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Cheap Travel Meets Vienna

Our next stop was Vienna, another city along the Danube. Basically our trip was organized around capitals along the river and connected by train travel. Because we had such cheap flights, used airbandb stays and used points, our travel expenses stayed pretty low up to this point. 

But Vienna is a little more expensive. We did stay in a hotel, the Hilton, using points to cover most of the costs. Airbandb stays were too expensive in Vienna. It worked out best because by then, we were ready for comforts found in hotel rooms. Like lounging in the whirlpool. We used uber to get around the city, along with the U, Vienna’s metro. We did a sparkling wine tour with tasting that was in line with our budget, €9 a person. But most things cost us more on this leg.

We splurged for a very touristy concert at the Schönnbrun palace, a palace where 6 year old Mozart once performed. And we are some more. 

One thing we noticed in Vienna was how much it appeared that everyone was in a hurry. There seemed to be an expectation everywhere we went to know what we want immediately. Waiters would hurry over and ask, “Yes?” Even in rooms half empty, they seemed to be in a hurry. In the hotel bar, the waitress apologized for not helping us right away, and we had just gotten there. 

I like how in Europe, no one brings your check until you ask for it. But feeling rushed to order did end with some disappointing choices. I had to consciously focus on not feeling rushed so I could order what I wanted. I often think I am more like Germans and that timeliness is important to me, but on this trip I realized the Austrians have me beat! 

I honestly feel like I didn’t get to see enough of Vienna. My favorite moments included lounging at the hotel spa, ordering würst from a stand using my German, and talking to an Uber driver who moved to Vienna from Romania. Which is exactly like me, I like meeting people and I like quiet time. 

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Eating all the bread

Our trip to Europe landed us in Belgrade, which caused most people to ask, why would you go to Belgrade? Our answer was $149 round trip tickets to Europe. But since Belgrade wasn’t our dream destination, we made plans to take the train to Budapest and Vienna. For the last two days, we’ve been in Budapest. And we have eaten so much. But we have also walked 5-7 miles a day, so I am pretty sure it evens out.


And Budapest? We love it. The place we are staying is in the Buda side of the Danube, right off the famous Andrassy street. It wasn’t too hard to walk to the Schezeny baths and St Stephen’s Basilica, or most big tourist sites. We stayed at an Air BnB on the first floor (American 3rd floor, because the the second floor is the 0.5 floor). The elevator only fit two people and our suitcases, but most of the time we took the stairs. All of the buildings in the inner city look like Parisian style buildings built in the 18th century. Food was cheaper in Budapest than LA, but not as cheap as Belgrade. In Belgrade, We only spent $40 each the 48 hours we were there. That includes our taxi rides from the airport and to the train station and all of our food. 

We ate all the pastries in Budapest. Croissants with schokolade and pastries with blueberry. I even bought a donut. But they were different from what we expected. The donut, was not a cake donut and was not fried. It looked like a donut but was less sweet and more bready. Croissants were made with pastry dough, so they were flakier. 

Next stop Vienna.

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No Sleep…Since Brooklyn

Jet lag is hitting me hard onthis trip. I am siting in the bathroom right now at four am, so I don’t wake up my friend with the light from my screen. I’ve been awake since midnight. Since we have arrived in Europe, I have basically slept 4 hours at a time at the most. In the last 60 hours I have had 14 hours of broken sleep. Three hours when we arrived, 4 more that night, 3 the next day…you get it. It’s rough. I am worried it’s going to get me sick.

Other than the sleep, we’ve been exploring the Serbian (former Yugoslavia) capital city of Belgrade. Our neighborhood is very communist block in style, in zone 3. But we did venture out to see the more Bohemian and hipster part in zone 1. One surprise we have found is that more people speak English than we had thought. When we researched our trip, a lot people said English wasn’t spoken by many people. But so far, it hasn’t been a huge problem.


