To celebrate my uncle and cousin's birthday, my family arranged a holiday stay at Hoshinoya resort in Karuizawa, around 2.5-3 hours drive outside of Tokyo. The resort is a whopping US$900 a night for the cheapest room, and markets itself as an idyllic, tranquil getaway from city life. It is designed to allow you to escape from your worries to find inner zen (and be told off by the staff if you speak too loudly...no kidding, this actually happened to us in the lobby!). It is situated about 10 minutes walk from a small village center called Harunire Terrace (and there are free cars that will drive you there if you request at the front desk), and around 25 minutes drive from the larger shopping outlet.



Rooms

Let's be honest: you probably don't want to arrive at the resort at night, especially if you are travelling with anyone who has difficulty seeing in dim lighting conditions (as pretty as it can be). The resort is spaced out so that the lobby and main restaurant are in one location, with the rooms fanning around it, at least a few minutes walk away from the main area.



If you are with elderly travellers (like we were), following your guide in near-darkness to walk to your room from the main lobby area is a bit tricky (one of our group managed to wander off in the dark and find themselves a bit lost). Our rooms were also up a flight of stairs, so it's not the most invalid-friendly resort.




This all wasn't really an issue for me and my boyfriend, but what was quite disappointing was the room itself. For US$900 per night, I was expecting a lot more when we were shown our room. While spacious, the room housed two separate beds resting on an elevated platform (a nod to the Japanese tatami style of sleeping), with a lounge area with a table surrounded by a thin sofa base and pillows (a nod to the Japanese Horigotatsu restaurant seating where you sit low to the ground, with a recessed floor beneath you for your legs), a separate toilet (with the very Japanese multi-function / multi-button toilet), and a separate bathtub / shower room, housing a traditional wooden Japanese soaking tub.




Some things I liked: the bathtub had a button that you could press that would automatically fill it (and would automatically stop the water), and the hotel had provided three lemons for us to put in for aroma, which was a nice touch. I can personally testify to this tub retaining some serious heat: if you like your baths hot and long-lasting, you can soak in searing temperatures for a few hours in this tub.The other thing that I loved was that the resort provided a skincare pack, with cleanser, moisturiser, etc - something that every traveller looking for small, travel-sized skin care products, would appreciate.



All in all, the room was minimalist - something I would ordinarily enjoy...except when paying the rate we were paying per night.

Food

The hotel offers a choice of a Japanese or Western meals, but some of these need to be booked the day before.

If you're craving fruit and vegetables, there is a quaint (and tiny) grocery store at the village.
Alternatively, you can walk to the small village center around 10 minutes away (or take a complimentary hotel car) for food. For breakfast, we stopped by a cute bakery cafe called Sawa Mura, which sells a range of baked goods (I highly recommend the caramelised tomato tart stuffed with mushroom and chicken!) and coffee. For those who are lactose intolerant, you’ll need to buy a small carton of soy milk and add it separately to your coffee. The bakery also sells a range of nicely packaged cookies and jams. A breakfast of a tomato tart, chocolate raspberry croissant, ham and cheese panini, two coffees and a soy milk set us back JPY 2,900 (US$26).

Cute cafe Sawa Mura sells a variety of baked goods and coffee.
For dinner, the hotel offers a few options, but again, many need to be booked the day before. For the Japanese dinner, we had a choice of Shabu Shabu (¥12,000 / US$135) or Seasonal Kaiseki (¥12,000 / US$110). Note that both prices exclude tax and 10% service charge. The Kaiseki was not bad: highlights include the sashimi, but the eel rice was disappointingly lacking in eel.



Activities


The hotel encourages all its guests to enjoy the natural wildlife all around, and you can spend 30 minutes wandering around the picturesque gardens, which are split into a few different rows with water flowing through them and between each one, with miniature waterfalls. The sound of running water and birds in the air is incredibly soothing. 


