Galway Girl: 9 Things to Do in Ireland’s Most Charming City

Galway Girl: 9 Things to Do in Ireland’s Most Charming City

Timeless shops full of character, winding cobblestone streets, and a lively nightlife Galway is everything you expect Ireland to be, wrapped up in a vibrant, bohemian spirit. Read on to discover the things that always top our Galway itinerary.

1 – Indulge in breakfast at Griffin’s.

Start your day with a carbohydrate fix from Galway’s most iconic bakery. Once recognized as the best baker in Ireland, Jimmy Griffin does not shy away from experimental breads (try the seaweed sourdough!), but nothing beats cozying up in the tearoom for a full Irish brekky.

2 – Order a smoothie at the Jungle Cafe.

This palm-fringed, chilled-out oasis near Eyre Square is a peaceful respite from Galway’s rowdy pub scene. The cafe’s funky outdoor patio is full of comfy couches and rattan chairs that will mentally transport you to the tropics.

3 – Shop for a traditional Claddagh Ring.

However you wear it to connote your relationship status, there’s no better souvenir than an Irish claddagh ring. This Irish symbol of loyalty, love, and friendship originated in Galway, and you can get one at Thomas Dillon’s, the oldest jeweler in Ireland that has been making claddagh rings since 1750.

4 – Taste native oysters at the Galway Market.

Every Saturday, the Galway market comes to life with hundreds of stalls selling everything from paintings and pottery to artisan crafts and jewelry. But the best part is the fresh oysters they’re shucked right in front of you and served with a dab of buttermilk.

5 – Sail through Galway Bay.

What better way to explore the west coast of Ireland than to set sail into the wind and relax on your own private yacht? You’re guaranteed to get the most Instagrammable view of the Long Walk, Galway’s famous stretch of colorful homes.

6 – Soak in the outdoor hot tub at Hotel Meyrick.

Complimentary for all guests to use, the rooftop hot tub makes Hotel Meyrick our favorite place to stay in Galway. Melt your worries away while you bask in panoramic views of the city and a cool ocean breeze.

7 – Have afternoon tea at Secret Garden.

An eclectic urban sanctuary and quite possibly the most peaceful place in Galway, Secret Garden is the perfect spot to find your zen. Part tea shop, part art gallery, it’s a gathering space for artistic souls and you can typically catch live music or poetry readings on any given day or night.

8 – Sip a pint of Guinness at Murphy’s Bar.

No trip to the Emerald Isle is complete without savoring the country’s signature tipple at a traditional Irish pub. One of the oldest pubs in Galway, Murphy’s is a true local’s gem that gets packed to the brim every evening.

9 – Dance to live music at Tig Choili.

We would be remiss to write an article about Galway and not include live music! Galway’s pubs are always pumping with traditional Irish music, but our go-to for a good time is Tig Choili, where famous fiddle-playing Irish musicians like Sharon Shannon have been known to drop in.

7 Things to Skip in Dublin (And What to Do Instead)

7 Things to Skip in Dublin (And What to Do Instead)

Whether it’s a quick stopover from London or the first leg of your Ireland adventure, Europe’s “friendliest city” never disappoints. Make the most of your city break by skipping these tourists traps.

#1 Skip the Guinness Storehouse. Go beer tasting at the Open Gate Brewery instead.

From the outside, the Guinness Storehouse reminds us of Willy Wonka’s factory, except it fills Dublin with the scent of hops instead of chocolate. But if you’re a beer lover expecting a glimpse of how Ireland’s most iconic stout is brewed, you will likely be disappointed by the heavily branded, museum-like self-guided “tour”. As the city’s most popular tourist attraction, more than 3,000 Guinness-guzzlers flock to the Storehouse each day, making it nearly impossible to claim your complimentary pint at the famous Gravity Bar.

Just a few blocks away from the Storehouse, the Open Gate Brewery offers a beer-tasting experience that impresses even the most discerning of beer snobs. For over 100 years, this is where brewers have been given full license to explore new recipes or reinvent the old, and it just opened its door to the public last year. You’ll be able to try early, small-batch versions of experimental beers that may or may not end up on taps around the world. The menu is a bit of a secret, but past flavors have included a sea salt and burnt sugar stout, tropical IPA, and apple pie Christmas ale.