Vacationing Off The Grid-the internet one

Months ago I made a spontaneous purchase from Air New Zealand and presented it as a gift to my husband for Christmas. A trip to Raratonga. He looked excited but also followed it up with, “Where is that?”


Where is it? The South Pacific. Remote Oceania. You know Fiji, Somoa, & American Samoa? Their neighbor to the south is the Cook Islands, and its main island, Rarotonga. Now independent from New Zealand, they still use New Zealand currency and are a popular vacation spot for Kiwis and Australians. 


For us, it’s a ten hour flight from LA and I was really looking forward to being away from everything. I decided to even take a social media vacation along with my vacation. Turns out I didn’t need a planned social media break, because internet on Raratonga is priced by the MB. So we saved our purchased MB for messages to our kids, no photos, those average about 2.5 MB. Have you ever thought about your every day data use? So many MB.

So what did we do? Sleep. We stayed at an eco retreat with only 6 individual above ground tents or structures. It was tucked away from the main road and the main tourist attractions. The only sound we often heard were birds, roosters, and the rain. The first night we slept from 8:30 pm until 6:30. It’s winter in Raratonga, so the nights are longer than at home. We also took naps whenever we felt like it.

I finished 3 books on the island. It would have been four, but it turned out that one book I bought was missing 32 pages in the middle. I borrowed a book from the small library at our retreat. We didn’t have a radio or a t.v. So books were the extent of my media consumption. The island has two radio stations and we occasionally heard them when in a taxi. We were oblivious to news. If we had really wanted too, we could have looked for it, but we needed a respite.


We also walked and hiked and rode the bus around the island. There is a bus that runs clockwise around the island every hour and one that runs counterclockwise every hour. So if you miss it, it’s a long wait. The bus costs 5 NZ  unless you buy the 10 ride punch card for 30 NZ. If you’re lucky, you will get on the bus with the driver who wears a microphone and sings the whole way.


We did a hike across the island that many people said was a good hike. It was a good hike, but it was also a strenuous and challenging hike. Steep, slippery slopes, across rocks and streams, through narrow passages where you had to climb over and under tree trunks, and down steep ridges with ropes. It took about 4 hours to do it, but we came out of the other side caked with mud, sweaty, but pretty satisfied with ourselves. The view from the top of the hike, by the Needle, was worth it. 

We attended the Highland Paradise show. It’s one of the main shows on the island, the reports have some too. Josie, at our retreat, recommended it to us and said it was culturally authentic. It started with a presentation of the history and culture of Raratonga and then moved forward showing the changes over the years through music and dance. We had a dinner and answered the most popular question from anyone who wasn’t American, So why is Donald Trump popular? I still don’t have an answer for that question. Sometimes they talked so fast, we couldn’t understand their New Zealand accents!

Most of the time I was lazy. And it was great. But along with the hike, we did kayak and ride bikes. So I guess we weren’t completely lazy. Everything was green and lush. Everywhere you looked was green with banana trees, coconut trees, and Pawpaw trees. People were friendly and will offer you assistance if you are walking along the road away from popular tourist areas. 

Rarotonga details:

Flight 

Air New Zealand: the island subsidizes air New Zealand flights from the US because they are actively trying to grow tourism. Which means we got a good deal. 

Stay

Ikurangi Resort

https://www.ikurangi.com/

In the Matavera area, off from the main tourist areas. They focus on sustainable tourism including Eco friendly soaps and toilet paper in the bathroom, and above ground structures to limit the impact of the environment.

Currency

New Zealand dollars, we usually got 1.35-1.40 for each US dollar.

Good to know

Renting a car or scooter is popular on the island. You do need a drivers license for the island, which is like 20 NZ and can be done quickly. Some scooter places were just 13 NZ a day. 

Water should be filtered at your resort or bottled, ask about it.

The island is protected by a barrier that creates the calm lagoon. Muri Lagoon is very popular for water activities, but the best snorkeling is in Fruits of Raratonga. Protecting the beauty of the Cook Islands is important for tourists to consider, so don’t step on coral, it is alive. Wear reef shoes and avoid getting close to breaks in the barrier, where the ocean current can pull you out.

