Colorado 2016

One week vacation in Colorado 8/31-9/7, and it could not have been more beautiful. We arrived in Boulder late on Wednesday night, and after a brief issue with our room, we grabbed a bite to eat and got settled in. Our friends Bridgette and Brian came out early the next morning (September 1st) and we headed up to Estes Park for some hiking. We decided to hike the Glacier Gorge trail up to Mills Lake, about 7 miles round trip with about 850 ft elevation gain. This trail was moderate and took us past beautiful Alberta Falls, over very scenic trails, and ultimately to Mills Lake. On the return, we actually could have done a loop up to Bears Lake but by this point we were all hungry and looking for some real food beyond nuts and bars! We went to a restaurant in Estes Park town called Twin Owls Steakhouse.  We ordered Elk medallions for appetizers; for dinner the guys and me had the Bison Steak special with potatoes and veggies, and Bridgette had a 4×4 which had lobster tail and Filet. Since we were in Colorado we had to try some of the game, it was a bit expensive, but the food was delicious! A very successful first day in Colorado!

September 2nd, We spent our second day touring around Boulder, the Flat Irons, some scenic overlooks and explored some areas around route 72, Nederland, and Blackhawk. We ended up in Golden Colorado to meet up with some old friends Shirley, Steve, Mike and Jeanine. We all went out for a wonderful lunch and then a nice walk along a waterfall path at Lair of the Bear park. We agreed to meet up for another hike the next day at Estes Park. Note to self, I really loved the Golden Colorado area!!

Well, since this was Labor day weekend (September 3rd), we expected the park to be crowded. Parking is very limited and we were lucky to be able to secure spots just before everyone was denied entrance into the park. We hitched a shuttle over to Bear lake and after a brief hike (2 miles) toward Fern Lake (and storms moving in) we headed back and did the .5 mile walk around Bear Lake until the skies cleared, then we headed up toward Dream Lake and Emerald Lake. The hike was about 4 miles out and back with ~700 ft elevation gain. This was a very scenic hike with plenty of Aspen trees, wild flowers, and 3 different lakes. Each turn was more stunning than the next. I told Chris that I was never going home again…..Leaving here and heading for dinner we stopped in Estes Park town again, but this time our dinner luck was not as good. We picked a restaurant called Wild Rose and not only was there a huge delay in delivering our food, it was ICE COLD when it arrived, not to mention NOT fresh (just don’t go). We tipped the waitress and left everything on the table. We then ended up at Smoking’ Dave’s BBQ in Lyons, the food was awesome fresh and tasty! Everyone was happy, we should have just headed straight there, now we know.

 

September 4th, we decided to drive to Colorado Springs and up to Pikes Peak. Naturally I wanted to take the cog train up but since my husband refuses to plan anything in advance I didn’t purchase tickets in advance (as one should do during a peak holiday season). As a result of this, the cog train was sold out and we had to 1) wait in the entrance line for the highway for OVER 1 hr. just to pay to head up the road and 2) pray that the tin can KIA compact car we rented would make it up and down the 20 mile steep slope of the mountain. Well, after some hair pin turns and the smell of some rubber burning from the car, we finally made it up to the peak. Thankfully, I did bring pants and a sweatshirt but forgot my socks/shoes, so I had to walk in sandals and freeze my toes. Well worth it though, what a beautiful site!! We explored, took pictures, took more pictures and were just amazed to see how many people were making the trek up the mountain on a bicycle!!! The wind was so crazy that I was getting blown away just standing there, and the roads were amazingly steep. I couldn’t imaging walking up much less trying to pedal up on a bike!! After a very slow downward drive (and our brakes did not over heat, nice job Chris!), we had some lunch in downtown Colorado Springs and then made a last minute decision to drive to the Royal Gorge Bridge (RGB). This was another 1.5 hrs SW of Colorado Springs and it was already about 3 pm. I have to say this was pretty uneventful place. After paying $40 dollars to “get in”, we walked across the bridge, took some photos, watched a movie about the RGB and we were done. Now, there were other things to do that were amusement park-ish (zip line, swing, cable car), all except the cable car were about $50 per person to do and we were not interested. So, we left to take the 3 hr trek back to Boulder and hope to get on the main highway before dark. I was disappointed in this part of our trip as it was a very long drive and I felt deflated on the experience. We should have done this with a rafting trip, or something that would have had us in the area already, but not as special drive out.

