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Setting the bar high in Abel Tasman! June 3, 2013

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Our first weekend in New Zealand was one of adventure. It really set the tone for the rest of the trip! We split our group of 50 into a few smaller travel groups to make things easier to coordinate and I ended up spending my first weekend with 10 people I barely knew. Its amazing how quickly we all became friends and its one of the wonderful things about traveling. It brings people together unlike any thing else! We took a ferry from Wellington to the South Island and drove to Abel Tasman National Park. Driving on the left side of the road was an interesting experience that we were all getting used to! It was the landscape though that took the most getting used to. New Zealand is an incredible place. It seems like around every corner there is something spectacular to look at. Just when you think it can’t get any more picturesque, there’s something new and different that is just as breathe-taking. In our first drive, for example, we saw rolling green hills and pastures, followed by acres of vineyards and small wineries right out of a Tuscan scene. Next were pine forests and the road began to wind around steeper slopes. And finally we reached the beautiful coast with the bluest water I had ever seen. We pulled the cars over and anxiously began our first hike. We hiked to Apple Tree Bay, about an hour into the park. We were filled with so much excitement and the 11 of us simply sat and looked out across the water.

We drove back towards the small town of Nelson, where we were staying in a hostel for the weekend. We stopped and ate a very late dinner, but it was certainly worth the wait. We ate some of the strangest, but most delicious pizza I have ever had!

The next day, we met up with another group and we all went sea kayaking! Kaitlyn and I jumped into our big yellow kayak and set off. Paddling was exhausting, but it was worth every bit of effort. First we kayaked to a beach where we all ate picnic style lunches. Afterwards, we kayaked closer to the rocky coast and were able to kayak into caves that dotted the coastline! It was very nerve-racking to kayak into a pitch-black cave with no idea of how deep it was or what was lurking at the end of the black tunnel. It’s safe to say that Kaitlyn and I were not the first ones to enter any of the caves! After the caves, the group made its way across the bay to Adele Island. We had heard that it was the place to go to see seals….We were not disappointed! We kayaked around the island and saw groups of seals sun bathing on the rocks, playing on the beach, and zigzagging through the water. We found a small patch of beach to land on, and the group took a much-needed break from paddling on the beautiful and deserted island. While exploring this small piece of coastline, we came across a baby seal! Amazingly the young seal was not scared away by us, it was even playful and interested in us! We wanted to stay on that beach all day but we had to return our kayaks and begrudgingly began our paddle back to shore.

The next day, we went on one last hike before heading back to Wellington. We saw a beautiful waterfall and hiked to the top of a ridge that provided panoramic views of the park. We came across a family who were lingering on a bridge over the river. We watched as the father jumped off the bridge into the water and pressured his daughter to jump in as well. Even the 6 year old boy seemed ready to scramble over the railing and jump into the water! We accepted the challenge and one by one, each of us made the jump into the chilly water. It was a perfect ending to the weekend of adventure. After that, we returned to the marina and boarded our ferry with only moments to spare! We returned to our dorms in Wellington at 3 in the morning and immediately crashed. We woke up the next day for our 8 a.m. class and what we lacked in sleep we more than made up for with memories.

Highclere Castle…aka Downton Abbey!! August 20, 2012

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While traveling around Europe on a coach bus, my friend Elise got me addicted to the show Downton Abbey. We watched all of season one on our long road trips betweens cities. After we finished that, we were so engrossed that we bought season two and watched that in Oxford! Towards the end of our time in England, we decided to go see the place for ourselves! So Elise and I hopped on a train and took a short cab ride from the train station out to the estate. Here was our first glimpse:

 

We began the day by taking a tour of the house. For anyone who has seen the show, the answer is yes…It looks EXACTLY the same as it does in the series! The library, dining hall, bedrooms, and sitting rooms were magnificent and there were pictures of the family who owns the estate in all of the rooms as well. The owner, Lord Carnarvon, is the grandson of the famous Earl of Carnarvon who played a major part in the discovery of King Tut’s tomb. The house was designed and rebuilt by famous architect Charles Barry, who is well known for designing the Houses of Parliament. Those are just a few highlights of the tour. Highclere Castle has a very rich history and it was interesting to see the real stories behind Downton Abbey. After our tour of the house, we then wandered around the gardens and we ended up in the meadow. There was a never-ending meadow of wildflowers right behind the castle:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After walking around the grounds, Elise and I sat down and enjoyed an authentic cup of English tea! It was definitely one of the best days of the trip, and it was well worth the effort of getting out to the country. Visiting a castle in the English countryside was an experience that I will never forget. It will be interesting to see the new season of Downton Abbey now that I’ve been there in person! I definitely felt like I had been transported back in time during my trip to Highclere Castle! It was a nice relaxing day away from the hustle and bustle of the cities that we had become so accustomed to:

 

 