There are some activities that you can pay extra for (such as horse riding, nature tours, and watching flying squirrels), but there is enough to do without forking out extra money. There are two onsens (hot spring bathing pools): the private one for guests only is called the Meditation Bath, and consists of a hot indoor bathing pool; whereas the public bath (Hoshino Onsen Tombo-no-yu) is 10 minutes walk away, and has both an outdoor and indoor section. The private bath is open from 3pm until 10am; whereas the public bath is open from 8am until 10pm (and from 8am - 9am, it is only open to resort guests - so get in early!). Both have fairly strict Japanese bathing etiquette (no clothes / swimwear allowed inside the onsen; no tattoos allowed; must shower before getting into the onsen etc), but there are some guides in the hotel to help you navigate this.

In addition, you can hike around the area (which takes around 1.5 hours) - most of the track is simply forest, but there is a break in the treeline at one point, which is quite pretty.

Borrow a bike from the hotel and explore the natural beauty.
If you're feeling desperate for some shopping, the hotel has free shuttle buses running to the shopping outlet called Price Shopping Plaza, around 20-25 minutes drive away. Expect to see your usual suspects of high-end brands such as Botega Veneta, Salvatore Ferragamo and Saint Laurent Paris, to younger brands like Kate Spade and Alice & Olivia, and sportswear labels like Under Armour, Nike, and Adidas. Don't forget to bring your passport to get your tax refund handled instantly; and also keep an eye on time because the complimentary shuttle buses get full quickly and leave right on time! If you want to catch a cab, the price is around US$40 one way.

Having said that, there are interesting complimentary activities at the resort - they offer you free happy hour drinks (including juice, apple whiskey and rose) and Japanese snacks every afternoon at the lounge, complimentary tea in the morning, and at times will have a food truck that serves desserts and cocktails.



I have to confess that I can't recommend the resort because of the exorbitant price...but if you are visiting Hoshinoya Karuizawa, I'd recommend just kicking back, enjoying the onsens, and relaxing with a book outside in the tranquil, natural landscape.

xx Carmen


It's been over a year since I last posted on this blog, mostly due to studying to become admitted as a lawyer in the UK. I'm pleased to say I passed, so I should hopefully be back to semi-regular posting again! There are a ton of travel and lifestyle stories I have stored up (India, China, Cuba, USA, Italy...), but I want to start with something a little different from previous posts: I want to share with you my F45 Challenge journey. 

For the uninitiated, F45 (which stands for "Functional 45 minutes") is an Australian fitness concept, which combines high intensity interval training, circuit training and functional movements in a group setting. The F45 Challenge is an 8 week program which encourages you to: (1) get 8 hours sleep; (2) drink at least 3L of water; (3) attend an F45 class; (4) take a magnesium supplement; (5) drink lemon in warm water; and (6) follow a prescribed meal plan, every day for 8 weeks. It is a global competition which runs a few times a year, and previous winners have won amazing travel prizes including a trip to Bora Bora!

Photo Credit: Time Out Beijing

Before signing up for the F45 Challenge, I was a casual gym goer at best. I have never been sporty and have always been uncoordinated, focusing my attention on more academic and creative pursuits. In contrast, the hubby was once very sporty, active and athletic but due to his work and other lifestyle choices - let's just say we were a sedentary couple with two sedentary Lhasa Apsos, who loved nothing more than to eat and travel in style. It was the hubby's idea to do the Challenge (and he was going to do it with or without me). I was reticent at first, but wanted to support what would be a rather drastic change from eating blocks of Cadbury Fruit and Nut as a midnight snack while watching Netflix. So we signed up together on 3 October 2018 at our local gym, F45 Orchard.

Pre-Challenge Body Scan Results

Shortly before the Challenge commenced, we had our body scans taken using an InBody machine, which evaluates your skeletal muscle mass and body fat based on your height, weight and sex.

My first InBody test results revealed:

Weight
61.9 kg
Normal
Skeletal Muscle Mass
23 kg
Under
Body Fat Mass
19.6 kg
Normal
BMI
21.2
Normal
Percent Body Fat
31.7%
Over
Visceral Fat Level
7
Normal (1-9)

The trainers termed my body composition "Skinny Fat" and I had to work on gaining muscle while losing fat. My opening score was a low 68/100 points.

The hubby's results were drastically different from mine, with an impressive amount of skeletal muscle mass to begin with (well within the "Over" range) but he would also have to lose a good amount of body fat for a healthy body composition. His InBody score was 82/100 points.

