2018 Travel

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ADDED 7/3/18:
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25 thoughts on “2018 Travel

  1. I’m copying this over from where I posted it on the main topic Friday, and will post the further installments here:

    Trip report, first installment: getting to Paris. Work was a bear for both of us leading up to the trip and the personal calendar was packed, so it was a bit of a scramble getting away. We were flying to London via Vancouver, CA, doing a double redeye. This entailed about a 10 hour daytime layover in Vancouver (really nice airport, btw), for which I’d booked day rooms at the in-airport Fairmont. That was very much worth it – so nice to be able to get in some solid sleep and a bath or shower even without having our checked luggage. And the rooms came with lounge passes, which made for a pleasant place to hang out for the rest of the layover. It meant that when we finally got to London we were of course tired and jet-lagged, but still functional. Took the train to St. Pancras, left our bags at our hotel till we could get into the hotel-linked apartment where we’d be for the night, went to Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross station (younger two took forever even though we weren’t braving the long line to get a photo taken running at the wall with trolley / luggage / owl, oldest and husband got cranky waiting despite availability of coffee and Cornish pasties). Once we were in the apartment, which was far enough from the stations that it was a nice quiet neighborhood and would have worked fine for a longer stay, my older two chose to crash while my husband and my youngest and I walked over to the British Museum for as much visit as we could get in. We were running on fumes heading back, picked up some take-out (Nando’s, a peri-peri chicken chain that’s also in DC and Chicago – I wish it was here!), and slept well.

    The next day we got our first crack at the full English breakfast and then continued our journey on the Eurostar out of St. Pancras. Still jet-lagged because moving to the other side of the clock never comes easily, but having had a decent night’s sleep. The lines for the Eurostar were looong, but luckily I’d read that we should be there at least 45 minutes ahead of time, so we were in good time for our train. In Paris, metro to our apartment, which was off the garden courtyard of a cool old building in St. Germain across from Poilane bakery, unpacked a bit, and then headed for the nearby Grande Epicerie, the food hall of the Bon Marche department store (not related to the US one I don’t think), where we bought expensive indulgent stuff to eat that night as well as some more normal groceries for breakfasts during our stay.

    To be continued.

  2. Thanks for the travel suggestions the other day. We talked it all over, and the boys wanted to do a March Madness bracket-style decision tree for the winner (Ireland vs. Scotland/China vs. Vietman/ and so on) which was awesome. The winner was Greece. We’ll start planning in earnest as soon as we get home from Iceland, which is right around the corner.

  3. HM – We’ve stayed in that same general neighborhood in Paris, but closer to the river and a short walk to a convenient subway stop. I like that location as a base for exploring the city.

  4. I think a couple people said they are planning Rome trips, so I’ll share our highlights:

    – Do not miss this food tour. It was the highlight of our trip. If I’d known how fun and good it would be, I would have booked a second in a different neighborhood:

    – We got a private guide for Colosseum and Vatican. Well worth the money, but we lucked out because our guides were amazing. We also had a private guide for Pompeii and that was disappointing because she was terrible. We were itching to break free from her the whole time. I would like to go back to Pompeii and explore on my own. We did hike to the top of Mt. Vesuvius which was worth taking the extra time.

    – Our favorite restaurants were Enoteca Antiqua, Enoteca Cul de Sac, and Gusto Pizzeria. We ate at Gusto twice.

    – We spent one whole day just wandering up and down all the little side streets and going in shops. My boys are not shoppers but that day was a big hit.

  5. My favorite restaurant in Rome is La Pace del Palato. Close to Paizza Navona, but not touristy and when we (my parents & I) ate there in Fall 2015 none of the staff seemed to speak or understand English. We also liked Mercato Hostaria Roma in Campo dei Fiore. The latter is more touristy but still really good food (I’ve eaten there in 2009 and 2015).

  6. Trip report deuxieme partie: Paris

    The first full day in Paris we headed out of the city to Versailles. We did a private tour where our guide picked us up and dropped us right outside our apartment, as well as escorting us around. She gave us all kinds of interesting background information on the history, the art, etc., and it was nice not to be fighting the rest of a large group to hear the details. One interesting cultural note — it was apparent how much interest in and knowledge of history, mythology, art, etc. reads as a sign of being well educated in France and not anything to be half-apologized for. And rather than telling funny anecdotes to keep the teens’ attention as an American or Brit would typically do, she quizzed the kids on names and dates periodically! But this is consistent with the approach we saw with kids on field trips in Paris — they all had their notebooks out, not just the teens but the younger ones too, and were clearly expected to take down specific pieces of information and not just a journal of their impressions. Since we were at Versailles for the full day, we went through not just the main palace — spectacular, made to show the rest of Europe who was top king and very effective at that, also amazing engineering in the waterworks for that time — but also the Grand Trianon (more Empire era, more human scale), the Petite Trianon (Marie Antoinette territory, made to be comfortable rather than to impress), and Marie Antoinette’s little pretend hamlet, which I know was a fantasy version of a charming peasant village, but was nonetheless extremely charming.

    That night was our dinner at Josephine Chez Dumonet, the one for which I’d had to call Paris in advance to make a reservation, and it was very good indeed. It’s a classic bistro that got taken over a while back by a chef who didn’t want to redo the interior or start doing updated versions of bistro classics, but instead to keep doing bistro classics as perfectly as possible. In which it seems to me he succeeded.

    The next day my older two stayed around the apartment in the morning as my daughter needed to work on her eschool classes and my son wanted to lounge around, and the rest of us strolled through St. Germain buying pastries from the places I had on my map as promising (although tragically Pierre Herme was closed for renovations so I never got to try Ispahan anything!). The Rue de Buci and Cour de Commerce St. Andre are indeed very atmospheric. Then we walked around the Luxembourg Gardens for a bit, looked at a temporary art exhibit connected to the Senate, which is based in the Palais de Luxembourg, and had lunch at Angelina so my son could try the famous hot chocolate. He approved. Later that afternoon, after returning to the apartment for a bit (and eating some of those pastries!), we caught the bus to the Louvre which was open late (it has weekly late-closing days). The Louvre is always amazing. Unfortunately the strategy of going in the later afternoon, while an excellent plan in terms of avoiding lines to get in, meant that people started getting pretty tired and cranky by the end of our visit, buses were running on the sparser evening schedule by the time we left, and generally I don’t think evening museum visits are well-suited to your casual museum-goer.

