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- From: amyem
Last month my husband and I brought our three children, aged 13, 12, and 4, on our first European vacation. It was a simply fantastic trip. Thanks for reading!
Our first day in London was a little rough. The flight over was great - very smooth, comfortable ride, Will slept most of the time. Everyone around him on the plane thought he was so cute when we were taking off and he said, "We're goin' up! We're goin' UP!" Funny, though, they were not as impressed upon landing, when he shouted, "We're goin' down! We're goin' DOWN!!" But anyway, we landed at Heathrow at 6:10am London time, which for us translated into 1:10 in the morning, our time. Of course we could not check-in to our hotel until 3pm, but they did store our bags for us so we could do some exploring. We call it, Extremely Tired Zombie Americans Take On London. We did a lot, though, including the National Gallery, where we saw several famous works of art - including DaVinci's Virgin of the Rocks, Van Eyck's The Arnolfini Marriage, and Van Gogh's Sunflowers. We found an outdoor cafe in Victoria Embankment Park, where for our first English meal, Jack ordered the "American Breakfast." This was basically just eggs, bacon, hash browns and toast, and, for some reason, baked beans, which I have honestly never been given with breakfast in an American restaurant. Our room still not ready, we wandered across the Jubilee Bridge to the southbank of the Thames. There we boarded the London Eye, a rather big ferris wheel type observation ride. We really enjoyed the ride, and when our pod reached the top, we were able to see a beautiful panoramic view of the city. For dinner, we wandered into a quaint little English market (imagine, if you will, a 7-11), grabbed a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, and yes, because we are on vacation and all, some jelly. All-in-all, a great first day.
Today was a gorgeous day - plenty of sunshine, temps in the 70s. We are having a little trouble getting rolling in the morning, although I am not surprised - it takes me a good five days to get used to DST, which is only an hour different than what we are used to! We found a little Italian coffee shop called Costa right around the corner, which is exactly next door to a little American coffee shop called Starbucks, which is twenty yards away from another little American coffee shop called Starbucks, which is next to another... well, you get the picture. We fueled up on blueberry muffins and massimo (not grande, massimo!) mocha lattes and headed for Waterloo Pier on the Thames. Here we caught our double-decker boat for a tour of the Thames and the city of London. It was the perfect day for it. Our first stop was Greenwich and the Royal Observatory. We walked through a beautiful park and up a hill to the Observatory, where we walked on the Prime Meridian and stood in both the Western and Eastern hemispheres, and sychronized our watches to the Greenwich Mean Time clock. After lunch (at a Mexican restaurant, of course) we headed back to the boat for the trip back. We disembarked at Westminster Pier and walked around Parliment, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey before heading for St. James Park and Buckingham Palace. All in all it was a good little explore of the city and helped us get our bearings a bit.
We are getting a little better with this morning thing. We hit Costa again for breakfast then made our way down to the Tube. We seemed to navigate things pretty well, people were asking us for help, poor souls... we rode the tube to Tower Hill where we found the infamous Tower of London. William the Conqueror built the White Tower in 1077, and his successors expanded it. It served most famously as a prison and execution site - this is where Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey (among others) met the chopping block. It's most recent prisoner was Rudolf Hess, one of Hitler's henchmen in WWII. Today the Crown Jewels are housed here. We took a tour led by a Yeoman Warder, aka Beefeater, then explored a bit on our own - seeing the Crown Jewels, Traitors Gate, Tower Green, and the towers that imprisoned Princess Elizabeth, Sir Walter Raleigh, and the two young princes kidnapped during the War of Roses in 1483.
After exploring the Tower, we headed back to our tube stop and decided to explore a different area of the city. We walked from our hotel in Trafalgar Square to Leicester Square, which can best be described as the Theater District, and on to Piccadilly Circus, which is pretty much Times Square without the really tall skyscrapers. We tried to avoid it, but we somehow ended up in the Trocadero, a huge, garish mall-slash-arcade place. The kids eyes lit up just as John's and mine started to glaze over. They of course went right for those "claw" games, where you try to manuever the claw to pick up some prize and drop it in the hole so you can get it. And this claw machine had iPODS in it! Now, any of you who have been to Gators with us know that we tell the kids EVERY TIME that they would do better flushing their money down the toilet, they can't win those games. And you also know that EVERY TIME Jack comes back a winner. Well, he wasn't as lucky this time. Leah, on the other hand... hello, little purple ipod shuffle!
Today we decided to go total tourist and get tickets for the double-decker tour bus. We are so glad we did - we saw all of London, and were able to "hop-on, hop-off" at any stop.
Our first hop-off was to St. Paul's Cathedral, an amazingly beautiful church in the city. The cathedral was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, and rebuilt by Christopher Wren. It's dome stands 365 feet high. After St. Paul's we rode through West London, past 10 Downing Street, Kensington Gardens & Palace, the Marble Arch, Hyde Park, and so many other sights. Our next stop was Harrod's, the immense department store where rumor has it, you can buy anything you want. Ronald Reagan once asked if he could buy an elephant. The Harrod's employee did not miss a beat and replied, "Asian or African, sir?" We decided against purchasing any wild animals this time, but we did spend some time in the toy department and bought some fudge on the way out! We got back on the bus, and then we saw a celebrity, so we jumped off to have our picture taken with... Justin Timberlake! He was pretty cool, but seemed a little, distant. Stiff. Waxy. We also saw some of his waxy friends at Madame Tussaud's.
After hitting the Beatles Shop (across the street from the Rolling Stones Shop), and searching for Abbey Road (we didn't find it), we finished the evening at a true English pub, The Sherlock Holmes, where we (well, some of us) ate fish & chips and mushy peas. And tea.
Our last day in London. Buckingham Palace does the Changing of the Guard ceremony on odd days this month, and as luck would have it, today is April 29! We made our way down the Mall to the Palace, every now and then dodging raindrops. We waited outside the wrought iron gates, along with what may have been every other tourist in London. Gotta do it, though! Right on time, the Guards, accompanied by the Horse Guards and the band, march down the street and through the Palace gates. After much pomp, circumstance, and rifle-twirling, they were on their way out again. We walked from the Palace gates through the beautiful St. James Park and on to Westminster Abbey.
If all I did on this entire trip was walk through Westminster Abbey, it would have absolutely been worth every minute and every penny. It is literally the most staggeringly beautiful place I have ever seen. I cannot even begin to describe it. Photography is not allowed inside, and believe it or not I am grateful for that because no photo that I could have taken would do justice to what I remember it to be. I am very drawn to English history and to walk through the halls of this place and actually touch the tomb of Queen Elizabeth was indescribable. We also beheld the final resting places of many others, including Mary, Queen of Scots; Anne of Cleves; Henry V; Henry VII and Elizabeth of York; Edward the Confessor; Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Dickens; Rudyard Kipling; George Handel; Sir Laurence Olivier; Charles Darwin and Sir Issac Newton.
And that was how I wanted to remember London, so we walked across Westminster Bridge to the South Bank and had a great lunch at Giraffe, a funky restaurant with a motto I can believe in. Then we headed back to the hotel to do laundry and pack up. Early morning wake-up call tomorrow, when we board the Eurostar and head to the Chunnel for Paris!
Today was another adventure - we boarded the Eurostar at St. Pancras Station in London and headed for Paris! It was an excellent way to go. Fast, smooth ride, breakfast served at our seats... we just sat back, relaxed, and watched the French countryside roll by. We disembarked at Marne La Vallee-Chessy, the station serving Disneyland Paris, and made our way to the hotel. After checking in, we walked around Disney Village, ate dinner at Rainforest Cafe, and hit the hotel pool, complete with water slides and screaming children. Mon Dieu, are we back in Orlando?
Cheers, London! You surpassed my expectations - we shall meet again.
Happy May Day to all!
May Day (May 1) is a holiday celebrated in many parts of the world, including France. There is no school, no work, and lots of places are closed. Guess what lots and lots of people decided to do today, on their day off? Yes. They came to Disneyland Paris.
We had fun, though, despite the crowds and intermittent rain. We visited one of the two parks today - Disneyland. It is set up a lot like Magic Kingdom, with several "lands" spoking out from the castle in the middle. Here we saw Sleeping Beauty's castle rather than Cinderella's, complete with a fire-breathing dragon in the basement. We saw some familiar sights: Big Thunder Railroad, the Carousel, Buzz Lightyear, Space Mountain; and some new ones: Pinnochio's Voyage ride, and an Indiana Jones roller coaster.
It was a nice, relaxing day - tomorrow we hit the City of Lights!
After a pleasant French breakfast at our hotel, we ventured to the RER station to catch the train into the city. Everything went smoothly and we disembarked at Charles de Gaulle Etoille. The very first thing we saw as we walked up the stairs from the underground was the amazingly immense Arc de Triomphe.
This became our starting point as we made our way down the Champs-Elysees, which is the grandest boulevard in Paris - the beautiful tree-lined street is littered with high-end shopping and outdoor cafes. Perfect for high-heeled women in mini-skirts walking with their little poodles! We wandered down to the Seine, where we boarded a batobus - a hop-on, hop-off glass walled & ceilinged tour boat.
We cruised down the river and back again, fi nally hopping off at Tour Eiffel. We walked around it, enjoying the many different views. I always kind of thought it was just a really big erector set, but it really is beautiful. The whole area surrounding the Tower is a park, with lots of green grass, gorgeous flowers and blooming trees. The only disappointing thing was the line to get in. It was as if every line at every Disney ride had converged to make one Super Line and take over the world. So we took some pictures and got on with our lives.
We walked around a bit searching for lunch, and found a cafe back on the Champs-Elysees. We ate some sandwiches on baguettes (Leah had a croissant and a pain du chocolat). We strolled through Nike Paris and then found the hugest Hagen-Daas shop ever, and got some ice cream. We then decided to call it a day and head back to our hotel. We will be back tomorrow for more sightseeing! Hope all is well with all you yanks over in the New World.
Today we made our way back into Paris. First on our list to visit today was Notre Dame. We walked through the beautiful cathedral and around the outside. We did not get up into the tower, though (see yesterday's post regarding the lines).
We then took a stroll through the city, over the river and past the Sorbonne to Luxembourg Gardens. We found a little shop that made baguette sandwiches, paninis and crepes - so we got some lunch and had a little picnic in the park. Then a French policewoman yelled at everyone to get off the grass so we moved the picnic to a bench.
After lunch we headed back to the river where we got back on the batobus and cruised around the river to the Louvre. The museum is amazing. We saw the Venus di Milo and The Mona Lisa, but the most impressive art was the building's architecture!
After the Louvre we headed back to the hotel. Tomorrow we plan to get in to the city a little later, so we can be there in the evening and see why they call Paris the City of Lights!
We covered a lot of ground today. And I have the blisters on my feet to prove it! We got in to the hotel after midnight, so I'm afraid this will be a short post... I will try to add to it later on.
We had a relatively late breakfast and headed for the city around
11:30am. We took the train to PereLaChaise Cemetery, wandered around, got a fantastic real French lunch in Place d'Gambetta, hopped on the Metro and visited the Centre Pompidou (where I finally got up high enough to see an awesome panoramic view of Paris), got some nutella crepes and glace, then walked about 100 miles through the city, along the river, and finally crashed on the Champ du Mars in front of the Tour Eiffel in time for sunset (which, strangely enough, is not until 9:15pm here) and to see the tower light up - which is every bit as magical as they say. It was a great last day in Paris. Tomorrow we do the last Disney park and then Tuesday it is back stateside!
Back to Disneyland! Today we visited the other Disney park, Walt Disney Studios. A lot like MGM in Orlando, but much smaller. We (some of us) did Rockin' Roller Coaster, the Backlot Tour, Flying Carpets over Agrabah (like Dumbo), Cars Rally (like teacups, but in cars from the movie), and the Cinamagique and Animagique shows. We also rode on Crush's Coaster, a roller coaster ride based on the turtles from Finding Nemo. Disneyland Paris is the only WDW park that has this ride, so it was new to us! The guys went first and convinced Leah and I to try it, they said it was so much fun. They lie. Actually, Leah loved it, and I agree it was very well done. That's all I will say about that.
Will got to meet a lot of characters, he got a kick out of them and enjoyed posing.
Today we head home. We have had an outstanding 12 days in Europe, and I think we are all ready to return to reality for awhile. At least until our next adventure!
- Blog post
- 5 years ago
- Views: 21553
- From: David LaHuta
I’ve never considered myself a shell collector. Sure, I once paddled nearly 200 yards to a secluded islet in the Caribbean on the hunch that there’d be dried up sea urchins, but run-of-the-mill shells? Not me. That conch in my bathroom is just a quirky decoration. But it all hit home when I returned from a recent trip to the Virgin Islands. I heard the familiar rumble of my washing machine as it churned through smooth rocks, sea glass, and salty shells that filled the pockets of my board shorts. So it was official: I’m a shell guy.
I guess that’s why I loved visiting Sanibel Island —14 miles west of Fort Myers off the coast of Florida’s southwestern shore. It’s one of the best places to go shelling in the United States. Call it a function of simple geography: Instead of running parallel to the mainland like most barrier islands, Sanibel is positioned east-to-west like a giant ladle in the Gulf of Mexico. As the currents roll in, so do nearly 275 varieties of seashells-- the most coveted being the brown-spotted junonia and the scallop-shaped lion’s paw. But I didn’t find any of those. Hardly anyone does, but it sure is fun to look.
My search began on Lighthouse Beach. At the far eastern tip of the island you’ll find Sanibel’s sole lighthouse—a conical tower of wired steel meant to allow coastal winds to blow through. It’s a beaut of beacon, as far as lighthouses go, but I was here to find shells. Unfortunately I wasn’t alone. Shells are big business on touristy Sanibel and people come from miles around just to comb the island’s beaches. There was Louisa from Miami, who along with her two kids toted three full pails of ocean treasures; Margo from Fort Myers who unearthed a huge conch; and Phil and Stacy from Boston, who’ve visited Sanibel every year since the mid-80’s just to add to their shell collection. Me? I was just looking for a keeper —maybe a nice ribbed cantharus or a gulf oyster drill. And no, I didn’t know what those were before I visited Sanibel either.
Having found a handful of colorful calico scallops, I decided to avoid the crowds and take my search elsewhere. Luckily there were plenty of options. Combined with Captiva—Sanibel’s smaller sister island—the pair have more than 15 miles of public beaches to choose from. But true shell hunters will tell you that it’s not necessarily where you go shelling, but when you go. Some suggest low tide, since a greater portion of the shoreline is visible; others hit the beach after a storm, when the winds and waves uncover shells previously buried beneath the sand. All good suggestions, but I didn’t have the luxury of being picky. This was a three-day trip—long enough to leave with a tan, but not quite the stay of loyal shelling veterans.
Heading west I enlisted some expert advice and who better to ask then the folks at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum? Open in its new location for eleven years, the museum is devoted to shells of all kinds, with a full one-third of its exhibitions featuring specimens native to Sanibel and Captiva. It’s a massive place, one that my two-year-old niece would love, so as I perused the gift shop for a trinket to bring her. I posed the question of all questions for conch-lovers, and their ilk: “Where’s the best place to go shelling?” The kind lady who works behind the counter must get this all the time, because her simple reply was, “Wherever your feet are, of course!” So much for expert advice. Sensing my frustration she blurted out a tip, “Try Gulfside City Park, I hear folks are do ing well there today.”
A ten-minute drive later I’m there. The south coast beach is buzzing with kids and families out for a swim, and the shell lady was right—I’ve hit the jackpot. Because the sand slopes gently into the sea, the beach at Gulfside City Park allows shell-hunters to safely wade in knee-deep water, uncovering hundreds, if not thousands, of shells with their toes. Instantly, I find dozens of Atlantic giant cockles and delicates rose petal tellins. A little later I dig up tiny Cayenne keyholes and spindly ladder horn snails. Eureka!
With every step I take, more and more shells appear-- and by now my pockets are bursting. It’s a worthy take, but I still haven’t found anything bigger than my pinky finger. Suddenly I glance toward the shorelin, and there it is—a six-inch lightening whelk, so named because of its brown zig-zagging stripes. It might not be as rare as a junonia or as colorful as a lion's paw, but it’s big and it’s pretty and it looks great next to that conch in my bathroom.
What to Know Before You Go
>> Much like the Caribbean, peak season on Sanibel Island is from December through April so expect to find bargains in the spring, summer, and fall when hotel rates drop.
>> At the Tarpon Tale Inn—a bungalow-style hotel near Lighthouse Beach—a one-bedroom cottage with a kitchen and private patio costs $149 in May and $119 from June 1 through December 16. The same room in peak season rents for $189, but no matter when you go, a double room at the hotel always includes two adult bicycles for the duration of your stay—which is perfect considering there are more than 23 miles of bike paths on the island. (888/345-0939, tarpontale.com).
- Blog post
- 5 years ago
- Views: 19227
- From: oldfashiongirl
London is a city of contrasts. It's far from home, yet unexotic - kind of like a midland between the US and Europe. Everything is only slightly different from home: same chain stores, but slightly different items; same faces, but different accents; same food, but a little bit blander.
Our introduction to London began with a 2 ½ hour cattle call through customs at Heathrow. It was horrible. I think the crowd was close to rioting. Normally we would be patient with the process and understand that customs can sometimes take awhile. However, unfortunately we had arranged for a taxi to wait for us at the customs exit. The charge for waiting was approximately $30 USD an hour, so after awhile, it got a bit expensive.
