Go Away With … Kelsey Robinson


By Jae-Ha Kim
Tribune Content Agency
December 27, 2016

Olympian Kelsey Robinson helped Team USA win the bronze medal in volleyball at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, but her love of basketball is evident by the number on the back of her team jersey — 23. The number, of course, is in honor of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, but it also makes her feel close to her Chicago-area roots, says Robinson, 24.

When not training with the Women’s USA Volleyball National Team in California, Robinson plays professionally in different leagues throughout the world. Currently, she plays for the BAIC Motor Beijing Volleyball Club in the China Volleyball League. Fans may stay in touch with her on Twitter and via her website.

Q. There was so much talk about how the Olympics in Rio were going to be a disaster due to the lack of infrastructure. How was the experience for you?

A. For me, I enjoyed my entire experience in Rio. I think they did a great job of making sure we had everything we needed as athletes. The people of Rio were what really made the entire tournament so special. It’s a culture that loves to celebrate and embraces sport in every aspect, so it was really special to be a part of.

Q. Where has your pro career taken you?

A. Basically, since there is no professional volleyball league in America, we go to other countries such as Brazil, Turkey, Italy and Russia to play during the time we aren’t with the national team. Currently, I’m playing professionally in the China Volleyball League.

Q. What untapped destination should people know about?

A. One of the places that I’m absolutely crazy about is Puerto Rico. Literally, it is so close to the (mainland) states, you barely have to go too far. And while most people think about San Juan as their immediate stop, keep going. I played professionally in Ponce, which is in the south. For me, it is the best part of the island because you are a quick drive to the west coast for some great surfing. You are pretty close to a harbor, too, so we often took out a boat for like $20 a day into crystal-clear blue water. You can drive into the mountains, go rope-swinging into waterfalls or there are the islands off the east coast. These are breathtaking. It was like swimming in pool water. Ask a fisherman to take you over for a pretty decent price and he’ll come back and pick you up when you’re ready. When you’re done head up to the local restaurant at the port and grab some fried plantains and a cerveza, of course.

Q. Where are your favorite weekend getaways?

A. When I’m back home in Chicago, my favorite weekend getaways include Green Lake, Wisconsin. We have a boat on that lake and it’s been one of my favorite places growing up. I love being near the water or on a boat anywhere. When I’m in California, I’d say Big Sur. I just got to go up for the first time this past summer and I completely fell in love. We went to a spot high above the clouds to camp and there was absolutely no one there. The sunset was one of the best I’d ever seen in my life. When I’m living overseas, Paris, Barcelona, Positano and Berlin were among my favorites. Paris is super trendy and there’s so much to see! I loved the feel of everything and the people. Barcelona has a ton of soul. There’s great nightlife and authentic food that made it easy for me to have such a good weekend traveling solo.

Q. Where would you like to go that you have never been to before?

A. I’m in the process of planning a trip to Tahiti and Mo’orea. I’m dying to go! Anywhere that I can be in or near the ocean I’m the happiest person you’ll ever meet.

Q. When you go away, what are some of your must-have items?

A. My biggest items include Vega One protein, Yerba Mate tea — a little piece of home for long trips — and then your standard laptop, headphones and my favorite Fuji Film camera for lots of photos. I write in my downtime.

Q. What would be your dream trip?

A. When I retire, I’m building a van and I’m going to travel Australia and Indonesia with it. Haven’t figured out the details on how to get it everywhere, but a girl can dream. I’d also love to go to New Zealand. That’s a bucket-lister for sure.

Q. What is your best and/or worst vacation memory?

A. The worst was when my dad took me for spring break to Atlanta, because he was working there. He had to be at the hospital for 30 minutes and then had promised me we would go explore for the rest of the day. I brought along my schoolwork. Soon 30 minutes turned into a couple hours, which turned into even more. We left eight hours later. I was very upset, but I finished my entire science fair project, so pretty solid day at least.

