Dubai Travel Guide: A Modern Day Oasis

 

If I could sum up my week in Dubai using just one word to describe it, it would have to be “WOW”. From the moment I stepped off the plane at the Dubai Airport to the time we packed up to go home, that was the word that came out of my mouth most often (unless of course I was completely speechless).

Dubai is a city that, admittedly, I knew very little about before arriving, except for the knowledge of it being next-level futuristic. Much to my surprise, however, from day one I got to see so many different sides of the city that I never knew existed, beyond just the glitz and glamour. A lot of people have the preconception that Dubai is for the wealthy, but what you don’t realize is how accommodating it is to people of all backgrounds, budgets, and desires. If you want to live like a king or queen, you can. If you want to visit Dubai on a budget and not blow through your bank account, you can do that too. During my week in Dubai I got to experience many different sides of Dubai, and let me tell you first hand: I was blown away!

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To make your life easier when it comes to planning your own week in Dubai, I've listed my favourite things below!

Top things to do in Dubai

Desert Safari

If there’s one thing you have to do when visiting Dubai, it’s taking a trip out to the desert. We went on an evening safari with Arabian Adventures, and it’s hard to put into words just how exhilarating it actually was! Our hilarious driver, Abdul, took us on a 4WD ride of our lives over the sand dunes )which was an adventure in itself), and ended up at a bedouin camp in the middle of the desert for a night of festivities! We pet some gorgeous camels, got henna painted on, and had a barbecue of traditional food all while watching performances like belly-dancing and light dances.

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Burj Khalifa

Dubai is famously known for its biggest, tallest, and most extravagant architecture, and the Burj Khalifa is no exception. Standing at 829m tall, it’s the tallest building in the world, so it’s safe to say it’s something you MUST experience when visiting Dubai. Hint: splurge on the VIP pass to get you to level 148. You will bypass the lines and be able to escape the crowds on a totally different floor. You’ll then be able to get some incredible photos of the city below and they’ll even give you some snacks. Snacks always win me over.

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Old Dubai

We spent our first day in Dubai exploring the sights of the old town, and it was easily one of my favourite days. Our wonderful Arabian Adventures guide Rhiannon first brought us to the Al Fahidi Historical Neighborhood, which felt like we were transported back in time. In this neighborhood you can walk around the alleyways to see the traditional style buildings, and even take a look inside them which have been transformed into cute little boutique shops. I also would recommend crossing the Dubai Creek to see the spice and gold souks. The markets are bustling with activity and the energy there is unmatched. I was amazed by the endless spices, perfumes, tea, fabrics and jewelry that we walked by, and my only regret was not bringing a second bag to stuff full with souvenirs!

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Hero Dubai

Hero Dubai was another thing that hugely surprised me. Dom and I got to be the captains of our own boat for the day as we set out along the coast to see the city from a totally new perspective - the water. We had an awesome guide with us the entire morning who took us past sights like the Burj Al Arab, the palm, and all the way out to Atlantis. Pro tip: Don’t forget the GoPro! You’ll be sure to get some crazy shots while you’re whipping around the waves.

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La Mer

Dubai has it all - a crazy futuristic city, desert as far as the eye can see, and much to my surprise, it even has an amazing beachfront area. I don’t know about you, but when I picture Dubai, I never envisioned powdery sand, colourful beach huts, and a trendy boardwalk, but low and behold, La Mer has just that. We spent the morning wandering among the boutique shops, snapping photos of all the colourful wall murals, and watching the waves roll in. A little tip: they do not allow professional cameras there unless you get permission, so i’d recommend leaving the DSLR’s behind and opting for some good old iPhone shots!

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Dubai Frame

One of the experiences that knocked my (metaphorical) socks off was paying a visit to the Dubai Frame. This place only opened in January 2018, but after taking a ride to the top it’s pretty clear why it’s so popular. Upon entering the frame, you walk through a representation of old Dubai and then travel up in the glass-window elevator to the very top which represents present-day Dubai. When looking to the right you will see Old Dubai, and to the left you can see the city which represents new Dubai. It’s pretty darn neat, and what makes it even more amazing (if that’s even possible), is the fact that a section of the floor is completely glass! For someone who’s afraid of heights like me it can be a tad bit scary, but such an exhilarating thing to experience at the same time. After gawking at the views, you travel back down the frame and experience “future Dubai”, which I don’t want to spoil for you, but let me just say, Dubai truly has some amazing things planned and I personally can’t wait to see where it is in 10 years.

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Visit the Palm Islands & Atlantis

You can’t visit Dubai without venturing out to the Palm Islands. I remember learning about the Palm in 6th grade and being absolutely mesmerized over it. Like, how cool is it that someone thought, “let’s make a few islands and shape them to look like a palm tree.” That person is an absolute legend. Anyways, back to the guide. One one of the sandier days (because it’s not the rain that keeps you indoors in Dubai - it’s the sand), we headed out to visit the Lost Chambers Aquarium at Atlantis, and boy was that a day for the books. The aquarium is beyond fascinating with its giant glass panes, and we spent a good hour (or three) just mesmerized by the manta rays, fish, and sharks that swam by. Definitely a must-visit spot!

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Dubai Mall

“I’m not like a regular mall. I’m a cool mall.” should be Dubai’s motto. It puts all other malls to shame, because this place has everything you could ever want. Budget fashion, check. Luxury fashion, check. Aquarium, check. Ice rink, check. Restaurants, check. Awesome view, check check check! We visited in the afternoon and made it just in time to see one of the fountain shows, which I can’t recommend more highly when in downtown Dubai. The evening shows are also pretty fab and run every half-hour starting from 6pm and ending at 11pm.

Dubai Miracle Garden

This gorgeous attraction has over 50 million flowers and 250 million plants, so it’s every nature-lovers dream. I’ll let the photos do the talking for me, but in all honesty, they can’t even do it justice because the Dubai Miracle Garden is seriously phenomenal.

