Bruges without a car. It felt like our own little cottage out in the countryside with a pretty patio and garden, chickens out back who we fed all our leftover pasta to, friendly neighbors down the road, and big corn fields all around us. The owners even gave us Belgian chocolate, two beers, and a bag of cuberdons (a cone-shaped Belgian candy).

Favorite part: the idyllic setting

 

Paris, France ($53 a night for a week-long stay, sleeps 2)

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This was the first apartment rental of our trip so it holds a special place for us. It was a tiny studio but used its space very efficiently so it felt cozy instead of crowded. It felt like our own Parisian pied-à-terre.

Favorite part: its location in the heart of Latin Quarter on a street surrounded by open-air markets, bakeries, crepe stands, and restaurants

 

Autrans, France near the French Alps ($39 a night for 3 nights, sleeps 4)

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Autrans is a picturesque little village that comes alive during the ski season. We were way too early for snow, but we enjoyed the wooden paneling and rustic ski chalet feel of our cottage (on the far corner with the white car in the picture above). The people there were incredibly friendly, and the owner introduced us to all of his family and eagerly showed us around. He was so excited to give us six fresh eggs from his own chickens that he dropped the egg carton and broke all of them while trying to put them in the fridge. He gave us more, but what a waste of delicious eggs! You can read more about our stay in Autrans and Burgundy here.

Favorite part: proximity to the hikes in Vercors Regional Natural Park

 

St. Boil, France in Burgundy ($63 a night for 4 nights, sleeps 3)

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We rented a cottage in the Burgundy wine region that had been fully renovated but also incorporated details like stonework from the area that was thousands of years old. The owners were a chatty Belgian couple who gave us a couple of Belgian beers when we asked them for recommendations on where to go in Belgium later. They even made a polished YouTube video of their cottage that I’ve included below.

Favorite part: the amazing view of the vineyards for miles around

 

Florence, Italy ($36 a night for a bedroom and breakfast in a shared apartment with the owner)

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We mostly rented private apartments for ourselves, but I wish we had done more shared apartments after meeting our Italian host Daniele. He was incredibly nice and friendly, providing us a giant breakfast every morning (including vegetarian “cold cuts” for us) and making a fantastic dinner one night while we chatted with him and his girlfriend. He normally had free bikes to rent as well, but they had been stolen right before we arrived, so he even gave us a good bottle of wine and a box of Italian cookies as an apology.

Favorite part: getting to know Daniele

 

Soriano nel Cimino, Italy ($100 a night 2 bed/bath for 1 week, sleeps up to 6)

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This was definitely the fanciest place we stayed in as we had planned to share it with Scott’s mother and stepfather, but unfortunately their plans fell through and we ended up there by ourselves. It was beautifully designed by an architect with giant windows and a rooftop terrace. I’ve already talked about it quite a bit here.

Favorite part: the views of the medieval hill town

 

Naples, Italy ($52 a night for one week, sleeps 2)

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Our large apartment on the top floor had a terrace with olives, grapes, sage, and tumbling purple flowers and provided a great view of one of our favorite cities. The terrace was even connected to a cave (although they told us not to go inside because it was dangerous). Our neighbor was a dog we nicknamed “The Scruff” and down the street we could buy the best pizza we’ve ever had for $5. You can read more about our love of Naples here.

Favorite part: everything except the mosquitoes

 

So those were our ten favorite vacation rentals. We enjoyed a lot of others as well, but they didn’t quite make the top ten. Next up: a post on why we chose to rent places so often and how to find a good one.

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Whoa, We Saw the Pyramids

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Scott and the Sphinx

From Istanbul, we had toyed with visiting other parts of Turkey like Cappadocia, but since it was mid-November we instead decided to buy tickets at the last minute to warmer Egypt. We spent four days in Cairo gawking at the Pyramids of Giza and stuffing ourselves with cheap, delicious food.

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It was pretty darn cool to see the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still remaining. It’s crazy that the Egyptians built these pyramids over 4000 years ago. Or maybe it really was the aliens…

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In front of the Pyramid of Khafre

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Passageways lined by steep ladders led deep underground to the tombs where mummies and treasure used to lie. And I got to say, “I’m in a pyramid!” (We have a weird running joke where I say, “I’m in a fort!” when in a fort)

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We also took a picture of touching the Pyramid of Khufu in the same way that we saw dozens of people do at the Taj Mahal. We told ourselves that we did it ironically, but I think we’re just dorky and found it funny.