We stayed at the Arran House Hotel, a classic transformed row house in Bloomsbury, the university area of London. It was a nice little hotel, although you would be shocked to find out what $200 USD per night will get you in London. We did have an ensuite bathroom, so that was a bonus. The hotel also featured a very filling "full English breakfast" consisting of eggs, sausages, small chopped up cooked mushrooms, big slabs of quasi-ham/bacon, and baked beans. I had never considered eating beans for breakfast, but when in Rome……..
We covered a lot of ground during our six days in London. Our first full day was spent on the outskirts of the city in an area called Banglatown (in reference to Bangladesh) and we were lucky enough to be there during a curry festival. The streets were absolutely packed with people checking out the area's abundant Indian restaurants. We decided to visit this part of the city due to the large amounts of vintage and boutique clothing stores. I collect mostly 40’s era garments and most of the vintage clothing was 70’s and 80’s, but I did find a lovely retro tea jar and a very pretty vintage slip.
The next day, we walked to almost all of London's major sites. The tube would have gotten us to all of these places just fine, but it's hard to discover off-the-map gems (like pubs!) that makes traveling so rewarding when you're stuck underground going from point A to point B. We started the day at the weekly antiques fair at Covent Garden market (as made famous in My Fair Lady) - a great place to find antique English silver and tea cups. Next, we headed past Trafalgar Square and through St. James’s Park, which had a surprising amount of wildlife for being in the middle of a huge city, including some giant white pelicans that were sitting in the middle of the pathway with people streaming around them.
We passed such famous sites as Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abby and Big Ben and finished our day with something that would let us see all of these landmarks at once - a ride on the London Eye. The Eye has security on par with Heathrow. After multiple bag searches and body scans, we were ready to take the ride. As each compartment nears the exit platform, security guards sweep the pod with bomb-detecting devises. The Eye provides some of the most magnificent views of London and was worth the wait and cost. After our ride, we hobbled back to the hotel room, and put our feet on ice!
During the middle of our stay in London, we took a day tour out to the English countryside to the city of Bath and then to Stonehenge. Bath is a very picturesque town known for its hot springs and ancient Roman baths. Ancient lore states that the springwater cures many ailments, from the gout to infertility. We both had a sip - it tasted like sulfur water. Matt drank his entire glass - and passed a kidney stone a day later! So much for its curative qualities.
The real treat of the day was visiting Stonehenge. The site is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by rolling fields and grazing sheep. As we were driving along the highway through the countryside, all of a sudden Stonehenge appeared on the horizon and we both got goosebumps. The site is fenced off from the road and you have the choice to either look from afar through a chainlink fence, or pay to get inside to get a closer look, although visitors are kept a good distance from the stones via a roped off pathway. However, the tour we were on was an after hours, sunset tour and our group of 20 were allowed to go wherever we wanted, including inside the roped off area. It was an awesome experience being in that setting during a gorgeous evening at sunset and not something I will likely forget anytime soon. Between the two of us, Matt and I probably took 200 pictures of old rocks!
One interesting note: While we were at a rest stop on our way to Bath that morning, we were at a store purchasing some snacks to take on the bus. All of a sudden, the store's background music stopped, the cashiers stopped taking sales, and things went quiet. We found out later that it was a tribute to 9/11 as it had happened 7 years ago at that exact time. I found this touching, but also somewhat shocking. The entire time we were in London leading up to the anniversary of 9/11, there were shows on TV about it, newspaper articles about it - even the movie Fahrenheit 911 was on TV. I wondered if the US would ever pay so much attention to another country’s tragedy, especially so many years later. In the back of my mind, I wondered if stores/work places/etc. back home had also observed a minute of silence.
Another famous landmark we visited in London was the HUGE department store, Harrods. We spent a few hours there and didn’t even look at the clothes! There are entire departments dedicated to chocolates, teas, coffees, as well as something like 13 restaurants and a large gift store. We splurged on a traditional high tea in the elegant, top-floor restaurant, The Georgian Room. Along with drinking some of the best tea we have ever had, all of the scones, crumpets, and sweets were very filling for something that is supposed to be a snack before attending the opera or theater.
Our last day in London was spent at the iconic St. Paul’s Cathedral. We climbed to the top of the dome to test out the Whispering Wall. Basically, one person goes to the other side of the dome and speaks into the wall. The sound will travel all the way around the dome back to you. It really works - it basically sounds like you are talking to the person through a paper towel roll. We continued our climb to the very top of the cathedral dome and were rewareded for our efforts with a spectacular view of London, including the egg-shaped building of City Hall and the famous Tower Bridge.
After a cafeteria-style lunch in the cathedral's crypt, we went to the Tower of London to get a peak at the Crown Jewels and the famous ravens. In order to see the jewels, you have to go through a maze of rooms, each with a movie screen displaying strange propaganda films about the English monarchy and when you finally get to the room where the jewels are held, everyone crams onto two moving sidewalks that whizzes you past the jewels so fast that you can barely remember what you saw. It was actually quite a strange experience.
All in all, our trip to London seemed like a pretty typical one. Here are some tidbits about the city that you won't find in your guidebook:
- At every street corner, people are handing out London’s various newspapers for free. All I know is that if our paper back home was like these, I would be one of the few Americans who read the paper every day! The papers are about 50% celebrity gossip and the actual news is written in brief paragraphs to give you just the gist of the story.
- London women are either ahead of the fashion curve or behind, I couldn’t tell. For example, a common outfit I noticed was a short skirt with bright or neutral colored leggings on underneath. I remember specifically this being declared passé in the US at least a year ago or so. I saw many designer handbags being toted on the tube, it seemed that every woman had either a Gucci, Prada or something similarly expensive. I guess if you can afford to live in London, you can most likely afford a designer bag.
- That brings me to my next observation - London is expensive! We were warned about this prior to our trip, but you kind of have to experience it for yourself to believe it. Coupled by the weak US dollar, it is painful. A few examples in US dollars: One tall mocha at Starbucks: $5. Two rides on the tube: $10. One hamburger and small drink in a cafeteria style setting, without tip: $16. Getting out of the city without maxing out your credit cards: priceless.
- London rush hour never ends. Traffic noise started around 5 a.m. and the roads would still be grid-locked at 9 p.m. at night with going-home traffic. It looked like an absolute nightmare.
- Londoners seem like pretty patient people. There are mass amounts of people everywhere, all the time. There are mass amounts of cars, buses, taxis and noise. However, I never noticed anyone getting upset that you stepped in their path on the sidewalk or heard many cars honking at each other. But, I also noticed that no one ever really looked at anyone else. Waves of people would pass by on the sidewalk and no one made eye contact. On the tube, everyone just stares at their books or look vacantly above your head.
- Kids and dogs do not live in London (this probably isn't entirely true, but it sure seemed like it!). We saw maybe two children while we were there, and they were with their tourist parents. We saw about the same number of dogs. The entire city seemed to be filled with adults going about their busy work-a-day lives.
- The English do have quirky phrases for things, such as a sign stating "Max Headroom 6 ½ Feet" that was posted above the entrance to a garage. And before crossing a street in London, painting on the pavement will let you know whether to "Look Left" or "Look Right" for oncoming traffic. Believe it or not, this really comes in handy. To get on the bus you "que up" (form a line). And most importantly, be sure to "mind the gap" when getting on the tube!
- Blog post
- 5 years ago
- Views: 16894
- From: bobcat812
Bob and Cathy Smith
Yes, you read that correctly. It is possible to explore Alaska without a cruise ship! My wife Cathy and I retired on the same day in the spring of 2008 and several weeks later we headed for Alaska. A year prior we had begun researching every possible mode of transportation, including large and small cruise ships. We researched cruises first because it was the only mode of Alaska travel we had heard of. Cruise lines and travel agents do a great job of advertising all over the media. Most of our friends who had ever visited Alaska went via cruise ships and liked the experience.
According to the latest (2006/2007) figures from the Alaska Visitor Statistics Program, 40% of Alaska travel is by air primarily on business, 54% of visitors who come for vacations and pleasure travel by cruise ship. 1% travel by ferry and 4% by highway. An interesting statistic is that of those travelling by ferry, 60% are repeat travelers whose first trip was by cruise ship. This last statistic is revealing. Hang on to it; you'll see why later.
Cruise ships typically are like fancy hotels. They are a great experience as a treat, especially if the primary reason for your trip is to enjoy the ship. Our reason for going to Alaska was to experience the scenery, small towns, rainforests, Denali National Park and the abundant forms of wildlife. It seemed to us that the ship would detract from our freedom to explore rather than enhance it. Furthermore, we tend to avoid crowds of tourists and get as far away from them as we can. Maybe that's just us.
We found that there are only three ways to explore the "Inside Passage" of Alaska. If you look on a map that is where you find the small towns of Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, Haines, Skagway and others. The only public highway in the Inside Passage is the Alaska Highway Ferry System. That whole section of the state consists of islands, so if you're going anywhere it is by water or by sea plane.
We began to wonder about this ferry thing and so we looked it up on the internet by visiting the Alaska Marine Highway System website: www.dot.state.ak.us/amhs/
Much to our pleasant surprise, the ferry boats were not what we expected. Here in Ohio a ferry boat is a little, dumpy barge with cars on it. The Alaskan ferries are like small cruise ships with multiple decks and one or two lower decks for vehicles. The ferries travel the southeast Inside Passage and all over coastal Alaska. They have cabins for those who want them on overnight trips, beautiful observation lounges, good restaurant facilities, small gift shop, internet connections, lounges, spacious decks and naturalist programs. They do not have crystal chandeliers, gambling casinos, grand staircases, professional entertainers or five star cuisine. If you would put on a tux and bow tie, someone would rightfully throw you overboard. The cabins are small but clean and comfortable. Nobody is going to create a towel elephant and leave it on your bed with a couple gourmet chocolates. So if you have always fantasized about putting on a pair of expensive sunglasses and pretending to be a celebrity gracefully floating down the grand staircase on Love Boat, the ferry is not the place to do it.
Cathy and I were sold. We could travel Alaska on our own terms and schedule. We would fly into Seattle and board the ferry at nearby Bellingham. We decided to start the grueling, time consuming planning and booking process by calling the Alaska Marine Highway since it would be our first stop. On an evening eight months beforehand, we called the toll free phone number. A very pleasant and helpful agent talked with us and told us that besides scheduling the ferry she could also book our entire trip! After we picked ourselves up off the floor and inhaled smelling salts, we asked her how much the service would cost. "Oh, nothing," she said, "I am an employee of the state of Alaska. That's what we do." Ninety minutes later our trip was planned. Cathy and I looked at each other in utter amazement. What we thought would take eight months took ninety minutes. During that phone conversation, the agent asked us what towns and attractions we wanted to see and made very valuable suggestions. Without her help we would have wasted time seeing things that are duplicates or missed attractions we didn't know about. She asked us what kind of lodging we preferred and we told her bed and breakfasts. She recommended how much time we should spend at each town in order to enjoy the town and its attractions.
Our actual trip was even more fantastic than we had imagined. We were on foot and public transportation were successful most of the time in avoiding the human floods of cruise ship tourists. We spent time in the towns of Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Skagway, Fairbanks, Denali National Park and Anchorage. We were in Alaska 20 days. When we visited Denali, we stayed at the Back Country Lodge, which is way back in the center of the park and away from the populated entrance. We saw wildlife all over Alaska including humpback whales, eagles, sea otters, harbor seals, black bears, grizzly bears, moose, caribou, foxes and wolves. We didn't see one of each; we saw hundreds.
In the towns we would sometimes encounter people who were travelling by cruise ship and get into conversations with them. We noticed that most of these conversations were amusingly similar and went something like this:
THEY: "So what cruise ship are you on?"
US: "We're not on a cruise ship." (At this point THEY appeared somewhat confused.)
US: "By ferry."
THEY: "Oh, then, you're DRIVING."
US: "No, we're on foot."
THEY: (silence...with the look a dog gives you when it's confused - cocking the head from one side to the other)
Then, of course, we would relieve their confusion and discuss how we were travelling. In every case, the people told us they were unaware anyone could travel Alaska like that and expressed the wish that they had known before booking a cruise. I asked them why they felt that way and they said they would have preferred the freedom of choices and not feeling "herded" as they did on a cruise.
Earlier I mentioned to hang on to the statistic that 60% of the independent travellers using the ferry system had previously taken a cruise. My guess is that they came on the cruise and while in Alaska talked to someone like us and found that they could control their own vacation. So they returned on their own to more fully experience Alaska to its fullest. The cruise had given them a preview sampling taste of the gourmet experience that is Alaska. Our advice is to skip the sampling and go for the main course.
- Blog post
- 4 years ago
- Views: 16026
- From: laratada
Growing up, I attended a French school in the D.C. area and learned to speak the language fluently. Consquently, I've visited Paris many times over the years and have become very familiar with the city. A couple of years ago, my mother-in-law had me arrange a one-week trip May trip to Paris and its environs for her and her girlfriends (as well as myself). It ended up being a much better value for the four of us to rent a spacious flat at Place des Vosges, the oldest square in Paris, through a fantastic agency called Paris Vacation Apartments. We will never forget the memories spent living in our amazing apartment where we could stroll to our favorite wine, cheese, pastry and markets of the Marais. Below are itineraries and resources I gathered for a trip that covers some popular and off-the-beaten track activities. I included the week days since some activities like flea markets and museums are closed on certain days, but much of its order can be mixed and matched. This is a pretty active and ambitious schedule, so don't feel obligated to try to achieve it all. I also have a version in pdf format with detailed listings, so feel free to contact me if you're interested in me emailing you one... Enjoy!
DAY 1: WEDNESDAY (ARRIVAL)
DAY 2: THURSDAY – OPEN BUS TOUR
- Arrive early in the morning to Place des Vosges apartment to settle & unpack. Nap for an hour or two.
- Grab lunch in the Marais then walk south through the neighborhood's trendy shops off Rue des Francs Bourgeouis, making left on Rue du Renard to Hotel de Ville (City Hall).
- Walk along the Seine towards the Louvre and Place de la Concorde or hop on metro when you're tired of walking.
- Visit the Eiffel Tower and enjoy dinner near the famous Champs Elysees (often overpriced) or near your hotel.
DAY 3: FRIDAY – LEFT BANK
- Take a Cityrama l'Open Bus Tour to familiarize yourself with the city and hop on and off at major sites like Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur. I recommend the Paris Grand Tour in the morning and then theMonmartre Grands Boulevards Route.
- In the afternoon, visit the Monmartre and the Moulin Rouge in the seedy Pigalle area. Try to explore the meandering streets below the foot of the Sacre Coeur. There are lots of fabric and notion shops and further west there are some funky locally owned shops with more unique finds than the the tourist trap souvenir stores near the top of the famous church. Beware of pick pockets by the stairs of the hill!
- After a long day of site-seeing, stop to pick up some fruit, wine, and cheese at a nearby market to enjoy back at the hotel as a snack. Nicolas is a good chain store for wine with a very helpful staff.
DAY 4: SATURDAY – LOUVRE & LAFEYETTE
- Beat the crowds and head early to Orsay Museum on the left bank to enjoy impressionist masterpieces housed in an old train station. Enjoy views of the Seine from the balcony.
- Grab lunch and explore St. Germain and the Latin Quarters.
- Stop to pick up some of Paris' best macaroons or pastries at Pierre Hermé near St. Sulpice Church. Head south and enjoy your goodies in the majestic Luxembourg Gardens.
- Enjoy dinner and drinks in the lively Bastille/Oberkampf neighborhoods. My favorite hole-in-the wall cafe is Ave Maria's. Arrive early if you want to snag a seat for dinner or go later to hang out at the bar.
DAY 5: SUNDAY – FLEA MARKET & CATACOMBS
- Grab a a sweet, early breakfast near the Louvre at the salon-style Angelina. Their famous, rich, decadent hot Chocolat l'Africain is touted as the best hot chocolate in Paris.
- Head to the Louvre next to beat the crowds. It's quicker to buy an entrance ticket at the gift shop in the lower back entrance. Don't try to see the whole museum in a day or you'll get fatigued. Instead, take a few hours to see the typical highlights like Mona Lisa and the Winged Victory then explore another wing that interests you.
- If you have an hour to spare, head to the end of the Tuileries to visit Monet's calming water lily room-size paintings of Les Nympheas at l'Orangerie.
- Hop off on Boulevard Haussman near Madeleine/Place de l'Opera area and head to Galeries Lafayette, Paris' most famous department store. Locate the gourmet section on the third floor (ask somebody, there are two adjoining buildings and it's a little confusing). It has a great food selection for souvenirs, but also offers some great prepared take-out food that can be enjoyed on top of the mall's roof while admiring views of Paris. If the weather is bad, grab a tasty sandwich, soup or salad down the street at Cojean.
- Take the metro to Les Halles area to peruse the neighborhood's busy streets or check out some modern art at Centre Pompidou.
DAY 6: MONDAY – CHARTRES DAY TRIP
- Spend the morning perusing one of southern Pari's best flea markets, Porte des Vanves.
- If you have time and feel energetic, explore the creepy catacombs.
- Spend the afternoon at your leisure. If you're feeling energetic, take the metro back north and stroll through the food filled streets of Rue Mouffetard. Other options include walking along Canal St. Martin, enjoying the park at Bois de Boulogne.
- Head over to the nearby Marais' historic Jewish Quarters on Rue des Rosiers for dinner. Sunday is the day after the Sabbath and there's an air of festivity as the community comes out to socialize. My favorite falafel meal and mint tea can be had at Mi Va Mi.
- If you're in the mood for contemporary and installation art after dinner, wander over to Palais de Tokyo near the Tour Eiffel. It's open until midnight.
DAY 7: TUESDAY – VERSAILLES
- From Gare Montparnasse, take one of the regular trains for a 1 hour 15 minute trip to the medieval town of Chartres.