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La Perle

Ok ok so I know I've already given you quite a few must-do’s for your trip to Dubai, but please do me a favour and put La Perle at the top of your list. I kid you not, this was THE most spectacular show i’ve ever seen. I don’t want to give you too many spoilers, but it included incredible aerial acrobatics (and some insane dives), a pool in the middle of the stage, FIVE motorcycles riding around a tiny globe, and will have your jaw on the floor for 99.9% of the show.

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Palace Downtown

If you want epic photos combined with the best lunch, then the Palace Downtown needs to be on your Dubai bucket list. If the entrance itself doesn’t impress you, then wait til you see the view from their Argentinian restaurant, Asado. It has the best view of the Burj Khalifa and their outdoor restaurant gives you a perfect view of the fountain show.

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Where we stayed?

Palazzo Versace

For our 6 nights in Dubai we stayed at the Palazzo Versace, a beautiful five-star hotel located near the DXB airport, that was hands down the most luxurious place i’ve ever stayed. I literally felt like Princess Jasmine the entire length of our stay, as it was such a contrast from everything i’m used to when it comes to accommodation. Fine dining, magnificent rooms, butlers, and high tea are just a few of the perks we got to enjoy during our stay, and it truly was the most memorable hotel.

The Palazzo has three gorgeous pools, the most impressive and truly grand interior, and is surrounded by palm trees which made it feel like an oasis! Not to mention it has both city views and a Dubai Creek view which makes for some epic sunrises and sunsets. Now I know a lot of you are budget travelers (like I am 99% of the time), but if you want to give yourself a luxurious Dubai experience, the Palazzo Versace is definitely the place to stay. You’ll be treated like royalty, and the staff are some of the friendliest people i’ve ever encountered. Shoutout to Ken and the valet guys for giving us a good belly-laugh on the daily!

We also ate at 3 of Palazzo Versace’s unbelievable restaurants:

  • Enigma: For my first time eating at an Iranian restaurant, I was floored by both the menu and service. With a romantic atmosphere, it was the perfect date-night spot, and the chef even came out at the end of our meal to prepare traditional ice cream in front of us.

  • Vanitas: An Italian restaurant with amazing ambiance and an even more amazing menu. This was one of our favourite places to dine, as the food was exceptional and we enjoyed the best Italian food we’ve ever had. To top it all off we ended each meal with some drool-worthy desserts, and we almost had to be rolled out of there!

  • Giardino: The best brunch buffet of my life. Giardino was what I like to envision heaven to be - endless choices of desserts and every type of food you can possibly desire. They even have a donut bar, so yeah, it’s safe to say their brunch trumps all other brunch spots.

And without further ado, I have saved my personal favourite dining option for last, because on our final night in Dubai, we went to food heaven at a place called Umi Shio at Summersalt Beach Club. If the prime view of the Burj Al Arab isn’t enough to convince you that this place is worth a visit, then let me tell you about the food. This Japanese-Argentinian restaurant truly has some of the best food i’ve ever tasted. I’m not exaggerating one bit either.

Now, i’ll be the first to admit i’m a little picky when it comes to food, so when our waiter suggested having us try a tasting of the menu, I was a bit hesitant. But I kid you not, EVERY. SINGLE. DISH just got better and better. Do your taste buds a favour and visit this restaurant, and then send me pics of your food so I can live vicariously through you.

 

48 hours in New York City

For anyone who has seen Home Alone 2, Elf, or pretty much any epic Christmas movie, New York City is often in the spotlight as the ultimate winter destination. When it came to bringing Dom home with me for his first white Christmas, I was determined to make it unlike any other holiday he has experienced before, so that meant two things: a quick pitstop in NYC, and all the winter activities we could fit into 48 hours. Our last experience in New York City was memorable in a not-so-great way (we spoke to the police 3 times in 3 days due to a stolen camera, an unprovoked fight with a homeless man, and a history of watching too much CSI caused us to think we found a dead body, but that’s a whoooole other story for another day).

But if you’ve got a brief stopover in the Big Apple, read on to see what we got up to in the almost two days we spent in magical New York City.

Where we Stayed

HI New York

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New York City at Christmas time is magical, sparkly, snowy, and EXPENSIVE. When I planned the end of my Southeast Asia trip with 2 nights in New York City to be the bow on top of a great year, I didn’t take into account the fact that hotels and Airbnb’s are soul-crushingly expensive. $400 for two nights in Manhattan is frankly just not going to happen, so I looked to my favorite go-to accommodation option, Hosteling International. HI New York | HIUSA is located on the Upper West Side just a few short blocks from Central Park, so it was pretty much a no-brainer. A warm shower, super comfy bed, high-speed wifi AND a place to meet new people with a ton of cool travel stories: count me in!

HI New York is a beautifully unique building on the corner of Amsterdam and 103rd St, and it was the perfect spot to not only recover from our jet lag, but base our New York City adventures from. The check-in process was easy, and once we dropped our bags off in our room and fan-girled over the fact they had hot showers (one thing Southeast Asia hostels lack in!), we decided to explore the surrounding area.

Just steps from the hostel was a Dunkin’ Donuts, a true savior when it comes to getting your cheap coffee fix in the Big Apple, around the corner was both McDonalds and a cheap pizza joint, and one block away was a subway station to get us to all the city hotspots. Convenience level: 100.

New York City can be daunting when it comes to knowing what to do, so my personal favorite way to get to know a city is through walking tours. So if you’re anything like me, you need to take advantage of HI New York’s free programs and activities! Learning the history from a local is great, but it’s the social aspect that I love the most, and that’s what HI New York does exceptionally well: bring people together.

One of my favorite moments of our stay in NYC was honestly the welcome party thrown by our hostel. The common area was full of people chatting and laughing, and we met so many amazing people there with incredible stories. The conversation was flowing and so was the free wine, so that combination made for one happy Jess!

