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New Zealand Road Trip

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Road Trip Itinerary for Two Weeks: South Island & North Island

How we came up with this New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary

When I started traveling, I prioritized my trips by what seemed accessible: geographically, culturally, and financially.  I’d squeeze trips in for any amount of time I had: weeklong vacations, three-day weekends, it didn’t matter. For me, any free time at all was enough time for a trip.   While that early love of travel was imprinting, I began to accumulate a wishlist of trips that seemed just beyond the horizon: trips that seemed too far, too grand/complicated, or required just too much time.

It is those beyond-the-horizon trips that I’ve been pursuing this past year – and plan to pursue well into 2019 and beyond.  And for years, a New Zealand road trip had sat atop that list.

We (brother, boyfriend, and I) carved out two weeks in early December (NZ spring/summer).  Armed with a dozen+ itineraries from friends and others, we attempted to prioritize experiences for a trip that could’ve easily been 4-6 weeks.  We spent ~5 days on the North Island and 1.5 weeks on the South Island. Unanimously, we would prioritize the South Island for a trip of any length.  The New Zealand road trip itinerary below is a suggestion of how we’d do it – if we could do it again.

All 3 of us atop the Franz Josef Glacier

South Island Itinerary

Abel Tasman National Park

We started our road trip at the top of the South Island, flying into the Nelson Airport (about 1.5h flight from Auckland).  First thing first, we picked up our rental car just outside the one-room terminal of this local airport. We wanted to prioritize the pristinely preserved rugged coastline of Abel Tasman National Park and its inhabitants (fur seals!).

Unspoiled National Park

Where to stay:

We had two options: stay in the town of Nelson (our 20 minute drive through this town confirmed that it was the correct choice not to stay here) or drive the hour north to the Kimi Ora Eco Lodge.  Originally, we chose it for convenience – right outside the National Park (NP), we had an early morning kayaking trip and didn’t want to do big back-and-forth drives early.  Kimi Ora exceeded our expectations. Not only is it conveniently located at the park’s entrance, but it has gorgeous lodge apartments, set above the bay, with magnificent views of the ocean (and decks to sit out on).  Its restaurant is also the best in the area (see below).

What to do:

The National Park is the star of the show – be SURE to book your activities in advance.  We did a full-day kayaking trip with lunch on a secluded beach through Wilsons, one of the most reputable companies.  I quickly learned that I and my motion-sickness do NOT love kayaking, but the views in the National Park were jaw-droppingly beautiful and kayaking through the water with fur seals was awesome.  Kayaking not your thing? Check out 10 activities to do in Abel Tasman.  

Geared-up, before I realized I’d get massively sea-sick

If you’re kayaking: the sun is no joke – you will need more sunscreen than you think.  Be prepared to get wet – wear water shoes. And bring lots of layers – the temps and winds change rapidly.

Where to eat:

If you’re staying in Nelson, or driving through Nelson (to or from), we loved our lunch at Boatshed on the pier.  We did the “trust the chef” menu, which was an inventive, fresh, local assortment of dishes – thoroughly enjoyed.

The Views restaurant at Kimi Ora Eco lodge is the best around the NP (of 5 total options).  It’s a vegetarian restaurant with spectacular ocean views. We loved the mushroom and gorgonzola pizza and it had good local wine selections.  Fun fact: it was also the strongest wifi we had the entire trip.

In Kaiteriteri, just below Kimi Ora, and where all of the NP day trips meet: check out the grocery store – great wines and snacks and was a good place to stock up on road-trip noshes.  Lastly, Gone Burger had very good fish and chips, despite horribly rude staff.

If we had extra time: We would’ve loved to explore nearby Marlborough – the largest wine area in New Zealand and known for the world’s best Sauvignon Blancs.  However, with an entire island to explore, we headed to the Wild West Coast.

 

Road Trip Down the Wild West Coast

The South Island’s west coast is marketed as a whole ‘nother world, and it certainly is – with rugged landscapes filled with Jurassic-Park-esque flora that slide right into the ocean.   Untamed beauty. The drive from Abel Tasman to stop #1 Punakaiki is just under 4 hours. On the way, a must-stop is Foul Winds.  The water walk is a 15-minute ocean vista promenade that rewards you at the end with a fur seal colony. That’s right people – fur seals! Total highlight.  It also is a good rest stop and sells coffee and ice cream.

An hour later driving along the coast on Highway 6, we reached Punakaiki to see the famed pancake rocks.  And while the curious limestone formations were pretty cool, we had missed high tide – and thus the “blow holes” that the area is famous for.  With the territory we needed to cover, there was no way to make the timing work – but for something more impressive than mysterious rock formations, we’d recommend timing to coincide with high tide.

Where to stay and eat:  Punakaiki Resort, set right on the beach, which had gorgeous views of the water.

Notes for road trippers:

Stock up on gas here (we’re talking full tank) as there are stretches along Highway 6 as long as 90+ kilometers without gas stations.  The roads are twisty and full of narrow (read: one lane) bridges. This is the day for your most capable left-side driver.

If we had an extra day: We would’ve done some shopping in Greymouth the next town after Punakaiki, which is known as the best place to get New Zealand greenstone jewelry.   Note: we did stop to gemstone shop, but stores are only open between 10am-5pm here.  What was open was the Nimmo Gallery, which had incredible photography and curated local gifts – it was one of our most successful places to buy NZ presents!  We also would have spent time exploring the funky town of Hokitika, which was a little too far out of the way for the distance we needed to travel.

Glacier Country

Our next day, we continued the down the west coast towards Glacier Country.  A must stop is the Hokitika Gorge, well worth the 1.5-2 hour detour.  It’s about 25 minutes off of State Highway 6.  The gorge itself is a 20-30 minute round trip walk from the car park (which also has a little food stand) and the scenery is….gorgeous.  (C’mon, you knew that pun was coming.) Word to the wise: wear all the bug spray: the sand flies are vicious.

From the Gorge, we drove the straight 2 hours to the Glaciers: Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier (30 minutes drive one from the other).  Visiting here is a rare opportunity to access a glacier; we hoped to experience it via heli-hike (a helicopter ride to the top of the FJ Glacier + a 2-hour hike). We quickly learned that visibility in glacier country is temperamental – with the helicopters able to fly only 25-50% of the time. Sadly, we were not in luck that first afternoon – all helicopters to the glacier had been canceled because of cloud coverage.