Weeks 1-2: "Spring Training"

The first two weeks of the program are designed to be a complete detox. No alcohol, no caffeine, and lots of lemon. Fondly referred to as the hardest stage of the Challenge, this phase is meant to alkalize the body with the goals of reducing fluid retention and cleansing the blood and liver of toxins. It was during this fortnight that we were the most cautious. Not wanting to over-exert ourselves with the shock of daily morning gym sessions, both the hubby and I exercised only 6 out of the 7 days for each of the first two weeks (deciding to incorporate a "rest day"). The F45 gym classes followed a pattern of Monday cardio, Tuesday weights, Wednesday cardio, Thursday weights, Friday cardio, Saturday hybrid (the 60 minute infamous "Hollywood" workout) and Sunday hybrid. I found cardio classes left you more exhausted (but at least I could do most of the exercises). Weights, on the other hand, I initially struggled with - having no abdominal strength and weak shoulders. I could only lift 2kg dumbbells for shoulder raises and needed 3 bands to do an assisted chin-up.

The meals (recipes all available on the bespoke F45 Challenge App) were actually not as bad as I thought they might be - with special mentions going to the Cherry Ripe Smoothie and the Jamaican Jerk Chicken recipes (delicious, seriously!) - and neither of us experienced any hunger pains. The program provides for 5 meals a day: breakfast, an AM snack, lunch, a PM snack and dinner. As an avid dessert fan, it was a struggle to adjust to having dinner as the last meal of the day. To cope with this, I chose to have my warm lemon water two hours after dinner and one hour before I brushed my teeth. If you decide to try this, make sure to rinse your mouth thoroughly with plain water immediately after taking the lemon water to protect the enamel in your teeth!

The F45 Challenge App was a great way to track progress, as well as the place to get the week's recipes.

Skipping over alcohol was not a problem (I hardly drink) but I thought I would be affected by the no caffeine rule. Before the Challenge, the first thing I would do when I got to work was grab a cup of coffee. Knowing this, I mentally prepared myself by substituting coffee for my magnesium diasporal supplement and found that I didn't struggle without the coffee at all!

Weeks 3-6: "Regular Season"

Termed the Regular Season, this is the longest phase of the Challenge at 4 weeks. The meal plans during this stage are based on a breakdown of 45% protein, 40% carbohydrates and 15% healthy fats with the goal of increasing muscle hypertrophy (i.e. the growth of muscle cells). The hubby and I decided to step up our exercise as our bodies had seemed to adapt to the new sleeping patterns and diet. The hubby upped his exercise to two F45 classes a day. I was content to stick with just the one class, but we scrapped the rest day. We also indulged in getting massages each weekend, which I like to think helped our muscles recover better as well as provide some relaxation. Mentally, we knew that if we could reach the halfway mark of one month, we would go all the way.

Mid-Challenge Body Scan Results

Near the end of Week 4, we had our mid-Challenge scans. These are not required to be submitted for competition purposes (only the Pre-Challenge and End of Challenge scans are) but it was quite nice to track our progress. Here were my InBody results:

Weight
59.8 kg
Normal
Skeletal Muscle Mass
24.2 kg
Border of Under/Normal
Body Fat Mass
15.7 kg
Normal
BMI
20.5
Normal
Percent Body Fat
26.3%
Normal
Visceral Fat Level
6
Normal (1-9)

After 26 F45 classes, I had gained 1.2 kg of muscle, lost 3.9 kg of fat and decreased my body fat percentage by 5.4%. My InBody score increased to 74/100. The global female winner of the previous Challenge lost a total of 10.5% of body fat at the end of the 8 weeks, so it seems I am on track!

The hubby's results were even better with an InBody score of 94/100. His body composition had become the ideal "D" shape on the InBody muscle-fat analysis chart, with less weight, more muscle mass and less body fat.

In terms of sticking to the regime, it definitely did get easier. The only hiccup I had was during an incredibly busy Thursday at work; I eventually closed my deal at 4.00 am on Friday morning. At midnight, my stomach was growling and I felt hunger pains for the first time during the Challenge. I ended up snacking on an extra 7 almonds (approximately half of a typical AM or PM snack on the F45 meal plan) which seemed to sustain me for the rest of that night. I had cancelled my morning F45 session deliberately, but somehow my body woke me up and I ended up completing the Friday cardio class on three hours of sleep. 