- From the station, you can walk several blocks to the Chartres Cathedral, famous for it's vivid, intricate stained-glass windows. Don't miss the labyrinth and garden in the back!
- Explore the town and return to Paris in the afternoon.
- An alternate day-trip in the spring could be to visit Monet's home and garden, Giverny, by train.
DAY 8: DEPARTURE
- Grab an RER C train out of Paris to Versailles.
- From the station, it's about a 5-10 minute walk to the royal Palace of Versailles. Note it is free to roam the palace's manicured parks and gardens, but there's a fee to enter the palace structures and take a tour. If you're not on a strict budget, it's worth taking a group tour of at least the main palace to learn a bit about French history and the artifacts decorating the ornate rooms.
- There are plenty of restaurants in town a couple of blocks away from the palace grounds if you get hungry.
- Return to Paris in the afternoon and finish any last minute shopping or enjoy taking a night tour on the Bateau Mouch to bid farewell to the City of Lights.
- Please note that Charles de Gaulle airport can be very hectic. Give yourself AT LEAST 3 hours to check in your luggage and get through the numerous security checkpoints.
- METRO: The easiest, fastest, and cheapest way to get around the city is by metro. If you're going to ride it frequently, it's more economical to buy a 10-pack "carnet." They also offer a special multi-day passes that are economical if you're going to be riding it a lot every day. If you don't mind riding the metro with you're lugguage and making a a transfer or two, it's also the cheapest way to get from CDG airport to the center of the city.
- ETIQUETTE: The French have the incorrect reputation for being rude and unhelpful to foreigners. If you enter a store and say "bonjour" to the salespeople and make an effort to be pleasant and polite, you will get the same in return two-fold.
- WALK & EXPLORE: The best way to get to know Paris is to walk and explore the city. Don't be scared to venture off the main avenue or to go in a shop or cafe that interests you.
- EDIBLE SOUVENIRS: A wonderful souvenir for you or friends is hand-made jam by Christine Ferber. Personally, I think her strawberry flavor is divine with chunks of Alsace berries. In Paris, her jams are only sold in the Gourmet section of Galeries Lafayette and Pierre Herme stores. I also like to bring back chocolate assortments in the signature brown and turquoise boxes from the chain chocolatier, Jeff de Bruges.
- STREET ART: Don't forget to admire Paris' art outside of its museums. There are some very cool pieces by street artists worth a gander while you're exploring an arrondissement.
More of my France and travel photos can be found on my Flickr page: www.flickr.com/photos/laratada/
- Blog post
- 3 years ago
- Views: 12084
- From: DominiqueH28
Having just moved to Italy in April, it's been me and my husband's mission to see as much as we can. We currently live in Naples, and we have so much around us within driving distance that it was hard to choose what to do first. A friend of ours gave us a travel guide for Sorrento and Amalfi, and we decided that we had to drive it. Our daughters who are 5 and 3 love to drive, so we knew they'd be game.
Our first stop on our trip was the lovely town of Vietri which is pretty famous for it's collection of shops selling ceramics handpainted by artists whose craft has been handed down from generation to generation.
( below: the shops in Vietri )
Most of the ceramics have fruit, scroll work, or scenery painted on them. Most of the ceramics consist of decorative pieces such as plates, tiles, bowls, and figures. The lemon, by far, was the one object used as the focus on most of the pieces. Mostly due to the fact that the Sorrento and Amalfi coastlines are famous for their lemon groves and lemons that grow to be the size of small watermelons...
In one of the shops, I was so busy paying attention to my 3 year old that I wasn't watching where I was going, and ended up kicking over a jar that was sitting on the floor. Luckliy, it didn't go far and it only chipped. I still had to buy it, much to the demands of the elderly shop keeper, but she let me off easy. She only charged me 10 euro. Somehow, I think I still overpaid....
We also found a great pastry shop that had the biggest selection of fruit pastries I have ever seen. My two daughters had a hard time choosing which one they wanted.
When we exited the pastry shop, in front of us was a lookout that was simply magnificent. You could see the entire coast of Vietri and Vietri Sul Mare. We had a hard time pulling my 5 year old away from it. The houses were built into the cliffs, and the lush greenery that wove between the houses was amazing. Not to mention the blue blue blue sea.
Along the coast, high up on the cliff, the scenery of what is around you is amazing. Not only is the driving itself scary and fun to watch (The roads are very small, and doesn't allow for personal space. Euro drivers and seasoned italians have no problem coming within an inch of your car doors, and that includes drivers of HUGE tour buses. My poor husband had one heart stopping moment after another, as he was the driver.
a scary turn
Along the way to Amalfi, we passed quite a few smaller towns with their own hotels and restaurants, all claiming in 3-4 different languages, that they had the best views on their signs. As we drove into Amalfi, the traffic seemed to break, and we were given one of the best views of the drive:
In Amalfi, tourists and beach goers were everywhere. The mass of tourists were in cafes, in the pizzerias, the churches, the small streets where vendors were busy trying to sell souvenirs and trinkets. My husband and I decided to take a stroll through the main part of town, and just people watch. We spotted a few churches and paintings, and watched as street performers sang, played instruments, and so on.
Once everyone had had their fill of walking around, we headed back on the road, and drove towards Sorrento. The roads became extremely twisty (much to the chagrin of my husband) and the amount of lemon sellers on the sides of the road became more frequent. We were tempted to buy a supersized lemon, but when we realized the price was 3 euro a KILO and not a lemon, (we did the conversion) we decided against the nearly $7.50 price tag!
We drove for what seemed to be another hour, through smaller towns and even more frequent tourist vendor traps, when we hit the turn off for Sorrento. The town, although we weren't able to explore it on foot, was charming. A mix of old world meets Italian tradition meets modern-day europe. Cars, mopeds, limos, tour buses, and even farm horse drawn wagons, piled into the streets. It was literally a maze of transportation devices, with eager pedestrians thrown into the mix.
Even from the car we were able to see some pretty neat things. And we watched a wedding party exit a church. The bride and groom descended the steps as everyone threw seeds and rice, and then ran into the middle of the street blocking traffic in both directions for 10 minutes. The only car horns heard were those wishing the new couple well, including ours. A few more minutes of waving, shouting, and indistinct Italian well-wishing and the scene was over. the bride and groom were rushed into a vintage car and we drove off. I don't have pictures of it, but it was something I'll always remember. Such a beautiful, happy day. The last picture I have from our trip on the coast is this one of a Roman soldier, sitting back in reflection after defeating an intruding army. Quite a great picture if I do say so myself....
- Blog post
- 5 years ago
- Views: 9795
- From: chadallen77
I’d had the idea in the back of my head for a couple of years: climb Mt. Ranier in Washington State. I do a lot of hiking, including winter hiking, and Rainier is the destination of choice if you want to step things up a notch and get a taste of real mountaineering. It’s a difficult climb and it's modestly technical—there are glacial traverses, the weather can be extreme, and at 14,411 feet the summit push can induce altitude sickness. About 10,000 climbers attempt the summit each year, the vast majority of them as part of guided trips. Roughly half of these reach the summit. Alas, I would not belong to either of these groups.
After roping my dad into the mission—he’s an avid mountain biker and I learned to love backcountry hiking from him—I started training. Running, cycling, hiking in upstate New York with a heavy backpack on the weekends. We booked the trip in March, and by the time September rolled around I was feeling confident I could make it to the top on our scheduled ascent the last weekend of that month. My dad was feeling pretty confident too: he’d been mountain biking on a regular basis and was working out in the gym. He’d pulled a calf muscle earlier in the summer at the company softball game, but assured me that it was “95% healed” by mid-August. Later that month, he was on his annual mountain biking trip in Moab, Utah, his final training push. I called my mom while he was there to get the real scoop on his physical condition. She confided that earlier in the week he had called from Moab to say that his calf was bothering him and that he had to “ride like a girl” (that’s my dad for you). This seemed inauspicious, to say the least. When dad got back from Utah I called and grilled him on the details of his physical fitness. He assured me that everything was good to go. It seemed plausible. Kind of. And then I met him at the airport in Seattle...
He arrived a few hours before me (he lives in Michigan, I was coming in from New York), and was waiting in baggage claim when I arrived. He ambled over to greet me with what was not the minor, barely-visible limp of an old injury, but a shambling gait that clearly favored his left leg and made it look like he’d just been hit in the knee with a hockey stick.
The final summit push on Rainier is a 4000 foot vertical gain in a single morning, followed by a 16 mile descent the same day. Even at 95% fitness it would be a stretch, and this seemed more like 30% to me. I think the first thing I said was, “Are you kidding me?” My dad has an abiding belief in his ability to pull off anything through sheer force of will—and if willpower isn’t enough, he’ll usually try to make up the gap with duct tape and hanger wire. In this instance he had built a custom leg brace (he’s a Physical Therapist) out of plastic and machined aluminum. I was going to be climbing the most challenging mountain in the lower-48 with a do-it-yourself cyborg.
We had a heart-to-heart on the spot, and I told him that it wasn’t really about climbing the mountain—in the end I just wanted us to share an adventure. When my brother and I were kids my dad had taken us backpacking in Washington’s Olympic Mountain range four or five summers in a row. Those trips are some of the best memories of my life, and so I suggested we bail on Rainier and do something more low key instead. I was 100% certain that we wouldn’t make the summit at that point. I think Dad was relieved—he knew I wanted to summit Rainier and that we would lose our non-refundable guide fee (next time, buy trip insurance!). But I think he also knew that summiting was out of the question for him.
So we headed to the REI flagship store in Seattle. If you’re ever in town, be sure to check it out. Even if you’re not an outdoor junkie, it’s worth popping in to see the 65’ glass-enclosed indoor climbing wall, manmade waterfall, and mountain bike test-trails. You can also grab a decent cup of joe at the outdoor coffee shop. There’s plenty of stuff to buy for the non-enthusiast as well. If you need a new daypack and want to have a look at 200 different models, or if you’ve been dying to get your hands on a day-glow purple Nalgene bottle for your desk at work, this is your spot.
We headed over to the U.S. Forest Ranger desk on the second floor, and browsed through the topo maps. We’d been to a lot of the prime destinations in the park on earlier trips, but with the help of the on-site Ranger we settled on a five-day, four-night backpacking trip up the Hoh River Valley to the glacier on Mount Olympus (no Greek deities guaranteed, though). We had planned to rent some of the extreme weather gear for the climb from our outfitter, so we didn’t have sleeping bags or a tent with us. Luckily, the REI store also has an extensive rental shop, so we grabbed some top-notch gear and hit the road.
On The Trail
At the Hoh River trailhead we phoned home to mom with our itinerary (from a moss-covered payphone booth—no cell phone reception up here), did one last gear check, and set off down the trail. Our destination for the first day was a five mile hike up the trail, the aptly-named Five Mile Island.
As soon as we set off down the trail, I was struck anew by the scale of the Olympic forests. It’s one of the only temperate rainforests in the world, receiving an average of 150 inches of rainfall a year. I can best describe it as Jurassic—the Cedar trees dwarf anything you see on the east coast, moss covers everything, and giant ferns tower above your head.
We’d heard that elk sightings had been frequent lately, and that large herds had been spotted along the trail. Not more than a mile in, on a section of the trail often used by day-hikers, we stumbled into the middle of a herd of 40 or more elk. I’d never seen elk that close; they're simply massive, and the bulls make a “bugle” call that sounds, well, like a bugle. They seemed aware of, but not frightened by, our presence-- and the herd gradually made its way across the trail about 10 yards in front of us. It was such a hypnotic procession that I completely forgot to reach for the camera. I swear it!
At Five Mile Island we set up camp on a gravel bar in the middle of the Hoh River, fired up the lightweight camp-stove and boiled some water for our freeze-dried dinner. Turkey Chili with Apple Cobbler for desert. I’ve never eaten freeze-dried food except after a long day of hiking with a heavy pack. It tastes pretty good at that point, but I have a feeling it’s only edible if your body is begging for calories. We got a chance to try out the new UV water filter I picked up at REI. Instead of treating water with iodine tablets (which take twenty minutes per liter, and leave an unpleasant aftertaste), or pumping it through a carbon filter (which are bulky and awkward), these compact, pen-shaped devices sport a small UV lamp that uses the same technology employed to sterilize surgical equipment. You just swirl the lamp in a one-liter bottle of water for ninety-seconds and, presto—Giardia and all kinds of other micro- and macro-scopic critters that can ruin your trip are out of commission.
The next day we hiked to Lewis Meadows, another five miles up the trail. We camped in a grassy meadow by the side of the river, and talked to some fellow hikers who had been up to Hoh Lake the day before. They claimed to have seen a dozen black bears grazing on the blueberry meadows on the slopes around the alpine lake. I’ve seen black bears in the wild before and they're amazing—but the report of seeing so many at once seemed unlikely. Nonetheless, we departed from our original plan of hiking up the valley and back to make a one-day side trip up to the lake on the following day.
Bears, Bears, and More Bears.
We weren’t disappointed. It was a grueling, 6-mile climb, with almost 1000-feet of elevation gain per mile. We arrived at the lake in the early afternoon, and it was everything you could ask from an alpine lake. Crystal clear, sitting in a bowl formed by the surrounding alpine meadows that led up to the four summits around the lake, and with views of the glaciers on Mount Olympus. And yes, there were bears. Maybe not a dozen, but we counted at least eight. I’ve never understood how such massive animals can get by on a diet consisting mostly of berries and other flora, but this was definitely black bear heaven—there must have been fifty acres of alpine meadows absolutely covered in blueberry bushes. There were more elk to boot. It was a hard place to leave, but as the afternoon crept on we knew we had to start back down, reaching camp just before dusk.
The next morning, Dad’s calf was feeling the strain of the previous day’s haul, so we decided to lay low and explore the area around Lewis Meadow. In sum: more elk, a lazy afternoon nap by the river, a quick dunk in the icy water, and yet another freeze-dried delicacy.
On the penultimate day, we backtracked down to Five Mile Island. It was raining, so rather than set up camp on the exposed gravel bar, we chose a nice, dry spot under a large spruce to set up the tent. We cooked under the vestibule of the tent’s rain fly, and settled into our toasty sleeping bags. I fell asleep to the pitter-patter of rain on the tent roof, and fell asleep to the sort of pleasant, contradictory thoughts one has after four days on the trail: Why would anyone want to return to civilization? And: I can’t wait to have a cheeseburger.
If it Rains 150 Inches a Year, Chances are You’ll See Some Rain
About two hours later I woke up—the rain had increased in intensity and my feet were wet. In fact, the entire floor of the tent was soaked through and my thermarest was the only thing between me and the large pool of water forming inside the tent. I poked Dad until he stopped snoring and came-to: his feet were in even worse shape than mine. Tent floors are almost waterproof, but absent a groundcover sheet (and we were absent one), they’ll eventually soak through. I struggled into my rain gear, put on my headlamp, and went out into the downpour to assess the situation. The cozy spot we’d chosen under the spruce tree had two major flaws: (1) It was in the middle of a gentle downhill slope; (2) There was an inch of pine needles on the forest floor. This second flaw had originally seemed like a virtue: pine needles make a nice soft bed, and work to relieve the unforgiving cushion of the thermarest.
Now, however, the needles were acting like a giant sponge. The water rolling downhill was being soaked up by the pine needles underneath our tent, which was in turn sucking the water out of the pine needles and into our sleeping bags. I frantically begin lifting the tent edges and scooping out pounds of sopping wet pine needles with my arms. I managed to clear things out pretty well, but now the tent floor was soaked and no longer waterproof, so the water rolling downhill and passing under the tent floor was still making things wet on the inside. I was cold, wet and tired, and none of these conditions seemed likely to improve without drastic measures. By drastic measures I mean: water diversion ditches. These are strictly prohibited within the park, because they disturb the natural soil structure and contribute to erosion. But my project was relatively small, and I was, as I said, cold, wet and tired. I found a couple of sticks that vaguely resembled shovels (in the way that sticks resemble shovels only when you’re in such a situation), and begin digging furiously. Within fifteen minutes I had constructed an elaborate network of ditches, canals and drainage pools that the Romans would have been jealous of. I crawled back into the tent, we dried out the floor with our pack towels, and I took a few minutes to watch my waterworks in action. Then I was out like a light, and didn’t wake up until the clouds broke and the morning sun started to heat up the inside of the tent.
We broke camp for the last time, ate some hot oatmeal, and headed back to the trailhead. Along the way we passed a couple of groups heading up the valley. We told them about the herds of elk and the swarms of bears, but they clearly thought were just spinning a yarn. I hope they were proven wrong. Back at the trailhead we packed up our gear, changed into clean clothes and headed to the closest town we could find with a burger joint.
- Blog post
- 2 hours ago
- Views: 8922
- From: steve778
The Black Sheep Inn
Getting to the Black Sheep Inn ,which is a short distance from Quilotoa Crater Lake (pictured to the right), proved to be more difficult than I had expected. The front desk attendant at the charming inn where I was staying in Baños assured me that a local driver she used for just such excursions knew the way by heart.
How long would the trip be? Not very long, she said. Would I get right to the door? No problem. Easy trip? Not bad…
The driver picked me up at the appointed time the next morning. I had a coffee in my hand, I remember, and turned to look out the car’s rear-view window as a friend and I started on our journey; the massive volcano that dominates Baños receded behind us for what seemed like forever.