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September 5th, Labor Day. My other must do hike for this trip was the Wild Basin area Trail past Ouzel Falls (Allens Park).  This was another moderate hike about 7.5 miles round trip (we had a 1 mile walk just to get to the trail head) with a 1073 ft. elevation gain. This hike had one beautiful waterfall cascade after the next and plenty of beautiful vistas to enjoy. We stopped to take plenty of pictures along this route and sat to enjoy the sounds of rushing waters which was so relaxing. I once again told Chris I was not going home…..I hope to go back to this one day and take the extended trail to blue bird lake. After our hike we decided to explore some of the local neighborhoods (this trip was also to identify some potential areas for retirement), so we ventured out toward Longmont,  Loveland and then to Fort Collins. We stopped in Fort Collins for a while to explore the downtown area, grab a bite to eat and enjoy some Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Some college girls asked Chris for his autograph, I didn’t realize he was such a superstar! Also we both really loved the Ft. Collins area, this seemed to be more affordable living; had walkability in town and also suburban-ish areas, and only a short drive to the mountains.

September 6th, Our last full day in Colorado! We drove around Boulder for a while checking out the neighborhoods and discovered (sadly) that there is no way we could afford home in that area (confirmed with a stop at the local real estate office). We then met Bridgette and Brian at the Red Rocks amphitheater and explored that area for a while, then headed down to Morrison to grab a bite to eat. Afterward, we headed back up toward Golden Colorado and up to lookout mountain and Buffalo Bill’s grave and museum and of course we spent more time gazing at the beautiful vistas Colorado has to offer. After a while we said our goodbyes and we headed back to Boulder and packing up for our trip back home.

I was very sad to leave this beautiful state, more so than I would have normally on most vacations we go to. The reason being is that I can really see us living there;  it wasn’t just a “beach vacation away from it all”. I can see it being a home, somewhere that we can establish ourselves and be happy with nature, reasonably good weather, friends nearby, and also very low traffic! Ah, we’ll see…

Here is a good web page I used to find some of the trails we  hiked called Rocky Mountain Trails. I also had printed some of the trail maps in advance so we could decided on the length and difficulty of the trail as we went along. One other note is that we purchased a 7 days pass for the National Park (only $10 more than the one time fee) and we used it all all of the hiking locations we went to. Good deal if you plan to do more than one day of hiking in the Rocky Mountain National Park.

Next stop on the home hunting and hiking trail is NC, South Carolina (foothills), and Tennessee in October.

 

 

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Charleston South Carolina 2016

We picked Memorial Day weekend to visit Charleston South Carolina, and despite the weather, it was a perfect way to spend Memorial Day.

TSA at Chicago O’Hare has been totally messed up so we arrived at the airport at 4:00 am for our 7:00 am flight (desperate for coffee). We flew into Myrtle Beach on Spirt airlines. I was nervous flying Spirt but since this was literally 1/2 the price of other options and only a 2 hour flight, I had to try it. More about this choice later.

The day we arrived was a beautiful sunny day, we drove in on the Arthur Ravenel Bridge, and then into The Battery and White Point Gardens. The Battery is an amazing historic area with great, colorful mansions and beautiful views.  We did some exploring to get our bearings, stopped at the tourist center for a map, and then headed to our hotel for check in. Our hotel was actually an old Rice Plantation called Middleton Place, located in North Charleston. We spent quite a bit of time exploring the grounds and lounged around the welcome area for a while, watched a beautiful sunset and then went to bed early since we were exhausted.

The next few days were spent in Charleston. We explored as much as we could on foot, and also drove around a bit to view some of the neighborhood and old historic homes. Parking was expensive with options either in a lot or metered, but we found that there was limited free parking near White Point Gardens and since we are willing to walk most everywhere, it became our go to parking area. Some of the places we visited were the Old Slave Mart Museum, Charleston City Market, Waterfront Park, Nathaniel Russell House Museum, Magnolia Cemetery, and Edmondson-Alston House. One of our highlights was visiting Patriots Point and touring the USS Yorktown. An amazing museum with so much to explore and so much history to absorb, we spent hours there.

One of the goals of this trip, beside visiting this beautiful historic city, was to explore surrounding neighborhoods. Chris and I have been discussing where we want live when we retire, and South Carolina is on our list of places to consider. So in-between exploring Charleston, (and dealing with a tropical depression storm) we ventured off to visit other communities as well. We stopped by Folly beach (too many people since it was Memorial Day weekend), Mt. Pleasant, Sullivans Island and Isle of Palms (very high end), Summerville and Bluffton. We really wanted to explore  Columbia and Greenville but the rain storms made it very difficult to drive around too much, so we didn’t go. I have to plan another trip for the Western end of SC and NC/Tennessee for another time.