The worst? There are too many to even count. The best are the unexpected, unplanned trips. The ones that just happen while on a train or driving through a city and you just stumble upon something so gorgeous that takes your breath away or makes you take a step back and appreciate how lucky you are.

Q. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from your travels?
A. I’ve been traveling my whole life. Now that I do it for my job, and so often I’m alone in another country, not speaking the language, sometimes not knowing how to get around and not having the  familiarities of home, it can be pretty intimidating. Some places I go, I can’t eat the meat, drink the water or shower — I’ve used bottled water to shower for a few months in some places — or just text my parents I’m safe. I know. First-world problems. You learn to adapt pretty quickly and it’s taught me to really appreciate the person I’ve become because of it, but also I have so much gratitude for all the luxuries of home. I’ve found that if you can just be open minded to cultures unlike your own and embrace the differences, your mind will become so much bigger, as well as your heart. I’ve been blessed to have some of my best friends now reside in places like China, Greece and Italy.

Q. What was the first trip you took as a child? And did you love it…or not so much?
A. I honestly can’t remember my first trip, maybe because I was so young. My dad travels for work, so he would take me with him all the time. It is why my love for travel is so strong. It was instilled in me at a young age. My dad always taught me to be open to new experiences. He would teach me to try everything and anything and learn to appreciate something that wasn’t familiar to me.

Q. What is your guilty pleasure when you’re on the road?
A. A good bottle of wine and dark chocolate.

Q. What kind of research do you do before you go away on a trip?
A. I typically will do a mix of Pinterest, Google and who I know who has been or lives there. I like to see what is really worth going to and then some of the unknowns or local takes. I also like just showing up and seeing where the day takes me. Sometimes no plans are the best plans.

Q. What are your favorite restaurants?
A. I think my entire map is starred with where I’ve eaten. I’m a huge foodie/athlete who eats a lot, so I really take a lot of pleasure in a good meal. Your girl can eat. To list all my favorites would take days so here are just a few.
Chicago: Au Cheval, bomb burgers with thick bacon and a fried egg. One of the best you’ll ever eat. Portillo’s. Order a cake shake and cheese fries.

California: There’s so many but I’m a big lover of the classic Mendocino Farms. My go to upon arrival back in the States. Also, if you’re ever on your way to Big Sur from the L.A. area, hit up Industrial Eats. Unreal. I’m not kidding. When I think about it, my mouth waters and the cravings come back. It was one of the best places I’ve eaten and the biggest surprise.

Italy: A small place called Mezzosale in Conegliano. Order the carbonara. In Modena, Da Enzo. Order the gnocco fritto, tagielle, tortellini and the steak covered in thick, aged balsamic vinegar. In Bologna, Salumeria Simoni. This is a great place to get your meats and breads. The reason I suggest it is for the breads. It has bits of prosciutto throughout and its handmade and you can literally taste the freshness in each bite.

Japan: Matsumoto. It’s settled in the mountains and it feels as if you are in the middle of Jurassic Park. If you ever go, contact me! Because I will tell you the directions for the world’s greatest ramen/dumpling place and you will thank me, I promise.

Thailand: In Bangkok, Mai Kaidee near Khao San Road. The most bomb mango sticky rice or pineapple fried rice and coconut milk smoothie! It’s a go-to every time I’m there.

Q. What are your favorite hotels?
A. I’m a big fan of Airbnbs, because often I don’t know my schedule. So if I want to book something, it’s usually the day of, which is not the greatest on a budget. It’s so convenient, though, and if I have time to plan, I can usually come up with something really cool, like a castle or treehouse or something with a gorgeous terrace that overlooks the ocean! Plus I love talking to the hosts on their take of cool things to see and do.

Q. Where is the most romantic destination?
A. For me, the region of Toscana, Italy … aka Tuscany. I went with my boyfriend to Chianti and a couple other cities. The area is incredibly gorgeous and there’s rolling hills filled with wineries and tiny villages that look as if they are out of a fairy tale. I went on a hot air balloon at sunrise over the entire region followed by a prosecco breakfast with meats and cheeses local to the area. We then went for a wine tasting and ate lunch in this magical restaurant overlooking the fields. There’s just so much beauty to see! If you have a car you can put on a relaxing playlist and just drive through the region together. We finished the day watching the sunset from the top of our very own castle. So, yeah, I think it’s easy to fall in love here.

