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Leaving Us Wanting More – Scuba Diving in Koh Tao

Our First Scuba Experience with 8 Tips We Gathered For Beginners

Banner Fish Koh Tao

18m deep. Colder than the rest. The only sounds are your steady breath in and out through the regulator and a tapping sound from a nearby fish pecking at coral. Visibility is much less now but you can still see large schools of fish circling above and many others swimming calmly around you. The anemones, coral, and Christmas tree worms present a beautiful, waving display on the ocean floor below even though some of the colour is lost at this depth. Finding a clearing of sand, you finally stop and kneel at the bottom of the ocean.

You look down at your depth gauge and then up towards the surface and realize just how deep you are; the surface seemingly further in reality than any number on a gauge could ever suggest. At that moment it’s as if your mind has decided to depart from your body and head up to the surface, but you swiftly catch it and bring it back. 

Moving through the water now, concentrating on your breathing and the amazing marine life around you, you start worrying that your air pressure is lowering and you’ll have to end your dive and surface soon. You don’t want to. You never knew how awe-inspiring it was, never knew what was truly under the sea. But now you do. Now you see. Now you want more.

Scuba Diving in Koh Tao Wasn’t Part of Our Itinerary

learning to scuba dive

While scuba diving isn’t for everyone, we found it to be an absolutely incredible experience. It was a chance to explore a world unseen by most and we relished having that opportunity.  Until we made our first dive, we had no idea what we were missing.  Of course we had heard what people would say about scuba diving: “It’s amazing!” “ You have to try it!” “It’s so addictive!”. We heard what they were saying, but we never believed the hype. Now we realize that these people, crazy about scuba diving, were right. We’ve become one of those people.

Believe us when we say it is an unforgettable and truly amazing experience and one we hadn’t planned. While visiting Koh Tao, a small island in the Gulf of Thailand, we ended up walking past Scuba Shack and a sign advertising their options for scuba diving and certification. We hadn’t given it much thought and weren’t sure if we wanted to dive, but we opted to get some information anyways. After all, we were told that Koh Tao is the place for diving and diving certification and since our anniversary was coming up we thought it may be a great way to celebrate even though the voters had not chosen Koh Tao as our anniversary island in our poll. So changing our plans a little, we decided on Koh Tao and diving for our second anniversary celebration

Finding The Right Dive Shop For The Job

scuba-shack-logo

Walking up to the large, wrap-around patio of the small dive shop just metres from the beach, we noticed people were milling about, sitting and chatting, most with smiles on their faces. We found the people at Scuba Shack to be very informative and helpful and discovered that a portion of those on the porch were students who were invited to stay and drink water, or tea and relax after their dives.

scuba diving equipment check

After a thorough rundown of their dive packages and courses, followed by a couple of hours to explore our options and soak it all in, we decided to take the open water diving certification course and since we felt most at ease with Scuba Shack, we headed back to book our course. We felt this was a great option to take should we want to go diving in the future as the certification would allow us to go on our own and dive as deep as 18 meters.

While this is the first and most basic course available, there are many others that we can upgrade to in the future, like wreck diving, night diving, navigation and deep dives of 30m.

Scuba Diving: An Experience Like No Other

scuba diving gear

We were incredibly lucky. Not only were we impressed with Scuba Shack itself but our instructor, James, was awesome. Friendly, funny, professional and incredibly knowledgeable, he eased any qualms we had and was just generally a great guy to be learning from and leading our team.

Our ‘in-class’ training was conducted with another soon-to-be diver from Holland and covered everything from safety to equipment to techniques while under the water. Once that was completed we moved to a contained dive where we practiced the essentials of diving but in shallow water.

learning to scuba dive koh tao

Learning to empty our goggles of water once we were submerged was probably the most difficult. It’s a weird feeling once you start breathing with a regulator underwater to then remove your mask. It’s like your mind says “since your breathing you might as well do it with your nose!” Meanwhile your instincts are screaming for you to hold your breath and your brain is reminding you that the worst thing you can do is stop breathing through that regulator.

scuba dive team

The contained dive was where we built a bit of confidence and worked on our skills in preparation for the real dives the following day  It was during the dives that we were especially thankful for James’ experience, knowledge and even humour as all of us were a little bit nervous, and a little bit unsure, of what to expect and how we would react.

Taking That First Dive

learning how to scuba dive

Our dive team was joined by an American who had completed the written portion back home and was looking to finish his certification. With two pairs of dive buddies and James leading the way, our first descent was filled with anxiety (at least for some of us) and anticipation.

scuba diving team

There really is no way to describe those first few metres. we descended that first time with the assistance of a rope. The frayed, moss-encrusted hovering piece of entwined rope strands were the only visible thing, besides our fellow divers, as we slowly dropped down through the water. During this portion of the descent was where we discovered a slight disorientation may occur.  With no visibility to what’s below, it becomes an eerie float downward, several moments of uncertainty and relative internal disquiet.

scuba diving certification

On that first dive, when James told us to let go of the rope and follow him, we’re pretty sure we all hesitated but once we gave ourselves over to the moment and the water around us, we instantly fell into a trance, a kind of meditation. The constant worry about breathing washed away, our sense of sight overwhelmed the rest, and the ocean had us so relaxed the only thing we could do was enjoy what it had to offer.

scuba diving in koh tao thailand

That first dive was without any tests or practice of techniques and allowed us to get comfortable with swimming at such depths, maneuvering among the coral, fish and other underwater creatures (such as the nudibranch) and working with our buddies. In the end, that first dive also allowed us to fall in love with scuba diving itself.