With dozens of adventure tour outfitters based on the main street of Franz Josef village, we found ourselves on a quad bike tour.  FJ is one of the only glaciers in the world that ends in a rainforest, and so we explored the valley, river, grasslands, and rainforest via quad bike.  While it wasn’t a must – it was incredibly fun, and a great activity in the wake of a canceled heli-hike.

The next morning, we tried again for the heli-hike.  Since the visibility wasn’t clear for the whole 3 hours (to drop us off, hike, and pick us up), they canceled the hike part, but kept the helicopter to the top. Five of us climbed aboard the helicopter for a 30-minute round trip tour of the glaciers with a snow-landing on the top of Franz Josef.  Breathtaking. An absolute must – and unanimously a trip highlight for all 3 of us.  If you have the interest and time (and are in shape), definitely try for the hike – but we were so grateful for the incredible experience of the helicopter snow-landing on the top of the glacier.

You can actually see the ice flowing from the Glacier into the valley

 

Where to stay & eat: we stayed in the Te Wanoui Forest Retreat, which was a beautiful hotel.  We ate at the hotel’s restaurant for its five-course degustation menu. One of the better dining options in town, but not noteworthy otherwise.

Drive to Wanaka

The next day, we drove to Wanaka.  There are dozens of potential stops along the way, including the Fox Glacier area – and plenty of well-known hikes and vistas.  However, the weather wasn’t behaving – and with no visibility for views – and some crunched timing – we waved from the car instead of making all the stops. We stopped for lunch along the way at “The Salmon Farm,” which is well marked on the route; it’s over-priced, yet delicious, and clearly one of the only pitstops along the route as all the tour buses and groups were there as well.  After the Salmon Farm, the remainder of the drive was through Mount Aspiring National Park. A world heritage site, there were, again, dozens of little walking trails and hikes throughout. When the sun finally cleared, we stopped at the Blue Pools, for a 30-minute nature trail. And then finally, we reached Wanaka.

Wanaka

If we had only one place where we could add more time, it would’ve been in Wanaka (yes, I know, we wanted a full additional week in the South Island, but work with me on this).  Unlike the majority of towns we visited in NZ, which were somewhat rundown former mining communities, Wanaka is breathtaking. The town itself is on the shores of Lake Wanaka, surrounded by mountains that drop straight into the water.  Wanaka is known for outdoor activities and has dozens of great gift shops and home goods stores.  Sadly for us, we arrived late Sunday afternoon. Keep in mind that on most days, things in NZ close at 5pm…on Sunday, they close even earlier.  We walked around the town a little as the shops were closing, which left us wanting more.

Where to eat:

Our favorite meal in New Zealand Kika. If we could’ve, we would’ve eaten every meal here for our entire two weeks.  It’s the number one restaurant in NZ for a reason. Don’t miss. For a casual lunch or breakfast, check out the Big Fig (also in Queenstown).

Where to stay:

The Wanaka Homestead – beautiful bed and breakfast on the lake; a 10-minute walk from downtown and only minutes from #thatwanakatree,  also known as the lonely tree (but let’s be clear the tree is never lonely…there are always a million tourists photographing it).

#thatwanakatree

Queenstown

Only a 50-minute drive from Wanaka is Queenstown: New Zealand’s adventure capital.  Sadly for us, the adventure started the moment we got in the car.  Despite clocking in at just under an hour, the drive was one of the most treacherous stretches of roads we encountered (and we thought the bar was low to begin with). Think: terribly narrow, twisting roads with stretches that are only one-lane, and the side is a sheer cliff.  Oh, we also had dense fog, making the visibility quite poor. If you are planning on road tripping make sure at least one driver is not afraid of heights. This drive is not, I repeat NOT, for the faint of heart.

Queenstown is worth it: a properly beautiful small city, nestled into hills and mountainsides sloping into the lake.  Because of the access to incredible outdoor adventures, it’s an adrenaline junkie’s paradise. It’s also hell looking for parking.

We packed our one full day in Queenstown full of adventure, starting with the Dart River jet boating (be prepared, you’ll get wet), which included a forest walk.  The scenery was beautiful and we learned quite a bit about NZ flora and fauna and also loved the racing jet boats through the Dart River.

Next up: bungee jumping. The Karawau Bridge is the OG site where bungee jumping was invented.  Christian went for it, while we just grabbed drinks at the bar (aptly named Liquid Courage) and watched him plunge headfirst into the gorge. Tip: Make sure to leave yourselves lots of time for those who are hesitant and might need more time before they jump.   

Getting ready to jump…

We did a little shopping around Queenstown (great for souvenirs) and then had our favorite Queenstown experience: relaxing in the private Onsen hot-pools overlooking Shotover River Canyon.  Ten out of ten.

Onsen Hot Pools Spa

Where to stay:

The Dairy Private Hotel.  Gorgeous boutique hotel with funky rooms, a great location in town, onsite parking, and an extremely knowledgeable proprietor who helped us with everything from reservations to shopping recommendations.

Where to eat:

Everyone is going to tell you that you must eat at Fergburger.  And you’re going to.  And the burger is going to be very good, great even.  Will it be the World’s Best Burger, as CNN claimed? Definitely not. But you’re going to eat there anyway.  We also ate at Blue Canoe, which was New Zealand-Polynesian-Asian fusion food– yum and definitely different than anything we’ve had before.

 

Milford Sound

Any way you slice it, traveling to/from Milford Sound (or the smaller Doubtful Sound) is an ordeal.  If you drive (but actually, take a tour bus and leave the car in Queenstown!), it takes forever. If you fly, there’s a good chance you’ll have to get on a bus instead due to weather. But this Fiordland landscape is aptly known as the 8th Wonder of the World.  And it’s a New Zealand Must.  Must. Must. There’s an option to do it as a day trip, which sounds like a nightmare to me because of all the traveling.  Ours was one of two cruises able to stay overnight on the sound – which also guarantees more access to wildlife, especially since the seals are known to hop on the boats late at night, attracted to the light.

