Sint Maarten – Where to Stay

When we visited Sint Maarten for a quick weekend getaway in early April 2017 we pretty much did so on a whim. We both had the weekend off, and since we can fly for free on open seats, we checked flights to see which planes had the most open seats and Sint Maarten ended up being the best option! So we packed for a quick weekend getaway and hopped on the 5 hour flight for literally, a 27-hour vacation. Since we only had such a short time we knew this trip would mostly consist of beaching and eating, so we tried to find a fairly cheap place to stay for the night that would be close to the beach and we ended up discovering the hidden gem that is the Azure Hotel. (To see what we did in Sint Maarten click here)

The Azure Hotel is a quaint, charming little hotel in Simpson Bay, which we found for hotel2 (2)about $75/night, check it out here. Since Simpson Bay itself isn’t really a tourist hotspot like Maho Beach or Orient Beach, the price here was much cheaper than if we had tried to stay at one of the popular beaches. In all honesty though, an island beach is an island beach, and we certainly aren’t picky, especially when we’re going for only one day and trying to spend little to no money ūüôā

The Azure is run by a very friendly man named Mike, from NY, and his wife. It has a much more of a “homey” feel as opposed to corporate run hotels, as this is more of a “Mom-and-Pop” type option that you would find on Airbnb (Pro Tip: the rate is even cheaper on Airbnb than it is on Trip Advisor or Expedia). I believe they live in the front half of the hotel, which is separated by this beautiful little courtyard. It does seem pretty small, as it is a one-story hotel, so I would think that rooms probably fill up fast. However, the fact that it’s small is actually really nice because you aren’t fighting for beach space or chairs, and the beach isn’t crowded. While you couldn’t see the ocean from our room, it was only a short walk (literally, like 20 steps) to reach the sand, although I believe they are renovating soon to make all beach3 (2)rooms ocean front. The room included a full kitchen, so if you are trying to save money and cook your own meals that is definitely an option! The rooms themselves were very clean and included a King size bed in the bedroom, a foyer area, kitchen with table and chairs, living room area with TV and futon, shower room, bathroom, and an outside porch area. To be honest, it is really more of a small condo than a hotel room! Another plus is that it is only a few miles from the airport on the Dutch side ($10 for a taxi), which was big plus for us since we had very limited time on the island. Being right next to the airport and Maho Beach, you do hear planes a good bit, but they don’t generally start until 8am and they don’t usually fly past 7:00ish, so they don’t fly throughout the night, although if you’re in your room, the sound is pretty blocked out anyway. The room includes a wireless phone as well with the taxi number programmed into it so you can call your own cab if you need one (also a plus if you’re like us and don’t have an international phone plan). Azure also has free wifi that is great in your room and on the beach right outside the hotel, which is super convenient! Check in is generally at 3 and check out is at 11am, however, we were able to get into our room upon arrival at 1:30, and we asked for a late check out since our flight didn’t leave until 4:00 the next day, so Mike graciously allowed us to stay until 2:00 at no additional charge! HUGE plus for us since we literally only had 27 hours on the island and we were trying to make the most of it and fit as much as we could in!
The water in Simpson Bay was clear and warm and overall wonderful! We were there April 1st and it was almost like bathwater, but still refreshing! It is definitely more of a beach4 (2)family friendly beach that is also used by some locals, but is not crowded like the beaches of Maho or Orient. As a head’s up for those with kids – we did see a few topless sunbathers, but that was not the norm as most beachgoers were fully clothed, which is not the norm for some of the other beaches on the island ūüôā Our first day there the water was calm and warm, our second day there were some great waves to play in, so I think the water itself gives you a little variety as well. Azure provides beach towels, lounge chairs, and umbrellas right on the beach for their guests as well, so you really don’t need to leave the hotel. If you’re looking for bars and food there are several along the beach that only require a short walk of a quarter mile or so (we loved Karakters, although it is a little pricey for entrees), or you can go into the town of Simpson Bay and find restaurants, bars, and supermarkets there. Mike and his wife are very friendly and will recommend places to you if you ask! The views are spectacular, as the hotel itself is flourishing with beautiful greens, flowers, and palm trees. They even have coconuts growing on the trees and an outdoor passion fruit canopy. As a bay, Simpson Bay is home to a variety of yachts, catamarans, sailboats, and other vessels that dot the water. Our one day there we could see as many as 40+ boats! We would absolutely recommend Azure Hotel¬†and would definitely return! Plus, it is probably the absolute best bang for your buck if you’re working with a budget!

