Fun fact of life as an American expat living in Germany: no matter where in the country you’re located or how long you’ve been there, people back home will ask you if you’ve been to Oktoberfest. It’s not their fault; the traditional folk festival is now a €1,100,000,000 business and one of the nation’s most heavily promoted tourist magnets. As a Munich friend of mine put it, if you want people to visit your country, which would you choose to feature in ad campaigns: gritty, industrial districts in Berlin or busty, blonde Bavarian babes holding liters of beer against a backdrop of the Alps?
Having never actually been to Oktoberfest though, I was wary. In my experience, many “local” large-scale festivals (see Thailand’s monthly Full Moon mess on Koh Phangan) are an excuse for foreigners to behave badly. I envisioned a sloppy, intoxicated ruckus set to a tune of oppressive Schlager.
The good news is there's much more to it than that. Yes, more than 6 million tourists may visit the city for the debauchery each year, but quite a few actual Müncheners are to be found lining the tents. And although it’s become a major international attraction, there’s still attention to detail and unmistakable pride to be found. Here are a few tips from a recent convert to getting the most out of this very extravagant harvest celebration.
Pick the right tent
Making merry with 7,000-plus other guests in the Schützen-Festzelt.
What kind of Oktoberfest experience you’ll have is largely determined by which of the 14 tents you choose. Note that I use the term “tents” extremely loosely; these wooden structures are capable of housing an army. Looking to get rowdy? The 10,000-seater Hofbräu Festzelt is loud and proud. Aiming for a more family-friendly evening? Augustiner-Festhalle, run by the city’s oldest brewery, is authentically Bavarian and (slightly) more low-key. Don’t like beer? Kufflers Weinzelt or the posh Käfer Wies'n Schänke, which features gourmet cuisine, wine and Champagne, have what you want. I went with the Schützen-Festzelt, or the “hunter’s tent,” where the food was excellent and the crowd younger and almost entirely German. A note of warning though: this one fills up fast. If you want to reserve a table, you may need to book six months in advance.
Know your customs
Nothing says "Liebe" like a wearable cookie necklace.
Tradition is king in Bavaria, especially at this time of year. Do not drink until everyone around you has a beer. Make sure to make eye contact with each person at your table as you Prost, or risk seven years of miserable sex (and the ire of the other guests). If you love someone, express your affection in the form of an inedible gingerbread cookie. Sing as loudly as humanly possible to “Country Roads” and Helene Fischer’s ubiquitous, fiendishly catchy “Atemlos Durch die Nacht.”
Oh, and don’t drink two Maß of beer before going on the roller coasters. That’s just stupid.
Don't forget the rest of the city
Although Berliners routinely bash Munich for its lack of coolness, I find something new and interesting in the southern city on every visit. The art museums, including the Alte, Neue and Moderne Pinakotheks, are terrific and the cobblestoned city center, with its swooping Gothic architecture and chi-chi shops, epitomizes old European grandeur. The 180-plus Biergärten are my idea of a perfect summer afternoon and the Christmas markets are gemütlich enough to crack even a hardened cynic.
What's more surprising than these deservedly famous landmarks though is how diverse and vibrant the place has become in recent years. From cutting-edge cocktail bars like Zephyr and Jaded Monkey to excellent restaurants like Spezlwirtschaft and Tian, there's more here than most people expect. Must-sees include the brand-new Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism, watching surfers catch a frigid river wave on the Eisbach, and a culinary crawl through Viktualienmarkt. You can check out a more complete list of recommendations in my Guardian guide to Munich, but for now I’d like to encourage anyone and everyone to venture past Theresienwiese and take in some of the other sights in town.
Dress the part
The traditional get-up is essential.
Nobody, and I mean nobody, these days shows up to the festivities without at least an attempt at the traditional dress. Men can squeak by with a checkered shirt in lieu of Lederhosen, but women should definitely don Bavarian garb. In case you haven’t heard, the Dirndl has been going through something of a revival in the last couple years. The appeal is obvious: everyone looks better in one of these things. They’re the most universally flattering piece of women’s clothing I know.
“We have an old saying here,” a male friend from Munich told me. “Never start marry a girl in a Dirndl until you’ve seen what she looks like in ordinary clothes. Those things are magic.”
Of course, a properly made Dirndl from Lodenfrey, Gottseidank or Alpenmädel can run in the hundreds or even thousands of euro. If you’re just looking for an outfit for the day, consider renting rather than going with one of the cheaper substitutes, which tend to look more like tacky Halloween costumes.
