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2/2024 – Birthday in Bruges

February is a great time to visit Bruges without crowds but the weather is a bit iffy. Rain was the theme of our 6 days in Bruges. All activities occurred between rain showers! We wandered in and out of the streets and along the canals, stopping at various breweries (Half Moon, Bourgogne de Flandres, Le Garre) to get out of the rain. Mark has a favorite chocolate shop from our first visit to Bruges in 1990. It was not where we thought it was, resulting in a multi-day hunt. It moved but is still owned by the same family. The granddaughter runs it.
We continued the art theme and visited the St. Jan Hospital Museum where they have a Hans Memling exhibit of paintings owned by the convent. They clearly were not poor nuns!

A lonely street in the evening. Bruges is pretty much deserted in February after the work day is finished. Very few tourists wandering around.
Men have it so easy. These urinals are at the Saturday market. Women have to search for a bathroom!
We had the laundromat to ourselves until 3 American teenage guys came in. They were in Bruges with a group of soccer players and needed to wash their sweaty clothes. They had no idea how to use a Belgian laundry. We came to their rescue after watching them for a few minutes – sent them to the store up the street to get change, showed them which detergent to buy from the machine and even gave them a 10 cent piece since the laundry detergent machine only took exact change. We left them waiting for the washing machine to finish and figured they could figure out the dryer on their own!
Chocolate shoes!
Yes, this is a chocolate purse dyed to look green.
One of the many canals in Bruges.
Le Garre brewery. This place is TINY. We’ve tried 3 times to have a beer here – one time it was closed, another time it was SO smoky we didn’t even go in. Third time’s a charm – open, 2 chairs and it’s non-smoking now.
Happy Birthday champagne!
Mussels for birthday dinner.

One day we spent on a WWI tour with a great tour guide – Lucas. He picked us up at 9 AM and we visited Passendale, Hill60, Tynecot Commonwealth Cemetery, Dr. John McRae memorial, Ypres Salient, a farm with ammunition collection, Yorkshire Bunker in the middle of an industrial park, and a German Cemetery.

Ypres was demolished by WWI and completely rebuilt in the medieval style.
A bomb hole from WWI
Tynecote Commonwealth Cemetery. British bodies weren’t repatriated but buried in Belgium or France where they died.

2/2024 – Ghent

We camped in Ghent on our first Europe trip in 1990. Since it’s close to Bruges, we spent 3 days here to see what we missed. 80,000 college students and the Ghent Altar Piece make Ghent a fun city – lots of places to eat, beer to drink, canals, art history. It’s been added to our Favorite Place list, despite the rain.

The castle is the only thing we remember seeing 30 years ago!
Reflections on the canal in Ghent
Yes, this was another laundromat.
Even the iced tea has a proper glass.

The Nazis hid the Ghent Altarpiece in a salt mine with other looted works, and it was saved from destruction by the Monuments Men and others. It’s now in St. Bavos Cathedral in Ghent, being restored. This art made the whole visit to Ghent worthwhile. We highly recommend a visit; winter is perfect! We were the only people in the room with it and walked all around it – no crowds and no tour groups.

The Ghent Altar Piece in St. Bavos Cathedral. The bottom panels have been completely restored. The top ones are place holders while the originals are being restored in the museum. We visited that, too, to watch the restoration.
In St. Bavos – the Bishop’s confessional. You started in the Priest’s Confessional. If your sins were too serious, you were sent to the Bishop for Confession.
Babies in the wash tub??

2/2024 – Haarlem, Netherlands

The French rail conductors went on strike but our Eurostar train wasn’t affected, thank heavens. The rain theme continued in Haarlem. We had a lovely time with Michelle and a few of her colleagues – a brewery visit, walk through red light district, checked out the market.

An ex-jail De Koepel in Haarlem. It houses offices, a small uni, a theater, coffee shop, student dorms. Very innovative way to repurpose a building.
Flowers in the market – very inexpensive!
The urinal has a TV on it. Wouldn’t want to miss any of the match when you need to use the toilet!

After we dinner, we had our first trip disruption from a strike! Sunday night, Lufthansa texted to tell us our flight on Tuesday to Frankfurt from Amsterdam was cancelled because of a Lufthansa ground staff strike. We both immediately got on our phones and computers to talk to their chatbot to get a rebooking. Mark finally got thru first and we were put on a KLM flight. The reservation showed up on the KLM site so we felt pretty good.

2/2024 – FRA, NYC and home!

KLM did have our reservation and flew us to Frankfurt. Thank heavens, we planned to spend the night in Frankfurt anyway; the strike ended the next day at 7:15 AM.

Frankfurt airport when the ground crew is on strike. It’s like a ghost town.
So many cancelled flights!

We spent a day in New York City before flying back to Denver.

The Lego store!
QR codes for everything at St. Patrick’s in NYC
All types of credit cards accepted at St. Patrick’s

10/2023 Last stop in Nepal – Bandipur

Driving Day from Hell #2! The roads are explained on the next post so hold your breath.

Bandipur is a historic, restored town (Think Williamsburg, Virginia) and no cars are allowed in the center. After winding up the mountain past the National Goat Research Center, we were dropped off and hotel staff came to get the luggage while we walked to the hotel. The hotel is a historical building with tons of steps, no shower curtain in the bathroom and questionable hot water. Great view of the mountains from here.

Morning view of the mountains and fog in the valley
View from our room window in the morning

Mark and Jutta left at 7 AM for a hike with Bhaskar to Ramcot village. Mark and Jutta walked up to Thani Mai – lots of steps. Off they went to Ramcot – beautiful scenery, lunch at a local woman’s house of hot soup. Mark got a 200 rps. discount for keeping the chickens out of the house while she cooked.

Mark after surviving the 7 hour hike to Ramcot and back.

Having Bhaskar as our tour guide for 2 weeks was great since we let him order food during dinner/lunch that we never would have tried. Spicy peanut salad and chili paneer were 2 of our favorites. He even hunted down some local beer for us to try.

10/2023 Nepal – Chitwan NP and the “bumpy jumpy” roads

After we left Lumbini, we had good roads for a bit before we got to the Mahendra Highway over the mountains with the abysmal conditions. (More on the roads later.)

The tiny bar owned by owner of the chicken that the snake wanted for a meal.
Bhaskar got us to go see a python! He was attacking a chicken at the Little House; lady yelled and they got a sack to scoop him into; brought him over to the NP buffer zone to release him. He wanted to go in the direction of our rooms.
One of the elephants needed a snack during our walk.

We walked with the elephants in the afternoon to the river for drinks at sunset.

Happy elephant after a walk and a bath before we had a gin and tonic along the river at sunset
Mark and Susan with the elephants after our walk.

The highlight of the Chitwan NP safari was seeing rhinos up close and personal.

Rhinoceros staring at us

Now about the roads … abysmal is an inadequate description for them. The government goal is to widen and improve the Mahendra Highway, major east/west highway connecting India with Kathmandu. Great idea BUT their execution leaves a lot to be desired. It appears that they cut a new lane on each side of the entire highway, building retaining walls along the way, have put in some of the concrete supports for the needed bridges along the entire way or are working on it. BUT as they did this, the existing road has been destroyed – holes, no pavement, dust, dirt, it’s a disaster and no section is complete, The construction has been going on for 5 years with nothing complete. Even the village roads are damaged. Some of the bridge pieces that are “stored” in the towns next to the roads have trees growing out of them. We average maybe 20 miles an hour.

We don’t know who is managing or paying for this but I’m sure I’ll be dead before any of this road is done. Given the amount of traffic, I’m not sure why they even need to widen the road.

We started keeping track of who uses the highway. Here’s the list.

• People walking
• Cows, goats, dogs in the road
• Monkeys on occasion
• Bicycles with and without loads and carts
• Tuk-tuks
• Children in street
• Motorcycles with and without passengers and loads (passenger carrying bicycle with training wheels)
• Scooters
• Ox carts
• Busses that stop wherever
• Trucks
• Overcrowded tourist vans
• Private cars
• Farm equipment
• Calming devices and police checkpoints for licenses, taxes, registration

10/23 Back to Thailand

We flew from Siem Reap to Bangkok, spent 15 hours in the Novotel at the airport, and flew to Ao Nang the next morning. 8:30 AM flights always sound like a good idea until the alarm sounds at 4:45AM for a quick shower, breakfast, check-in, security and a bus to the plane, of course! I’m trying to figure out if airlines pay less for their gates if they don’t get a jetway and just park the plane on the runway.

