Route 66: Sunsets and Optimism

For many people I know, missing the sunset on Santa Monica pier would have been a sad start to a vacation. I know people who are so attached to their plans, that a missed event throws their moods into a tail spin. I am NOT one of those people.

I find it easy to spot the silver lining in almost every situation. Yep, I’m an optimist.
Before we headed out on our Route 66 Adventure, I had spent months researching the route, choosing the perfect book with the best directions, deciding what sites were essential and which we could bypass if we ran out of time, and many more details. 20170430_142441

I had lists sorted by states and further sorted by our schedule. The EZ 66 Guide was safely packed in my suitcase before I even loaded my clothes. A folder I had created with day-by-day guides was also packed in a safe place.

We arrived in California, got everything done we needed to do to set off on our adventure and, horror of horrors – NO lists of sites to see. NO day-by-day tips! OH NO! I had taken out some of the information to add some last-minute updates and forgot to repack them.

IMG_7386.JPGI discovered this on the morning we were due to set out on our cross-country odyssey. The night before I had missed the sunset and now I was missing a whole slew of pages of stuff I had spent months researching. It’s enough to throw everything off kilter – or not. We still had the EZ 66 Guide. We still had additional maps.

We decided to make the most of it and make the whole trip more spontaneous. In fact, we could turn it around. We created a new plan as we drove east. We would try to catch some sunsets along the way to make up for missing the one off the California coast. We would ask people we encountered along the way for their favorite spots. We would be even more adventurous!

In the end, we spent two weeks having a blast. We stopped when we saw anything that caught our eye. We managed to take in sunsets in the rear view in Arizona, from our hotel room in New Mexico, across fields in Texas and Kansas. We met loads of new “friends” from the road.

Adventure demands flexibility and adaptation.  There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored … join us as we share this little piece of it.

O is for Orseolo

IMG_5967The best part of having your own plan to see the world is being able to make it fit your personal wishes. That was especially true of the “O” trip. Greg and I wanted to go somewhere romantic, European and hopefully Italian. Neither of us had ever been to Venice (well, to be fair, I spent a few hours there on a day trip once about 25 years ago), so we were looking to head to the “City of Bridges.”

IMG_5952It turns out one of the doges credited with founding the city was Pietro I Orseolo. In fact, there is a small section of the city named for him. So … “O is for Orseolo.”
To make it even more legit, we stayed at Locanda Orseolo, a fabulous boutique inn just a block and a half off St. Mark’s Square.

I knew that a trip to Venice at the end of February was a weather risk, but what the heck, you can’t make the weather, but you can adjust to it. So we packed rain stuff and enough to keep warm if it got a little cold and headed east.

We arrived in the rain … but found our hotel easily thanks to the picture perfect directions provided by the staff. What a gem of a hotel! It totally pays to do your research, read reviews and decide what you really want. We wanted small, close to the center of the city and very Venetian. We got exactly what we wanted!

Tired from travel and feeling a little jet lagged, we asked about a place close by to grab a quick, simple dinner and wandered a few tiny alleys, crossing over a couple of bridges to a small ristorante. WOW! Trust your hotel staff for their recommendations. We had incredible fresh seafood, perfect Italian wine and delightful ambiance.

IMG_6036Exhausted and full, we climbed the three flights of stairs to the Gianduja room and slept under a soft, fluffy comforter awaking to the forecast for another gray, rainy Venetian day. It was, indeed, gray, but the rain was holding off so we jumped onto a vaporetto (Venetian buses are boats!) and headed for the island of Murano to see how the famous glass is made and wander through the shops in search of a real Murano glass souvenir.

IMG_5722The glass museum posted notices that pictures are not permitted, but it’s worth a visit before you hit the shops. You learn about the island’s history and techniques used to produce the myriad of pieces you’ll see – everything from lamps and chandeliers to earrings and cufflinks. One shop sported an incredible selection of insects made of glass; another was brightly lit with ornate chandeliers. Snapping a few shots of the scenes and shopping left us craving lunch, so we stopped into a little restaurant and grabbed something to warm up after spending the morning walking around in the cool dampness of the day.