All that being said, the most important point is just to get into the spirit of the thing and have fun. I didn't expect to love Oktoberfest, or even necessarily like it, but you'll definitely see me back there next year.
Yes, our ice cream also came with a tiny flag.
As much as I love my job—and believe me, I do—one of the drawbacks is that I seldom travel without some sort of agenda. I’m always scouting out what’s new, always looking for an angle or trend. And as rewarding as finding that obscure insider tip or just-opened Michelin-spangled extravaganza is, there are times where I miss the luxury of ordering the same dish at the same homey spot three days in a row just because I feel like it.
So when, on one particularly harried July afternoon, a rather lovely couple I know could not stop talking about their vacation to Greece, something clicked. There were dolphins! They had gained kilos from all the amazing food! Everything was so beautiful and so easy and so cheap!
It took about five minutes of looking at their vacation photos before my boyfriend and I had the same idea. All sorts of respectable publications had stressed that now was the time to go. And given the cratered financial situation, we rationalized that it was more or less our duty as concerned world citizens to go drop a few euro into the economy. A couple hours later, our tickets to Thessaloniki were booked.
A word for the slavishly trendy: this is not one for you. Situated on one of the Sithonia peninsula, Sarti is a speck of a coastal town with roughly a thousand inhabitants. Sleepy doesn’t even begin to describe these potholed streets lined with no-frills guesthouses and B&Bs. Popular with eastern European and Greek tourists, it resembles a resort town of yesteryear. Sleek boutiques and fashionable eateries are nowhere to be seen, and the buzziest nightlife spot is named—I am not making this up—Baradise. It serves two wines, a white and a red, both of which come in tiny bottles proudly announcing that they are “made of many kinds of Greek and foreign grapes.”
Fortunately none of this matters, because the scenery is so stupefyingly stunning that no one cares. The water is that shade of neon teal that most resorts advertise, but rarely deliver. The pine-fringed coastline is rough and rugged in all the right ways. There are pods of dolphins that leap and dance, though we were some of the only guests at the resort who didn’t see them.
Mount Athos at sunset.
On a clear day (i.e. every day this time of year) you can see the outline of Mount Athos in the distance. This holy site is the resting place of one of John the Baptist’s many hands and has been a monastic center since 1054 A.D. Local legend has it that the Virgin Mary once visited the place disguised as a beggar woman and that after she left, the olive oil barrels overflowed. Considered an independent entity, visitors are required to apply for a special visa to enter. Women have been forbidden for centuries.
Intriguing as that is, what hooked me was the cooking, which is the simplest and best kind. Grilled octopus tentacles, mussels in a creamy tomato-feta sauce, grilled halloumi, tomatoes tasting of nothing but sun, salt and oil. Our local taverna would never grace the cover of any magazine, but it was made with obvious pride. Which brings me to another point…
Greeker than Greek
You know what they say about stereotypes? They often contain at least a grain of truth. And while I might have grimaced a bit at the cookie-cutter ones in My Big, Fat Greek Wedding, the level of national pride in the film wasn’t entirely exaggerated. The owner of our guesthouse was the spitting image of the Mediterranean patriarch. A proud father and host, and an even prouder Greek, he was all too eager to show us what his land had to offer.
“You must tell the people back in Germany about us!” he was fond of saying in his booming voice. “You must tell them that the people here are good and generous! That this financial crisis has not ruined us!”
In reference to how the economic issues had changed things in the area, he bristled. “These are lies. Our ATMs always worked. It’s just that they didn’t have money for a while.”
For the duration of our trip, we let him be our guide. He grilled huge sausages and skewers of pork on the rooftop terrace; he took us by boat to a secluded lagoon where the women chopped up chunks of tomatoes and onions (“Not too small! They will lose their juice!”) for a beach barbecue; he led us on a wine tasting where, by the third or fourth glass, he seemed close to tears. He spoke of all that God had given the Greeks and what he had taken away. And if I had a little trouble believing all of his predictions, I never doubted that the emotion in his thundering baritone was real.
His eldest daughter, who had lived much of her life in Berlin, smiled when we asked her if she missed city life. Surely, it must be hard being all the way out here?
Of course, there were little things she missed. She was counting the days before her next trip to Thessaloniki for a proper manicure.
“But to go back? No, not ever. We do not have as much here, but what we have is so, so good. We are blessed.”