On the other hand, the hubby had a real scare. He had upped his cardio exercise routine to three classes a day - two in the morning back-to-back and one in the afternoon. Last week, he had the flu but insisted on going to his double morning session, resulting in him collapsing during a class and having to be rushed by ambulance to the hospital. He was discharged by the doctor later that day but was advised to take it easier on the exercise. No-one can fault him on his dedication to the program!

All I can say is, it's been an exciting journey so far - I am enjoying myself far more than I thought I would (in part because it is a competition and I love competition) and the carb/sugar cravings have mostly subsided. Stay tuned for the final phase (the "World Series") and of course, the end results.

xx Amanda 


Bangkok is one of the most popular travel destinations, attracting visitors from all corners of the world. It doesn't matter whether you are headed to the Thai capital for work or pleasure: you're sure to have a memorable trip in Bangkok! Apart from the numerous sightseeing, shopping, eating, and entertainment attractions, you can also look forward to a super comfortable, relaxed stay at any one of the luxury hotels there. Check out some of the popular five star properties located in this amazing city below.

Bangkok Banyan Tree luxury hotel roofop bar in Thailand

Shangri La 

This is one of the most glamorous hotels you can stay in at Bangkok. Its strategic location on the banks of the Chao Phraya river not only gives you spectacular views, but also easy access to the city’s main attractions. You can board the Sky Train from Saphan Taksin BTS Station, which will give you easy access to eating and shopping districts. With seven restaurants, three bars (including this stunning rooftop bar), a spa, outdoor pools, and free Wi-Fi, this hotel with give you more than your money’s worth. 

Banyan Tree  

Another luxurious hotel in Bangkok, the Banyan Tree is famous for its well-appointed rooms, with the latest amenities, plus floor-to-ceiling windows that provide a spectacular view of the city. With six restaurants to offer a variety of cuisines for your taste buds, three bars, a spa, pool, airport shuttle, children’s club, and proximity to some of the main attractions, this hotel is a popular choice amongst travellers.

Millennium Hilton luxury Hotel rooftop bar in Bangkok Thailand

Millennium Hilton 

The name Hilton says it all: with this luxury hotel brand, you are sure to have a memorable stay in Bangkok. The hotel has a chic and contemporary design, and is strategically located, with mind-blowing views of the Chao Phraya River. In addition, you can enjoy high speed internet access, bathrooms with walk-in showers, free access to the executive lounge, as well as a spa, pool, several restaurants, health club, and airport shuttle.

Dusit Thani 

If you want to have a more authentic Thai experience, take a look at the Dusit Thani hotel. This five star hotel is situated in the Silom district of Bangkok with more than 500 rooms that boast of traditional and exclusive Thai décor, including unique Thai silk, teak wood and orchids. Some of the rooms give an amazing view of the famous Lumpini Park, which is situated very close to the hotel. You can enjoy mouth-watering food at any of the seven restaurants, or relax at the spa after a workout at the fitness center, and enjoy limo or car rental services. 

Luxury resort Oriental Residence in Bangkok Thailand

Oriental Residence 

If you would rather a peaceful and relaxed holiday getaway, then the Oriental Residence in Bangkok is for you. Located close to the Siam and Silom districts, this hotel will rejuvenate and refresh you, with fresh flowers, a modern pool, signature Deck Bar with cozy cabanas, and delicious food.

Choosing between these beautiful luxury hotels in Bangkok is sure to be challenging: don't forget to do your research into the various hotels when you're planning your trip. We're always on the hunt for great deals - and many hotels offer packaged deals or other special offers that mean you can pay an affordable price without compromising on the quality of your stay.

Top tip: get a great deal with this Expedia promotion code or Klook discount codes when making your next booking!

(Disclaimer: This is a sponsored post. For our sponsorship policy, please see here.)
To celebrate our 30th birthdays, a few friends and I recently travelled around South America, heading to Bolivia, Peru (including completing the Inca Trail), and the Galapagos Islands. I'll be posting my top tips and thoughts over the next few weeks: starting today with Bolivia, the land of the classic salt flats that you see in almost every iconic photo ever taken of the country.

