Visiting Dracula’s Bran Castle: Vampire tour of Transylvania! Vlad the Impaler, Romania Goth Halloween.

bran castle dracula towers

“My friend. Welcome to the Carpathians. I am anxiously expecting you.” – Count Dracula’s invitation to Jonathan Harker, in the Bram Stoker novel.

Last Halloween, I got to live out my vampire dreams (or nightmares)… at Dracula’s castle in Transylvania!

With the support of Experience Romania, I got to come and learn about the real Vlad Dracul, a ruler whose history is wrapped up in horror mythology.

moi meme moitie dress elegant gothic lolita

For years, I had the “Goth goal” of visiting Bran Castle in Brasov, Romania. This dark fortress is associated with the bloody tales of Vlad the Impaler. 

I wore my Moi-meme-Moitie dress; the silhouette and design are straight out of Nosferatu. This is an Japanese Elegant Gothic Lolita design by Mana, who you may know from the Visual Kei bands Moi-dix-mois and Malice Mizer.

visiting bran castle romania

Keep reading for an exclusive look inside Bran Castle, including photography in areas that tourists aren’t able to access. We’ll wind up in a torture garden, and get to know the Romanian vampire. (All photos by Joey Wong.)

bucharest to brasov transylvania scenery

As you may remember, I was invited to Experience Bucharest around Halloween 2017. On one of our free days, photographer Joey Wong and I met up with our local Romanian friends, Alex and Beatrice. They kindly drove us from Bucharest to Bran Castle in the early morning.

(To get to Dracula’s castle, it’s also possible to take the train, but there are limited departure/arrival times. You can also rent a car, or hire a private driver for the trip).

When you see the dawn breaking over the misty landscape, it’s easy to understand why Romania is the land of vampire tales. 

brasov romania Wallachia

The drive from Bucharest to Brasov is a beautiful one, especially in fall when the leaves have Halloween hues. If you’re based in Bucharest, this is a perfect day trip to Transylvania. (You can also stay overnight in Brasov, if you want to spend more time in the region).

The journey to Bran Castle takes about 3-4 hours by car, depending on traffic (it’s a good idea to leave early, in case you get stuck). On the way back in the afternoon, the ride took longer.

carpathian mountains romania tourism

As we got closer, the roads became windy, and the Carpathian mountains loomed over us.

The Carpathians are a mountainous range through Central and Eastern Europe, with the largest portion in Romania. These dramatic hills are home to brown bears, wolves, lynx… and maybe some blood-sucking bats?

halloween party dracula castle bran romania

Transylvania is the central region of Romania, located north of Bucharest. Its high-contrast clouds and craggy mountains looked straight out of a horror movie. When we saw these horses under an ominous sign… we knew we must be getting closer.

strigoi romanian vampire legends

At last, we made it to Bran Castle! On their website, you can find access, admission and visitor info. When we arrived, there was a line up for tickets, which cost about 7 euro (there are senior and student discounts). Bran Castle kindly welcomed us as press, giving us permission to photograph usually-restricted areas.

Dracula Castle address: Strada General Traian Moșoiu 24, Bran 507025, Romania

vlad the impaler dracula grave tombstone

Visitors have to first walk up a steep path to the castle, lined by dark gravestones like this one. Do Dracula’s remains lie beneath the soil?

Not quite. In fact, Bran Castle is only loosely connected to the historic Vlad the Impaler, who may have never even stepped foot here. Keep in mind that ever since the publication of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” novel, the man and myth have blurred in the public imagination. This castle is located in Transylvania (where the fictional Count lived), and has an appropriately imposing, Medieval look… what better setting to dive deep into the bloody legends? 

vlad the impaler portrait dracul

Inside, you’ll find portraits and historical information about Vlad III, also known as Vlad Tepes or Vlad Dracula. In real life, he was the second son of Vlad Dracul, the 15th century prince of Wallachia, Romania. Records show that he signed two of his letters “Dragulya” or “Drakulya” — which means “the son of Dracul.”

interior bran castle dracula

Vlad actually lived in Wallachia, the area south of Transylvania. In the late 14th century, a group of German colonists built Bran Castle in Brasov (where I’m standing). Their descendants may have wound up as Vlad’s victims, during his reign.

courtyard bran castle restairant

Although Bran castle wasn’t the primary home of Vlad, it has the “Dracula” feeling conjured by the novel and other vampire works (films, comics, you name it).

Author Bram Stoker never even went to Romania before writing his book. He based Count Dracula’s castle on Whitby Abbey in England, which I also visited.

impaling on stick romania vlad

Vlad was called “The Impaler” by the Ottomans, and was also known as the Butcher or Demon. What’s the deal with the nickname?