Can you spot the tiny boat?  Should give a sense of scale…

The ride to Milford was very long, with many stops.  One of the highlights was seeing the Kia birds, the world’s only alpine parrot – they are giant, mischievous parrots (keep your keys and other valuables in your pockets!).  Super cheeky creatures, they love to ride on cars back and forth through the tunnels.

As mentioned, there are only two cruises that stay overnight on the Sound.  So once the day-trippers offboarded, we settled in and went out on the water.  There were two options for exploring the Sound from the main cruise ship: a kayak or a “small boat.”  See my love of kayaking in the “Abel Tasman” section if you want to know why we chose the small boat. It was an exceptional experience.  While there were no whales that day in the Sound, we got up close and personal with dolphins, otters, and the overwhelmingly giant cliffs that make up the Sound and seem to be a vertical wall with no end into the sky.  The nature guides on board were fantastic – and overall, it was one of our favorite experiences in New Zealand.

We arose the next morning, docked, and began the long journey back to Queenstown, where we picked up the car and then drove up to Lake Tekapo.  Lake Tekapo is one of 13 International Dark Sky Observatories in the world.  We tried to do the Late Night Earth and Sky viewing at 11:45pm that night, but there was 100% cloud coverage …so it was canceled :(.  Needless to say, we were bummed. From there, we drove the next day to Christchurch (3-hour drive), where we caught our flight back to the US.  We all would’ve skipped Christchurch, but if you do find yourself there, the Quake City exhibit was very informative about the 2010/2011 Canterbury Earthquakes and the underlying tectonic plates in NZ and the ring of fire generally.

 

North Island

As we mentioned, if you only have 2 weeks, prioritize the South Island for your New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary.  But if you have more time, it’s well worth exploring New Zealand’s North Island, which has some incredible highlights.

Highlights:

Wine Tasting at Waiheke Island.

This island of vineyards is a 30-minute ferry from Auckland and swells in population from 8k to 40k+ on weekends in the summer months.  Our favorite wine was at Peacock Sky (do the degustation tasting menu and make sure to try the brownies) and the most beautiful property was Mudbrick.

Geothermal Super Volcanos & Maori culture

While the South Island is known for its epic landscapes, the North Island is the best place to experience Maori culture and NZ’s geothermal activity, both of which can be found in Rotorua.

There are three options for the drive to Rotorua, including one through “cute” towns.  Skip. I repeat…skip. Drive the 2.6 hours directly there from Auckland, unless you’re going to the Coromandel Peninsula. (Note to LOTR Nerds: this is where you can stop for Hobbit Town).

What to do:

Hells Gate Geothermal Reserve & Mud Spa.  The mud spa itself was fine, but what made the whole thing worth it was the 2 hours guided walk learning about supervolcano geothermal activity, tectonic plate, and all sorts of other cool stuff.  The guide had a science background and was incredibly knowledgeable. Pack your swimsuit, your own towel, a change of clothing, a raincoat, and good walking shoes and enjoy the access to this otherworldly landscape. For more Ring of Fire vacations, check out our trip to Bali & the Gili Islands in Indonesia.

Maori cultural experience at Tamaki village.  We are generally skeptical of any cultural experiences made explicitly for tourists.  However, this was incredibly informative and well done. Young Maori New Zealanders from the surrounding community share their customs and traditions (and food for a dinner feast!).  Given that Europeans only arrived in NZ ~160 years ago, the country is 15-20% Maori – and the Rotorua experience was a good grounding in many of the modern symbols and cultural aspects of New Zealand that we encountered later in the trip.

Kiwi encounter. We did the behind the scenes kiwi encounter and hatchery to learn how NZ conservationists have begun to release this endangered species back into the wild with a 65% survival rate (up from 5%).  Great for kids, or (if you’re like me) obsessed with kiwis. Otherwise, skip.

Zorbing at OGO.  I had no idea what “zorbing” was.  And once I learned, I had no idea why it would be fun to bounce down a hillside in a giant rubber ball filled with water.  But it was stupidly fun. Bring a swimsuit and towel. Oddly awesome.

Where to stay & eat:

We loved the Black Swan Hotel on Lake Rotorua, and not just for the free minibar snacks. The balcony overlooking the lake was the perfect place to sit with a glass of wine, the grounds and gardens of this boutique were beautiful, and it was the best breakfast we had our entire trip. We also ate dinner one night at Urban Bistro, which was quite good.

Waitomo Glowworm caves

So, this is the real reason we went to the North Island at all: the Waitomo Glowworm caves: a labyrinth of underground caves alight with hundreds of thousands of glowworms.  Book in advance. Massive trip highlight for us. If you’re doing the caves, definitely grab lunch at Huhu café down the road.

Image from: NomadicMatt

Auckland

Generally skippable as a tourist destination.  However, if you’re going to be there before/after flights, the Viaduct is a great place to grab a happy hour drink or a bite to eat. We loved the HH and oysters at Oyster and Chop (expensive) and the boys enjoyed the steak at Botswana Butchery.

Oysters & champs on the Viaduct in Auckland

General New Zealand Travel Advice:

  • For any New Zealand road trip itinerary: Print all your reservations to have with you at all times.  On a near daily basis, we had to pull out and show printed reservations, confirmations and details (computer systems down, things not matching etc,).  It was a huge help.
  • Restaurants in New Zealand are expensive, even for ones that are just decent.  And while we had a few great meals (noted above), in general, the food was just OK.  You go to New Zealand for the landscapes, definitely not for the food.
  • If you’re doing it as a road trip:
    • you’ll love the summer for extra hours of driving – it didn’t get dark until 9:30-9:45pm on the South Island.  As the roads are not lit, you’ll definitely want those extra daylight hours.
    • Leave EXTRA time.  The roads are twisty, turny, one lane, and not what you might be used to.  Safe driving = leave plenty of extra time.
    • Bring a USB cable and a playlist of downloaded (offline) music – you’ll hit long stretches with no radio reception.
    • Always stop for gas when there’s a station – we went more than 90 kilometers at one stretch without any gas stations
    • Make sure at least one driver is not afraid of heights if you plan to drive on the South Island (which you should)
  • Almost every place in NZ takes credit card.  We barely had to change any currency – and usually, it was just coins for parking meters.
  • Packing
    • A few of my favorite travel things (I never leave home without!)
    • SUNSCREEN.  The Ozone layer is particularly thin over New Zealand.  Add in the fact that there’s no pollution and it’s a recipe for a bad sunburn.  Apply often.
    • Bug repellent.  Particularly on the South Island, most hikes/nature will have nasty little buggers called sand flies that will bite you and suck your blood.  And if that’s not enough, the bites are extremely itchy for multiple days. Bring the highest DEET bug spray you can find.
    • Bring a raincoat.  The weather in the on both islands is unpredictable; we often encountered “all four seasons” in one day.  Milford Sound is one of the rainiest places on earth and you’re almost guaranteed to get weather there – but truly everywhere in NZ the weather comes in and out.  Raincoat with a hood is extremely helpful.
    • Covered shoes for the water.  Or at a minimum, covered shoes that can get wet (see above).  I am OBSESSED with these water shoes that look like cute espadrilles.
    • Quick dry pants, aka something other than jeans, for at least one pair of your pants.
    • Really warm layer packable later to keep in a daypack (like a packable down or fleece) for when it gets cold especially if you’re doing outdoor activities (activities on the water can get extremely windy and cold)
    • Bring a small backpack that you can bring with you on day trips
    • Water bottle – I have this adorable fold-up water bottle for traveling, extremely lightweight and space-conscious.  Best water bottle for traveling.
    • No need for high heels or fancy shoes.  Even the nicest restaurants in NZ were rather casual.  Bring shoes that are comfortable and that you can do a lot of walking/driving in.
    • Sunglasses that you don’t mind getting wet (for boats, kayaking, etc.) – not your most expensive pair.
    • Waterproof phone cases (so you can bring your phone/take photos during water activities such as kayaking/on boats without worry of it getting sprayed or wet)
    • Do not bring!!  Selfie sticks and drones are banned lots of places

No matter what you choose to do for your own New Zealand Road Trip Itinerary, we are sure you’re going to love NZ’s larger-than-life landscapes and the adventures that await. Questions about creating a New Zealand road trip itinerary for yourself? Just ask below!

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Best Indonesia Itinerary: Bali & the Gili Islands

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It isn’t often that the stars align for a last-minute bucket-list adventure. In October, we hit jackpot with the winning combination of last-minute time-off + award-points availability. And just like that, we put together an itinerary and were off on a last-minute ten-day trip to Indonesia (Bali & the Gili Islands).

For many, the name “Bali” conjures the images of a tropical paradise made famous 20+ years ago. However, we had been amply forewarned that undiscovered waters are far in the past. Only a three-hour flight from Australia, Bali’s southern beach areas are now over-developed and over-crowded with tourists that never leave the resort towns to explore or experience the rest of the island. It’s akin to an Australian Miami. There are plenty of snobs who have claimed that “Bali is spoilt.” Equipped with that warning, we planned an itinerary to find the oasis beneath the tourist façade. And Bali did not disappoint.

Knowing we’d be fresh off of 27+ hours of flights/layovers, we made a game plan for the itinerary; unwind with a few days of relaxation, get active with a few days of exploration, and finish with a few more days of relaxing before journeying back to the NYC hustle.

Nusa Dua

First stop on the itinerary: unwind and relax after too many hours of flying to Indonesia. Luckily, there is no shortage of beaches within 20-30 minutes of the Denpasar International airport. However, we knew the warnings about the beaches in Bali. The beaches in Bali are technically public beaches; most are, therefore, over-packed with throngs of holiday goers and an increasing amount of garbage. So we did our research and realized we had two options: find a great resort with a secluded beachfront or go to one of Bali’s off-the-beaten path options. We ended up doing both, starting with the first option so as not to add additional driving hours after a long-international haul.

Where to stay

We can’t say enough good things about the St. Regis Bali Resort in Nusa Dua. It was the most luxurious stay either of us has had, and an indulgently relaxing place to kick off our trip. When we landed at the International Airport, the St. Regis had arranged for the airport staff to pick us up at our gate and whisk us through both immigration and customs, so that we didn’t have to wait in the hours-long arrival lines for foreigners. That alone is worth it.

The resort is beautiful – with a large open lobby that shows off the manicured resort property all the way to the ocean. The service is second-to-none. The beachfront immaculate and the staff from the swim-up pool bar also serve beach guests. There are two giant pools that snake through the property – a regular pool with giant billowy cabanas and a swim-up bar adjacent to the beach – and a salt-water pool “river” that snakes through the property. The on-property restaurants were good, the cocktails were excellent, and the staff can arrange for any type of activity – we went parasailing. We spent a very-out-of-character two days not stepping foot off the property and loved every minute of it.

Pool & Daybeds at the St. Regis Nusa Dua
Parasailing in Nusa Dua

Ubud: Bali’s cultural center

After settling into vacation mode in Nusa Dua, the next stop on our itinerary was Ubud. Ubud is Bali’s cultural center; it is also the geographical center, making the jungled city the perfect base for the middle part of our trip.

Our very first impression of Ubud was…not great. We took a cab to the center of town, and we were absolutely taken aback by how touristy the city felt. The narrow, decrepit streets (and even more narrow sidewalks) were crammed with backpackers and trinket shops. Our first-impression was uninspired. However, after a few days, we realized that the city’s notorious beauty was quite literally behind the tourist exterior. Once we stepped off the streets, even into a restaurant, the shop would open to the back revealing serene backdrops of rice paddies. Do yourself a favor, when you see the Starbucks, walk through it – the back opens up to the most gorgeous temple on a pond of lotus flowers – almost completely hidden from the view from the street.