 

*Disclaimer: all images and opinions are my own, for which I did not receive compensation

Santorini, Greece – What to Do

Listed on almost every list of top travel destinations is Santorini, Greece, and for good reason! It is easily in the top 5 of the most romantic destinations in the world (so I’ve heard, since I haven’t been to all the romantic destinations yet), and with it’s classic whitewashed buildings and blue doors set up on cliffs overlooking the Aegean Sea it’s easy to see why! Santorini, often called Thira, is the site of one of the largest volcanic eruptions recorded in history. The island was formed out of the lava from the eruption and the central part of the volcano sank into the sea. The eruption left behind a large caldera – a volcanic feature formed by the collapse of a volcano into itself, forming a large volcanic crater, or depression. This depression was then filled with water from the Aegean Sea, which now lends itself conveniently to cruise ships, ferries, fishing boats, and catamarans. One popular theory even depicts Santorini as the source for the legend of Atlantis. ¬†If you want, you can book a tour out to the volcano to hike and take a dip in the hot springs mud bath! ¬†Our final consensus of Santorini was that we loved our stay and we were so glad that we did it, but, if given the option, we would return to Naxos over Santorini if we had to choose (mostly due to the crowds).

Since Santorini is such a popular tourist destination, and is such a small island, it not only gets crowded very quickly, but it is also much more expensive than the other lesser-visited islands. This guide will list out our favorite budget-friendly activities that we loved during our 2 day stay in Santorini.

*Disclaimer: all images and opinions are my own, for which I did not receive compensation

1.) ATV – again, best advice I can give you is to rent an ATV! While they were a bit more expensive than the $20 one we rented in Naxos, it was still very affordable and definitely worth it. Side note – you really only need one ATV for 2 people, so that helps with the budget too. If you’re not even wanting to spend that I believe there is a bus option that is even cheaper, but less convenient and enjoyable. The ATV gave us the freedom to explore all over the island at our leisure and do what we wanted when we wanted to. With us being on the island for only 2.5 days, we didn’t want to be running on anyone else’s schedule and wanted to see as much as we could. We were able to easily tour the countryside, get from Fira to Oia, and visit 2 black beaches and Red Beach during our 2 day stay because of our ATV, which gave us a great sampling of most of what Santorini had to offer! If¬†you decide to take advantage of the ATV option I would recommend talking to the hotel staff of wherever you are staying…our concierge told us where to find the best deal and set it all up for us, got us a discount since we went through the hotel who had a partnership with the ATV rental company, and even got us an extra half-day rental at no additional charge! When working on a budget, you gotta use your resources! We found that the Greeks are super friendly and always wanting to help.

2.) Amoudi Bay – this was hands down our favorite part of the entire trip, for both my husband and I. It’s also less-known than the other beaches and cities that are typically noted as top destinations in Santorini. Right below the city of Oia that sits atop the cliffs is Amoudi Bay, nestled right up on the water. We drove the ATV right on down the cliff to get there, but there is also a stair option for those who have more time and don’t mind the workout. The first section of Amoudi Bay houses a strip of waterfront taverns and restaurants serving fresh caught seafood. If you keep walking you’ll find fields of black rocks jutting out of the cliff base and the water. If you’re in the mood for a little adventurous rock scramble definitely try this out! It’s not overly difficult, but will require a bit of concentration. Once you round the bend pick a spot to post up¬†(again, on a rock as there aren’t any sand beaches there) and claim your own private section of Amoudi Bay. We passed a few others during our climb, but just kept going until they were out of sight so we could have our own spot. At this point, jump off the rocks and take a dip, or swim over the nearby formation for a little rock climbing and cliff diving if you’re into that. It’s not that high, only about 15-20 feet up depending on where you jump from, but still fun! While you’re there, you HAVE to eat on your way back. Our favorite restaurant is Dimitris, which is right on the water and has amazing seafood. Portions are enough to split, we split a calamari appetizer and seafood linguine entree and it was AMAZING! To ready more about our Greek food adventures check the post out here.