As the castle banners indicate, impalement was Vlad’s favorite method of execution — spearing bodies on a stake, and leaving them to die. He executed thousands in this manner, and even created a “Forest of the Impaled” with 20,000 pierced bodies. Some say Vlad enjoyed dining with his palace associates, surrounded by a circle of impaled victims.

history tour bran castle

Vlad is usually depicted as a villain, but there’s another side to the story. Many Romanians consider him a hero, and one of the country’s greatest rulers.

visit bran castle tickets admission hours

It’s important to understand the context of Vlad’s actions. As a youth, he was imprisoned by the Ottomans, and severely abused. When he took reign, his harsh punishments were a way to strengthen the central government from dissenters. Some historians interpret his cruelty as rational acts to secure the independence of Romania, as the land was surrounded by the much stronger Turks.

goths romania transylvania trip

During his reign, Vlad actually lived in Poenari Castle, a cliff-side citadel in Wallachia. You have to climb 1,480 concrete stairs to reach the top. Poenari castle is located quite a bit further from Bucharest, so I’ll have to wait until next time to visit.

real count dracula castle

Vlad the Impaler was possibly imprisoned inside Bran Castle for a few months; he was exiled and jailed multiple times during his three reigning periods. Regardless, the Transylvanian castle is sensational, and makes you feel as if you’re a character in the Dracula story.

secret tunnels dungeons vlad dracula

What dark secrets hide within these walls? Perhaps a crypt lined with coffins?

Bran Castle does have a system of secret tunnels, which weren’t discovered until later. These narrow, steep passages were built as escape routes. On regular tours, you aren’t able to go inside… but this vampire got special permission.

interior historic bran castle

In 1920, Bran Castle came into the possession of Queen Maria, the last queen of Romania. In 2009, it became open to the public as a museum and attraction. Inside the castle, you can see relics of her royal residence, including art and furniture from her personal collection.

vlad tepes impaler dracul

No wonder Queen Maria made this her special residence. The castle architecture is captivating, with winding staircases and picture windows.

romanian strigoi vampire tales

On the upper levels, you can learn about Vlad and the folk tales that inspired vampire legends. My Romanian friend Alex found his ancestor on the family tree… proof of his vampire bloodline!

I read about “strigoi,” the evil souls of the dead that kill victims by sucking their blood, and have the ability to transform into animals (forming the inspiration for modern vampire tales). If pregnant women drink cursed water or go outside without covering their heads, then Satan puts a red bonnet on them and their newborns. Unless it’s removed, the babies will transform into “strigoi” — the undead that live among us.

bran castle architecture windows

The sunlight… it burns, it burns!

Standing inside Dracula’s Castle, I realized how much the legend has inspired fashion, art and pop culture — from Lost Souls, to Interview with the Vampire, to Buffy.

brasov transylvania landscape

Through this arched window, I looked out at Transylvania. Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel turned the region into a household name associated with vampires. With a landscape like this, no wonder this is perceived as a magical, mysterious and dramatic land.

vampire bangs girl hairstyle

Similarly, we’ve all heard of the word “Nosferatu,” which refers to The Devil in modern Romanian. Photographer Joey Wong captures the spirit in this image.

sleep inside dracula's castle hotel

Can you see my reflection in the mirror? I didn’t stumble across any coffins in Bran Castle, but the entire castle had a haunted feeling (creepy nooks, squeaky staircases, four-poster beds straight out of Dracula movies).

transylvania vampire tours travel

When night falls… it’s not difficult to imagine “strigoi” flying out from these woods!

girl inside iron maiden torture device

Bran Castle also hosts rotating exhibitions. When we visited, there was a collection of torture devices used in the Middle Ages.

I felt genuinely scared, standing inside this iron maiden lined with deadly spikes. The lady’s evil smile makes matters more frightening.

vlad impaler's spike wooden impaled

I’m pointing at Vlad the Impaler’s favorite instrument. Sometimes, the stake was sharp and killed victims quickly. Other times, it was dulled and oiled, and went through the body in a way that didn’t pierce the heart — prolonging the pain and duration.

eastern europe tortune instruments

I shudder to think of what it was like, living in the time of these torture devices.

bran castle vampire fashion

What a treat to visit Castle Bran and immerse myself in the world of Vlad the Impaler. Even though it’s technically not “his castle,” I loved the sinister experience and Transylvanian setting.

count dracula romanian red wine

I leave you with some Romanian vampire souvenirs. I took these photos at Bucharest’s Henri Coandă airport; you’ll find a huge selection of Dracula-themed red wines in the shopping area before departures. I wish I could have bought them all… but I had no room in my suitcase.

dracula liqueur draquila

In addition, there’s a selection of vampiric liqueurs. Who needs tequila when you can drink Draquila?

I was intrigued by Potion of Dracula, a plum brandy or “palinka” that hails from Transylvania. The 40% proof liqueur is packaged in what looks like a magic flask, with an antique lock and keey.

conte dracula wines romania

Don’t you think the 555 should be 666? I didn’t have the opportunity to try any of these Count Dracula wines, but I did enjoy the Romanian red that I had at an Experience Bucharest networking event.

bat vampires count dracula keychains

I was tempted to pick up these cute magnets and keychains, which I found at a rest-stop during our roadtrip from Bucharest to Dracula’s Castle.

dr frank n furter doll rocky horror

How do Romanians feel about being associated with vampires? It’s a mixed bag, but many of them embrace the Vlad Draculea “bloodline” and its impact on pop culture.