    On our third full day we went to the Sainte-Chappelle in the morning, and it’s just a gorgeous jewel-box of a chapel. Notre Dame after that — it is true that the line moves very quickly even though it appears daunting — and then the Holocaust memorial on the tip of the Ile de la Cite which was sobering and well worth going through. Then lunch at a little cafe on the Right Bank — the kids tried to insist on stopping at one of those ones named Quasimodo or such in the shadow of Notre Dame, but this was a place I’d pre-selected for a combination of atmosphere and decent food — which was where we ran into Purse Lady. She and a younger companion, who we later concluded must be her padwan (mentee / protoge) were already at a table for two next to the larger table we were squeezed into. This meant she had to remove her purse from where it was perched on one of the chairs for our table. She asked the waiter for another chair to put her purse on, and he said no because then our table wouldn’t be able to get in or out. She gave us a look that suggested her preferred solution would be “Then move the Americans!” but didn’t say it aloud. Instead she pitched a fit over the impossibility of her purse touching the ground. They eventually reached a compromise wherein he bore it into the interior of the cafe, presumably to set it on a pedestal or other place of honor, until the end of her meal. Then for the rest of her meal she kept up a one-sided conversation in which she instructed her padwan on her opinions on an assortment of topics. We felt honored to have been seated next to her, naturally.

    After our lunch with Purse Lady we headed up through the Marais to the Museum of Nature and Hunting, one of those quirky museums Paris has so many of. This one was an intriguing mix of old hunting trophies, horns, guns, game bags, and related paraphenalia, preserved scat and information about animals in the wild, old paintings of hunts, nature, and related subject, and modern art commenting on hunting, nature, and similar subjects. It was a big hit. We finished up the day getting some bubble tea and mediocre Chinese takeout in the small Asian neighborhood nearby, to eat at home followed by more pastries (at least for those who weren’t overloaded with dairy to the point of being unable to eat anything else with cream in it).

    To be continued.

  7. (at least for those who weren’t overloaded with dairy to the point of being unable to eat anything else with cream in it)

    When we were in Paris, I thought I was feeling ill from all the excess pastry and cheese. Turns out I was pregnant with DS. DH was also complaining but he was not pregnant!

  8. HM – thanks for mentioning the Deportation Memorial. I think it’s one of the special places in Paris.

  9. Fred, I agree. And I was surprised at how much there was to it — I’d expected a plaque, not a mini-museum.

  10. condensed Patagonia trip report pasted March 2018

    I left Boston and H my younger daughter left her home on Saturday for Miami, where we met up and made leisurely progress south until we joined the start of the tour in El Calafate, Argentina, on Monday at dinner. Our trip was half in Argentine Patagonia, followed by a long circuitous bus ride to Chile and Torres del Paine Park.

    We visited all of these sites in Argentina during the first six days, including Uppsala Glacier near Estacia Cristina

    The itinerary was intended for hiking, photography, scenery, with a comfy bed and good food and wine every night. The main wildlife view is birds, so the guys with the 400mm lenses had a good time with that. I just brought a decent set of binoculars. We did not see a puma (same as a mountain lion or cougar) or a hairy armadillo. But we did see all of the natural features without clouds (really unusual luck) and had very little rain. Wind in Torres del Paine in Chile was a bit of a problem. The penguins on the last day were a bit of a let down – I have seen a lot of penguins in my travels and it was so late in the season that there weren’t all that many left (most had decamped for a particular beach in Brazil).

    The group was terrific, the 2 of us, 2 couples, 3 singles, 2 guides. All great fun. (I did not really appreciate the strong wet blanket effect on my recent Namibia trip attributable to the political not medical vegan/gluten-free couple who were dissatisfied all the time.) H had a great time, and is already trying to spend my money on a trip to the Brazilian Pantanal. We had great weather, got terrific photographs and lots of instruction on how to use a modern camera. The main downside was that one lady from the UK arrived with a massive head cold, so most of us got it (I held out to day 12 of 14) and I decided to risk flying Fri/Sat for 18 plus airborne hours hoping my eardrums would survive. One is still a bit plugged, but seems to be intact. I feel pretty bad even after 18 hours at home, so I will probably call the doctor tomorrow.

    I have a lot of experience and gear, so we both properly outfitted for the trip. One thing we did not plan for was no tissues in the hotel rooms, so just a tip. Another was the extra security on the jetway right before boarding a plane to the US. Water bottles and lens solution did not make it through. Argentine money is only good within the borders, so I decided to trade a bunch of dollars for my fellow travelers’ excess pesos and bought a supply of alfajores at a bakery where they were making them before my eyes. I can’t wait to feel better to eat them.

    This particular itinerary is for nature and photography lovers and involved a fair amount of light hiking. The longest hike I went on was 6 miles, (the full hike was 10) but there were 4-5 days at that distance. There is also a lot of good food and wine and merriment, especially in Argentina. Torres del Paine is appropriate for family groups, too, with varied programs and accommodations. And work hard-play hard finance types like to jet in for a tough but not technical 5 day hike on the “W” and then scurry back in first class to their lives at home..

    As I was awaiting my return flight to Miami, we spied a Dunkin Donuts in the Santiago airport. That gave me a little fuel for the somewhat grueling journey home.

  11. 2017 North Sea cruise
    We started in Oslo, with a quick city tour and recovery from jet lag, and took a 7 hour train ride over the mountains to Bergen. It was pouring there. Bergen is a tourist, fishing and educational center. Most of the city was destroyed during WWII by a massive harbor explosion on a Nazi-impounded Dutch ship carrying explosives. Not sabotage, just careless use of welding equipment to do a repair. We heard a concert at the Grieg summer house. Very good. Then it was off to Geiranger Fjord, a major scenic attraction. The weather was misty, obscuring the best photo ops, but the main weirdness at that stop was the afternoon arrival of a massive cruise ship, 4500 passengers, that entirely overwhelmed the mountain roads with at least 50 sightseeing busses on hairpin turns.