#2 Skip the Book of Kells. Visit the Chester Beatty Library instead.

The Book of Kells is arguably the most famous book in the world, which is why you’ll see a painfully long line of people waiting to see it, winding around the courtyard of Trinity College every morning. Completed in 800 AD, the elaborately decorated manuscript is the world’s oldest book and considered one of the great masterpieces of early art. While there’s no denying it’s a beautiful artifact, you have to cram inside a room full of pushy tourists and only get to see two pages.

Skip the fuss and satisfy your appetite for age-old books at the Chester Beatty Library. Although Lonely Planet lauded it as “not just the best museum in Ireland, but one of the best in Europe”, this breathtaking library still manages to fly beneath the tourist radar. Spread over two floors, the exhibit houses more than 20,000 manuscripts, rare books, paintings, and other historically significant artifacts —  heaven for history buffs and bibliophiles alike.

#3 Skip the high-end shops on Grafton Street. Go vintage shopping instead.

With musicians, street performers, flower carts, and pubs, there’s no denying that Grafton Street is buzzing with life. It’s worth a walkthrough to get a feel for the fun, albeit touristy, atmosphere, but if you left extra room in your suitcase for shopping, this is not the place to swipe your credit card. Yes, the street is home to one of our favourite department stores, Brown Thomas, but why waste your vacation time shopping for things you can buy anywhere?

Dublin is a surprisingly rich city when it comes to vintage shopping, and we could easily spend an entire day there sorting through colorful racks of clothing in search of timeless treasures to take home. Set aside time to peruse weird and whimsy pieces at Lucy’s Lounge, shop discounted cashmere at A Store Is Born, and score second-hand Celine and Vuitton at Siopaella.

#4 Skip St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Visit the crypts at St. Michan’s instead.

Built in honor of Ireland’s patron saint (who was reportedly not even Irish!), St. Patrick’s Cathedral is the largest church in Ireland, designed with Gothic architectural elements that give it a somewhat foreboding facade. The edifice holds some important historical artifacts and is full of history itself, but with a relatively high entrance fee and a gift shop in the back, we couldn’t escape the feeling that this church had gone commercial.

We preferred our visit to a church that was far less conspicuous and just a tad bit creepy. Built in 1095, St. Michan’s isn’t much to look at — you might even miss it as you stroll down Church Street — but its mystique is in what lies below. The dark and musky crypts are home to mummies preserved from the 17th century, and their deteriorating coffins are said to have inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

#5 Skip the Jameson Distillery. Tour the Irish Whiskey Museum instead.

We’ve all ordered a Jameson on the rocks to sound cool, but in Dublin it’s a rite of passage. Most tourists only visit the North side of the river Liffey to tour the famed distillery, but much like the Guinness Storehouse, don’t expect a backstage pass to see the distillation process. No whiskey is actually produced here, and the “distillery” is more like a glorified museum (with complimentary Jameson, though).

If you want to gain a broader understanding of the Irishman’s favorite tipple, embark on the hour-long tour at the Irish Whiskey Museum. Not only will you learn a trove of fun facts about the history of whiskey (spoiler alert: it originated in Ireland, not Scotland), but you’ll also get acquainted with several different brands, including Jameson. Whether you’re a whiskey aficionado or not, expect to leave the museum with a warm belly.

#6 Skip Temple Bar Pub. Listen to live music at The Cobblestone instead.

Deemed the “most Instagrammable” place in Dublin, Temple Bar is frequented en masse by thirsty tourists looking for a taste of Dublin nightlife. It looks like the quintessential Irish pub from the outside, but you probably won’t find a single person who’s actually from Ireland on the inside. With expensive pints and dirty bathrooms, we’d say the pub’s one redeeming quality is the live Irish music, but there are better places for that.

Nestled in one of Dublin’s oldest neighborhoods, The Cobblestone is the authentic Irish pub you’ve been looking for — quaint, warm, and intimate with a friendly neighborhood vibe. Serving up creamy pints of Guinness and nightly Irish music jam sessions, it’s by far our favorite place in Dublin to “have a craic”, as the Irish say.