Red Planet Tour around Uyuni Bolivia

Getting There

We flew into La Paz (the fifth highest airport in the world!) from Lima on LATAM Airlines, where we stayed for a few days before heading over to Uyuni. Out of all the places that we visited, I would add that La Paz was the most dangerous (and dirty - expect to spend your time dodging dog poo in the street, or failing to do so in my case), so while you can get some great photos looking down into the valley bowl that contains the sprawling city, we didn't spend too long there.

From La Paz, we caught a Bolivian Airlines flight to Uyuni (return flight was approx US$200), which arrives at Uyuni around 9 am. This is great timing for the tours (which usually start around 11 am), giving you enough time to check in at the tour office.

Uyuni, is, frankly, a city that feels like a very small town, with around 10,000 people, and very little to see or do in the city itself. We met other tour members who had flown in the day before who regretted the decision, so the US$200 for the flight in is actually a worthwhile price to pay. Others we know caught a bus, but that takes around 10 hours overnight (on the upside, you can pay for fully reclining chairs, and they even have chargers next to you).

Red Planet

We had originally planned to join the three day tour of Uyuni with Red Planet (US$210), but due to snow at the higher passes, that tour was cancelled and changed to a two day tour (US$150). To our initial disappointment, this meant we missed out on a hot spring and the famous Red Lake and Green Lake...but we later found out that the conditions were in fact quite bad, and that one car had flipped in the middle of the snowstorm, and that the driver had then abandoned his tourist passengers on the road in a blizzard!

Red Planet Tour Uyuni Bolivia train graveyard

Overall, our experience with Red Planet was fairly average, despite it being one of the most expensive and highly rated tour operators in Uyuni. When we arrived at the office, the lady there attempted to charge us more than what they had originally quoted (and more than what they charged the other tourists in our group!), but we had their original quote in an email, and she was forced to (angrily) concede.

While there are reviews on TripAdvisor of Red Planet's tour guides and drivers being too drunk to safely drive their passengers, we were fortunate enough to not encounter this - although my friend claimed she smelled weed on our guide on the second day. Our guide in particular was nothing remarkable - but if you do opt for Red Planet, we highly recommend the half-French guide called Marcos, who is an absolute fountain of knowledge (and has a great sense of humour). On top of that, he was the one who rescued the other tour company's passengers who had been stranded in the blizzard, so he's a hero in our eyes.

Day 1

After paying for our tour, we left the Red Planet office around 11am in a land cruiser. The back of the land cruiser is cramped - anyone who is taller than 5 ft 4 will find it a bit of a struggle to make their legs fit comfortably. To make up for it though, our driver was really cool, enthusiastically urging us to connect our phones to the car stereo system so he could blast our music for us.

The first stop was what is known as the "train graveyard", which is only around 15 minutes away. You'll basically see a lot of abandoned, old-school trains (some of which have been stripped for parts by Bolivian youths), that are reminiscent of the latest Mad Max film.

Red Planet Tour Uyuni Bolivia train graveyard
Red Planet Tour Uyuni Bolivia train graveyard
Red Planet Tour Uyuni Bolivia train graveyard
Red Planet Tour Uyuni Bolivia train graveyard
Red Planet Tour Uyuni Bolivia train graveyard
Red Planet Tour Uyuni Bolivia train graveyard

To my great surprise, this was actually one of the favourite parts of the tour - there are some great train ruins to explore, and you can get some really cool snaps (particularly if you are willing to climb up onto the train roofs)!

We then moved onto two parts of the salt flats (salar de Uyuni), taking some of the classic "there is no depth perception" photos. Along the way, we also visited a salt mining town (with buildings made out of salt!), with a stop at a salt factory - what appeared to be a barn where salt is processed and then dumped into big pyramids and packaged into bags.

We then had lunch in this town (provided by Red Planet), consisting of hot chicken, rice, salad, and chocolate cupcakes.