Most of the airport’s souvenirs had a vampire theme, including stuffed toys and “Vladut’s Story” plums in chocolate cream. There was even a plush of Tim Curry’s character in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, who hails from”Transsexual Transylvania!”

romania vampire dracula toys souvenirs

I guess he’s Count Chocola for a reason… quite a few of the Dracula gifts were chocolates. Love the coffin figure as well.

romania halloween club vila bran

A million thank yous to Experience Romania for the best Halloween ever. I loved exploring the country, and am dying to come back and see more.

dracula gothic travel tourism

Whether he’s a folk hero or fanged horror villian, Dracula has captured the imagination of millions worldwide. At Bran Castle, you get to become part of the legend.

So I leave you with a quote by Bram Stoker’s Count: “Once again…welcome to my house. Come freely. Go safely; and leave something of the happiness you bring.”

(And if you’re hungry for more bloody tales, here are all my travel posts about Bucharest and Romania!)


Synthwave San Francisco! Turbo Drive retrowave club, design Hotel Clift by Philippe Starck, Alexander’s Steakhouse.

dragon skirt, print all over me gentlethrills

Fire and brimstone… Talk about a warm welcome back to San Francisco!

I recently took a weekend trip to see some of my favorite ghouls. Since I’m currently all about retrowave music, this was also the perfect excuse to check out SF’s synthwave party scene. 

(I put together a “Kung Fury” outfit with this Dragon midi skirt from Print All Over Me, designed by gentlethrills. This dramatic fireplace is in the lobby of Clift Hotel, where I stayed.)

danger synthwave musician artist dj

San Francisco has long been a hub for subcultures: from the Beatniks to the hippies and onward. Right now, it’s the site of the longest-running and best synthwave party on the planet, Turbo Drive.

Keep reading for a firsthand report of the outrun fun, featuring a performance by French artist Danger (above!)

aurum jewelry iceland necklace, red beret

First, let me introduce you to my favorite new necklace — this minimal choker from Aurum by Guðbjörg. They’re an Icelandic jewelry designer, handcrafting every piece from silver from their workshop in Reykjavík.

My necklace is from the Aurum Asterias collection, which is inspired by the country’s unique, dark ocean waves. I love this design because it brings back fond memories of when I visited the black sand beaches of Iceland.

aurum by guðbjörg jewellery asterias choker necklace

As you know, I’m all about supporting independent designers that produce exquisite pieces. Aurum melds traditional craftsmanship with modern design, and prioritizes sustainability with fair-trade materials and environmentally friendly packaging.

For a special piece, I encourage you to view their collections that include rings, bracelets, earrings and other accessories.

See more from Aurum below:

ian schrager hotel clift san francisco

I had fun staying at San Francisco’s Clift Hotel, which was designed by Philippe Starck (one of my favorite modern furniture/interiors designers) and Ian Schrager (co-founder of the legendary NY nightclub Studio 54). 

Monkeying around is encouraged, in this hip hotel. Guests can sit on Starck’s Big Arm Chair and take photos… that is, if they can manage to clamor up there! (Images by Lauren Levitt).

clift hotel chair collection chairs

Clift Hotel San Francisco has a mind-bending lobby, featuring a collection of avantgarde chairs. There are seats designed by Ray and Charles Eames, a coffee table by Salvador Dali, and a surreal stool by Roberto Matta who was inspired by René Magritte. (Remember when I went to his surrealist museum in Belgium?).

clift hotel starck chairs

Clift San Francisco is part of Morgans Hotel Group, hence the eclectic, boutique luxury vibe of the space.

Philippe Starck bar hotel san francisco

We had cocktails in Clift’s historic Redwood Room; legend says it was carved from the wood of a single redwood tree. The bar has been restored by Starck, with an enormous etched glass bar and plasma TV screens that broadcast digital art.

(I’ll show you more from the hotel further down… but now, it’s time to party.)

san francisco goths, synthwave parties

Many of my friends and I are currently loving the neo-80s sounds of synthwave: think Stranger Things and John Carpenter. I’ve long wanted to attend Turbo Drive, the first and only San Francisco dance club dedicated to retrowave / outrun.

As the party describes it: “This is the soundtrack for carefree drives along the beach, Day-Glo legwarmer aerobics, sunsets over laser grids, outrunning the cops in a cyberpunk dystopia, falling in love with your first robot crush, and occasionally summoning the unholy forces from the depths with a keytar.”

turbo drive club night retrowave outrun

Turbo Drive takes place regularly in the space about DNA Lounge. I’m hanging with Meikee Magnetic in the DJ booth; he runs the party with Danny Delorean and Devon Dossett. (They also do other events around the city, including Bootie SF and Neon Black).

The club’s playlist is space-synth perfection. The DJs spin Carpenter Brut, Perturbator, Dance with the Dead, Com Truise, Gost, Robert Parker… the soundtrack of night-driving in space.

danger synthwave music live concert

Then, Danger took the stage! The French musician electrified the crowd with his glowing eyes, behind a mask reminiscent of Daft Punk or Aural Vampire’s Raveman.

