The Great Beer-Off of 2016: Round 1 Belgium

Somewhat unintentionally, Chris and I ended up making the bulk of our 2016 travel plans with a bit of a theme: beer. We scheduled a trip to Belgium after Chris read a magazine article about touring Belgium’s breweries and bars on a bicycle. Chris has also always wanted to go to Oktoberfest, so Germany was added to the itinerary for this year. And since Prague isn’t far at all from Munich, I tacked it onto our Oktoberfest trip, giving us a well-rounded sample of Europe’s very best beers: Belgian, German, and Czech.

And that gave me the idea of pitting the countries against each other in The Great Beer-Off of 2016: Belgium vs. Germany vs. Czech Republic. (Insert dramatic music here.) So I present to you Round 1 of the Great Beer-Off: Belgium! (More dramatic music? Or perhaps a drumroll was needed.)
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Chris and I kicked off our Belgian beer experience learning about Henri Maes and the last working brewery in Bruges, De Halve Maan Brouwerij. We took the 90-minute XL tour at 2pm, where our impressive guide led us through the brewery and a private beer tasting in three languages. We tasted three different beers (four, actually, since our last taste was a choice and we each picked a different beer) during a leisurely guided tasting for 19 euros per person.
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The tour was the perfect length to be informative and captivating, and our guide injected plenty of wit into the history and facts. As a bonus, the brewery has a fantastic rooftop view of Bruges. We both loved the Brugse Zot as our favorite from the tasting.
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In addition to taking the brewery tour and drinking several beers at various restaurants, Chris and I also visited The Bottle Shop on Wollestraat to choose a few bottles from their incredibly extensive collection. A friendly local helped us pick out a selection of four different Belgian beers which we brought back to the hotel to sample throughout our stay. Chris especially enjoyed Delirium Tremens which thankfully we can purchase back home.
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I’m just recently beginning my foray into the world of beer so I may still be developing my palate, but I found most Belgian beers a little difficult to drink other than the Brugse Zot. I think it was the combination of new and different spices that I’m not used to, but I did have fun trying them all.

Up next, Germany and a little festival called Oktoberfest (you may have heard of it?) will throw down in Round 2 of the Great Beer-Off of 2016!

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Moving Pictures: Belgium & The Netherlands

I finally finished putting this video together from our trip to Belgium & The Netherlands in April! Highlights include: Chris wearing what looks like a Burger King birthday party hat, secrets of how those little wooden clogs are really made, and I make a cameo amongst a tulip garden.

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Eating and Drinking Our Way Around Isla Mujeres

Dining on Caribbean islands has been a little hit-or-miss for Chris and me. We have found plenty of amazing restaurants and beach bars in our isle-hopping adventures, but we’ve also encountered our share of eateries that left us feeling a little “meh.” I’m especially always on the lookout for places that are worth the price which is often on the high side, understandably so, due to the amount of effort it takes to import food onto a small island.

All this is to say, we were very pleasantly surprised by the quality of food we found all over Mexico’s tiny island AND at such good prices. We often enjoyed drinks, entrées, and dessert for about $20-30 USD, which is unheard of in the USVI or the BVI, for example. So in order to share our recommendations and to relive the deliciousness that was Isla Mujeres, I put together a list of our absolute favorites.
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Polo’s Mango Cafe

When Chris and I arrived on the island, we practically made a beeline to Polo’s Mango Cafe since it came highly recommended to us by so many reviews on TripAdvisor and also by my very own sister and brother-in-law who had enjoyed the restaurant on a trip to Isla Mujeres a few years ago. We ended up eating here twice, and my favorite out of all the dishes was easily the popular stuffed poblano pepper. I’m not a morning person (understatement) and often find it difficult to get going in time for breakfast out, especially on a lazy-themed trip, so I was happy to discover their breakfast menu extended well into lunch hours! This is definitely a don’t-miss restaurant.

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Basto’s Grill

We went to Basto’s Grill based on our villa host’s recommendation. This little hidden gem was a bit tricky to find, but worth the effort. (It’s exactly where it says it is on Google Maps, but it’s tucked away among residences.) We ate here on a super hot day though, and I think maybe the heat made me forget to photograph our food. Oops! I distinctly remember the chips and salsa here being one of my favorites, and their quesadilla hit the spot. Chris loved the crispy tacos, which were rolled up and fried, more like flautas.