What we Did

There were some very specific things on my personal Christmas Bucket List when it came to our trip to the city. In the wise words of Buddy the Elf, “First we’ll make snow angels for two hours, then we’ll go ice skating, then we’ll eat a whole roll of Tollhouse Cookie-dough as fast as we can, and then we’ll snuggle.” Throw in a stop to Times Square and Rockefeller Center, and that pretty much sums up my dream trip to New York.

Times Square

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Our first day was off to a challenging start as we took 3 wrong subways all thanks to my expert navigation skills and a lack of wanting to ask for directions, but once we had safely checked into our hostel and set out to explore, we realized we made one massive faux pas: we had absolutely NO proper winter clothes! But according to my younger brother who came into the city to see us, the best shopping was where we were headed anyways! And no I don’t mean the best shopping as in Saks Fifth Ave and designer stores - I wasn’t about to blow my whole monthly SE Asia budget on one coat. So my type of shopping is those in Times Square where I can find a winter coat for $25 (Forever 21, FTW).

After me and Dom had picked ourselves out some warm new winter outfits, we gawked at all the Times Square lights for a while, snapped some typical tourist photos, and set our sights on our next activity: FOOD. Big shoutout to Chick-Fil-A for the best customer service in the fast food game. That was just about all we could manage to do on our first night before the jet lag hit, so let’s fast forward to our first morning in the city!

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central park

We only had one full day to explore the city, so Central Park was an absolute must on my bucket list. We took a quick morning walk just a couple blocks from our hostel, and found our way to the entrance to Central Park. Obviously I was on lookout for the Park Rangers the whole time (are the Elf jokes getting old yet? HA), but we ended up at the Lake Viewing Area, a beautiful frozen lake overlooking the city buildings. I couldn't resist having an impromptu photoshoot when the snow started falling, so I was literally giddy with excitement. My brother Nick did a killer job with the photos, and it was just a pretty darn picture-perfect winter moment.

We wandered through Central Park past horse-drawn carriages and people walking their dogs, and made our way over to the ice rink. If you’re in NYC during the winter time, ice skating is definitely something not to miss. Even if you’re not much of an ice skater, it’s still a fun activity to watch the other skaters wibble and wobble over the ice and try their darnedest to stay on their feet. It could also be made into a fun drinking game, now that I think about it: Drink every time someone falls. Patent pending.

ROCKEFELLER CENTER

Next up on the bucket list was Rockefeller Center, which is basically the epitome of magical Christmas activities. You have ice skating, you have twinkly lights, and you have the most extra Christmas tree you’ll ever see in your life. This 72-foot tree towers above the ice-skating rink and puts your own Christmas tree back home to shame. There’s no competing with New York City.

We spent the good part of an hour just people watching while everyone skated to the tune of Christmas carols, and then headed over to see a new insta-famous sight, and somewhere equally as exciting due to its appearance in Gossip Girl, Lotte Palace. Filling the already impressive courtyard is a gorgeous cone-shaped tree, and photos do it better justice than any words I can write, so take a look below! It was the best way to wrap up an amazing day, and we headed back to HI New York for our last sleep before heading home for the holidays.

What we Ate

pizza, duh

Dom’s only request for our trip to New York was pretty simple: Pizza. The way to his heart is easy, and there’s something truly special about $1 pizza slices the size of your head, especially when found in a city where food is generally expensive. But my brother Nick wasn’t about to settle for any old pizza joint. He wanted the best of the best, so where did he take us? The World Famous Little Italy Pizza, located between 5th and Madison.

I was skeptical, because after all, anyone can claim to be “World Famous” these days, but this place honestly deserved that title. We paid a much higher price of $5 per slice, but still worth it once you taste it. Other than fulfilling Dom’s pizza wish, our diet consisted of whatever was cheapest: Chick-Fil-A, Dunkin Donuts, and McDonalds were the main hotspots, so you could say our America diet was off to a good start.

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How we Saved Money

If you’re anything like me, you are one budget-savvy, penny-pinching gal. If you’re anything like Dom, you think your bank account is unlimited and should be spent on pizza, always. For the sake of this section, let’s pretend you’re more like me LOL. New York City prices were a huge shock after being in SE Asia for so long, so to make our budget go further, I became an expert at seeking out cheap eats, free things to do, and getting around without breaking the bank.

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It may be a daily thing for city-goers, but for some of us, we’re not so experienced at subway travel. In the Philippines, Thailand, and Bali, my main form of transportation was either a motorbike, Uber, or Grab, so when it came to reading a subway map, it felt more like looking at a game of snakes and ladders. Luckily, Google Maps had my back, and was able to get us from point A to B every time. Each subway ride costs $2.75, so it’s super cheap compared to getting a taxi or Uber, and you can get across town within minutes even during rush hour. If you want to get the most bang for your buck and have a few days to see the sights, i’d recommend getting a tourist pass for the subway, which is well worth the $32 for unlimited rides.

Other than staying in hostels, eating cheap food, and taking public transport, my best money-saving tip is to take full advantage of any free activities. HI New York offers free activities and events (see above section), but if you’re looking for additional budget-friendly options, Travel and Leisure has an awesome list of 21 Totally Free Things to Do in NYC, so I’d recommend giving it a look!

Aaaaand that’s a wrap folks! Short, sweet, and magical. Our December trip to New York was able to restore our faith in big cities and was the most memorable way to end a wild year of travels. Big thanks to HI New York, HI USA, and all the amazing people we met there for making our trip extra special! Xoxo, Jess

Ultimate Guide to Coron

How to get there

Montenegro Shipping Lines

On our way to Coron, we had to go with the Phimal Ferry since Montenegro was all booked up due to the typhoon, and it was honestly a pretty rough journey. On the way out of Coron, however, we were determined to go with a different boat this time around, so we chose to travel with Montenegro and couldn’t have been happier with that choice.