Now that we know how the Bangkok Airways bag drop works, it didn’t take long to drop our bags, print out a boarding pass and head to the gate at the domestic terminal.  We showed our boarding pass to get to the gate area (no security) and THEN we showed our ID and boarding pass and went through security to actually get to the gate. Our gate was across the aisle from the Coral Lounge (Priority Pass). They have a lovely massage lady who walked around and offered neck and shoulder massages to waiting passengers.  I took her up on her offer.

Ao Nang beach bar. Expensive beer at $2 each since they had a great location for watching sunset
Ao Nang beach at sunset

FAQ for us – What do we do at the beach? Not much but here’s a rundown of the week:

  • Eat breakfast and wonder why Thai restaurants never have big napkins
  • Catch up on the diary, photos, and the website IF the wifi is good enough
  • Drop off and pick up laundry
  • Hang out at the pool or more often in the pool to escape the heat.
  • Watch people at the pool. British guy by us had a bad sunburn, complete with blisters.
  • Get massages – about $30 for one hour
  • Check out the 7-11 and Watson stores. They are everywhere and have interesting snacks
  • With the time difference, we watched college football games on the phone by the pool. Watched Stanford beat CU in 2 OT
  • Watch the rain downpour some days
  • Had to scoop up a little gecko climbing on my suitcase and deposit him by the pool.

Our flight to Nepal was booked from Bangkok and we flew from Ao Nang to Bangkok, spending 5 days catching up on activities that a major city made easier. We used hotel points to stay at the Westin in the middle of Bangkok and spent a bit of time talking to the general manager and interns and restaurant manager. When you’re American and staying more than a night, we stand out. We learned a lot about the hotel and liviing in Bangkok as an ex-pat.

Some tasks we accomplished in Bangkok (other than trying potato chips):

  • Did a little shoe shopping for Nikes for Susan. Found a HUGE Adidas store, Skechers store and Nike store. A very nice guy helped me at Nike. I finally found a pair that fits. Size 8 is pretty popular! This took 12000 steps to accomplish!
  • KFC has green curry chicken rice bowls using fried chicken.
  • Cheesecake Factory is opening in December; Krispy Kreme, Tim Horton already in Bangkok along with dozens of Starbucks.
  • Applied for Visa on Arrival paperwork for Nepal and printed it out in the Business Center. One page says you’ll get a QR code – but it wasn’t on the page they tell us to bring in hard or soft copy. They need to hire me to work on their website!
  • Susan had a massage by the Robinsons grocery store – best one of the trip.
  • Changed our address so we can vote overseas for the November election. Colorado makes it so easy to vote wherever you happen to be.
  • Had our laundry done. I’m not going to want to go back to washing my own clothes.
  • Went shopping for necessities – Qtips, alcohol wipes, and wandered around the department store. I have never seen that many bras in one store. Of course, the biggest size is about 38 equivalent.
Finding a laundry is high on the list of things to do. This one was in an alley in Bangkok. Prices are by the kilo. Washed in cold water and hung in the alley to dry.
Bangkok traffic
Our favorite – Din Tai Fung

10/2023 – On to Salzburg and Stuttgart

I love Salzburg and wanted to spend some time there. We took the train from Munich and hung out for 4 days. We first visited 32 years ago on our European camping trip – not much has changed. By dumb luck we hit the St. Rupert festival for their patron saint and founder. Surprise! It involves beer. At a nice market, I found some handcrafted jewlery to buy.

Hohensalzburg with the Mirabell Gardens, famous from the Sound of Music.
This little guy was in The Sound of Music, too. We did NOT do the tour.
My favorite place for a beer – Steigl – overlooking the rooftops of Salzburg.
The last time we visited Helbrun Palace was 32 years ago. The tours are now self-guided. We could spend as much time as we wanted looking at the water powered creatures built by one of the many Archbishop Princes of Salzburg.

The water holds up the little hat and changes its height.

These little guys spit at each other.

From Salzburg we took the train to Stuttgart, home to the 2nd largest “Oktoberfest” in Germany. It is officially called a Volksfestival – we assume that “Oktoberfest” is copyrighted. Deutchesbahn was actually on time!

The official name of the Stuttgart festival
The grounds open at noon during the week. Much less crowded than the counterpart in Munich first thing in the day.
We had 1/2 chicken and a beer for lunch in a very empty tent.
City Library in Stuttgart. It’s a tourist stop for architecture. Since it was right by our hotel, we had to wander in.

French Polynesia in the rain – 2/4/2023

I’m a bit tardy in posting this so here goes!

When should you be really happy you are not traveling with any children? When you are on an island in a hotel and it rains all day – as in buckets down! This was one day on Bora Bora. It rained so hard we couldn’t see the island across the water.

That was only one day.  Other days ranged from hot and humid on Tahiti to drizzly and humid to cloudy and humid.  Get the general weather idea??

Raining in the pool.

We wanted to go to the city market in Papeete but it was closed the week between New Year’s and Epiphany so Mark had to settle for finding a lovely lady in men’s shop who took his shorts home over lunch to fix a torn hem. We enjoyed some micro-brewed beer and lunch while it rained hard – good beer!

Raining while we ate breakfast. The hotel had umbrellas everywhere to use!
With no light pollution, the stars and planets were gorgeous on the clear nights.

We had no problem flying to Bora Bora and enjoyed 10 days at Le Bora Bora resort.    We flew back to Tahiti a day before we were due to fly to San Francisco and Denver; we spent the night at a Hilton about 10 minutes from the airport with the biggest pool in FP. The pool was great and the hotel was across the street from a huge grocery store. (We get excited about finding grocery stores bigger than 7-11.)

View of Bora Bora from the plane

Now was time for the next weather problem. In all the plane flights on this trip (14 so far) with many of them having a chance for bad weather delays on one end or another, we had no problems.  When it’s time to fly to Denver, spend one night in FC, drive back to the DEN airport, meet Liz (Iowa friend), spend the night, and fly with her to Maui, a snowstorm pops up with snow predictions from 5 to 12 inches.

Decision time. After consulting with various weather services, texting and talking to Liz because Iowa would be impacted a day AFTER Denver, we decided to see if United would change our flights to fly SFO to Maui and we just wouldn’t go home.  We have swim suits with us so all is well, right? United already offered Liz the choice to change her flight by a day.  She just needed to get to the airport for a 5 AM flight!

No problem with United. We just needed to cancel one hotel in Denver, get another hotel by the SF airport, get a hotel in Maui for one night before we picked up Liz in Maui,  change a car reservation, and  reschedule a doctor’s appointment. It all worked out fine in the end!

That’s the tale of getting to Maui where the weather is perfect so far and no snow is rearing its ugly head.  Thank heavens we bought a few t-shirts along the way because I’m getting mighty tired of the same clothes!

On Maui enjoying sunset after 5 days of rain showers and clouds.
When you go to Maui, Costco is a necessary stop. I guess they were trying to make us eat healthier by putting the Maui Chips in no-man’s-land. Fortunately, Mark has long arms. Another lady was happy too!

Singapore and NYC  – December 2022-2023

Our last stop in the Maldives was the Westin, another hotel where we used points. They gave us a room all the way at the end of a boardwalk.  10 villas were between us and the next villa with guests (The hotel was doing renovations.) so we could have had a wild party and no one would have heard us! The staff was great and we learned a few tidbits about the hospitality industry in the Maldives:

  • 60% of resort employees have to be Maldivian citizens
  • $519 is minimum monthly wage;  working over 8 hours per day requires OT pay
  • The 10% mandatory service charge is pooled together and shared by all employees at the resort except for management. 

The Westin has their own desalination and filtration plant for water so we could drink the water if we wanted – we did!

We were the last villa way out there in the line.
Biolumenescent plankton on the beach on our last night.
Mark’s birthday!

Singapore was the next stop – flew there on Christmas Eve.  Singapore goes all out for Christmas with decorations everywhere – streets, shops, hotels.  We even got a short visit with Ana who we met in Split during our RTW trip.

