It was the start of my junior year in high school, in a town about an hour outside of Manhattan, on September 11, 2001. I remember everything. I remember most of all knowing that our lives would never be the same. Going home that day I hugged my parents as tight as any adolescent ever dared without seeming uncool, I watched the news in fear, crying as another building collapsed and watching a reporter start to run. I remember a day or two later friends calling asking if I wanted to go out, I said “no,” unable to believe that my friends had so quickly moved on from recent events. Were they not scared? Sad? Afraid? But maybe they were, and they just reached the inevitable conclusion faster than I did or wanted to, that life goes on, and it must go on.
In light of the recent attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Kenya, it is very hard not to be afraid. It is very easy to close off the rest of the world at a time when we ultimately should not. It is all too easy to hide.
In the United States in the past year, we have seen terror in the form of mass school shootings, mass murders in houses of worship and murders on live TV, to name a few. So I beg myself, and I beg you, not to be afraid. Life will go on, and the greatest weapon we have is the willingness to let it, to continue to travel, to welcome in those who are lost, to see the world through another set of eyes, and continue to love.
“Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart.” Anne Frank
It’s rare that Steve and I just take a week off of work for vacation. Our normal time off spans between 10 – 14 days, and as a result, we usually try to see more than just one place. On our European vacation in September 2014, we were gone for just over two weeks, spending a week in Portugal and a week exploring the French Riviera with a small slice of Provence thrown in. We were planning to and did rent a car in both countries and as a result, we will rarely rent cars on vacation ever again (at least in Europe anyway).
For starters, Scube and I cannot drive a manual transmission. Our friend, bless him, tried to teach me in a very hilly section of Philadelphia and the poor guy probably needs a new starter (separate incident) and a new clutch. If I was guaranteed that Europe would be as flat as Kansas then sure, I’d rent a stick car there, but it’s not, so we knew we were paying a premium for our automatic transmission shortcomings. If that was the worst of it, our experience would not have been marred by this vacation against rental car agencies, but alas, the story continues.
In Portugal we were given an almost brand new Volvo. From Lisbon we had about a 3 hour drive, maybe more to the Algarve region of Portugal. With our printed maps we did our best and finally (after quite a few u-turns and attempts to ask for directions in Spanish – I know they speak Portugese but we do not) we found our way to the hotel. And while our hotel was beautiful with an incredible cliff side beach, we had plans to explore many of the coastal towns and beaches in the Algarve region. After our second day we noticed a small scratch on the side of the car. A scratch in the US that would not have rendered second looks or additional charges. I’m sure you can see where this is going.
We returned the car to the airport in Lisbon and were charged (we attempted to dispute the amount) an additional sum on top of our rental. We noticed that the agent also checked under our car to see if we had bottomed out. I have never seen such a thorough review of a vehicle, especially since I rented a car each week for almost two years for my past job. When all was said and done, our rental car for 5 days in Portugal cost us close to $900. There may have been tears. There were tears. Many, many, tears.
After our experience at Avis in Portugal, we were really nervous for our rental car experience in France. And of course, after arriving in Nice we were given an Audi convertible. It barely fit our luggage but was apparently the only automatic transmission they had on the lot. Also brand new. We were petrified. We didn’t want to bottom out, scratch, dent or damage this car in anyway. While we always set out with those goals when it comes to rentals, we and our wallets, were acutely aware of the consequences. Sidenote: Even with the heightened rental fear, I will never, ever rent a car in the Riviera again. The roads are narrow, incredibly winding and all around not worth it. Taking public transportation either a train or a bus would have gotten us to our destination with half as much stress.
Now that we had this Audi convertible, our first stop was to drive from the airport in Nice a few hours to Avignon. I don’t know how else to describe Avignon but it is not a place for cars of any kind. As a medieval city, it is completely narrow with alleyways posing as two-way streets. Driving through Avignon, knowing that any minor scrape would result in hundreds of extra dollars was so stressful. The car was filled with anger, yelling, and tears. After driving around in circles praying that the streets were wide enough for our vehicle, our hotel manager informed us that there is parking outside the city with shuttle service. If you do decide to rent a car and drive to Avignon, park there. You will not regret it.