We were fortunate to have someone from Fat Fish Movies (hey Charlie!) videotape one of our dives! Watch ours below:

 

We’ve put together a photo tour of our second dive with Charlie from Fat Fish Movies who documented it all in photos this time!! You can also check out some more amazing videos from Charlie and the team at Fat Fish Movies’ YouTube page. The box jelly fish one is particularly interesting to us since we were on the dive in which that was shot!! Yup, we swam with some box jelly fish unbeknownst to us the possible danger and the fact that we were swimming with one of the world’s deadliest creatures!

Now that we’re certified we are constantly keeping our eyes and ears open for great diving spots. We’ve already made a trip to Key West, but we hope to go back and add one more – scuba diving at the reef! With so many places to visit, we’re excited to be able to expand our adventures to the incredible unseen world underwater.

8 Tips For Those Considering Scuba Diving For The First Time

Learning to scuba dive in koh tao certification

We’ve put together a list of 8 tips for those who are considering scuba diving for the first time. If you’re looking for a spot like Scuba Shack to learn to dive, or if you haven’t gone diving for a while, we think these tips will help put your mind at ease and help you get the most out of your diving experience:

 scuba shack koh tao thailand

1. Do research to choose a good diving school. Make sure the group is small and that they are PADI or SIS certified. Even though they were the first dive shop we talked to, we were so comfortable and at ease with Scuba Shack that, although we looked around and did our research, there was really no better option for us. They were professional, had good quality equipment, knowledgeable instructors who were actually pretty fun to spend time with and came with a recommendation. Ask around and do your research.

2. Do not dive past your certification. It’s dangerous to dive without the right training, so if you want to dive in that cave or through a ship wreck to try and find some treasure, get certified first. Along with this, do not dive without certification or without going through a well-researched (see tip #1) dive shop for a fun dive (A dive with an introduction to the equipment, techniques and safety but with no certification)

scuba diving buddy teams

3. Value the Buddy System. We are fortunate in that we were able to learn together and thus develop our “buddy skills” together. It became another type of partnership as the responsibility for your partner and their safety is ever-present 18 meters below the surface. Always dive with a buddy, make sure they are doing okay throughout the dive and remember to ask where their air supply is at, once every 5-10 minutes. (Carolann obsessively asked Macrae this question about 30 times in a 45 min dive). With deeper dives and as air gets lower, ask them a little more often.

4. It’s normal to feel nervous before your first dive. In fact, several of us on the boat  were nervous for all of our open water certification dives. It can be helpful to know you are not alone in those worries and fortunately with an instructor like James, our minds were put at ease fairly easily.

learning to scuba dive

5. Some things don’t come naturally or easily. Clearing your goggles of water when submerged or equalizing your ear pressure is not always easy but that’s why there are contained dives to practice and drills throughout the regular dives. It may feel repetitious but it definitely helps in making them feel more natural. It’s a good idea to practice or brush-up on things like clearing your goggles and switching from regulator to snorkel to breath at the surface if you’ve been away from diving for some time.

6. It’s okay to take your time, to equalize, calm down.  Your instructor will wait, no one will mind, and in fact chances are someone else is thankful for a bit of a break. Don’t feel compelled to keep up as you have a buddy to stick with you and an instructor who should be patient. The pace is so much slower then you would think so taking your time is generally not an issue.

Scuba shack boat

7. Hiring a photographer/videographer is worth it! If you don’t mind the extra cost, and are able, hiring someone to take video footage and photos with you on your dive leaves you with an incredible documentation of your time under the water. We were fortunate to have someone from Fat Fish Movies dive with us and take some incredible photos of one of our dives. The video found earlier in this post was also taken by them on the previous dive.

8. Remember to have fun!! This is perhaps the most important point but one that is hard not to do once you are amidst the aquatic life below. The time goes by faster than you expect so enjoy!!

Comment below and let us know what locations are your favourite for scuba diving. Or, if you’ve never been, where would you want to start?

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10 Things to Know About Beijing

The Capital of China – An Experience in Extremes

It’s always hard to describe a place to someone who hasn’t been there, but with Beijing, we don’t believe there could ever be the words, pictures, or videos, to fully explain what it is like. It is a full sensory experience. The sights, sounds, tastes, smells and tactile sensations are constant and overwhelming. The combination can be disconcerting and sometimes incredibly frustrating and at the same time fascinating and thrilling, all in one.

Like we mentioned in our post about the Beijing Night Market, it seems as though the unexpected exists around every corner. Every turn presenting a surprise and usually an unbelievable experience. Here we were in a world so incredibly different it was difficult to fully comprehend what was going on at any given moment, and while we were excited for the adventure, we were quickly worn down by the inundation of extremes.

The above video gives a good visual of what you will see and experience, but we’ve also put together a list of 10 things we feel are key to know about visiting Beijing.

From the budding in line to the sound of horking and spitting to the constant pungent smells, if you are planning on visiting Beijing, are interested in what it’s like or if you are already there and just want to know you are not alone in how you feel, the following will help explain exactly what it’s like to visit Beijing.

1. Don’t be afraid to push your way through crowds and lines.

night market crowd, night market beijing, wangfujing street beijing, beijing attractions

You may feel rude but from our experience it is just customary there to do what you have to do, to get where you need to go. There are so many people in Beijing, 19.6 million as reported in 2010, that you have to be assertive and sometimes a little aggressive in order to survive. The concept of “a personal bubble” seems to be a vague and uncommon concept. If you don’t want someone to bud in front of you in line you are going to have to get cozy with the person in front of you.Stand as close as you can to avoid someone sneaking their way in. If there is an opening in a line or crowd, someone will fill it so be prepared to wait if you don’t seize the opportunity yourself.

beijing subway, crowded subway, Beijing subway car,

In the week we were there, we were bumped, budded, and squeezed out of our turn in line. A split second of inattention and a new person would have stepped in front of us. So we adapted and learned fairly fast. There’s no need to be rude, but you definitely need to assert yourself in crowds and in queues. The exception to this rule is the subway. Generally, guided by markings on the floor, people stand to the side in a line and wait for people to exit the train before boarding in an orderly fashion.