I can’t tell you how long the trip to the Black Sheep took; it's the kind of thing you measure in frustration. We drove for hours before we reached where we should have been hours ago. We stopped for directions a few times, with mixed results. We reconnoitered, discussed, and re-plotted our course. Then, when I wearily consulted my map (yet again), and it seemed that only a short burst of roadway separated us from our destination—we climbed onto a narrow, pockmarked dirt strip, rimmed by steep cliffs. We jerked and rattled over the road, picking up speed and then slowing to a near-stop, weaving stomach-churningly close to the cliffs, and then veering away at the last minute. We did that for a long, long time. By late afternoon, I could sense the driver’s growing desperation—he gradually increased his speed, and then increased it again; the road wasn’t getting any better; the cliffs were stubbornly treacherous.
So I told him he could drop us at the next town, and we’d find a way to get to the Black Sheep. A half hour later, in a village whose name I forget, we piled onto a bus with a gaggle of school kids and wound our way along more unreliable dirt roads. The bus finally dropped us at the bottom of a sizeable driveway-- at the top, mercifully, was the Black Sheep Inn.
It turns out, by the way, that there are easier and more pleasant ways to get to the lodge. But I didn’t know that until later…
Remember, You're at 12,000 Feet
I think it’s wise to take a day and acclimate before you make your way to the crater lake, especially if you plan to make the trek all the way back to your lodging.
The Black Sheep Inn is at about 12,000 feet—people deal with it differently—but while I was there, all the guests transitioned easily. Still, on my first day, ascending the simple staircase to my cabin took my breath away. I’m in reasonably good shape, but I stopped at the top of the flight and rested for a moment before crossing over to my assigned doorway.
By late the next day, I was fully acclimated. At a communal dinner that night in the main lodge (that’s the way they roll at the Black Sheep—food is included and served to the group at a designated time), a fairly large quorum agreed to hike Quilotoa the following day. A debate ensued about the transportation: Should we hire a car and travel at our leisure, or get up super-early and ride the local milk-truck to the crater? Yours truly was silent, but my friend happily sided with the early-risers. I shot her a withering look, to no effect.
And So We Took the Milk Truck…
I don’t want to make this sound remotely heroic. I think there are a lot of people who can hop the milk truck and complete this hike well into their 60’s, and I met an older couple from Copenhagen on Day 4 who got along at 12,000 feet perfectly well. I went hiking with them one afternoon, in fact, and we found a great little cottage that made and sold local cheese in the mountains—a legacy, it turns out, of a historical relationship between Swiss aid workers and Ecuador's government. Who knew? I bought a wheel of (very affordable) cheese, hauled it back to the lodge, and shared it.
But back to the milk truck…
A group of us picked up the truck in the morning and made our groggy way to the lake. You have to realize: rural Ecuador is beautiful at nearly every turn. I have pictures like this that bring back stunning memories; but there were too many pictures like that to take. The Ecuadorian Andes are simply spectacular in a way that you come to expect. Still, arriving at Quilotoa is sublime; I can’t think of any natural setting off-hand that made a deeper impression on me. The landscape is lunar; the water is a vivid green, and very still; the size of the crater (some 2 miles across) is hard to fathom. The photo at the top gives you some sense, but it doesn’t do it justice.
The hike around Quilotoa itself is mostly flat, and not especially arduous. For folks who don’t want to do more, it’s a gorgeous and fairly simple circuit, though you’re at a heady altitude (12,000+ feet). You can circle the crater and then head home if you want to take it (relatively) easy.
My group, though, decided to make the trek back to the Black Sheep, a hike that lasted for the better part of the daylight hours. You should be in good shape to do it, but it’s the length of the hike—and not the route itself—that makes it something of a challenge. We hiked a clear trail the entire length back, pausing to rest, talk, and eat-- and to admire the breathtaking views along the way. Periodically, grazing lambs (and baby lambs, like this one at right) brought us all to a standstill with their ridiculous cuteness. For the final hour of the hike, we were mostly silent, and the first glimpse of homebase set us plodding forward with a renewed intensity. On most hikes, I've noticed, the initial view of your destination gives a misleading impression of the remaining distance. It was no exception this time: we descended gentle slopes, and then turned corners to confront another slalom of rolling hills. Finally, we crossed a huge plateau, and with daylight failing just a little, came within the last hundred yards of the Black Sheep Inn.
Recovery is a Rum and Coke
After a long hike, there’s that exhilarating mixture of accomplishment and exhaustion. It’s the kind of feeling that calls for a drink—a reward, I suppose, and a tonic.
I spent the few hours before twilight looking out towards the mountains from inside the central lodge, and pondered whether I would hike again tomorrow. I didn’t ponder very hard. And I didn’t bother myself with decisions.
I just sipped one or two really good rum and cokes, ate some fattening food at the shared table, talked to guests about things I can’t remember anymore-- and did absolutely nothing.
Then I got up super-late the next day, the way you do on vacation, if you know how to do it.
>> Ecuador’s weather is fickle, but the mix of altitude and sudden bursts of intense sunlight made for unexpected sunburns. Bring sunscreen, and pack it on hikes. Always.
>> On weather (again): all the guidebooks say it rains a lot, and it does-- but I experienced little more than frequent showers. The real challenge was managing cold and heat; pack layers, and add and subtract as the temperature changes.
>> Ecuador’s currency is the American dollar. Don’t worry about changing your money if you’re coming from the U.S.
>> As of a few years ago, Ecuador could be unsafe at night. I’ve been reading lately about security improvements in the country, but until I see more proof, I’m sticking to this advice: travel during the day.
More Photos and Videos from the Trip
- Blog post
- 5 years ago
- Views: 8858
- From: Bryan and Mona
Our last big trip was 2006--Pop's dream vacation to Australia and New Zealand. We celebrated his 70th birthday watching penguins and cruising Milford Sound. Now it's Mom's turn. We leave for Switzerland and Austria on Tuesday. Our first stop is Lucerne. We hope to update our trip occasionally from the road. Check back and see the progress!
We've finished packing and getting ready to go to the airport. Mom & Pop have finished their coffee and we're ready to load the car for our 2 hour drive to the airport. I've been to Geneva & Lucerne--15 years ago--and am looking forward to a return visit, but this will be the first time for Mona, Mom, & Pop. Time to go so we have plenty of time to get through the TSA lines.
We arrive in Zurich on-time at 7:30 AM even though both of our flights experieced delays. After the mandatory stop at the ATM, we hopped on a train and headed for the city. The Swiss are excellent at public transportation. The train station is in the bottom of the airport and connections are extremely easy. We walked down the main shopping district--the Bahnhoffstrasse--and window shopped at Prada, Tiffany's, etc. We took a two hour city tour by bus in order to familiarize ourselves for our return in a week--not the best tour we've ever done, but good enough to see where we want to spend some time when we come back. After our tour, we took the train to Lucerne for our first two nights.
We paid to have our luggage sent all the way to the Lucerne train station, so we wouldn't have to claim at Zurich airport and keep up with on the trains. Definitely the way to go--once you check in at the airport, it is tagged and handled all the way--kudos to the Swiss!! Mona and I walked around town exploring the old fortifications and climbed two of the towers along the remaining wall, while Mom & Pop rested in the room. After a delicious dinner of Alplergronen (think a hearty mac & cheese), we returned to the room to crash, as our bodies lacked sufficient sleep and we hope to quickly adjust to the new time zone. The picture at left is of the Chapel Bridge, a wooden bridge across the River Reuss, dating to the 14th century. The stone octagonal tower predates the bridge by a century.
The Euro2008 Football Championship—soccer to us Yanks—is taking place while we are here. After crashing at 8:30 last night, we were awakened about 11:00 to lots of screaming and horn honking after Germany defeated Turkey. I was able to go back to sleep about 12:30, but Mona was up until 2:30. We awoke a little after 8:00 and met Mom and Pop for breakfast. The Hotel des Alpes is right on the river in Old Town and we ate outside overlooking the river. A great way to start our day. This hotel is in a perfect location and we would definitely recommend it to others.
We did our own self-guided walking tour of the Old Town section, seeing the Chapel Bridge, Jesuit Church, Spreurbrucke (another historic wooden bridge), and several of the squares around the City. After an afternoon nap, the four of us ate dinner on the outside terrace on the roof of the Manor Department Store. They have a great cafeteria that is popular with the locals. The meal was very good and much more reasonably priced than a lot of the restaurants we saw.
It’s been very overcast today with a few sprinkles here and there which have prevented us from seeing Mount Pilatus or taking the cog rail to the top. After dinner, Mom, Mona, and I went to see the Löwendenkmal (Lion Monument). It is a spectacular lion carved into a sheer face of rock—33 feet long and 20 feet tall. It’s located in a small park, and we were able to enjoy it all to ourselves. We understand it is rare to have the park to ourselves, but we went about 8:30 after dinner and it was beautiful. It is memorial to the Swiss soldiers that died defending the French king during the French revolution. I understand why people say it is a “must see” while in Lucerne. It’s noble, majestic, and heart-breaking at the same time.
Today was a travel day as we departed Lucerne and took the train to Interlaken in the Bernese Oberland—the heart of the Swiss Alps. Before leaving Lucerne, we toured the Swiss Transportation Museum—comparable to our Smithsonian but on a slightly smaller scale. I liked the train section the best, as it showed the ingenuity of how the Swiss adapted their train network to navigate the mountainous terrain.
We rode the Golden Pass line which has panoramic train cars for viewing the scenery. We stopped in the town of Brienz which is billed as a center of Swiss woodcarving. Brienz is at one end of Lake Brienzersee and Interlaken is at the other end. We looked at some of the shops and then Mona and I found a giant chessboard on the edge of the lake and played a quick match before meeting Mom & Pop back at the Train Station.
Our hotel in Interlaken is the Hotel Du Nord, right on the main street about a 10 minute walk from the train station. We’ll be here for five nights and take day trips to the surrounding areas. We had dinner at a restaurant across the street, where a local brass band played while we ate. Now it’s off to bed so we can get an early start on our day tomorrow.
We’re up early this morning to catch an 8:00 train to go high into the Alps—our destination: Jungfraujoch—the “Top of Europe” where we arrive at the highest train station in Europe at over 11,000 feet. The weather is spectacular—clear blue skies and views as far as the eye can see. We are treated to great views of the Jungfrau, Eiger, and Monch peaks. At this altitude, the peaks are still snow-capped and we have to don extra clothing, but it’s all worth it. We understand that there is frequently rain and/or cloud cover so we could not have asked for better weather. There are several vantage points to admire the views and take pictures and we saw them all. We also visited the Ice Palace where there were several sculptures carved into the ice and went sledding on snow discs.
The trip to the Jungfrau required two changes of trains at Lauterbrunnen and Kleine Scheidegg and took 2½ hours to reach the top. On the way down we stopped in the town of Wengen (roughly half-way between LB & KS) which sits on the edge of a cliff overlooking the valley with great views of the peaks. There are no cars in Wengen—the only way to reach it is by train, foot, or cable car. After taking in the town for a bit, Mona and I put Mom and Pop on the train back to Interlaken and we hiked down the mountain from Wengen into Lauterbrunnen. The trail was quite steep, but we were treated to spectacular views and a variety of trail types, including portions that went right through families’ yards or farms.
We caught the train in Lauterbrunnen back to Interlaken and arrived about 6:30, had dinner with the folks, and turned in early. Tomorrow we are planning to go to Zermatt to see the Matterhorn—the weather forecast is very promising and we are hoping for a repeat of today.
Deja vu—up early to catch the 8:00 train, this time to Zermatt. Once again, we have clear blue sky with nary a cloud in sight. Like yesterday, our trip to Zermatt requires two changes of train—one in Spiez and the other in Visp. The total travel time was a little over two hours and we arrive in Zermatt about 10:15. Zermatt is at the south of Switzerland near its border with Italy. Like Wengen, Zermatt is car-free although there are little electric “mini trucks” that cart hotel guests and luggage from the train station to their hotel. The weather is glorious, mild temps and clear blue sky. We can see the Matterhorn from the town, but we decide to go up to Rothorn, a neighboring peak to get the quintessential Matterhorn view.
You reach Rothorn via funicular then gondola and finally a cable car. We were not disappointed! We soaked up the views and atmosphere with very few people (and of course took lots of pictures). We met a couple from England who stayed in Zermatt a week last year and never saw the Matterhorn because of the weather, so we know today was a special treat. On the way down, we stopped at each intermediate point for a quick look around and had lunch at a restaurant located at the point where you change from gondola to funicular for the final leg down the mountain. I ate apfel streudel mit vanillasauce out on the terrace with gorgeous views of the Matterhorn. Mom ate the same, but Mona opted for ice cream with hers. Vanilla sauce is a thick cream sauce served warm—certainly not to be confused with ice cream, but a nice flavor to complement the streudel.
After strolling through the streets of Zermatt and catching a glimpse of some type of professional tennis tournament, we took the train back to Interlaken, arriving about 6:00. We left glorious weather to return to rain in Interlaken. We cannot see the Jungfrau, so we know what a special two days we have had weather-wise. Tomorrow we plan on visiting Bern, the capital of Switzerland. He hope for more great weather, but regardless we’ve been blessed so far.
For the third day in a row, we are out early to catch the 8:00 train, this time to Bern, the capital of Switzerland. Bern is less than an hour away by train, so we are there before 9:00 to begin our visit. The old town area of Bern dates to the 1400’s and is extremely well-preserved. All the buildings are stone as construction with wood was banned after a big fire in 1405. We took our own self-guided walking tour of the Old Town area. Mona and I split up from Mom and Pop and each did our own thing. Mona and I went to the Bear Pits to see the brown bears on display. Bern’s original name was Bärn, named after the German word for bear—bär. The bear is featured prominently on the city’s coat of arms and is a beloved symbol of the city.
Bern is quite a charming place, especially for a national capital. Less than 200,000 people live here. Probably the coolest thing we saw while we were there was the Zytglogge Clock Tower. The tower was part of Bern’s original city wall. The clock was constructed in the tower between 1527 and 1530. It is completely mechanical and must be “wound” once per day by winding the five 200 kilogram weights 90 meters high into the tower. The clock features an astronomical clock face that tells the time of day, day of the week, month, date of the month, phase of the moon, and astrological sign. It also has a rooster that crows, a jester that rings bells, and a carousel that twirls as part of the chiming of each hour. We took a tour and were able to climb to the top of the tower and see all of the inner workings. It was fascinating to see how all of the parts worked and hard to believe that such an intricate system was designed and built 500 years ago! Just viewing the clock from the street isn’t but so impressive—you must take the tour to have a full appreciation.
Unfortunately for Bryan, it was one mishap after another. For all of you close friends and family reading this, ask him about his misadventures involving a guide book, a camera lens cap, and the seat on a train. Trying to write about it doesn’t do it justice. To cap it all off, we ended up on the wrong train on the way back to Interlaken and were half-way to France before we caught our mistake and had to double back. Fortunately, our rail pass is for unlimited travel so it didn’t cost us anything.
One final note for all you sports fans: Spain 1 - Germany 0. Spain wins the Euro football championship for the first time in over 40 years. Until tomorrow. . . .
Today was laundry day as we’re about half-way through our trip. We found a self-service laundry across the river from Interlaken in Unterseen. Unterseen is adjacent to Interlaken across the Aare River and its name also translates into “between the lakes.” The washing machines are smaller than ours so Mona and I had to divide our stuff into two loads. It cost us the equivalent of $10 USD to wash and dry a single load of clothes. Glad we’re only doing that one time.
Everything in Switzerland is much more expensive than the US. Switzerland retains the Swiss Franc (CHF) as its unit of currency and not the Euro. The current exchange rate is about 1:1 so something that is 10 CHF is roughly $10.00. To give you a frame of reference using the Big Mac Economic Index, a Big Mac combo at McDonalds in Switzerland will cost you 11.30 CHF or about $11.30 which is twice what it would cost in the US. We’ve been eating big breakfasts which are included with our hotel room and eating granola bars we bought with us for lunch, so dinner is the only meal we are buying. Even so, it’s hard to find a meal that is less than $20 per person.
We spent the morning doing laundry. In the afternoon, we left Mom and Pop to fend for themselves and Mona and I took the train to the Town of Murren, on the opposite side of the valley from Wengen. Like Wengen, it sits on the edge of a cliff high on the mountain. Murren was included in our rail pass so we didn’t pay any extra even though a portion of the trip was on a cable car. The final leg on the train went right along the mountain edge which provided for spectacular views. We hiked all around the town and were planning to hike to the neighboring town of Gimmelwald but a thunderstorm began to roll in and we went back to Interlaken. We managed to avoid any additional rain back in town and spent the remainder of the evening strolling the shops and packing. Tonight’s the last night in Interlaken. Tomorrow we take the train back to Zurich where we will spend our final two nights in Switzerland.
This morning we said goodbye to Interlaken after 5 wonderful days and boarded a train for Zurich. We stopped in Brienz and caught a bus to visit Ballenberg – the Swiss Open Air Museum for Rural Culture. This museum is located on about 160 acres and contains around 100 rural houses, farm buildings, etc., from all regions of Switzerland. These structures date as early as the 1500s and were dismantled and reassembled in their original state. They also had demonstration crops and various period farm implements, and some houses had furnished interiors to give you a sense of what life was like hundreds of years ago. Admission was free with our rail pass.
It was very interesting to see the various styles of architecture and building construction from the different regions within Switzerland. I was amazed at how much Pop knew about the various plants, tools, and equipment, but since he grew up on a farm, I shouldn’t have been surprised. We left early afternoon to finish our journey to Zurich, changing trains in Lucerne, and arriving in Zurich about 5:00 PM. We are staying at the Hotel Montana near the train station and Swiss National Museum for two nights. After dinner and claiming our luggage at the train station, we called it a night as we needed to catch up on sleep for tomorrow.
