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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Your Cheap(ish) Valentine's Getaway

With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, many people are racking their brains for what to get for their sweetheart. You want to show them how much they mean to you, but coming right off of the Christmas holidays, money can sometimes be tight this time of year. Maybe you’ve even socked some money away, but still haven’t come up with any great ideas with what to do with it. A romantic getaway is always an appreciated gesture and enjoyable for both of you. It doesn’t have to bust your budget to be luxurious, though. With just a bit of planning, your trip can feel like a million dollars without even coming close. 

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Pick an affordable destination. Winter is an excellent time to plan a trip, because it’s the off-season for most touristy spots and is a great time to snag a bargain. They’re practically giving away rooms and incentives. Some of the best locations to choose from right now are: 
  • Mexico, where all-inclusive resorts are really trying to lure vacationers to idyllic spots like Punta Cana, Cabo and similar beachfront locations.
  • The Caribbean has more all-inclusives fighting for your dollar by dropping rates and adding big bonuses, like room upgrades, kids stay, play and eat free and resort credits. There are also huge cruise deals for the Caribbean right now. Sail from under $200 per person!
  • South America is a non-traditional romantic getaway for those that love nature, but also the conveniences of a modern city, like Quito, Ecuador.
  • Las Vegas is high on the list of budget destinations, since you can usually get a solid deal on a package or even purchase airfare and hotel separately for amazing prices. There are so many things to do in Vegas that are cheap or free, which can be paired with a candle-lit dinner and a fantastic show to cap off a fun holiday. It’s also perfect for those that can only slip away for 2-3 days.
  • Europe is ideal for the romantic at heart and right now airfare and hotel rates are at some of the lowest of the whole year. If you can find a bargain, you can spend your days walking along the Seine and eating baguettes in Paris with your valentine. Choose some affordable activities – like visiting Notre Dame and Musee D’Orsay – so you can splurge on a ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower.
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Walk more. Walking gives you a chance to spend more time with your significant other, get some fresh air and see more of the city. Tell them you want to take a stroll and hold their hand…and also save money over taxis and public transportation.

Use daily deal sites. No matter where you are in the world, there is a daily deal site that services a major city near you. Groupon, Living Social and others offer 50-90% off activities, dining, tours and more things you’ll want to do, but maybe can’t find money in your budget for. Now you can! Signing up is free and easy. Choose your preferred destination and check your email each day for discounted deals.
Purchase a city pass. Almost every big city that attracts tourists has a pass that gets you into all their best attractions (and some fun and obscure ones) at a considerable discount. Your honey will love you even more for being budget-conscious and not having to wait in ticket lines for anything. That means more time to enjoy your destination with each other. Some even include transportation or dining. For a start, check out CityPass, SmartDestinations and VisiTicket.
Find discount codes on Broadway Box. If you’re looking to take in any shows or tourist attractions, but maybe won’t do enough to make a city pass worth the money, check out Broadway Box and get promo codes for discount prices on everything from Blue Man Group to visiting the Statue of Liberty to staying near Disney World. Visiting Orlando, Vegas, London or New York? Broadway Box should be your first stop on the web.

With so many ways to save your dollars, you’ll be able to stretch the budget you have even further. The love of your life will surely wonder how you managed it all. Of course, then you have to figure out how to top yourself next year, but by then you’ll have had a whole year to plan.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Orlando Wish List

My big vacation is 9 or so months away, but I keep seeing Universal Orlando promos on my TV and it's making me giddy. Diagon Alley is officially open and I'm officially excited already. (This is going to be me come summertime.) Past experience has prepared me for it not going away. Even Eric is excited already, which usually doesn't happen until we get on the plane. We'll be splitting our time between Orlando and Tampa, but the majority of our time will be spent near Disney, since that is where the bulk of the stuff we want to do is. Though we've been several times before, there is not shortage of cool things to do outside of Universal and Disney. Here are the things on my list so far:

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Diagon Alley
Our whole trip is planned around this new expansion at Universal. Eric is so into it, he's decided we need to spend three days in the parks. Am I complaining? Absolutely not! How can I pass up a chance to soak up the Harry Potter magic, while also strolling along London streets and then shopping in the crazy dark Knockturn Alley? I would be happy just to ride the Hogwarts Express back and forth all day, but I'll resist long enough to explore the rest of the village and stand in line at Escape from Gringotts.