 

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Check out Dimitris here. All opinions are my own no compensation or discount was given to me because of this review. 

3.) Oia – this is an obvious one if you’ve done any research into Greece. Almost every sunset with white-washed, blue-domed buildings you’ve seen photos of was probably shot at Oia. While Fira is the capitol (and very similar and still crowded), Oia is the crown jewel of Santorini. Since we were staying right outside Fira, we took the ATV up to Oia one morning to do the tourist thing and were not disappointed. The sights are IMG_2164 (2)breathtaking! Clean white buildings, royal blue domes and doors, and beautiful flowers overlooking a perfect view of the caldera and Aegean Sea. Side note – being that everything is white, you better have good sunglasses otherwise you won’t see anything since the sun reflects off them all pretty harshly. Most people go to Oia for sunset, however, in our opinion (which we adopted from the locals), the sunset is just as gorgeous from Fira, and I’m sure many other places in Santorini. Oia DOES get extremely crowded however. It’s often the first stop that tourists coming off the cruises make a beeline for….sometimes there can be 3-5 cruise liners anchored a day, which means up to 80,000 visitors a day, making the Santorini port one of the busiest in the world. We aren’t much for crowds, and Oia turned out to be super expensive, so we opted to do a morning trip and spent a few hours walking around, taking in the sights, and snapping photos before we moved on to Amoudi Bay. Be sure to check out the Castle of Oia,IMG_2200 (2) which was a¬†Byzantine castle back in the day. Today it’s ruins offer a magnificent view. If you’re looking to spend money, Oia has LOTS of shopping, and I’m sure it has great food too, we just didn’t partake in either of those activities at Oia. To be honest with you, Oia was amazing to see, but now that we’ve done it we probably wouldn’t return…nothing wrong with it, crowds, cities, and shopping just isn’t our thing. But if you’re in Santorini, Oia is definitely something you have to do once!

 

4.) Black Beaches – because Santorini was formed from a volcanic explosion, many of it’s IMG_2529 (3)beaches are made up of dark volcanic sand, rocks, and pebbles. We visited two of these famous black beaches during our stay….Kamari and Perissa. Both were very similar, beautiful clear blue water that met the hot sand just like any other beach, the sand was just black. (Note – you absolutely will need flip flops or some kind of shoes to avoid scalding your feet!). Both beaches offered plenty of lounge chairs, palm tree umbrellas, and restaurant options. Typically if you buy drinks at one of the beachside restaurants you can use a lounge chair and umbrella for free all day – a GREAT deal at any time but especially at Happy Hour! You definitely need to check out at least one black beach during your stay in order to get the full Santorini experience!

5.) Red Beach – again, because of the volcanic origins of the island,IMG_2905 (2)¬†Santorini has several unique features. One of which, are the red beaches! We ATV’d to the one titled “Red Beach”, but I believe there are several others on the island as well. While we didn’t have time to stay, it was definitely a sight to see – and one you can’t miss! This was probably the most unique beach I’ve ever seen in my life!

6.) EAT – again, just like in Naxos, eating is an experience in Santorini as well, mostly because of the views. Whether you’re eating lunch down in Amoudi Bay right on the water, catching a sunset dinner in Fira or Oia overlooking the caldera, or grabbing a gyro on the street there is always some kind of view! It does get very crowded for sunset wherever you are, so if you plan on sitting and eating during sunset you should plan ahead and get there early. Also, the food in Greece is AMAZING (read more here), although you will pay more for it in Santorini that you do in Naxos.

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7.) Fira – similar to Oia, Fira is the capital city. We spent a lot of time in Fira since our hotel was right outside of Fira and it was just a short 10 minute walk along coblestone paths to get into the center of town. Just like Oia, it is a bustling white and blue city full of food, shopping, and views of the caldera.¬†If you’re looking to avoid the crowds of Oia but still want the experience this is a great alternative! Don’t get me wrong, still crowded, but maybe just a bit less ūüôā For info on where we stayed in Fira click here.