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La Catrina

We popped into La Catrina for lunch one afternoon when we found ourselves ravenous after a morning of snorkeling around the Lighthouse. I ordered a rum punch and ended up with two because our server explained, “That’s the way we do it on Isla Mujeres.” So two rum punches on an empty stomach it is! And that, my friends, is a great way to almost forget where you park your golf cart. Man were those tacos delicious! I may or may not have been biased by post-snorkeling exhaustion and/or rum punch deliriousness, but I loved this place. And I burned off all the taco calories by wandering the streets in search of our golf cart. Win-win!

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Qubano

Another restaurant I had my sights set on before we even arrived in Mexico was Qubano because I simply can’t resist a good Cubano sandwich. It’s one of my favorites, and Qubano’s version didn’t disappoint! I surprised myself by also really digging the toston sandwich with fried plantains in place of a bun. Get the sampler platter if you’re not quite sure about it – you’ll get to try the Cubano, the toston sandwich, and two other fun sliders.

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Green Verde

Green Verde, ranked quite high on the TripAdvisor list, turned out to be one of our very favorites. I wish we had time to eat there more than once! This is where Chris found his favorite tacos of the week, and I loved the grilled steak burrito and my mojito. The atmosphere is super cute, and they serve breakfast, too.

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For dessert, we were curious about the “Tequila Banana” which sounded like a drink, but when we ordered it, this is what arrived! It was quite tasty.

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Limón

I celebrated a birthday on Isla Mujeres, and I chose Limón for my celebratory dinner so that we could try one of the island’s finer dining spots. Chris ordered grilled chicken skewers and I enjoyed a stuffed fish fillet with mixed veggies. One thing to note: despite being one of the more upscale establishments on the island, Limón does not take credit cards. We wish we had been aware of that policy before we arrived because we would have opted to bring more cash.

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The food was great, but the real star of the show was the Piña Estilo Sergio or Pineapple Sergio Style which served as my birthday cake! I’d love to try to replicate this at home someday, but I’m trying to remember exactly what was in it. It’s grilled pineapple with brown sugar, butter, brandy, cinnamon, and a scoop of vanilla ice cream at least, and maybe one other thing that I’m forgetting. Nutmeg? Amazingness? If you’re on the island, don’t miss this fantastic dessert.

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Bahama Mama

Last but not least, we ended the week at Bahama Mama, where we found a fun mixture of Caribbean and Cuban influenced dishes. I wasn’t necessarily expecting a homemade sweet bread as an appetizer, but I am so very glad we got to try it and I wish it was sitting in front of me right now. It reminded me of King’s Hawaiian bread, only better. We rounded out our Isla Mujeres dining experience by devouring frozen drinks, that wonderful bread, coconut shrimp (check out all of those side dishes – come here hungry!), and empanadas.

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After spending a week on Isla Mujeres and eating/drinking our way across the island, we can easily say this was one of our favorites if not THE top contender for island food so far! The bar has definitely been set for our future Caribbean travels.

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Note: all of the restaurants in this post are accurately marked on Google Maps with the exception of Limón. At the time of posting, their new location at Isla 33 Resort & Villas had not yet been updated.

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In Search of Whale Sharks

As I mentioned in my previous post, the main reason Chris and I ended up on Isla Mujeres this year was to search for and swim with whale sharks. I’m not sure we would have picked Isla Mujeres otherwise (though we ended up really enjoying it), and a bit of anxiety built up as I worried we wouldn’t find the sharks on this trip. But I felt like it was a good omen to see this mural on the way to our villa the first day!

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I absolutely love animal encounters. They’re often the highlight of my travels, and I can’t ever get enough of photographing our furry, feathered, and finned friends. That said, I’m very picky about my experiences with animals. I try to learn as much as I can upfront about popular animal-related excursions, and I absolutely refuse to participate in anything where the animals are mistreated. I was happy to learn that many of the whale shark tours in Isla Mujeres respect the marine life and environment. (Sadly, the same cannot be said about swim-with-dolphins type experiences on the island. Please do not patronize these businesses!)

