The Travel Tree

I love souvenirs.  I very easily can get suckered into those “I ❤ NY” t-shirts on the street and tacky little things that cost a fortune but don’t mean much, so a few years ago I decided to narrow my focus when it came to travel souvenirs or “merch” as Scube jokingly calls it.  As a result, instead of bringing back a $10 two inch Statue of Liberty or Leaning Tower of Pisa, I look for Christmas tree ornaments.  It’s my thing, and it drives Scube nuts, especially if we’re traveling somewhere in say, April.  But thus far, my success rate is at 100%, not without some required creativity.  Tip: Buy a magnet if no Christmas ornaments are available, loop a ribbon and with a glue gun, adhere the ribbon to the back of the magnet. Insta-ornament.

So as Scube and I put our tree up a few weeks ago, I was all excited to deck the halls with some new ornaments that we collected this year, from St. John, Capri, Ogunquit, Maine and Portland, Oregon.  What I love so much about these keepsakes, as with each ornament I dig out of the box, I’m taken momentarily back to that trip, a memory and moment in time that I can revisit each year on our “travel tree”.  Be it biking across the Golden Gate Bridge (and being scared out of my mind! It’s so narrow, there are so many people!), to gorging at a buffet at the Cosmopolitan in Vegas with the senior citizen crowd (jet lag had us up soooooo early, and who can say no to ice cream for breakfast?? Not this girl!), or meeting Sylvia, the third generation ceramic shop owner in Capri who thought she would study languages and travel the world before taking over for her Mother, and who now hopes her daughter will take over for her.  It’s all there, wrapped in paper towels and unearthed each year.

While our tree also has the requisite snowmen, Santas, and glittery balls,  our memories littered throughout seem to matter so much more.  And what started out as an almost silly way to avoid useless crap, it’s turned into something that I look forward to sharing with my own children and grandchildren someday.  The ornaments are a gateway to my memories, and hopefully our future spawn will think we’re pretty cool someday, when they’re not too busy being embarrassed by us.

What is your souvenir of choice?

Portland and the Great Outdoors

Renting a car and exploring outside of Portland is something I would recommend to anyone, in fact, I would encourage it. Oregon has so much to offer and there are many beautiful wonders within just a few hours of Portland that it’s a sin not to get outside and see it. Based on the time allowed and the weather constraints, we had one full day outside the city, and to be entirely cliché, it was magical.

We opted for the scenic drive to Mt. Hood from the city, clocking in at only 90 minutes each way, making this is a great day trip, weather permitting.   Getting out of the city was a breeze. We rented a car from Avis on 4th and NW Washington Street, and within 2 minutes of leaving the garage, we were on the highway headed to our destination.  Side note:  This was also the best non-airport Avis experience we have EVER had.

Start your scenic drive at Vista House, but mind the wind. This area of the Columbia River Gorge is a wind surfers paradise, and apparently the wind can be so strong that it takes the doors off of cars (?!?!). Upon hearing that bit of information and receiving the advice to park into the wind (whatever that meant) Scube and I were a wee bit concerned. Fortunately, the wind wasn’t nearly as strong as it apparently could be during our visit. Continue on route 30, which is Oregon’s Scenic Drive that runs parallel to the highway, until you hit the start of a corridor filled with waterfalls. From Latourell Falls, to Bridal Veil, to Multnomah and Horsetail Falls, you will not be disappointed. All of the falls were breathtaking, but Multnomah Falls is the most famous, with a restaurant, lodge, and visitor center. I highly recommend walking up to the bridge between the two falls, but I do not recommend the mile hike to the top of the entire falls system. The pay-off is not nearly as sweet as you’d like it to be. The tiny look out is off to the side of the falls and looking over the edge you really cannot see much. The hike took about 30 – 40 minutes to reach the top (layers upon layers of clothing was pulled off in the process) and as Scube said, “the view is better from below.” After trekking back down the mountain, we grabbed a quick snack and continued the beautiful tour of the area.

A really great stop along the way which I was not expecting is the Bonneville Dam and Lock System along the Columbia River. If you catch it when the time is right, you can watch the famous salmon runs as they return to spawn. The runs were just ending as we arrived, but we caught a rogue salmon or two making its way up stream. Additionally, on-site you get to see fish hatcheries, giving new meaning to the term raised vs. wild salmon.   It was a really cool experience.

After the DAM, our goal was to see Mt. Hood (a potentially active volcano!). Back east, while we do have mountains, none seem to closely resemble the mountains of the west. And I was so excited to see the snowcapped top against the back drop of fall colors, pines, and water. And it sure was snowcapped! Our drive turned from rainy fall colors to snow encrusted pines, with large snow plows with chains on their tires clearing the drive. While I’m not a nervous driver, it was unclear whether or not our Hyundai Sonata was up for the task of climbing this snowy mountain.

Based on the weather, we decided to visit Timberline Lodge, built during the Great Depression and appeared in the film The Shining as the outside of the hotel Jack Nicholson and his wife watch over during the winter months. The lodge was beautiful, with intricate woodwork and an atrium with fire places, sofas, and restaurants encircling the chimney. Our hot chocolates were 16 ounces of pure winter heaven, despite the early November date. It made me wish we were staying overnight, pretending to be snowed in and lounging by the fire with a good book. If only! Since the snow seemed pretty heavy we only stayed an hour as again, our car was not equipped for snowy mountain’s majesty, and headed back to Portland for some good food and a rainy drizzle.

 

Vacation Blooper – Blue Grotto Snuggles

Being American, I love to hug, snuggle, cuddle, whatever.  But as one of my favorite movies so aptly puts it, “No hugging, dear. I’m British. We only show affection to dogs and horses”*, not all cultures are as huggy as well, me.  So why is this important?  Well, entering the Blue Grotto in Capri involves very close quarters potentially with strangers.

When the seas are gentle and the Blue Grotto is open, about 20 – 25 row boats are ready outside the grotto waiting to accept passengers from other boats or from those taking the stairs (like moi).  Since the physical entry to the grotto itself is fairly small, everyone, including the boatmen have to lay completely flat upon entry and then can pop back up once inside the glittering blue expanse.  Fast forward to me and Scube getting in a boat with an Austrian couple in their late 40s.

Knowing we had to lay down I said to the woman, “It’s okay, don’t worry about it, we’ll all be friends here after this experience!” with a huge grin on my face.  Her face however was ashen and horrified.  She flat out refused to lay on me.  She cowered in a small nook on the boat inches from my spread legs and cuddle ready arms and at the last moment tipped her head back to avoid injury.  Once inside the grotto, her no touching policy continued.  And I get it, not everyone wants to lay on a young, chesty American woman who’s bosom is ready to welcome anyone with open arms in these circumstances, but in the spirit of new experiences, would my breasts have killed her?  Or maybe they would have?  We will never know.

blue grotto

 

*The cult classic Amanda Bynes film What a Girl Wants featuring Colin Firth…swoon.

Rental Car Nightmare

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.

I may be smiling on the outside, but I am weeping on the inside
I may be smiling on the outside, but I am weeping on the inside

Pics of the Week – Blue Grotto Edition

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.

blue grotto
Up to 15 boats can fit into the Blue Grotto at one time, it is SO big!

The Friends you Make

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.

pizza 1
The lovely Kay and Sam of Yorkshire
pizza 2
The incredibly kind, talented chef and host, Lucia

Airline Review: Meridiana

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.

The basics:

  • 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

The stories:

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.

Vacation Blooper – Napoli Edition

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.

donut