Simple, but good
The waitress was a vegan who loved ice cream and wore pigtails everyday. Every morning, we would come to the beach and order a few things—Greek coffee thick with sediment, fruit salad, cold beer, and swirled ice cream sundaes like the ones we hadn't touched since childhood. For a couple euro, we could bask on our lounge chairs or plunge into the seven-foot-tall waves as much as we wanted. Men selling giant doughnuts with miniature flags would walk by and nudist toddlers would splash about in the shallows.
On our last day, we told her we were leaving.
“Oh, I hate this. You know, we could be Facebook friends, but we’ll never keep up and it’s just not the same. Well, I hope you come back to Sarti. It’s always beautiful and I would love to see you two again someday.”
The strangest thing was that, like our host, she meant it. I responded with a sincerity that surprised me, "I hope I come back too."
So long and thanks for the fish.
SIMBA!!! Ahem, I mean, a dominant male in repose.
It’s difficult to write about travel in Kenya without mentioning the national trauma it has experienced over the last two years. In the wake of the attacks of September 2013 and April 2015, the country’s tourism industry, which constitutes the second largest sector of its economy, is still struggling to find its footing. It hasn't helped that a number of potential visitors canceled safaris during the height of the ebola outbreak last year, despite the fact that Kenya was never part of the epidemic.
The lack of incoming visitors is frustrating both because this is a place that desperately needs them and because it is one that deserves to be seen. I like to consider myself a well-traveled individual, but nothing prepared me for my first trip to Kenya. This is a country with 68 spoken languages and several dozen distinct tribes. It’s a place where the topography ranges from Africa’s highest mountain to swathes of savannah to the beaches of Mombasa. And, although its food doesn’t get much international attention, it’s delicious. Nyama choma—barbecued meat, usually goat—is so primally satisfying, so salty, fatty and good (more on that here). Don’t even get me started on the football-sized avocados in the local markets.
But of course, the reason most travelers come is for the wildlife. Although this was more of personal trip, I couldn’t resist taking a couple days out of my time in Nairobi to see the inhabitants of Masai Mara, the Kenyan park connected with the Serengeti.
Bull elephants seem to exude utter disdain for the little vehicles around them. When they feel like blocking a road, it stays blocked.
There are two ways to get from Nairobi’s international airport to The Mara: the easy way and the hard way. For those with budget to burn, many of the tented camps and lodges offer round-trip flights to and from the Kichwa Tembo Airstrip. While this is a cushy and presumably scenic possibility, we opted for the slower land route.
Fun fact: there's a regulation in Kenya that minibuses cannot go over 80kph. Should they exceed the speed limit, a sensor will beep angrily until the driver slows down. Felix, our guide for the next few days, was unperturbed by the alarm and barreled straight ahead with it screeching away for most of the trip.
On the plus side, the drive gave us a heart-stopping peek over the lip of the Great Rift Valley and took us past rose farms, tea plantations and through a number of smaller towns and cities. In two weeks, I can hardly claim to have “seen Kenya,” but I was grateful for a glimpse of life outside of the capital.
We booked our trip through Phoenix Safaris, which has an outpost at The Village Market, an upscale shopping center in Nairobi (think: sushi, locally made cheeses and French pastries).
Note: As of this month, Kenya’s revised visa policy requires U.S. citizens to obtain a tourist visa, which costs either US$50 (single-entry) or US$100 (multiple entry), before entering the country. Be sure your passport is valid for at least six months after your intended travel time. You can find more information here.
Did I mention it was baby animal season and we saw ALL of the baby animals?
A word on glamping
I made fun of both the word and the concept of glamping for years, mostly due to resentfully freezing in sleeping bags on many a family camping vacation. I reasoned that having flushing toilets, throw pillows and hot showers was cheating. Real travelers on real wilderness experiences should be able to handle a certain level of suffering.
I take it all back.
Mara Siria, a camp with 12 plush tents situated on a hill, offers all of the bougey creature comforts I not-so-secretly love without ever fully removing guests from the surrounding ecosystem. Zebras and giraffes stormed by at night; hyenas raided the Maasai settlement at the foot of the camp one morning and stole several cows. Unlike a resort, which can at times feel like a particularly cozy cocoon, our tent never let us forget where we were. Environmental impact is also kept to a minimum and the camp employs people members of the Maasai tribe in order to generate income for the community.
A crested crane, also known a the national bird of Uganda.
The Big Five
Game drives at times begin to resemble a scorecard and it’s easy to get caught up in checking the more impressive species off the list.