2. Don’t be discouraged about asking for help.

It may be hard to find help and you may not get an encouraging response with the first person you ask. Like our experience on our way to The Great Wall, those that will help you will go out of their way. Often times it is just a language barrier so your best bet is with the younger locals as they have probably had more experience and practice speaking English.  If you are looking for directions, or any other kind of help, keep asking until you find the answer you need. There will be someone willing to help.

3. Make use of the subway system.

beijing transit, beijing subway, subway car

As we mentioned before, the subway system is incredibly easy to navigate once you understand how it works. The transfers for each line are visibly marked, numbered and colour coated. All stops and transfers are translated in English, both on the signs and on the announcement system on the subway trains themselves. Don’t be intimidated by the seemingly fast paced crowds and network.

beijing subway map, beijing transit, beijing subway, getting around beijing

This system will get you pretty much anywhere you need to go in and around the city and will save considerable amounts of time and money if you are considering taking a taxi. We paid under 50 cents CDN per ticket with unlimited transfers. One thing to note is that most hours are rush hour, so it can get busy and finding a seat is a rare (and exciting) occasion.

4. You will start getting used to the cultural differences.

beijing 711, asian 711, beijing 7/11

Or at least we feel like we started to become immune to many things by day 5. It is a pretty significant culture shock coming from a Western country. You will experience the following in large doses: the almost constant sounds of horking and spitting; the sounds of honking; the sounds of audio voice recordings broadcast in a loop; the smells of sewage and, in alleys near public washrooms, fecal matter; the smell of stinky tofu; the sights of many dogs and many dogs peeing; the sights of many, many people.

beijing alley, beijing hutong, chinese traditional house

You will also experience, in equally large doses: the sights of little children with rips in their pants, squatting on the sidewalk to pee, or poo; the sights of smog, pretty much all day, everyday; the feel of people walking, on bikes, or scooters brushing past you as you walk, the feel of other people bumping into you in crowded areas and on subway rides. But it is all part of the experience and eventually some of these start to fade into the background of the city.

5. There’s something unbelievable everywhere you go – go out and immerse yourself in the city.

beijing city, beijing city streets, beijing sights, beijing attractions

Whether you are visiting a temple, an historical site, a market or just walking around the streets of Beijing, chances are you will see something unexpected. We found that just wandering the streets or taking the subway to another part of the city had us stumbling upon interesting areas, new sights and some pretty neat things. Just being a part of the city is an experience in itself and it seems like each area has something different to offer.

We found incredible things getting lost while walking the streets, while visiting Tiananmen Square, while walking through parks and while sitting at coffee shops. Beijing is truly a study in extremes and you don’t always have to be visiting a major attraction to see something great.

6. Search online and ask locals for good restaurants.

the brown door beijing, beijing restaurants, best beijing restaurants

We had a hard time finding good food. We’re pretty sure there is lots out there since it seems as though there are thousands of restaurants, but many are without English translations and so we would inevitably ended up going into one of the first restaurants we could find with English or with photos that we could point at to order.

On the last day, we finally went on TripAdvisor.com and found The Brown Door, a restaurant that was recommended. While it was slightly more Westernized Chinese fare, it ended up being delicious and definitely the best meal of our trip. If you want to find good food, look online for reviews or find locals you can ask to point you in the right direction.

7. Plan your sightseeing according to the day of the week and time of day.

Like we mentioned, there are over 20 million people in Beijing and that’s not including the tourists, so if you are looking to cross off certain attractions on your list, plan accordingly. Every day will be busy but weekends will be PACKED, especially when visiting sacred locations such as temples. On weekdays, you will have to navigate between rush hour, and the after work crowds as well as early closing times for many of the sights.

As an example of what we planned, we went to the Beijing Zoo when it first opened on a Friday morning. It started getting busy by mid-day, when we were already ready to leave, so we headed over to the Bamboo park which is more spacious and we ran into few people or crowds. Mondays are a holiday for many attractions. If you are looking to get into a government run building, some of the museums, or most temples, you will be sorely disappointed if you try visiting on a Monday.

Definitely check to make sure you’re planning to visit someplace that is not only open to tourists but has no restricted areas. For example, The Forbidden City is closed on Mondays but you are still able to access the Imperial Gardens and walk around.  Even with many closures, most markets are open on Monday and there are still tons of things to do in the city.

8. Go to the bathroom when and where you can, comfortably.

squat toilet, asian toilet

 

If you can go, go. There are many public bathrooms on the street and in alleys between hutongs but these are not the most pleasant of experiences. There are also many places you may THINK should have a washroom (e.g. McDonald’s) but that’s not always the case. So if you are around a fairly clean and comfortable washroom, try and do your business there.

It’s also always good to keep some tissue to use as toilet paper as many public washrooms do not have any and don’t be surprised to find a squat toilet. Often times, some of the newer washrooms will have one Western toilet, but the majority of the time, if you are using a public washroom, you’re going to have to plant those feet and learn to squat!

9. Learn some basic phrases.

No smoking sign, water buffalo no smoking sign, beijing no smoking

English is not very common in Beijing so it helps to have a few basic words and phrases in your arsenal to communicate with others. There is a surprising amount of English translation on buses, subways and other transit areas and you can usually get by fine in the markets. The communication barrier really exists with interpersonal communication. Knowing key phrases can help when trying to interact in Beijing and you may be able to get by just knowing the basics.

10. It’s important to keep your passport with you at all times.

Security checks are prevalent across Beijing. Every time you enter into the subway station and any major attraction such as temples, etc, you will be asked to run your bags through a scanner. In some areas where military and police presence is high, such as Tiananmen square, you will also be asked to present your passport in order to gain entrance. It’s good practice to keep your passport readily available, and be prepared for bag checks as well having them use metal detectors on the people who pass through the entry ways.