Lotus Temple hidden behind the Starbucks…
What to do in Ubud:
  • Visit the UNESCO World Heritage rice terraces – breathtakingly lush and green
  • Go on an extreme swing over the rice terraces – not for the faint of heart!
Totally terrified on this swing!
  • Campuhan Ridge Walk – a ~15-20 minute light hike/walk with lush, sweeping hilltop views, that will take you right into town. Artisan shops and cafes dot the path, so give yourself time to meander and shop. Our favorite was Wayan Rana, whose minitature paintings were a must- and he gives art classes from his studio. We loved this!
  • Try the famous Kopi Luwak, the most expensive cup of coffee in the world (definitely worth a taste) on a coffee plantation. Also known as “cat shit” coffee by my family, kopi luwak is made from coffee cherries eaten by wild civet cats…whose digestive systems remove the acidity. A pound of these beans goes for $100-500!  Want to try it yourself: order some sustainably sourced Kopi Luwak.
  • Go to the gorgeous Yoga Barn property for a yoga, meditation, or other holistic wellness class (or stop at the café for some delicious food & great ambiance). If yoga is a must for your Bali itinerary, this is the place to do it.
  • Shop! Ubud is home to dozens of artisans – painters, wood carvers, batik printmakers, sculptors, jewelers, kite makers, etc. We recommended hiring a driver (there is no shortage of taxis everywhere!) to take you to a few of the crafts villages outside of downtown, where you’ll get to see the craft process (and get better prices).
  • We hiked up Batur, the volcano ~2 hours drive from Ubud. Yes, the sunrise views were beautiful. However, each of us had done enough prior sunrise hikes to note that this would be one we might skip. Be forewarned: to arrive in time for sunrise, you will need to leave Ubud by 2am. Bring serious sneakers or hiking shoes – and LOTS of layers, it gets seriously cold. It’s a real hike, but doable. If you’re short on time in Bali (or have done other sunrise hikes in your travels), you’re not missing much by skipping this one.
Sunrise atop Mr. Batur
  • We also went to a Balinese healer in a nearby village. It was a unique experience on our Bali itinerary. Definitely do your research before you go – this is a good place to start.
Eats!

Ubud has no shortage of great restaurants. A few of our favorites:

  • Balinese Home Cooking is a must. Balinese people live in compounds made up of multiple family homes for various generations of kin and several gardens centered around a family temple. None of this is visible from the street, as these compounds are behind high-walled fences. The family-run Balinese Home Cooking invites you into the family compound, where you’ll get a rare glimpse into modern traditional Balinese life, set in the family’s beautiful gardens. The food is incredible and the prices are unbeatable. The owners are keen on encouraging cultural exchange and will come by and answer questions about how Balinese families live.
  • Waring Babi Guling Ibu Oka 3. Made famous by a raving Anthony Bourdain, this roasted suckling pig joint is an Ubud institution. Just the best. Go early as they run out quickly. Once you’ve visited the original, which is sparse, try out Ibu Oka’s sister’s ambient downtown restaurant, Rai Pastis, which opens up to rice paddies, and gets Ibu Oka’s pig daily as well.
Christian beyond excited for this roast pig
  • Mozaic. Everyone told us about Mozaic, and it did not disappoint. This was fine-dining at it’s best. The restaurant tops Restaurant Magazine’s Top 50 restaurants in Asia and is rumored to be gunning for Indonesia’s first Michelin Star. We ordered from the multi-course pan-Asian menu, made from local ingredients, and sat in the heavenly twinkle-lit garden. We loved the inventive cocktails, the top-notch service, and the food (our favorite meal the whole trip!). And while expensive relative to the rest of our meals in Bali, it was worth every rupiah (and let’s be honest, it wasn’t any more wallet damage than a meal in NYC).
Where to Stay in Ubud

Do yourself a favor and stay just outside the city, avoiding the noise and traffic of downtown. We stayed at Villa Saraswati a mile north of downtown and located along the Campuhan Ridge Walk. Owned by a retired Australian couple, Villa Saraswati was heaven – and they thought of everything. It’s a 5-room, adults-only villa, and has won Trip Advisor’s best hotel every single year. The rooms all have outdoor showers, the pool is beautiful, and the staff is helpful and lovely. They provide rides into town or to the top of the ridge walk and were extremely helpful with restaurant reservations. I’ll admit that we daydreamed about buying and living in the property more than once – it’s that wonderful. Couldn’t recommend it any more highly.

The pool at Villa Saraswati – perfect after a long day of touring in the sun

Up North: Amed

The Gili islands are only accessible from by boat, so we knew our Bali itinerary would need to include a coastal town as the launchpad for this leg of the trip. We spent an evening in Amed, in Northeast Bali, which has world-renowned diving – and is especially famous for a Japanese WWII shipwreck, only a few meters from shore – one of the only wrecks accessible for beginner divers. If you’re going through Amed, we recommend the 25-minute drive to the Lempuyang Temple to see the Gates of Heaven, an awe-inspiring “split gate” style of Hindu Balinese architecture. We stayed and ate at Baliku Dive Resort, which is clean and well-appointed, with terraces that overlook a magnificent sunset over the sea. Be warned: there are dozens of steps to get to any of the rooms – not for the faint of heart.

Gates of Heaven at Lempuyang Temple

The Gili Islands

We settled into the last leg of the Bali itinerary in the picturesque Gili Islands, situated just off the coast of Lombok Island, Indonesia (not technically Bali). There are three islands in total: Gili T (the largest and party island full of young backpackers), Gili Air (quieter with a mix of nice bars and restaurants) and Gili Meno (the smallest and quietest of the three). We choose Gili Air to get a mix of seclusion with options for grabbing a bite or a drink. The speedboat took ~1.5 hours from NE Bali to the Gilis, which are only about 3-5 minute boat one from the other.

Gili Air was off-the-grid paradise. Motorized vehicles aren’t allowed. No cars – and no motorbikes. To get around the island, your options are a bicycle or horse-drawn cart. The island itself is tiny – it took us about 10 minutes to bike the diameter from one side to the other – and would’ve only been about 45 minutes to go around the entire perimeter.

In Gili Air, we found the white-sand beaches and crystal clear waters that many mistakenly attribute to Bali. And while it took a little additional traveling, it was absolutely worth it.

Gili Air is off-the-grid paradise (and see how close it is to Lombok in the background?)
Where to stay in Gili:

The Mandana Suites and Villas is Gili’s only boutique hotel. Newly constructed, it was a breath-taking accommodation. We took full advantage of our room’s private plunge pool and outdoor shower. The Mandana also had the best breakfast we had the entire trip.