The whole check-in process was an ease, the extra leg room was amazing, and it felt 10x safer than any other ferry we took in the Philippines! I was seriously impressed with their standards, and will always choose them for my future Philippines trips. The trip between Coron and El Nido (and vice versa) takes approximately 4 hours, so my advice is to bring some snacks, water, and maybe a motion sickness pill if the seas are choppy that day.

We ended up booking our ferry through a website called Biyaheroes, and I highly recommend using them for all your Philippines planning - There are over 7,000 islands in the Philippines, and trying to figure out how to get from point A to point B can be a serious challenge, so Biyaheroes can save you some serious stress!

I only discovered them during our last week in the Philippines, but it saved me so much research and planning time. All you do is type in your origin, destination, date you want to travel, and they do the rest for you! The website will show you how to get there (land, sea, or air), the cost of the trip, and how many seats are available. A true lifesaver when it comes to planning out your travels, and I only wish I found them sooner.

Where to Eat

FoodTrip

When we’re traveling, there are some things we splurge on and some things we try to do on a budget. Food is just one of those budget things for us, and we usually don’t have a problem finding a good cheap spot for food. Coron proved to be a bit more of a challenge though. It could be that we didn’t have a bike and couldn’t venture out of the main town, but we did find one place that we became absolutely obsessed with, and that’s FoodTrip.

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Located just a few minutes from the boat tour pier, we discovered FoodTrip on day 3, and I kid you not, we ate lunch and dinner there for the next 5 days straight. They even knew our exact order by our third visit. I ate chicken fried rice for pretty much every meal (once I find a food I like I pretty much stick with it 😂), and for a giant plate it only cost 120 pesos, or roughly $2.20 usd). The local restaurants tend to have huge portions compared to the more popular western places, so you really get the most “bang for your buck”. And after a full day out on the water, there’s nothing you’ll want more than a big ol’ plate of food!

Where to Stay:

Casa Fidelis

For the ultimate relaxation experience in Coron, you NEED to stay with Casa Fidelis. Located about 20 minutes outside the main town, Casa Fidelis is a jungle oasis and one of the best accommodation experiences you’ll have while in the Philippines. The rural property is surrounded by lush jungles and home to the sweetest staff i’ve ever met, along with adorable cats, kittens, and dogs. Also a freaking amazing breakfast spread! For those of you who know me well, you’ll know that this is my idea of heaven. If you’re in the mood to get away from the crowds and re-connect with nature, this is an idyllic spot for you. Dom and I went out on one of their 3 Philippine-style boats on our last day in Coron, and I kid you not, it was our favorite day of our whole time in Palawan. Words can’t even do it justice, but i’ll give it my best shot below where I compare our private Coron tour with Casa Fidelis to our group tour with one of the tour companies.

Ina Homestay

If you’re in the mood to stay somewhere a little closer to town, we stayed at a little homestay found on Airbnb called Ina Homestay. We stayed there approximately a week, and had no complaints! It had everything we needed: good wifi (until more people checked in, to our dismay!), a super comfy bed, a spacious room, and even had a shared kitchen so we could make coffee and breakfast on the days we stayed there. Random tip: Blanca coffee is THE BEST coffee i’ve had in the Philippines, and it’s like 20 pesos per packet, so make sure to stock up on some for your travels. The only minor downfall of our stay at Ina’s was a shared bathroom, but in the grand scheme of things, that’s not so bad if everyone else is respectful of cleanliness. Ina Homestay is located just a quick walk from the main town, so it’s a great place to stay if you want something central and within walking distance from all the restaurants and shops.

Private vs Group Tour

We went on a couple different tours in Coron so we were able to compare the positives and negatives of each. Our first tour was a private tour with a local guy we met at the pier, our second tour was a group tour with a tour company, and our third tour (and by far the best), was our day on the water with Casa Fidelis.

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Private tour with casa fidelis

I will try to keep this short, sweet and to the point, but it’s going to be pretty hard considering I have a million great to say about our day with Casa Fidelis. We decided on a big snorkeling day, consisting of visits to WWII shipwrecks, lunch on a small yet unbelievably photogenic island, and a vibrant snorkeling sesh at Coral Garden. The verdict: AMAZING.

Our day started at 7am where we had the best breakfast spread we could've asked for - scrambled eggs, toast, fluffy American-style pancakes, a fruit platter, coffee, and loads of other delicious breakfast foods. If that wasn’t enough, we were also greeted by around 10 cats and kittens after our breakfast, and from that point on, I knew my day was going to be a great one.

After breakfast we headed down to the water where the Casa Fidelis boat was docked, and met our Captain for the day. Our first stop was a Japanese shipwreck where we snorkeled among the fish, splashed around the warm waters, and took GoPro shots of us diving down towards the boat. To top it all off, we were the ONLY boat at that wreck, so it felt eerie yet awesome to be the only ones snorkeling around something so impressive. Our second shipwreck was the more popular American shipwreck, and since we arrived around 10am, the water was crystal clear and you could see the whole ship. There were a few other boats there at that point, but we hardly noticed the other people while we were awestruck by the sight of the coral-covered wreck.

We then hopped back on the boat towards our lunch spot for the day, and boy were we in for a surprise. Lunch was served on Pass Island, and upon pulling up, I was speechless. The water was shockingly blue, the sand a blinding white, and the island was covered in tall palms full of coconuts. We were served fresh seafood, chicken and rice, veggies, a seaweed salad, fresh fruit, and water from a young coconut. The food combined with an absolutely epic view made it the most memorable lunch i’ve ever had. If you have the time, I HIGHLY recommend making a stopover at Pass Island to check it out. Our final stop of the day was a spot called Coral Garden, which once again, blew me away. We hopped off the boat into a deep drop-off, and swam our way over to the vibrant coral. We were yet again the only ones snorkeling, so we felt like royalty having such an impressive reef all to ourselves. It seemed as if the fish knew, because we spotted a turtle, a lion fish, and hundreds of brightly-colored fish who weren’t even afraid of us!