Danger had tremendous energy throughout his set, never letting up on the pounding hyperdrive. He drew in a packed room, and by the end, everyone was headbanging hard to the retro-futuristic sounds of the 80s.

synthwave glowing masks bags fashion

Thanks to Meikee for inviting me to Turbo Drive. It was great to catch up with friends, and experience this intergalactic club scene. If you come to San Fran, hopefully you too can check one of their synthwave events. 

hotel clift san francisco design hotel

Here’s another look at my “Kung Fury” outfit of the day. I’m constantly wearing this 90s-style red beret by Mary Wyatt London.

My Dragon midi skirt is from Print All Over Me, which lets you print custom designs on 200 high-quality templates. You can also order designs by top artists; my skirt is by gentlethrills.

I paired it with shoes by Le Babe, a leather crop top by Erbert Chong, and faux fur jacket by Iron Fist.

boutique hotel suite san fran

San Francisco’s Hotel Clift is made for photo-shooting. Lauren and I got access to one of the mod suites, with high ceilings and a dining room with furniture designed by Philippe Starck.

luxury art hotel san francisco

Mirrors, mirrors everywhere. (As you can see, PAOM skirt is double-sided!)

The suite at Clift San Francisco is a study in sumptuous textures. Silk, leather, velvet, chrome and Venetian Murano glass.

le babe high heel shoes

The relaxed opulence fit with my embroidered high heel shoes by Le Babe. (More of their designs featured below:)

san francisco design hotel starck

One of my friends rented a Clift suite for a birthday party. This would also be a fabulous spot to ring in the New Year, as it’s centrally located in downtown San Fran.

latex black cat catwoman costume

Lauren’s black latex dress and cat mask matched the playful energy of the hotel. (On each level, you’ll find a big circular mirror and these reflective chairs).

lavender pastel purple staircase

Don’t miss out on the 16th floor, featuring this lavender spiral staircase and glass lights.

latex french maid black dress

At an art hotel like The Clift, adventure awaits… Shout-out to the staff for welcoming us here, and their kind comments on our various outfits!

alex streeter black angel heart ring

On our first night, I enjoyed a brilliant meal at Alexander’s Steakhouse with Dr John Skutlin, who was in town to speak at a University of San Francisco conference about tattoo culture in Asia. He says, “Alexander’s elegant and sophisticated interior and warm ambient lighting set the mood for an evening of gastronomic delights guided by their expert staff.” 

The restaurant is a traditional steak house, yet they innovate with fusion dishes and creative cocktails. My gin curry cocktail above is a perfect example; decorated with edible flowers, this Indian inspired drink is wonderfully refreshing.

(John and I are wearing rings by Alex Streeter, our favorite jewelry designer. The legendary silversmith created the Angel Heart Ring, which was memorialized in the movie starring Robert De Niro as Lucifer. This pentagram design comes in several variations; John’s ring has two silver devils on the side. I’m wearing Alex Streeter’s Ouroboros and Bone Claw rings.”)

hamachi shooter shots alexander steakhouse

John continues, “Of course, steak is the name of the game, but before our massive cuts of beef we were treated to hon Hamachi “shots” – a line of shotglasses each filled with avocado, serrano, cilantro, and of course raw yellowtail, all topped off with a splash of yuzu soy sauce for a refreshing aperitif.”

The server quipped that we could throw back a dozen of these and still want more… as you can see from my expression, he was correct! Other restaurants have copied this dish, but Alexander’s hamachi shots are the original ones.

san francisco steak house cocktails

“Might I say that I’m Old Fashioned?” Our server brought us an extensive wine and cocktail list to peruse.

John says, “The libations were almost too numerous to choose from, but the double rye Manhattan was perfectly balanced between the vermouth and the heavy dose of rye. Everyone knows about aging wine and whiskey, but cocktails can be mixed and then aged as well, allowing the ingredients to fuse together in subtle and surprising ways, as I found with the aged Rob Roy cocktail Alexander’s served up.”

alexander's steakhouse review san francisco

Alexander’s Steakhouse has a meticulously curated beef program, highlighting small farms from the US, Australia, and Japan. They are also one of the only restaurants in the US certified to serve authentic Kobe beef. 

In John’s words, “The star of the show was the steak. Wagyu Japanese beef has become a household name in the US, but here we found a menu with rare and intriguing selections, including Hokkaido privately farmed beef from cattle raised in below freezing temperatures, and extremely limited olive-fed beef from Shodoshima Island in Kagawa, Japan.”

wagyu kobe steak beef alexander's

Our server recommended the aged T-bone, which John is cutting into. The meat was tender and juicy, and at a perfect medium rare: total umami. We accompanied it with sides of wild mushrooms and mashed potatoes, all beautifully prepared and not too heavy.