London! August 8, 2012

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We took many day trips to London during our time at Oxford. It was only an hour or so by bus and it was pretty cheap to get there and back so it was always well worth the trip. As pathetic as this sounds, our first priority was finding the chipotle and eating there for lunch! We had all been going through withdrawal so it was a momentous day. After lunch we took a bus tour around London. Since London is so huge and there is so much to see, we decided it was worth it to ride the double decker buses around to each sight. Plus it was fun… We saw Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, the Olympic rings, London Bridge, Trafalgar Square, and more! It was quite a busy day. The next day, we went to Harrods. Harrods is my new favorite place on this planet. It is like an amusement park… I spent hours wandering around the stores and marveling at the designers. That night, I met up with my cousins who were studying abroad in London. It was great to finally see some family! I hadn’t seen them in a couple years, so it was great to catch up with them and see the city at the same time. Here is us in front of the Tower of London:

 

Everyone I talked to in London was extremely excited for the upcoming Olympics! The locals were all anxious about the Olympics going off without a hitch. The Games were definitely a source of pride for the people in London and they were very hopeful that their athletes would represent them well as the host city. Here is a picture of the countdown in Trafalgar Square:

 

The next week, I made another day trip to London with my friend Elise. We revisited Harrods because she hadn’t been there yet and its something you can’t miss. We then walked through Hyde Park. Hyde Park is not only massive, but it is beautiful and serene! It was nice to see all of the locals out and enjoying the unusual sunny day in London:

 

London is such a vibrant city that is full of things to do and see. I still don’t feel like I even scratched the surface! I definitely think its a place worth revisiting because there are so many things I still want to see there. I can’t wait to make my way back there again someday!

Interlaken August 4, 2012

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For our last weekend trip, four of my friends and I went to Interlaken Switzerland to see what all the hype was about…. It was honestly the best weekend of my life by a long shot! Our trip started out pretty rocky though. We left Heathrow at around 8 and landed at 10. We spent the next 8 hours quite literally trapped in the airport…It all started when we found a nice big empty terminal where we thought we could nap until our train was supposed to leave. What we didn’t know, however, was that the airport literally shuts down for the night. We were literally locked in the airport, with no way of getting into the country, in the middle of the night, with no one in sight. By the time 6 a.m. rolled around though I was sitting outside of customs, trapped by glass doors, praying for someone to come save us! We had already missed our train by that point and we were getting a little restless. Finally there were signs of human life when the airport employees began arriving for work with their coffees. Yes. I was there before they were. That was definitely a first for me! We eventually made it into Switzerland and hopped on a train for Interlaken. Our adventure had finally finally begun! Here is a picture of my friend Matt attempting to sleep at around 4 in the morning:

After zero sleep and over 14 hours of traveling, we arrived in Interlaken. From the first step out of the train station, I immediately fell in love. The town, the mountains, the glaciers, the lakes, the people, and everything else was perfect to me. I loved how small and quaint it was. After dropping our bags at the hostel, my friend Elise and I headed to go paragliding! I hadn’t even heard of paragliding until I went to Interlaken so I will explain what exactly this is. It is similar to hangliding, but you are attached to a parachute instead. You and your guide simply run off the side of a mountain, the wind picks you up, and you glide through the air and enjoy spectacular views of Interlaken, Junfrau Mountain, and the surrounding lakes! As someone who is afraid of heights, I was skeptical and slightly terrified at this idea, but I ended up loving it! Definitely one of my favorite experiences so far! And yes, this is a picture of me up there.

The next day, we all went canyoning. This basically means that we attempted to conquer nature’s obstacle course. Alex, Elise, Matt, Tyler, and I were up for the challenge! We repelled down cliff faces, climb over rocks, waded through rivers, jumped off water falls, rode zip lines, and slid into pools of water! Extreme is an understatement. My heart was beating the entire time and every moment in the canyon was a blast! It was one obstacle after another, but we all made it out relatively unscathed. Matt unfortunately popped his ear drum after jumping off a water fall, but he was a trooper and kept going without a complaint! Canyoning was the most unique thing I have ever done. It was challenging, but fun. It was in one of the most scenic places in the world. It was an outdoor activity that I was lucky enough to experience with some of my closest friends! It was more than an amazing memory, it was a blessing! Here’s a picture of the canyon:

We spent the rest of our time hanging out in the room full of hammocks that was in our hostel. We napped, listened to music, and just enjoyed our last weekend trip together. It was so nice to spend some good time with my friends before we have to go home. I will miss these kids, I can’t believe how fast our summer went by!