Ultimately, our day out on the water with Casa Fidelis was incredible. We had great - no, AMAZING food, breathtaking sights, the best guides, and a whole boat to ourselves for the entire day! I was so sad for the day to end, but it’s something i’ll remember forever. If you need more convincing, Dom put together a quick vlog of our day out on the water with Casa Fidelis which you can find on YouTube. We’re embarrassingly excited, so don’t judge us too harshly!

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private tour with a local

For our very first trip, we were trying to get the most bang for our buck, so after reading a couple blogs and practicing my bargaining skills, Dom and I set off for the pier to go find ourselves a boat. We talked to a few guys offering tours, and each one seemed to have the same laminated price list for group tours vs. private tours. Since it was just the two of us and we had no friends in Coron (sad face), we bit the bullet and paid higher than what we had initially budgeted for, but ultimately still cheaper than any private boats in El Nido. A private boat for us to explore Coron Island was 2,500 pesos ($45 usd), and on top of that, we had to pay per destination visited. We opted to see 3 spots that day: Banul Beach, Twin Lagoon, and Kayangan Lake, so all in all, we paid around $30 each for a full day of island hopping. Not bad, not bad at all. The main reason we went with our local guy we met was because he promised we could leave before the other boats at 7am, but it seemed as if it was an empty promise. We arrived on time, and after being shuffled between 3 different boats, we sat for over an hour waiting for the tide to rise so we could leave. Not the morning we had planned, but also not the end of the world. I’m planning on writing another blog post about the specific destinations we visited, but let me just give you a tip: whichever spot you visit first will be amazing and quiet, and from there on out, you’ll be surrounded by orange life jackets filling the beautiful blue waters, so it’s a bit of an eyesore. Make the first stop count! Overall, the tour was good but not what I expected it to be. We got no food or water, received no information on the places we visited, and just overall felt a little underwhelming. It was nice having a boat to ourselves, but it didn’t even come close to comparing to our day out with Casa Fidelis.

group tour with a company

For our second tour, we wanted to go see the further islands of Malcapuya, Waling-Waling, and Coco Island, and since the boat prices were higher due to the farther distance, we decided to go with a group tour. We compared the prices of a few places in town, and settled on a tour with free pick-up leaving at 8am and costing 900 pesos each ($22 usd). I had the company name saved, but somehow deleted it so I don’t remember who we went with, but if you wander around the main town, you can find loads of tours offering this package. It was marketed as the “Ultimate Island Escape”, and pretty much lived up to its name. Our group consisted of 8 other people - mostly couples - and they were honestly all amazing. I was worried about a group tour since in El Nido they liked to cram 30 people onto a boat, and when you add life jackets into the mix, there’s not much room, but this tour was much, much better. The food was pretty good, the sights were great, the guides were informative, and it was ultimately a fun day out. If you’re on a strict budget, then I definitely recommend going on a group tour out to the farther islands. Since most tourists want to go to Coron Island, I think that’s a big reason why there were fewer people on our boat, which is a breath of fresh air compared to regular group tours.

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As for my ranking of tours, it goes like this:

  1. Private Tour with Casa Fidelis

  2. Group Tour to the outer islands

  3. Private Tour with a local

Beaches, islands, and lagoons, oh my! TruTravels 10 Day Philippines East Tour

I’ve been dreaming of visiting the Philippines for about two solid years now after seeing photo after photo of crystal clear waters, limestone mountains, and hidden lagoons. It’s always seemed like a far-off dream, destined to be at the top of my bucket list forever, but last month, this dream of mine was granted after Dom and I hopped on our very first group tour - the 10 Day Philippines East tour with TruTravels. So in October of this year, some legit life goals happened for me and i’m pretty sure i’ve reached the peak of my travel life!

A little bit of background: TruTravels is a company based in Southeast Asia with group tours to all the bucket list spots - Thailand, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Bali, and more. When it was time for me and Dom to choose which tour to join, it was pretty much a no brainer upon reading through the itinerary for the Philippines East tour. Swimming the sardine run in Moalboal, visiting the mystical island of Siquijor, island hopping around paradise in Siargao… honestly, what more could we ask for?!

From then on, everything was a whirlwind of excitement. We eagerly booked our flights from Vietnam to Cebu for October 28, made sure our travel insurance was up to date, and started counting down the days to paradise!

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THE GROUP

I’m very rarely in group situations these days, so when Day 1 of the 10 Day Philippines East tour rolled around and it was time to meet everyone for the first time, I was actually NERVOUS! The group all trickled in from the airport throughout the day, so our first main activity was a group dinner at the House of Lechon.

Side note: *If you’re in Cebu and like meat, this place is freaking epic. I don’t eat pork yet I was still drooling over all of the add-ons (cheese-stuffed jalapeños FTW), so if you’re a meat eater, you’ll be in Lechon heaven.

While stuffing our faces and grabbing some happy hour drinks (for $1, I should add!!), we all bonded over embarrassing karaoke songs, super strong mojitos, and an excitement for the ten adventure-filled days to come.

I’ll try to keep this section short, though I could probably write a short novel about this wonderful group of people. Spending ten days with a group of 15 people, you kind of expect there to be some cliques that eventually form, right? WRONG! All 15 people were the most friendly, caring, and entertaining humans i’ve ever encountered, and I was honestly shocked how quickly we all became friends.

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THE ACTIVITIES

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Oh, the activities! I’m still in disbelief over some of the things we did and saw, but here’s a list of my favourite moments:

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  • Canyoneering to Kawasan Falls: Easily my favourite day of the tour… maybe of the whole year. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to jump off 40ft cliffs into the bluest waters you’ve ever seen, then you need to do some canyoneering with TruTravels.

    Not only was it the best bonding activity for the group (I never would have had the cohones to jump off those cliffs without everyone cheering me on), but it was also INSANELY fun. We ended our adventure day at the famous bright blue Kawasan Falls, and i’m pretty sure our whole group can agree it’s a day we’ll be telling stories about for life.