Today was a surprise day for Mom and Pop as we didn’t tell them in advance what we would be doing (although Mona did spill “some” of the beans a couple of days ago). First up was a visit to Maienfeld and the land of Heidi . Heidi was one of Mom’s favorite books as a child, and Maienfeld was the inspiration for the setting of the story as it was a favorite holiday spot of the author’s. We took the train to Maienfeld (about 1.5 hours from Zurich) and then hiked about45 minutes through the town and up the mountain past fields of grapevines to the Heidiland House and Museum—a re-creation of the setting from the book. Although there wasn’t much to see at Heidiland, we enjoyed the scenery very much and Mom had a great time reminiscing about the story. Maienfeld is a quaint town with narrow streets that is still very much an active farming community. The farming appears to be mostly vineyards, and we saw lots of tractors rumbling through town.
After our visit to Heidiland, we took the train back to Sargans (all of 7 minutes) and caught a bus for part two of our surprise adventure—a visit to Liechtenstein. Sargans is a Swiss town on the border and we caught the Liechtenstein bus to Vaduz, its capital. Liechtenstein only has about 34,000 people living there—smaller than the county we live in. Mom and Pop can now add another country to the list of places they have been. We strolled the town and saw the Parliament Building and Castle where the prince and his wife live. I also bought a canceled stamp commemorating the Euro2008 Football Championships. Our guidebook says that philatelists covet stamps from Liechtenstein.
We returned to Zurich about 5:00 and were greeted with rain. We had dinner at the Manora restaurant and returned to the hotel to rest up for the evening. Our best bets for dinner (variety and price) have been the restaurants within the department stores—Manora is in the Manor Department Store. Tomorrow we will sightsee a little more in the morning before boarding a train for the 6 hour ride to Salzburg. Switzerland has been fabulous and we look forward to more exciting adventures in Austria. Internet connections have been sketchy, so until then….
Happy Independence Day! Today we leave for Austria. Mona and I were up early to do a final walking tour of the city. We walked along the Limatt River and took pictures of the skyline. We visited the Lindenhof which is a city park overlooking the river with great views ot the Grössmunster Church. We had the place to ourselves as it was only about 8:00 and the city had not yet awakened. We found another giant chessboard, but decided against playing a match.
We visited St. Peter' Church which has the largest clockface in Europe on it's tower. We then crossed the river and visited the Grössmunster and saw a 14th century statue of Charlemagne in the crypt of the church. We made our way back through Niederdorf, an old area with narrow cobblestone streets and lots of shopping and restaurants, though none were open. Although Zurich was not as quaint as the other cities we visited, we felt like we got a good feel for the city. We met back up with Mom and Pop--Mona and Mom checked out the shopping beneath the rail station and Pop stuck his head in the Swiss National Museum while I watched the luggage and updated this blog.
We left Zurich at 1:30 for the 6 hour train ride to Salzburg. We are staying at the Austrotel Hotel about a 15 minute walk from the train station. We're across the street from Mirabell Gardens, where certain scenes from the Sound of Music were filmed. Tomorrow, we are taking our half-day Sound of Music bus tour of various sites. Mom is giddy with anticipation. Tomorrow's entry will likely be all about our tour. Stay tuned!
Our blog is beginning to exceed the space allowed. Click on the link below to continue reading about our adventures in Austria.
- Blog post
- 5 years ago
- Views: 8212
- From: amyem
Laissez les bon temps rouler!
They say New Orleans is famous for both it's food and it's music. After spending a fantastic weekend there with two girlfriends, I would say I definitely agree! In fact, we are not sure if we should call this weekend "Amy Drags Susan and Rebecca to New Orleans to See Ben Harper" or "Amy, Susan and Rebecca Eat Their Way Through the Crescent City." Either way, we had a great time and we of course have some pictures to prove it!
We made a pact not to eat at any chain restaurants while in New Orleans (after all, we live in the Boring Chain Restaurant Capital of the World!). We tried to soak up the regional cuisine as best we could and boy, was it worth it! We got into the city Friday morning around 10am, so we walked around the French Quarter for awhile before stopping in at The Corner Restaurant on Decatur St. for some gumbo and jambalaya.
After a day of walking the streets of the French Quarter, we found a dinner of oysters, shrimp, crabcakes, and gumbo at The French Market Cafe. It was pretty neat watching the local fishermen pull up and deliver bushels of seriously huge shrimp they had just caught - our dinner was quite fresh, I would say!
We were looking forward to having breakfast at the famous Cafe Du Monde - but when we got there the line for a table was about 30 people long. We decided to seek out something else we had been wanting to try: Po'Boys. So we stopped in at Johnny's Po'Boys and were not disappointed. I ordered the Shrimp Po'Boy and it was really yummy. I think many people agree that Johnny's Po'Boys are the best, judging from the line!
Our next stop was, yes, for more food. Since we were headed across town for the music festival soon, we stopped in at The Central Grocery Co. for a famous muffuletta to go. We actually devoured the thing later that night, before I remembered to snap a photo... but let me tell you, that was GOOD.
As luck would have it, Southern Candymakers shop was located right next door to our hotel. We stopped in for some of the best pralines I have had... I recommend the peanut butter pralines, especially when warm...
The next morning, we decided to head out early and beat the crowds to Cafe Du Monde. It worked. We found a table right away and ordered the breakfast New Orleans is known for - cafe au lait and beignets!
On our way out, we did end up stopping at a "chain" restaurant - but only because we were told it had some of the best gumbo (yes, more gumbo). And it did. Bubba Gump's, for the record.
And I suppose no trip to Louisiana would be complete without a bag of Zapp's chips... ours were Key Lime flavored. They were... unusual tasting, but I would not say they were awful!
Luckily, we found ourselves walking quite a bit this weekend - so we didn't feel too bad about all the fantastic food we ate!
Music is everywhere in New Orleans. There is always a festival happening, a live band playing, or a street musician performing. It is a city with a soundtrack, and hearing and enjoying the different kinds of music really colors the experience.
On Saturday we hopped on the Canal Street streetcar and headed up to City Park, the site of this year's Voodoo Music Experience. After listening to a few bands and waiting on colossal, horrendous bathroom lines, we finally got to see what we came for.
New Orleans is a fantastic city, and we can't wait to get back.
- Blog post
- 5 years ago
- Views: 7962
- From: Oonagh
Some scuba divers wait a lifetime to see a Whale Shark - our dive master had logged 1400 dives and had never seen one, but my daughter, Natasha, who was doing her first dive towards her Advanced Open Water Certification (after her initial three day Open Water Certification), had an experience of a lifetime and got to see and swim with a 22ft whale shark in Maui, Hawaii.
The day started early when we met our dive master at 6:30am at the Ma'alaea dock (just near Maui Ocean Center Aquarium) and boarded the dive boat, newly refurbished, to ride to Molokini and do two boat dives - a Wall Dive and an Inside Crater dive. We always use Maui Dream Dives Co. to go diving when we are in Maui as they are fun, friendly, have great dive instructors and the best prices for rental gear, equipment and PADI Certified Courses. (A tip for divers and snorkelers in Maui - always take the first boat out - the winds come up at around noon and the ride back, if you take the later one, can be pretty rough).
Diving or snorkeling at Molokini (an underwater marine sanctuary) is a must, with visibility typically 60-150 feet year round it is one of the best dive sites in the world. You can experience the magnificent marine life, including, reef sharks, manta rays, whales, sea turtles, eels, corals and abundant tropical fish. We did our first dive along the back wall of the tiny crater where the under water currents made for a great drift dive. The wall drops off 300 feet, but we only went to 90 feet for the Deep Dive Course my daughter needed for her certification and we had plenty of opportunities to see sharks, abundant fish and turtles.
When we surfaced, our boat captain was jumping up and down on the boat, yelling at us (above the sound of the ocean) - "...shark, get in..."! Not looking around to locate a shark fin, I swam as fast as I could and hastily clambered on board with the soundtrack of the movie "Jaws" playing in my head. To my immense relief he had been yelling "There's a whale shark, get in the boat and we can go and see it". There were twelve of us on board, including five dive instructors and we all agreed to delay our second dive and make a b-line to the site a few miles away where the 22 foot whale shark had been spotted. That's one of the great thing about Maui Dream Dives - they'll find you the best opportunities for that day and let you decide what you want to do. You don't have to "get back to shore" for some deadline, like other charters. They always want you to have the best experience and that means that time is not the deciding factor when it comes to your enjoyment. One of their motto's is "ALWAYS remember the first rule of diving - HAVE FUN!"
When we got to the location of the whale shark, there was a hurried scramble and a sense of urgency to jump off the back of the boat - who knows how long it was going to stay in our vicinity and this was an opportunity of a lifetime, none of us wanted to miss out! With our snorkels on and our under water cameras ready to capture our adventure of a lifetime, we didn't have to swim far to see this amazing creature. She was a very curious fish, beautiful and graceful in the clear water and we got the opportunity to swim and play with her for over 90 minutes as she swam away and then kept returning to our boat to take another look at us, coming right up to next to the boat in a few feet below the surface of the water, as if she were peering in to try to get a better look at us. Although she was "only" 22 feet (whale sharks are the largest fishes on earth and can grow up to 60 feet in length), she was truly one of the most amazing sea creatures I have ever seen.
Going back to the crater to complete our second dive (an Underwater Photography course), we knew that the sea might be a little rough when we surfaced, and boy was it ever! It took me two attempts to grab hold of the steps in the 5-6 feet waves that were crashing around me and the ride back was rough and very bumpy (we were nearly two hours later heading back than anticipated) but What an Adventure! What a Once in a Lifetime Opportunity! What a Perfect Day!
- Blog post
- 5 years ago
- Views: 7913
- From: laratada
My husband and I took a trip to Vietnam, Cambodia, and the Philippines last December. I plan to write a more detailed journal about our adventures, but thought I'd start with some handy resources for anybody planning a trip. Since we barely had five days in Vietnam, we decided to make Saigon our home base and take a couple of day trips beyond city life. Feel free to contact me with any questions!
DAY 1: Late night arrival and check-in
DAY 2: Explore HCMC District 1 & 3
- Grab a quick bite to eat at the city's largest covered market, Ben Thanh. Explore the maze of fruit, meat, food and shopping stalls.
- Walk or take a cyclo to the Reunification Palace
- Stroll through the shaded park filled with locals and students to Notre Dame Cathedral and the General Post Office. This is near HCMC's high-end area with some of the fancier and more diverse dining options (albeit pricey by Vietnamese standards).
- Spend the afternoon touring the collection of machinery and weapons and getting a different perspective of the Vietnam War at the War Remnants Museum. Be warned that some of the displays and exhibits can be very graphic. Make sure to bring water as there is no A/C and on a hot day, it can get quite muggy on the upper floors.
- Jet lag may sink in so you may want to head back to the hotel for a break, or get a cheap foot massage at one of the many salons (stay away from ones with women in scanty outfits displayed in the window).
- Enjoy dinner near your hotel or at a Bia Hoi sidewalk stool for a cheap and more authentic experience
DAY 3: COOKING CLASS & MORE EXPLORATION
- Arrange a cooking class or tour with Connections Vietnam. A local guide, usually a student, will meet you at your hotel and take you around the city or to a family's home where you can shop for ingredients at a nearby market and prepare a delicious, Vietnamese lunch.
- Spend the afternoon visiting one of the city's many Pagodas. For an atmospheric, spooky experienceI recommend the Emperor Jade Pagoda in District 3. Cholon (Chinatown) also has a slew of temples to visit, including Giac Lam Pagoda.
- If you have time, take advantage of one of the city's many cheap salon or spa services before dinner.
DAY 4: DAY TRIP TO CU CHI TUNNELS AND CAO DAI TEMPLE
Arrange a tour through your hotel or something more personalized with an operator like Connections Vietnam or Sinh Balo for a day trip out of the city. A popular day trip is to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels in the morning and Cao Dai Temple in the afternoon. The advantage of taking a personal tour is that you can start earlier and beat the crowds.
- Meet your guide and take a 90-minute ride out of the city and through the country to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, an underground network of tunnels made by the Viet Cong during the war. You start the tour with a funny, war-era propaganda film about its history and proceed to explore an outdoor exhibit of tunnels, bunkers, and traps. There's even a shooting range where tourists can pay to fire different weapons.
- Head out to Tay Ninh to visit the spiritual center of the Cao Dai religion and observe a ceremony at the colorful temple around noon. Cao Dai is a popular religion in southern Vietnam that pulls from the pillars of Buddhism, Islam, Christiany, and Taoism.
- Usually the tour will arrange for lunch nearby the temple before arriving back in the city in mid to late afternoon. Spend the rest of the day shopping or resting.
DAY 5: DAY TRIP TO MEKONG DELTA
We arranged our tour with Sinh Balo and were very happy with their personal service and expertise. Though a little pricier, our tour group only consisted of six people, unlike the many bus-loads you may encounter on your journey. There are several Mekong sites you can visit, we opted for a trip to the Can Tho floating market as described below.
- Meet guide in morning and pick up remaining tourists before take a two hour drive south to Can Tho.
- Board a small boat and explore daily life at the floating market.
- Enjoy a tour where you get to watch how candies and rice paper is madewith free samples and tea afterward (in hopes of course that you'll buy more).
- Set back out on the Mekong River and admire the countryside and local life. Eventually you'll arrive at a small canal area where each couple boards a sampang (Vietnamese canoe) to explore the area.
- Hike through fruit orchards and sample exotic fruit in season.
- Board back on boat and stop at restaurant for a late lunch.
- Arrive back in Saigon in the early evening.
GENERAL HCMC INFO:
- Connections Vietnam - Responsible tourism operator that sets up tours with local students or young residents. Offers cooking classes in people's home. Highly recommended!
- Sinh Balo: Adventure travel operator offering in-depth, small tours. I recommend booking with them a few days before you want to take a tour. The more people that sign up, the cheaper their rates become for the next people who join.
- Travelfish – Asian budget/backpacker site
- Reid on Travel – Great itinerary and planning suggestions written by ex-pat living in Vietnam. Super helpful.
- Any Arena – Guide for hip Saigon shopping, dining and nightlife
- Spas Vietnam – Helpful listing of area spas
- Blog post
- 3 years ago
- Views: 7675
- From: kk6t
My wife Robin and I have been very fortunate to have traveled to some fantastic destinations. This is an excerpt from my journal on our Rick Steves' Village Italy tour. The tour was two weeks long and visited some of the most picturesque villages and hilltowns in the Tuscany and Umbria regions. Picturesque may be an understatement......I took more than 3000 pictures during those two weeks.
I was a little nervous about today. Today is September 11th and we had to fly from London (see Pre-Tour London section ) to Venice to start our tour. We had to leave the hotel at 4:30AM to make our flight and the airport (Gatwick) looked like an ant colony that had just been disturbed but other then that we had no problems. Once we were on the ground in Venice I was able to relax a little.
We followed the directions we had been given and took the bus from the airport to Padua. The bus ride was somewhat of an adventure. Every time we came to a sign showing Padua (Padova) the driver went the opposite direction.....every time!
Eventually however we arrived at the Padua bus station.From there we took a taxi to our hotel. What a ride.....I thought I drove crazy. If there was a bicyclist or pedestrian in the road the taxi driver would pull up behind them to within inches and then blow the horn. A couple times I had to close my eyes because I was SURE we were going to launch the Padovan in our way into orbit!! Needless to say we made it to the hotel safely and I can assure you that no Padovani were injured in the making of this blog!
"The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page." - St. Augustine
Our hotel is very nice and the owners are very friendly. After dropping our bags in our rooms Robin & I along with Susan & Kerry wandered through the old portion of Padua and stopped for some lunch which we finished off with some excellent gelato. The gelato will become a daily goal that we will pursue with dogged determination!
After returning to the hotel and cleaning up we all met in the breakfast room of the hotel. This was our first chance to meet our guide Julie and the intrepid travelers with which we would be spending the next two weeks. I was amazed at how diversified our group was. They ranged from first time European travelers to at least one who was on their sixth Rick Steves tour.
We had west coast people, east coast people and everything in between. We even had one person from St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It was an exciting afternoon listening to everyone and beginning to gel as a group. Our big task at the meeting was to pick a "buddy", someone who would be responsible for us and for whom we would be responsible. My buddy was a very easy choice....big fun loving, outgoing Ron! We learned that Sharon's luggage hadn't arrived. She had spent a couple days in Venice before Padua and so far her luggage hadn't caught up with her.
Julie, our guide spent quite a bit of time going over what we could expect on the trip and how the tour would be run. Julie has an incredible wealth of experience with international travel and she would be a great wealth of information during the trip.
With all the formalities behind us the last item on our adjenda for the evening was DINNER. We all adjorned to the "La Cova Ristorante". Dinner was mushroom risotto, meat with grilled vegetables and a delicioso chocolate dessert. Julie our guide picked out an excellent red wine to have with dinner. It was a wonderful evening. After dinner we had a nice stroll back to the hotel and had time to reflect on our first day in Italy. If the first day was any indication we were in for a memorable trip!
This morning we had our first group breakfast in the hotel. It's very nice to be able to sit with new people and talk about what you did yesterday and what you're looking forward to today. Of course not everyone is a morning person and I expect to be thrashed with a cream pitcher more than once!
After breakfast (no cream pitchers yet!) we met up with our local guide Christina and she took us to see the magnificent frescoes at the Scrovegni Chapel. The frescoes were done by Giotto between 1303 and 1035 and represent one of the most important masterpieces of Western art. The frescoes depicts events in the lives of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary and cover the entire chapel. Our group was only allowed to remain in the chapel for 15 minutes because of the damaging effects of increased humidity from our breathing and warm bodies. I could easily have gone back for a couple more 15 minute sessions. To stand in the chapel and gaze up at these frescoes done seven hundred years ago just takes your breath away. Unfortunately, photography was forbidden.