The highlight of Christmas Day was doing the laundry!
Singapore skyline from our window.
Hotel Christmas tree
Robot to seat people at Din Tai Fung, a favorite restaurant. We were at a table away from the main walkway so we had a person seat us.
Singapore skyline

We flew to French Polynesia via Frankfurt and NYC and San Francisco. Susan’s bucket list included flying Singapore Air first class one time and this was it. Mark’s research found their “best” first class are suites on the A380 and that routing to the U.S. only goes to NYC.  Since we were going to fly through NYC, Susan suggested we stay for New Year’s Eve – why not?  We didn’t spend any travel money in 2022!

Susan in the Singapore Air suite on the flights from Singapore to Frankfurt (14 hours) and then 8 more hours to NYC.
A few of the suites connect and 2 single beds make into a double. They were not the most comfortable but Mark managed to get some sleep.
We spent one night at the TWA Hotel at JFK. It’s the old TWA terminal from 1966 made into a hotel but with all the old furnishings – dial phones in the room, pay phones in the lobby, photo booths, old style departure boards. It’s good for one night when you’re pretty tired.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The city was packed but we managed to walk 18000 steps one day. I was thankful and amazed that I felt well enough to all the walking.
New Year’s Eve Time Square crowd
It’s finally 2023!
Happy 2023!
We could even see the Statue of Liberty in the distance in the haze.

Then it was on to Tahiti via San Francisco.

Maldives 12/18/2022

We spent the second week in the Maldives at the St. Regis Hotel paid with hotel points, not cash!  It’s lovely but certainly has a different vibe than the Hard Rock Hotel. We met a lady from Iowa – surprise!  They live in Chicago area now and threw in a stop here because they have tickets to the World Cup finals in Doha so will stop there on the way home. Fun!

This is the main pool which was NEVER crowded – just a few guests used it every day.
We had one day of bad weather – hard rain and wind. Some shingles blew off our villa at night! This is the pool for our villa getting pounded with rain. That night the rain started right as we finished dinner and even with a buggy (golf cart) back to the villa, we were pretty wet!

We now know how the “other half” lives. This hotel is a bit over the top. We have our own “butler” to help with our stay – as if we need any help! He will give us a buggy ride whenever we want – we walk! The worker bees rake the sand path to our villa every day.  We think it’s so the housekeepers know if we’ve gone out as they can see our footprints in the sand. 

The guests really don’t interact with each other. A player from the Netherlands National Soccer team was here after the Netherlands got eliminated from the World Cup. His girlfriend is a model and you can tell! One really nice waitress in the bar says that lots of the guests here are “posh” – British for entitled.

Mark’s birthday was celebrated early with a yummy chocolate fondant dessert of some sort and a YouTube video playing “Happy Birthday”.
Our butler decorated the bathtub, too. The bubbles lasted until the next morning before the decorations all drownd!
The housekeeper liked to decorate the bed each evening. It was a shame we had to destroy it to sleep!
And he left us a towel creature each night.

We flew on a seaplane from Male here which was about an hour long and not bad at all. TransMaldivian Airlines has its own terminal and no security to clear.  The St Regis rep met us when we got off the Hard Rock Boat at the International Terminal and walked us everywhere to check in, weigh our bags and backpacks, check our passports, get the St. Regis car to the sea plane terminal (other side of the airport island), and take us to the business lounge to wait for the flight to be called.  Then he took us to the boarding location.  The pilot checked our names off his printed list when we got to the pier for the plane.

Mark actually fit in the plane seats – not assigned – just pick a seat!  The flight had 2 pilots and one of them flew in his bare feet!

A little tidbit about the Maldives … most of the resorts in the atolls that are not near Male go on “island time” – one hour later than the real time of GMT +5.  It’s a made up ti e zone. This gives people more beach time later in the day but doesn’t help people with jet lag.  Plus this makes the World Cup start later.  The semi-finals started at 1 AM here so you can guess who !did not watch! We will watch the finals tonight.

We also learned how the resorts get their alcohol since this is a Muslim country and alcohol can only be served in the resorts.  The beer, wine, spirits all come to a big warehouse where it clears customs (We don’t know how much paperwork is involved with that.) Then it is put on a boat to ONE resort.  The boat can only go to one resort and it is tracked on its trip to make sure the boat doesn’t stop along the way.  This is what one employee told us when  we asked.

A few nights the sunsets were marvelous!
It was bit windy that day at sunset and I had to grip the gin glass pretty hard to keep it from blowing over.

Now we’re off to The Westin resort again using points.

Maldives 12/9/2022 – end of week 1

Our first week is almost over and it’s a grey, windy day with some rain thrown in BUT it is warm! We’ve been at the Hard Rock Hotel all week.  It’s the closest resort to the airport, only requiring a speed boat ride. We did half board which included a large breakfast buffet and dinner (appetizer, main, and dessert each) from a number of different restaurants – Mexican, Indian, Thai, Maldivian, International, seafood, Japanese, Hard Rock Café – so we never got bored.

The staff here is very international although most are Maldivian.  We’ve met people from Brazil, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nepal, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Sri Lanka, India, Italy.  They’ve tried teaching us some Maldivian language not too successfully, but they are very polite when we butcher it!  Every evening at sunset there are canapes and drinks with different staff members wandering around to get feedback from guests and this is when we’ve learned the most about the country and the staff.

The guests come from all over the world with a strong contingent from Brazil, Russia, and Europe.  Dubai is only a 4 hour flight so lots of expats come here for a break. We met a lovely Scottish family who live in Dubai and shared a few beers by the pool with them.  For those of you who don’t travel because “we have children”, the Scots were here with their 6 year old and  7 week old! 

We’ve seen/heard a few Americans, but we are definitely in the minority.  When we are asked where we are from, we reply “Where do you think?” and the UK is the normal guess!

Our overwater villa
Full moon at the Hard Rock. There was a Full Moon party but we were in bed before the party really got going about midnight.
This is the beach at the Hard Rock with the villas in the background. The pic is a bit crooked but we’re taking all the pics on the phones since my neuropathy won’t let me use the “real” camera!

Off to the Maldives – 12/2022

Next stop is the Maldives on this adventure.  If you’re wondering where these islands are that Mark picked for his birthday celebration, find India, go all the way south, and look to the west. You’ll find this tiny country of about 550,000 people made up of about 1000 islands.

We flew Turkish Air from Munich with a 5 hour stopover in Istanbul followed by an 8 hour flight leaving at 00:40 – as in 40 minutes after midnight – and arriving about 10:30 AM in Male, capital city. Flight went well after we survived the totally unGerman-chaos of checking in and boarding. Turkish Air had flights leaving at 1:30 and 2:30 with 3 hour in advance check-in. Lines were everywhere with no one and no signs to direct traffic.  It took us about an hour to get checked in but the security line was short although inconsistent. Mark had to take off his Nikes but Susan didn’t.

Then there was boarding lack of organization, mainly caused by being in the old terminal 1 which has some issues with space to wait and line up. Again, some people giving directions would have helped.

Arriving in the Maldives was WAY easier than we expected after reading the country’s tourist website.  Every tourist has to have a paid reservation at a hotel, enough money to pay for accommodations and food while we are here, proof of onward passage, and a Travel Declaration “card” (electronically done either 72 hours or 96 hours ahead of time, depending on which website you read).  We had proof of all this printed out and on our phones but would we have cell reception?  Since Susan never trusts phone reception, she had the paper forms. 

Were we asked for any of this???  Just in Munich did we have to show the Travel Declaration and hotel confirmation before we got our boarding passes  In Male, the immigration guy just wanted to see a passport and we were good to go.

Our luggage showed up – yeah! – since the trackers in the suitcases showed the bags still in Istanbul and Munich, causing a momentary panic! When we exited customs into the open air terminal, hotel and resort greeters were lined up holding  boards with the names of the tourists they were meeting.  If your hotel was not there, you get to go to a large greeting area (open air) full of hotel and resort stalls and search for your hotel greeter there.  It’s all very organized. We found our Hard Rock Hotel stall with a little help from a nice Maldivian.

We’re staying the first week at the Hard Rock Hotel which is just a 15 minute boat ride across the lagoon from Male.  We waited about 45 minutes for some other arriving passengers before we boarded the boat and whisked our way to the Hard Rock Island.