  • Swimming the Sardine Run: Snorkeling while being surrounded by millions of sardines = A-freakin-MAZING. The Moalboal sardine run was something I had never even heard of before joining the TruTravels trip, but on Day 3 of the tour, our group hopped on a boat and ventured around the islands of Cebu.

    The day started with snorkeling at a remote island, and I remember looking down at the vibrant coral, starfish, and fish below and thinking how the day couldn’t possibly get any better than that. Well boys and girls… it did. Our second stop was the sardine run, and upon diving into the water, we were immediately surrounded by MILLIONS of sardines. Not hundreds, not thousands, but I swear there were millions of them, all moving in sync with one another while us snorkelers paddled around them. It was like watching a performance, and left me seriously lost for words.

  • Experiencing the magic of Siquijor: Our third destination on the TruTravels Philippines tour was the most unique, as we headed to Siquijor, an island known for its voodoo, witchcraft, healers, and black magic. I soon learned that Filipinos actually fear this island, which made it all the more exciting to experience (in my opinion!). While everything in Siquijor seemed to be magical (the cascading tiered waterfalls, the shockingly blue waters, and the palm-lined roads), it was our visit to the faith healer that sold it to me.

    On Day 6, our group headed to the home of a woman to have our bodies healed and our palms read, and it was the most unique thing i’ve ever experienced. My only regret of the day was admitting that I had a cold, and the faith healer squeezed some not-so-nice-smelling leaves over my freshly-washed hair to help my health improve… big mistake on my end, but a hilarious memory to look back on!

  • Everything about the island of Siargao. If I had to choose my one all-time favorite memory from the TruTravels trip, it would undoubtedly be Siargao. Upon arriving, we were met with a van ride through the palm-covered mountains, and even on a rainy day I was blown away by its beauty. Siargao has the charm of a local island along with having some of the most beautiful spots I have ever seen, and I am 100% certain it’s going to be a serious tourist hotspot someday.

    This island was our final stop on the 10 Day Philippines East tour, and I couldn’t have imagined a better place to end the trip. We spent the days learning to surf (and fall gracefully), island hopping to some of the most pristine beaches i’ve ever been to, eating like royalty, enjoying super cheap drinks every night, and wishing the tour didn’t have to come to an end. It’s hard to put Siargao into words, and I don’t think photos can even do it justice, but take a look at the photos below and see why I fell in love.

    Also, a little pro tip I learned about Siargao - if you’re going island hopping, put in a request to do the tour backwards, starting at Guyam Island, visiting Daku Island for lunch, and ending the day on Naked Island for sunset. You’ll miss a lot of the tourists and end up having Naked Island completely to yourself to watch the skies turn pink! I can’t recommend that more highly.

THE ACCOMMODATION

To be honest, I was expecting to stay in hostel dorm rooms every night of the tour, but boy was I way off. Way, WAY off. We each shared a private room with one other group member, so I was lucky enough to be put with Dom LOL. We stayed in 4 different hotels/resorts during our 10 Day Philippines East tour, each seeming to be more beautiful than the last. Starting off the tour with a bang, we had 1 night in Cebu where we stayed at Red Planet, a comfy hotel directly across from my favorite Cebu hotspot: the mall! I was going through a serious fast food withdrawal after 6 months in SE Asia, so access to McDonalds was like a gift from God.

Our second destination was Moalboal, Cebu, where we stayed at a beachside resort featuring a swimming pool and one of the nicest owners ever, Angel - she literally handed me and Dom sandwiches at 6am when we were heading out for an early morning of exploring - she lives up to her name for sure.

On the island of Siquijor, our resort was a similar beachside resort featuring tons of towering palm trees, flowers, and AN EPIC POOL! Within 10 minutes our group had taken over the giant pool and were playing our own version of NFL football using a tiny pink ball. We came up with secret plays and everything. It was legit.

Our final hotel in Siargao exceeded all of our expectations though, because we were greeted by a huge resort by the beach, an amazing restaurant, and the biggest rooms of the whole trip. There were also dogs, so you know I was loving life especially hard.

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Word to the wise: wifi is pretty hit or miss in the Philippines, so luckily TruTravels had warned us of this prior to arriving, and we came prepared with a SMART sim card to get us through the slow stages. Definitely a lifesaver! My recommendation: a 30 day SMART Sim Card gets you 16 gb of data and costs 1,000 php, or $18 usd. You can get them from the Cebu airport in the arrivals area, so definitely check out the options before leaving the airport!

THE FOOD

I’m drooling just thinking about it.

We ate like Kings and Queens during our 10 days with TruTravels, and now that the tour is over and i’m back on that budget noodle grind, i’m missing the tour food extra hard. It was honestly the perfect mixture of Filipino food and Western food throughout the trip, and every night was seemingly better than the last.

My favorite meal of the trip definitely had to be our seafood lunch on Daku Island, and we ate our way into food comas with platters of fresh fish, chicken, veggie dishes, and tropical fruit.

BRB, i’m going to go cry into my bowl of instant noodles now.

OUR TOUR LEADER

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I may be biased, but our tour leader Jason “Jase” is BY FAR the greatest tour leader to ever exist.

He somehow got all fifteen of us from point A to point B every single time without any problems, he took care of us when we weren’t feeling our best *cough* hungover *cough*, he got us super excited for every single activity. And best of all? He got us McDonald’s when we were all being babies about waking up early for our big travel day. That won him MAJOR points in the tour leader department. Except when it caused the big hash brown dilemma of 2018, when one of our group vans “accidentally” ate the other’s hash browns… #neverforget!!! Haha.

But back to Jase, his infectious energy is the thing that turned the tour from being great, to exceptional, and I know we’ll all be friends for life because of him.

Also, for those of you who managed to catch my Instagram LIVE from Naked Island on Siargao, you will recognize Jase as my special guest. Any questions about the tour, I highly recommend you shoot him a message because he will set your mind at ease and get you super duper excited to see the Philippines!