"Travel has a way of stretching the mind. The stretch comes not from travel's immediate rewards, the inevitable myriad new sights, smells and sounds, but with experiencing firsthand how others do differently what we believed to be the right and only way." - Ralph Crawshaw
Next we were given a special treat. Julie our guide and Christina had managed to get us permission to see the anatomy theatre (Teatro Anatomico) at the University of Padua. The university was founded in 1222 and is the second oldest university in Italy. It was started by a group of students and professors from the University of Bologna looking for more academic freedom.
The Teatro Anatomico was created in 1594 and is the oldest, permanent anatomy theatre still in existence today. The reason for it's construction is easy - accademia was booming in Padua in the late 16th century and there were more medical students than could comfortably fit around a dissecting table.
One of the interesting 'facts' regarding this facility is that human dissection was illegal when this theatre was first used and that to remedy this the dissecting table was able to be flipped over - displaying an animal dissection on the reverse side and hiding the human dissection in case of intruder. True or false......who knows?
After the University of Padua Christina showed us the way to the open air market at the Piazza delle Erbe. This is what is so great about having local guides. They know the area and they know all the local venues. It was wonderful to have Christina for the day. She made all the difference in getting to know Padua.
On the way back to the hotel Christina took us to see the Basilica San Antonio (Basilica of St. Anthony). The basilica is actually three different reconstructions that took place between 1238 and 1310. This is where St. Anthony is buried and several of his relics (tongue, jaw and left forearm) are enshrined for viewing. I found it interesting that the architecture of the basilica is mainly Gothic but the chapel where the relics are exhibited was done in the Baroque style by Parodi, one of Bernini's pupils.
We had some free time late in the afternoon so Robin & I walked over to the botanical garden (Orto Botanico) for a quick tour. It is part of the university and dates back to 1545. We didn't have enough time (seems to be a theme!) but we really enjoyed our visit and got to see quite a variety of plants from all over the world.
After our free time we all met up with Julie back at the hotel for some wine tasting. This was quite unexpected and we were able to sample quite a range of Italian wines. Following the wine tasting we were on our own for dinner. Susan, Kerry, Donna L., Joan, Nancy, Roy, Robin & I decided to all go together. We had a very tasty meal and it was nice to be able to learn more about some of our travel partners ......... more
- Blog post
- 5 years ago
- Views: 7502
- From: bettchia
My boyfriend and I just came back from our one week trip to Italy (October 13-20) to Rome, Florence, and Venice and we would love to share our experiences.
We arrived in Rome on Sunday October 14 in the early afternoon. From the airport you can buy an express ticket that takes you directly to Termini Train station for $11 euros. No one even checked our ticket on board (probably because it was a Sunday). Termini is only a 30 minute ride from the airport and our hotel was directly across (Hotel Corot-see my review). We decided to go to the Coliseum around 3:30pm and the public transportation is very convenient and you can take the B line directly to the Coliseum. The line was not too long as it was about to close within an hour and one ticket is good for both the Coliseum and for Palantine Hill until 1:30pm of the next day. After the Coliseum, we walked over to the Pantheon square and then walked over to Piazza Navona to eat dinner. I agree with all the other members who have written on this particular topic, please do yourself a favor and do not eat at any place that has a "Menu Tourista" or has English subtitles in the Menu. During our stay in Rome, we ate around all the touristy areas, Piazza Popolo, Pantheon, etc..and we were disappointed with the quality of the food (Italian food in the States tasted better than the food that we had there!). After dinner we headed over to the crowded Trevi Fountain which was crowded with tourist even at 11pm at night but it made it sort of festive. We finished the night off with some gelato at a local shop near our hotel next to the Termini station.
Day 2 started off seemingly well for us as we headed over to the Palantine Hill, Circus Maximus, and the Forum ruins. Because we headed over there around 8am, we beat the crowd and it was very peaceful and a great way to see the sights. Unfortunately, as we were riding on the Metro to our next destination, we got pickpocketed! I urge everyone to be very careful! It happened in an instance! We were shoved into the metro and these teenage girls used this distraction to take my boyfriend wallet's which contained a lot of money! When we went to the American Express to pick up a temporary card, 3 other people in line told me that they were pickpocketed or had their purses stolen that morning as well, so be very very careful when you are there in Italy, I cannot stress that enough! Despite the stress and the loss of our money =( we tried to enjoy the rest of Rome. We walked to the Vatican (the line was extremely long and somehow we were lucky enough to be swept in with some of the other tourist, but go early or go late to the Vatican City since St Peter's basilica and the Vatican Museums are a must when you are in Rome. We strolled along the river passing Castel D' St. Angelo (closed on Mondays) followed by a coffee break at a sidewalk cafe at the Piazza Poppolo. There's high retail shopping near the Spanish Steps with Gucci, LV, Dior boutiques etc. but we got there when the stores were already closed. We ate dinner near the Pantheon at a cafe with lots of people which we thought would be a good indicator that the food would be good but it turns out that most of the diners were also fellow tourists and the food was not that great. We finished the night by walking over to the Spanish Steps (crowded at all hours of the day) and the Trevi Fountain and then taking a nice stroll back to Termini.
Tips for Rome:
*Watch out for your personal belongings! Use a money belt, keep your money stored in different places, keep your hand on your money/wallet at all times!
*Visit the Coliseum/Palentine Hill early in the morning to avoid the crowds
*Do not eat at the touristy spots! Do your research to find good restaurants, ask for recommendations, or wander away from the touristy restaurants to get good fare.
*Note that the line for the Vatican Museums is probably long at all hours of the day.
We took the train to Florence from Rome and it was a very enjoyable 1.5 hour ride with great views of the countryside. We arrived in Florence and immediately loved it. There was a feeling of tranquility as soon as we got there; drastically different from the crazy hustle/bustle of Rome. Our hotel, the La Fortezza (separate review) was only a 15 minute ride from the station and we loved our little hotel. After checking in and dropping off our things, we started to explore the city of Florence. It's a charming city and the people seemed friendlier than those in Rome. We pre-booked our tickets to the Uffizi gallery for $3 more (highly suggested) and bypassed the huge line. I enjoyed viewing all of the different works and my favorite was Botticelli's Spring. After the Uffizi gallery, we had snacks and rested at the Piazza de la Signoria before walking over to the Duomo and climbing up the 436 steps to get a wonderful bird's eye view of the city of Florence. After climbing down the Duomo we walked over to the Ponte Vecchio to catch the sunset over the bridge. For dinner, we ate at La Ghiribelini (recommended by fellow members) and we had our first delicious meal in Italy! We had pizza and two pastas and everything was great! The restaurant is away from the touristy sights but well worth the walk to.
Early reservations to the Accadamia got us up and out of the hotel at 8:00am. Michelangelo's David is magnificent. How could a statute be so universally appealing? I thought the same thing until I saw it, there's no other way to explain it, you just have to see it in person to truly grasp the beauty, other people's pictures are not going to cut it. After the Accadamia we walked over to the Medici Chapels and to the Mercaceria where the indoor market sold meats, cheeses, and fresh fruits and vegetables. We then sauntered past the San Lorenzo marketplace with its leather goods and cashmere pashminas. We crossed the Ponte Vecchio to Oltrano and spent all afternoon at the Boboli Gardens and museums. The place is huge! We spent hours just looking at the exhibits, walking through the garden, and taking a much needed nap on the grass and near the fountains. To catch the sunset, we walked over to the Piazza Michelangelo and climbed up the hill to see a wonderful night view of Florence. After making our way back across the Ponte Vecchio, we had dinner at Leo's in St. Croce which was also another lovely authentic Italian meal. We attempted to go to the famous Harry's Bar but when we got there it was quiet and there was no jazz music (maybe they only play it on certain days?) so we walked along the river and stopped by a bar to get some late night dessert and expresso before going home.
Tips for Florence:
*Reserve your tickets in advance for the Uffizi and Accadamia! You pay $3 more for each ticket but it's worth it not to have to wait in line when you are there! David is a must see!
*The view from Piazza Michelangelo is really nice but it is a bit further away from the main touristy spots
*Florence is a great city just to walk around, make sure you spend time just relaxing and enjoying the atmosphere.
*Climbing up the Duomo was fun and well worth it for those without any health conditions (parts of the stairs are really narrow and dark and could make someone really dizzy or sick)
Day 5 Venice
The ride from Florence to Venice is a bit longer-almost 3 hours and not as comfortable as our ride from Rome to Florence. The Venice train station is more hectic than Florence but our service lady at the tourist office was extremely affable and gave us some well needed information. We hopped onto the 51 Vaporetto to get to our hotel, Sant Elena (see my separate review) which we loved! I was a bit apprehensive because it was raining when we got to Venice but luckily the rain subsided within a couple of hours. The rain made the Venetian night look beautiful as the air was crisp and fewer people were out and about because of the rain. We headed out to St. Mark's Square and strolled down all the little alley ways looking at shops and restaurants. Unfortunately, for dinner we decided to eat at the Piccolo Martini, a little restaurant that seemed crowded and not on the main road but again we were really disappointed with the food! After dinner, we spent the evening crossing bridges and watching gondola riders before heading over to listen to the dueling orchestras in St. Mark's square (very fun!). We had dessert at one of the restaurants and enjoyed the music for the rest of the night before heading back to our hotel.
Our hotel receptionist told us that it would be cloudy but when we woke up, we could not have asked for a more perfect day. The sun splendidly greeted and basked us in its warm light. The weather was so nice we strolled along the river from Sant Elena to St. Mark's square stopping by to admire the parks, bridges, boats, and homes along the way. Once we got to St. Mark's square, we went window shopping at some of the high end boutiques because we didn't get to do that in the other two cities. We then headed our way up the Campanile tower to get a view of the Venice from atop. It was $6 euros and we thought climbing the Duomo in Florence was more worth it but you're there so why not do both? We also went inside St. Mark's Basilica but after seeing all the different churches, we were a bit "churched" out. In St. Mark's Square, there are tons of pigeons and they are so friendly and perch right up on your arm or your head if you just stand there. My boyfriend got a kick out of that. For lunch, we ate at the Osteria da Maria for $30 where we got some very tasty vegetables and fresh made ravioli. We took a ride on the 1 vaparetto up and down the Grand Canal. Since we got the 36 hour pass, we were able to get on and off the vaparetto and explore the different areas from Ca D'oro to the Accadamia (yes they have one too). Getting lost in the little streets of Venice was kind of fun and so was walking up the streets of local shops, bakeries, mask and glass stores. We didn't know that the gondola rides end around 9:00pm and we had originally planned to take it after dinner but once we found out, we ran back to St. Mark's from our hotel. Luckily, we found one gondolier but he charged us $100 euros (he claimed that it was the night time surchage but since it was our last night there, we had no choice. The ride was nice, it was peaceful and our gondolier rode just close enough to another gondola that we got free musical accompaniment! Sadly, our ride was abruptly cut short because we felt some drops of rain and he said it was going to start raining. I think our ride was only about 25 minutes instead of the 40. That was the only bummer about the gondola ride. I would recommend going at sunset, I think that would be the most peaceful and romantic time to see the Venetian canals. If we get a chance to go to Venice again, we might do that :). Our last dinner in Venice was at the Osteria Da Franz located in Giardini. It was the nicest restaraunt that we ate at and the food and service were both outstanding. We spent about $120 euros there but could have easily spent more. After dinner, we took one last stroll to St. Mark's Square to get one last gelato since it was going to be our last night in Venice. We had to catch the night vaporetta at 3:00am so we didn't have much sleep, but luckily we got to the airport with the public transportation and without a hitch!
Tips for Venice:
*Ride the vaporetto on the Grand Canal during sunset towards and against Lido, it's beautiful.
*Take a sunset gondola ride
*Catch the dueling orchestras in St. Mark's
*walk along the boardwalk towards Sant Elena
*stroll up and down all the little shops
I would dress in layers
T otally wear comfy shoes
A lways keep your money and belongings close to you
L learn to love gelato and cappucino-we had that everyday
Y es, have a blast!
- Blog post
- 5 years ago
- Views: 7259
- From: tharrow
Magical tales of leprechauns and mystical images of the Emerald Isle have danced in my head since I was a young girl. I have always dreamed of Ireland.
Before I could change my mind, or come to my senses, I set off on a solo journey that I hoped would turn out to be the adventure of a lifetime. I bought an oversized backpack, an overpriced plane ticket and made my way via JFK, to Ireland.
As cliché as it may sound, I set off on this soul-searching journey hoping to rediscover myself. By traveling alone, I planned to re-think and refocus my life goals. Because I didn't know much about Ireland, I had no idea where to go. A day before taking off, I did some research on the Internet trying to figure out where to go. A Google search for "best places to visit in Ireland" gave me over a million hits. Slightly frustrated, I decided to pick an airport and just play it by ear. I settled on Shannon airport on the West coast, mainly because of its beautiful rugged coastlines I saw in pictures.
Doolin (County Clare)
This is where my journey begins. Getting here requires a short layover in Ennis and a long bus trip through some windy mountainous roads. For those prone to motion sickness, even slightly, Dramamine is a necessity. I don't normally have motion sickness problems, but I end up eating my entire two-week supply of Tums. Maybe it was the winding roads or the constant jerking motion of the bus, or maybe it was the fact that a couple of my fellow passengers, who obviously forgot their Dramamine, were vomiting on the bus. For most of the ride, I hang on to the seat-back handles in front of me, with a death-grip. Come to think of it, maybe that should have been a clue that this would be a rough ride. In my 36 years on this planet, I've managed to live through some scary car rides-Manhattan taxi rides topping my list. After the last one of those a few years ago, I fully expected to at least earned an "I rode in a New York city taxi… and survived" t-shirt. The bus ride to Doolin made the taxis seem like a Sunday drive with Grandma.
I've been stuffed in the backseat of speeding compact cabs in Mexico, all the while praying to the bobble-headed Jesus stuck to the dash, hoping he understood English, but this bus ride, in the countryside of Ireland, takes the cake. The roads here are so narrow the driver locks up the brakes each time an oncoming car approaches. When I step off of the bus in Doolin, I am so grateful to still be alive and to not have vomited, that I thank God and fight off my strong urge to kneel down and kiss the road.
Doolin is known as the place to go for the real feel of Ireland. It is the home of traditional Irish music where famous Irish musicians are known to drop by to play a few sessions. Despite the five hour time difference from my home in Richmond, VA. And a total journey of 28 hours, I'm exhilarated and ready to begin a new adventure.
My first night I stay at the Aille River hostel- a 300 year old renovated cottage. I don't know much about hostels, in fact I know nothing other than there was a recent horror flick out about them, which luckily, I've never seen. I have no idea what to expect, other than the €15 cash only per night price tag. The quaint stone-front hostel sits just across a little stone bridge. Cows and sheep graze nearby. A lonely-looking donkey walks along side of me as I get closer to the hostel. I explain to him that I don't have any food and he stares at me, obviously disappointed.
When I walk through the door, I meet Karl, the hostel manager. He looks like he hasn't shaved or showered in a while and has a pungent odor to him. Later, after taking a small survey in the pub, I learn that deodorant isn't high on the priority list of the Irish, in fact most don't use it. Maybe that explains Karl's unpleasant aroma. He is extremely friendly and chatty with everyone as he explains the rules of the hostel. There are free laundry facilities, internet and a full kitchen. He shows me to my room, which he explains has enough beds for eight people, both guys and girls. "Whoa. Wait a minute. Guys are sleeping in here with me," I ask. "Yep, unless you get a private room, which is €45," Karl says. "Don't worry, you'll be ok." I ask him to show me the private room, which more closely resembles a linen closet with a bed. I decide to take my chances with the co-ed room. I pick an empty bottom bunk and attempt a quick nap.
My nap is cut short, because of the racket outside of my open window. Cows are moo-ing and just like dogs, when one starts, they all join in. I hear sheep baaa-ing in the distance, and my donkey friend in the yard next door joins in too with his hee-hawing sound. Because, I've never heard a real live donkey, unless Saturday morning cartoons of my childhood count, I never knew they actually sounded like that. The barnyard orchestra causes me to break into a fit of hysterical laughter. Luckily, there are no witnesses.
After giving up on the nap, I check out all five pubs within walking distance of the hostel. I learn after walking into Fitzpatrick's, a modern looking restaurant/ pub across the street, that the Irish tend to eat dinner after 7:30. I have the place to myself, so I sit and chat with Keiran, the bartender. He recommends the special for dinner, Seafood Risotto. Giant hunks of salmon and other fresh fish fill my bowl, along with various shellfish and shrimp. It's a bargain for only €14 euros and ends up being the best meal I will eat in Doolin. Keiran tells me that the music usually starts around 9:00pm and ends whenever the players stop playing or the pubs decide to close.
At 9:00pm the sky is still surprisingly bright. Apparently, it doesn't get dark here until almost 11:00pm during summer. Winter here must be incredibly depressing with so little daylight. In search of music, I head to McCann's pub, a favorite spot of the locals. The pub is deserted on the outside, but inside is standing-room only, with a great band playing in the corner. I order a Guinness and try to find a spot to stand. I can say that the rumors about Guinness in Ireland are true, the beer tastes much better than the Guinness sold in the states. At home, I won't even drink it, but here, not to sound like some kind of beer connoisseur, but the Guinness is rich and creamy with chocolately undertones. My bartender tries his best to make a shamrock design in the foam of my beer, but instead of shamrock, it looks more like a penis, which makes me laugh. He still gets an A for effort.