After a few days in Avignon we were off to Eze, a town that sits upon a hill just outside of Nice. While the area was beautiful, the roads were incredibly winding with countless switchbacks. Our adorable B&B owner suggested a more scenic route to Monaco while there. Princess Grace died on that route. I spent the entire drive with white knuckles on the steering wheel honking my horn at every turn in the hopes to avoid a head on collision. Reason number 8974523948 why you should never EVER rent a car in the Riviera. Welp.
Needless to say, returning our car in France was a much less painful experience in Portugal without additional charges. There were battle scars, gray hairs, and unnecessary stress to say the least, but ultimately, the key takeaway is to avoid renting a car in Europe at all costs. With transportation so easy in most places (the Algarve not being one of them), in most major European outposts renting a car is like owning a car in Manhattan. We will be much more discerning in the future and I hope this is a cautionary tale for everyone out there. Unless of course you drive stick, because you are one of the lucky ones.
Two years ago I had never heard of the blue grotto. The human fish, aka Scuba Steve, saw some sort of look of the world’s most amazing swimming holes, with the Blue Grotto atop the list. Seeing pictures did not nearly prepare me for the incredible beauty inside. In fact, if you are able to swim in the blue grotto, it is imperative to bring a snorkel mask with you to see where the grotto gets its magnificent blue color from, an archway actually under the entrance! Additionally, I have a post coming later on the ultimate insanity on getting inside during normal operating hours so stay tuned for my turn “snuggling” with an Austrian woman. Until then, enjoy this iPhone 6 pic inside the Grotto Azura, a little blurry but you get the idea.
Full disclosure, I’m 30. And it’s really hard to meet new people and make friends. I’m sure that will get easier when a little nugget comes into the world (no, this is not an announcement), but I’ve found that traveling is a great way to take the social anxiety out of trying to meet new and wonderful people.
Travel is a bond. Doing study abroad my junior year of college has forever intertwined my life story with a group of girls forever. The memories you make when trekking through cities without a map, or the skills to adequately read one (the elusive Duomo) are those that you’ll never forget and laugh about 10 years later, like we still do.
In the past few years, Scube and I have met some really incredible people. Ones I haven’t necessarily kept in touch with although I should have, like the young woman who lives in Scottsdale whose parents live down the street from us, the famous fashion blogger and her husband from Melbourne (#WCW), the young accountant from New York trying her hardest to see as much of the Amalfi Coast as humanly possible, the young mom who lived down the street from us (and had us over for a lovely brunch), the wonderful couple from Yorkshire who own a tea and flower shop, and finally, the woman from LA who’s day I ruined when I told her Joan Rivers had died (whoops). Run-on sentence complete.
So what’s the point of this post? There are many reasons to travel but one that I put a lot of stock in is opening up yourself to new people where you otherwise wouldn’t. Maybe others have an easier time with this in their day-to-day lives, but I find that traveling is an easier segue into new relationships then say killing someone with kindness over raw meat at the grocery store.
Our recent vacation to Italy hinged on the fact that we found insanely cheap airfare direct to Naples from JFK. The airline? Meridiana. I had never heard of it, and it seemed that much of the internet hadn’t either when I went to do my due diligence before clicking “buy now”. Well, for anyone who’s found similarly cheap airfare, here are some things to know before you decide to close your eyes and check your credit card statement later.
Comfort – solid leg room in economy class
Amenities – No personal TVs at each seat, a few “larger” TVs in the aisle, 80s/90s style
Food – Totally frozen (I’ll get to that later)
Timeliness – On time arrival in Naples, early in to JFK, but no gate for us for an hour!
Friendliness – Unique
When we boarded our flight at JFK the air conditioning was not and had not been turned on in hours. The flight was sweltering hot. As someone who is always cold, I was fine. Scuba Steve on the other hand, not so much. Paranoid that the entire flight would be a fire ball he was in a panic. At one point he may or may not have threatened to disrobe if this kept up. Fortunately, as the flight got underway the air conditioning did turn on. Crisis averted.