#7 Skip The Blarney Stone. Trek the Howth Coast instead.

Kiss the Blarney Stone and you’ll be granted the gift of gab. Or so they say. A popular day trip from Dublin, the Blarney Stone might just be the most overrated tourist trap in all of Ireland. It’s hard to believe that 400,000 people visit the Blarney Castle every year, climbing 120 steps just to kiss a rock. In case we didn’t already convince you, the Blarney Stone was once recognized as the world’s most unhygienic tourist attraction.

If you’re looking for a worthwhile day trip out of Dublin, stoke up a natural high by hiking the Howth Coast, just 30 minutes outside Dublin. Home to Ireland’s most photographed lighthouse, the landscape ushers you along coastal cliffs and jaw-dropping vistas, allowing you to soak up the natural beauty of Ireland.

Where to Eat and Drink in Dublin

Where to Eat and Drink in Dublin

From pizza buses and Guinness flavored ice cream to Michelin-starred dining in a basement, Dublin’s food scene has something for everyone.

Guilt-Free Breakfast: Honest to Goodness

No trip to Ireland is complete without a full Irish breakfast: bacon, sausage, eggs, and potatoes, cooked to perfection in creamy butter and served with a side of pudding and Irish soda bread. For a slightly healthier take on this artery-clogging hangover cure, grab a table at local favorite Honest to Goodness. Using all-natural ingredients with zero preservatives, this gem of a restaurant doesn’t even have a fryer or microwave, so you can rest assured that your brunch is (somewhat) healthy, wholesome, and fresh.

Pizza and Beer: The Big Blue Bus

Hidden in the backyard of Dublin’s most notoriously hipster pub the Bernard Shaw   The Big Blue Bus is probably the only place in the world where you can grab a slice on top of a double decker bus. We love that the pizza is made with organic and locally sourced ingredients, but the reason we keep coming back is the vibe. Surrounded by funky street art and attracting a friendly, laid-back crowd, the Bus is the perfect summer hangout where you can relax over a cocktail or two.

Fine Dining: Chapter One

Michelin starred but not stuffy, Chapter One is the place to go when you’re feeling a little fancy. The restaurant is set in the former basement of George Jameson (you may know of him from his whiskey), and aims to capture the convivial spirit of the traditional Irish home, while sourcing from local growers and artisans. Splurge on the 8-course tasting menu at the Chef’s Table, which is made from dramatic, highly glazed volcanic rock.

Vegetarian Eats: Cornucopia

Cornucopia is our go-to spot for a filling and flavorful plant-based meal, but you don’t have to be a vegetarian to leave this place feeling full and happy. The menu changes every day and is served buffet style with gigantic portions just be sure to save some room for dessert because the pastries are to die for! Situated in the heart of Dublin, Cornucopia’s quaint dining room fills up fast, so your best bet for grabbing a table is a late lunch or early dinner.

For the Sweet Tooth: Murphy’s Ice Cream

The “best ice cream in the world” is a bold claim, but Murphy’s is definitely up there. The Dingle-based chain was started by two brothers who take pride in knowing where their ingredients come from they use milk from their own cows, make their own sea salt, and shy away from artificial flavors, coloring, and powdered milk. While Murphy’s ingredients are simple, their flavors are anything but. We’re still dreaming of their signature Guinness and caramelized brown bread ice cream!

Volunteering at Seal Rescue Ireland

Volunteering at Seal Rescue Ireland

The bus from Dublin came to its final stop on the corner of a sleepy Irish town in County Wexford, which sits about 50 miles south of Ireland’s capital. I had wrongfully assumed that I’d disembark at a busy bus station where I could easily hail a cab, but instead there were no taxis in sight, or even people. The bed and breakfast I booked had provided me with contact info for their preferred taxi driver, Bernard, so I gave him a ring. Of course, the call went straight to his voicemail which informed me that he was taking the night off. Alone with just my backpack and the sun about to set, I did what any traveler in Ireland would do — I wandered into the nearest pub.