What’s Good Royal Caribbean?

Ok, so the last post was a list of complaining about my cruise and why it’s just not my cup of tea. So what was good on my cruise?

1. Tapas in the “park”

The cruise ship had a park. With real trees and plants (ok they were small trees). I usually visited it in the morning for coffee while I let my cabin mate sleep in. But one evening, I went to the Tapas restaurant (that costs extra mind you) and had gazpacho and Rosé while listening to jazz. Great way to unwind. 


2. Hiking in Loterie farm and preserve

So hard, but this was my highlight. I can’t believe I made it through the “not strenuous” part of the hike. It was uphill and downhill, included climbing up rocks and using ropes to pull myself uphill. I was drenched in sweat at the end. This hike requires water (had it), snacks (that too), mosquito repellent (check) and better shoes than I wore. But it made my strawberry sorbet at the treehouse lounge so much sweeter of a reward.



3. Balcony views: Always stunning.


4. Random Dunkin Donut experiences

In the Bahamas, I stopped at a random Dunkin donuts for coffee and a chance to consult the pictures of maps I took (no data). I found the local coffee shop retired group arguing about politics just like everywhere else I have lived. It must be some kind of rule that a group of older men can be found drinking coffee and arguing about things.

5. The Vitality Cafe

On days I worked out, I finished each work out with freshly juiced ginger, celery, cucumber, and apple. It made me feel like I wasn’t  just stuffing my face with bad food.


6. Entertainment: Mama Mia & Comedy 

The cruise ship had a variety of entertainment, but the two that I enjoyed were Mama Mia, which I hated as a movie (Pierce Brosnan should not sing) but enjoyed in this production. I also laughed a lot at the comedy show. It might have been the comedian making fun of the cruise experience that I completely related to, but it was funny!


7. Swimming in the Caribbean Sea

I did swim. And walked along the beach. And watched sailboats and people snorkel. And read a book. And relaxed.


8. Navigating islands alone without google maps

Most of the time data was inaccessible on the different islands. Even if T-Mobile said I  had 2G data, it was pretty nonexistent. So in order to get around the islands I took photos of maps, asked my husband to text me google map images (because texting worked) and relied on the kindness of strangers. On St. Maarten, a taxi ride to Loterie farm was quoted at $30 one way. Which was crazy to me, but I was standing in front of the place where all of the cruise ship passengers disembark, so I walked on until I spotted a van with sign in the window for Marigot. I didn’t know what it meant but I saw a passenger get on, so I hopped on too. $2 to the French side of the island and $11 taxi to the farm. Much better price and I rode with locals around the island. 

On St. Thomas, we rode the safari like van to Sapphire beach. On all of the islands, we realized driving was an adventure. Stop signs? Who needs those when your driver has a horn?

In the Bahamas, our stay was too short for long exploration, so I walked around churches and neighborhoods.

Bright Lights, Big City

There is nothing more fun than traveling with your people. Whoever your people are, your spouse, your family, or your life long friends. But they are the people who really get you and you feel most comfortable with. I definitely find that I have trouble traveling with certain types of people. I need some space to wind down. I have my own likes and interests and want to venture off at times from a group. I love traveling with my husband. He is my favorite travel partner and we really know each other’s likes and dislikes. We don’t worry about about splitting up or saying no to each other’s ideas. We also both like to get up early and get out to see things. We also like naps so we can reenergize for the afternoon/evening.

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When I went to New York in March, I went with my BFF, who I have known for twenty four years. Wow. That’s crazy now that I write that out. We also went with our friend Jen, who moved next door to my BFF after I moved out to live in Southern California. This isn’t the first time the three of us have traveled together, but it’s been awhile since we went to Vegas together. A long while. Back then our kids were all small, now they are teenagers and adults.