The next morning I awake to blinding sunlight streaming through the curtain-less windows. It's an extremely rare (which I later learn), beautiful warm sunny day in Ireland. Today, I unintentionally embark on a crazy adventure. Karl suggests I take advantage of the day and hike to the Cliffs of Moher. "Don't go on the tour. You have to hike there. It's the only way to see the real beauty," he says. Two girls staying at the hostel, Kerri, a lesbian from California and Sara, a crazy-looking German girl, overhear my conversation with Karl and ask to join me. "You will come to a gate that is marked "Do not enter. Danger, but just ignore it and keep going," Karl says.
After walking miles, we run out of trail and have to jump across gaps where the path has washed away into the ocean below. We climb over rusted barbed wire fences, under electric fences, through fields filled with cattle, which brings me to my next adventure. While crossing through one particular field, I decide to snap a few shots of the peaceful grazing cattle. Apparently, these cows don't like their picture taken (Maybe in another life they were Amish) A big brown fellow decides to run after me. At first, being a good hundred feet away, I think it's cute, but as he gets closer and noticeably larger, panic sets in. I start screaming and running as if, well as if, I was being chased by a mad cow. This would be a really stupid way to die, I think. I don't know what makes him give up, maybe he was just having a little fun with me, but he decides, like a few men that I've dated, that I am not worth the chase.
We follow the path for the next few miles along the base of a mountain, the sea to the right of us. The scenic walk is gorgeous and peaceful, more than I ever imagined it would be, until the trail suddenly comes to an end. Standing at the edge of the cliff, we weigh our options. Either we head back a few miles to try to find a different path, head straight up the mountain, or jump. Since we don't want to die today, we hesitate for a few minutes. Sara starts heading up the mountain yelling for us to follow her. "Come on, let's go," she says.
Kerri slowly follows behind her muttering something about being terrified of heights. Without much thought, I follow behind them, straight up the mountain. It only takes a few minutes to realize I made a huge mistake. I pause to look down the mountain and panic sets in. I am wearing my brand new Asics running (not hiking) shoes. They haven't even met my treadmill yet. They are brand new, stiff and definitely not meant for climbing mountains.
I pause, trying to decide whether going back down the mountain is even a possibility. I take one baby step down and feel myself losing traction. Down is definitely not an option for me. With a deep breath, I turn back around and climb further, clutching fistfuls of grass with each step up the mountain. I stop every couple of minutes, both trying to control my racing heart and shaking hands and to pray that I survive this. I practice my yoga breathing, short inhalations and long exhalations. Luckily, I have my camera around my neck. It takes the blame for my constant stopping. "It's so breathtakingly beautiful. I have to capture this," I yell to the girls climbing ahead of me. I'm also trying to distance myself from them. As horrible as it sounds, I know if either of them loses traction and falls, they will definitely knock me off of the mountain and into the rocky cliffs below us on the way down. If I survive this, I promise God that I will never ever take my life for granted again.
Obviously, I make it to the top of the mountain or you wouldn't be reading this. Once we reach the top and make it to our destination, the touristy part of the Cliffs of Moher, we are a little disappointed at what we see, especially after the journey we have just taken. Isn't life just like that sometimes though? "It's not the destination, it's the journey."
On the trip back into town, I feel so exhilarated and happy simply at being alive. Maybe this adventure, this near-death experience is just what I needed to put life into perspective for me. We strike up a conversation with two old Irishmen chatting on the side of the road.
"Two fellows jumped off those cliffs yesterday. Found em' a couple hundred meters apart," one man says.
"How do they know it was suicide," I ask. "Did they leave notes?"
"No, but that's where everyone goes to end it," he says.
After the experience I just had, I can't help but wonder if either of them were accidents.
We walk to McCann's pub for lunch where I order the fish and potato cakes, as recommended by the waitress, who tells me they're "lovely." They look and taste like deep-fried-fish-flavored-mashed-potato-balls, not exactly what I'd call lovely. At €10.50, they weren't exactly a bargain. I consider wrapping them in a napkin and giving them to my donkey friend later, but my rumbling stomach reminds me that I'm starving. Outside, an old man sits at a weathered picnic table strumming his guitar and singing. Two country-looking guys sit with him singing and laughing loudly. They insist we sit and sing along with them. We spend a few minutes talking to them and head back to the hostel where we part ways for the evening.
I have dinner at O'Conner's Pub, another favorite spot of the locals. It's about a 10-minute walk in the opposite direction from McCann's. There are no tables available and the crowd is elbow to elbow. I grab a single empty stool at the bar and order dinner. Traditional instrumental music has the crowd tapping their toes and bobbing their heads to the rhythm. Following the bartender's suggestion, I settle on a starter (Irish appetizer) of king prawns wrapped in pastry and an order of brown bread. Tiny salad-sized shrimp wrapped in fried phyllo dough arrive (€10). I take a bite and chew and chew and chew the greasy rubbery concoction. I try, but can't bring myself to force this down, even with a Guinness chaser. On a positive note, the brown bread with Irish butter is delicious.
Because I don't want to be too far from my hostel, I finish my night at the place across the street, Fitzpatrick's. Walking along the street in this town after dark is a bad idea. Crime is non-existent, but so are street lights and shoulders along the road for walking. Fitzpatrick's is booming with a young, attractive crowd. Keiran, the bartender tells me the large group is a wedding party from Limerick. I meet several people, including Chicago's governor, Pat Quinn who tries to engage me in a political discussion, which bores me to tears. I make friends with a couple of friendly college-age guys who suggest I visit the city of Galway next. I tell them I'll think about it.
The handsome dark-haired musician works the crowd with his solo guitar playing and singing. Most everyone in the crowded bar, including me sings along to every song. You just can't help it, the air is electric. "Sweet Caroline" by Neil Diamond has everyone hitting high notes. Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" has the crowd singing and stomping their feet to the rhythm. Most all music is American, with the exception of a few well known Irish songs. It's only after hearing a packed bar full of Irish people sing Lynryrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama," that my life feels complete.
The next morning, I awake to a sound that I become all too familiar with, pelting rain on the roof. It is chilly, windy and raining sideways. "Aww, you get used to it." Karl says when I ask how they deal with this type of weather all of the time. I bundle myself up the best I can, with the clothes I've brought and walk about a mile to the nearby farmer's market. About 30 vendors sell their goods inside of the large yellow building. A quirky looking Irishman sells produce outside. The farmer's market reminds me of a church craft fair with a few food vendors. Just inside the door, a cheese vendor sits behind giant wheels of cheese. There's sheep, goat and cow cheeses, all sold by the slice. Further inside there are several stands offering breads, pastries and pies. For breakfast, I buy a slice of fresh cheese and a soft yeasty sweet potato roll all for €1.60.
After my breakfast, I make my way towards the bus stop to head to Galway. I stop in a little cottage bookstore along the way both to get out of the rain and to warm up a little. I have a latte and can't resist ordering a warm chocolate croissant from an overfilled basket sitting on the counter. A few of the shops I've been to in this town keep the pastries in baskets on the floor, which makes me imagine tiny mice nibbling on them (when the customers aren't hovering over them in wet muddy shoes). I sit at a little cloth covered table, which is actually an antique sewing machine nestled beside a wood-burning stove. Annette, a gorgeous blonde-haired blue-eyed German girl from my hostel stops by my table for a moment to say hello. She's also waiting for the bus to Galway. Later, we become fast friends on the bus ride and she even invites me to come visit her in Germany in a few days. I tell her I'll see what happens.
Gentle Irish music plays throughout the old bookstore. The scent of crackling wood and coffee fills the air. As I drink my latte and feel myself warming up, I find that I am content and at peace for the first time in a very long time in my life. I sit a few moments longer watching the falling rain through the bay window. Feeling a little sad, I silently say goodbye to Doolin.
- Blog post
- 5 years ago
- Views: 7001
- From: nadavena
I travelled to Ecuador to visit my daughter, Sarah, while she was in the Peace Corps. For the short twelve days I was there we were able to visit three of the four geographical regions of Ecuador: the coast, the Andes, and the Amazon. This entry recounts my arrival and my time on the coast in Muisne.
Hostal Playa Paraiso
I was scheduled to arrive in Quito on 13 September, but the plane could not land because of cloud cover, the captian said, so we were diverted to Guayaquil for the night. I cleared customs at the airport there and hopped on a van with some of the Spanish speaking passengers, as the English speaking ones seemd unsure of what to do. The van brought us to the Hampton Inn, courtesy of Continental Airlines. As soon as I walked into the room the phone rang. A woman said "Hi, Gregory, this is Monica." Wrong Gregory, but she was in Quito and she said she would call Sarah to give her the number for the hotel. Sarah did call, and I told her I would see her in Quito the next morning. Thank you, Monica, whoever and wherever you are. I hope you found the Gregory you were looking for.
The next morning I did fly to Quito. On the way I saw 4 volcanoes piercing through the cloud cover. I wish I could name them, but I can't. Sarah was waiting for me at the airport. She looked great; healthy and toned and tanned. We took a taxi to the hostal to store our things we wouldn't need in Muisne, and called Jacki from papayanet internet cafe. We then ate lunch: I had a mahi-mahi sandwich and a pearadise smoothie. In the Andes. We then dropped off her photos to be printed and and took a taxi to the Peace Corps office to meet El Jefe, Cisco. Taxis are fast and cheap in Quito. Just agree on a price before you hop in, especially if the meter is not running. Most trips were 50 cents or $1.00.
We picked up Sarah's photos then headed back to the airport to fly to Esmeraldas. Our original plan was to take the bus, but because of the lost day in Guayaquil, we decided to fly. Byron, the owner of Hostal Playa Paraiso, was there to drive us to Muisne. He drove like a maniac, as did everyone else. You're not gonna pass me, senor! About halfway to Muisne we came upon a roadblock by what looked like Ecuadorian soldiers. Byron said they collected "tolls." Maybe because of us gringos, they didn't make him pay this time. This is when I realized we weren't in Kansas anymore, but truly in a third world country. The road ended at the rio across from Muisne, where we took the ferry to the island, 50 cents each.
Ali, Sarah's Peace Corps successor, was waiting for us at Sarah's apartment in the center of town. She was glad to get all the goodies I brought to her from her parents. Sarah and I then walked to Byron's and America's (and the boys') hostal on the beach where I would stay while in Muisne. They seved us muchas cervesas (Pilsener, the national beer of Ecuador) and had a good time sitting around talking and enjoying the ocean breeze. Plus they ordered me a great dinner of shrimp, fish, rice, and platanos.
I fell asleep to the sound of the waves...
...And awoke to the sound of a gentle rain. America made me coffee, and Byron and I had a long talk about condtions in Muisne, prospects in the USA, and the pros and cons of staying in Muisne versus leaving. After Sarah woke up, Alexandra, their helper here, made us pancakes with bananas and honey. Sarah and I then went for a long walk on the beach. Really. I liked it. We saw much driftwood, 4 or 5 dead sea turtles (Sarah said the fisherman capture them in their fish nets and kill them), sand dollars, mangrove seeds, plus that one seed whose name escapes me now. When we got back to the hostal, Ali had arrived and she and Sarah went for a jog along the beach. Byron went to his shrimp farm. I read Hillerman. And America cooked lunch: a wonderful shrimp soup made with peanut butter, and rice on the side. Muy Rico!
After lunch, Sarah and I walked back to her aprtment. Ali came over and played the speakers for her iPod her parents sent her. They worked surprisingly well. We then grabbed some of the books I brought in a suitcase that Lisa had donated a while back, and we walked to a school where severall kids were playing. We let each one pick out a book to borrow. They seemed excited. It felt good. I was prepared for the poverty here, but to see it up close... it's hard to not feel depressed and wish there was something more I could do to help. Hopefully, bringing the books is a little thing that may inspire a child or two to pursue an education and help raise the community out of poverty. Certainly the work Sarah and Ali does helps the community. But the poverty runs deep. Still, the people here are warm and friendly. Many people greet Sarah as we walk down the street, or shout out "Sarita!" (Sarah's friends all say I'm too young to be her father!)
When we got back to the hostal, Byron and America were painting a sign that said "Se Vende." They've decided to sell the hostal and move back to the States. What made them decide to do it now, I'm not sure. We drank some Chilean wine Sarah bought at La Tienda and took photos. Later, we walked down to Martha's Restaurante. I had a Pescado Mixto (I think), that was excellent: shrimp, fish, cockles, mixed with rice, $3, plus a Pilsener, the national beer of Ecuador. When we were done, Ali joined us, and we went back to the hostal, talked a bit and turned in. Oh, Yeah, Sarah modeled her grande mumu Grandma Jane sent her.
Now it's raining. Everyone's gone to bed. The hostal has several people staying here tonight.
We had coffee and pancakes for breakfast again. Afterward, Sarah, Ali, and I walked into town to visit a friend of Sarah's named Mari. She's part of Creando Futuro and had its new letterhead to show us. They then talked about getting a craft program off the ground by selling them to shops, internet, etc. While they were talking a vendor came by selling pipas, coconut milk, chilled, right out of the coconut with a straw. It was very refreshing.
After visitng Mari, we came back to the hostal. By then the clouds had disappeared and it was a bright day. This was the only time I saw big crowds of locals on the beach. I went swimming, walked along the beach, and hung out in the hammock and talked to Byron. Then came the highlight of the trip so far: America served us an authentic Honduran meal. Pollo, frijoles , guacamole, lettuce, and salsa, on hot homemade tortillas. It was heavenly and made everyone happy. Harrison even came home early from school to eat.
But wait, we weren't done. After hanging out digesting our food, we walked back into town to another friend of Sarah's house, Veronica, for dinner! The houses in this part of Muisne are all built on stilts, over the water. But now the tide was out and young men were playing futbol in the mud flats. Veronica served us 3 whole fish each, platanos, and coconut water (which I would not drink, because of the hielo in it.) The fish was fresh, and I smothered it in hot sauce. But I would not eat the heads, which according to Veronica was the best part, and most of her 12 kids and 12 grankids fought over them when my plate was taken away. I hope I didn't offend my hosts by not eating it all!
After dinner, we walked back to the hostal in the dark and drank more of the national beer of Ecuador, Pilsener, and talked with America. Byron was talking to 2 guys who wre staying the night but who were also going around trying to sell cheapo rum.
Jacki called on the phone tonight from home. I guess that means she misses me. Now I'm sitting in my room writing and listening to the rain and waves. I think I'm the last one awake.
- Blog post
- 5 years ago
- Views: 6414
- From: LTBergren
In early June 2008, we packed up our kids, (ages 13, 9 and 5) and went to Nevis, an island in the West Indies. If you're like most people I meet (and you might not be, because you're loyal BT readers and travelers), you're blinking twice and muttering, "Nevis? Where's that?" But I love that--going places few have discovered before me! (St. Kitts is easily seen from Nevis--she lies just beyond a channel that passes between the sister isles.)
How'd we settle on going to Nevis? A writer friend and his agent wife have been going there for years and are even thinking of relocating to the island. Listening to their starry-eyed description, with a hint of in-the-know secrecy, I knew my little "Pirates of the Caribbean" fanlets--typically land-locked in Colorado--would love it. They'd watched the movies and wondered about the clear waters. All of us had a difficult time imagining water warmer than the mountain lakes we typically frequent. And we all were dying for some down-time together as a family. Add to that a passion for family travel--we run a multigenerational website called FamilyTripster.com--and we decided Nevis would be our Idyllic Island answer.
We met people who were staying at the Four Seasons. While world-renowned and recommended by the Travel Channel's top 10 Caribbean resorts, we felt sorry for them. They had no car, so they had explored little of what we'd come to know as an amazing island, brimming with history. And the Four Seasons reportedly works hard at keeping her visitors on-campus; if you stay there, definitely find ways to venture out!
We chose to rent a villa, found via www.Nevis1.com , and it was perfect for our family of five. Since we went off-season, and had our own kitchen, we saved some serious buckaroos. With a private pool, a gardener who brought us mangoes, coconuts and teeny bananas, and the ability to walk 100 yards to the beach, and we felt like we were living a dream! The only thing that was missing: air conditioning. If I could get that villa, at that price, with air conditioning, I'd be back every year. (But I'm a person who likes her weather best at about 72 degrees. So, take what I say about the heat with a grain of salt. This is the Caribbean, after all! Heat is part of the equation.)
SATURDAY : We arrived on Saturday morning at the tiny Nevis airport. TIP: Try to get seats at the front of the plane to be first off--you'll get through customs fastest. That airport is sweltering! We were at the back of the bus, so we stood in line with sweat running down our faces for 30-40 minutes before we reached the counter. We were too excited, however, to let it get us down. Outside, our friendly driver, Marlon Brando (no, not that one; Nevis' rental car owner can be reached at #869.663.2013.) picked us up in his spacious van and delivered us to our villa, Coral Reef (http://www.nevis1.com/coral-reef-villa.html ), near Nesbit Plantation--which boasts one of the best snorkeling beaches on the island. He then brought us our rental car. (NOTE: You have to buy a $25 temporary driver's license. And they drive on the wrong side of the road--just keep chanting, "Left, LEFT, KEEP LEFT!!!")
Coming from high and dry Colorado, it took us days to adjust to the humidity, which hovered around 85% (temps ran 82 to 90 degrees). Eventually, we got adjusted--and even to the wild jungle noises at night. We kept all the windows open and ran every fan in the villa. And we jumped in our pool right before sleeping--and again as soon as we awakened. The best way to deal with the heat, is to beat it by one of your water options--pool, ocean or shower.