This place was exactly what you picture when you think of an Irish pub — dark and unkempt, but with an undeniable convivial spirit. With the madness of the World Cup in full effect, spry Irishmen guzzled oversized pints of Guinness as they crowded around the TVs. As the only female in the pub — with a backpacking backpack, no less — I was clearly out of place. It didn’t take long before an affable old-timer with a thick accent instructed the bartender to ring me a cab. In minutes, I was escorted into a nondescript white van, which was already packed full of people. In any other setting this might have seemed a bit sketchy, but that’s small-town Ireland for you.

So what had brought me to this rural town in the middle of nowhere? I was going to spend the next day volunteering at Seal Rescue Ireland, a rehabilitation center in Courtown that cares for seals from all over Ireland.

Many years ago, I read The Odyssey of KP2 by the marine biologist Terrie M. Williams, and became infatuated with the curious, expressive, and somewhat cheeky seal. Much like dogs, these loveable marine mammals have so much personality, are highly intelligent, and fiercely loyal. They are quite possibly one of the most underrated animals in the world, and therefore, their conservation needs are somewhat forgotten.

Not so long ago, I was at Moonlight Beach in Encinitas when I was horrified to see three young seals inside tiny cages near the lifeguard tower, wailing at the top of their lungs. When I asked the lifeguard why they were being held hostage, I was saddened to hear that the pups had come to shore because they were sick, malnourished, and dehydrated from lack of food, and that tourists wouldn’t leave them alone. He informed me that they had no other choice but to send the distraught seals to the only organization in San Diego that is equipped to take them —  Sea World. This news came as a shock to me. Seals are all over San Diego, so why don’t we have any non-profit organizations that rehabilitate them?

That’s what brought me all the way to Courtown — the desire to learn as much as much as possible to help the seals back home.

Just as the sun was setting, the van dropped me off at the Stone Lodge bed and breakfast, a quaint and quiet cottage with a gorgeous garden. As I walked through the front door, I nearly ran straight into a younger guy who was walking out. His name was Ross and he was actually an intern for the seal rescue, on his way to the pub to meet the entire team. He invited me to tag along.

Over a few pints of Guinness, I got to know Ross and the group of about ten staff members and volunteers, who had traveled from all over the world to be there — New Zealand, England, and even the United States. I was so happy for the opportunity to pick their brains in this setting; not only did I gain a deeper understanding of what the rescue does and the challenges it faces, but I also got to hear the stories of how they all ended up there, in this tiny Irish town. Some were environmental science majors on a summer internship, some were taking a sabbatical from reality, but they all shared my passion for the ocean and helping marine animals. Connecting with this like-minded group was worth the journey alone.

Near the end of the evening, the “on call” volunteer was notified that a sick seal pup had been found on the west coast of Ireland and was in transit to the center. The rescue takes in orphaned, sick, and injured seals from anywhere in Ireland, supported by a network of dedicated volunteers that rescue and transport the pups. When seals arrive at the rescue, the staff and volunteers treat any injuries and then spend days, weeks, or even months nursing them back to health until they are strong enough to return to the wild, typically released as close as possible to where they were found.

By the time I arrived at the center the next morning, the seal has been delivered, making seven total seals they were currently housing. This was a relatively small group considering that in the winter they typically hold over 30 seals! One of the residents was a tiny 3-week-year old pup affectionately named Noodles, who was being held in a small pen until he was strong enough to join the other seals in one of the nursing ponds.

The center has a somewhat scrappy facade, with a small gift shop, education center, and equipment sprawled throughout. Because the center receives very little funding from the government, they operate almost entirely on donations. You could tell that they were doing the very best they could with what they had, and I thought they were doing an amazing job.

The work was definitely not glamorous. Wearing waterproof clothing, boots, and gloves, my first task was to break up smelly frozen fish that comes to the center in large blocks. A lot of this fish is put into a food processor to make “fish soup” for younger seals like Noodles. I also helped clean out the dirty pools, which they do every day. It’s safe to say I went back to the bed and breakfast reeking of fish, but getting up close and personal with the adorable seals was worth it!

I was not surprised to learn that the issues endangering seals in Ireland are the same as in Southern California. Because seals have few natural predators, their main threat is people, in the form of overfishing and plastic pollution.