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Picture of the street from our hostel window

Scott loved being in Egypt. It had been a long time since we had been in a developing country, and it reminded us a lot of India. Scott enjoyed the vibrancy of life in Egypt, but I quickly grew tired of Cairo’s crowds, traffic, incessant honking past midnight, blow-your-nose-and-it’s-black pollution, and shysters who kept trying to wring Egyptian pounds out of us. I think what Scott especially loved with all his cheapskate frugal heart were the amazing food prices, some of which were on the same level with India (i.e. even cheaper than southeast Asia). The picture above shows the chain restaurant Gad across the street from our hostel, which we must have gone to at least five times.

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There we got falafel sandwiches (pita bread filled with falafel, veggies, and tahini) and fuul sandwiches (with mashed fava beans similar to how Mexicans prepare refried beans) for 1.25 Egyptian pounds each. Considering 1 dollar is worth a little over 6 Egyptian pounds, that meant each sandwich cost 20 cents. And this was at a pretty nice restaurant, so I imagine it’d be even cheaper as street food. Our first night in Cairo, Scott ordered three sandwiches there after already having eaten dinner on the plane, and I tried to stop him from buying so many, but he said he had to order three because they totaled 60 cents, and he just couldn’t pass that up. To his credit, he did manage to finish them, although he was pretty stuffed afterward.

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The fresh pita bread was delicious. We constantly saw people on bicycles carrying large trays of pitas on their heads from the ovens where they had just been baked to the street stands where they would be sold.

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We stuck our heads into one shop where they were churning out fresh, hot pitas hoping to buy a couple. One guy immediately decided to give us a tour around the shop and showed us every step of how they were made. He had pretty decent English, but he used the phrase, “My name is,” to mean “The name of this is,” and so he pointed out different objects in the shop as “My name is oven,” and looked at me and asked Scott, “My name is wife?”

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We were given some tea, too. Afterwards, we were offered pitas at 2 Egyptian pounds per pita, which we knew was at least ten times the normal price (Scott had bought 4 or 5 pitas for 1 pound at a stand the day before), but when a massive overcharge is still 30 cents a pita, we were happy to buy a couple and give the guy a little extra for showing us around.

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Another popular Egyptian dish that we liked was kushari, which is macaroni, rice, lentils, and chickpeas topped with tomato sauce and fried onions with a splash of something spicy. Not terribly exciting, but hearty and filling and a nice vegetarian option – look for big metal vats to find where it’s sold.

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We also loved the mango ice cream from a dessert shop across the street from our hostel. It was chock full of real mango and wonderfully creamy. I have to say that it even rivaled Italian gelato, except that two scoops of this stuff in Egypt cost less than a dollar.

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In addition to food, the huge bazaars sold everything you could possibly want to buy, but I found it a little scary to navigate through the crowds. A lot of people tried to pass through the narrow lanes carrying large loads on their backs or carts, and the way they announced their presence was to hiss like a snake from behind. If I didn’t hear it in time, I could get knocked around by a bunch of bulging blankets.

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But hey, at least I didn’t get run over by a truck full of blankets. Egypt was an exciting way to spend the last week of our trip before we went back to the comforts of home. Since we had such limited time in Cairo, we didn’t have a chance to visit its huge Egyptian Museum, but at least we had an overnight layover in London before going home, and we got to spend a whirlwind hour in the British Museum, which has a completely ridiculous Egyptian collection. Not only did they have a crazy number of mummies and giant Egyptian heads and sculptures, they also had the Rosetta Stone. And seeing the Parthenon sculptures there was pretty neat after visiting Athens. After way too short of a time in London, Scott flew to Grand Rapids to be with his family while I flew to LA to be with mine. I’ll write more soon on what it was like to go on a trip like this and how it feels to be back home.

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After finding a great deal on an apartment and flight to Nice (a city in the south of France pronounced “niece”), we decided to visit for a week. We were apprehensive about what our expenses there would be, considering how many well-heeled tourists visit Nice, but we were pleasantly surprised by how many free and low-cost options there were. In fact, we ended up spending the least money there than any other part of France, about $30 per person per day including food and accommodation. This post is to encourage anyone thinking about visiting the beautiful French Riviera even if you’re on a budget.

 

Rent an apartment

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Nina’s face peeking out from a skylight

I admit Scott has a special knack for finding great apartments. I think some people may have disliked the slanted roof of our attic apartment, but we thought it was cozy and cute, and we loved sticking our heads out of the two skylights (which happened to match our respective heights perfectly) to enjoy the view. Plus it was hard to beat the price of 200 euros a week.