Venice August 4, 2012

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After the hustle and bustle that was Rome, it was very nice to get to Venice where the pace was much slower! Immediately upon arrival, we could feel the change. Even though we did a lot in our three days in Venice, it still felt relaxing and it was the perfect way to end our time in Italy. On the first day, we had a lecture at the Accademia. After class, we wandered through the maze of alleys and canals and explored the city! Venice is the type of place that you can just aimlessly walk through and get lost in. The Grand Canal was never far away and as long as you can find the Grand Canal, you can always find your way home. We spent the next day at the Peggy Guggenheim museum and then we took a day trip to the island of Murano. Murano was a beautiful mini-Venice that had hundreds of glass stores. After a couple of hours on Murano, however, I found that I had cleaned my wallet out during an uncharacteristic spending spree. (A word of caution to anyone who plans to visit Murano: don’t bring your credit card…You will not be able to recover from the damage that is done on that island.) Everything at Murano was so unique, it was too tempting to resist. I ended up buying three gifts for my sisters as well as one for my mom. At least I got something for my money though, which is more than I can say for many of my friends who had some bad luck that night. That evening, we decided to get dressed up and have a group outing to the casino! We did not fit in at all at this fancy casino, but since there were so many of us, we didn’t feel too under dressed. As I said before, the casino was good to some people, but very very bad to most. I spent most of my time resisting the urge to gamble, but after witnessing my friend lose $150 in twenty minutes flat, this task became much easier! (On a side note, this friend won back all of his money three hours later. He was the only one rewarded for his persistence that night!) There was definitely an obvious increase in penny pinching over the next couple of days!

    

The next day, we decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather and head to the beach. Lido was quickly overrun by 40 Georgia Tech students. After a few friendly games of beach volleyball however, things got serious. A group of speedo-sporting italian men walked up and challenged our guys to a game. As they walked up in their matching black speedos and greasy hair, I thought team GT was done for. I was pleasantly surprised though when our team stepped up and won! College guys are apparently semi-professional volleyball players at heart. We left Lido relaxed, victorious, and a little bit tanner than before.

That night, we went to the San Vidal Church for an orchestra performance. San Vidal was beautiful! It was like sitting in museum. We listened the orchestra play the Four Seasons….Of course. The Four Seasons… It was a very fitting ending to our time in Italy, which was my favorite country by far! Sitting in San Vidal, listening to the orchestra play was one of my favorite memories of the entire trip.

 

Florence: Food, Friends, and Frescoes August 1, 2012

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Florence. Where to begin? It was my first time visiting Italy and it was everything I had been expecting and more! From the Uffizi Gallery to the Brancacci Chapel, from Michelangelo to Leonardo Da Vinci, from pizza to endless gelato, we did everything there was to do in Florence. Because the city was so compact and easy to walk, it was natural to casually stroll past the Duomo two to three times a day. But the funny thing about the Duomo is that no matter how many times you’ve seen it, it always sneaks up on you just the same. One minute you’re walking through a crowded street when all of a sudden you turn a corner and bam! Its right there in front of you! You don’t see it until it is right in front of your face.
              

Our art professor, Dr. Townsend (more informally known as T-Town), took us on a walking tour through the city. We went from chapel, to museum, to more chapels, exploring every amazing piece of art that Florence has to offer. It was a marathon of sorts! There is an endless amount of things to see in Florence, the home of the Italian Renaissance. It was fun to see Dr. Townsend so excited about it all. She had a unique way of taking her passion and instilling it in all of us. She would talk about each painting and sculpture with such enthusiasm, it was impossible to be disengaged! One of my favorite memories of the trip happened in Florence when we had a break after a lecture at a museum. Usually by the end of lectures, everyone is starving and ready to split and find the closest cafe/gelateria. But at the end of this lecture, Dr. Townsend said that she was headed to Santa Croce (a smaller cathedral) if anyone wanted to join her. Considering we had spent the last three hours looking at churches, naturally most people bolted, but my friend Elise and I stayed back. I had always wanted to visit Santa Croce because it was one of the key places in my absolute favorite book that I had read growing up. (It was one of those books that virtually no one else has read so you don’t even bother asking if people know what it is) So since this particular place was on my bucket list of random things to do, Elise and I decided to go with Dr. Townsend since we had planned on going at some point anyways. Little did I know that we would get to spend the next two hours walking through an amazing Cathedral with basically  our own personal tour guide. Elise, Dr. Townsend, and I made our way through at a glacial pace and it was incredible. We saw the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Dante, and more. We saw frescoes of the famous Giotto. Elise and I had the opportunity to stroll through Santa Croce and talk with an expert for free. How often does that chance come around? It was one of those unique things that you can’t plan, but you have to take advantage of in the moment.

  

One thing I discovered during my time in Florence is that Italy truly does have the best food on Earth. Every single meal was special. I began stealthily taking photos to avoid looking like a complete tourist, but lets be honest…we stick out like sore thumbs despite even our best efforts to blend in. It was a lost cause and we gave up pretty quickly on the whole blending in thing. Here were some of my favorites:

 

In order to make my time in Florence even more like a Hollywood movie, we ended the night sitting on top of a hill, watching the sun set with all 49 members of my travel group. It was definitely a fitting way to end our first couple of days in Italy!