Thanks for being the best tour guide, Jase!

THE TRANSPORTATION

We rode in style on the TruTravels trip. Vans, ferries, planes, boats, trikes.. we did it all! The Philippines is massive, and if you’ve never been here before, it’s pretty hard to navigate your way without getting lost, which is why I was SO grateful to have our trip all planned out for us. It made it so easy to have Jase telling us exactly what we were doing for the day and organizing the transportation for us.

final thoughts

I couldn’t have planned a better trip if I tried, and every single moment of the tour was easy, carefree, thrilling, and memorable. The Philippines East trip started off my time in the Philippines in the absolute best way possible, and I now have a new favorite country thanks to TruTravels. I got to do things I had only dreamed of, faced and conquered some of my biggest fears, and did it all alongside some truly incredible people,

As a couple, me and Dom weren’t sure what to expect when meeting and traveling with a group of 15 (after all, we’ve been traveling with nobody but each other for the past year!), but those fifteen people quickly grew to be our own little travel family, and I am so thankful for the opportunity to meet them all. Nando’s reunion 2019, anyone? If you’re traveling as a couple, solo, with friends, or even with family, a TruTravels tour is perfect for you. It’s the ideal mix of adventure, culture, and fun, and perfect for anyone who wants to let someone else take care of all the travel planning details for once and just go with the flow.

Our tour was 10 seriously awesome days of exploring Philippines East, but if you want to see even more of the islands, TruTravels also has a 19 day Philippines Island Hopping Experience that hits all the bucket list spots like Moalboal, Siquijor, Siargao, El Nido, Coron, and way WAY more!

So if you’re thinking of doing a group trip and have any questions at all, shoot me a message and ask me anything! x

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How to download + install Paradise Mobile Presets

This guide will help you install your new preset collection into the FREE Adobe Lightroom Mobile app, without needing a subscription for the Desktop version.

Step 1: Download the free Adobe Lightroom Mobile app from the app store, if you don’t already have it.

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Step 2: Download DNG files to your computer.

After purchasing the Paradise Mobile Collection, you will have received an email containing a zipped file with your new Paradise Collection presets.

- Download the file to your computer (as phones are unable to open ZIP files)

- This folder contains 11 DNG format files (each of which contains a unique preset), which can then be downloaded to your phone in Step 3.

 

Step 3: Transfer the files to your phone

These are fairly large files, so if you cannot Airdrop or email them to your phone, my personal favourite method is to use Dropbox.

  • To use Dropbox, simply import (or drag & drop) your DNG files into your Dropbox folder.

  • Once all your files are synced and ready, go into your Dropbox folder on your phone and export each DNG file into your phone (Tap 3 dots next to DNG image - Export - Save to Phone) *Repeat step for each photo

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Step 4: Import the files into your Lightroom app

If you’ve made it this far, all of of your DNG files should be saved in your phone’s camera roll, and you’ll also see them in your Lightroom Folder, All Photos

  • Open the Lightroom app and create a new album.

  • Name the album “Paradise Presets” (or anything you’ll remember)

  • After you’ve created your new album, open it up and then click on Add Photos.

  • Select all the blank DNG files from your camera roll, and click Add.

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Step 5: Create & Save your new Presets

This step should save you a whole lot of copy and pasting time! It seems daunting, but it’s not as confusing as it seems and you only have to do this process once per preset.

  • Go into your new “Paradise Presets” album.

  • Open the first photo file, click on the 3 dots in the upper right of the screen, and then click on the option Create Preset. This takes you to the New Preset box (shown below right) with customizable options.

  • Give your preset a new name (if you want to keep my own preset names, just take a look at the original Dropbox files to find each preset’s name!). Under Preset Group, you can either select User Presets, OR create a new Preset Group if you want to keep it organized. Then, you can customize the preset’s options - You should have all boxes checked, but I personally never select Tools, Optics and Geometry.

  • When this is done, click on the checkmark in the upper right corner to save your preset. You’ll need to repeat this step for each DNG file, since each preset has to be saved separately.

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Step 6: Applying the presets to your own photos

To use your new presets, go back into your Lightroom app’s photo library, and open any photo from your camera roll you’d like to edit.

  • Once the photo has opened, scroll all the way to the right to find the option Presets. When you click that, it opens up a box with all your saved presets.

  • If you’ve saved them into their own separate folder (not in User Presets), simply navigate to the correct folder.

  • Now you can click on each preset to see what it looks like applied to your photo.

  • Once you’ve found a style you like best, simply tap on the check mark, make any other tweaks to the colors or lighting, and save the photo to your camera roll. Voila! Your edited photo is now in your camera roll and ready to post.

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Getting cash in the Philippines when the ATM's don't work

I’ve had my fair share of struggles while traveling, but most of the time they can be resolved easily with a little bit of flexibility and a coffee to calm myself down.

Between flight cancellations, typhoons, finding sick puppies, emergency doctor visits, death-defying van trips, and way more, the one thing that still stresses me TF out more than anything else is when I can’t get cash out of an ATM when I’m pretty desperate for it.

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What makes things significantly more challenging here in the Philippines is when you’re in a location with only 1-2 ATM’s in the region (which tbh is pretty common), and you are down to your last few pesos. Even the more popular tourist hotspots like El Nido and Coron can be a struggle, where the ATM’s run out of cash on a daily basis and you could be left cashless quite often.

Thankfully, before you start pulling your hair out, there’s a way around this challenge which I had to learn the hard way on the island of Siargao. I was desperately in need of cash to pay our accommodation before heading to the airport, and the one ATM in our area decided it didn’t like my credit card, debit card, AND even Dom’s card. After having a mild freak out and asking some of the passerby’s about it, I found an easy solution to my problem: World Remit.