BTW … my hair is growing back after I “shed” some during chemo and it’s coming in a bit curly. The humidity here makes it even more curly or fuzzy.

Can’t complain about the view from our bed.
The first day was a bit cloudy with drizzles but it was still warm and we got a bit sunburnt through the clouds. Need to remember the sun screen being this close to the equator.

Christmas Markets in Munich – 11/2022

Our newest adventure started off in Munich for the Christmas markets. Munich is definitely in the Christmas spirit with gluwein, bratwurst, roasted nuts, crib scene figures for sale, and the stores all decorated for the holidays!  Did I mention that the weather was cold and wet? No snow in sight in the city but we were told the mountains have enough snow for skiing.

Lederhosen and dirndls for the children
Christmas market at Marienplatz in Munich
Food stand at the market at the Residenz, Munich

11/2021 – Where to spend Christmas in a world gone crazy from COVID?

After 25 months of hanging out in the states, several cancelled trips, a few rescheduled trips, in September 2021 we decided things were looking good enough to plan a Christmas trip to Germany for the Christmas markets, a visit with a German friend and meet up with some Iowa friends who had the same idea we did.

We bought the tickets from Lufthansa – direct to Munich so no stops to cause possible problems.  We found some great hotel rates since December in Munich is not a big visit time, lined up a schedule with Jutta and Sam and Josh. We were fully vaccinated and even got our boosters in November.  We investigated how to get the online Vax Pass for Germany, where to get a COVID test 72 hours before flying home to Denver and uploaded the Luca app for contact tracing in Munich.

Everything was looking pretty good when COVID decided to attack Germany. We watched Bavaria and Saxony cancel their Christmas markets only a few days before the markets were supposed to start during Thanksgiving week. After we watched rules change for restaurants and museums, we gave in! Cancelled everything and rebooked our plane tickets for some made up dates next Fall.

Now where could we go for Christmas?  We knew Hawaii was packed already but what about Tahiti?  United flies direct from San Francisco, seats were available, and we could find hotels to stay in.  Why not?? About 4 days later, we’d booked the flights, reserved hotels, and investigated Tahiti entrance rules – not in that order!

Paperwork and testing!

We needed to fill out a ETIS (electronic permission to board the plane and enter the country), prove we’d been vaccinated and pay $50 each for testing when we landed.  At this point, we also needed a COVID PCR test within 72 hours before departing – 2:05 PM 12/7.

Tahiti gave us permission to come, took our $100, and all the documentation still told us we needed a COVID test (PCR) 72 hours or an antigen test 48 hours before departure from San Francisco.  This meant we needed COVID tests after 2:05 PM on Saturday 12/4.  We went on-line and managed to find one in FC.  Actually, we found and scheduled 2 different ones in Fort Collins just to be sure – one for money and one for free.

I’m a big chicken when it comes to scheduling flights out of Denver in the winter with connections so we were flying from DEN – SFO on Monday 12/6 and then SFO – PPT on 12/7 (Tuesday). 

Everything is going merrily along when Thursday 12/2 hits.  I checked the French Polynesia entry requirement ONE more time (I have them memorized at this point.) and see that Tahiti changed the COVID test to 48 hours before departure, thanks to our Omicron friend.  Now we need our test after 2:05 PM on Sunday. Time to cancel the FC 72-hour tests.  (BTW – United still said 72 hours on their Travel Ready website and we’re thinking there are going to be LOTS of pissed people at the airport.)

Now what are we going to do?  It is really hard to find a test in FC on Sunday that will get you results quickly.  There’s always the SFO airport but those tests cost about $250 each and we made some reservations there just in case.  Mark did great research and found a place in SF who would do a test on Monday afternoon and was even free.  Another set of reservations were made!  We just needed to take BART into the city and go from there.

Now it’s Friday and United texts us to inform us that Tahiti changed their entrance requirements to a test 24 hours before departure. I’m pretty sure they were wrong but who am I to argue with United when they control access to their planes?  More research!  Mark finds a place that will perform rapid antigen tests in San Bruno about 4 miles from our hotel by SFO.  We make more reservations for after 2:05 PM on Monday and cancel the ones in the city.  We rent a car for the day, too, so we can actually get to the test site.

Saturday and Sunday, I keep checking United and French Polynesia which still don’t agree. 

Monday rolls around, we fly to San Francisco, pick up a car, and wait until close to our reservation time for our COVID test.  Google maps gets us to the address which has the correct signs and is a repurposed shipping container. We drive up; fill out a bunch of forms on our phones while we sit in the car.  The lady does the test and we head off to Target to pick up some socks since Susan forgot to pack any.  By the time we bought socks, our results were available.  We passed!

SFO was ready for Christmas!

Back to the hotel for the next stress point.  United makes you upload a picture of your passport and the app has a bit of trouble actually focusing. No, you cannot upload a jpg file. The app has to take the picture.  We also had to upload the file with our COVID test results.  Mark downloads the file on his tablet and uploads it to the United website.  Approved!  Susan downloads the file on her laptop and uploads it to United. Fail!  Not accepted!  Try number 2 – Fail!  Mark reads the comments closely and sees that the file can’t be read.  SO … Susan sends link to Mark, he downloads the file on his tablet and uploads it to United – Approved!

We are ready to go and had a few beers and wine at dinner to celebrate! 

Lessons learned for COVID travel:

  • Check and double check and triple check the rules and regulations for testing. Everyday is a good benchmark!
  • Print out EVERYTHING!  If you have any form that is electronic, print it out.
  • Take then entire pile of paper with you on your flight.
  • Download any files that you couldn’t print to your phone AND to any other device you are traveling with.

12/2021 – 3 Weeks in French Polynesia

Given Susan’s belief in checking in for flights REALLY early, we went to SFO about 3 hours ahead of time to avoid any lines.  Flight left on time and was very empty.  When we landed in Papeete,Tahiti, we had to show our vaccination cards, passports, Electronic forms, and COVID tests before we were allowed into the country. We had no way to print the COVID tests in SF but did download them to our phones to show Mr. Immigration.  He was good to go with this.

We also had to do a COVID test at the airport – covered by the $50 fee.  Cough 5 times, blow your nose into a Kleenex, swab each nostril, swab top of mouth, under tongue, each cheek.  We only get notified if we test positive.  Thank heavens we never heard from the public health people in FP.

Our next COVID test adventure will be getting a test within 24 hours of leaving but the airport has them.  Otherwise, I guess we’ll be in Tahiti longer!

Geography lesson – French Polynesia is HUGE, south of the equator, and just about directly south of Hawaii (same time zone). It’s made up of a number of archipelago’s and hundreds of islands. We went to 3 – Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora – but there are lots more to explore. The islands are connected by a few ferries and lots of planes.

First stop was Papeete, Tahiti, the capital and largest city.

Tahiti is a volcanic island with black sand beaches
Tahitian Christmas tree

Our next stop for a week was Moorea which is the island you can see in the background of the black sand beach picture above. We took a taxi to the ferry terminal, bought a $15 ticket for each of us, waited 15 minutes and took the 25 minute ferry ride to Moorea. Then we took a taxi to our hotel, Hotel Manava. It’s actually near a town (about 10 minute walk to the grocery store), has a food truck next to it and a restaurant grill across the street. This gave us more choices of where to eat instead of eating at the hotel all the time.

The town also has a laundry run by a French lady who moved to French Polynesia with her surfing husband 20 years ago and has been in the laundry business ever since. Drop it off one day and pick it up the next – about $20 for 10 kg., washed, dried, folded and probably ironed!

Cook’s Bay. We took a tour one day to see more of Moorea and to learn history and plants. Cook never actually sailed in this bay.
View from the side of one of the volcanoes.

We took a 4 hour excellent tour with lots of info about the history and myths of the islands plus the plants. Stopped at Cook’s Bay, the Belvedere where we can see both bays, archeology sites, Agricultural school for a bathroom break and ice cream.  The vanilla and the coconut ones were yummy!  The students were on break. Stopped to get info about many plants – wild pineapple, wild hibiscus, yellow magic flower.  The tour guide gave us cold clothes that were soaked in water and plumeria flowers.  One of the plants smells like Chanel #5 when crushed. Last stop was at the juice factory for samples of the alcoholic drinks and juices.  It’s too expensive to export locally grown fruit so the plant makes it into juice.  Pineapple is grown locally along with bananas, avocados, green beans, papaya, mangoes, oranges, grapefruits. 