It was a quiet afternoon of wandering and sightseeing before a classically touristy dinner in a restaurant right on the main tourist street. Be aware – we ate at a place on the tourist street because we wanted to know just how “authentic” it was. After the previous night’s dinner, it was clear the “real Italian food” the man out front suggested we would get was much closer to Olive Garden or Chef Boyardee. We got exactly what we were looking for – campy, mediocre tourist food. The lesson here is: go off the beaten track. Find a place with a bit of a crowd speaking the local language. That’s where the good food is!

IMG_5779We’d scheduled a food tour for Monday mid-day and met Francesca at one of the dozens of churches in the center of Venice along with the other three people who would be taking the tour with us. We met a pair of sisters from England and a single mom from Berkeley, California and headed out to learn about Venice, Italian wines and something called ciccheti (the Italian word for tapas).  What fun! The sun flirted with us and the rain held off as we weaved our way through passageways to four different bars to try the flavors of Venice. IMG_5766We wandered past the fruit and vegetable market and marveled at the huge purple artichokes and pink cabbage. The tour was over too soon. We decided to continue on our own, discovering more hidden treasures in a city known for its challenging layout.

Tuesday we took a side trip to Florence, which left Wednesday for us to see and do everything we had missed earlier. We declared a photo day and headed out to see what incredible views we could find as the sun blazed brightly for the first time during our visit.

We snapped pics of little churches on hidden piazzas, gondolas gliding along the canals, architectural oddities and sights familiar to anyone who’s ever seen images of the famous Venetian landmarks. We grabbed a pizza in a little pizzeria tucked into an alley in the “artists” section of the city. IMG_5832We snapped a shot of a father and his daughter walking near a church. We found the scene depicted in a painting we have in our home and tried to recreate it in a photograph.

Thursday came all-to-soon and we packed our belongings and made our way back to the airport (once again in the rain) for the flight home.IMG_5970

Venice lives up to its reputation as a charming, romantic city with great food and a fascinating culture unique to a city with no roads, just waterways. If you get a chance, this is one of those places you should try to see. Despite its fame, you can still soak up the culture without being assaulted by “tourist traps,” although there are places that define the phrase.IMG_5808

So what are you waiting for? Book a flight, pack your bags and go! Even if it’s not Venice, there’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored.

Pied-à-Terre

Literally, pied-à-terre is French for “a foot on the ground,” but Wikipedia says the phrase implies usage as a temporary second residence (but not a vacation home), either for part of the year or part of the work week, by a reasonably wealthy person.IMG_6146

I’d love to say I am “reasonably” wealthy, but my husband and I are just a typical professional couple doing our jobs and living for our next trip to anywhere. So when we finally bought a home together, we decided to think of it as a pied-à-terre. It’s where we live while we save up and plan our next getaway.

IMG_6149Of course, our home is where we live MOST of the time. It’s where we spend the work weeks and every weekend we can’t get away to somewhere. So it really is a permanent home, not a temporary second residence. That said, walking around it, we hope our visitors get a sense of our desire to see the world. We decorated it with maps and globes and compass roses that evoke travel.

IMG_6147The walls are canvases where we showcase images we have captured on our vacations. The food we serve to our guests gives an insight into the flavors we’ve discovered in hidden corners of cities and towns across the globe.

Like many homes we’ve seen in other countries, we decided ours should have more than an address so we named it “Contrail’s End.” The name, carefully chosen, speaks to our love of flying and the place where we are when we land. To us, it says “home.”

We are always learning and exploring wherever we are. That includes our hometown. Just last week we learned that a new poll says ours is the “Best Downtown in America” and we agree. IMG_4706Not only is our town walkable, there is so much to see and do. It’s full of interesting architecture, museums, restaurants, bars, shops and more. Not only that, but our little neighborhood is like the neighborhoods of my youth. Young couples hang out and chat while their children play on the cul-de-sacs. Slightly older kids ride their bikes and scooters along the paths that encircle the neighborhood, winding their way to a huge city park nearby. Friends and strangers smile and exchange hellos as they wander those same pathways, some with dogs happily trotting along.

It’s all a lesson. Live where you want to be. Find a place to call home, but use it as a jumping off point to see the world. There’s a great big world out there just waiting to be explored.

Prague Part 2 – And now, for something completely different…

Before we even got to Prague, we knew that we needed to go to the Prague Castle.  There it was outside our airplane window on our approach to the airport, sitting on top of a ridge overlooking the entire city.  As we got out of our taxi at the hotel, there it was above us, urging us to visit.  We just had to see it.