At the bottom, you can see the Hidagyu from Gifu Prefecture that we sampled. John raves, “It was richly marbled, a hallmark of Wagyu beef, and practically melted in our mouths. The beef was served with what can only be described as a “flight” of twelve different salts from around the world, some smoky, some almost sweet. Each brought out a new dimension of flavor from the meat.”

bulgari serpenti metallic wrap bracelet

The staff impressed us with their knowledge, and treated us with little extras such as a splash of red wine to pair with the steaks. They also created special cocktails for us based on our favorite tastes — mine had yuzu in it, and was spot on!

(Closeup on my Alex Streeter ring and Bulgari Serpenti metallic bracelet.)

alex streeter pentagram ring

We ended with a warm, gooey souffle and lemon poppy cake. Fresh out of the oven and not overly sweet; exactly how I like my desserts.

Alexander’s Steakhouse was a five-star experience, all around. The dishes, drinks, atmosphere and especially the service deserve the highest rating. For a special night out or celebration in San Francisco, I’d book a table at Alexander’s without hesitation.

designer chairs furniture clift hotel

More to come from San Francisco — including shopping at occult shops, and the Death Guild Goth party!

It was such a treat to reunite with friends that I met in Tokyo, over 10 years ago! I’m sure you recognize them from this blog over the years. Have you ever had a reunion like ours?

Casa de Campo Villas: Caribbean luxury vacation rentals! Catalina Island, Minitas beach, spa & resort activities.

casa de campo villas rentals

Coming at you… from my rock star villa in the Dominican Republic! I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to move in.

In my first post, I introduced you to the elegant Casa de Campo resort. We’ll kick things up yet another level: with a look at their tropical villas for rent, and activities including skeet shooting and horseback riding!

catalina island caribbean day trip

We’ll also bask in the white sand and waves of Minitas Beach and Catalina Island, aka paradise on Earth.

casa de campo la romana vacation rentals

Casa de Campo is in located in La Romana, which is considered the most exclusive and beautiful area in the country. Quite a few celebrities own mansions or vacation here regularly; perhaps you might recognize the names Drake, Beyonce, J-Lo, A-Rod, Jay-Z.

When you step into this backyard of dreams, overlooking the Caribbean Sea, it’s obvious why this is an A-list destination.

jlo villa home dominican republic

Casa de Campo has multiple Oceanfront Villas available for rent. They each have bright bedrooms filled with modern decor, and a state-of-the-art kitchen.

The star of the show, however, is the long outdoor pool flanked by a luxurious gazebo. 

luxury cabana caribbean

I could laze in this open-air lounge all day, reading a sci-fi novel. The space is airy thanks to the peaked roof and ceiling fans.

CDC’s villas are decorated in muted Caribbean colors, which match the elegant natural surroundings. The wicker furniture is accentuated by local crafts and glasswork.

jawbreaker clothing london fashion

OOTD: I’m wearing a rose tank top by Jawbreaker London, sunglasses by House of Harlow, and black platform velvet sandals by Le Babe. (Shop more styles by Le Babe shoes with a click below:)

dominican republic oceanfront villa pool

Photographer Molly Weingart and I daydreamed about living here in style.

As villa guests, we’d have access to maid and butler services, and a culinary staff that prepares daily breakfast in the kitchen.

casa campo vacation rental homes

The most difficult decision you’d have to make is whether to dip into the swimming pool, the Caribbean sea…

dominican republic celebrity homes

Or the pod-like hot tub next to the bedroom patio.

casa campos villas for rent

We’d never get bored indoors, with these pop-modern rooms. The villas are equipped with a sauna, full gym, and private cinema with theater seating.

dominican republic luxury villa rental

“Scarface” vibes, in the central living room that is set up to entertain guests.

casa campo resort private villas

Molly and I loved the artistic details that make each villa unique. This handcrafted mahogany bench and rainbow canvas formed the perfect photo backdrop.

celebrity 5-star vacations caribbean

Casa de Campo makes the most of the Dominican Republic’s tropical beauty. They also offer Garden Villas for rent, with lush natural surroundings as well as a swimming pool.

famous people homes dominican

Although you’ll feel like a millionaire, the villa rentals are actually quite affordable compared to others in the area (especially when split among a group of friends). Many guests rent a villa for Christmas and New Year’s, hen getaways, or other occasions.

(If these photos make you keen to move in, there’s more info on Casa de Campo’s site.)

travel blogger dominican republic press trip

As guests of the resort, we had full access to “fun in the sun” activities — ranging from water sports to outdoor massages. Since Casa de Campo is a huge resort (at 7000 acres), we never ran out of options for activities, many of which are included in the package experience.

minitas beach boat rentals, kayaks

The Dominican Republic is known for its pristine beaches. One of the best is Playa Minitas, Casa de Campo’s private beach. We drove here in our personal golf cart, and found ourselves on a quiet stretch of soft white sand.

At Minitas Beach, guests can try activities like snorkeling, kayaking, paddleboarding or windsurfing in these gentle waves.

beach ocean minitas casa de campo

Molly and I couldn’t wait to wade into these clean, warm waters. This, right here, is my happy place.

secluded beaches dominican republic

I’ve visited beautiful beaches worldwide (Maldives, Bali, Maui), and Minitas Beach ranks among the best I’ve ever experienced. Unlike other places in the Dominican Republic, this is an uncrowded and meticulously maintained spot.

skeleton swimsuit goth swimwear

Casa de Campo offers free towel service at the entrance, and plenty of amenities including change rooms, several bars, and Minitas Beach Club restaurant (which we reviewed in this post).