I do not have anything good to say about my food experience in SC. I am very upset about this because I was really was excited to try some good southern cooking and have heard raving reviews about the food in SC. Unfortunately, I did not find anything worth raving about. The one good meal we had was at Angel Oak, collard greens were very tasty and our food (Fried Chicken for Chris and Salmon for me) was good, not great, but good. We did find a Belgian Gelato place that was outstanding, AWESOME actually, went there twice for ice cream.

So, back to Myrtle Beach on Tuesday for our flight home, and after waiting around for 4 hrs. finally got word that our flight was CANCELED due to a passing storm in Chicago. CANCELLED?? really? for a passing storm? After waiting in line for over an hour to get reassigned, we found that the next opportunity to get back was THURSDAY and this was not acceptable,  we checked other airlines which were leaving the next morning and the cost was outrageous!! So, we ended up talking with another couple that was driving into Chicago and decided to share the ride in and drove all night to get home. We were exhausted and ended up missing another day of work, which we really didn’t plan or want to do. I don’t think the drive would have been so bad if we would have planed for it, but since this was totally unplanned and our rest stops were very brief, it was quite miserable.

We really did like South Carolina, and look forward to when we can explore this wonderful State again!!!

 

 

 

 

 

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Turks and Caicos 2016

My family has had a rough time the last 5 months. My mother has been in critical care since October 2015, and until recently on ventilator support. The last few weeks she has shown some incredible improvement, enough where we felt comfortable going on this vacation which we had planned last September. With all the stress of the last few months between my mom and other family matters, it was such a relief to get a away for a little while.

I was able to find a direct round trip flight in and out of O’Hare/ Providenciales Saturday to Saturday and the cost was not too bad, however the lodging is crazy expensive (they also have a 30% tax on lodging to boot). I painstakingly selected our hotel for this trip some time ago. I wanted to be on the beach with a beach view (and not just in the far horizon). I wanted to be able to sit on the deck and hear the ocean crashing, have coffee, read a book and relax in my PJs if I so choose. I selected Coral Gardens at Grace Bay beach. The room was privately owned and I booked via VBRO 316291. Shortly after booking this, our friends Frank and Ginny decided to come along and they also booked a room in the same building directly above us, from the same owner.

The entire goal of this trip was to relax, so we didn’t plan much and were only looking forward to lounging, eating some good food, reading books and snorkeling. Since our hotel was directly in front of Blight Reef,  we were certainly able to do plenty of snorkeling! Lots of brightly colored fish, turtles and creatures were found in this crystal clear ocean. Ginny even saw a reef shark that freaked her and few other people out. The sand was white powder and soft and the beach long and beautiful.

We visited quite a few restaurants during our stay and I found the food to be very good, although very expensive (everything was, even the groceries). We at pizza at Lupos, Ribs at Tiki Hut, Sea food Paella at Mango Reef, Coconut Crusted Grouper at Groupers, a variety of food at Somewhere cafe (this was located right at Coral Gardens) and finally Mahi Mahi at Caicos Cafe. I can honestly say we did not have a bad meal the entire time we were in T&C.  Tip: have desert at the restaurant, it was really good each time we opted for it. A few times we went out for  ice cream and it really sucked at 3 different places except for Melt, the Ice Cream was good, but very expensive for what you get, coffee there was great though. There is also the Thursday night fish fry which is not to be missed. Local restaurants set up food kiosks at the nearby park and serve local food and beverages right there on the beach, there is a DJ and live local music which goes on until about 10 pm.

This entire trip was almost perfect with one exception, the picture perfect condo I selected with a beautiful view turned out to be infested with Roaches, primarily in the kitchen. We called the management company and they sprayed the next day and we dealt with the aftermath of them coming out to die and cleaning it up. We were good for a day until I saw a dozen or so babies flying out of the fruit basket on the counter, and then more adults emerged shortly after. At that point we were 4 days into our stay and I requested to be moved to a new room. The new room was at the very far end of the resort with a limited view, not exactly what I wanted, and now far away from our friends that were so close before. Needless to say, our first 4 days were very stressful for me as I don’t deal with these types of vermin well. I was paranoid to walk around in the kitchen, and I was scared to death of having them hitch a ride home with us. We shook the heck out of everything before packing up to come home.

I’m not sure how to avoid this situation in the future as I had read all the reviews of the condo and the resort and this did not appear as an issue. Also, our friends in the room above us did not have an issue nor did we in our new room. It seems there was something terribly wrong with the unit we had and I wasn’t interested in sticking around long enough to have them figure out what it was. The management did give us a few nights credit on our stay to compensate, although I did have to negotiate with them from what I thought was  a very insulting first offer considering the number of days we dealt with the issue.