    The next day was Molde, where I went to a marble quarry with a cave river. In Norway, just as in the UK, private individuals can own open land. In this case a mountain under a farmstead. There is a famous road with curving bridges connecting nearby islands called the Atlantic road – often featured in performance car commercials. This is where we spent the afternoon looking over the harbor from the back deck of someone DH met playing bridge online.

    We then crossed the Arctic Circle (sea day) and arrived in Tromsø where I went sea kayaking. I luckily found a lady who owns a kayak (lake only) to partner and we managed well. DH rode the cable car up for a marvelous view. The ship picked up some fabulous freshly caught sea bass for dinner. Then on to Honningsvåg, 71 degrees north latitude, the most northerly point in Europe, with reindeer and Sami (fka Lapp, a term with pejorative origins no longer in use) culture. Then a long trip to Lofoten archipelago, where I went for a hike. It was drizzly, but doable.

    We left Norway for the Scandianvian/Scots island groups of Shetland, first, and then Orkney. I could certainly go back to those. I can see the appeal of a cruise around the British isles. Lots of Viking stuff, of course, but on both there are well preserved ruins, both pre Christian era Pictish brochs and more amazing Neolithic villages preserved in the sand. Also significant World War I and even more so WW II history. The Orkney excursion was my favorite of the whole trip. We made a short stop in Edinburgh, which is a lovely cultured and not all that big city but was absolutely overwhelming in its noise and dirt and traffic after almost two weeks in clean and sparsely populated areas. In London we did not go into the city at all – spent the morning in Greenwich (as is often the case In UK, the actual preserved historical site and exhibits and even the planetarium were underwhelming, but worth it), and took a regular ferry boat down to Westminster and back just for the fun of it. Too noisy, though.

    Now for the commentary on the travel itself. Everything was uneventful. We use a hired car to the airport and taxi back at the end. We flew Saga (Business) Class on Icelandic (big sit up seats) – we had paid for Economy comfort which is sufficient IMHO but we were upgraded by Viking, I guess. Trips were 5 hours more or less from Boston, 3 hours to Europe. The time between planes in Keflavik is short, and DH is a poor walker, so we just sat in the gate area, which is like a big bus station even at midnight. Viking arranged for transfers at all times, and also the train to Bergen from Oslo.

    We loved cruising as an activity. 900 passengers but it didn’t feel like tht many. Booked another cruise over New Years in the western Mediterranean. We were very happy to have paid for the next to top level stateroom and booked the same area on the next trip. We saw the top of the line explorer suite and for us it is overkill. Some might like the tv over the bathtub with an ocean view window. Main perks of our “jr suite” (curtain between bed and sitting area) room were sufficient space and privacy to enjoy staying in the room, free laundry service (big perk), great location on the ship, and the ability to book the better dining rooms. Priority on shore excursions was not needed. I over patronized the spa, but it was my first time. Did almost no shopping to make up for it. Food was terrific, and we each gained only two pounds. Live entertainment was disappointing, to say the least, but the interactive TV (where every lecture appears within a couple of hours) meant you could mingle or sit in your room as you wished. We found more and more interesting and active travelers under 60s as the time progressed, but we are not the type to want to make new friends and/or future travel companions.

  12. Namibia 2017 last one

    Namibia is an arid nation with most of the “rivers” (other than those on its borders) as ephemeral rivers, only flowing during the short rainy season. I passed through Windhoek, the capital, and spent several days each in Sossusvlei in the Namib desert (near the coast), Damaraland in the northwest (rhino preserve), and Ongava Game Reserve near Etosha National Park.

    All of the flights were uneventful. The 15 hour legs across the Atlantic allowed for 10 hours of mutually agreed darkness in the cabins. The flat beds meant a good night’s sleep was possible. I took 6 small prop plane flights within Namibia, only one of which was in a pressurized plane and none of which had air conditioning. They were all fairly short, and definitely better than driving. The food and accommodations were good. Guide was terrific.

    The group was 7 people, 3 couples and me. I think that in the future I would not choose to be a single in such a small group. They were interesting people (I have never met anyone unpleasant on trips with this vendor), but the seating in the safari vehicle did not rotate smoothly and even sitting down to dinner at our separate table for 8 the seat choice was not straightforward or in the lounge area of the lodge I found myself without a seat near the group and ended up talking with other guests at the lodges. One couple are 20 year politically motivated vegetarians who a few years ago upped the ante to gluten free vegans – no dire medical necessity involved, although health considerations do play a part for the wife who has a recently diagnosed autoimmune disorder. So there was constant drama with food compliance and lack of variety in remote Africa where meat, cheese and grain are important parts of the diet, and the veg diet of the very poor is pretty monotonous. The nights were chilly and the days hot and dusty.

    After spending a night in Windhoek, we flew to a fancy pants resort in the desert near Sossusvlei. This is too luxurious even to be called glamping. Included A/C, when it worked.

    We saw some wildlife and took some nature walks (beetle tracks are fascinating), but the highlight for me was sleeping one night on the roof of the cabin and watching the Southern night sky on a moonless night. Even more impressive than Death Valley. Saturn and Jupiter, Alpha and Beta Centauri, thousands of stars, the Milky Way across a third of the sky.

    Second stop was my favorite of the three – Desert Rhino Camp in Damaraland – Palmwag Concession. The Save the Rhino Trust (rare black rhinos) operates in conjunction with the lodges and WWF. The trackers go out in the morning, find a rhino for research purposes, and the guest follow to view from a distance. We saw a dominant male, named Don’t Worry, who had found a female and mated (we didn’t see that) and we took photos of the two of them from a ledge above where they were feeding. The second morning we saw another young male, named Speedy, on the hillside (nice photos). Both rhinos have been dehorned to deter poaching. The horns are highly prized and priced accordingly in parts of east Asia when ground into traditional medicines. These rhinos are free roaming in a 5000 sq km reserve – this is one of their traditional habitats, although since they were nearly extinct 25 years ago they started out with some imported breeding pairs. There are hundreds now in this region alone. We also saw lions, elephants, giraffes, mountain zebra, and lots of springbox and oryx.