I ended up choosing On Isla Mujeres for those ethical reasons and because they received consistent glowing reviews. As a bonus, their boat, the Anastascia II, offered the convenience of a restroom on board. With a long, choppy trek out to sea that could take a couple of hours round trip, it just seemed like a good idea! I also specifically planned our trip around the week smack in the middle of whale shark season (June – September), and on a week with a full moon since this apparently might increase the chances of a whale shark sighting. (It’s something to do with the science of the full moon and the tide and an abundance of plankton).

So on the Monday of our week on Isla Mujeres we met our group at the marina behind Oscar’s in hopes of seeing these giant fish. I figured if we didn’t have any luck, we still had plenty of time during the rest of the week.

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The trip out to sea took almost an hour, and we ended up over twenty-five miles away from shore. Fisherman ships radioed to our captain with a pin-pointed area where we could find the sharks, and they weren’t wrong. When we arrived, we could see a dozen or so boats and several people in the water, but the presence of other people quickly receded to the back of my mind because we were also surrounded by sharks.

Huge, polka-dotted sharks, longer than some of the boats. And so many of them.

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While everyone in our group geared up in masks, fins, and life jackets, we all watched and collectively gasped as the giants gracefully maneuvered around with their mouths agape to scoop up thousands and thousands of tiny plankton.

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And then it was our turn to jump into the deep blue sea. The first time Chris and I entered the water, we did so without cameras in order to enjoy the experience through our eyes only, and I’ll never forget the sight of a four-foot-wide mouth sneaking up on from my side, just inches away from me. Breathtaking.

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Suffice it to say, this was my most challenging photographic subject to-date, and that’s saying something considering my experience with photographing toddlers! The sharks are huge, but they’re faster than I expected. It was actually kind of exhausting (but fun) trying to keep up with them. Thankfully we lucked out on a day where there were just dozens of sharks in the water, so when one disappeared another one showed up over our shoulders.

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I’m not sure what they think of us being in the water during their feeding time, but they seemed neutral and unconcerned, as much as I could read a shark’s thoughts and feelings. They swam extremely close to us while collecting plankton, so I wonder if perhaps they’re even a little curious about us humans. But as I mentioned, it’s important to me that the animals aren’t impacted by our presence in any encounter. I’ve read some awful stories about tour companies that allow people to touch the whale sharks and hang onto them, and that makes me cringe.

From what I observed that day, none of the tour operators were feeding the sharks or allowing people to touch them. We were specifically instructed by On Isla Mujeres not to touch the sharks, and to wear marine-safe sunscreen. A maximum of two people were allowed in the water at a time, and only with a guide. So overall, it seemed to be a nice opportunity to simply observe these creatures up close in their natural environment without disturbing them.DCIM100GOPROG0030076.

After our adventure with the gentle giants, we moved closer to shore and stopped at a reef for snorkeling. I was actually a little underwhelmed with the snorkeling spot as the waves were pretty choppy and it was a little too deep (maybe 20+ feet?) to really see the coral and fish. I spotted a huge sea turtle along the ocean floor, but I didn’t bother with photos since he was so far away. On the plus side, the coral looked pristine and healthy.

For our third and final stop, we anchored at North Beach where our guides prepared fresh ceviche and tortilla chips for us. I had opted not to eat anything before the ride out to the whale sharks in case it was choppy (it was), so I was ravenous and managed not to take photos of our meal! It was especially cute that we used floating lifejackets as makeshift tables in the water. But I assure you it was delicious, and there’s nothing like standing in crystal clear water, enjoying drinks and a great meal after a big swim.

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And with that, I am officially crossing this one off the ol’ bucket list, and I feel like I leveled up quite a bit in my ocean bravery skills!

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  • Pam SpryAugust 14, 2016 - 6:50 pm

    You’re the bravest person I know! Beautiful pictures!

  • SusanAugust 20, 2016 - 10:47 am

    Aw, thanks Pam! This didn’t require a ton of bravery – the sharks were totally harmless! Easy peasy. Just put a spider in front of me and you’ll see I’m not brave at all. 😉

Isla Mujeres: A (Very) Tiny Slice of Mexico

In my progression of getting over a fear of the ocean, I decided last year that for my next challenge I wanted to literally go BIG and swim alongside the largest fish in the water, the whale shark. My research pointed me to a few places where one might be able to find whale sharks, including Isla Mujeres, a small island off the coast of Mexico. Only a three-hour (and direct!) flight away from Washington-Dulles and a short ferry ride from Cancun, Isla Mujeres intrigued Chris and me since we love tiny islands. Plus, neither of us had been to Mexico since we were kids, so off we went last week!