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Been there, done that? Yes, but NO! One of the coolest things about Hogsmeade is the very detailed shop fronts and the looming silhouette of Hogwarts. There's always something you didn't see on your last visit. Also, with three days in the parks, I'll have a chance to try the new Butterbeer ice cream, sample more than one meal at the Three Broomsticks and actually see the shows.

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Universal and Islands of Adventure
Yes, there will be a thousand photos of me waving my wand around in a variety of Harry Potter shirts, but I'll also get out and explore the rest of Universal. We are hoping to do Halloween Horror Nights if only for the great shows that they put on specially for the event. I'm okay with scare zones, but I'm probably not even going to step foot into a haunted house, lest I be traumatized for the rest of my trip. I think I'm good enough listening to Moaning Myrtle in the ladies room.

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The Magic Kingdom
You can't go to Disney without going to the main park. I want to visit the castle, go to the Tiki Room and dress up for Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. What will our costumes be this year? You'll have to stay tuned, because we haven't quite figured that out yet (even though we know what we'll be dressed up as for actual Halloween and our annual Harry Potter birthday party). It takes a bit more planning, since it needs to fit into our carry-on and be appropriate for the warm weather. Also, have you heard of this free card game called Sorcerer's of the Magic Kingdom? We'll be picking up our free packs and getting in on that!

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Lunch at Be Our Guest
This table service restaurant in the Magic Kingdom is French-inspired and Beauty & the Beast themed. It's always fun to dine in a palace, especially when you don't have to dress up (though that can make you feel a little weird at first). Will I be able to choose between the Coq Au Vin-style braised pork or the Croque Monsieur? Probably not, but either way I win and can cap it off with a dessert cupcake.

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Animal Kingdom
Can it get better than going on safari without having to spend the dough to get to Africa? I don't think so. Though Animal Kingdom is not the best of Disney's parks in Orlando, it is very laid back and you can easily do everything there by the mid-afternoon (if the crowds are thin) and then head to another park or Downtown Disney (my plan) to finish off your day. I'm looking forward to see the Lion King production and riding on Expedition Everest, which is truly one of their more surprising rides.

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Dinner at Sanaa
A meal with a view of fantastic African animals right outside the windows? I'm in! This restaurant is located at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, which is surrounded by wildlife and African themed. My mouth waters at the thought of vegetable samosas, naan and lamb dishes. I had wanted to dine at Jiko, but besides the high price tag, it doesn't come with the perks of Sanaa.

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Hollywood Studios
If you haven't heard, HS is getting an overhaul of sorts. Three of their major attractions/landmarks have gone away (the Sorcerer's hat, the Backlot, American Idol Experience), but that's okay. As much as loved having the Sorcerer's hat as a point of reference, you'll now be able to see the Chinese Theater and getting to all the park's great rides and attractions may be a bit easier. Obviously, we'll be taking in Fantasmic, because it's awesome and seeing some of the other shows that we may have missed on our last trip.

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EPCOT Food & Wine Festival
I live for the Food & Wine Festival. As you know, I love trying new foods and being able to take a trip around the world in a day, including cuisine, is a dream come true. You really need to wear your walking shoes at EPCOT, because even though there aren't that many rides, there is a lot to see and do. Of course, even though there's food everywhere, I still want to take in a meal at the Rose & Crown and the Biergarten Restaurant. Oh, and I shouldn't forget the free Eat To The Beat concerts!

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We're skipping Sea World on this trip (for obvious reasons if you know me) an therefore we now have a free day to explore something else in Orlando. For me, there was no question how we were going to spend it. I have been dying to go to Gatorland, if only for the kitsch factor. I mean, a whole land of alligators! This is also going to give me the opportunity to try a new food. I've already scoped out the dining options and gator nuggets are going to be on my plate here.

Obviously, with so many months between now and then, this list is only going to grow. You may see a part two, but in the meantime, you can follow my Orlando Pinterest board.

What are your Orlando suggestions for our trip?