    Biggest drama for me was losing my mobile phone from the safari vehicle (failed to zip up the pocket – I used it for an occasional photo to post to FB or if my camera battery ran out). The trackers went out and found it on the route we drove. Even more surprising because it was not black or white, but gold in a girly gold case. It fell sparkles up, so they saw it easily. The “military grade” screen protector did its job. They got a good tip.

    Third stop was a private game reserve near Etosha national park. Lots of game. The park was full of tourists (full is a relative term after staying in lodges with 10 rooms) and no off road driving, but we saw great waterhole behavior, more birds, lots of animals, and a lion mating. In the private reserve we found a female white rhino with her new baby, and saw the baby nursing. Also witnessed a pride of lions hunt and kill an oryx, and the ensuing feast. More varieties of grazing animals – kudu, steenbok, plains zebra, gnu, waterbuck, as well as warthog, hares, ground squirrels, baboons, various rodents, more birds.

    All in all an excellent vacation, but not trip of a lifetime grade. I definitely can use some solo vacations from my domestic responsibilities. As matter of finances and practicality, I’ll look at less remote destinations with a 7 to 10 day time frame in the future. I do have a trip with DD2 in March. DH did fine without me.

    Namibia has a very interesting political history, late independence and a different model for wildlife management and local control. I will put that into an actual post or perhaps in a week or so on the political thread to infuse something new into the usual churn.

  13. Part III, Elsewhere in France

    We took the train from Paris to Angers, where we had arranged to pick up our rental car. I had bought the train tickets about a week before the announcement of the three month long two-days-on-three-days-off rail strike, and our travel date was a strike day, so I spent all spring anxiously reading the strike news. And in fact the strike was still going by the time we traveled — the more hardcore unions are still calling additional strike days here and there even though the reforms they were trying to prevent have already passed into law — but participation was low enough by then that 80% of the trains were running and they were able to announce a week or two in advance which trains were guaranteed to run, and ours was one of them. I suppose they had the whole thing down to a system by then; anyhow, we didn’t notice any particular effects from the strike when traveling and got to Angers on time.

    Now in the rental car, we drove the additional hour or so down to Puy du Fou, the crazy and amazing history theme park in the Vendee. We stayed at one of the onsite hotels for two nights. Each hotel is based on a different period — the Renaissance courtiers’ tents from the Field of the Cloth of Gold (that huge tournament Francois I / Henry VIII threw to impress each other in place of having a war), the Roman villa, the medieval castle, the 18th century lodge, and the Merovingian fishing village where we stayed. Each “hut” was on stilts built out over the water and had a balcony where you could watch the assorted waterfowl and feed the fish. The dinner buffets there, especially the one at the Renaissance pavilion (part of the Renaissance hotel), may have been the kids’ favorite meals of the trip. A French level of care about the quality of the ingredients and the cooking, but all-you-can-eat. And wine served to the older teens. The actual park was great too! I’m not sure a description can do justice to the various shows. The Roman triumph and games with the gladiators and wild beasts, the Viking ship rising from the water, the show with what must have been a hundred plus raptors all swooping around, the (huge) theater where the audience portion actually rotated to follow the story, the newest walk-through that was essentially an amusement park dark ride except walking instead of riding in a little car or boat . . . and the gardens, the waterworks, the living-history towns (18th century village, medieval city, year 1000 fort, 1900 city) all with artisans and period-appropriate shops. Yes, well, as you can tell we really liked Puy du Fou.

    After leaving there, we stopped at Chateau de Chambord for not as long as originally planned (later start, heavier traffic) and there was great disappointment that we were therefore unable to rent a boat or bicycles as we’d talked of. The chateau was quite an impressive pile, and I was happy to be able to see the double helix staircase designed by Leonardo da Vinci, but I think our crew might have been happier if we’d popped in just to eyeball that and then gone out to rent a boat.

    We were headed for Vezelay, in Burgundy, where we were actually due to meet up with my brother the pilot who had a conveniently timed trip and drove from Paris during his off days to meet up with us. Vezelay is one of those towns that was much more important in medieval days than it is now, though it’s still an important point on the pilgrimage route, so its architecture is pretty well all centuries old. As my oldest put it, it’s “aesthetic as f*ck.” We arrived after all the day trippers had left and when we all walked around the town after dinner it was quiet, mostly deserted except for cats, and you could really notice the age and interesting details of the buildings around. The next morning when we went back to the church, which was closed already the previous evening, it was like a different town with all the shops and cafes open and tour buses and day trippers pouring in. I was glad we’d stayed for the night so we could see both aspects of the town.

    I’m going to finish Elsewhere in France in the next installment because this has gotten rather long and I need to get cracking on other things. To be continued.

  14. Washington DC trip report

    We flew into Reagan, rented a car, and drove out to Northern Virginia (west of Leesburg). We had a late flight, so driving out of the city was a breeze. This is a beautiful area with mountains (if you are a Midwesterner) or rolling hills (for everyone else), horse farms, and wineries. We spent three days visiting Civil War battlefields.

    First up was Gettysburg, which was an easy 60 minute drive from where we were staying. There are several different options for tours and we settled on the museum, movie and cyclorama painting. Of course we could have avoided fees and just drove around, but I highly recommend the movie. The cyclorama painting was pretty neat too. Afterwards we got in the car and did the self-directed auto tour for a few stops. Second stop was Harpers Ferry. We attempted to visit on the weekend, but the traffic getting in was terrible and the town is so small that it was just a mob scene. We returned on Monday and there was hardly anyone there. A much better experience for everyone, and my kids enjoyed saying that they walked part of the AP trail. Last Civil War stop was Antietam. I didn’t know much about this battle and found the museum and driving tour very interesting.