 

Is there a general rule you follow when travelling abroad? If so, comment below and let us know what it is!

 

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9 Things To Learn About Wine Tastings For Beginners

We are not wine connoisseurs by any means of the word. Before this year, the extent of our knowledge of wines was that they were either red, white or rosé. In fact, I’m pretty sure if you asked us, we wouldn’t have even been able to tell you where our corkscrew was located.  Having said that, we were still interested in the idea of wine tasting, so when an opportunity to go on a wine tour came up we were eager to see what it was all about. Since then, we’ve attended a second wine and food tasting since and have kept this type of event on our list of things to do when we get the chance. We still don’t drink wine that often but we enjoy the experience of touring wine country and learning about new things.

The following is our list of 9 things we think are important to know when planning to go on a wine tasting or tour for the first time.

1. You don’t need to be a connoisseur

As novice wine tasters we’ve learned quite a few things about taking a wine tasting tour in just a few visits. We feel the most important thing to remember is that you don’t have to be an expert on wine in order to enjoy what wineries have to offer. It’s a great activity to do together or as a group and something different from the typical choice of outings.  Even if you aren’t a big fan of wine you can find something you may enjoy, learn things, and have a good time.

2. Plan transportation wisely

There are a variety of different transportation methods to get to, and around, wineries in different countries.  Whether you are planning on a one stop visit, or a tour of different wineries, make sure you have planned for a designated driver, whether it be a member of your group, a bus, a limo, etc. Some regions offer group tours pre-arranged with transportation varying from bicycles to buses to travel on foot. No matter what you choose, drinking and driving should never mix, and when taking a wine tasting tour, it’s good to plan this aspect well in advance.  It’s also good to note that some events in wineries provide an option of non-drinker passes.  Cheaper than a regular pass, these will offer admission to the particular event and the ability to participate in any additional activities, such as food pairings.

3. Plan to be there for lunch

Trius Winery Lunch

Trius Winery Restaurant

This is something we don’t think you will regret. We dined at Trius Winery on Niagara-on-the-lake (see the photo above) on our first visit and had an amazing fixed price, three course lunch. Many wineries and wine regions establish themselves as culinary experts as well and often have award-winning restaurants on site. You can usually try chef-paired wines with your meal and take your tasting to the next level. Combined food and wine events and tours are also a great way to satisfy both the foodie and the wine connoisseur within.

4. Keep moving; experience as many as you can

If this is a rare occasion for you, it may be a good idea to try a few different wineries out to get a feel for the difference in flavours between the different wines and wineries. On our second trip to a wine tasting, we went to “Sip & Sizzle” in the Niagara-On-The-Lake region which gave us a pass to 25 different wineries pairing a particular wine with a BBQ themed tapas style plate. We tried not to linger and managed to get to 20 different wineries that particular visit. Twenty was probably a lot, but managing to visit more than one may be worthwhile if you are not sure exactly what types of wines you enjoy or have not had too much exposure to the varieties.

5. Sipping vs. drinking

It’s called a wine tasting which means you are not obligated to drink the entire amount they pour. In fact, every winery we’ve been to has provided spittoons so you don’t have to actually drink any wine, or you can just have a sip and decide if you want the rest or are done with the glass. If you are with others who do enjoy the drinking experience,  you can always hand your sample to them. This is handy if you are the designated driver as you can have a taste here or there if desired. We usually made sure to stick around for a bit at the wineries where our DD did have a sip, even though it was only a taste. The key is to enjoy the experience so how much you drink is up to to. Just remember to stay safe and, like any other drinking situation, be conscious of your surroundings, your consumption, and your transportation methods.

6. Ask questions; it’s a good chance to learn a lot

The sommoliers at the wineries love talking about their wines and their vineyards. Their passion is evident as they explain the differences in varieties, flavours, soils, grapes and all aspects of the wine making process. We were quite surprised to learn that there is a vast amount involved in growing grapes and making wine and a number of factors that affect both such as harvesting times, climates and regions, additives during the fermentation process and much, much more. Since we are not huge wine drinkers, asking questions and taking an interest in the process adds to the overall experience for us and has helped us to enjoy wine more in general. Whether you are a connoisseur or a novice, there is always something to learn.

7. It’s not just a summer thing

Wine & Wine Glasses

Our first time at a wine tasting was in the middle of winter. It was cold, there was snow on the ground and the vineyards looked barren, but there was beauty in the scenery and every winery on our stop was an inviting and comfortable escape from the cold, each offering their own ambiance and character. It was something fun to do and what we learned was that wine is wine, whatever the season. Obviously the wine making process differs throughout the year and for each type of wine, but for us, if we’re tasting a 2010 Riesling from one winery in March or in July, we’ll probably have the same feelings about it. At least with our limited exposure to wines we found this to be our experience.  Regardless of the time of year, it’s still a fun experience.

8. Map it out, but don’t be too strict

If you plan to visit more than one winery in a particular region, make sure to have a plan of attack. Niagara-on-the-lake has many wineries and since we had a pass, we wanted to optimize our time and our experience so we made a tentative plan to reach the wineries with the wine samples we knew we wanted to taste and went from there. Be sure to be flexible however, since once you start tasting wines you may learn you like different types than you expected. We also met other tasters at each winery that gave us recommendations. Overall, you may not need a plan but it definitely helps, especially when you purchase passes or attend multi-winery events, to make sure you reach the places you know you’ll enjoy the most.

9. Keep your eyes open for passes and events

Speaking of passes and events, many wine regions have events which offer reasonably priced passes that allow you to visit multiple wineries in the same time frame. This allows you to try different wines, to learn more about what you like and to try new varieties. Often, these events have added bonuses, such as food themed pairings, that turn the wine tasting into a truly entertaining events.