 

Avoid restaurants

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Farmer’s market in Nice

This was our third time in France this year, so we were comfortable knowing that what we liked best about French food was the baguettes, cheese, and wine, none of which we needed to go inside a restaurant for. The restaurants in Nice had noticeably higher prices than even Paris, but we were fine with just getting fresh produce from the farmer’s market just a few blocks from our apartment every morning and warm baguettes from our favorite bakery to make some lovely picnics and meals. Nice is close to the Italian border and used to be part of Italy, so we also enjoyed buying fresh pasta from the supermarkets and pasta shops. Not only is an apartment often cheaper than a hotel, having your own kitchen and being able to cook saves quite a bit of money.

 

Take the 1 euro bus (or bike)

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Harbor in Monaco

There were a number of buses that went to neighboring towns like Cannes or Antibes for just 1 euro ($1.29). The buses did get crowded, though, so it probably wouldn’t have been a bad idea to spend a few extra euros on a faster train ride instead. We took a 1 euro bus to Monaco, the second smallest country in the world (0.76 square miles), and one of the richest, thanks to the tax breaks it provides to the millionaires and billionaires who live there.

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Scott in front of the Monte Carlo casino pretending to get into his car

Scott was proud of winning a few euros at the famous Monte Carlo casino and kept humming the James Bond theme song for the rest of the day. There were a lot of fancy cars in the area that I didn’t know much about so I’d ask Scott about them and he would say, “Oh no, that’s a cheap Porsche. That Bentley or Lamborghini is more impressive.”

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We had a nice picnic on a bench near the casino, even though we saw a sign that appeared to prohibit such scandalous activities. However, in our defense, we were not fancy enough to have an actual picnic basket.

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We also took the 1 euro bus over to the picturesque town of Antibes and wandered around enjoying the buildings and scenery.

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In addition to economical transportation out of the city, Nice also had a large bicycle rental system (which unfortunately we didn’t get to try out), with stations set up throughout the city and a great value at 1 euro a day.

 

Enjoy the free sights

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We were surprised to find out that most of the museums in Nice were free. Our favorite was the modern and contemporary art museum pictured above. Its rooftop terrace was scattered with cool artwork and provided great views of the city. We also enjoyed the Matisse museum (Henri Matisse lived in Nice) and the archeological museum surrounded by Roman ruins.

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In addition to museums, there were a lot of pretty hiking trails in Nice and the neighboring towns. In Nice we hiked up to an old fort and then along a coastal trail with beautiful views over the city.

We really enjoyed exploring the French Riviera and were surprised by how affordable it was!

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The Magic of Venice

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After seeing how beautiful the canal-lined cities of Bruges and Ghent were, we wondered how our next destination, Venice, would compare. We’d already read the comparisons to Disneyland and about how overwhelming the tourist crowds could be. And since Venice is such a huge tourist attraction on a small island, accommodation prices are outrageous (at least $100 a night for a tiny room with a shared bathroom), the water taxis get away with charging tourists $9 for up to an hour of transport (local residents are charged the same as for a bus ride, about $1.70), and using the public restrooms costs $2! So we decided to visit for just one day and spend the night in a bungalow in a campground outside of the city.

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Kind of noisy and not the cleanest sheets we’ve seen, but at least it had its own bathroom and cost a little over $40 a night, a steal for being a 20-minute bus ride from Venice.

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Gondolas in a traffic jam

When we first arrived, we did see a lot of tourists, at the airport and on the island. By the time we actually got to Venice in the afternoon, we were in a rush to visit a couple of churches before they closed, but it was hard to navigate past the strolling tourists in the narrow streets. We barely glanced at the buildings as we hurried to make it inside St. Mark’s Basilica. The church and the square it was in were impressive, but once we visited them and actually relaxed, our favorite part was wandering the streets and crossing the bridges over the canals.

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Some of the streets were incredibly narrow with twists and turns that had you guessing whether you were coming to a dead end. Even though we had come to Venice with a bunch of negative preconceptions, it slowly worked its magic on us. As the evening progressed, more and more tourists left (most of them people on a day trip or a cruise), and as the streets emptied and the setting sun cast rosy reflections on weathered buildings, we became more and more charmed.

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Scott stumbled onto a wine shop down a side street selling glasses of wine for 1 euro (and filling larger containers for under 2 euros a liter), and by now I’ve learned that good budget wine is the way (for a city) into his heart.

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We returned to St. Mark’s square at night to find that most of the large masses of people had left.