This trip certainly didn’t start out to be relaxing but by the last 3 days, we were finally able to unwind and enjoy ourselves on the pristine beaches of Grace Bay

 

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Portugal, Spain and Italy 2015

This trip was Chris and Frank’s bucket list birthday trip.  Since they both hit 60 this year, they got to pick our trip location and then Ginny and I made all the plans. Spain has definitely been on my bucket list too, so I was thrilled to select some additional options for our itinerary. This was by far one of the longest trip we have ever taken, and definitely one of the best so far proven by over 3000 photos! Consequently, this is a very long blog post!

We arrived in Lisbon Portugal on August 15. To my delight, our former exchange student Marcelo had made the trek down from Vigo Spain with his entire family to spend a few days with us. We met them for a wonderful dinner and tried to catch up on the last 4 years. The next day, we went site seeing, exploring various areas of Lisbon and had lunch at an excellent sea side restaurant. After such a wonderful start to our trip, I knew it was going to be an amazing vacation!

We spent 5 days in Lisbon exploring the city, gaining some historic knowledge and tasting the amazing cuisine (Portugal has BEST sea food EVER. No kidding, it was really amazing)! We visited the site of Jeronimos Monistary, Monument to the Discoveries, Alfma district and the Castelo de Sao Jorge (great views at dusk!), Belem Tower and drove along the 25th of April bridge. We tried going to Sao Roque church – we went twice and both times it was closed- rotten luck on our part.

We took a day trip to Sintra to visit the Pena Palace and the Castle of the Moors. Somewhere we thought we saw that the road to the palace was only about 5K, so we decided to walk there instead of taking the bus, this was a mistake. The road to the palace, although not very far, is ALL up a never ending steep hill. We are all fairly fit individuals, so we made the trek ok, but somehow we missed the castle (took the wrong road??).  Once we realized we had passed it (by this time we were tired and crabby) no one want to go back down to find it, so we continued uphill to the palace where we waited in a long line to enter. Needless to say, the walk up and waiting in line took a large amount of time away from our day, so after we visited the palace, we took a taxi back down to the town and never ventured back to find the castle.

We also took a guided tour to the towns of Estoril, which is a beautiful town with seaside views, beaches and a casino, and Cascais a primarily touristic town with shops, beaches and some historic sites. We also went to Cabo Da Roca, the very windy western most point of Europe which had some excellent seaside views and a fantastic restaurant called Da Adraga where we stopped for lunch, the food here was amazing!

On Thursday, August 20th, we flew from Lisbon, Portugal to Barcelona, Spain for 5 days. We have traveled to Barcelona before, but only for a few hours off a cruise ship about 10 years ago. Since then, we have always wanted to go back and explore the architecture and see the inside of the Sagrada Familia (on our previous visit, we were only able to see the outside). Our 5 days were spent exploring the city, admiring Gaudi’s architecture, and venturing off to the Costa Brava and Montserrat.

Our hotel was right across from the beautiful Catedral and in the evening we would enjoy shows provided by the street performers in this square. Many of the performers were quite good and tipping them is welcome of course! We stopped to view Gaudi’s buildings and art again on this trip but our highlight was being able to see the entire Sagrada Familia from the inside as well as from the outside this time. There are no words to describe this massive work of art. Every inch of this church is so defined, so precise, that it’s no wonder it has taken over a hundred years to complete (and is still unfinished). We spent almost 4 hrs just admiring the inside and outside of this structure, it’s really incredible.  We did use the hop on hop off bus to see some of the more far away attractions and I would highly recommend this option. We saw parts of the city that I don’t think I would have gone to otherwise and it was a great time saver too! We saw the national museum of art and explored the nearby gardens, took the cable car up to MontJuic and also explored other part of the city that were a bit too far to walk.

We also took a 1 day guided tour to the Costa Brava, and I was very excited to explore the Camino de Ronda. Our first stop was in Calella de Palafrugell, a post card beautiful little town on the coast. We set off from here to walk along the Camino De Ronda exploring the area and taking some wonderful photos and briefly stopped at a nearby beach to hang out. We left this area for L’esartit, another beautiful port area where we went on a glass bottom boat tour (the boat tour was very lame and I could have done without it). I was disappointed that our walk of the Camino de Ronda was very limited as I was expecting a longer hike with a few more seaside villages to explore. I will have to add it to my “return to” list! Our last stop was PALS, a very cool medieval town with more beautiful views, site seeing and some cool little shops too.