Overfishing has caused fish stocks to be depleted worldwide — according to the United Nations, 17% of fish stocks are currently overexploited, 52% are fully exploited, and 7% are depleted. This is why so many seals come to shore malnourished and starving; there are simply not enough fish in the sea. Although the NOAA maintains strict laws for fishing in the United States, we import more than 80% of the fish we eat. This means our sushi habit is supporting unsustainable fishing practices around the world, which is gravely affecting the ocean ecosystem, including cute little seals.

I am also convinced that plastic is the worst thing to ever happen to the world. About 8 million tons of plastic is thrown into the ocean every year, which has coagulated into five massive floating garbage patches — the largest one sits between California and Hawaii and is the size of Texas. Scientists predict that by 2050, plastic in the ocean will outweigh fish. Because plastic never biodegrades, it breaks down into tiny pieces smaller than your fingernail, microplastics, which marine animals such as seals commonly mistake for food. This is a serious threat, not only because plastic contains toxic chemicals, but also because it makes animals starve as they are unable to digest real food. The majority of the pups at Seal Rescue Ireland were either sick from ingesting plastic, or were injured from plastic entanglements.

That evening, as I took the bus back to Dublin, I reflected on what I learned at Seal Rescue Ireland. My intention for the experience was to see if I could emulate a similar program back in San Diego, given the lack of organizations that rehabilitate seals. After learning how big of an undertaking that would be, I believe the best route is to start small and educate people about they can do to help in their everyday life. While we need places like Seal Rescue Ireland to be reactive, we also must work together to stop the problem at the source. Anyone, anywhere can help seals — and all marine animals — simply by cutting back on their fish and seafood consumption, as well as kicking their single-use plastic habit.

I am so inspired by the passionate, hardworking staff members and volunteers at Seal Rescue Ireland, and genuinely hope I cross paths with them again someday!

Ireland Heritage Trip

Ireland Heritage Trip

Watch: Achill Island, Ireland

As a sun-chaser and crowd-hater, my travels have almost always taken me to far-flung tropical islands or warm, secluded getaways. But in June, I found myself bundled up in a Patagonia fleece and rain boots, gazing over the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, Ireland, surrounded by tourists and shivering from head to toe. Drenched in rain, my mind drifted to the deserted beaches of Barbados, and I asked myself why I had chosen to visit Ireland — a country not exactly known for its sunny weather. At that moment, the sun peeked its rays through the grey clouds, illuminating the majestic cliffs, and a feeling of gratitude quickly replaced any lingering thoughts of regret. Ireland is sublimely beautiful, but it’s more than the lush green landscape that left a lasting impression on me.

In case you can’t tell by my first name, I come from an Irish family — my great-grandmother immigrated from Ireland to the States in the 1920s. As such, I have always had a strong desire to visit the Emerald Isle to connect with my Irish roots. My intention for this trip was to gain a deeper understanding of my ancestral identity and make it a bigger part of my story moving forward.

I started in Dublin where I got the chance to meet a handful of distant relatives, volunteered at a seal rescue in County Wexford, then headed west to explore County Clare and Galway. From there, I rented a car and drove to Achill Island, one of Ireland’s most remote places, for the main purpose of my trip: tracking down the home where my great grandmother was raised.

Achill Island is a tiny island off the west coast of Ireland, accessible from the mainland by a small bridge. The island is known as the gem of County Mayo, which is a haven for outdoor adventure seekers. People escape to Achill to surf, bike, hike, dive, or just hang out at the beach. I was told that less than 1,000 people live on the island full-time (there are far more sheep than people), although it’s a popular vacation spot for the Irish in the late summer. The island is so small that they don’t even have a police station — they “share” police with a nearby town so officers are only on the island one or two days a week.

The moment I drove over the bridge, I was awestruck by the indescribable beauty of Achill Island. When most people think of Ireland, they think of the lush green countryside, but the dominant hue of the island was blue — from the intoxicating azure ocean to the shadowy lapis hills towering in the distance. The coast was dotted with endless stretches of beach, where a handful of surfers braved the ice cold Atlantic. I immediately sensed a friendly, laid-back island vibe that was understated and somewhat untamed. A stark contrast to everywhere else I had visited in Ireland, the landscape was distinctively empty — it was rare to see another car on the road or person on the beach and I was actually the only guest in the entire hotel for part of my stay. However, there was definitely no shortage of sheep — I often had to stop for them to cross the road (an Achill traffic jam). As I drove aimlessly around the island, suddenly my affinity for the ocean and distaste for big cities made sense, as it is ingrained in my DNA.