A yellow flame tree. Red ones are way more common.
Poisson Cru – raw fish marinated in coconut and lime juice. Yummy!
On the hunt for more flavors of potato chips around the world- smoked ham

Bora Bora was the next stop for a week. We expected things to get busier since this was now Christmas week and it did.

We were #1 and #2 people to check in for our Air Tahiti flight after the boxes of green mussels got checked in!  No security, take water on board.  A prop plane picked us up on Moorea on the way from Papeete after dropping off about 6 people.

Bora Bora airport sign

Left 10 minutes early and took about 50 minutes to fly to Bora Bora.  BOB airport is on an island and the only transport from the airport is a boat either from Air Tahiti or from each resort. We stayed at Le Bora Bora Hotel and the guys were at the desk in the arrival area and gave us leis and crowns; took our luggage to the boat for the 10 minute boat ride across the channel to Le Bora Bora Resort, a Relais and Chateaux property. 

We splurged and stayed in an overwater bungalow. The A/C worked after we got instructions to not change the temperature!  Glass in the coffee table to watch fish along with glass behind the sinks and the bathtub. We had a lovely deck and ladder down into the lagoon.

Our room from the lagoon
View through the coffee table
View of the resort island from our room
Mark and Susan at sunset.

One hint – Liquor is very expensive in FP but each person can bring 2 liters into the country. Do it! We brought 3 liters of gin and only had to find tonic which was way cheaper! Lots of people did this. French wine was reasonable and beer was OK priced for local beer – about $5-6 each. The resort gave us 2 cans of beer, coke, juice and water each day in our room included in the price.

We did a 4 hour snorkel trip around the island with sting rays and sharks. I’m in love with sting rays now!
Fresh fruit on our snorkel trip!
Another sting ray hanging around our room

After 7 days in Bora Bora, it was time to go back to Papeete for Christmas and to get COVID tests in order to fly back to the U.S. Let’s just say, Air Tahiti was not having a good travel day but we made it and were not among the passengers worrying about missing their flights home!

Exercise class at our hotel on Christmas Day!
Microbrewery in Papeete. The beer was good!
Notice the BIG container of beer for your table. We did not order one!

We flew home on the 28th at 10:40 PM but took the shuttle into town to get a COVID test at the local pharmacy on the 27th. Really easy and got the results in about 30 minutes although the pharmacist really wasn’t sure we didn’t need to wait until within 24 hours.  The US says the test cannot be dated before 12/27 and mentions NOTHING about how many hours. We both passed, thank heavens! 

I passed!

The end! French Polynesia was excellent; we want to go back and check out Taha Island and a few others. The United flight is only about 10 hours from SF. We learned that Costco has some great packages at the moment with Air Tahiti Nui out of Los Angeles.

One Year Later – 4/2021

I just looked at the last post I put on the website and it was 13 months ago – March 8, 2020. I see that we weren’t too worried about COVID at the time. Little did we know about the illness, deaths, online school, toilet paper shortage, cancelled and changed plans of everything from travel to graduations to weddings that were about to occur.

This website is about our travels and I want to update you on the travels we’ve done in the last year. First is where we left off in Kona, Hawaii in March 2020. We changed our return flight and flew home 10 days early when it seemed as if no one had any idea what was happening with domestic travel. We landed at 6 AM in Denver to a virtually empty airport and drove home to FC with very little traffic.

One of the resort cats who loved to sit on the chairs with us to sleep in the sun and help with SUDUKO.
Empty airport at 6 AM in Denver

Our travel work for the next month was undoing all the plans we’d already made when it became apparent that travel had come to a halt worldwide! Seabourne cancelled our sailing from Miami – Morocco – Funchal – Barcelona, leaving us to undo flights. After many a phone call with United we got all our money back. It helped that they changed one of our flights by about 8 hours! Hotels to cancel, “Hamilton” tickets in London to cancel, walking tours to cancel … Then we started on the Berlin and Munich flights and hotels moving on to a flight to Singapore and a cancelled trip with a German friend to Nepal. We could quickly see where this year was heading even if we did have lots of Costco TP in our basement.

Sum total of April 2020 travel. The most distant points are Costco and a friend’s house for drinks on their patio.

May, June – nothing to report. July we drove up to Steamboat where we were lucky enough to stay for a 2 weeks in a friend’s condo on the mountain. Nice place to escape! Not to be forgotten was a one day road trip to Breckenridge to be friend’s “responsible adults” after hand surgery. The traffic was the best we’ve seen on I-70 in years.

Clark, CO valley near Steamboat.
“Masks required” coming off Rabbit Ears Pass into Steamboat

August, September – nada! October we escaped for the weekend to Denver!

Social Distancing at Jackson’s Bar and Grill in Denver

We spent 4 days at Thanksgiving in a nice cabin in Estes Park. The park didn’t need reservations at that time of year and the scenery is always good. December, January, February, March – more no travel!

Now it’s April 2021 – 13 months after this all started and we’re back in Maul, thanks to vaccinations and negative COVID tests. We followed the state of Hawaii rules – account on Hawaii Safe Travels, negative COVID test at approved sites, Health questionnaire, magic QR code – and here we are. DIA was much more crowded than this time last year. Yeah! It feels great to be someplace different for a while.

First flight in a year!
Morning rainbow
Pineapple Wheat to go with poke ….Yummmm

That’s the end of the 2021 travels but it IS only April! The EU announced today they are going to be open to fully vaccinated individuals from the U.S. so we are hoping MAYBE to get a trip in to the Christmas Markets in Germany.

11/14 The rest of the trip!

The overnight ferry from Palermo went pretty well. Lots of people use the ferry with their dogs and we met quite a few dogs as we wandered the halls.  We headed to Pompeii via train to Naples from the port. 

Pompeii is a HUGE site. We highly recommend NOT visiting Pompeii in the summer. Even though the temps were only in the 70’s, the humidity was high and there’s not much shade. According to our B&B owner, at least 2 people die every year from heart attacks. Mark and I are pretty sure more people than that break or sprain an ankle on the site.

All of the devastation was caused by Mount Vesuvius exploding. Only about 2000 people died from the heat and ash that buried the city. Excavations keep lots of archaeologists busy!
The forum where everyone gathered. This is the most visited part of Pompeii and walking around here is pretty easy. Mt. Vesuvius is in the background
A city street. You can see why walking is quite interesting!
The frescos are amazing. You find them in a variety of houses just wandering around.
Grand fountain
Mount Vesuvius in the background framed by one city gate.

After Pompeii, we headed off to Capri right at the end of the season (ends on 10/31). Many shops and a few hotels were already closed, not to reopen to around Easter.  Restaurants and bars also close for the winter and workers head off for 3-4 months of holiday.  Several waiters and owners told us they work 12-14 hours every day from Easter until the end of October and are more than ready for a break.

Closed for the season. Capri is full of high end shops which we did not patronize!

80% of visitors to Capri are day trippers and we can believe that! Cruise ship tour groups and “regular” tour groups crowded the center of Capri every day; when evening came, we pretty much had the island to ourselves. 

View of Capri Bay from the main square
On Halloween, the local kids went trick or treating to the local businesses. This King Charles spaniel helped greet the children.
The streets are VERY narrow in Capri. Special trucks pick up garbage, deliver goods. This one is a medical ambulance.
St. Michele Church in Anacapri with a tile floor painted with the story of Adam and Eve. It’s now a museum and not a church. You can see the walkway around the floor to walk around the floor.
We think the apple tree in Adam and Eve became a lemon tree in this floor. Lemons are all over Capri!

Rome was our last city. How do you get to Rome from Capri??  Not easily, if you’re not with a tour group.

  • Walk from your hotel to the funicular in Capri to get to the port.
  • Buy a ticket and take the ferry to Sorrento (about 30 Minutes).
  • Walk or take the elevator (1 euro) UP from the port of Sorrento to the main town.  Best 1 euro you can spend!
  • Walk to the train station, dodging tour groups.
  • Take the local train to Naples – think 24 stops and 50 minutes, standing the whole way unless you luck out and find a seat.
  • Take the highspeed train to Rome and figure out how to get to where you’re staying once you’re in Rome. We opted for a taxi to our AirBnB.