Another day we took the train to Montserrat to explore the monastery and hike the mountainous area. This article provides excellent information on how to take the train, purchasing tickets, and the various ticket options.  We spent the entire day hiking the trails and visiting the monastery with the Black Madonna. My friends were able to see the Basilica Choir boys (I opted to walk down from St. Jerome mountain to the monastery instead), they enjoyed the show but said it was extremely crowded during the performance.

Tuesday, August 25th, we left Barcelona by high speed rail and went to Madrid for 2 days. We had a nice hotel, which was very central to all of the sites we wanted to see. Since we only had two days, we didn’t opt to see any museums and ventured off mostly to explore building architecture, parks and fountains (Madrid certainly loves fountains!).  Contrary to Barcelona where the food was less than spectacular and everything was focused on tourism, I never felt like I was in a “tourist zone” (except at the San Miguel food Market where you will pay many Euros for virtually nothing). We did have some very good meals in Madrid and the prices were very reasonable. I would highly recommend El Caldero for a special night out, it was a bit pricey but very good!

Highlights in Madrid were Retiro Park, The Royal Palace and gardens, and the many many squares: Cibeles, Plaza Mayor, Plaza Callao, Plaza Espana, etc. etc. I especially enjoyed visiting these at night; they are all beautifully illuminated and provided a very comforting ambiance. I wish we were able to visit the Prado and Thyssen museums but doing so would have limited our time around town so we opted out. I will save it for next time!

On Thursday, August 27th, we said goodbye to Frank and Ginny who were heading home and Chris and I took off for our 5 day Southern Spain adventure of the Andalusia region of Spain.

We decided to book a tour company for this part of the trip since the cost was very reasonable compared to hotel/car/food own our own, and far less stressful than making our own plans and driving. We booked through Viator, and the trip included Breakfast & Dinner, transportation, hotel stay, entrance fees and a guide each day at the main attractions.

Day 1) Our first stop was to Cordoba, Spain.  We toured the city of Cordoba and the Holy Cathedral (Mother church of the Diocese) or Mosque (depending on the century). The Cathedral was an amazing structure inside and out. The history behind the transformation from Mosque to Cathedral and the artistic works within it made it my favorite of all the structures/Churches we had seen on this tour. Leaving Cordoba and heading to Seville, we had a late dinner at the hotel and it was not very good ;(.

Day 2) Lots to see in Seville. Our first stop was the Spanish Square; a very beautiful square with amazing tile artwork and walkways. We were there very early in the morning, so it was nice to experience it without too many crowds. We walked through Maria Luisa’s garden, the Santa Cruz quarter, saw the cathedral from the outside and spent quite a bit of time wandering around town on our own near the river and admiring the many old buildings. Late dinner at same hotel and once again it was not good. ;(

Day 3) Ronda, my favorite of the villages we visited. Ronda is a vibrant little town famous for is bull fighting and sits above a deep gorge called El Tajo. The views from the Puente Neuvo bridge were stunning and I couldn’t take enough picture of these views! We also found (off the beaten path) an artist shop with etchings. All were originals and we watched the artist as he completed one of his art sketches. Of course this was my take home present from the trip. I don’t usually buy much when I travel, but I do try to find one or two nice pieces of original art if possible as a momento.

Leaving Ronda and arriving at Costa Del Sol, Torremolinos.  I was expecting to have an opportunity to explore this area, but was disappointed. The distance from Ronda to Torremolinos was short but it was over mountainous areas, thus it took almost 3 hours to arrive. I was disappointed that we arrived so late. It was our only evening here, so by the time we cleaned up and had dinner we only had a few hrs to walk the promenade, have some coffee, etc. Naturally, this was the best hotel with the best food from the entire trip, would have preferred to have stayed longer!

Day 4) Granda and the Alhambra. The Alhambra is yet another artistic marvel with a very interesting background in both Muslim and Christian history. The carvings and artwork were simply amazing and the central court an incredible site. The exterior of the Alhambra was quite plain, so it was amazing to see such a transformation on the inside! We also visited the Generalife Gardens, a brief walk from the Alhambra with very beautiful scenic views as well as very interesting plants, flowers and fountains.