Being that we were only in Santorini for 2.5 days, we weren’t able to fit EVERYTHING in. Other attractions that we would have liked to try are below:

  • White beach – if you’re a beach bum, this one is probably right up your alley. We just didn’t have much time and wanted to make sure we at least got to see the unique black and red ones first
  • Akrotiri – basically the Greek version of Italy’s Pompeii. Akrotiri was a Minoan settlement that was destroyed by the volcanic eruption and buried in volcanic ash which preserved¬†many artifacts. We drove by and inquired about tickets, which I believe were around $15, but we were on a time crunch and didn’t want to spend $30 to only stay for such a short period of time.
  • Hiking Trail Fira to Oia – again, unfortunately we ran out of time, but this hike is a trail that runs from Fira to Oia and apparently offers some of the best views on the island. The kicker is that (as I’ve read), it can take up to 4 hours, and we just didn’t have that time.

Naxos, Greece – What to Do

First off, I could PROBABLY spend a full month on Naxos without getting bored. The beauty of it (other than the obvious landscape) is that it’s touristy enough that there’s plenty to do, but it’s not so touristy that it’s overrun and crowded. If you just go a little bit out of your way, you might just even find a beach all to yourself ūüôā Our overall consensus was that we would absolutely return if we ever get the chance, and would even bring kids when we have them as Naxos is very family friendly. This is a list of my favorite budget-friendly things to do in Naxos!¬†(For info on where to stay read here)

*Disclaimer: all images and opinions are my own, for which I did not receive compensation

1.) The Portara – If you’ve done ANY research into Naxo before reading this post you’ve probably seen this trademark monument already. This 26-foot-high, 2,500 year old marble doorway is probably the most popular landmark¬†on the island. Known as The Portara, or The Great Door, this structure is all that is left of a partially built temple that was never completed. The temple was thought to honor Apollo and is sometimes referred to as the unfinished Temple of Apollo. It is located on a tiny island on the other side of Naxos Town, which is connected by a man-made causeway. Watch out for the waves on windy days…waves often crash right over-top of the walkway, so make sure you time your walk/run right otherwise you’ll get soaked! The third photo is the view from the Portara looking back down the causeway to town.

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2.) Mikri Vigla – this coastal portion of Greece offers beautiful beaches in a more private atmosphere. We rented an ATV for the 3 days we were on Naxos and drove until we saw something that made us want to stop…needless to say, one of those stops turned out to be Mikri Vigla. We arrived in the morning and found a little tavern next to a beach that boasted no beach goers yet. However, expecting the beach to fill up, and feeling more adventurous that morning, we climbed over the rock faces to find our own space that would be sure to stay free of other beach goers. The water is turquoise and green and deep blue, all at the same time, and super clear! We brought our goggles and dove in and out all through the rocks to find all sorts of fish. The beaches here are great for the total relaxers and for adventurers alike! However, just a disclaimer, if you’re adventuring over the rocks be prepared to lay out on the rocks too, we didn’t find any sand beach coves once we climbed the rocks.

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3.) ATV – seriously, the best decision we made the entire trip! Rent an ATV for $20-$30 a IMG_1358 (2)day for the time that you’re visiting! It’s way cheaper than a rental car, and allows you to explore so much more of the island. These 4-wheelers will get you down the unpaved gravel and mud roads, cruise around on the “highways”, and get up and down mountains with no worries. Being that we were traveling on a budget we shared one and I rode on the back, which worked out bestIMG_1532 for us since that meant I got to soak in all the views! Riding on the ATV made it super easy to see around and pull over and stop whenever we felt like it. Not to mention the awesome feeling of having the wind on your face and the sun on your back! Away from the beaches, the Naxos terrain is very mountainous, and is dotted with olive trees and “wine bushes” as my husband calls them. You’ll want to make sure you get the full experience!

4.) Temple of Demeter – these temple ruins, located in Drimalia is a bit of a drive, so you’ll IMG_1480 (2)want an ATV (see previous bullet above). Built in the 6th century BC, it served as a temple until partially dismantled in the 6th century AD and a church was built over top. It was later abandoned and plundered for its marble. Eventually¬†restored by German archaeologists, it was rebuilt from the original columns and stones that remained on site. Since we knew we weren’t going to have time to see any ruins in Athens we made sure to see this one and we were so glad we did…plus, it gave us a good reason to adventure into the countryside off the beaten path.