The Mandana was a gem
Where to Eat & Drink:
  • Warung Sunny – the best Indonesian food we had on the Island, and different from the Indonesian food we had in Bali (like the rest of Indonesia, the Gilis are Muslim, and so the food traditions are slightly different). The chef also does cooking classes here!
  • Mowie’s Bar for sunset drinks and live music
  • Pockets & Pints – if you need a break from Indonesian food, this new pita-pocket sandwicherie is a must. They also have dozens of fun games to borrow during your meal.
  • Musa Cookery – Baja-California-style vegan café, perfect for coffee, bowls, and light fare
Sunset drinks in Gili Air
What to do in Gili

The Gili part of our Bali itinerary was designated R&R for us. We mostly took this time to recharge but if you are into SCUBA diving or interested in getting your license, being in Gili is the perfect place and time to do it. We recommend 3WDive; the highly professional instructors were lovely, helpful, and just a lot of fun (I had no interest in doing scuba and ended up LOVING it!). The diving here is spectacular and this is a fairly inexpensive place to get your PADI. While we didn’t get certified we were able to go on a few dives to “discover SCUBA diving.” We spent an afternoon under the sea with a dozen giant turtles. Simply incredible.

Final stop: Seminyak

The final stop of our Bali itinerary. We spent a full day traveling from Gili to Seminyak (speedboat to a bus…a LOT of traffic near the coast), but we wanted to stay near the airport our final night to break-up the traveling. Seminyak, one of the more luxurious resort-towns, is filled with great restaurants, shopping, and nightlife. We had no shortage of recommendations from friends. As our luck would have it, I came down with a virus, and so we did none of the aforementioned. The silver lining is that we were staying at the majestic Oberoi Hotel & Resort. If ever there was a place to spend your final 24 hours doing nothing but unwinding and relaxing before a long international flight, that hotel would be a top contender. Not quite what we had planned, but no complaints from me (And if you’re looking for Seminyak recommendations, send me a note and I can pass them along!).

All in all, our 10-day itinerary had just a little bit of everything from relaxing to exploration- and we got to explore Bali & the Gilis beyond the standard resort-only trip.  While Bali wasn’t entirely what we expected, we fell in love with some of its more-hidden charms, and were so thankful for this last-minute escape.

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What the Passover Seder Can Offer to the Korean Conflict

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It is cold night in the Berkshires, but I am enjoying the warmth of family and friends in my parents’ home.  I am in Massachusetts and it is March 2013 – but merely observing the ongoing events, we could be anywhere in the world at any point in time.  This uniformity and timelessness is one of my favorite aspects of the Passover seder, the Jewish ritual meal that celebrates the Biblical exodus of the Israelites from Egypt in specific – and freedom in general.

72 hours ago, I was in the DMZ – the North/South Korean Demilitarized Zone – where I visited the Joint Security Area.   Created as a provision of the Korean Armistice Agreement signed in 1953, the DMZ is a neutral enclave for the North Korean (DPRK) and South Korean (ROK) armed forces (joined by both the UN and US Army).

Following a fatal incident in 1976, the Military Demarcation Line was established, shifting the area from “joint” to parallel but separate.  Effectively, the two sides now stand in a 24-hour face-off, each on their side of the uncrossed line.

On the South Korean side stands a row of small “temporary” buildings, with 2 ROK soldiers statue-still in martial arts stances, with eyes covered by sunglasses so as not to provoke a staring contest.   Directly across from them, on a staircase of a more permanent building, stands a North Korean army official, shrouded by the shadows of the doorway, staring at his enemy through binoculars.  Above him, the curtains in the window are half drawn, obscuring a second North Korean officer, clicking away, photographing anyone who steps into his line of vision.

It is both eerie and surreal.

72 hours later, I am sitting at my family’s seder table.  At the beginning of each seder, we read a passage from the book of Exodus, the second book of the bible, which explicitly instructs us as to how we are to retell the story of the Exodus, a critical component of the Passover tradition:

“You shall tell your son on that day, ‘It is because of what God did for me when I came out of Egypt.’” (Exodus 13:8, English Standard version)

The question that begs to be asked is: why are we instructed to change the subject of the exodus story from the Biblical Israelites to a that of  “what God did for me” for an ancient story that is retold each and every year?

By re-appropriating the narrative as a personal retelling of the exodus, we wear our histories as our own, connecting the present to our past.     By going through this motion each and every year, we create a mechanism by which we ensure that the past is bound to the future.

What, then, is the connection to North/South Korea?

It has been argued many times that the creation of separate North and South Koreas, delineated by the 38th parallel, is an arbitrary construction, imposed on a map to separate the 1950s Communist powers of neighboring Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao Zedung’s China in the North with democratic ideals in the South, supported by a United States exhausted from the recent World War.  No differences in ethnicity.  No differences in religion.  No differences in language or culture or history or any of the multitude of factors that underpin most conflicts.  It was a false separation – but one which resulted in a fratricidal war.

Over the last few weeks, I have spoken with a number of Korean friends.  Several told me of their family history, of grandparents from the North, of their grandparents caught in the South on business during the breakout of the war and during the signing of the armistice, of the inability for them to return home after the cease fire.  I learned of family members who were unable to flee to the South, fates unknown, their families unaware to this day if any have survived.

Exactly 60 years after the signing of the armistice, today the two countries are separated by much more than just the 38th parallel – with prosperity in the South in stark contrast to starvation in the North.

Now, two generations later, many young South Koreans are questioning the once indisputable concept of reunification. Support for the national goal of unification, taught in schools from the 5th grade, has been rapidly declining.  According to the Washington Post, “In the 1990s, more than 80 percent of South Korea thought unification was essential, according to government polls. But that number has dropped to 56 percent. About 41 percent of those in their 20s feel that way. Among teens, the figure drops closer to 20 percent.”

Young Koreans are wary of the economic ramifications that the absorption of the ravaged North may have on their country, despite the successful precedent of East & West Germany in 1989.

With Germany as an example of what may be possible, I have asked myself if the challenge transcends the economic to something deeper in the national psyche.