We arrived in Rome on November 1, All Saints Day, and a holiday in many countries. Rome was packed with people for the weekend but calmed down come Monday.

A carved foot from 200 AD
Sunday, we went to St. Peter’s to visit the church and ended up seeing Pope Francis giving his blessing – in Italian!
One of the many churches we saw. We met an Italian TV personality in Palermo (She does shows about important houses in Italy.) and she told us to stop in any church when we see it open. You never know when it will open again! So many churches are plain and boring on the outside but when you walk in – WOW!

To get home, we flew from Rome to Frankfurt, spent the night, and took the direct United flight to Denver with the crazy lady sitting directly in front of Mark.  Other than punching the call button ALL the time, ignoring her lap baby and 5-year old, and yelling at the flight attendants, she was your normal passenger.  Denver’s finest met her when she got off the plane and United supervisors were everywhere!  Mark told the flight attendants to call him if they need any backup for her behavior!

11/14 Palermo

Our month in Sicily ended with 3 nights in Palermo before we took an overnight ferry to Civitavecchia, the port for Rome.  We weren’t really expecting much from Palermo, having never read many great stories about the city. It’s the largest in Sicily with about 700,000 people and is supposed to be quite dirty and chaotic.  Even the other Sicilians (not from Palermo) we met didn’t speak highly of it and warned us that traffic in Palermo is the worst on the island – mass chaos!

We enjoyed Palermo overall but have to agree that stop signs and red lights appear to be optional; park wherever – if your flashers are on, you’re legal!

We met some lovely people, ate some good food, and visited more churches, of course!

Best granite we had in a month. Granite is like a slushy but made with fresh fruit and some sugar. This one just used fresh lemons and ice. It was very tart and yummy!
Palermo twist on aperol spritz – limoncello, prosecco, tonic water, and a scoop of granite on the top. This was the best one!
It’s hard to see but the sign on the left side is a Water Closet sign. First time we saw it, we thought it had been moved. Second time, we figured out the sign points to a WC BEHIND the altar! We saw a few people coming out from there.
The Royal Chapel covered in mosaics on all walls and floors. It’s spectacular but small when we compared it to Monreale the next day.
Translation – horse meat. We didn’t go check out the various cuts you can buy.
We needed a beef burger after all the pasta and pizza that dominate most Italian menus. This restaurant let us choose between donkey, buffalo, pork, horse, chicken , veggie. Yes, beef is on the menu but didn’t make the picture.
Mark found this ingenious cat perch one day.

11/4 Sicilian questions

I’m so far behind updating our trip.  Can I blame it on slow connections?  Or maybe just having too much fun??

We spent 8 days in Trapani, just hanging out at a really nice AirBnb with a balcony overlooking the sea.  We had the best hosts EVER!  They supplied us with some Trapanese food specialties so we’d try them.  After we asked for a recommendation for the best cannoli, they stopped by the next day with 2 fresh cannoli for us!  “The best place was too far for you to walk.” They even gave us a ride to the bus station when we checked out.   

View from our balcony while we had a little Happy Hour.
This is the bay by Trapani. Lots of sailing, fishing, snorkeling goes on here. Our apt. was across the street from the bay
This is businate pasta, a regional specialty. The pasta is twisted and is a bit chewy but is yummy with sauce and garlic and seafood.
Salt is a product of the area. These salt pans are flooded with sea water and after the water evaporates, the salt is harvested. Harvesting season was over for the year.
Harvested salt!
Yes … that is harvested salt sitting at the dock waiting for shipment but we don’t no to where!

As we’ve traveled around the island, we’ve made some observations. Here goes!

  • Low to the floor beds!  5 out 6 beds have been ridiculously low to the ground.  Why?? Only one bed has had box springs – just fairly good mattresses.  We wonder what someone who grew up here thinks the first time he/she sees a U.S mattress and box springs on a high bed frame??  Mark says all the pillows are flat, too!
  • “Transition” coats – We learned this term from a German friend who says there’s no good English translation for the German word but it amounts to a light Fall jacket.  We see people in puffy coats all the time; meanwhile, Mark waers his shorts and Susan wears capris and no jackets. 
  • Sicilians don’t seem to be very fond of A/C or draughts either. Scarves are everywhere and not for decoration.  One of the ladies working in the Poste had a heavy scarf around her neck. We couldn’t even tell any A/C might be on!
  • Signage in National Archeological Parks or the lack thereof – After visiting 3 of these sites, we’ve determined no extra money is spent on signage to guide visitors around the sites in a logical – or even illogical order.  One site had a pretty good map; one had a barely useful map; and one had none at all!  The ticket guy just shrugged when I asked for one. Why would I need a map?
  • A few arrows along the way would help visitors decide if the track leads someplace – like to a temple – or if it’s just a track made by visitors? When they do have a “path”, let’s just say some of the paths would never quite be approved by the U.S. NPS!
  • Laundry  … just typical European washing machines – The wash and rinse process takes a minimum of 90 minutes. Why do our clothes need rinsed and spun 3 times??
  • Toilets – our grades for public toilets are based on 4 things: toilet paper, soap, water, and a hand dryer/paper towels. We haven’t found many that score 4/4. We carry TP and a hand towel with us along with hand sanitizer.

10/19 – Agrigento

As we’ve traveled around Sicily, we’ve made some observations. Here goes!

  • Low to the floor beds!  5 out 6 beds have been ridiculously low to the ground.  Only one bed has had box springs. We wonder what someone who grew up here thinks the first time he/she sees a U.S mattress and box springs on a high bed frame??  Mark says all the pillows are flat, too!
  • “Transition” coats – We learned this term from a German friend who says there’s no good English translation for the German word but it amounts to a light Fall jacket.  We see people in puffy coats all the time; meanwhile, Mark has his shorts on and Susan is wearing capris and no jackets.  Sicilians don’t seem to be very fond of A/C or drafts either. Scarves are everywhere and not for decoration.  One of the ladies working in the Poste today had a heavy scarf around her neck. We couldn’t even tell any A/C might be on!
  • Signage in National Archaeological Parks or the lack thereof – After visiting 3 of these sites, we’ve determined no extra money is spent on signage to guide visitors around the sites in a logical or even illogical order.  One site had a pretty good map; one had a barely useful map; and one had none at all!  The ticket guy just shrugged when I asked for one. Why would I need a map? A few arrows along the way would help visitors decide if the track leads someplace – like to a temple – or if it’s just a track made by visitors? When they do have a “path”, let’s just say some of the paths would never quite be approved by the U.S. NPS!
  • Laundry  … just typical European washing machines – The wash and rinse process takes a minimum of 90 minutes. Why do our clothes need rinsed and spun 3 times??
  • Toilets – our grades for public toilets are based on 4 things: toilet paper, soap, water, and a hand dryer/paper towels. We haven’t found many that score 4/4. We carry TP and a hand towel with us along with hand sanitizer.
Agrigento is known for the Valley of the Temples, a large complex of important Greek/Roman/Byzantine sites. We walked all over the complex for about 3.5 hours and 4 miles in the sun!
Temple of Juno at Valley of the Temples
Walking up the hill to Temple of Juno. Toilets and a snack bar were at the bottom of this hill.
Must need a snack back in town after the Temple day. The cannoli shells are baked but empty when you order. The baker fills the shell when you order to insure freshness.
Later in the day, we visited the Cathedrale which was magnificent. The path we chose involved walking UP about 200 steps to wind our way through town to the top of the hill because where else would a cathedrale be built?
Mark walked up the inside of the church to get the view from near the painted ceiling. He didn’t go higher when he heard thunder and saw black clouds.
Sure enough! It poured while we had a drink on an outdoor patio. Thank heavens the umbrella over the table kept us dry.
Some steps with a few local cats hanging out!

10/9 – Bus riding lessons in Sicily

We’re in Sicily using public transport to get around the island.  Sunday, we needed to go from Taormina to Siracusa and decided to use Interbus again. With no direct bus except at 8:15 AM, we had to take the bus from Taormina to Catania and then take another bus to Siracusa.  Well, we learned one thing!  Check where the FIRST stop is for the bus on a busy route and board the bus there, if possible. 