Day 5) Toledo and return to Madrid. Leaving Granada today and after a long drive, we finally reached Toledo. Set up on a hill, it is known for medieval, Jewish and Christian monuments. It has an old Jewish quarter and beautiful large cathedral among many other sites. The entire city is walled and quite a site to behold from the outside as well as the inside. It was an interesting city to explore with much history and monuments, many of which we didn’t get an opportunity to explore fully. Since this was our last day on the tour, we were dropped off back in Madrid and off to our hotel. We were exhausted and hungry, so we decided to return to Lamucca, a familiar restaurant from our previous visit which did not disappoint!

Tuesday, September 1st, we arrived in Bari, Italy. My dad picked us up at the airport and his first suggestion was “let’s go to the beach tomorrow”! I was thrilled! After weeks of walking around site seeing, packing and unpacking, I was looking forward to having no agenda and lazying around for a little while. We ended up at the beach the next two days, with perfect weather and nothing else to do! We also ran into my cousins who arrived in Bari the day before we did. They suggested having a day at their farm, making pizzas and hanging out. My uncle has a brick oven right on the farm and my cousins make the most perfect pizzas! It’s one of our most favorite things to do while we are in town, so of course we jumped at the chance!  We did this on Sunday, our last day of vacation. It was a perfect ending to an awesome trip!

 

 

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Cabo San Lucas 2010

Cabo San Lucas 2010

We stayed at an all inclusive resort at Los Cabos, about 5 days, I don’t even remember which one, they all seem to blur into each other. Our location was away from most of the spring break crowd in the main town of Cabo, so the setting was much calmer that some other areas! Met up with my friend Bridgette while we were there and enjoyed some relaxing time at the beach and pool. We also went to visit Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo bar in town (the highlight for me). I was hoping we might run into him, but no such luck! We tried to go snorkeling and sea kayaking but the water was so rough, we didn’t get very far on the Kayak and it was impossible to snorkel with the water so turned up and rough. We don’t seem to have much luck with the water conditions  in Mexico when we go. Anyway, it was a nice relaxing time away, great to hang with Bridgette and enjoy some quite time too. Fun times!

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Italy and Mediterranean cruise 2011

One of our longer trips in 2011 was a visit to Bari and a Mediterranean cruise going to Italy, Croatia and Greece. My parents has always wanted to visit Greece and I thought a cruise would be a good way to get them out on a trip without the added stress of planning and organizing for some of their special needs as elderly folks. Well, turns out I was somewhat right.

Our holiday started in Mola Di Bari, my home town, at my parents place. Since it was early August, and very hot in southern Italy, we spent quite a few days at the beach and loafing around. We spent time exploring the nearby towns that Chris and I have not gone to visit before; one of these was called Poligniano a mare.

Poligniano a mare

Poligniano a mare

I love this village, it’s about 1/2 hr south of Mola and is still very much organized in the old world way.  It seems to represent all of what a small town in Italy should; beautiful sea views, religious icons and narrow cobblestone walkways. Attached is a youtube video from the georgetubel. My pictures do not do justice to the beauty of this village, so I thought the video might help. I’m amazed that for as many times as i’ve been to Bari Italy, this is the first time i’ve visited Poligniano a mare, I will certainly go back again.

We also visited the town of Matera and it’s Sassi. This area became popular after the filming of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. The Sassi are homes built into the calcarenitic rock. The area was very poverty stricken in early years, but now enjoys some tourism thanks to Hollywood. We went to visit a few of it’s most popular sites, the Basilica Cathedral, sanctuary of St. Mary of Palomba, Madonna delle tre porte, and had lunch and a gelato in the main square.

Matera

Matera

The entire area is built on hills, and we walked everywhere, so it was quite tiring given that it was so hot and difficult to find any shade. We wisely left my parents at home, my mother would have never made it past the first church. The area is very interesting, there we great things to see and yes, this place is old!!

Another day trip in Southern Italy brought us to Santa Maria de Leuca. This area is at the southern most tip of Italy and is also called “the end of the Earth” by some. My parents came along for the ride on this one, about a 2 1/2 hr drive. My mother had never been there, but my dad had, albeit over 60 years ago! We explored some of the sites including the sanctuary, the lighthouse, harbor and of course the sea views. I’ve heard ravings about this area from my cousins who insisted I visit, but quite frankly I’ve seen much more beauty in other areas of Italy. Definitely not a do over and don’t go out of your way.

Now finally the highlight of our trip, the Mediterranean cruise; 7 nights on the MSC Musica.  Below is a copy of our Itinerary, keeping in mind that my point for booking this was 1) so my parents could see Greece, and 2) the departing port was Bari, which is a 1/2 hrs. from home.  Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 8.30.06 PMChris and I had been to Athens and Santorini before, but were were excited to see these islands again as well as a few new islands we had not visited previously.