And so, in reading Exodus 13:8 tonight, I began to think about whose narrative South Korea is telling.  Unlike our explicit instructions for Passover, my friends in Seoul tell of the exodus of their ancestors.  Their collective memory excludes them personally – their story is of a past that is becoming increasingly disconnected from their present – and  future.

At the end of each seder, we recite the phrase “next year in Jerusalem,” reflecting and affirming the traditional Jewish longing for a peaceful and Messianic capital – both figuratively and literally.

Perhaps this year, at a seder  in Seoul, someone at this very moment is saying, next year in Pyongyang. 

Peering past the ROK soldiers into North Korea

North Korean side of the JSA

Bridge of No Return

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Eating Live Octopus in Busan, Korea

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For weeks we’ve been told that a mandatory part of our trip would be eating live octopus, Sannakji, in Busan.

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And while not all of us were so brave, Pablo deciding to give it a try…

(please excuse this first attempt to learn how to use imovie)

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Gangnam Style – First Few Days in Seoul, Korea

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Now, at the halfway point of our trip, it is astonishing to think that we have only been in Korea for three days, given the amount we have seen and done, thanks to our classmates who have organized this incredible experience.

Our Korean food adventured deserves its own separate write-up, so for now, we will focus on the tourist highlights and company visits.

  • Nanta a non-verbal performance and the longest running show in Korea, which is best described as a cooking-themed version of Broadway’s “Stomp”
  • Gyeongbokgung Palace Tour
  • Shopping in Dongdaemoon
  • Korea War Memorial Museum

 

Yonsei University 

Our visit to Yonsei University began with a presentation from Dr. Hahn, Columbia Business School PhD (‘81), about the transformation of the Korean political and economic environment during the past 60 years.  Learning about the growth the country has undergone during a relatively short timeframe was astonishing.  We then had an exchange with Yonsei MBA students and went on a guided campus tour where we got to “experience” the high-tech Samsung Library.  We were blown away by the flat screens scattered throughout the first floor that served as large touch-screens allowing students to do everything from using an interactive campus map to reading the news from nearly 100 countries in any language imaginable.  The whole group was struck by the beauty and energy of the bustling campus; based on our initial impression of Yonsei, it is easy to see the appeal of attending this prestigious and thriving university.

-Liz Millman, CBS ‘14

 

Severance Hospital

We were graciously received by Severance Hospital, the flagship branch of the Yonsei University Health System, Korea’s first modern medical institution founded in 1885 by American medical missionary Dr Horace Allen.  The medical faculty gave us a presentation on Yonsei’s work in robotic surgery, which at a cumulative caseload of 8,000 surgeries, is one of the world’s most experienced centers of robotic surgery.  Yonsei has made impressive breakthroughs in expanding use of robotic surgery beyond urology and gynecology into general surgery (GS), where it has performed by far the most procedures in the world in part due to the FDA having not yet approved robotic surgery for GS in the USA.  We toured Severance, built in 2005 and designed by American architects Ellerbe Becket, which resembled more of an airport terminal than a hospital with ubiquitous kiosks resembling ATMs for patients checking in.  Severance is 100% paperless with exclusive use of electronic medical records (EMR) and has over 1,200 beds.  Nearly all of us were left wishing we had such an efficient, comfortable, and modern hospital back home in New York.

-Paul Brandenburg, CBS ‘13

 

Lotte Co., Ltd.

See here

 

Nanta!

Seoul at night

Outside the Palace

the Palace

at the Lotte Home Shopping Network

Life’s tough decisions at Lotte Confectionary Factory

In front of the tanks at the Korean War Memorial Museum

 

 

 

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Front page of the Korean News!

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One of our most highly anticipated company visits, today we spent the day at Lotte Co. LTD, specifically visiting the Lotte Home Shopping Network HQ, the Lotte Confectionary factory, and one of many Lotte hypermarkets.   We had the honor of being hosted by Chairman Dong-Bin Shin, Chairman of Lotte and CBS alumnus, class of 1981.

Trip student organizers with Mr. Shin

Mr. Shin joined us for tours of 2 (out of 60+) Lotte business units, which culminated with a presentation on the current state of the conglomerate from the Chairman and Q&A.

Tasting Ice Cream at the Lotte Candy Factory

Our visit made the digital front page of the news, which can be found here.

Photo Credit: Yonhap News

What an amazing opportunity.  Thank you to Mr. Shin for generously hosting us this week in Korea and today at Lotte Co.

More posts about our trip to Korea can be found on the Chazen blog

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Memoirs of a Day in Kyoto

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Home to 2000 temples and shrines, Japan’s former Imperial capital, Kyoto, should be a priority on any trip to Japan.  We took the shinaksen bullet train from Hakone, which cut down the trip from 4-5 hours to 2.

It was interesting to see all of the domestic tourists in Kyoto dressed up in traditional Japanese clothing, an apparently popular local vacation activity.

Shinkasen bullet train

 

Visit: 

  • Kiyumizu-dera Temple (UNESCO World Heritage Site) – the most  visited site in Kyoto
  • The 1300 Gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine – the inspiration for the 2005 Christo and Jeanne-Calude “The Gates” exhibit in Central Park, NYC
  • Kinkaku-ji Temple (The Golden Pavillion) (UNESCO World Heritage Site) whose top 2 floors are covered in gold leaf

Kiyomizu-dera temple

Kiyomizu-dera temple

Kiyomizu-dera temple

Kiyomizu-dera temple

Kyoto

Fushimi Inari Temple

1300 Gates at Fushimi Inari Temple

Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavillion

Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavillion Temple

 

Eat at: 

  • Nishiki Market for everything – this one covered street in Kyoto is the best places to taste bits and bites of Japan from the dozens and dozens of merchants selling everything from mochi-wrapped strawberries and tofu donuts to live loach fish and octopus tentacles.  The market was one of our top Kyoto highlights
  • Gogyo (just off of Nishiki Market) for well-priced ramen (vegetarians beware – get something in Nishiki Market instead)
  • Kikunoi – one of Kyoto’s top rated restaurants — but make reservations in advance! (We didn’t get to go)

Mochi at the market…yum!