Because all the road signs were in Celtic and cell service was nonexistent, I spent a lot of time being lost on the island, but I did manage to find the mythical Keem Bay, a white sand beach sheltered between two cliffs. The bay is only accessible by a narrow road with a steep cliff edge, but when you get there it’s like finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. With dreamy turquoise water, it could have very well been a beach in the Mediterranean, if it weren’t for all the sheep. There wasn’t a soul on the beach the entire time I was there and I found peace in the solitude.

After getting acquainted with Achill, it was time to find my great grandmother’s house. The only clue I had to finding it was a photo my mom took in the 70s and this map provided by my great aunt:

I had dedicated an entire day to finding the house, anticipating that it would not be an easy task, so you can imagine my disbelief when I had been on the island for less than three hours and stumbled upon it — completely by chance. Driving alongside the Wild Atlantic Way, I noticed a cottage in the distance that looked similar to the photo my mom gave me. As I turned down the dirt driveway towards the house, I got goosebumps because I knew it was the one. Shooing a herd of sheep away, I stepped out of the car and stood before the exact house from my mom’s photo, except that the undressed stone was a bit more crumbled and the landscaping was a bit more overgrown. It was difficult to imagine an entire family living in the tiny, disheveled cottage. It didn’t even have any windows, because an old Irish window tax mandated that homeowners pay a flat rate for every window in their home (luckily this tax was abolished in the mid 1800s). Although the old house looked as though it was barely standing, its walls undoubtedly held a million memories, and that is what made it beautiful.

This moment was so surreal it almost brought me to tears. I was standing where my great-grandmother had spent her childhood, seeing the same amazing ocean view that had provided the backdrop for her upbringing. I could picture her running home from the local schoolhouse, warming up by the fire during Ireland’s dark winter months, and playing in the Atlantic ocean which was just steps from her front door. I wondered what she would think if she knew that many generations later, her great-granddaughter would make the 5,000-mile trek from California to see where she had lived.

But as magical as this moment was, it was a bit anticlimactic. I had assumed that this ancestral house was the link I needed to connect with my Irish roots, that finding it would provide me the ‘ah ha’ moment I was looking for — but I was so wrong. As I drove away, I thought to myself, now what? Was my life forever changed? Did I suddenly gain this deep connection with Ireland? Not necessarily.

It wasn’t until later that night, while I shared a pint of Guinness with some new Irish friends, that I had a revelation. Getting in touch with your roots isn’t just about finding an ancestral home, or even long-lost family members — it’s so much more than that. It’s about experiencing a country and forming a deep, personal connection with the culture at-large. For me, it was getting lost in the streets of Dublin, jamming out to Irish music at the iconic Temple Bar, dodging sheep as I drove through the countryside, learning Irish slang over a glass of Irish whiskey, watching a game of curling with my mom’s second cousin, hearing stories about basking shark hunting from a salty old fisherman, and being taught the proper way to pour a Guinness at Pattens Pub, my great uncle’s old watering hole. It was all the incredibly kind, welcoming, and hilariously sarcastic Irish people who reminded not to take life too seriously. Above all, it was the palpable sense of belonging I felt the entire time I was there.

I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to fall in love with a culture that has played such a large role in shaping my family history, and ultimately who I am today.

Into the Blue: Huraa Island, Maldives

Into the Blue: Huraa Island, Maldives

Watch: Diving in the Maldives

When most people think of the Maldives, they imagine over-water bungalows in the lap of luxury, with private ladders down to crystal-clear turquoise water, relaxing massages on an untouched white-sand beach, butler service, classy beach cocktails, and mouth-watering 5-star cuisine. This far-flung chain of islands sitting southeast of India is the epitome of romance, luxury, and indulgence — the ultimate honeymoon destination.