    After geeking out on Civil War stuff we headed into DC, returned the rental car at Reagan, and took the metro to our hotel in Arlington. This was a great location and the hotel price was very reasonable. A quick metro ride into DC. I was very impressed with how clean and efficient the metro was. Plus new subway trains. I kept telling to my kids that this is not the norm for subway travel. Oh, and another observation was that there are no homeless or panhandlers. It was bizarre. Even in the cute park with a variety of fountains near the hotel. We went to the Spy Museum which I highly recommend for all ages. My kids loved it and the adults learned interesting spy stories. The highlight for our family was the bike tour of the monuments at night. It is a three hour tour, starting at 7pm. The guide takes you to all the monuments, gives you some history about it, and then you have 10-15 minutes to walk around. We hit Lincoln’s memorial just as the sun the setting, with the the Washington monument reflecting a pink hue into the pond. It isn’t very hot and is not crowded at this time. Other highlights of DC include the National Archives (no lines!), Air and Space Museum and seeing the Hope Diamond at the Natural History museum. We also did a hop on, hop off bus tour, but it was a waste a money and I would not recommend it. We spent far too long waiting for the buses. Catching a Lyft to get to from one tourist site to another would have been easier and cheaper.

    As for food, we enjoyed eating at the outdoor café at the sculpture garden and the restaurant at the Museum of the American Indian (note: plan on spending $15-$20 per person). We had our first taste of Uyghur cuisine at a fabulous restaurant in Arlington. We also took a Lyft into Alexandria for dinner a few nights. I loved this town. So beautiful and quaint. We were there during the week and it was quiet too. No need for reservations. Although I was a bit disappointed in the seafood selections. I was expecting more, and both places we went to had crab cakes, but the rest of the seafood selection was slim for what I would expect at a seaside town. The best price for dinner was the Happy Hour deal at McCormicks before we caught our flight home (4 entrees and 2 adult beverages for $40).

    As for the weather, we hit the right week. It was in the 80s with low humidity every day. It was amazing.

  15. DH & DS went to Gettysburg earlier this year, and they hired a private licensed tour guide. They said it was well worth it. They just had the tour where the guide drives your own vehicle around the battlefield – not one of the specialized ones. DS has been talking about it for months.


  16. France/Greece trip report — France part:

    First, Condor Business Class continues to be worth it. Lie-flat seats and a power plug to plug in my CPAP make all the difference in jet-lag recovery to me. The biggest problem is resisting the temptations and just going to sleep — they have movies on demand, plus a three-course dinner and drinks, and I had to ignore all of it and pull the blanket over my head. But it was worth it. The whole trip DS was already planning what movies to watch on the way back. ;-) Only issues: (1) I have never been on one of their flights that was on time. I didn’t mind at all on the way over, because getting in at 12 instead of 10 meant waking up at what was almost a reasonable hour my time. However, the almost 3-hr delay on the return put us at baggage claim at what was 4 AM our time (after a 6 AM start), and that was massively painful. And (2): Any connections are through Lufthansa, and even when you buy a Business Class ticket, they give you only an Economy ticket on the Lufthansa legs (and don’t give you your Lufthansa booking number, which you need to book seats, unless you know to email them to ask for it). It doesn’t matter for a short flight, but the baggage rules are different — and you are stuck with the baggage rules for the first flight you take. Which means on the return, you get only one checked bag from Athens to Frankfurt, even though from Frankfurt to BWI you are allowed 2. Again, not a problem because we knew it and planned to travel light anyway, but that could definitely catch you short. On the plus side, the Business Class ticket also gets you access to the Lufthansa Business Class lounge in the Frankfurt airport (and the lounge in BWI as well), which is a much, much better place to hang out — they had a delicious hefeweissen on tap, hot food and snacks out, and all the seating/power outlets you could want.

    On the way over, we flew into Frankfurt, drove down to the Route du Vins south of Strasbourg. We stayed in Ribeauville, my favorite of the villages we have visited, in a 3-Br airBnB. Went to the riesling festival two nights — over 250 wines to sample for 10e, plus a dozen different food/wine pairings to try for something like 6e each. Otherwise, slept, wandered around the village visiting wineries, hiked over to Hunawhir for more wineries, DH/DS hiked to the ruins on the hill above the town (I’ve done it before and wanted to go again, but the doofuses decided to schedule it our first full day there, and I was NOT waking up at 7 AM), drove to still more wineries, ate tarte flambee when not at the festival, and had the best pain au chocolate I have ever had every morning. Amazingly, even DH was forced to admit that he likes France! (And I even got to say “I told you so” — probably my own personal highlight of the trip). Highly recommend the Cheval Noir — it looks like a little tourist place at the base of the town, but it is in fact delicious local food. There is also a wine/cheese bar up next to the hotel de ville that was a perfect stop for a bite and a glass around 4PM.

    We had a ridiculously early flight from Frankfurt to Greece (4:45 AM), so we just stayed at the airport Sheraton. I upgraded to the Club level, because it came with free food in the club lounge, and my research suggested that the difference in room price was going to be significantly less than 3 dinners at the hotel restaurant. Alas, I failed to realize that we were going to arrive during the final round of the British Open, so DH and DS ate in the sports bar anyway. But it was worth it to roll out of bed and roll across to the terminal. On to Corfu.

  17. France/Greece, Part 2:

    Landed in Corfu around 8. Honestly, this flight was our biggest mistake: we had had only 3 days to adjust to European time, so getting up at 3 AM on day 4 just killed me for the whole day. We couldn’t get into the airBnB until 3, so we basically wandered around groggily until then. Saw the old fortress, were disappointed that over half of it is closed to visitors (permanently). Wandered around old town, ate mediocre tourist food.

    The apartment was fabulous — directly on the water at the edge of the old town, so I got to have pastries on the balcony for breakfast every morning. The parking, OTOH, was horrific. Street parking is filled up by 7 AM, and the closest parking lot was 1/4-1/2 mile away, and it filled up by afternoon. It got to where I didn’t want to drive anywhere for dinner because I knew we’d be circling forever and end up a mile away when we came back. And the driving/streets was worse than anywhere else I’ve been (until we hit Athens, of course). Honestly, that’s the one place I wouldn’t go back to — it is very pretty, and we visited some nice beaches on the west side and had a fun boat rental on the NE, but getting around was painful, and old town was flooded with cruise ship visitors every day. In retrospect, we should have just gone to a hotel on the west side and done the resort-type experience for a couple of days and called it good.