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Our tradition of staying at the perfect beach villa instead of a hotel or resort continued when we discovered Casa Marchon in Punta Sur. Tucked away on the quieter end of the island, but still only a few minutes away from the bustle and convenience of the main town, Casa Marchon totally suited us for a week on Isla Mujeres.

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We were spoiled all week by having not one but TWO pools in which to beat the heat, and giant protective umbrellas for those of us with fairer skin. When we weren’t swimming with whale sharks or exploring the island, Chris and I could be found relaxing (or goofing around) at either pool.

When I planned this trip, I initially wanted to include a day trek to the mainland to visit Chichen Itza, but as we got closer to departure I hemmed and hawed about going as I watched the July forecast rise in temperatures. Chris and I pretty much began to melt once our plane touched down in Mexico, and we ultimately decided not to stray too far from the relief of a pool or the ocean. We’ll simply have to visit the world-wonder another time.

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Though we saw plenty of scooters and a handful of cars in the mix, the main mode of transportation for Isla Mujeres visitors is via golf cart. You can pop over from Cancun for the day and get around by taxi, or to up the fun factor you can rent a golf cart (or scooter) for the day and see the island on your own time. We rented one for the week and carted all over the island, up and down as many streets as we could find. At a whopping five miles long, it doesn’t take much time to travel the entire island, even in a golf cart. (Note to self: GoPro portraits can be a little unflattering, especially to the arms. Yikes.)

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Despite the lack of a/c, we really enjoyed our little golf cart. I brought a piece of red ribbon and tied it to our cart so we could remember which one was ours when we parked in town. I mean, I guess I could have memorized the license plate number, but…after a few margaritas, it’s just easier to spot a ribbon. Toting our snorkel gear and getting our groceries (read: cases of beer) home from the store proved to be a bit trickier on the golf cart vs. a car, but we were up for the challenge.

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Speaking of groceries, one of the biggest differences between Isla Mujeres and some of our other island experiences was the huge supermarket, Chedraui. I didn’t even have to pack my usual arsenal of full-size sunscreen bottles because we were able to find everything at the store! Well, everything except relish and salsa. And even better, the sunscreen didn’t cost more than it would at home.

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Typically Chris and I shop for food so we can eat breakfasts and lunches at “home” and then go out for dinners, but we simply couldn’t help ourselves with all of the amazing food all over the island. We loved trying the restaurants, and marveled at the amazingly inexpensive cost of food and drinks compared to other islands. And the food was so gorgeous I actually remembered to take pictures this time! I may have enough to scrape together a blog post solely on Isla Mujeres restaurants. Stay tuned.

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When we weren’t blissing out by the pool or eating tacos/drinking mojitos, we tried to see as much of the island as we could, from North Beach down to the Mayan ruins of Punta Sur (more on that soon). I adored the cheerful colors everywhere we looked, and managed to almost get used to the 110-degree heat index by the end of the week.

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Coming up next: we head out to sea in search of whale sharks!

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  • AdrienneAugust 1, 2016 - 5:12 pm

    Gorgeous pics! Your VRBO looks amazing and so does all that food. I can’t wait to see and hear about your whale shark adventure! :)

  • SusanAugust 20, 2016 - 10:48 am

    Thank you, Adrienne! I can’t wait to see/hear more about your whale shark adventure, too!

  • DeeAugust 22, 2016 - 9:28 am

    We will be on the island in 5 days! I bought the mapchick’s maps and want to hit ALL the restaurants … which were your favorites? Any tips appreciated! :)

  • SusanAugust 22, 2016 - 3:14 pm

    Hi Dee! You’re going to LOVE Isla Mujeres! The MapChick maps definitely help, and I just pressed “Publish” on my restaurant round-up post: http://www.susansolo.com/eating-and-drinking-our-way-around-isla-mujeres. I hope that helps, and have an amazing time!