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Cafés along the square had set up dueling orchestras outside that played easily recognizable tunes. Some of the oldest cafés had been running for hundreds of years, and having a coffee there while the orchestras were playing would have meant a ridiculous charge of something like $30. Luckily, it was free to stand in the square and just listen to the music. Scott and I danced on the square, looking up at the stars and into each other’s eyes, and somehow it was all wonderfully romantic instead of just silly and cheesy like my (too often) cynical self would have normally deemed such things. Yes, Venice can be kind of crazy and a tourist trap, but there really is a reason why so many tourists have been visiting for centuries. And in the late evening after the crowds have left, the romance and charm manage to seep in when you least expect it. The pictures just don’t do it justice – it was one of the most memorable nights we’ve had on our trip.

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Scott passed out at the Amman airport during our 9 hour layover

After almost 5 months in Asia and more than 24 hours of travel from Hong Kong to Europe (I would not recommend long layovers at the airport in Amman, Jordan), we finally arrived in Athens, Greece. I could see Scott immediately get more comfortable as we were greeted by long aisles of dairy products in the supermarkets (woefully lacking and expensive in many parts of Asia). Instead of Asians coming up to me speaking an Asian language, people walked up to Scott speaking Greek. Instead of people responding with disbelief when I said I was from America (in many southeast Asian countries, real responses to that included, “But your face!” and “But your eyes!” while pointing to those features), no one asked to see my birth certificate once I hit Europe.

One thing that was unexpected, though, was how surprisingly cheap so many things were in Athens. Despite visiting several museums and eating out a fair amount, our daily expenses for our week in Athens were about the same as our daily expenses in Thailand, a little over $30 per person per day including accommodation. I don’t know how much of the pricing was related to their current economy, but we visited several cafés that offered delicious 1 euro cappuccinos, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a U.S. café offer a cappuccino for $1.20 including tax.

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What really helped keep costs down was the wonderful array of well-priced delicious food in the supermarkets. I’m not sure how much of what we felt was related to a month of dealing with the crazy supermarket prices in Kyoto, Japan, but we were in awe.

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My jaw dropped when I saw an entire aisle filled only with olive oil.  There was also more olive oil on the other side of the aisle not pictured.

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We loved trying a bunch of different cheeses, especially the chunks of feta from the giant wooden barrels.  Note the prices on the signs above are per kilogram (2.2 pounds), so you could often get almost half a pound of cheese for less than a euro.

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Other items like bread, olives, and fruit were delicious and very reasonably priced as well. The array above (assuming you’re not eating the entire loaf of bread in one sitting and excluding the nutella, which was for breakfast :P) probably cost a euro total. We also went through several giant tubs of thick, creamy Greek yogurt during our stay in Athens.

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I made a simple meal in the apartment we were renting from tomatoes, cucumbers, feta cheese, grilled peppers, tzatziki sauce (Greek yogurt, cucumber, dill, lemon juice, and olive oil), and toasted pitas.

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We also enjoyed some tasty restaurant meals.  The Greek salads we saw came with a slab of delicious feta cheese on top rather than the crumbled feta we were used to.

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I also enjoyed Greek dolmades, or grape leaves stuffed with rice and lemon similar to the stuffed grape leaves in Middle Eastern cuisine. They often have meat in them, but this was a vegetarian version.

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I wasn’t able to find a vegetarian version of moussaka (an eggplant and meat casserole) in Athens, but fortunately I found a fantastic vegetarian version of souvlaki (grilled meat) at the vegan Improv Resto and Café. The “souvlaki” here was made from seitan and spiced wonderfully. Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of dedicated vegetarian restaurants in Athens, but many restaurants do have good vegetarian options, including meze (appetizers) that involve eggplant, olives, cheese, etc. Entrées like stuffed peppers and stuffed eggplant (imam bayildi) are usually vegetarian as well.

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Bakeries and cafés often had delicious flaky pastry pies for less than 2 euros. This one had feta cheese inside, but I liked the ones stuffed with spinach (spanakopita) better. They usually offered tasty vegetarian baguette sandwiches and salads as well.

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Bakeries sold some great desserts, including a wide array of baklava (dough layered with nuts and sweetened with honey). I don’t know if the pastry above technically counts as “baklava,” but it did have nuts and honey. I tried to get just one small piece of baklava to satisfy my sweet tooth at the bakery one block from our apartment, but the cashier let me have it for free, waving me away when I tried to pay for it. So of course I had to go back later and buy the giant piece in the picture above (half was already eaten when I took the picture). We also had some great frozen yogurt (have I mentioned that Greece has really good dairy products?), but we didn’t get a picture of that (too busy eating it before it melted).

When you think of Greek food, meat products like gyros may be the first thing to come to mind, but you can definitely eat quite well even as a vegetarian in Greece.