Saturday, January 24, 2015

6 Cheap Eats in Minneapolis

Minneapolis has some cool stuff. You don’t have to spend your whole trip there in nearby Bloomington and the Mall of America. Shocking, right? As you know, I tend to look for fun things everywhere I go. Even if a place doesn’t sound all that interesting, it doesn’t mean it isn’t. Use Hipmunk to find a nice affordable hotel near where you want to do things and then start planning your trip. Here I want to give you some ideas on where to eat while you’re in town and not empty your wallet.

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I’m always up for something with hummus or covered in feta. Christos is a traditional tavern serving up Greek food on a budget. If you can’t go to Cyprus, at least eat like you’re there. The white tablecloths and cloth napkins give you the feeling of eating somewhere more expensive. Stop in for lunch and order off the lighter fare menu for favorites like spanakopita and dolmathes, if you want to go meat-free, or skish ke bab and moussaka if you don’t. Round off your meal with a baklava or try something new like galatopoureko or milopita. Skimp on dinner rates and splurge a bit on a glass of Greek wine.
Green Spoon
The University district has some wallet-friendly restaurants, including this one. The Green Spoon is a Korean Fusion joint tempts your taste buds with Kimchi & cheese French fries, spicy bowls of ramen and dumplings. Whether you’re hoping to find a place where you can find a good selection of vegetarian dishes or will try just about anything, then snap up a table here. Plus, during happy hour, get $1 off beer or buy a whole bottle of wine with your food for just $10 (or $3 per glass). You can easily eat her for less than $12, plus drinks.
Lucia’s Wine Bar
Sounds fancy, right? If you’re ready for a romantic time out, head to Lucia’s where they have $4-6 happy hour items and glasses of wine from just $5. Nice deals, right? They are offered every day they are open. The snack board is enough for two and has delicious charcuterie that you didn’t expect. Saturday and Sunday brunch has affordable meals choices, including French style omelet and chilequiles with roasted peppers. Yum!
Masu Sushi & Robata NE
In the mood for Japanese food? Find your way to Masu Sushi. Yes, you can get the traditional sushi here as you will find at other Japanese restaurants, but you can also order up a curried ramen or a selection of izakaya, including funky small plates of duck gyoza, dried squid with chili sauce, crispy pork kara-age and pork belly steamed buns. It’s like Asian tapas for less than $10 per plate!
Muddy Waters Bar & Eatery
Do you get excited about fish tacos? Muddy Waters has share plates for two for under $10 with these, lamb skewered and pot roast sliders. If you’re like me, you enjoy trying several things when you dine and tapas are the way to go. Maybe you’re more of a non-sharer. That’s okay, you can get sandwiches and hot dogs for $12 or less. Vegetarians will feel right at home here with menu items like fried tofu sandwiches, Korean BBQ mock duck tacos and pear and brie sandwiches with cherry mustard. Save even more by showing up at happy hour.
Feel like you’re out on an upscale dinner even if you just show up at Nightingale for small plates or bruschetta. There are choices for vegetarians and meat lovers alike. Pork & clams and salt cod fritters sit alongside plates like salt-roasted beets and butter-roasted cauliflower. Don’t leave without sharing an orange chiffon cake, because delicious. The brunch menu is just as innovative and appealing and under $15 a plate. Show up for early dinner during daily happy hour and grab a beer for $3, $5 cocktails or glasses of wine and a limited, but tasty and budget-friendly, menu. Split a cheese plate with some celery root bruschetta.

Disclaimer: This post was inspired by my partnership with Hipmunk - a great site to find low hotel rates wherever you travel. #hipmunkcitylove

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

48 Hours of Fun on a Budget in Manchester

In this blog series I show you how easy it is to budget travel anywhere and I also give you a quick overview of a new city each time in a brief 48-hour itinerary.

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While London may be at the top of a lot of travel lists, it’s not the only cool place to stay in the UK. Even if you are planning a trip to London, you may want to take a little break somewhere else. If I were you, Manchester would definitely be on my mind for a short break. It’s cheaper than going to Paris and you can jump on the train and be there in three hours for way less than riding the Eurostar. Plus, you don’t have to know French there. I’d suggest staying on The Quays, for both the view and the prices. (Find a perfect lodging on Hipmunk.) Here’s how I would spend two days in the city.
Since you can hop on the train to Manchester every 20 minutes, you can arrive at any time, but let’s assume you get there in the evening, so you can start your day early and make the most of your time in the city. Put a smile on your face by getting breakfast at Café Rouge, a quaint little French bistro, because the food is yummy and you can’t be unhappy when faced with a flaky croissant.