We’d love to hear from you! Leave a comment below and tell us about some of your greatest wine tasting experiences. What’s your favourite wine region to visit?

 

YOU CAN DO IT TOO!!

If you are interested in a wine tasting or tour, check the links below for a limited list of wine regions around the world. Don’t forget to look for events! Also, let us know if we’re missing a link to a great wine region and we’ll add it!

Australia

Australia

Canada:

Niagara on the lake

British Columbia

Nova Scotia

France:

France

Italy:

Tuscany

South Africa:

Cape Winelands

U.S.A:

Napa Valley, CA

Oregon

North Carolina

Connecticut

 

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Modern & Intimate – 5 Summertime Date Ideas

 

With only a little more than half of the summer season left, the panic has started to set in.  The dread of the imminent winter season starts to fall upon us well before it realistically should. Especially for those of us farther North from the equator, we know we have precious time to enjoy the warm weather and when we feel as though time is slipping away, we scramble to soak in as much sun and outdoor activity as possible. As a couple, the fear of missing out on spending quality time engaged in different activities than the norm is also present.  The warm weather brings a host of opportunities for couples that are not available at other times of the year and these can freshen up the normal date night plans.

Summer Sky

If you are feeling as though you have not explored every opportunity the warm months offer or if you are looking for different summer activities as a couple, don’t worry there is still time. The following are five summertime date ideas that we personally enjoy:

1. The Drive-In

Drive_In Photo

This is one of our favourite date night activities. The drive-in is a social activity meets quality alone time. Whether you bring lawn chairs, sit in your car, or open your hatch (if you have one) and recline back with blankets, the options are plenty.  Whatever you choose, the price is usually great, more than one movie is shown, and you get a change of scenery from your typical movie viewing location – the movie theatre or your couch.  Although drive-ins are not as popular as they once were, there are still many remaining in North America and Australia and there are a few in Europe and Asia.  If you are looking for one in your area or the area you are travelling, check out www.drive-ins.com for a list of drive-ins around the world and whether they are still open. Many places around the world also have outdoor movie screenings. For example, Venice has a popular outdoor cinema in Campo San Polo showing current films for the public. These are great changes to the typical date routine and loads of fun.

2. Farmer’s Markets

Farmer’s markets seem to be springing up everywhere. Ranging in size, these markets provide a central location to purchase fresh, locally grown produce to support your local farms.  Going to one as a couple can be a fun date activity and a unique way to cross off items on your weekly grocery list. Jams, baked goods and produce are just some of the main items to be found. Recently, we stopped at a market and purchased some of the freshest and sweetest strawberries we had tasted in years. We have a great time perusing the tables together and deciding on which items we’d like to buy and we often think of dinner ideas we can make together and purchase the fruits and veggies needed. Farmer’s markets typically have set times and days of the week so be sure to check before you go and if you aren’t too concerned about missing out on a particular item, going just before closing gives you the possibility of reduced prices as vendors attempt to sell-off what is left.

3. Festivals

Asian Festival

These events can be a great opportunity to experience new foods, music and cultures as a couple and while you’ll typically hear about main festivals, larger cities often have so many festivals that some are easily missed.  Trying different foods or those you already know you enjoy, listening to the music and sounds of the activity around you and sharing the day together creates a great shared experience and an escape from the everyday. We enjoy attending different cultural festivals to learn more about different countries and cultures until we get the chance to visit those countries ourselves. Don’t forget to look into smaller towns and communities as they will often have unique festivals or smaller versions of those you’d find in the city-centres.

4. Picnics

Picnics, while cliché, are a really romantic and simple way to spend time together. Whether it’s in your own backyard or in a private area with a pretty view, you can take a picnic pretty much anywhere you want and it’s perfect for enjoying the summer weather. If your significant other has an issue with bugs (notice we didn’t specify a gender) you can always bring lawn chairs instead of a blanket and keep yourselves a little further from the critters on the ground. Typical foods that come to mind when thinking of a picnic include fried chicken, potato salads, sandwiches, and coleslaw and while these are wonderful for keeping things simple, you can make an extra special picnic date by stepping up the food selection. Instead of simple fare, you may want to prepare a fancier meal such as spinach and artichoke dip with flat bread and precooked meat skewers with a spinach, strawberry and toasted almond salad. Whatever the food and wherever the location, picnics are wonderful ways to enjoy the sun with your significant other.

5. Nature Walks/Hikes

Nature Hike

Exploring new places is one of our favourite things to do as a couple and taking walks is a great way to check out new areas and enjoy the summer flora and fauna. Taking a nature walk or hike also gives you an added bump to those endorphins, leaving you both in a better mood and this type of activity really helps you to focus on the moment as you take in your surroundings. As a couple, nature hikes allow you to spend some dedicated, uninterrupted time together. Protected parks and nature reserves will typically have great walking and hiking trails that will offer a wide range of plants and animals to see, but be sure to remember that many have entrance fees.

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Building Our Savings as a Couple – The Budget Jar Method

While it’s been our goal for a long time now to travel the world, we knew it would take some time to build a stable foundation for us to do so. Part of that was building our savings.

For months we struggled with finding a good way to manage our finances. We used spreadsheets and formulas, charts and white boards and finally we decided we just wouldn’t budget our spending anymore. One month later we went through our saved receipts and realized we had spent a ridiculous amount of money (mostly on dining out) and that we failed to save any significant amount.

With both of us determined to travel more, we knew this wasn’t going to work and opted for a budgeting method we had both heard of many years ago: budget jars.

How We’ve Set Up Our Jars

We were initially introduced to the jar system while watching “Til Debt Do us Part”. Gail Vaz-Oxlade showed couples how to use jars to divide up monies budgeted to each expense. (if you are interested in learning more about her method and some tips on dividing up your budget click here for her website).