New York, New York

Sometimes travel falls into your lap. At least this year it is for me. Kristin had a conference in New York and insisted I join her and Jen. I used miles for one flight and booked American for the other. I had never been to New York and part of the reason is the cost. The other is the distance. It’s hard to do a quick weekend trip when the travel sucks up so much time. I left on a Thursday and came back Monday, so I could enjoy myself. It also helps the search for award flights and prices when you aren’t traveling on peak days.

We packed a lot into our weekend. A broadway play. The statue of liberty. The Highline. So much food. The Russian Tea Room. But we also talked about our lives and where we’ve come. We laughed until we cried. We ate cupcakes in bed. And we walked until our feet hurt. These are definitely my people.

  
  

One More Hawaii Post

  

Okay, I just went to New York for the first time and I had a great time. Part of it was the company, part of it was the city, and a big part was the food. I love to eat when I go on trips. And it was no different when we were in Hawaii. Some places we eat at because it’s what that place is known for, some we go based on recommendations, and some we go to because location, location, location. 

A good chunk of eating we did at the Hilton resort. Like the coffee shop/ice cream place in the picture above. Those sticky buns? I didn’t end up eating them. I ended up with ice cream and it was good. So where did we go to eat outside of the resort in Hawaii?

Local food:

Rainbow Drive In 

 We went for the traditional plate lunch with macaroni salad. Here I ate the fish and Will got the Mix plate. We went after we hiked Diamond Head, figuring that would be a good time to eat a ton of food. I don’t know why, but I love how Hawaiian plate lunches come with macaroni salad. Its really the only time I eat macaroni salad. What was good: the portion sizes were big, the price is cheap, and the macaroni salad was yummy. I liked my mahi mahi, which was breaded and cooked. I got so stuffed. And it was an bus stop between Diamond Head and our hotel. What wasn’t: they mixed up that I wanted fries and gave me rice, but it wasn’t that big of a deal. I just ate my husband’s fries.

Rainbow Drive-In
3308 Kanaina Ave.
Honolulu, HI 96815

As good as they say?

Bills

    I liked the decor and had read that it was a great place for coffee. So of course I had to check it out. Bills is a Sydney based restaurant that has a location on Oahu and in London, Tokyo, and Seoul. What was good: the coffee and food. I liked my avocado toast and latte. They have a lot of options for the veggie inclined and some for gluten free people too. What wasn’t: the service. It was impersonal and not too friendly. Maybe they were just busy and it was a bit of a wait, but the hostess did not have the mostess. 

280 Beachwalk Ave
Honolulu 96815

Location, location, location:

Top of Waikiki

  Maybe this seems cheesy and some people would say it’s not worth they hype, but my husband and I did enjoy our date night at the Top of Waikiki. The restaurant rotates 360 degrees, although if construction on Waikiki continues, the view may not be worth it much longer. We went right at sunset. What was good: The view. The service. Our waiter was friendly and even talked to us about where to eat like a local. He was the one who recommended the plate lunch place. What wasn’t: Nothing was bad. The food was good. We ordered  several things from the Sunset appetizers and salad, but still got pretty stuffed. It wasn’t the best we’d ever had, but we really came for the view. They even have a bar that does not rotate, if you just want to relax and look out over Waikiki.

2270 Kalakaua Avenue, 18th Floor

 Any favorite food spots in Hawaii?

Resort Life: Hilton Grand Vacation Resort

When we went to Hawaii in january, we did the timeshare trip. You know the one? The kind where you are invited to stay for cheap and watch a 2 hour presentation on vacation club ownership. I have a Hilton Honors membership and they offered me a 5 night stay for $699 at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. On a whim, way back in June of 2015, I bought it. Originally we planned to go in the fall, but with the new teaching job I moved our trip to January (for a small fee).

  our room

 view from our balcony

We almost never stay at resort type locations because I am so thrifty. I stay more at Hampton Inns and Hilton Garden properties to save some cash (and give my family a free breakfast). But a while back for mother’s day I stayed at a Loews and loved it. I decided I deserved a little resort life.