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I visited the Imperial War Museum in London and was really impressed. I’d love to check out the IWM in Manchester. It focuses on the people rather than the war and how they have changed, overcome and survived through them from WWI until now. The museum is along the quay and offers free admission, so unless you make a purchase at the gift shop (which will probably be quite tempting), this is a super affordable stop.
Got kids with you? Then you’ll want to hit up the Museum of Science and Industry. It has hands-on, interactive exhibits fun for all ages where you can learn about the world through science. Not only that, but the museum is housed inside the world’s oldest railway station. Cool, right? You can easily spend hours here, so you’ll learn something and do it for free, because there is no admission cost. Grab something to eat from the canteen or the café and then go back to checking out the exhibits and having fun.
Splurge a bit on dinner and a show at The Lowry. Make sure to pop into the gallery to see the free exhibition on display before closing at 5pm. This changes throughout the year, so there will always be something new and interesting to view. The theater offers a large variety of shows from comedies to musicals to psychological thrillers. You should very easily find something that suits you.
Book a table in the Lowry Restaurant before or after your show. A multi-course dinner starts at £21.95, which is a great deal in the UK. We often do a two-course menu and one of us chooses an appetizer and the other a dessert. We share both with our own entrée in between. It usually is enough for us and saves us from ordering the three-course menu and spending more money.

Head back to your room to rest up for a day of sightseeing tomorrow.

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Day 2
Start your day with a quick coffee and pastry, so you’re up for a lovely British lunch. Then, make your way by bus or train to Manchester Cathedral. Its gothic architecture is a draw for many, plus the stained glass windows and amazing stonework make the visit totally worth it. It’s free to enter, though you can purchase a guide at the front desk and/or make a small donation for church upkeep.
If you’re hungry now, pay a visit to The Old Wellington, a traditional pub where you can order pub food and real (eclectic) ales. Choose from favorites like bangers and mash, fish and chips and meat pie. End your meal with a treacle sponge to share.

If you aren’t hungry just yet, you can wander over to Exchange Square and do a bit of (window) shopping first.

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After lunch, you’ll find the Cathedral Gardens and National Football Museum up the street from the cathedral. Manchester is a huge soccer city, so if you are too, you’ll love browsing this museum where there are more than 140,000 soccer-related items, a place for kids to jump around and simulators to test your skills on the field. If you have sports-loving kids, this is a perfect stop for families. There are 7 floors to explore and admission is totally free. Can’t beat that. If you want to try your hand (or foot, more like) at soccer skills, you’ll need to purchase the Football Plus+ from £3.50. A family of four can purchase a group pass for £25, which will give you even more to do for not really that much.

Take a nice stroll through the Cathedral Gardens, which are landscaped lawns, terraces and trees.

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Depending on how long you spent in the National Football Museum, you may have time to do something else before dinner. Duck into John Rylands Library. This is one of the oldest libraries and has an amazing collection of rare books and manuscripts. There are also some changing exhibitions at the library. Admission is free and you’ll want to bring your camera to take photos of the gothic architecture which took 10 years to build.
Head back towards your hotel and have dinner across the North Bay at Wagamama. Though this is a chain, it’s both budget-friendly and a popular choice for visitors and locals alike to indulge in a bit of quick Asian cuisine.
Not quite ready to head to bed yet? There are two cinemas on The Quays where you can catch all the new movies out. This is a great way to see those films that are only in the UK theaters or American movies that you’ve been wanting to see (or won’t be out in the U.S. yet).

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There are plenty more things to do in Manchester that you can choose from, but these sound fun to me and isn’t heavy on museums, which you could easily spend both days in. If you do everything on the list, including dining (which I’ve estimated) you’ll come in at around £145 (~ $230) per person for two days, most of which is food. If you get a vacation rental, you could make some of your own meals and save, but since you aren’t really dishing out big bucks on activities, you might as well enjoy some local cuisine. Have you ever been to Manchester? What are your favorite things to do/see/eat there?