During dinner on the flight, the staff was incredibly rude. One flight attendant missed the glass when pouring drinks completely and poured water all over Steve. Instead of apologizing, providing napkins, offering any show of empathy, the flight attendant glared at my husband and then kept serving. It was really bizarre behavior that was indicative of the overall attitude the rest of the staff as crossed the pond.
Since our flight was a red eye that left at 3pm, I popped a few Nyquil in the hopes of passing out (which I did, hallelujah!) and woke up just in time to reach Italy raring to go. Because I was comfortable, with leg room. Even if the person in front of my put their seat back, my 5’5″ frame was unobstructed. On the other hand, Scube was left watching movies on the TV they had in the aisle on this circa 1970s airplane. Could have been worse, but could have been better.
On the flight home, the sentiment of the staff improved, and the food got worse. In fact, the pasta salad served on everyone’s plate was frozen completely solid. WTF? How can an airline do that? When Scube pointed this out to the flight attendant, she was incredibly apologetic and said everyone’s food was frozen. How is that right? Or possible?
So here’s the deal with Meridiana. If you want to get from Point A to Point B with zero frills, frozen food, and a piss poor attitude, book this flight. You’ll get all the way to Italy for really cheap ($600/rt), but if you prefer to pay for a bit more amenities, smiles, and warm food, go elsewhere. Would I fly Meridiana again? Possibly, but at least I’ll have both eyes wide open if I do.
Sidenote:For those that love reality tv the way I do, Caroline Manzo, of Real Housewives of New Jersey fame, flew Meridiana with her family to Naples en route to Positano. So, the airline is in fact “celebrity” approved.
I’m trying something new here. Sometimes on vacation, really funny things happen as a result of something I or Scube do, and felt that these little anecdotes haven’t quite made it into our travel stories. So while this isn’t a video of me falling on my face or scaring Chris Pratt with a fake dinosaur, this is a silly story from our last full day in Italy.
Our hotel in Naples didn’t offer free breakfast, and since hotel breakfasts are wildly overpriced (why is cereal $12?!?!), we decided to go out and do as the locals do. To be a local in Italy means walking up to the bar and ordering your pastry first. Once you eat your pastry, you order some form of an espresso, and then wash it down with a small, free of charge water. Well I don’t like coffee or espresso for that matter, but I am however in love with drinking chocolate (Italy’s version of hot cocoa). So in my awful broken Italian (beyond Grazie! Ciao! and Prego! I’m at a loss), I tried to order a drinking chocolate. “Vorrei questro cioccolata, por favore?” Well, L-O-L. This poor bartender was sent into a tailspin. It was like I asked him to conjur Willy Wonka as a patronus with Silvio Berlusconi in the role of Grandpa Joe. He looked at a shaker full of cocoa powder, found it was empty and started fumbling around behind the bar. The elderly man who owned the shop started yelling at him in Italian. What I gathered back and forth was “where is the cocoa??” and “how do you not know how to make a cioccolata you fool?!” After a lot of hand wringing, the elderly man escaped to the back and returned with a massive bag of cocoa powder and starting frothing the milk. Meanwhile, in my head, and unable to articulate to these two adorable men who didn’t speak a lick of English, I was saying “I just wanted a small little cup of drinking chocolate…” Instead, I was left on the sidelines watching this hilarious little horror transpire.
Scuba Steve was squeezing my hand hard as we were both thinking the same thing, which was “OMG Sara, what have you done?? These poor men.” Cue 5 minutes later and I had been served a pint glass, an actual, full blown pint glass full of piping hot cocoa. Adopting an “I don’t want to offend” attitude, I downed the crap out of that cocoa. Granted, it was delicious, but feeling so full from my chocolate pastry, I was not expecting to drink 16 ounces of hot chocolate at 9am. Scube was shocked, but let’s be real here, I can down a disgusting amount of chocolate in all forms with feeling zero digestive side effects.