But that couldn’t be further from the experience that Michael and I had — in a good way.

When we traveled to the Maldives in June, we were nearing the end of our “funemployment” travels, checking off our 11th collective country in Asia. We could have stayed in a luxurious over-water bungalow, but then we wouldn’t have the money for our flight back to California! Instead, we booked a guesthouse on Huraa Island, a secret paradise in the Maldive’s north atoll. Although our accommodation was nowhere near the level of luxury of the nearby Four Seasons, we were so lucky to experience this local side of the Maldives and looking back, I wouldn’t have done it any other way!

Huraa island is a dot in the Indian Ocean, only half a mile long and less than a hundred feet wide. Beach cruisers and golf carts are the preferred method of transportation, given that the entire island is set in sand, surrounding colorful buildings reminiscent of a scaled-down Havana. With a population of just 750 people, the island is engulfed in a breezy, carefree attitude, fully embracing the slower side of life. We would often walk past a local lounging in a hammock, only to return hours later with him in the exact same spot!

A dream destination for those who crave quiet, Huraa was refreshingly placid, save for the loudspeaker prayers that came from the mosque five times a day. But the best part of all was the beach. It looks exactly like the photos — fine white sand surrounded by endless shades of blue.

The only thing is, you can’t exactly walk around Huraa Island in a bikini.

Maldives is the most Muslim country in the entire world – 100% of the population practices Islam – which means no alcohol and no revealing clothes. Our stay fell during Ramadan, so adhering to local customs was particularly important. Luckily, there was one “bikini beach” for tourists where we bronzed beneath coconut trees and snorkeled with baby black tip reef sharks. Because tourists tend to stay within the bounds of their resorts, we typically had this entire beach to ourselves.

During our trip, we spent two unforgettable days scuba diving, led by an awesome Maldivian guide who took us on the adventure of a lifetime, despite the fact that he was incredibly hungry due to Ramadan fasting! Diving in the Maldives definitely lives up to the hype. Not only is the visibility unreal, but the ecosystem is thriving, partly due to conservation efforts activated throughout the entire country — tourists are even required to pay a “Green Tax” for every day they stay. Five minutes into our first dive, we were surrounded by four or five gigantic manta rays! I’ve never seen these creatures in real life before and I felt like we were on another planet. We also explored coral beds so bright they looked like a cake dripping in neon frosting, and dove 80 feet down where we were surrounded by stingrays, eels, sea turtles, and tropical fish — we even saw a white tip shark from a distance.

While the diving was second to none, the best thing about Huraa Island for Michael was the surf. Our guest house came with unlimited use of a small surf boat; all we had to do was tell the driver when and where to take us, which was usually the offshore right-handers of Sultans or Jailbreaks.

While Michael got barreled in glassy, head-high waves, the boat driver would take me looking for my favorite animal — dolphins. We never had to go far because they were literally everywhere, which brings me to the story of how we got engaged!

On June 8th — World Oceans Day — we booked a sunset “dolphin safari”, which really is as fun as it sounds. It was just the two of us on a small speedboat, while a driver took us to a place where he swore, in broken English, that dolphins “have a party” every night. He wasn’t kidding. We were surrounded by tens, if not hundreds of dolphins, all happily riding our wake and jumping out of the water. We were watching the dolphins from the bow of the boat, when I realized Michael had a cube-shaped item in his pocket. I knew exactly what it was, and it was at that exact moment that he got down on one knee. Although I don’t need a ring or a piece of paper to validate my love and commitment to Michael, this was by far the happiest moment of my entire life. Shout out to Michael for executing it all perfectly.

Between the beautiful beaches, diving, surfing, and a proposal, it’s easy to see why Huraa Island will always have a special place in my heart. But besides that, my favorite part was after the sun went down, when there wasn’t much to do except chat with locals outside the ice cream shop. I loved hearing their stories and picking their brains about life on such a tiny island, a world away from my own. Because it was Ramadan, we had a lot of conversations about their personal beliefs related to Islam, which they shared openly and honestly. While we may have had a more luxurious experience if we stayed at a 5-star resort, we definitely would not have gained the knowledge and insight that comes from authentic exposure to other cultures — my reason for traveling.