DAY 1 BARI, ITALY boarding, getting settled and exploring the cruise line.

DAY 2, KATAKOLON (OLYMPIA), My parents and I had visited here before. Sadly, the ruins were really difficult to appreciate, there is very little left and the primary focus is shopping, so we didn’t want to visit again. We opted to go sit at the beach instead of going to olympia and it was a good decision. Such a beautiful beach, calm waters, crystal blue, soft sands, loved it!! Nice relaxing day.

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Santorini

DAY 3 SANTORINI, I was so excited for my parents to see Santorini! Chris and I spent a few days there 2 years ago and we just fell in love with it. We also loved having the opportunity to go back. Here’s the kicker, when on a ship in Santorini, you must get tendered off to the Island. When on a LARGE cruise ship, tender = LONG WAIT TIMES. It took us over 1.5 hrs to get tendered off, then when we finally did, there was a 1.5 hr long wait for the elevator (Santorini is on a hill), there is no way my parents could walk up, so we had to wait. We just used up almost 3 hrs of our 6 hrs on the Island. I was NOT happy. When we finally made it up, my parents hung around near the shops (close to the elevator) since they would need at least a 1/2 hr to get back down due to the crowds. Chris and I explored a bit and then later walked down the mule path and then tendered back to the boat. Our immediate next stop was Mykonos, and we never got off the boat. The only tours available were bar stops and dinners (it was late evening) and everything else was closed. I would rather spent a few more hrs. in Santorini.

DAY 4 PIRAEUS (ATHENS) We had been here before and wanted to explore some different areas. I set up my parents with a bus tour that would take them around the city, and to the Parthenon. There was minimal walking, but plenty of sites, so I thought it would work well. Here is where things fell apart a bit. Chris and I were off on a different tour, it was very much a walking intensive tour and we went to places in Athens that we did not get to see before as well as some familiar popular sites. As such, I didn’t think this would be a good option for my parents.

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Athens

We make it back to the boat and my mother is laying down, not feeling well. My dad is not speaking to anyone and off alone on the boat somewhere. What happened? My dad decided that the tour was not going where he wanted it to go and walked off, leaving my mom waiting by the bus. At the time of departure, he was no where to be found. After a long wait and delay of the entire tour group, the bus driver asked my mom to board the bus as they planed to leave without him. My mother refused and sat on the front of the bus hysterical and refusing to move, finally my dad reappeared with video camera in hand, pleased with his adventures, oblivious to what he had done and how he was nearly left to become a resident of Greece! My mother is hysterical yelling and scramming at him and everyone else on the bus was naturally very annoyed with him.

DAY 5 CORFU (GREECE) 

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Corfu Greece

We signed up for a guided Jeep tour on Corfu and it was fantastic. Not only were we able to see so much of the island by driving around and experiencing  some awesome scenic views, I was able to keep my parents contained in the back seat of the Jeep most of the time, so we had no issues!🙂 It was fun, part of the tour included lunch, where we saw a traditional Greek dance and also had some great scenic photos taken. Afterward, we were able to spend a bit of time at the local beach. The water was cool and refreshing on a very hot day!

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Dubrovnik Croatia

DAY 6 DUBROVNIK CROATIA Croatia is a beautiful country and I would like to explore other areas of it someday, namely Split. However, our cruise stopped in Dubrovnik which my parents and I have been to before, we didn’t book a tour since the main part of the town is walking distance right off the boat; we were just fine walking around on our own. My parents didn’t do much walking, they got off the boat but were content to sit at a nearby cafe and hang out with a small nearby walk for refreshments. Chris wanted to explore, so he and I went off on a short walk around town. It’s a nice little town but entirely too touristy and very much focused on the “boat people”,  even a bottle of water was 5 euros. After exploring the town, we went to a small island to swim and hang on the beach until we were tendered back onto the boat for dinner and our next stop.

DAY 7 VENICE ITALY Ah Venezia! This was mine and my parents 3rd trip back to Venice, but Chris had not been here before so he was pretty excited about exploring the waterways and canals.

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Venice Italy

My parents stayed on the boat, they wanted to relax rather than explore so they were content to sit this one out (i’m thinking my mother was no longer willing or trusting my dad to stay in her line of site). Chris and I signed up for a gondola tour, which was fun but crowded since we had to share it with 4 other people. St. Mark’s square was alive with people as were most of the walkways and shops. Venice is becoming way to crowded, the canals are smelly and the prices outrageous. It loses its charm for me each time I visit. Chris found the canals and construction fascinating, but likely not somewhere where he is interested in visiting again.