(I’m wearing a skeleton swimsuit; similar one here).

dominican republic best private beach

We alternated between dips in the crystal-clear waters, and lounging on the comfortable chaises under the shade of palm trees.

la romana minitas beach ocean

There weren’t many tourists around, which let us feel as if were in our own Blue Lagoon.

sunset playa minitas dominican

If you stay until the sun sets, you’ll get this spectacular light show over the horizon. 

caribbean sea sunset

We watched the sunset, while sipping their famous piña coladas served in a fresh, local pineapple…

female travel blogger in ocean

I have to admit, I love being a “beach Goth” every so often!

boat ride to catalina island

Quite a few people recommended that we visit Catalina Island, and we were glad we took their advice. To get here, ask the Casa de Campo staff to help you make an advance booking for the catamaran ride. The boat departs from Minitas Beach and takes 25 minutes — and it’s a fast and furious ride that made us smile.

catalina island dominican republic

We disembarked onto six square miles of beach paradise. No photo filters needed: the turquoise hues and perfectly clear waters are exactly what you get in real life.

Catalina Island is part of the Parque Nacional del Este, which preserves the diverse ecosystem that includes sand-dunes, mangroves, and reefs.

quiet private island dominican

If you’re a snorkeler, take a short swim from the pier, and you’ll find calm waters teeming with sea life. 

Relaxing on Catalina Island turned out to be one of the best moments of our trip to the DR.

gym fitness center casa de campo

You may recall that we ate like queens at Casa de Campo, from sushi fusion to rustic Italian. To balance it out, we spent time in the fitness center, which has a large selection of weights and machines.

personal training la romana

Guests can also book a private training session, or visit the physiotherapy center. Molly did a functional class with David, and says: “I went to the workout tired, but left feeling energized. David did a great job of assessing my strength. When he realized that I could do more than he had originally intended to give me in the workout, he adjusted it workout accordingly — all with a smile. I even got to learn how to say some of the exercises in Spanish!”

pilates classes casa de campo

The resort also has regularly scheduled group fitness classes like Pilates, Zumba, Saco Box, Spinning, and aerobics. We woke up for the 8:30am Pilates class, and it was absolutely worth it. 

Molly’s reaction: “Liliam was such a magical teacher. I felt like she saw my heart, and then just made my abs work hard! One of the things that I really enjoyed about her (and David, and fitness at Casa de Campo in general) was that there was a focus on wellness, so progressing an injury to advanced athletic performance could be done in one class. She exemplified this completely, as she took the extra time to show us those stretching machines that released the back.”

spa at casa campo resort villas

The Spa was another place to rejuvenate both body and mind. Casa de Campo’s spa uses traditional techniques and local, organic ingredients in their menu of treatments.

Molly booked the Signature Ayurvedic massage. She says, “Alexandra, the woman who took care of me, touched me with such kindness and knowledge that the 90 minutes drifted by. I’ve been suffering from a pretty serious injury and she did a great job of handling the tension around the muscles to release some of the pain.”

la romana spa treatments

I agree with her words that “The staff at Casa de Campo was spectacular. That’s an understatement. They made you feel like you were at home with friends you just hadn’t met yet. From checking in with Victor, to the bartenders who recommended we go to Catalina Island, and servers who pushed me to speak more Spanish… everyone just wanted to make us more comfortable and help us explore.”

dominican republic horseback riding

The all-inclusive package includes horseback riding. I was excited to get on a horse for the first time in over a decade.

casa de campo horses riding lessons

The horses are extremely well-trained, and will never dart off or disobey commands. We explored the ranch’s lush pathways, by walk and trot.

shooting center casa de campo

I also got to try skeet shooting for the first time. The all-inclusive package includes 25 shots; it’s nice how CDC encourages guests to experience new sports and activities that they wouldn’t otherwise do on their own.

instructor skeet shooting

Our instructor was a kind, detail-oriented teacher who made us feel we were in safe hands. He patiently showed us how to use the two-barrel gun, which could hold two shots before requiring a re-load.

Skeet shooting means hitting clay targets that fly in the air. By pressing a button, he launched these disks from fixed stations, at a variety of angles and speeds.

shooting double barrel gun

I discovered that I’m surprisingly good at hitting clay pigeons. I credit this to my many hours of playing “Duck Hunt” on the original Nintendo console… the 1980s video game is remarkably good at mimicking the actual experience of skeet shooting!

girls posing with shotgun

Don’t mess with travel bloggers. They learn skills on the job.