And that my friends, is one of my many vacation bloopers.
September is a really special month for me. I started dating my husband (Scuba Steve as he will be known henceforth) in September, we got engaged in September, and then finally, we got married in September. When you don’t have kids, September isn’t a new year, it’s an extension of summer. So what does this have to do with California? Well, this is the story of our engagement trip.
I’ve mentioned this before, but air travel wasn’t something I spent a lot of time doing growing up. We explored the area around us with road trips and long weekends, but that was it. I used to sit in the back seat surrounded by luggage, art supplies, travel games and coloring books, and as an only child I’d like to think I was so entertained by myself that I rarely asked “are we there yet?” Since I grew up and still live in the Northeast, prior to September of 2012 I had not completed my manifest destiny, something at the time was very much on my bucket list. Chicago was as far west as it got, so when I told Scuba Steve I wanted to go to California, San Francisco and Wine Country to be exact, he added in the Redwoods and we were off to the races.
We tag teamed the planning on this one, and since I barely had any points at this time, hotels and flights were straight cash, a foreign concept to us these days. We were intent on hitting the Redwoods National Park up north, about a 5-6 hour drive from San Francisco. After a lot of research, we settled on the Turtle Rocks OceanfrontInn in Trinidad, CA. A place we would love to return to someday. Each room had its own balcony overlooking the ocean where you could watch and certainly listen to the seals barking in the evening. Since the fog was so heavy we could not figure out what that soundtrack was to the first half of our trip and finally, when the fog lifted, at least 30 seals were barking away on a rock outside. The locals do not find this cute, but Scube and I were quite taken with it, I mean you don’t exactly hear barking seals in Philadelphia everyday.
Back to the B&B, the owners are the sweetest people, serving a delicious breakfast at around 9am (we were surprised, as normally breakfast starts so early!), and opened their kitchen to guests with beverages and snacks throughout the day. Additionally, they were quick to provide itineraries that matched the length of ones stay, as well as excellent dinner recommendations. Staying a few days, we opted for the lengthier itinerary, but upon arrival, we were beat, crashed and then naturally woke up ready to greet the world at 4am California time. Kitchen closed.
On our first morning, Scuba Steve had the worst cold, and we were plying him with a cocktail of Dayquil, Sudafed, and the like in the hopes he would be able to enjoy the day. At around 6am, we grabbed a granola bar and an apple and headed toward Patrick’s Point. Our morning hike consisted of Wedding Rock, and if you haven’t figured it out yet, our engagement! Scuba Steve had asked me to grab a map which if you know me, is hilarious. I cannot read a map to save my life, after rummaging through our stuff, I turned around and there he was, down on one knee. To this day, I have no idea what Scube said to me, I blacked out into a puddle of the happiest of tears. After composing ourselves (okay fine, myself), we tried to get through to our families and friends with what little cell service there was, and continued to explore Patrick’s Point. Nothing says excitement and disappointment like, “OMG we got en-…” to get cut off each time.
The area of Patrick’s Point was beautiful, as thick fog would slowly burn off as the sun would escape through small slats in the pine trees up above. After about an hour of exploration we headed back to the Inn for some much deserved breakfast of pastries, eggs, juices, the works. I mean we had been up since 4, a granola and an apple wasn’t going to cut it.
After breakfast, our itinerary for the day focused on the Redwoods National Park, and we hoped to spend a lot of time getting lost in the forest. After checking in with the National Park Visitors Center for a map (of course, Scube needs his maps) and a few trail ideas, we headed first to Lady Bird Johnson Grove and Tall Trees Grove. None of these were long or tedious hikes, but the pay offs were incredible. In typical fashion was tried to hug the trees and our outstretched arms didn’t even come close to completing a full on hug. I have an incredible fear of snakes, and one of my Scube’s favorite moments from the hike down into the Trall Trees Grove was when I asked “you don’t think we’ll see any snakes here?” as I unknowingly stepped right over one. So yes, there is a possibility that you could see snakes (ugh).