Nishiki Market Stall

Win & Ari at Nishiki Market

Shop atKyoto Handicrafts market for high-quality and reasonably priced souvenirs of all types (lacquer, kimonos, katanas, tea sets, etc.)

Wander throughGion for Gesha spotting

 

Gion at night

Spotted: Gesha!

 

 

 

 

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A Room with a View: Hakone & Mt. Fuji, Japan

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For the second leg of of our Japan trip, we traveled an hour outside of Tokyo to Hakone, a resort town known for its onsen hot springs and views of nearby Mt. Fuji.

Mt. Fuji in the background

Unexpected and wonderful:

  • Transportation:  Upon arriving at the Hakone train station, visitors check luggage with a transportation service that shuttles guests’ bags to their hotels. No shlepping for us! This enabled us to freely ride the many modes of transportation that comprise the Hakone sightseeing loop including: train, cable car funicular, bus, ropeway, and pirate ship (around Ashi lake).
  • Onsen Tamago:  eggs that have been hard-boiled in the volcanic hot springs, yum!
  • Open Air Museum: Our fault: we expected this amazing space to be boring. Nope! It had dynamic, interactive exhibits including a maze and climbing structures. We got weird in the best way.
Ropeway to the pirate ship
Onsen Tamago
Giant Sculptures at the Open air Museum
Stained Glass climbing tower at the Open air museum
Open Air museum
Sculptures at the Open Air museum
View of Lake Ashi from the pirate ship
Lake Ashi

Staying at a Traditional Ryokan near Mt. Fuji

The most memorable part of Hakone was our traditional Japanese guest house (ryokan), with serene onsen hot springs overlooking Mt. Fuji. Furnished with tatami woven mat floors and traditional futon beds, the traditional Japanese rooms each presented picture-perfect views of Mt. Fuji, Japan’s highest volcano. Ryokan guests wear traditional yukata robes (cotton kimonos) and enjoy a traditional kaiseki dinner, consisting of several, small, elaborately displayed dishes including:

Kaiseki Menu
Our beautiful kaiseki dinner

Where to stay & eat:  We loved the inexpensive Fujimien Ryokan. The ryokan reopened after some renovations in 2015. Availability seems limited. For a similar traditional ryokan and onsen experience, check out Yoshimatsu (traditional) or Centurion Hakone Bettei (luxury).

Visitor tip:  Buy the Hakone “free-pass;” The pass includes the roundtrip train fare from Tokyo and unlimited access on all of the modes of transportation within Hakone.  Very worthwhile.

Me & Ari in yukata robes

Looking for other Japan suggestions?

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Lost in Translation: 36 Hours in Tokyo, Japan

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Arrived in Hong Kong!

Our whirlwind tour through Japan began with 36 hours in Tokyo.  Though Japan as a country is steeped in tradition, Tokyo is a city of the future.  We arrived on the cusp of spring, with the lesser-known plum blossoms heralding the anticipated arrival of cherry blossom season at the end of the month.  Our group of 4 – 2 CBS friends, my brother Ari, and me met up with friends old and new – college friends, business school friends, and friends of friends, creating the illusion of familiarity in a foreign place.

Meeting up with CBS friends for Yakitori

We packed in as many sites & bites as was possible.  Highlights include

  • Imperial Palace where we meandered only  through the manicured gardens, given that the Palace itself is only open 2 days per year

Plum blossoms in the Imperial Palace Gardens

Walking around outside the Imperial Palace Gardens

  • Tsujita Ramen restaurant (@ Kanda Station), where one orders through a vending machine, receives a meal ticket, and is then served an incredible meal at a counter that surrounds the kitchen – YUM

Ordering our ramen from the vending machine to get out meal ticket…

Waiting to be seated at the ramen counter…

Waiting for our ramen at the counter…

  • Asakusa Cat Café one of 39 cat cafes in Tokyo, this is the only one that has rescues cats.  There space is filled with cat beds, houses, climbers, and toys for people to come and interact with the cat, and the modest entrance fee/beverage fees help subsidize the cost of sheltering the cats until they can be adopted.  Oddly, about half the cats were the size of small dogs.

Asakusa Nekko/Cat Cafe

  • Sensoji Temple
  • Nakamise Shopping Street filled with gifts and goods and sweet shops

Senso-ji Shrine

Lantern outside of the Senso-ji Shrine

  • Harajuku & the Meiji Jingu Shrine – somehow, in the bustling neighborhood of Harajuku, there is a wooded area that contains the Meji Shrine.  Though we arrived just before closing, we were able to walk through the magnificent structure.
  • Ari at the Meiji Jingu Shrine

     

  • Shibuya Crossing – one of the busiest intersections in the world, something like Times Square…if Times Square was orderly and everyone crossed at once.  The streets went from car-filled and devoid of people, to a sea of humanity intersecting at the change of the light.

Shibuya Crossing

  • Tsukiji Fish Market – we woke up at 4:10 AM to arrive at this world-famous fish market where the 400+ lb tunas are auctioned off each morning.  Despite our early arrival, we were not amongst the limited 120 people allowed in for the viewing – I can only imagine what time everyone else arrived.  The silver lining is that we were the first to arrive at Daiwa Zushi where we had the best omakase sushi, served fresh piece by piece, sitting at a counter with the sushi chef.  By 6 am, we had the breakfast of our lives and, stuffed with fish, departed Tokyo for the next leg of our trip.

New Obsession:  The 5-per-block cold and hot vending machines.  Yum.

5 AM at the Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo

Our amazing sushi chef at Daiwa Zushi

Tuskiji fish market sushi breakfast at 5:30 AM

First bites of the omakase Sushi

Big thanks to Saul, Rene, Darren, Wright, Kei, Troo, Paul, Win, Michael, Russell, Ethan, and Ari for all of the recommendations!

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What We’re Not Allowed to Wear to the DMZ

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This upcoming trip to Asia includes a week in South Korea as part of Columbia Business School’s Chazen International Study Tour.

I opened up our travel information packed and found the following dress code for our day trip to the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)/Joint Security Area (JSA) at the border with North Korea…

“Dress code:  No jeans, no leather pants…no slippers…

Phew, good thing I read that before packing.

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