    From there, we took the ferry to the mainland and drove to Meteora. Far and away the highlight of the trip. Stayed in the Meteora Hotel at Kastraki — I chose it for the picture on their website, and the view did not disappoint. We got to see the blood moon on the patio there, and then the next night got a gorgeous moonrise right between the rock formations. DH had booked us a hike around the rocks with a private tour guide, and it was worth every penny; the landscape was absolutely stunning, he gave us a history lesson on the walk, and we ended up on a 7-mile hike that went completely around about half of the formation. We ended up at a big monastery, which was to me far less interesting than the hike to get there. For dinners, we went into Kastraki and ate at a taverna that was recommended; then the last night we just ate at the hotel so we could watch the sunset over the rocks (and stayed for hours to watch the moonrise). The hotel was ok — we were on the bottom floor, the AC was marginal, it was a small “wet” bathroom, which I hate, and the wifi was total crap — but I was there for the view, and that did not disappoint.

    From there, we left in the early morning to drive to Delphi. Ate lunch in some generic tourist place with a stunning view, then spent the afternoon hiking the ruins. Note: VERY up-and-down — I had forgotten how much the ruins are strewn up and down a very steep hillside, and after our big Meteora hike the day before, we were sucking wind a fair bit. And it was HOT. But the ruins are well-marked, with many placards explaining things. Do not miss the temple of Athena Pronaea — it is downhill and down the road from the “big” ruins, but that is the circular temple that you see in all the pictures. We got there just as a storm was moving in, so we got some very dramatic pictures.

    We stayed in the Hotel Amalia — a sort of classic 1960s brutalist-modern place. But it had balconies and a pool and air conditioning, and after the extremely hot hiking around, we were exhausted and just crashed — each of us independently came to the conclusion that we should just eat in the hotel (the town is highly tourist-focused, so it’s not like we were missing great cuisine elsewhere), so that’s what we did. It was a very well-timed low-key evening, and it was particularly nice once the storm moved through and cooled things off so I could enjoy the balcony. But that one day was enough — we made the right call to spend a couple of days in Meteora and only one in Delphi.

  18. Finally, France/Greece Part 3

    We ended the trip with 3 1/2 days in Athens. That was DD’s favorite part of the trip — I think she was ready for a big city by that point. We stayed in an AirBnB about 2 blocks south of the Acropolis; it was the biggest splurge of the trip, but BOY was that the right call. Functioning AC and wifi, large kitchen, 1.5 bathrooms, an actual shower stall that was both large AND enclosed, and a roof deck with a view of the Acropolis. And did I mention functioning AC and wifi? Our hosts gave us a bunch of restaurant recommendations, and we ended up several times at a classic little grandma shop down the street — the kind I remember where you walk in and they show you what they’ve cooked and you point at what you want. They were so nice that when I asked about kefthedes (meatballs), they immediately said they’d make them for me tomorrow. We also found our favorite gyros/souvlaki place in Monastiraki market — something like O Thassis, had a little bit of a Turkish flair, but it was the only place we went to that served the grilled pita that I remember with the tzatziki (everywhere else served it with regular bread). They had a fantastic kebab (ground meat) covered in yogurt sauce, served on top of the same pita — so good we went back for dinner our last night there.

    We saw the basic sights — Acropolis (hint: buy tickets the night before, and show up right at 8 AM when they open — lines get ridiculous), Temple of Olympian Zeus, Roman Agora, Ancient Agora, Hadrian’s Library. My favorite is the new Acropolis Museum, which is really, really well-designed. They have set everything up in chronological order, so you pass through the different eras in sequence; each exhibit is individually marked, with separate placards delineating how they fit into the larger context (e.g., changes in sculpture techniques), and they have areas where they provide little asides about the restoration, or what the statutes used to look like when they were painted, and the like, and there is plenty of room to walk around and see everything from all four sides (it’s not all in glass boxes against the wall). But my favorite part was the 3rd floor: they have built walls to be the exact dimensions of the Parthenon inner wall, and then a soffit hanging from the ceiling that is the exact dimension of the outer colonnade, and they then put the frieze panels and metopes and pediment statues* in their appropriate locations. It really gives you a much better sense of what the whole thing felt like, the scale of it all, and how it all fit together. Plus, you know, the AC is kicking, which feels awesome after a couple of hours tramping in the sun. ;-)

    I also have to say that the Athens metro system is quite easily managed. We only used it to get to/from the Archaeological Museum, but everything is very clearly marked, the instructions are in English, so we had no problems at all getting around. We also saw the changing of the guard in Syntagma Square — I still need to google how, exactly, they developed that particular style of marching, because wow. Oh, and we saw Mamma Mia 2 in an outdoor theater, which was great fun — and they serve beer. Even DH seemed to enjoy himself.

    We ended up taking a cab to the airport, which was less extortionary than I assumed (40e), but you can get there on public transportation as well. The airport is new since we were last there, and wow is it nice — very bright and airy, everything well-marked and easy to follow.

    Major takeaways: I forgot how bad/nonexistent most European AC is. We really fought the heat in Greece, and most particularly in Athens — we just wanted to stay inside from about 10 AM until 5 or so. It would be lovely to go back maybe in March or October, when we didn’t feel so constrained by the heat. The food was delicious but very much the same — lots of pork or chicken souvlaki/gyros everywhere (DH’s one comment when I was putting the grocery list together was “no pork”). I was surprised; I swear I remember lots more lamb, but the only lamb we saw was the slow-cooked-stew variety. We both agree we prefer the food in Italy, just because there is a little more variety of flavors/dishes; as much as I love Greek food, it did get old after 2 weeks. OTOH, the wine was much better than I remembered; we had completely drinkable glasses most everywhere. And Mythos beer — it is basically Budweiser, but after a few hours walking around in the heat, an ice-cold Mythos was absolutely the perfect thing. I actually kind of miss it. ;-) If you can, visit a local market and buy fruit and cheeses and such, or the bakery for bread/pastries — the prices are sort of ridiculously low, and the fruit was unbelievable (probably the best canteloupe I’ve ever had, just at the generic little quick-stop market around the corner from the apartment, for something like 1e; Saturn peaches for 2e per kilo; etc.). The pastries aren’t as good as in France, but they’re decent, and again, cheap — one day we went to the bakery for lunch and got 4-5 sandwich-type things, some filled pastries, and some desserts; I was worried about whether had brought enough money, and it was 11e!