(Molly is wearing these Bulgari Serpenti sunglasses, and my sunglasses are for sale on my Depop.)

skeet shooting clay pigeon lessons

I’ve shot rifles in indoor gun ranges before, and didn’t enjoy the experience much. However, an outdoor shooting center is a different story. Molly and I appreciated getting to know the history and skill of the sport, at one of the biggest centers in the Caribbean.

teeth of dog golf course casa campo

If you’re a golf fan, then you might already know of Casa de Campo. The resort has three of the best golf courses in the Caribbean, if not the world: Teeth of the Dog, Dye Four, and The Links. We saw groups of golf buddies renting a villa together, and swinging their clubs in this postcard-perfect setting.

dominican republic luxury beach vacation

A big heart for Casa de Campo — Molly and I couldn’t have had a better time in the Dominican Republic! Everything about the resort was as pristine as these waters, and the staff deserves a special mention for their kindness.

If these photos are convincing you to fly off to this beach, check out more info on CDC’s website.


Takashi Murakami: Japanese kawaii exhibit at Vancouver Art Gallery! Hello Kitty Taipei airport lounge & gift shop.

Takashi Murakami vancouver art gallery flowers

When one of your favorite Japanese artists is in town… It’s time to get trippy!

If you love manga, anime and “kawaii” Japanese pop culture, then head down the rabbit hole to Takashi Murakami’s exhibit at Vancouver Art Gallery.

octopus tentacles japanese art murakami

For the first time, Murakami’s major works have come to Canada. Over 50 pieces spanning three decades are currently on display at VAG (from Feb 2 to May 6, 2018).

The retrospective is titled “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg,” so get ready to dive into a world of tentacles.

taiwan sanrio terminal lounge

Read on to the end of this story, where I’ll also share photos of the Hello Kitty airport lounge in Taipei (since we’re on the topic of Japanese pop-cute). It’s definitely the world’s weirdest airline lounge, featuring Sanrio characters!

takashipom octopus eats own leg exhibit

Murakami Takashi (村上 隆) is one of Japan’s most intriguing contemporary artists. You might recognize his smiling flowers and cartoon bears, which were on the cover of a Kanye West album and Louis Vuitton purses.

However, as I found out from this exhibit, Murakami’s artistic tentacles reach far deeper than pop commentary on consumer culture. The exhibition’s title, “The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg,” refers to a Japanese parable where the creature survives by sacrificing parts of himself. In this way, “Takashipom” consumes his native history and spirituality, transforming them into colorful new visions. 

vancouver art gallery murakami exhibition

The Vancouver Art Gallery went all-out to welcome Murakami. Each window is plastered with happy flower decals, and the rotunda looks like it’s been attacked by a pink and blue cephalopod, Godzilla-style. The artist himself came here for the opening, dressed in a tentacles-hat for the occasion.

rainbow candy raver kawaii decora

The Murakami exhibition is already an immense success, drawing in queues of visitors. Instead of spending time in line, I recommend that you purchase a ticket in advance from the Vancouver Art Gallery website (it lets you choose the specific date of your visit.) You may also want to aim for a weekday visit, since the space was packed over the weekend.

The Japanese artist is known for his eccentric outfits. I was pleased to see that a few visitors dressed up for the occasion; I loved this girl’s Harajuku decora candy style.

murakami octopus paintings sculpture

During the grey winter months, it’s a joy to wander among giant neon paintings with friends.

Murakami’s best-known works are influenced by Japanese “kawaii’ (big-eyed, round cuteness), with nods to anime, manga and otaku culture. However, these critters always have a deadly or bizarre twist

japanese kawaii weird murakami sculptures

The exhibition spans several huge rooms, and includes wall-sized works and ceiling-high sculptures. Many feature Mr. Dob, his cute character who is a bit like Hello Kitty meets Mickey Mouse.

In his 3D work “DOB in The Strange Forest,” Murakami surrounds the innocent mouse-bear with seeing-eyed mushrooms. In the back, he’s become an unhinged monster spewing vomit (the painting is called “Tan Tan Bo Puking.”)

murakami colorful art bears

The mutant Mr. Dob reflects on how icons can run amok, hiding sharp fang beneath inviting surfaces. Despite this commentary on consumerism, Mr. Dob has (ironically? purposefully?) become a popular design on Louis Vuitton bags and other branded designer goods.

(Click the images below to see Murakami’s art x commerce collaborations):

smiling happy rainbow flowers murakami

Anyone can take photos inside the exhibition, which makes it highly Instagrammable. One of the most popular selfie-spots is in front of this happy floral wall. Murakami once described these flowers as making him “feel almost physically sick, and at the same time I found them very cute.”

smiling flowers flower ball murakami painting

We’re mesmerized by “Flower Ball.” As Ben mused, “Where does art end, and wallpaper begin?”

superflat mr dob anime art murakami

Murakami is best known for his “Superflat” high-meets-low, 2D pop imagery. However, he explores many other facets of Japanese culture in other works, often with a darker vibe.

red demon sculpture takashi murakami

One of the most powerful rooms held towering red and blue demon totems (Embodiment of “A” and Embodiment of “Um”). These statues imagine a present-day belief system, built on ancient myths and folklore.

famous contemporary modern japan artist

Murakami was devastated by the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami. The tragedy inspired a new direction in his art: he drew upon Japan’s cultural heritage to create spiritual narratives.