“Did you see the Big Five?” is a question asked anxiously and often. Between the lumbering cape buffalo, immense herds of elephants, a pair of charging black rhinos, a male and female lion lounging after a tryst, and a leopard snoozing in a tree, we did. The latter was by far the most impressive, a massive male who, at least according to Felix, had mauled and eaten a cheetah the previous week.
As fun as it was to see the big crowd-pleasers, I enjoyed the interactions between some of the other 30-odd species we saw just as much. From the hyena cubs at play to crested cranes stomping the ground to scare up insects for their chicks to ostriches ruffling their feathers, there was always something to see. My two somewhat more seasoned safari companions made fun of my unrelenting enthusiasm for "boring" zebras, giraffes and gazelles.
In my defense, (and I'm hardly the first person to comment on this) seeing these creatures darting around their natural habitat is a far cry from watching them in a Nat Geo documentary or in the zoo. Peering into this world where everything is trying to survive, where large mammals fight and die every single day, makes you feel somehow very small. I'm still unable to fully articulate what struck me so much about the experience, but it stayed with me in a way I never quite expected.
This big guy couldn't care less about the shutterbug-happy tourists below him.
Up in the air
Does a sunrise hot-air-balloon ride sound over-the-top? It is, but it’s also more than worth the 4 a.m. wake-up call. The balloons cruise at low altitudes over the plains, allowing you to see shy animals that steer clear of the main roads. The journey ends with breakfast and bubbles directly on The Mara.
This was, without exaggeration, The. Best. Thing. Ever.
Prior to my first trip to the Balearics in 2013, the word Ibiza was more or less synonymous with “bender” in my brain. Based on hearsay and a few sensationalist articles on the subject, I envisioned a hedonistic, adult-oriented playground that only awoke after dark. This isn’t completely inaccurate; clubbing is still big business and it’s perfectly possible to spend an entire vacation here in the throes of a hangover. What struck me though was the number of yoga retreats, spa journeys and restaurants serving raw, organic cuisine. It’s a place of extremes and it approaches detoxing with as much gusto as retoxing.
It wasn’t always this way. As the original 70s and 80s party-goers stuck around and matured, they began searching for slightly saner pastimes, possibly as penance for previous over-indulgences. The majority of the travelers here may be bound for after-dark activities, but an increasingly large number are also coming for holistic pursuits with nary an LED light or DJ in sight.
After spending the better part of this June in Ibiza working on this article, I’ve seen quite a bit of both sides of the island. These are my picks of its more wholesome offerings.
I’ve always been something of a skeptic when it comes to “superfoods,” assuming the label was mostly a marketing ploy to sell goji berries, flaxseeds, pomegranate, quinoa and whatnot. As a result, I had never paid much attention to açaí. To the uninitiated (i.e. me), these highly perishable berries grow in Brazil and supposedly contain vast quantities of antioxidants. Launched in 2014 by Nicholas Andonakis and Marilena Thomadaki, Organic Açaí is the only importer in Ibiza. They supply numerous restaurants with the fruit and were kind enough to drop by our villa to provide a catered breakfast with tangy açaí sorbet, fruit and nuts. You can chalk it up the placebo effect, but I did feel good afterwards despite several glasses of Spanish red the previous evening.
Situated on the road between Santa Gertrudis and San Miquel, this four-century-old finca was one of the best meals of my three trips. It’s a lovely, shady spot, replete with whitewashed walls and classic Ibicenco style. I stopped by the farm grounds for a lunch of pumpkin-feta salad and soy-glazed “black” chicken, but I would imagine the place is even better for dinner. When the sun goes down, fairy lights illuminate the space and the dishes become more elaborate. Everything here is organic and grown either on the farm itself or a few miles up the road. The gift shop errs on the pricey side, but offers pretty, packaged edibles for souvenirs.
Contrary to what most advertising would have you believe, I’m convinced the time to come to Ibiza is in January. Yes, many businesses shut down and Playa d’en Bossa turns into a ghost town, but locals are more laid-back and almond blooms blanket the landscape in white. More importantly, the prices plummet. Atzaró, a gorgeously refurbished agriturismo in a 300-year-old orange grove, has stays for as low as €120—a steal when you factor in the rolling, lushly tended gardens. The resort, which offers yoga retreats, an excellent restaurant with locally sourced produce, and full spa with hammam, is a hefty taxi ride from anywhere, but no one here appears to mind.
One of the few places on Earth a sign like this would make sense.
The setting is pretty perfect.
The entrance to the spa. Reflecting pools are all over the place.