    Oh, and if you want to visit the monuments, buy the multi-site pass — it is like 20e for 6-7 different places, and it is good for a 5-day period. AND you can buy it at any site — so, for ex., you can go to Hadrian’s Library, where there is no line, and pick up your pass, and then go to the Acropolis and avoid the ticket line entirely and walk right in. It does not include the museums, but those were like 5-6e each — very, very cheap. Oh: and kids under 18 were free! So that part of the trip ended up being much cheaper than expected.

    *or replicas where the originals are missing/too damaged.

  19. Big Island Hawai’i tips from honolulu mother

    For your Hilo stop, how about a tour up the Hamakua coast? It would be more being driven with stops rather than a physically active day. https://kapohokine.com/big-island-activities/hamakua-heritage/ That one looks promising.

    Or for something more active, if you have the time, you can do this tour that takes you into Waipio Valley — it’s a historic valley at the north tip of the island that’s kind of separated by cliffs from most of the island so had a bit of a Brigadoon character for that reason, though its popularity as an adventure tour destination has presumably affected that. https://kapohokine.com/big-island-activities/waipio-valley-express-hilo/

    If Kilauea has calmed down and the park has reopened by the time you’re here, then Hilo is the best place to do a trip up to the park from as it’s only about a half hour’s drive.

    Also on the more physical side and time-intensive would be a Mauna Kea summit tour: https://www.arnottslodge.com/hawaii-adventure-tours/mauna-kea-summit-tour/ . (Mauna Kea is not the volcano that’s erupting; it’s the peak with all the astronomy facilities.) That tour outfit has several tours that might be good: https://www.arnottslodge.com/hawaii-adventure-tours/cruise-ship-tours/ .

    From your Kona stop, this culture and history tour has Hulihe’e Palace and City of Refuge (Pu’uhonua ‘O Honaunau) and looks pretty good.

    A tasting tour of a few coffee growers might be nice. I’m not finding any obvious hits for guided tours but you could rent a car and drive yourself, or arrange with a private driver. Here’s a page for planning a self-guided tour: https://www.lovebigisland.com/kona-coffee-tasting/

    Actually, here’s one with a little history and a little coffee: https://www.wasabitourshawaii.com/tours/historic-kona-tour/

    A day trip to Waimea (Kamuela) to visit one of the ranches, see a little bit of the paniolo history, would be nice, but I’m not having any luck finding a suitable tour leaving from Kona. The ranches that offer horseback or ATV tours, or a historic ranch tour, all seem to be starting on-site. But if you’re interested in either hiring someone to do a custom tour or driving yourself, here’s a starter: https://www.lovebigisland.com/waimea-kamuela-hawaii/activities/

    There are various snorkeling and kayak outfitters for Kealekekua Bay (where the Captain Cook monument is), some of which will take you from Kailua-Kona (e.g. https://www.fair-wind.com/faqs/ , note the stuff about working with cruise ships) and others of which you’d need to rent a car or otherwise get yourself down there (e.g. http://www.ehuandkai.com/ ).

    I guess one advantage of renting a car would be the easier ability to combine e.g. a little snorkeling, a visit to City of Refuge or the Painted Church, a visit to a coffee farm all along the South Kona coast. Or you could hire a driver, or do a custom tour like through this oufit: https://www.wasabitourshawaii.com/private-tours/ .

  20. Kauai and Maui tips – various totebaggers

    On Kauai, you need to go to Waimea Canyon. If you’re not already doing that on your active day, here’s a tour that looks to be mostly drive, park, and look so should work for your not-so-active day: http://adventureinhawaii.com/kauai/waimea-canyon-tour/

    f you’re going to take HM’s advice to do Waimea Canyon, and Nawiliwili puts you on that part of the island, you might also consider the menehune swinging bridge.

    As a small kid, I was fascinated by the menehune legends and went to see things connected with them.

    On that side of the island, there’s also the taro chip factory in Hanapepe

    For Maui, consider an Iao Valley tour, e.g.: https://holoholomauitours.com/west-maui-tours/iao-valley-excursion/ . That would be an active one.

    You could also consider an upcountry farm tour — I saw one listed on the ‘we pick you up’ part of this: https://www.tombarefoot.com/things-to-do-in-hawaii/island-category/maui/2/cruise-ship-compatible-activities/39/ .

    If you have the oppty to do snorkeling at Molokini (Maui stop) that’s worthwhile. We went on Trilogy.

    Also on Maui sunrise atop Haleakala is good. Bring a jacket, expect wind & temps ~50f. Little walking required.

    We did the road to Hana in Maui. It is very pretty, but takes a long time and is kind of scary in places. Avoid if anyone is prone to car sickness.

    Another farm tour http://oofarm.mybigcommerce.com/tour-luncheon/

  21. If you plan to watch the sun rise atop Haleakala, be aware that you will need advance reservations; the National Park Service limits the number of people/vehicles.

    Also be prepared for temperatures much lower than 50F, and winds that can bring the wind chill factor much lower than that. Remember, snow on the summit is not all that unusual.

    The summit is more than 10,000 feet high. If you’re prone to altitude sickness, consider Diamox.

    Weather conditions sometimes prevent a view of the sunrise. OTOH, on a clear day it’s pretty impressive.

  22. Trip Report: Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Montana road trip, Las Vegas:

    We flew in to Kalispell MT. We drove from GNP to YNP, then on to Billings. Then we took a flight to Las Vegas and then home. Other options for visiting those two national parks include flying in and out of Billings or other cities and making a round trip loop.