We took Bus 1 all the way to the aeroporto in Catania, knowing that a bus goes to Siracusa from there.  Little did we know that the bus route actually starts in the middle of Catania.  By the time Bus 2 arrived at the airport, it was very full on a Sunday at 12:40.  (We knew this was possible since the bus lady said the bus was full when I asked about a departure time.)  Given that the next bus to Siracusa didn’t leave until 2:40 PM, we REALLY wanted on this one – didn’t want to hang out at the aeroporto for 2 more hours.

We did our best European/Italian “what’s a line?” act!  Mark took the bags to put them under the bus in the luggage compartment – it’s all self-service – while Susan stood as close to the curb as she could when the bus approached.  She was the third person on the bus when the driver muttered to the lady in front of her something in Italian.  I could tell by her expression it probably translated to “The bus is full”. I asked him in English and the driver replied, “I have only 2 seats”. (The lady needed more than 2.)  I quickly said, “We are 2” and motioned to Mark to push through the crowd at the door and get on the bus! 

It worked!  We were a bit squished for the 1 hour ride and Mark had to make some young lady move her purse out of a seat but we had seats and left everyone else to curse the Italian bus ticketing system and maybe us, too.

Mount Etna spewing smoke
We could see Mount Etna spewing smoke while we waited for a bus at the Catania airport.

3/31- Update from green Ireland

We’ve been in Ireland for about 19 days now checking out some sights alone and with Mark’s sister, Julia for 10 of those days.  Mark and Susan got a few extra days because a lovely winter storm decided to show its head in Colorado on our scheduled departure date (the bomb cyclone of snow and high winds).  We proactively called United and convinced them to let us change the tickets with the same exact routing to 2 days early.  I must have been super nice because they agreed – we packed, left the next day and spent 2 extra days in Dublin, arriving just in time for a winter wind and rain storm.

Julia arrived on March 15 and the adventure began with overnights at Navan, Liscannor, Killarney, Kilkenny, and Dublin. High winds and rain continue!

Hill of Tara
You can tell how windy it was at the Hill of Tara. This was the end of the winter storm in Ireland.
Burial passages at Newgrange. The rain poured down here while we listened to the tour guide. We were glad to be the first group in the passage because the rain had mostly stopped by the time we came out.
Newgrange burial passages
Wind was blowing straight into my face. It was bit chilly!
Newgrange stone building
Part of Newgrange. You can see why Ireland is called the Emerald Isle – caused by copious quantities of rain including the rain drop on the camera lens.

Mark drove while Susan navigated, and Julia enjoyed the scenery from the backseat.  We visited Newgrange in a downpour and the Cliffs of Moher in 40 mph winds. The rest of the days were typical spring weather – grey, cloudy, off and on rains.

On the drive from Navan to Liscannor (north of Dublin across the country to County Clare in the west), we stopped in Tullamore to tour the Tullamore Whiskey distillery. Google maps had a problem with this one. It got us close but put us on the opposite side of the canal from the factory on a one way street (we think) with no parking. Old fashioned direction guessing led us to a city parking lot by the distillery.
What distillery tour would be complete with a tasting?

Liscannor is a TINY village on the west close to Cliffs of Moher. Every village has a parade on St. Patrick’s Day, including this one – 10 minutes long. It’s also close to the Cliffs of Moher and makes a great location for exploring the area.

View of the Cliffs of Moher
View of the Cliffs of Moher. The wind blew about 40 mph while we were there, making the walking less than ideal. When the weather is better, a path goes along the cliffs for miles.
Everyone bundled up for this excursion. The wind was howling!
Ring of Kerry drive. This drive took most of the day even in low season. We can’t imagine doing this one in the summer with all the tour buses fighting for parking space along the way.
The fog rolled in and out all day long along the Ring of Kerry.
The Skellig Ring is a peninsula off the Ring of Kerry. We made a stop at the Visitor Centre for a toilet and this picture of the harbor.
Sheep everywhere! It is lambing season and the babies are pretty cute!
This sheep was very interested in us.
A man blowing glass in the Waterford factory
Julia wanted to visit the Waterford factory. When we visited before, the plant was on the outside of town. Now it’s in the middle of Waterford! We honestly thought we were in the wrong place. The tour is good; like all good tours it ends in the gift shop. They will be happy to ship your purchases home for you!

3/2019 A few pics of Ireland

One of many ruins we found along the way. This one is from the 8th century – a collection of churches and a round tower where the monks took refuge when they were attacked.
We spent St. Patrick’s Day in Liscannor along the west coast in County Clare. They had a parade like the rest of the country. When your population is about 100, the parade only lasts about 10 minutes.
After the parade, we drove to Cliffs of Moher where the wind was whipping at about 40 mph. Julia and Susan (and everyone else) bundled up before venturing out to see the scenery. Mark took the pictures!
Cliffs of Moher.
More of the Cliffs of Moher.
We drove from Liscannor to Killarney today on mainly good roads. It was a bank holiday so not much traffic. Surprise! The Killarney Brewing Company was 4 buildings from our hotel so we HAD to try their beer! Great beer and we ran into a couple who had lived in FC when he worked for Anheuser-Busch.
Hawkeyes are everywhere! This one was shopping in Killarney with his wife. Mark chatted with him while Julia shopped.

10/9 Potato chips!

You might remember that Susan started buying, tasting and recording different potato chip flavors when she was in Bhutan. Who can resist “weird” flavors??  Here are 3 we found in the grocery store up the street in Malta.

Smoky Bacon potato ships

Another contest winner .. Smoky bacon! One winner was Marmite. We didn’t get to try this since they weren’t in the store – too popular or not popular at all??

Ham and cranberry potato chips

This one tastes like ham – not so much like cranberry

Worcester sauce flavored potato chips

Worcester Sauce potato chips. These weren’t too bad! Walker’s is owned by PepsiCo, is British brand, and has the same crowd-sourcing contest every year that Lay’s has.

9/22 Five days in Riga, Latvia

We are wandering our way across the Baltic states and central Europe on our way to Munich for Oktoberfest, moving from expensive Scandinavia to less expensive Estonia and Latvia to MUCH less expensive Poland before reaching reasonable Germany.

We heard good things about Riga so it was on the list to visit.  This time we decided to take the bus from Tallinn to Riga and chose Lux Express after doing a bit of research.  The ride was 4.5 hours long, cost 28 E each, express from Tallinn, with comfy seats, wi-fi, power in the seats, and videos to watch. We opted for the slightly higher priced tickets only so Mark could have more leg room. The bus left on time and arrived on time; the scenery was good – lots of birch forests and wooden house; nothing we would call a city between Tallinn and Riga. Note also… the Tallinn bus station is very nice with clean toilets and a few shops to buy sandwiches.

Luxe Express bus seats

Inside of the Luxe Express Bus, complete with video monitors to watch movies in a variety of languages and wifi.

Tallinn is charming –  a medieval Old Town still in good shape. Riga, on the other hand, is much more cosmopolitan even though it, too, has a small, charming Old Town.  Parks abound in the city filled with beautiful gardens and interesting sculptures. A canal winds through the city as does the Daugava River. The leaves are falling and seem to be raked up daily.

paddle boarders

This group was paddle boarding on the canal on Sunday afternoon and then started doing yoga on their boards.

One of the many gardens in the parks.

Riga has over 600  Art Nouveau buildings which are beautiful, hiding in plain sight all over the city. Looking up became a pastime to find all the magical and mysterious touches to buildings. The pictures below were all from one block full of buildings near where we stayed. I’m sure the people who live on this street get tired of everyone staring at their homes and offices.

He/she has a matching partner on the other side of the door.

Riga has embraced the shopping culture since shedding the Russian influence. We passed numerous shopping malls in our bus rides around the city.  They still make use of the old Central Market with fish, meat, and veggies. It was packed on a Sunday afternoon.

We have no idea what these fish are even when we went for a translation. At the price, though, they must be plentiful – about $1 per pound.

The Central Market is housed in 5 German Zeppelin Hangars for indoor space. There’s space outside where the veggies seemed to be. Watermelon was a big seller this time of year.