Circo Loco at DC10, Cocoon and La Troya at Amnesia, Ants at Ushuaïa, even F*** Me I’m Famous at Pacha—one by one, I’ve worked my way through many of the biggest club events in Ibiza (ahem, strictly in the spirit of investigative journalism). My nocturnal experiences this summer ranged from great to terrible to just plain weird. And while I had fun, there are a few gripes that I’ve accumulated over the course of all this debauchery.
First, the price of clubbing in Ibiza verges on obscene. Cover charges range from €20 for advance tickets to as much as €80 at the door. Once inside, drinks prices hover around €25 for a cocktail and €12 for water (forget about the tap water in the bathrooms; it’s salted). Plus, the sweaty, predominantly twentysomething male crowds can be claustrophobia-inducing.
While I’d still recommend the occasional night on the town, many of the best parties I attended were at beach bars. With slightly more affordable (and better quality) libations, excellent food, big-name DJs and views of the sea, they offer a lot of what the mega-clubs lack. I wrote about a couple of my favorites in this article, but somehow 2,700 words wasn’t enough to include all of them. Here, in no particular order, are my picks.
More of a low-key bar and chiringuito than some of the others on this list, Jockey Club is just right for people-watching on posh Las Salinas. Spy on passing yachts while noshing on seafood—the mussels are particularly good—and sipping a crisp rosé. This is one of the older local icons, but it’s maintained its style over the years.
The beach at this relative newcomer to the extended Las Salinas neighborhood may not be the best, but the craft tipples are irreproachable. My Humaranja, made with mezcal, blood orange, lime, lemongrass syrup and mate, was the perfect antidote to the summer heat. And although we didn’t have the chance to eat, a salt-crusted sea bass for two at a neighboring table made us wish we did. The quality-control isn’t surprising, given that this breezy space come from the team behind London’s Experimental Cocktail Club. Unpretentious and on-trend, it’s one of the best spots for a boozy afternoon right now.
The original beach club and still the place to see and be seen, Blue Marlin Ibiza’s Cala Jondal location (not to be confused with the bar in Talamanca) represents the best and the worst. Yes, there are billionaires with their entourages hoisting sparkler-topped bottles of Grey Goose in the air. There’s also a bone-in rib-eye with charred pimientos de padrón that could break your heart, a legitimately beautiful beach, a consistently solid musical line-up, and the buzziest atmosphere on the island. On one visit, Barbara Tucker was belting out house like it was 1989 and an overly attractive crowd was tearing up the dance floor. For the ladies, the club also offers glam makeovers courtesy of the very talented team at Blowout Ibiza.
After visiting the new Nikki Beach Bali for Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia for this article, I had to swing by its Balearic sister. In keeping with the brand, the location comes with extravagant decorations and dancing girls. Bottle service is the name of the game here—don’t bother asking for budget bubbles; they only serve Champagne—and it’s hard not to cringe at the presence of a €1,000 cocktail (with four ingredients, one of which is ice). Still, the vista in the backdrop and design are suitably stunning.
Drawn by the laid-back vibe and friendly staff, I kept coming back to Beachouse. Despite its location on Playa d'en Bossa, the place is worlds away from the madness up the sand. During the daytime, it’s an ideal place to sunbathe and chill. At night, the volume cranks up and the lanterns come on for parties such as People Like Us and Guy Gerber’s Rumors. The latter is a terrific addition and certainly one of the best dance parties in this area.
Next door to Beachouse, Nassau Beach Club and the newly added Nassau Tanit are popular with daytime drinkers looking for an upscale alternative to the mayhem down by Bora-Bora. Occasional dancers shimmying on pedestals, impromptu fashion shows, and roving masseuses—pay whatever you feel appropriate—keep the energy up, while a solid, seafood-centric menu with octopus causas, unagi maki rolls, and dry-ice garnished tuna tartare helps mitigate the potent drinks.
A seriously impressive steak. Photo courtesy of SmartCharter Ibiza.
I’m told celebrities regularly frequent this barefoot hotspot on Formentera, but that’s not why you should check it out. Go because you can eat enormous pans of paella with your toes curled up in the sand, because the pitchers of mojitos are bit enough for an army, and because the crowd is more mellow than any you’ll find in Sant Antoni.
This alabaster-hued, clifftop restaurant may well be the most Instagram-friendly place in all of Ibiza. FAY on the top floor serves an assortment of traditional and less conventional sushi, while the Grand Terrace sports more international offerings. Of all the things I ate, nothing could top a plate of San Daniele with scarmorza and sunshiny olive oil. The restaurant has its own wine label, which is well worth ordering.
Seriously, why would you ever leave this place?