Q. Where have you traveled to that most reminded you of home?
A. I would say London. When I think of home, I think of food, which might be a theme in all my answers. Oops! We always talk about what the first thing we will eat when we get home after a long road trip or being overseas, because often we can’t get a lot of the same things. When I went to London, I was surprised with all the options in food, from coffee shops to restaurants to vegan eats. I was so stoked to finally be able to just order something without it being complicated.

Q. What is your favorite vacation destination?
A. My favorite vacation destination is a difficult one to pick. I’m so fortunate that I live abroad for most of the year and am a plane ride away from some of the coolest cities in the world. I love every city. Each one has something unique to offer. I love Italy. I played there last year professionally and I think there is just something about that country that will always have my heart. Between the people and the food, the small cities that tourists don’t know about, and the wine — there’s so much to discover and explore. My second would be the coast of Croatia.

Q. To someone who was going to those places for the first time, what would you recommend that they do during their visit?
A. It’s hard to say, because Italy offers so much. I know everyone wants to do the big touristy stops at Rome, Venice, Milan etc. Don’t get me wrong. Those are amazing and each totally worth a visit! That’s how I fell in love. The more I stayed in Italy, the more I realized that what makes it so special are the tiny, old villages that you just happen upon by driving through the country. You will find some of the best food you’ll ever eat in those cities and some of the warmest people. I think my favorite would be the area of Tuscany. There’s gorgeous wineries to drive through and if you can try the fiorentina bistecca. If you are a meat lover, you will lose your mind. Also, the city of Cortina in northern Italy about an hour to two hours from Venezia is a winter wonderland. If there is snowfall, the trees become white capped and you can see little tiny villages while you drive through the mountains. I’ve been snowboarding here and there are some of the best slopes! In Croatia, if you drive the entire coast, you can experience different cultures from city to city. And it is absolutely beautiful. The people are amazing and if you’re lucky enough you can catch a ride on a boat and island hop through some of the clearest water you’ll find. Also the food is unreal.

Q. Have you traveled to a place that stood out so much that you felt compelled to incorporate it into your work?
A. I write a lot about the places I go and what to see/do/eat. So I consider that my hobby outside of volleyball. I pick where I want to play professionally based off competition and other factors, but some day if I retire and am playing for fun, I could see myself playing in a country like the Philippines or Thailand.

Q. What are your five favorite cities?
A. This is the most impossible task anyone has ever asked. I have to go with my hometown on this one. Chicago. Between the people and the food and the love of sports, I’ll never stop being a fan. Also, I’m a huge lover of Tokyo. I love the pace and the feel of the city. There’s an awesome mix of new and old. Lago di Garda in Italy. It’s not one city, but it is made up of a ton. It’s super beautiful with tons of fresh seafood and views that’ll make you swerve a little when you drive. It’s also very romantic, but then again, everything in Italy is. Athens, Greece. I think this is one of my favorites because it is the hometown of one of my best friends. We went during carnival and I was able to eat, drink and dance with family and friends just like a local. The people there were what made my trip so amazing. Icacos, Puerto Rico. This is an island off the coast and home to, again, one of my very best friends. The water is crystal clear, white sand and amazing people made this one of the best places to grab some beer and relax with good company.

Q. If you’ve ever gone away for the holidays, which was the best trip?
A. I’m not home for Christmas, like ever. A couple of years ago, I was flying and changed time zones and even missed Christmas. Womp womp. But growing up, we went to Cabo and Hawaii over the holidays. When you grow up in the Chicago area, winter is brutal. So to head to somewhere warm was always the best! I’m a big fan of Hawaii — the not-so touristy parts. And Cabo is always a good time.

© 2016 JAE-HA KIM


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