DAY 8 BARI ITALY back home at the parents house in Bari and desperately needing some alone time! Happy to be able to go for a run next to the Sea and have some quite time. Reflecting back on the cruise, we really didn’t like MSC cruise line. The food was not very good at all, and the service was mediocre. They seemed to be very disorganized on tenders and as I mentioned above, the wait times were extremely long. The tours we took were nice, so we had no issues with those. In general, we have decided to swear off large cruises for a long time. We really prefer to venture off on our own and have time to explore the sites on our own terms. Larger cruise lines just don’t seem to offer enough flexibility to really explore the port/area and the offshore excursions become so focused on SHOPPING that the experience becomes quite disappointing. Although, for people like my parents cruising can be a nice way to explore different countries with minimal planning or fear of getting lost, renting a car, driving around, etc. Unless of course, you don’t listen to the tour guide and can potentially end up getting left behind!

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Puerto Rico 2011

September 2011, Chris and I decided we needed to get away and chill (somewhere warm). We had no desire to return to Mexico, so we searched for something with a direct flight out of Chicago and short travel time since we only had about 5 days to spare. We decided on Puerto Rico! We have not been here before, so we had no idea what to expect only that we insisted on having a nearby beach and warm weather. We got both!

We flew into San Juan, PR and rented a car, anxious to get out of the city. The guest house we were staying at was located on the east side of the Island in Humacao, about 1 hr drive from the airport, called Barefoot Travelers. It was a 2 story home and the first level was our rental home. The space had three rooms with 2 bathrooms, which could be shared with other travelers. Since we were the only ones there, we got full use of the house and the back yard pool. Our hosts, Bob and Kieshya were very accommodating and helpful with restaurant suggestions and directions. They also have optional kayak and snorkel tours to Monkey Island as well as hang gliding rides!!

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chris 015The house was within walking distance to the Caribbean seaside with a wonderful clean, quiet beach which also had a few palm trees for shade. We spent quite a few days just lounging on the beach, kayaking (our host let us use the Kayaks free of charge), and also went hiking in the nearby rainforest. We did take advantage of the Monkey Island tour, so we spent one long afternoon kayaking the sea and visiting Monkeys. Surprisingly, the water was not deep, so at a few points I actually got out of the kayak and stood up! On the way back, Chris managed to flip our kayak over about 3 different times, one of which wet my camera rendering it completely useless. I was at the point where I was ready for him to swim back because we were struggling so much in the kayak and then we realized that the kayak had a hole and was filling with water causing us to become unbalanced! UGH. So, I had to apologize to Chris for yelling at him! We managed to get back to shore and Bob and Keishya were apologizing profusely for the kayak issue, they later gave us a decent credit for the cost of our trip, which I thought was very nice of them. All in all, it was a very nice time!

We also took a hiking trip to El Yunkue National Forest. Spent the afternoon hiking in this rainforest and admiring a few of the waterfalls found nearby.  The total hike was about 2.5 miles up to the peak, stopping at the MT. Britton tower for a snack and photos and then climbing to the El Yunkue peak. DSC_0293There were some very beautiful views once we reached both he tower and peak, but the hike itself was very uneventful.  I was hoping for more views, flowers, birds, animals but really didn’t see much. When we left the rain forest, we set off to find a late lunch/dinner and stopped in Luquillo to locate the Kioscos. Keishya suggested a certain # Kiosko restaurant, but I can’t for the life of me remember which one it was. Our first impression of this place was not positive. The Kioscos are all lined up and sitting right next to the beach with open front garage style doors (street view) and back (beach view).  We first took a walk on the beach and it was dirty, litter everywhere, bottles and bags. It was quite sad as I would assume this to be a very nice beach otherwise. We begrudgingly set out to locate the Kioscos that was recommend and hoped for the best (we were starving). We found it, sat down, orderer our food and…guess what? We had the best meal of the entire trip! Just LOVED the food, it was excellent. We could not believe how good it was. I was excited to tell our host about our experience in Luquillo with the food!

I did not research this trip before we set off, other than finding a place to stay and getting a car, so we identified a few other items that we wanted to to, such as visiting the island of Culebra and the Bioluminescent Bay. After our visit to Luquillo, we attempted to find the boat doc that offers transfers, but ended up getting lost and getting back to our room quite late. Since our days were limited, we opted to spend the next day on the beach near the house just hanging out rather than set off on another road trip adventure, basically we got lazy. I’ll have to leave those items for our next trip!

It was a nice relaxing trip, exactly what we needed. A quick, warm, cheap get away!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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