Nevis is like the Caribbean was fifty years ago, if I'm to believe my island-hopping and far-more-knowledgeable friends..."Authentic Caribbean" as per Conde Nast. Very low-key and relaxed, not a lot of tourists. Goats and chickens and donkeys run free-range and you have to watch out for them on the road. We had our eyes peeled for wandering animals and I squirmed in my seat, trying to get used to being a passenger on the wrong side of the road, and made our way to the grocery store for supplies. Prices are in Caribbean currency, but Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted. The nearest store was about 850' square, stocked like a city neighborhood grocery. All the meat was frozen, and there was not a lot of produce--more is available on the other side of the island. Still, we managed to buy about $300 in provisions.
Back at the villa, enough food in the fridge to last us a while, pina coladas in hand (rum is CHEAP!), we walked down to the beach for a quick dip. We explored many other beaches too, but the one 100 yards away--Nesbit--from us was definitely one of the best. 6 out of 7 days we swam and snorkeled there.
We returned to the villa, whipped up dinner, took our first post-dinner dip in the pool, then tried to sleep through what sounded like forty small boys with tin whistles pulling an all-nighter--but were really only tree frogs. We awakened at sunrise and wondered if we'd ever sleep during our "restful" vacation; after the second night, we had some hope; after the third, we realized we'd become accustomed to island sounds--a special victory.
SUNDAY : Two visits to Nesbit Beach to explore, snorkel and swim. My nine-year-old, haunted by a library book about sharks, didn't want to come in. I told her she must, to just try it, I'll be right there, that she'll love it. And she did. Within five minutes, she lifted a massive conch shell from the swirling sands, rising, victorious. She was officially addicted to her mask and snorkel from then on. We found if we started down the beach to the right, we could drift with the current and not go all the way to St. Kitts!
MONDAY : We met Jim Johnson ( http://www.walknevis.com) an island naturalist and guide, for an evening bonfire, marshmallow roast and to talk about what we were seeing, smelling and hearing--all foreign to us landlubbers, other than a vague recognition of the stars. Jim is a brilliant, wiry man with zero percent body fat (he climbs Nevis Peak at least a couple of times a week) and Coke-bottle glasses, a living whirr of information--he constantly spews a blend of trivia, scientific and historic facts, and tosses out quizzes, attempting to engage and educate you. He pointed out the Scorpion and Bear constellations to the kids and related mythology about each of them. The kids, exhausted after a full day of sun and swimming, barely absorbed one-third of what he said. Heck, we adults did little better. Still, we planned to meet him in the morning for a bamboo forest hike.
TUESDAY : We headed to Golden Rock Plantation (great place to spot monkeys!) to meet up with Jim for that hike. A young honeymooning couple cheerfully joined us and we tramped up the hill, through a native neighborhood, and then descended through the jungle. Jim, who has taught at the med school about native plants and their medicinal uses, pointed out flora and told us about their medicinal properties. We tasted key lime leaf and cinnamon, smelled lovely bath bush--evoking images of Victorian ladies soaking in cool tubs--and stopped to swing on jungle vines just like George, George, George of the you-know-where. My favorite parts were listening to the giant bamboo stands, which knock together and creak in eerie fashion, and walking the 17th century trail that the Spanish used to overtake the French in their foolishly low-lying fort. But I was hot. Really hot. So damp with sweat I might as well have been swimming. Later, I decided I had a touch of heatstroke. Luckily, my family fared much better. We passed by some sugar mill ruins and returned to Golden Rock, where we gulped down liquids and had a lovely lunch, overlooking the sea, far below us.
WEDNESDAY : We headed out to find Long Haul Bay (pictured with boat above), just around the corner from Nesbit, and supposedly boasting terrific snorkeling. We realized later we could've walked there, but we drove, and the only sign we saw was a faded "Long Haul Bay Development" plaque falling off the post--apparently a business development deal gone belly-up. It's typical of Nevis's beaches; very few are marked with signage; you just follow directions/your nose and brave rough, dirt roads. The beach was picturesque, but we failed to locate more than one natural reef--lovely with its white coral, but disappointing because there are few fish. We did, however, see a lobster pot among vast fields of sea grass just two feet below us, which was cool for the kids--they'd only seen lobsters in the tank at the gourmet grocery store at home. And we saw a family of monkeys in the trees along the road!
We went back to the villa for lunch and then went to the Alexander Hamilton museum, not worth a stop in our estimation (expensive for what you get)--just drive by to see from where our American forefather hailed. The afternoon was redeemed however, because we stopped at New River, on the southern end of the island, and wandered through the amazing 17th century sugar mill ruins. It's a not-to-be-missed stop. Nevis was once the #1 sugar producer in the Caribbean and a provisioning stop for trade ships and those heading to the U.S.--the soil seeps history from its pores. While this location offers one of the few identification signs we saw up by the road, there is no explanation signage down by the actual buildings. But history comes alive as you walk through it--we could visualize ships down by the wave-washed shore, men carrying supplies in and exports out, smoke tufting out the chimney of the mill...We wandered in and out and on top of many of the buildings. In the U.S., we would've been twenty feet away and behind a rope. The kids loved it and so did we!
THURSDAY : We rose and took our normal morning swim--a futile attempt to ward off the heat of the day. But we changed, packed up and went to Nevis Equestrian ( http://www.ridenevis.com/) for a horseback ride along the beach and beyond. It was girls-only, since my husband needed to stay with our son (he was too young to ride). They took off to pick up a picnic lunch from Deli by Wendy--a wonderful place for sandwiches and more.
It had been more than twenty years since I had been on a horse, and my nine-year-old had never been astride a saddle, but the horses were well behaved and the guide tied my daughter's horse to his. We crossed the road, then wound our way past Cay's Bay and Paradise Beach, beside some sumptuous, drool-worthy private abodes on the water, up past a school, where the kids waved at us, and then into the hills, were we saw nice suburbs and poorer neighborhoods too. It was a nice "real Nevis" peek rather than the sanitized vacationer view. After an hour and a half, however, I was saddle-sore and longing for the stables. Fortunately, they soon appeared.
The boys were waiting for us when we returned. We dismounted, then joined them in the car and headed out to Paradise Beach--a local favorite--for a picnic and swim. (To get there, turn beside the St. Thomas School playground and head toward the ocean.) On a beach exploration roll, we then went to Lover's Beach. (To get there, park by the highway just west of the airport and walk west of the shore. You can park closer, but you have to cross smelly high tide muck to get there--eewww, hardly romantic.) But this beach, like them all, is very worth a visit! Sun-soaked and weary, we returned to the vila.
Our eldest was feeling at home, so we got the kids settled with dinner and a video, and my husband and I escaped to a fabled beach bar, Sunshine's, for a sunset dinner and amazing drinks called Killer Bees. Warning: No more than one of these alcohol-laden doozies per hour! (To get there, turn at the faded and worn sign that says "Welcome to Pinney's Beach" and head toward the brightly colored stands to the left.) They start cooking at sunset and we watched them buy the lobster from a local fisherman an hour before we ate it. Tristan and Tessa, ex-pat American children at sea with their parents for a couple of years (or "until the money runs out"), sat down and chatted with us for half our evening, making us wonder why we left our own children behind. But we had enough Killer Bees in our system to thoroughly enjoy it all. We decided to bring our kids back the next night so they could know what a true "beach bar" was really like. We considered it educational...Okay, we considered it experiential, and I wanted another Killer Bee.
FRIDAY : Our last real day! Snort, sniff...We rose, took our dip, then headed down to what we were now calling "our beach." But this day, we walked farther, down to Harvey's Beach and an old grease pole where the girls tried to balance their way all the way to the end. I tried it and fell off half-way down, where it wasn't so deep, and sprained my ankle. Fortunately it wasn't anything that 4 Advil and an ice pack couldn't cure. But the girls couldn't get enough of the challenge. We stayed there for an hour. We returned to the villa, changed for dinner and went to Sunshine's, hoping to run across Tristan and Tessa again and introduce them to our kids, but they had shipped out, off to Antigua as planned, apparently. We moved on to the Gallipot for dinner, a pretty expensive stop for our family of five (about $225 for all of us). My husband and I noticed that most of the wines in Nevis are from South America and France--not many California varieties available.
SATURDAY : Our younger daughter awakened at 3 a.m. with a terrible ear ache--Swimmer's Ear, I guessed, that was rapidly turning into an infection. With two small plane trips to weather to reach our next island stop (Vieques) the next day, we had no choice. My husband took her to the tiny island hospital at 4 a.m. She was seen by a nurse on call, the only one in the building, who didn't charge to administer ear drops and arrange for her to see a doctor in the morning to get a prescription. What's a family vacation without a trip to the local medical establishment? For us, it was all part of the adventure. (But next time, we'll take over-the-counter ear drops and an antibiotic prescription "just in case.")
We packed up, gassed up, and cleaned up. Transition day! With luck, we hoped we'd be in our condo on Vieques by nightfall. And we were! But that's another story...
- Blog post
- 5 years ago
- Views: 6392
- From: hgeswein
While living in Madrid, Spain I went on a 10 day trip through Italy with some friends who were also living in various cities in Europe. This is the story of how we fit 5 cities in Italy into a 10 day trip. Obviously I would have preferred to spend more time in each of the cities (except maybe Rome) but here's how to do it on a time crunch.
In Rome we were hosted by a friend who was living there who showed us all of the historical sites of this city, including: the Coliseum, the forum, the Pantheon, the Spanish steps and the Trevi Fountain. She also took us into a church that she had visited with her architecture class that is painted to look like it has a dome when it actually doesn't. So when you walk in and look up it looks like a dome, but when you walk directly beneath it the perspective is skewed. It is hard to explain, but very cool to see. I was glad that she showed us that, since we never would have gone in there on our own. She also took us to the neighborhood called Trastevere for a great pizza dinner and a look around at the flea market. It was great to have someone who knew the layout of the city to take us around and keep us from getting lost. However, for some of the sites (like Palatine Hill) I think it would have been advisable to hire a guide who knows the history. I spoke to other travelers who hired guides and they knew so much more about the sites, whereas we had only seen them.
The next morning we got up early to get in line at the Vatican Museum. Apparently we didn't get up early enough though, since we had to wait for 3 hours. But at least we got in at all. The whole museum was great, but obviously the Sistine Chapel was the highlight. We spent a long time in there looking at each of the panels. But I thought that the atmosphere was kind of ruined by the guards. Every few minutes they would clap their hands loudly and yell at everyone to stop talking and stop taking pictures. After that we grabbed some lunch then got in line for St Peters. Thankfully that line was not nearly as long since it was incredibly hot by that time. St Peters was also incredibly beautiful. We used a guidebook that we had to explain many of the things in the cathedral, like the tradition of rubbing the foot of the statue of St Peter.
On Sunday we went inside the Coliseum and Palatine Hill, which were really cool to see and imagine what it was like during the height of the Roman empire. We then walked to a flea market that we heard was supposed to be cool, but really it was just more of the junk that is sold on pretty much every street. But on the way we got to walk past Circus Maximus, and through some nice residential areas. That night we were exhausted from the insanity of Rome, so we cooked dinner in the hostel and relaxed.
The next morning we got an early train to Florence. After checking in to our hostel we headed back to the train station to go to Siena. This ended up being one of my favorite cities because it was beautiful, but most importantly not crawling with tourists. I definitely enjoy the smaller cities much more. In Siena we saw the duomo, San Domenico church, and the sanctuary of St Catherine, which contains her actual head and finger preserved in glass cases! That was pretty disgusting and also a strange thing to have in a church, I thought. We then climbed the city tower for a beautiful view of the city and beyond. Then we sat in the main square, Il Campo for a while to just people watch and enjoy. For dinner we went to a little hole in the wall restaurant where we ordered what the waiter suggested, which was the typical pasta of Siena, pisci, and a meat and potatoes dish, which were both incredibly good and cheap. Then we caught the last bus back to Florence.
While in Florence we visited the duomo (which I thought wasn't as good as the duomo in Siena) and then walked over to the Pitti Palace. We had a picnic outside, then went into the gardens which were absolutely beautiful. The views of Tuscany were unbeatable. We spent most of the afternoon exploring the gardens, then got some excellent gelato.
On our last day in Florence we went to the two famous museums, the Accademia and the Uffizi. The Accademia is where Michelangelo´s David is, and it was amazing to see. I never realized how huge the sculpture is! The rest of the works there were not that interesting though. The Uffizi is considered to be one of the best collections of Renaissance paintings in the world. And I'm sure that I would have loved it if I were a fan of Renaissance art, but I actually found it to be rather monotonous.
- Blog post
- 5 years ago
- Views: 6219
- Not yet rated
- From: Guard Dog
My hubby & I are already planning for our 25th Wedding Anniversary....we always wanted to do a trip to the US National Parks out West, but every time we wanted to go...there would be warnings about Avalanches & that some of the parks would be closed when we wanted to go. Our Anniversary is October 22 and our 25th Anniversary would be in 2013.
If anyone out there lives in the area we want to visit, can you list the months that are good for visiting and include the months that are not too hot. We are very fair skinned and burn like lobsters in hot water. We would prefer cooler weather(mid 6o's - 8o's) and in the Fall if this is a possibility.
What are the advantages/disadvantages to doing Bus/Group tours ? How about Hotels--any in particular that are not to be missed? If anyone is planning a trip to MA/Cape Cod I can do the same info. for you if needed. I grew up on Peddock's Island in Boston Harbor and have travelled throughout most of the NorthEastern area including 27 Countries outside of the USA( I really consider Canada as a sister country and not a "foreign" one). Hubby has been limited to the New England area & we both know Walt Disney World in FL very well. Thanks!
- Blog post
- 5 years ago
- Views: 6133
- Not yet rated
- From: Funkidivagirl
Since Savannah has such lovely architecture, we didn’t want to stay in a traditional hotel, but in a neighborhood. The last time I went to Savannah I stayed in a lovely B & B right on a square, but many of them don’t allow children. The Mansion on Forsyth Park seemed like a good compromise. I had heard good things about it and since I found a good rate ontravelzoo.com, we decided to give it a try.
The room décor for some could be over the top, but for us, it was fun. The beds were great and the big red velvet sofa and chandielers were Alice in Wonderland-ish. The room was large enough to accommodate my family and also had room for my daughter to play. It was very dark though; not a room that you want to be in all day relaxing, but since we weren’t there to relax, it was okay. We were in the Bohemian room over-looking the park. Which sounds great, but actually I am a light sleeper and could hear traffic whizzing by all night long; no one else in my family seemed bothered at all.
The bathrooms were very large, BUT there was no door to the bathroom, only a curtain! So there really isn’t any privacy. The toilet is separate from the sink and tub, but the door is made of glass, so someone can’t brush their teeth and someone else use the bathroom with any privacy. The tub however was fantastic! The water stayed hot and the tub was nice and deep. The whirlpool jets were just what I needed after a long car ride! I loved it!
We toured the rest of the hotel and loved looking at all the art on the walls. There was a fascinating exhibit on display with hats from several decades. The common areas in the lobby and bar lounge were small, but cozy. Although we didn’t swim in the pool, we went outside to look at it. It was very stylish, if very small. It was more of a lounge area to take a quick dip in the water–not to swim in. We didn’t eat in the hotel restaurant or use the spa.
Our first meal in Savannah was dinner at Tubby’s on River Street (we were driven there in a town car by a hotel employee, a very nice feature of the hotel). I actually don’t care very much for River Street in Savannah because I find it to be very touristy, so I didn’t expect much in the way of food. But several hotel employees had suggested Tubby’s so we gave it a try. I was wrong; food was very good. The seafood was fresh and lightly fried in a seasoned batter. I try to stay away from fried food so I didn’t order mine that way, and I was very sorry; I ended up eating the rest of the family’s meal.
We didn’t do much site-seeing that evening because we were so wiped from the drive. We called the hotel for a ride back and they were there to pick us up in no time at all.
The next morning we had breakfast at the Gryphon Tea Room on Bull Street. The food was just okay, but the atmosphere is great and the décor is lovely.
Since the tea room is right across from Shop Scad, after breakfast we browsed around before continuing our walking tour of downtown, and particularly the squares. The squares are my favorite part of Savannah by far. Stopping at each square to read about the featured statues, we learned many things about historic Savannah that we didn’t know before.
When we reached Broughton Street, we browsed the many shops. The Paris Market was wonderful, filled with great coffee table books, lotions, furniture and all kinds of unique household items. There was a snack bar where we bought homemade French marshmallows that were divine. The kids and I gobbled them up before even leaving the store (my husband doesn’t like marshmallows, which we just don’t understand).
Our next stop was Savannah Bee Company where we stayed quite a long time tasting all the different honeys and talking to the employees and co-owner. What a beautiful store! We learned so much about honey and bought a few jars to bring back to Atlanta.
After Broughton Street, we headed to City Market for lunch, but we didn’t like the atmosphere there very much so we ended back on River Street again. Once again we had some really good seafood, this time at Dockside . After lunch we walked all of River Street, ducking in and out of the touristy shops and toured The Peacemaker, a ship with an interesting history and current ownership.
Leaving River Street and making our way back to the hotel, I talked my family into walking through Colonial Park Cemetery, which I think is beautiful and historical. My family disagreed and walked through as fast as they could.
Not far from the cemetery we came upon The Cathedral of St. John The Baptist and found out that we could go in and walk around. If we thought the outside was beautiful, the inside was absolutely breathtaking–the windows, ceiling, alter, piper organ–everything was spectacular.
What a wonderful end to our day spent exploring the streets of Savannah’s Historic District! Another night at The Mansion, a tasty breakfast at a great neighborhood diner, Clary’s Cafe , and it was time to say good bye to Savannah. We had a good time and will be back again soon, but it was on to the next leg of our vacation, Amelia Island (read about it here).
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