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Buburacok on the Beach

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We spent our first two weeks in Indonesia on the gorgeous island of Bali.  There were some amazing resorts there, including the Bali Hyatt we stayed in for free for a couple of nights thanks to Scott’s hotel points, but my favorite place was “Buburacok on the Beach,” a little two-story white house in the small fishing village of Amed on the northeastern coast of Bali.  We rented a huge room with a balcony on the second floor; no one rented the only other room on the ground floor during the five nights we were there so we had the entire place to ourselves.

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We had breakfast on the balcony every morning.  To our east, we could catch the sunrise over the water (oh all right, we missed it most days).

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From our balcony to the west, we had a lovely sunset view of Mount Agung, the tallest volcano on Bali at 10,300 feet.

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And of course we were just steps away from the beach, which also happened to have some nice snorkeling right off of it.  Check out the video below to see the view from inside the room (you can also hear the ocean waves crashing on the shore and a rooster crowing in the background).

We had a fantastic time in Amed (more on this later), going on long scooter rides to small fishing villages, snorkeling in beautiful spots along the coast, and coming back to what felt like our private beach house.  The place was built just a couple of months ago and a bargain at just $20 a night, so we felt like it was our duty to give it some well-deserved publicity.  The $20 included a giant breakfast every morning, hot coffee and tea throughout the day, and a plate of tropical fruit in the afternoons.  The owner was very friendly and recommended places for us to drive and snorkel, and on our last morning created a delicious fruit sculpture for us:

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Yes, flying to Bali is expensive (and Bali is actually pretty expensive compared to some of the other southeast Asian countries we’ve visited), but consider some of these daily costs:

 

A nice hotel room with breakfast included: $20-30 per night (although you can pay a lot more for a really really nice hotel room)

Hour-long Balinese massage: $5 + tip

Scooter rental: $4 a day

Filling up a scooter’s tank with subsidized fuel: $1.50

Snorkel equipment rental: $2 a day

Two freshly grilled seafood meals with drinks and a dessert in a touristy restaurant: $10

Entrée in a non-touristy restaurant: 70 cents

 

When you consider how expensive some of those things would be in, say, Hawaii, Bali doesn’t look so bad, right?  And if you visit, we would definitely recommend checking out Amed and the place we stayed!

 

To find the house where we stayed, look for a white painted sign in the shape of a boat indicating “Buburacok on the Beach” next to Warung Mama (near Amed Café).  Renting the top floor cost 200,000 Indonesian rupiah including breakfast.

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Oh yeah, we love Japan!

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Bowl of udon

As soon as we got off the plane in Fukuoka, we were flooded with memories from our last trip to Japan a few years ago when we zipped around the country in bullet trains like madmen for one week with our unlimited rail pass.  We loved the food, the people, the architecture, the cleanliness.  Especially since we’re coming from Vietnam, we still love all those things!  Walking to our hotel, we didn’t constantly have to keep a lookout to make sure motorbikes weren’t going to run us over.  People actually gave us right of way and let us cross the street first!  And it was eerily quiet…hearing only the car engines instead of the incessant honking we had gotten used to in southeast Asia was odd.  And things were so clean.  And the weather was so temperate.  You get the idea.

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Red torii gates at Sumiyoshi Shrine in Fukuoka

The one reservation about coming here was the expense.  The last time we came, we used miles for our flight and hotel points for our accommodation, finding cheap places to eat with almost 100 yen to the dollar.  Now we’re here with an exchange rate of 78 yen to one dollar so everything is about 25 percent more expensive.  Ugh.  Hence why we’re only staying 3 nights (using Hyatt hotel points) and hopefully coming back to Japan at some point in the future when the yen isn’t so strong.  That being said, you can still find good value eats and some great sushi deals here.  The plan is convenience marts and bakeries for breakfast, big lunch specials for lunch (the same thing is often 2-3 times cheaper than dinner), and noodle and ramen stands for dinner (fortunately, ramen is a specialty in Fukuoka). 

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Our first meal in Japan was the fantastic lunch above: absolutely delicious melt-in-your-mouth fish on a bed of rice; soft, flavorful tofu; miso soup; and some pickles.  The salmon was so good Scott tried to order two more pieces afterwards.  They gave him a funny look for trying to order this separately and instead gave us four small pieces of salmon for free as a “service.”  Total price about $9 each, including tax and no tip (even though we really wanted to) because we’ve heard tipping can be offensive here.  Especially considering how amazing the fish was, that price would be hard to beat in the U.S.

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Japan can be a little hard to navigate without speaking Japanese or recognizing the Japanese characters on street signs or menus, but fortunately, many restaurants have elaborate plastic food displays that show you exactly what you’ll be getting with exquisite detail.  That enormous ice cream sundae on the bottom right is $32…I can’t decide whether that’s a good price or not.

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