5.) Chora – also known as Naxos Town, or Hora, this is the center of Naxos. It extends down the the waterfront where fishing boats and catamarans line the harbor. All along this harbor sits a variety of open air outdoor restaurants covered by canopies. You can find almost anything you want along this strip but the specialty is seafood. The town also includes the Kastro (castle). This Venetian castle is now a maze of shops and restaurants weaving within it’s walls, with lots of nooks and crannies to explore around every turn!

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6.) EAT! – if you haven’t already done a google search of Greek food you need to get on it, or, check out my post about the top 10 foods to try in Greece. Eating is an experience inIMG_1858 (2)¬†and of itself….partly because of the amazing food the Greeks offer, and partly because¬†of the views from the restaurants. Every place we ate in Naxos was waterfront and offered a spectacular view! Typically, we would eat the free breakfast at our hotel, make little stops for coffee, drinks, and snacks throughout the day, and then split an entree for dinner on the IMG_1660 (2)water. We found that this system worked perfectly for us because it allowed us to sample a little bit of everything, including the more expensive seafood dinners, without spending much money. Our lunch stop “snacks” often included frappes, mixed drinks, wine, Greek yogurt, and/or appetizers like fried cheese and stuffed grape leaves. To learn more about the food check out that post here.

7.) Filoti – we only found this town thanks to my husband’s Norwegian based family who visit Naxos each summer and turned us on to it. They IMG_1515 (2)advised us to make sure we drive inland to Filoti to have frappes “under the trees”, IMG_1520 (2)and we were not disappointed! This quaint, charming little town gives you a real feel for
authentic Greek life, as it is not a popular tourist destination. In fact, Filoti was the only place during our entire trip where we went to place an order and no one spoke English. We would absolutely recommend making a side trip here if your schedule allows!

8.) Plaka Beach – beautiful pristine beach! It’s a bit out of the way if you’re staying in Naxos Town, but so worth the drive! Not to mention, with it being out of the way it’s definitely less crowded than the beaches of Agios Georgios next to Naxos Town. ¬†If you’re looking for a family beach then Agios Georgios perfect, but if you’re looking for more privacy with a place to lay back and sip a drink, Plaka is your beach!

 

Of course, there are many other options for Naxos activities, including water sports, hiking, horseback riding, catamaran and sailing tours, museums, etc., we just only had 3 days, so we could only fit so much in, plus, we were working with a budget. But just like the food, I’m sure you can’t go wrong! For the time that we were there, we felt like we got to do a lot, and most of it for free! I mean, in all reality, who REALLY needs more than a great beach anyways??!

Greece – 10 Foods You MUST Try

First of all, Greek food is AMAZING! You honestly probably don’t even need to bother reading this post because everything is fabulous and you can’t really go wrong (at least we didn’t). But, if you’re one of those people who like to be prepared and get a taste of what to expect (pun intended), then by all means, keep reading!

*Side Note – this list is NOT in any specific order because I couldn’t make up my mind when I TRIED to order it. So don’t pay attention to the numbers, it’s ALL good!

*Also, all images and opinions are my own, for which I did not receive compensation

1.) Seafood – Since we spent the majority of our time in Greece in the Greek Islands of the Cyclades (Naxos and Santorini), we obviously had our choice of fresh seafood. Often times, whatever is caught that morning is what is on the menu that night. This is where you get to be adventurous….try something new! Like I said earlier, you really can’t go wrong! If nothing else, at LEAST try octopus once during your trip, even if it’s fried calamari. Octopus is caught daily nearby and is strung up in the streets outside of the restaurants to dry throughout the day, it’s actually a pretty cool sight, and one that I umfortunately didn’t get a picture of. Chances are you’ll see LOTS of these, meaning super fresh! Our favorite restaurant in the world is Dimitris, found in Amoudi Bay, Santorini. You’re literally eating right on the turquoise water with little boats dotting the water, and the food is fresh seafood and INCREDIBLE! Check it out here

*all opinions are my own and I received no compensations or discount for such review

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2.) Saganaki/Tirokroketes – both of these are versions of fried cheese, essentially, the Greek version of American mozzarella sticks, except way better. Often times, it’s local cheese (at least it was in Naxos, Santorini has to import most of it’s products). Saganaki tends to be a more squared version while Tirokroketes are little balls, but that is the biggest difference I could tell between the two (although I’m sure there are more differences I’m just not aware of). These are great as appetizers or snacks!¬†IMG_1664 (2)

3.) Dolmakadia- these are a traditional Greek specialty: stuffed grape leaves, also called vine leaves. Think the Greek version of Chinese egg rolls or Vietnamese spring rolls. These leaves are stuffed with different types of meat, rice, and herbs, rolled up, and often served with lemons.