    Glacier National Park
    The park includes some of the most majestic mountains I’ve ever seen up close. Simply driving Going To The Sun Road across the park and stopping to check out the vistas was a treat in itself. We didn’t stay inside the park because we didn’t plan this trip with enough advance time, but staying in Hungry Horse on the west side and Babb on the east side worked out well. There are many hiking options of varying distances (2–12+ miles), including several each day lead by park rangers for those who have irrational grizzly-phobia like me. Every hike and boat ride was a delight. Finding parking space at some of the more popular visitor areas was tough if you did not get there by 9am. Twitter helpfully reports the time every day when lots fill up. If you can’t find a spot you have to park farther away and rely on their shuttle busses, which are infrequent and sometimes arrive with no space. Plan accordingly. They say the glaciers will be gone by as early as 2030, so if you want to go plan a trip soon!

    Yellowstone National Park
    Who doesn’t love simmering, bubbling hot springs? We didn’t hike here except for short walks to hot springs. Driving the loop and stopping at particular springs worked for us. Again, limited parking was a problem in some spots here, but no shuttle was available. I must agree with one brochure that advised some of the other less popular hot spring areas are more impressive than Old Faithful, but of course you have to visit Old Faithful. My vote for the best visitor center ever is the one in Canyon with a room-sized 3D relief map of the park that lights up as well as other impressive exhibits. We were lucky to encounter large (we est. well over 1000 head) herds of buffalo, some blocking the road and one head butting a car, on our drive to the NE entrance. The quintessential Yellowstone experience!

    Montana road trip
    I realize a road trip is not everyone’s idea of a good time, but I relish them and this one through Montana was no exception. The vastness, beauty, and personality of the state is best experienced by driving IMO. The driving is easy and we enjoyed many stops, including a boat trip on a stretch of the Missouri River where Lewis and Clark explored, old mining towns, the battlefield site of Custer’s last stand, and more. Chance encounters included a visit to a small roadside museum near a nest of dinosaur eggs discovered some years ago, and stopping at a café where the waitress told us David Letterman is a customer and that her dad helped build his nearby house. Best drive ever: Beartooth Highway between Cooke City and Red Lodge. Wowza!

    Las Vegas
    Las Vegas is fun. Hang by the pool, see a show or two, take a stroll, see the sites, people watch, gamble a little, and try some restaurants. We got to eat at Rao’s, the ultra-exclusive NYC restaurant where reservations are next to impossible to get. (Truth be told, the Caesar’s salad I had at Rao’s was not as good as the one I had a few days earlier in Helena MT.)

  23. Three months later, finally continuing the trip report — still in France:

    From Vezelay we headed south through Burgundy toward the Alps and Lake Annecy. We stopped in Beaune — pretty town, the famous hostel was nice, I wish we’d had more time and fewer kids so we could have hit up some of the many wine tasting rooms — and then continued on to Doussard, a village on the south side of Lake Annecy. We were in a rental there, a big old traditional house that was pleasant to hang out in. It’s a big vacation area for French and other European families, so even being a little early in the season there were all kinds of things to do, rental bicycles, a little beach and boat rentals, the ferry that goes around the lake so you can explore Annecy the city or the other little villages, and for the adventurous parachuting off the cliffs, canyoning, and so on. The mountains surrounding the town also have stuff like an alpine coaster or waterfall and canyon hiking. Since we had only one full day in the village we obviously weren’t able to do all of that — some of us biked in the morning and then rain closed in that afternoon foiling the plans of those who had wanted to bike but assumed there’d be a later opportunity. We also had raclette at a chalet up on the cliffs overlooking the lake, which is pretty much what you picture doing in the Alps.

    Leaving there we headed first for Chamonix, with the intention of taking either the little train up to the glacier and ice cave, or the cable car up to the Aiguille du Midi, but we found that Chamonix was closed in with fog so things didn’t appear to be running. That ended up kinda frustrating because after a long drive on twisty mountain roads the town itself was confusing to drive in — lots of one ways and very little in the way of parking or even places to pull over briefly — so we also were running later than planned. So we ended up just heading toward CERN, stopping at a cool mountain fort (Fort L’Ecluse) to have a picnic lunch on the way. It was basically on a cliffside overlooking the Rhone far below and appeared extremely defensible.

    The CERN tour and exhibit was fun but we weren’t wild about what we saw of Geneva (which was the outskirts and the airport). There seemed to be a lot of focus on making sure you get your wallet out at every turn. However we did have a nice dinner at the little “chalet” in the airport — more melted cheese and meat and potatoes! We were flying from Geneva to Bristol on one of those European budget airlines, EasyJet, which worked out to about $60 each with the addition of a pre-paid checked bag for each of us. That was far and away the best way to get us between those two areas, but the downside was that there was one flight a day and it didn’t get us to Bristol till after 10 UK time. Which left us feeling pressed for time to get to our hotel in case we ran into any hiccups — to be continued!

  24. Brief travel report, really restaurant review, from my past week. 3 places I recommend you try if you find yourselves in these two places.

    Buffalo, NY: Crave. On Hertel Ave, near the zoo. Farm to table, local sourced food. Really good.

    Treasure Island (technically in the city of San Francisco, though in the middle of the bay between SF & Oakland): Mersea. Especially on a sunny day, which we had, it’s a nice place to view SF, Alcatraz, Golden Gate Bridge while enjoying a well prepared lunch.

    San Bruno, CA…convenient stop on the way to or from SF airport, only 2 miles away (also only 1/4 mile from the San Bruno BART station): Taqueria San Bruno. From the Michelin review: “If you’re willing to forgive its divey, industrial location in San Bruno’s auto-repair corridor, this taqueria will reward you with flavor-packed food that’s worthy of the largely Mexican clientele that congregates here at lunchtime. Expect to sit elbow-to-elbow at communal tables, where options range from authentically Mexican to delightfully Americanized (hello, hefty super burritos). Every type of taco served here is perfection-from fresh, plump marinated shrimp to sweet, caramelized al pastor. The superior chicken enchiladas sub smoky grilled chicken for the traditional boiled variety, then get added zest from a garlicky red chili sauce. Throw in warm, well-salted tortilla chips and piquant salsa, and you’ll be a happy camper. ” It was great. I recommend the tacos, of which they have ~15 different types.

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