World Remit is an app that you can download and send money pretty instantaneously to a friend, family member, or in my case, MYSELF. After the ATM debacle, I had created an account within minutes and was ready to send myself some much-needed cash.

Use code JESSICAJ137 to get $35 back when you make a transfer over $100


Through the app, I chose to pick up my money from M Lhuillier because that was the closest store to my accommodation in Siargao, but there are a few other options you can choose from when sending money through World Remit if you’d prefer to pick up your money from another shop. M Lhuillier looks like a bank when you walk in which I prefer since it just feels more legit!

*Note, you may have to submit a photo of your passport to World Remit via email in order for the money transfer to be processed, so if that’s the case, expect to wait a few hours or so for the transfer to work.

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The next morning, I headed down to road to M Lhuillier with my passport and World Remit app handy, showed them my receipt number, signed a form, and voila, I was handed the 9,000 php I sent myself! The money transfer fee actually costs LESS than the ATM fee would have charged me, so it’s an amazing option to keep in mind when traveling.

So if you get stuck for cash at an ATM while traveling in the Philippines, World Remit can save you from some serious stress!

Booking a private tour in El Nido

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If you were to ask me the one thing that gets on my nerves most while traveling, it’s public tours. While not *all* tours are always over-capacity, the majority in SE Asia will try to maximise their profits by allowing waaaay too many people on the boat, shoving way too many people in the van, or allowing an insane # of people on the bus.

A prime example is our bus ride from Puerto Princesa to El Nido, where we caught the early van and had the pleasure of sharing 3 seats between 4 of us. A rough four hours, but our neighbors definitely enjoyed the sleeping pills I gave them 😂

But when it came to island hopping in El Nido, I was NOT about to get on an overloaded boat for my few days in paradise. Luckily, there are options other than the public group tours, so I’m going to share exactly how it went down!

PUBLIC BOAT TOURS

Public tours are sold by just about every tour agency here. There is no shortage of tours, and just a simple walk down the main road will get you offers for tour A, B, C, D, or even the mysterious L tour.

The public tours range between 1200 php ($24 usd) and 1500 php ($30), which include lunch and entrance fee to the islands. However, these boats all leave roughly around 10am, so by the time you get to your first destination, there are another 10 boats alongside you.

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PRIVATE BOAT TOURS

We opted for a private tour, meaning we got a whole boat to ourselves, and the benefits are pretty self-explanatory:

  • 7,000 php for an entire boat ($130)

  • Includes a freaking amazing lunch

  • You can get permission from the coast guard to leave earlier to beat the other boats

  • You can choose your own schedule and decide which order to visit each island

  • You can mix and match the islands rather than choosing Tour A, B, C or D

  • Spacious AF! We had 7 on our first trip (1000 php each), and 4 of us on our second day trip, while some other boats I counted 27 people! That means nobody had to fight to get those perfect front-of-the-boat shots

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HOW TO BOOK

As for the private tours, you can go to pretty much any tour agency and ask the cost of a private boat. They will start at 8,000 php most likely, but if you hesitate and chat amongst yourselves about the “other tour down the road who offered 7,000”, you’ll definitely get a deal. We went with a company called Carao-Cao Travel & Tours on the main road located next to Squidos restaurant - and they were great although we were supposed to leave at 8:30 which turned into 9:30 on our second trip. Not a big deal though!

AN EVEN CHEAPER OPTION

If you’re even more stingy than me (if that’s possible), you can try to arrange a local boat from the guys hanging around the pier. Without food included, you may be able to whack off another 1,000 pesos and get a boat for 6,000, so it doesn’t hurt to ask around!

But all in all, if you have a few friends who don’t mind spending a few extra dollars, you’ll get a MUCH better experience and feel like rockstars on your own personal boat.

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10 Photos to Convince You To Visit the Island of Siargao

Hidden lagoons, baby blue waters, and palm-covered landscapes - what more do you need?! Photos don’t do it justice, but these 10 images of Siargao should help convince you that you need to drop what you’re doing and book a flight to this wild little island paradise ASAP.

*All photos taken on iPhone 8 Plus, DJI Mavic Pro Drone, & Canon 5D Mark IV

Sugba Lagoon, Siargao

Sugba Lagoon, Siargao

Daku Island, Siargao

Daku Island, Siargao

Hidden Palm, Siargao

Hidden Palm, Siargao

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Daku Island, Siargao

Daku Island, Siargao

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Sugba Lagoon, Siargao

Sugba Lagoon, Siargao

Guyam Island, Siargao

Guyam Island, Siargao

En Route to Sugba Lagoon, Siargao

En Route to Sugba Lagoon, Siargao

Island Hopping - Naked Island, Siargao

Island Hopping - Naked Island, Siargao

southeast asia

A ​Backpacker’s ​Cheap Travel Guide ​to Bali

Bali is the closest thing to paradise i have ever experienced.

You see it blasted all over Instagram and probably have rolled your eyes once or twice when you scroll past yet another photo of the Gili Island beach swings for the millionth time, but it has a certain draw to it.

Personally, I was drawn in by the colors. Every single photo I saw, Bali looked like the greenest, bluest, and most tropical place i have ever seen, and of course I was hooked.

In August, I decided to book a 10-day solo backpacking trip to the tropical region of Bali, Indonesia. 

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SINGAPORE: WHAT TO DO IN 1 DAY

1. UNWIND AT THE MARINA BAY SANDS
The Marina Bay Sands is one of the most unique landmark hotels in Southeast Asia. It's made up of three towers of luxury hotel rooms joined together by a large rooftop infinity pool on level 57. The rooftop terrace offers panoramic views of the city and is the perfect place to catch the sunset after your day of exploring the city. Unfortunately, the hotel does not allow guests to use the infinity pool, but you can still get a glimpse of the innovative pool at one of the several restaurants and bars on level 57.
 
Fun Fact: The two, very exclusive Chairman Suites at the Marina Bay Sands are 629 square meters each. That's bigger than the size of 2 tennis courts!

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