4.) Greek Yogurt – because, duh. Obviously you have to try this one. To be honest, I hated Greek yogurt until I went to Greece and had it with every meal. Now it’s one of my favorites for breakfast, snack, or even dessert! Again, it’s often made locally, and is way better than anything you can find in any American store. It is typically either served with fruit, or with either honey or some kind of marmalade. We were served yogurt with orange marmalade as a complimentary dessert at our first meal and we were sold! It became our daily breakfast and our go-to midday snack/lunch when we were on the road travelling the countryside. Even if you think you’re not a fan, TRY IT! It’s completely different in Greece and sooo good! You’ll thank me later ūüôā¬†IMG_1520 (2)

5.) Tzatziki – this is a dip made from Greek yogurt, cucumbers, oil, dill, and other herbs. It is delicious and is often served as a dip for veggies, slathered on a gyro, or served with meat.

6.) Gyro Рagain, this is an obvious one. You can find these on IMG_1453just about every street corner, and they are SO CHEAP! We got these in Naxos Town for lunch for $2 each. Of course, these come a variety of ways, but these ones were traditional and included lettuce, onion, tomato, cheese, Greek tzatziki sauce, french fries, and of course, meat, all rolled up into a pita flatbread. Meat options typically include chicken, pork, or lamb, which are roasted vertically rotisserie-style. Upon ordering, your meat is shaved fresh off the turning spit and placed in the pita in thin strips. Literally, one of the best things we ate the entire trip!

7.) Greek Cafe Frappe ¬†– this is a popular Greek coffee drink that is served cold on ice. IMG_1660 (2)Essentially a creamy frothy ice coffee topped with Greek foam. Servers will often ask if you like it “sweet”, “medium”, or “plain”….neither of us use much creamer and often drink coffee black, but being that we were unfamiliar with how bitter a Greek black coffee would be we went with “medium”. And it was HEAVENLY! We discovered this liquid gold halfway through our trip and you can bet that we made it a daily occurrence from there on out! Seriously, try it!

8.) Moussaka – we tried this our final night in Greece, and our only night in Athens. We actually went out on a limb on this one and asked the waiter what he recommended. He recommended moussaka and told us he was so sure we’d love it that he’d give us a new meal for free if we didn’t like it. Needless to say, we did NOT have to take him up on the offer. Moussaka is almost like a Greek lasagna with layers of meat and eggplant, mixed with tomato sauce, topped with a white sauce and baked. It’s typically served in it’s own little soup bowl dish and is a delicious warm comfort food!

9.) Wine – Greeks love wine and offer it for every dinner, which we happily obliged. We stuck to local and house wines to a.) taste Greece, and b.) stay under budget…we were not disappointed. IMG_2114 (2)¬†“Wine bushes” as my husband calls them, can be found often dotting the countryside of Naxos, and Santorini has several wineries, so you can get local wines on both islands. To be fair, neither my husband nor I are wine¬†connoisseurs and to be honest, neither of us know much about wine, but all the wine we had tasted fabulous! Because Naxos¬†was so inexpensive, we got wine with dinner but Santorini is much pricier. In Santorini we got a bottle or two of wine from a store in Fira for under $10 and sat out on our balcony overlooking the caldera both nights and watched the view with our Greek wine and Greek chocolate…perfect endings to perfect days.

10.) Sweets – Both Naxos and Santorini have a main city hub that includes lots of little restaurants, shops, and businesses. In Naxos it was Naxos Town, or Chora. In Santorini it’s Oia or Fira. Both locations offer a variety of options for those with a sweet tooth, including ice cream, waffles, crepes, and other, more traditional, Greek sweets. Again, you can’t really go wrong with this one….especially if it has Nutella!