Smiling is not big in this ex-Russian dominated city. After what they went through with the Russians, Germans, and Russians again, a serious demeanor could be expected.  The younger people are a bit more genial although we’re still waiting for the mid-20’s lady in the Costa Coffee shop to crack a smile.  She didn’t even ask us what we wanted to order but we noticed she didn’t ask the locals either!

One day we took the bus out of town to the Latvian Ethnographic Open Air Museum to see buildings from all over the 4 distinct areas of Latvia. This building collection began in the mid-30’s, quite a forward-thinking idea at the time. This preserved old buildings from destruction and allows everyone (school groups included!) to understand a bit of life in earlier times.

We visited in the middle of the week during the off season and had the place pretty much to ourselves.  That being said, we missed any demonstrations of  life in the villages that may be done during the peak season, according to friends and the website. One fact we took away was bath houses and saunas have been popular for a LONG time!

The Open Air Museum is set in the woods next to a lake. Walking around was calm and peaceful in the middle of the week.

Wooden building with thatched roof

Just a sample of the buildings you find at the Open Air Museum

Laundry … our AirBnb had a lovely washing machine and a lovely 4 hours wash cycle if you’re so inclined!  We opted for a shorter one – about 1 hour this time. Did  I mention the elevator?  The building in the Embassy part of town had an elevator, too!  I love those when it comes to carrying the suitcases in!  We were around the corner from the Greece embassy and about 2 blocks from the Russian embassy – noticeable by the fence, guard box, and cameras all around!

Here are a few other highlights from our visit to Riga.

champagne cocktail

Black balsam is a spirit made in Latvia – very traditional. We think it’s like moonshine with a bunch of different herbs and roots added. At 47% alcohol, it’s strong! I tried mine in a cocktail mixed with prosecco. (It’s the back stuff floating on top of the prosecco before I stirred it all together.)
Mark had his in coffee.

High seat in a city bus

This seat was in a city bus. We have no idea who it’s designed for but it was used by a variety of people from old to young and short to tall.

Ore new favorite snack – dark rye bread grilled in butter and covered in smashed up garlic. It’s a common snack to go with beer.

St. Gertrude's Church

Susan’s grandmother’s middle name was Gertrude so I dragged Mark around Riga to find St. Gertrude’s Church. She is also a patron saint of travelers. How appropriate!

Nativity of Christ Orthodox Church

The Nativity of Christ Orthodox Church in Riga is the biggest Orthodox church in Riga and has been completely restored since the Russians left. They used it a a restaurant and a planetarium at various times.

South Pacific Cruise with the “older” clientele

After spending about 2 months in Australia, we had to figure out some way to get back to the U.S. or wherever we went next.  We see “repositioning cruises” advertised all the time, mainly between the U.S. and Europe but we figured the cruise lines have to get their ships back to the west coast in time for the Alaska sailing season after spending the Southern Hemisphere summer sailing in Australia/New Zealand and the South Pacific.

Off the Chief Travel Planner went to Google and quickly found a website, It turns out there weren’t many to choose from, but Holland America was moving the MS Noordam from Sydney to Vancouver starting on April 13 and we could disembark in Honolulu on April 28.  Yes, that makes this a 16-day cruise. We crossed the International Date line so repeated April 21, just like “Groundhog Day”.

Rommel, the bartender

Our favorite bartender, Rommel, in the Pinnacle Bar.

Fortunately, most of the days at sea had flat water and sunshine. Humidity increased as we approached the equator, reaching 98% in Pago Pago.

International Date Line Certificate

Official recognition of crossing the International Date Line.

agendas for April 21

A daily schedule was in our cabin every night for the next day. Two of them had the same date … different agendas for the 2 days it was April 21. Per, our Norwegian friend, celebrated his birthday twice!

Boarding the ship in Sydney – no problem!  Mark had to go on a hunt for his luggage but discovered it was in Ship Security waiting for him to remove the knife they saw when x-raying the bag before it was loaded on the ship.  We traveled with a sharp cooking knife after being in a number of apartments with less than sharp knives! They missed/ignored the corkscrew, a knife on a cutting board from Tasmania, and a Swiss Army knife he had.  The knife was returned on the last night of our cruise.

Our cabin was compact but had enough room for our few clothes.  Let’s just say that Gala Nights didn’t see any tuxes or ties or jackets on Mark.  Susan used the cruise as an excuse to buy a few clothes in Sydney and Melbourne.

Cabin 1

This was home for 16 days.

Average age of 1900 passengers – guessing 75-80 or so!  We’re sure we were in the youngest 10% of the passengers – about 190 people.  We saw one baby, about 5 children under 15 and the associated parents of said children, and a family of 4 from Alabama.  We met one lady who just retired and 2 women with their 85-year-old mom.  The other 170 people in the “10% Club” we can only guess at.  The ones we put in the club are either truly younger or have really good genes.

The passengers were a majority Americans but LOTS of Canadians and Australians with a handful of other nationalities represented – German, New Zealand, UK, Norway.

We met some fun people – Per and Lise from Norway, Tim and Debbie from London who traveled for 5 months before the cruise, Jan and Chris (UVA grad) from Texas.  We quickly found our favorite bars and bartenders and got into a routine – wakeup, coffee, breakfast, workout or walk, read, watch movies, sit in sun, before dinner drinks with the group, dinner at 8 PM, after dinner drinks, bed … repeat!

Mark and Per with sculpture

This is what two passengers do when they’re the last out of the dining room and have had a few glasses of wine in the evening plus a Hendricks and Tonic and pepper and cucumber.

Per and Lise

Per and Lise live in Norway. He’s a ship’s master/captain and they have some interesting stories about taking oil ships around the world.

Tim and Debbie

Tim and Debbie live in London and are semi-retired, traveling while they’re young! Tim loves Bingo and Debbie knows all about Elvis.

Two nights Tim and Mark stayed out late (1:30 AM) and they’re sure they were the last 2 passengers awake on the ship.  We often were the last table to finish dinner and the last bunch to close the bar – about 11:15 PM.  With a passenger list as old as on this cruise, the dining room was packed at 5:15 when it opened for dinner and fairly empty at 8 PM when we went to dinner.

We made stops in New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji and Pago Pago, American Samoa.  You can check out the map on the Trip Statistics page to find the locations of the various islands.  We also had 5 straight days at sea before we arrived in Honolulu.

Dravuni Beach

Dravuni Beach wasn’t as soft as Kuto but had warm, clear water.

Dravuni Fiji

Dravuni Island, Fiji

Fiji sunset

Sunset in Fiji

Kuto beach

Kuto, New Caledonia. This was the best beach of the entire trip with soft sand and warm water.

We rented a car in Lautoka, Fiji, to drive to Nadi for some shopping. Driving was a piece of cake and the roads were great after 2 weeks on Indian roads.

The local bar at the the port on Easo on Lifou, New Caledonia.

I have no idea what this plant is. It resembles a poinsettia with leaves/petals that are partly red and partly green.

Lifou view from the church

We trekked up this hill on Lifou in New Caledonia to see a church with a great view.

Pago Pago port

This is the Pago Pago port in American Samoa. Susan didn’t see much of the port after she slipped in mud on a sidewalk and sprained her wrist.  She was the third or fourth person to slip in the same place that day!

Pago Pago sunset

We had a lovely sunset as we left Pago Pago.


Toilet paper

toilet paper size

A very small roll of toilet paper!

For whatever reason, toilet paper in India is quite thin but the rolls are also very small – as in not many sheets of paper. One was so small, it only lasted a day! And, no one had Delhi Belly!

How to make a bed

No pictures with this – just a pet peeve!

Where have all the sheets gone??  For years, I thought only Germany and Austria used just a duvet on beds without a top sheet. I’ve been known to pack my own flat sheet to get around this problem.  This trip we’ve been in more hotels than not who use just the duvet and forego the top sheets.  These are way too hot for us to sleep but so far I haven’t resorted to one trick – take the duvet out of the cover and sleep with just the cover.

Pillows … way too hard! I was thrilled at the Intercontinental at the Johannesburg International Airport after 3 weeks in Africa to find soft, squishy bed pillows at 3 AM!  The Sheraton and Meridien hotels in Koh Samui have great pillows, too.  I’m enjoying the Aloft pillow in Bangkok, too, for a few days.