Disclaimer: This post was inspired by my partnership with Hipmunk - a great site to find low hotel rates wherever you travel. #hipmunkcitylove

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Non-Mardi Gras New Orleans

Fat Tuesday is on its way, but just because you're visiting New Orleans, doesn't mean you have to spend your whole trip drunk and disorderly. In fact, you might have a lot more fun - and actually remember your trip - if you get off of Bourbon Street for part of your vacation. There are actually a lot of things to do in New Orleans when there aren't drunken crowds showing their goods for beads. 

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Did you know that New Orleans is a great budget destination? I didn't either! Why not take a little detour from the revelers in the street and explore these options after a big plate of beignets:

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Save on your trip to New Orleans with the Power Pass. Starting as low as $28 per day, gain entry to the must-see attractions of the city. Choose from places like the Musee Conti Wax Museum, Audubon Zoo, Cajun Pride Swamp Tour and much more! Available in 1, 2, 3 and 5 day durations. Add a 1-3 day MealTicket to eat at awesome restaurants for one low price. If you know you’ll be stuffing your face with étouffée, jambalaya and other Cajun deliciousness, this is definitely the way to go!
You can also take advantage of OpenTable’s deals for dining. With special menus at some restaurants, you can save money, or just reserve a table that will get you points towards a free meal in the future and ensure you don’t have to wait around if the restaurant is busy.
Here’s another fantastic way to save on meals. Here are 10 places to eat under $10. You can’t beat that. Almost. Here’s a short list, but if you want more, check out Fodor’s website for a list of others.
  • Cochon Butcher
  • The Company Burger
  • Domenica
  • Camellia Grill
  • Parasol's
  • R&O's
  • Angeli on Decatur
  • Balcony Bar & Café 
  • Café du Monde
  • Trolley Stop Café
Like to be scared? New Orleans has always claimed to have a rich history in the occult and creepy myths. For an hour and a half walk among the darkened streets on the New Orleans Vampire Tour for only $20 per person. Many other walks are available, but who wouldn't want to believe in the undead and the horrible things that happen in the shadows of the city? Of course, if you’re heading to Louisiana for a little romantic getaway, you might want to pick a different tour…although, this will probably give you a fantastic reason to snuggle close to your significant other, even after the walk is over.
Bringing the kids with you? Take a trip to the Louisiana Children’s Museum. Admission is $8 for everyone ($10 if you wait to purchase tickets at the door) and children 1 and under are free. They have more than 30,000 square feet of interactive exhibits to keep you and your little ones entertained for hours and hours. Learn a whole bunch of stuff while you’re having fun, so you don’t even know it’s educational!
Hop on the Canal-Algiers Ferry for free (if on foot) and get some of the best views of New Orleans from the Mississippi. (Also, how many other times are you gonna get to travel the Mississippi?!) Before returning on the ferry, grab a bite at one of the many cafes and take a walk along the Jazz Walk of Fame.

The streetcar is a very affordable way to get from point A to point B while also giving you a city tour. It stops at a variety of attractions along the way and it only costs $1.25. Super cheap sightseeing!

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Love your booze? Then take a tour of the Old New Orleans Rum Distillery. This is probably a much safer way to sample some cocktails than getting wasted on the streets with everyone else. For a whopping $10, you can tour the distillery, get free transportation there, a free rum cocktail and a tasting of all four of their rum products at the end.

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If that was just too much fun for words, make you way to the Museum of the American Cocktail. Explore their collection of books, rare spirits, glasses, shakers, photos, gadgets and so much more to see how cocktails have evolved over the years. This, too, is just $10 per person. Unfortunately, all you get at the end is a trip to the gift shop, but then you can buy some fun books on vintage cocktails and go home and recreate them for friends in a funky retro party.

These are just some of the ways you can fill your time on your visit to the Big Easy that doesn’t involve crowds of people or emptying out your wallet. Check out my Facebook page for airfare deals that are popping up all over the place in order to make your trip “cheaper” and Laissez les bons temps rouler.

Have you been to New Orleans? What are your budget tips for the city?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Avoid These Scams and Secure Your Belongings

I have traveled all over and have never been caught up in a scam where I was robbed of belongings or money. Just because I've been lucky doesn't mean that scams don't exist. I suspect because I often travel in the off-season, the thieves may just not be as active as they are in summer season when there are tons of tourists to get lost in an take advantage of. There are new scams that crop up all the time and below are the 40 most common ones you should look out for whether you're vacationing in the summer or any other time of the year. it's important to be safe and know when something is sketchy so you can get out of there.