Amenities we took advantage of:

 On site restaurants:

When we ate on the property, we ate most of the time at the Tropics Bar and Grill next to the beach. I enjoyed their happy hour. There are multiple restaurants with different foods and prices. The cheapest one had take out pizza and food I didn’t want in Hawaii. There was a Starbucks on site that we used for early morning coffee on the way to the airport, but we also tried the other coffee shop (that also had amazing ice cream) on site. There are a lot of choices on site.

 Pools:

There are several pools on the property with an ability to order food and drink poolside. Yessss. Getting lounge chairs by the pool can be competitive, but I prefer a chair a row or so back so I don’t get splashed by kids. The only bummer about the jacuzzi was that it was adjacent to the kiddie pool and frequently had a lot of kids in it. I don’t mind kids, mine are just grown so I don’t need to hang out with lots of them.

Fireworks on Friday:

Okay, we didn’t really see these. Because the guy at the timeshare presentation said we would be able to see the free Friday firework show from out balcony. But we could not. At all. You really need to be down at the beach to see it.

 Starlight Luau:

Fun luau, but not the best luau we had ever seen. We enjoyed meeting the people at our table. It turns out Dec/Jan is a popular time for Australians to visit Hawaii. The luau is on the roof of the parking garage, and we could actually hear it from our balcony on other nights. The food was okay, but the performances were good. The best out of all three we have seen is Paradise cove.

 Free movies:

One night we decided to get a movie and chill in the room. We were so beat from our busy day out and waking up at 4 am (time difference), we thought relaxing in our room was in order. When you check in, they give you a card to access the dvds and then you return them the next day.

We enjoyed our Hawaiian stay. The staff was extremely helpful all of the time. The grounds were clean and everything was beautiful.  All in all, the resort is a very convenient way to visit Waikiki. The last time we came to Oahu was 11 1/2 years ago. So much has changed in Waikiki, we almost didn’t recognize some parts. We did a lot of things we hadn’t done previously. I think if we had younger kids all of the amenities would have been appreciated even more. Renting movies for kids, the food options, the pools, club penguin for kids, etc. But as a couple who enjoys exploration of new places, a resort isn’t as necessary for us. But we loved our pool lounge time, charging drinks to the room, and the pineapple salsa nachos (minus the pork) at Tropics Bar and Grill. And honestly, in terms of Waikiki hotel locations, the Hilton  Village is in one of the best spots. Great access to transportation and beaches. The one thing I wish I would have done, was morning yoga at the resort. But the morning I was headed out, I was digging in my suitcase (under the safe in the closet) and hit my head on the in room safe. Hard. So I gave up on yoga.

I am so glad we got the chance to revisit Oahu and enjoy time together. Have you been to Hawaii? Do you love resort life?

 

 

It’s Really Grand

Every day, I wake up and go to work. No really. Every day, I wake up, and I go to work. Except when I schedule a day off of call in sick or am lucky enough to be cancelled. But that costs me because I still need to get paid, only after being cancelled I will have less paid vacation hours. That’s for the weekend job (Friday, Saturday, Sunday). But M-Th, I just work. I took this teaching job knowing it meant working every day, but also knowing it would be temporary. And this week I am half way through the first semester. 5 more weeks of my grad school semester. 7 more weeks of teaching. And then I have 5 weeks off (just not from the weekend job). Is it confusing yet?

Basically what it means is I can go some more places. And there is nothing like teaching international students from Brazil, Italy, Korea, China, Japan, Taiwan, and more, to make you want to get out and see the world. So I am already planning a trip AND my husband and I already have a trip to Hawaii booked.

But before the monsoon of crazy work/school schedules began, we went to a bucket list destination.

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This summer we drove to the Grand Canyon.