With this idea in mind, we set about creating our own jars system. Since we had been tracking our expenses, prior to our month of free-spending, we had an idea of how much we were putting towards various expenditures. We also, obviously, knew the cost of our fixed expenses like car payments, rent and utilities, cable and internet.

As a couple we set a monthly budget for:

1. Transportation – e.g. gas, taxis, subway rides, train rides

2. Entertainment – e.g. dining out, shows, sporting games, etc

3. Clothes and gifts – e.g. family gifts

4. Groceries – e.g. food and household needs

5. Other – emergency fund, household projects, etc

Since we both have separate bank accounts, we decided not to pool all the remaining money from our pay together, but instead determined a monthly budget for each expense and deemed whatever was left in each of our bank accounts to be savings for that individual.

We use our own savings to purchase personal toiletries. Each of us now pays into the jar after each payday and we use the jars to hold our cash and our receipts. It hasn’t been easy to adjust to but we have definitely seen results.

So You Want To Budget?

The following are some of our helpful hints if you are planning to try the budget jar method:

1. Be consistent with your jar deposits.

We are both paid biweekly so while we have budgeted monthly, we deposit half of that each payday. Whether you choose to put money in each week, or each month, be consistent and don’t let too much time pass or it will be tough to catch up and reconcile your spending.

2. Get used to paying with cash.

We are often in the habit of using debit or credit to make payments but it is easiest to use the cash in the jars to maintain your budget and it takes time to get used to pulling out money prior to leaving the house. If you really can’t bring yourself to do this, or you have a great rewards program you want to take advantage of on a card, make sure you sub your receipt for the cash in the jars ASAP.

3. Modify as you go.

You may think you’ve worked out the best budget for each expense, but spending through the jar method often leads to some unexpected lessons about your spending habits. Don’t be afraid to modify your budget once you identify areas you can decrease or need to increase. We learned we needed to add more to our groceries budget and decrease our entertainment budget.  This also forced us to focus on smarter purchasing and eating patterns which was another lifestyle change in itself.

4. Budget your budget.

Just because it’s in the jar, doesn’t mean you have to use it.  If you have extra entertainment money left over, don’t feel obligated to use it.  The money is there if you need it but it shouldn’t be a requirement.

receipts

5. Plan an exciting goal for your savings.

To help with number 4, decide how you will allocate the remaining money at the end of the month. Make it something you can look forward to and/or something that’s tangible and you can actually see come to fruition.We decided to split ours 50/50 between a travel fund and our online business.

Whether it is watching a savings account grow, saving for a trip or using that money to invest, make it something you can be excited about so you strive to keep some money in those jars.

6. Have change available.

This is a big one that we didn’t learn until well into the second month. If you do not plan to take the money in the jars with you, it is advisable to have change available so that you can produce the exact amount required when cashing in the receipt for the money spent.  This eliminates frustrations with what should be a fairly simple process.

7. Personal allowances are important.

With the expenses we defined, it didn’t leave us too much room for indulging in both of our personal vices – McDonald’s iced coffee. Instead of depriving ourselves of our fix, we used our own savings and gave a weekly budget for things like iced coffees.

8.  Take the jars on the go.

You can use this method even while travelling by converting the jars into envelopes. Even if you change the expense categories, combining efforts and keeping tabs on your spending will help save money and make you aware of how you spend it.

No matter how you choose to create your budget, having a good line of sight to your expenditures is key to staying out of debt, building your savings and investing in the future. We are putting the money we saved in the jars towards our travel plans for the year and are planning to use many of the tips and tricks we mentioned above in order to stay on budget while we travel.

Update: With our savings, a lot coming from our budget jar method, we’ve packed up and shipped out! This was a great method for us to save money and we’re constantly thinking of ways for us to implement it during our full-time travels.

Do you budget your expenses? What methods do you use/have found to work? Comment below and let us know!

 

Want to save this for later? Or share with others? In addition to the above images, you can hover on the top left corner of the below pin for the “Pin it” button and share on your Pinterest account!

budget jar method of saving money

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10 Tips for a Long Weekend Road Trip

 

Most young couples each have roughly 2 weeks’ vacation time per year and while this never seems like enough, there are some ways to maximize your vacation time. One of our favourite ways is taking short road trips which we either take on a long weekend or add a vacation day to one to make it a full four days. Wherever you are in the world, these mini vacations are a great way to maximize the limited vacation days you have available, while still exploring and spending quality time with your significant other. We’ve learned a few things over our travels that help us get the most out of our shorter trips and prevent us from experiencing cabin fever by the end of the drive:

1. Always check your vehicle. Even if you make plans last minute, checking windshield washer fluid, oil and gas levels are essential for a safe and incident free drive. Even with a thorough check, make sure you have a roadside assistance plan, whether it be a CAA/AAA card or the numbers of towing companies in the areas you are travelling through, preparing for car trouble is important. Taking a look at the air in your tires is also a good idea and can sometimes be overlooked in the excitement of impending vacation time. Ensuring the right tire pressure will also help you save gas, which leads us to our second tip.

2. Think of saving money on gas. The lighter you pack your car, the less gas it will need to lug you around, so pack as light as possible.  Other gas saving tips include driving relaxed (accelerating quickly and driving faster both eat at your fuel levels) and using open windows rather than the AC when driving at speeds under 80km/hr (50miles/hr) and rolling up those windows and turning on the AC when going over 80km, if possible (studies have shown that while A/C reduces fuel efficiency, driving over 80km/hr with the windows down increases resistance and fuel efficiency is reduced to a greater extent than having the AC on).  Not only is it good to think of saving on gas but using gas stations that accept points cards are key and it may mean fueling up sooner than you plan if you happen to see the right station.