Even though this was a few years ago, California was fairly dry, and Redwood Creek near the Tall Trees Grove was almost completely dried up. We walked through the creek bed and headed the 2 miles back up to the car. When not hiking, the look out points on the main roadway to the points were stunning, and we were constantly stopping to take in the view and try our hand at some pretty bad selfies, but we didn’t care. The drive back to the Inn was incredibly beautiful. You end up driving down a hill where there’s the ocean on the right and a lagoon on the left. The beach was made of dark sand with small little caves and inlets we explored during our stay.
With some lingering jet lag, we decided it was time to relax for a bit before heading to dinner at Moonstone Grill to toast to our engagement. Moonstone Grill overlooks the ocean, and the scenery at the restaurant was fantastic. I have no recollection of the food, and that might be because upon leaving the restaurant we realized we were driving on a flat tire. Driving about 100 yards, we had destroyed the tire and turned back around, Steve went inside to call AAA, and I enlisted an elderly man to help me change the tire. Knowing that our spare would only last for 50 or so miles (my dad or Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny may have mentioned that), we unfortunately spent the next morning in a tire shop getting a new tire on our rental car. Since Trinidad was not all that close to a major city, this seemed to be the best course of action, despite the unexpected bill.
Once the tire had been replaced, we decided to visit Fern Canyon, where Jurassic Park 2 was filmed. The drive into the canyon was a single lane road, where lead cars are required to chaperon cars to and from the parking lot. The drive into the canyon was so incredibly cool. Wet ferns and foliage crawled up both sides of your car, as the dirt road seemed to narrow before your eyes. We truly felt like we were in the movie, though a bit hesitant considering there was some light off-roading through rocky streams involved. Nothing like replacing a flat tire and then holding your breath while the bars on your cellphone disappear faster than a vampire in sunlight as your car is rocking back and forth on rocks, in creeks, etc. But we made it. The hike into the canyon was damp, beautiful, lush and green. It involved climbing over massive tree trunks, getting your sneaks wet, and getting a little lost. Beyond the canyon, we walked along a beach in what was a gray day, and looked back upon the cliffs hiding the canyon from which we came. We saw hikers who had been hiking for months on the Pacific Crest Trail, large animal carcasses, and circling gulls, truly at peace with nature (something so new to me). After walking along the beach, we headed back to the car, waited for our lead car, and decided to head out to Elk Point, where Elk’s (luckily for us) were incredibly abundant. Elk’s were everywhere, and we kept a safe distance though definitely snapped a few photos. Our Elk detour only lasted a few minutes, and we decided to check out the town of Trinidad itself.
The town is very much a quaint fishing village, reminiscent of towns in Maine. With a stunning white and red light house, a beautiful cove/marina and a hike cliff walk, the town had a lot to offer, even if we only had a few hours to spare. That night we had dinner at Larrupin Cafe. The meal was out of this world, and we were not expecting that for such a small town. They bring a charcuterie board to start, and while I don’t remember exactly what we ordered, I remember we were both in culinary heaven. Fortunately, our car did not have a flat tire upon leaving so we certainly called this day a win.
We were hoping to kayak the next morning, but since the conditions were rough, the company cancelled our tour, so we decided to spend more time exploring Trinidad on our last day before heading down to wine country.
Trinidad was such an unexpected bright spot, and that excludes the excitement of our first morning. It was so diverse and offered and so many different outdoorsy activities coupled with really great food. It was such a great start to my very first time in the Golden State.
Capri is an absolutely magical and beautiful island with so much to offer. I’ll be blogging about our trip to Italy in the upcoming weeks, and I hope you followed along via Instagram as we traveled around Capri and the Amalfi Coast.
Below, the pic of the week is taken from atop Mount Solaro, the highest point on the island, in the town of Anacapri, which can be reached via walking, or a 13 Euro round trip chairlift ride. The views are breathtaking during your ride up, down, and upon arrival at the top. Enjoy!