From LA, the drive is fairly long, which is why we did that stop in Vegas. But after Vegas, we hit the road to somewhere I had been wanting to go for a while. And the Grand Canyon was really fantastic. On the way from Nevada to Northern Arizona, we stopped at Hoover Dam for a short tour. It was HOT in July. But the dam is impressive nonetheless. DSC_0298

We also stopped in WIlliams for lunch, wine, and a little Route 66 kitsch.
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But Grand Canyon National Park…well, it really was worth the placement on the bucket list. It’s just hard to imagine how big it is until you walk along the rim, and then look back at places you were standing.

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When you try to spot the Colorado river and it looks like a small creek, but the park rangers tell you it’s around 300 ft across.

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Our short time in park was more than we expected. For example, lodging and dining options in the park are numerous, but we never felt especially crowded like some people describe. Also, we imagined the Grand Canyon to be rocky and dry. At 7000 ft up, it can be dry, but it is also surrounded by a forest. Which means trees. That was something we did not imagine in Arizona. Getting up at sunrise and watching the light change on the south rim was awesome. And then we ate breakfast by the window facing the rim at the Hotel Tovar. If you have ever asked yourself if the Gran Canyon would be worth the visit, the answer is yes.DSC_0320

The Quintessential Paris Date

This year my husband and I celebrated our tenth anniversary. It was just last Friday, in fact. Part of our motivation for visiting Paris was to celebrate this big milestone. We weren’t able to travel on our anniversary due to flights, kid’s schedules, work time off, etc. But it was pretty important to me to get out for a date night in Paris. Our date night? Dinner followed by Basilique du Sacré-Coeur at sunset.

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The apartment owner left us tips for restaurants to eat at and we chose Desvouges for our big night out. It was walking distance from our place. The owner came to our table with a large chalkboard to review the specials and made recommendations. He speaks french and English, so no worries if you don’t speak french, although I wanted to order in french as much as possible. We started with appetizers, a pastry filled with cheese for me and escargot out of the shell for my husband. For the main course I had salmon with this great cream sauce and rice. My husband had beef with potatoes and a small dish of ratatouille that was so good. The picture can’t even convey the delicious flavor. Of course we got dessert: lemon cheesecake and a chocolate soufflé. OMG, our food was fantastic. We enjoyed all of it. And we shared a bottle of Rosé, something I decided I liked in Paris.

I didn’t think I was going to be able to walk after all that.

But some how I was. I walked out of that restaurant sometime after 8 pm with the sun still out (summers bring late sunsets) and headed for the metro. I didn’t realize it but we had quite a journey ahead of us. The first metro stop wasn’t running so we walked to another. From there we transferred trains. And the Paris metro is like the Boston subway but seems even larger. Transferring to another line may include heading from the platform down a passage way, up stairs, down another passage way, down some stairs and onto another platform. And we did that for 3 lines. After that, when we arrived at the stop near Sacré-Coeur, Absesses. We did not get memo on this stop, which includes a winding long staircase up to the street, because it is 118 feet underground. Our huge dinner was not so bad with that work out. It was one of those staircases that seems like it will never end and you can’t see the end because it is winding. And it was 118 feet underground. DSC_1049

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When we came out the sun was fading. Disoriented and not sure which direction to head, we walked one way. And then back the other way before finally figuring out which way to go. We missed sunset from Sacré-Coeur. But we did continue on up the hill (yes, up the hill) through the cobblestone streets to the famous white church. Everywhere were crowds of people dining, musicians playing, and some of those African guys that are at every tourist location trying to get you to buy a tiny Eiffel Tower. Some guy was playing guitar on the steps below Sacré-Coeur and singing Pearl Jam. We saw the whole city from up there.

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After taking in the view, watching the artists and the tourist and the crowds, we started the long and many steps home. Just as we reached our arrondissment, a light drizzle started. For me, this was my previously imagined Paris now realized. I was so happy to have a date nite like this even if we missed the sunset. Happy ten years of marriage to my awesome husband.

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