3. Your vehicle is your living space, start with clean quarters. Make sure your car is clean of unnecessary items and garbage and organize your belongings for efficiency and safety.  Make sure emergency and first aid items, including water and blankets, are present and accessible and keep garbage bags nearby for any waste that accumulates. It may seem silly but keeping organized allows for a more relaxed few days on the road.  You don’t have much time to travel and you don’t want to be wasting it looking for items or cleaning up from stop to stop.

4. Be flexible! As you can tell by our spontaneous road trip to Key West (see 5 Things You Must Do When Travelling to the Keys), we tend not to overthink our travel plans. General plans are good to have. They allow you to stick to your shortened timeline and have a general route of getting to the main places you want to see. But planning too much can cause stress if there are any deviations or obstacles.  Being tied to a rigid schedule does not allow for the amazing unplanned adventures that a road trip often leads us on. In this day and age, cell phones allow us to access a wide range of information, including GPS, but if you are going somewhere where you will not have access to data, or you just want to do some good ol’ fashioned mapping, a CAA/AAA membership gets you free trip ticks showing you maps, restaurants, accommodations and key attractions from your home to your destination, and all the places in between.

5. Relax, road trips are about adventure. On road trips, we always like to just take things as they come. For spontaneous road trips, we have no choice. Either way, expect the unexpected and try to maintain excitement for new experiences. We’ve decided to camp for the night after a long day of driving and all the camp grounds were booked. We’ve even experienced an entire city’s worth of hotels being booked on the same night. Whether it’s your accommodations for the night, an attraction you were looking to see, or a detour you must take, try and maintain a positive outlook and enjoy it for what it is  – and adventure.

Short Road Trips

6. Music! You will be spending a significant amount of time driving and even if you think you’ll be able to chat endlessly with your partner, there will be times when silence will prevail. Whether it’s because you’ve run out of things to talk about, you’re enjoying the scenery, or you are switching off driving duty and it’s someone’s turn to nap, there will be times when some background music would be appreciated. Load up whatever media source you are able to play through your car stereo with music as radio reception is not guaranteed. We decided to get satellite radio to ensure we would have something to listen to no matter where we drive. What we did find was that, just like radio stations, satellite stations can begin to get repetitive when you drive for hours on end and having the option of turning to a talk radio station like a comedy channel was a great break.  This also helps to keep the driver awake and aware if you are taking turns napping.

7. Practice those relationship skills. This is a great time to practice working as a couple. It’s a time where you must work together to plan a general route and decide on stops, random or planned.  Staying cooperative, communicative and patient can be challenging during long periods together in closed quarters but it can definitely be a time that brings you closer together as a couple. And a word to the wise, this would probably not be a great time to bring up each others’ flaws as drivers.

8. Understand your budget and make the most of it. With short road trips it can be easier to budget your trip. If you want to save money, you can bring food and drinks in a cooler and top up the ice whenever needed. If you are looking to spend more on restaurants and the dining experience, you may want to reduce accommodation costs by finding camp sites or sleeping in the car rather than a hotel. Another aspect of your budget to take into account is whether you are looking to spend money on paid-for attractions or enjoy nature and the scenery for free. Whatever your budget is, there are ways to ensure you are getting exactly what you want out of the trip without breaking it.

9. Be realistic. Since you are only going for a short period of time, plan for your final destination to be at the midway point of the trip with plenty of time to return.  If you are the type of people who like to detour and/or make random stops when you see something interesting, set a mid-way date and time when you know you need to turn around, regardless of whether you have made your final destination or not.  It’s okay if you don’t get to see everything you had planned. You can use those missed places as inspiration for your next trip.

10. Be creative. Even though it is a short trip, there are always ways to get more out of it. Go somewhere close but with many different possible stops along the way. Or,  you can plan different routes to and from your destination so you can stop and see different things. You can also make rules for the trip to create more fun, such as always stopping whenever either of you see something in which you are interested. Just because you are taking a short road trip, doesn’t mean you can’t fill it with just as much excitement and adventure as a long one.

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Date Night Ideas – Cooking Together Builds A Stronger Relationship

 

Many times we find ourselves craving some quality time together. (Yes, even though we spend 24/7 together while travelling and working). Sure, we love to explore, try new restaurants or check out different festivals but we also enjoy having nights to ourselves (see our post on summertime date ideas).

When we aren’t out together it’s common for us to fall into the comfort of our house, having quality alone time while sitting on the couch watching TV and doing work on our respective computers. And while we are still spending time together and still engaging in conversation, our focus is not completely on one another.

It’s because of this that we like to occasionally switch things up and  sometimes and find an intimate date-night activity we can do without having to get social. The following is just one of the date nights we enjoy together.

The Couple Who Cooks Together…

While couples’ cooking classes are a fun and unique way of spending time together, they don’t exactly offer much intimacy, with fellow classmates nearby and conversation often being led by the instructor. They also often have a higher price tag.  If you are looking to spend some quality, romantic time with your significant other and are also hoping to stick to budget, cooking together at home can be one of the most fun and intimate of activities.

Not only are you taking what is often times considered a chore and making it something fun and engaging, but cooking together builds teamwork and a sense of accomplishment as a couple.   It is often found that couples that share common goals and work together to achieve them, are more successful long-term and building the teamwork skills as a couple necessary for larger goal accomplishment, often takes time and practice.

It doesn’t matter what you are cooking or how long it takes. Whether it is making your favourite recipe or trying something new, it’s about putting in the effort to spend time together.

One quick meal that we often make together when we only have a short amount of time is pita pizzas:

OMC’s Pita Pizza Recipe

Simply:

1. Buy whole wheat or white pita bread from the store (these come in various sizes and we usually buy the smaller ones for personal size pizzas). We know, we know, making your own dough is much better but this is a great way to spend more time focused on each other, work together and pop out a quick and simple meal that’ll get you to the table, enjoying a romantic dinner and conversation.