Have you ever been scammed while on vacation?

Monday, January 12, 2015

Eat Like a Local in the Turks & Caicos

Man, I love to eat new foods. In fact, I find that food is on the top of my travel list and one of the first things I plan. Many times, I plan a whole day around where I want to eat. Good meals are essential to me and when I have a chance to travel and taste local favorites, then I’m all over it. Seafood can be really interesting, because fish can be light and flaky or dense and meaty.

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You can have shellfish one place that tastes completely different from the same shellfish somewhere else. Providenciales (or Provo) in the Turks & Caicos is no different. Food can have Caribbean, soul or Creole flair. American Southern cuisine bloomed from the islands. If you find yourself headed to this island paradise, here are some dishes you should definitely try.

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Conch are always an affordable dish, because of their abundance around the island.
  • Conch Fritters – I was all over these when I visited the Bahamas and I highly recommend them if you’re headed to Provo. Mostly made from the local Queen conch (pronounced “conk”) these are like a hushpuppy, but served with a spicy creole sauce.
  • Conch Salad – Basically, this is a ceviche, or a raw fish dish with veggies and “cooked” with some sort of citrus, usually lemon or lime. It’s really refreshing, especially on a hot day. It’s also very light, so if you’re not that hungry, you can eat it as a main dish. It goes great with a fruity cocktail.
  • Conch Chowder  If a hot soup seems like a good idea, you’re going to want to chow down on a bowl of this thick and creamy soup full of conch pieces. 
  • Cracked Conch – Oh yes, another dish made with this large mollusk. It’s the island’s answer to chicken fingers. Conch strips deep fried for both a crunchy and juicy dish.
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These fish are amazing. They can grow larger than some sharks and can create so much suction that they can swallow something the size of a human quite easily (not that they are trying to). Most only grow to about a foot long, and they make tasty, tasty dishes. Their prevalence around the islands make them a common fish on menus.

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Jerk Chicken
Jamaica is a big influence in the Turks & Caicos and it’s no surprise that their signature dish has made its way to the islands. Made with a spicy and earthy dry rub and grilled, this is one of the most flavorful ways to eat chicken.

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Johnny Cake
Another local favorite, this is a sweet pan bread that looks like cornbread. It’s perfect for soaking up all those lovely sauces from your main dish.

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Mahi Mahi
I feel like mahi mahi is the chicken of the fish family, because it’s so meaty. It can be cooked in a million different ways and taste completely different. They are lovely with a fruit salsa.

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Oh wow! They make look like bananas, but plantains are so much more. They are more substantial and provide a bit of hearty sweetness to a dish. Usually as a side to a meal that goes with rice and peas (or beans). It can pull a whole meal together.ut plantains are so much more. They are more substantial and provide a bit of hearty sweetnes

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Rum Punch
If a good cocktail gets you going, this island favorite is a must-try. It evokes the feel of the islands with rum, pineapple and orange juice and coconut flavor. It’s a little deceiving, so you may want to order one and then wait a bit before ordering another cocktail. It’s not called a rum punch for nothing.

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I love snapper. Red snapper is one of my favorite cuts for sushi, but it’s fabulous grilled, steamed, poached or however else people want to make it. In Provo, you’ll often be served a whole snapper that’s been steamed in a Creole sauce with a side of peas or rice (or peas and hominy).
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Thursday Night Fish Fry
Every Thursday from 5:30p to 9:30p at the Bight (Children's) Park, over a dozen local food vendors, entertainers and cultural acts come together for Island Fish Fry. This is a great way to try some delicious fresh-caught fish and interact with the locals too.

Of course, there are so many other fabulous foods and beverages in Provo that you’ll come across, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t as fantastic as these that I listed. You can easily try a bit of everything if you’re visiting for more than a few days.

Spend more on dining if you want when you find a great deal on lodging through Hipmunk. Easily find a place to stay that fits your budget and then get on with planning the rest of your trip.

Disclaimer: This post was inspired by my partnership with Hipmunk - a great site to find low hotel rates wherever you travel. #hipmunkcitylove
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