Red Planet Tour Uyuni Bolivia salt flats salar de uyuni salt factory town
Red Planet Tour Uyuni Bolivia salt flats salar de uyuni salt factory town
Red Planet Tour Uyuni Bolivia salt flats salar de uyuni salt factory town

After that, we headed over to Inca Wasy island (otherwise known as Fish Island), which essentially is a coral rock formation with sprawling, giant cacti. You can walk around the trail (which goes uphill and will take about 30 minutes - be prepared to feel the altitude kick in, as most people found it difficult to breathe) with views of what looks like a sea of salt extending to the horizon below.

Red Planet Tour Uyuni Bolivia salt flats salar de uyuni inca wasy fish island
Red Planet Tour Uyuni Bolivia salt flats salar de uyuni inca wasy fish island
Red Planet Tour Uyuni Bolivia salt flats salar de uyuni inca wasy fish island

We then continued on to the village of Atulcha to spend the first night in a salt hotel (where literally the entire place is made of salt). Red Planet offers the guests some tea and biscuits, plus a hot dinner. The rooms are very basic and we did not get any hot water (but discovered that was probably because other guests had used it all up, so be sure to get into the shower early!), but each room did have a private bathroom. Keep in mind that it can get bitterly cold at night (and hit below zero degree celsius temperatures) - while the sleeping bags that Red Planet provided weren't bad, you still need warm clothes to be comfortable.

Day 2

The next morning we had breakfast, packed up, and wandered around outside where we met the resident lamma and ridiculously cute vicuña. The latter is a protected animal, as it was previously on the verge of extinction - they have buttery soft, fine hair that is even higher quality than cashmere, and were a favourite for hunters. Both animals are incredibly sweet and friendly - they took a serious interest in my camera, with half my photos being of the noses they poked into my lens.

Red Planet Tour Uyuni Bolivia salt flats salar de uyuni atulcha lamma alpaca vicuna
Red Planet Tour Uyuni Bolivia salt flats salar de uyuni atulcha lamma alpaca vicuna

After that, we visited Chiguana, on the south side of Uyuni salt flats, where we explored lava rock formations created thousands of years ago. On the horizon, we could see non-active volcanoes.

Red Planet Tour Uyuni Bolivia salt flats salar de uyuni chiguana lava rock formation volcano
Red Planet Tour Uyuni Bolivia salt flats salar de uyuni chiguana lava rock formation volcano
Red Planet Tour Uyuni Bolivia salt flats salar de uyuni chiguana lava rock formation volcano
Red Planet Tour Uyuni Bolivia salt flats salar de uyuni chiguana lava rock formation volcano
Red Planet Tour Uyuni Bolivia salt flats salar de uyuni chiguana lava rock formation volcano

After this, we headed to the Andean lagoon to view the pink flamingos, as well as eat lunch (again provided by Red Planet). It's quite windy up here, so again be prepared to wear warm clothing.

Red Planet Tour Uyuni Bolivia salt flats salar de uyuni andean lagoon flamingo
Red Planet Tour Uyuni Bolivia salt flats salar de uyuni andean lagoon flamingo

The three day tour gives you an extra day visiting the famous Red Lake and Green Lake (so called because of their colours), as well as a visit to the hot spring, but sadly we missed out this time!

Expect the drive back to Uyuni to be a long one - we stopped once more to look at some more lava rock formations, but this was less spectacular than the one we had seen in the morning, so we didn't spend much time there.

We arrived back in Uyuni around 5:00 pm and had dinner with our tour group mates at the famous pizza restaurant called Minuteman Revolutionary Pizza that you can find inside Tonito Hotel - a great way to wrap up our visit!

Conclusion

Overall the experience touring the train graveyard, salt flats, lava rock formations, Fish Island, and the lagoon with Red Planet was not too bad - and certainly appears better than some of the experiences that other tour companies offer. Don't expect too much from the front desk staff or from some of the tour guides, but the scenery that you get on the tour is great (and diverse!).

  1. At the end of the two day tour, most tour companies give you the option to be dropped off in Chile instead, which is great for Australians because apparently you don't need to pay for a visa (US$117) if you enter via land instead of air!
  2. Pack warm clothes because it can get quite cold at night, and sunglasses because the reflection from the salt flats is pretty strong.
  3. If you tour with Red Planet, ask to have Marcos (the half-Frenchman) as your guide.

xx

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