2, Add pizza sauce (store bought or homemade – either way we often sprinkle some basil for added flavour), and

3. Whatever kind of grated cheese and toppings you each desire (go crazy with the veggies and meats! We often cook up some chicken with our favourite seasoning and throw on a bunch of different vegetables).

The preparation of cheese and veggies will have the two of you working together and it’s fun to create your own pizza.

4. Cook the pizzas in a preheated oven at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes (or until the crust is golden) and enjoy!

Pita Pizza recipe for couples

Enhance the Romance

A few details we like to include during our date nights are:

1. No cell phones – make this time about just the two of you

2. Add some music to the mix – create the atmosphere you are looking for by playing some music that both of you enjoy

3. Make it romantic – even if it sounds cheesy, creating the right ambiance is key. In addition to music, set the table with nice dishes and cutlery and even a candle, or depending on the weather, take the dinner to the patio and enjoy some fresh air.

Whatever meal you make, and however you decide to spend the evening enjoying it, there is one crucial team-building exercise you mustn’t forget to do together – clean the dishes!

great date night ideas

 

Do you and your significant other enjoy cooking together? Comment below and let us know your favourite recipes to make while dining in.

Update: Since starting full-time travel, it isn’t always easy to find time to cook together. We try to make time for these kind of date-nights when we are staying through Airbnb or housesitting. Otherwise, we find ways to make time for each other while on the road – such as our private island picnic.

 

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5 Things You Must Do When Travelling to the Keys

 

On a recent trip to Florida we managed to get a car rental with unlimited mileage.  We were staying on the West Coast but couldn’t help but find a way to use those unlimited miles to our advantage.  We decided to venture to the Keys, even though it was off-season, to see what we could find. We ended up finding a lot.

Our initial plan was to make it to Key Largo, the first of the keys, and decide if we wanted to go any farther. We found ourselves travelling the entire length of the keys and staying three days and two nights in Key West.

It took us some time to narrow it down but here is what we chose as our top 5 “must-dos” of the Keys, counting down to our number 1, must-do!

5. Make the Drive Down the Keys

Islamorada

While flights can be taken directly to Key West or to Marathon (located in the middle of the keys), it is well worth it to drive the entire length of the chain of keys.  Flying into Miami International or West Palm Beach gets you on the right coast and offers a not-too-distant route.

Driving down the Keys is truly an amazing experience and each key has its own charms. Whether it’s to scuba dive in Key Largo or to try your luck at spotting the endangered Key deer of Marathon, you’ll find something different to see each stop you make.

Our most memorable stop was in Islamorada where we ate outside by the water at Islamorada Fish Company. We felt adventurous and ordered gator as our appetizer. They came out like chicken nuggets and were absolutely delicious! It was definitely worth it.

If you’re driving down from Miami, you may want to stop into 11th Street Diner before heading down to the keys. The food was some of the best we’ve had and it was one of the highlights of our trip to Florida!

4. Experience Key West Nightlife

Key West at Night

It may seem obvious that experiencing Key West at night is essential, but with so much to do during the day it’s easy to wind up worn out by nighttime. To us, Key West was like a tropical New Orleans with busy streets and numerous bars in a very small area.  As a couple, the off season was pretty perfect. No lines to get into any of the bars, no spring break crowds, and an entire strip of activity to explore.  We had a great time walking Duval street, stopping into differently themed bars, small market-like areas and shops as we went. We stayed in a hotel right on Duval, so we were smack dab in the middle of the action and able to immerse ourselves in the island’s nightlife. I can’t begin to imagine what the island must be like at night during high season… we’ll have to find out another time!

A tip: After eating some pretty amazing seafood for two days straight, I decided a little change was in order when I saw a small pizzeria. If you are looking for some absolutely phenomenal pizza, try Angelina’s Pizzeria on Duval.  Their tagline is “The Best Piece in Town”, and they aren’t lying!

3. Have Breakfast with the Roosters

Breakfast with the Roosters

One thing we discovered is that he dining experience in the Keys is impeccable. It seemed as though no matter where or what we ate, the food was delicious.

One of our most memorable meals was at Blue Heaven. Even though it was off-season we still had to wait 30 minutes to be seated, but this popular Key West restaurant was well worth the wait. It was a bit unnerving when we first sat down and found out that, until 2pm, they let their roosters loose to wander the dining area, but they don’t bother you and it was quite a different experience! The food was amazing as well. Between the two of us we had a fried egg breakfast and the special, lobster eggs Benedict. The only words of caution is to ask for the prices of their specials. We didn’t and got quite the shock when the bill came.

2. Go Snorkeling at the Reef

rum and reggae cruise Key West

The Great Florida Reef lies off the coast of Key West and while it doesn’t allow for great sandy beaches, it provides an amazing snorkeling experience. There are many companies that organize snorkeling excursions at pretty reasonable prices.

We ended up taking a “Rum and Reggae” boat ride to the reef. This cruise included snorkeling equipment (if needed) and on the hour ride back, all the rum punch or pina coladas you could enjoy while listening to reggae music. Even though it was a choppy day, the ride was beautiful and we were still able to see plenty of fish. If you have more time to plan your stay, coordinate your snorkeling excursion with the weather to avoid rainy days and I’m sure the underwater view is even more spectacular.

1. Watch the Sunset

Key West Sunset

It always seemed ridiculous hearing about someone crying over a beautiful sunset. Or it was until this trip. The sun began to set over half the way to Key West and we thought we’d pull over and maybe take a few picturesque photos. There are no words to accurately describe the beauty of that sunset or the feeling of complete serenity that falls over you.

We watched the sun set the second night and while not quite the moving experience of the first, it was still a breathtaking sight.

If you can only do one thing while you are in Key West, watching the sunset over the water should be it.

 

Been to the Keys? Comment below and let us know what’s on your “must-do” list!