murakami 500 arhats buddhist artwork

One of these masterpieces from this era is on display: a 10-panel painting called “The 100 Arhats.” It was painstakingly made by layering hundreds of silk screens, and depicts Buddhist monks who roamed Japan and helped enlighten people.

murakami lions skulls painting

Many of Murakami’s works are inspired by “Nihonga,” the late 19th century fusion of Western and Japanese artistic techniques. In the above work, “Of Chinese Lions, Peonies, Skulls and Fountains”, he illustrates the legend of the lion who guards Buddhist temples. The cute baby cub and rainbow stream of skulls made it one of my favorites.

takashi murakami rare works blue dragon

Murakami’s works are big, in terms of both size and concept. This is “Dragon in Clouds – Indigo Blue”, a re-imagining of a 1763 Japanese fantasy painting by Soga Shohaku.

japanese tentacles octopus statue

Takashi Murakami is often compared to Andy Warhol. The Japanese artist is better received outside of his homeland, where some deride him for being too commercial/marketing oriented. Personally, I think these detractors are only skimming the surface; both artists made provocative works that went far deeper than soup cans and smiley flowers.

vancouver canada murakami takashi gallery

Intrigued? I encourage you to come out to Vancouver Art Gallery to see Murakami’s works in person. There’s no other way to get a full sense of his scale and impact.

murakami octopus stuffed toy plush

Exit through the gift store... There’s a selection of pins, toys, prints and more. This demented octopus plush caught our eye. Looks like something that Charles Manson might embrace.

smiling flower pillow murakami decor

Have you heard of Takashi Murakami? Are you also a fan of his work? (You can browse his fashion designs below:)

mary wyatt london, edwardson eyewear sunglasses

A final close-up of Murakami’s flowers (note the tiny faces), and my outfit of the day. My red 90s beret and Domination top are by Mary Wyatt London. My round minimalist sunglasses are Edwardson Eyewear.

bulgari serpenti silver leather wrap bracelet jewelry

I’m also loving my new Bulgari Serpenti metallic leather bracelet, which matches my snake plant! I only wear jewelry with edge; the ring is Alex Streeter. (More Blvgari bracelets below):

hello kitty airport lounge

Since we’re on the subject of “kawaii” culture… I thought I’d end with photos I took during a stopover, at Taipei’s Taoyuan Airport. If you go to Terminal 2, gate C3… you’ll discover a Hello Kitty airport lounge! 

hello kitty playground, kids park

Although Hello Kitty is from Japan, the mouth-less cat is popular all over Asia. Taiwan loves her so much that they have an airport lounge in her name. The large waiting area has plenty of seats, a kid’s play area, and a nursing station featuring images of baby Kitty and Daniel.

hello kitty themed airport

Taiwan’s Eva Air even launched a Hello Kitty jet, which mainly flies routes to Japan. Everything about the flight is in her likeness: the tickets, staff outfits, food, and art on the side of the airplane. (The Hello Kitty plane was so popular that EVA Airlines now also has Pokemon and Gudetama themed flights.)

taoyuan airport taiwan hello kitty

In Taipei’s airport lounge, Hello Kitty is depicted as a world traveller. We see her wearing pilot goggles, and toting a suitcase behind her with a wink. The murals show the cat flying on her pink airplane to Sydney, India, New York, Rome and Paris.

hello kitty airport gate, nursing room

These pictures are pretty accurate if you think of it… Since Sanrio launched her in 1974, Hello Kitty has taken over the world. I see merchandise with her face on it everywhere I travel.

eva air hello kitty airplane

I filmed an Instagram video here that shows you more of the pink, ridiculous terminal. Is this Hello Kitty heaven… or hell? That’s all up to you.

Hello Kitty Dream World store

Right next door is the ultimate gift store, aptly named Hello Kitty Dream World. Taiwan Taoyuan airport has a few Sanrio shops, and they’re open from early morning to late evening.

taipei airport hello kitty shop

“I like to stop at the duty free shop!” Especially when it’s filled with rare Hello Kitty and Sanrio character goods. I was tempted to get stationery, stuffed toys, jewelry, backpacks, kitchen items…

taiwan sanrio stores souvenirs

Hello Kitty isn’t just for children. Sanrio has released multiple designer fashion and jewelry collaborations. I’m eyeing this Hello Kitty sequin dress, cashmere sweater and more below…

taiwan taoyuan airport sanrio

Over the years, Sanrio has added more adorable animals to the family. Above is Bad Badtz Maru, Pompompurin, Cinnamon Roll and My Melody.

hello kitty airport store shop

Some of the character items are on the weird side. I need a Hello Kitty robot cleaner in my life…

taipei airport hello kitty

If you’re planning a trip to Taipei or doing a layover, look out for the Hello Kitty lounge in Taoyuan Airport (Terminal 2, section C3).

plush toys hello kitty dolls

I grew up with Hello Kitty, so I’ll always have a soft spot for her. How about you?

And what do you think of Takashi Murakami’s mind-bending exhibit?