IMG_5291When we first arrived at our hotel, the clerks provided a list of tours offered by licensed, local guides.  So we jumped at the chance to take a tour of the castle with a personal guide and booked a three-hour walking tour (“a three-hour tour” … you’ll thank us later for that ear worm) for the following day.

We came downstairs bright and early where Eva was waiting for us. She offered us a choice: walk and enjoy the views or head straight for the castle and tour the inside. We chose the walk and started our trek up the hill. Young and vibrant, Eva talked while Judy and I huffed and puffed our way up the steep incline.  She pointed out the many type types of architecture in Prague, ranging from Gothic to Baroque to Renaissance.  We found out she was an architect, which fed the inner wanna-be-architect in me.  Our first stop was the Strahov Monastery, which afforded wonderful views of the river and the old city beyond, despite the gloomy gray skies.  IMG_5182

Next we walked past the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, through a charming neighborhood that included the smallest house in Prague, onto the expansive grounds of the castle.
Avoiding the crowds gathering for the palace’s changing of the guard, we ducked through a side entrance into the main square outside the cathedral.  Eva pointed out the rich history of the classic Gothic church.

Remembering a cartoon book I read in my early teens about the building of the Notre Dame Cathedral, I relished in the intricacies of the flying buttresses and gargoyles, and was amazed to learn that while originally planned in the 13th Century, the Cathedral wasn’t fully finished until the mid-20th Century! IMG_5209You could even see the differences in the stones through the ages. We continued down the hill through Prague’s oldest vineyard, bidding Eva goodbye right where – and exactly three hours after – we started.  All-in-all, it was a great introduction to Prague history and architecture from someone who really knew her stuff and was incredibly charming. Starved, we had a late lunch at a riverside restaurant Eva had recommended just as it started to rain.

The following day, after a morning stroll in the old town, it was time to pamper ourselves.  We took full advantage of the Ecsotica Spa at our hotel, the Alchymist, having booked their “Fairytale Afternoon” spa and dinner package.  Descending the steps into the grotto-like spa, the receptionist gave us each a glass of prosecco while she told us about the spa and its features on a brief tour.  We enjoyed a swim in the underground pool and a cleansing private sauna.  ecsotica spaThen, we were led to inner sanctum of the spa for our 90-minute couples’ massage.  Judy and I are huge fans of massage therapy, having learned the value of a good, relaxing time at the hands of a professional muscle manipulator, but this was something completely different.  For one, the room’s décor was in the manner of old Bali, with ancient looking teak massage tables, tropical flowers and heady aromas. Our massages were traditional Balinese deep tissue rub downs; at one point, the therapists even climbed up on the tables to ensure they applied appropriate pressure on our backs!  Too soon, however, the massages were done, and we had about 30 minutes before our dinner reservation that was part of the “Fairytale Afternoon” package.  We returned to our rooms to shower and dress, and then headed downstairs.

Up until this point, we had only eaten breakfast at the hotel.  But the hotel restaurant was fantastic!  The package included an excellent three-course meal with wine and an after-dinner drink.  The food was incredible and the service impeccable.  We laughed and smiled as we enjoyed each other’s company, and quietly dished about the other restaurant patrons.

IMG_5243The next day, Thursday, we were up early to get some pictures and make our way to another kind of spa experience.  Thursday was the coldest day of our visit, but also the clearest, so we walked down to the river and got some excellent shots in a park and along the waterfront.
From there it was just a few short blocks to Spa Beerland, Prague’s Number One Beer Spa.

Wait…what?  The American couple who joined us on our food tour had told us about this unique experience and we had to try it out.  Once again, spa itself was downstairs in a very private room for our one-hour experience.  The hour-long package included 25-minutes in a beer-hops-and-malt-filled hot tub, a sauna followed by a very brisk cold-water shower, and time to relax on a straw bed while eating fresh beer bread.  Of course, unlimited beer flowed from taps in the room so you could drink beer to your heart’s – or stomach’s – content. IMG_5258 The receptionist told us the beer bath is very good for the skin and metabolism.  I cannot vouch for that, but I can tell you that the experience is nothing like we’ve ever experienced before and completely worth the price of admission (which was still quite affordable). We paid for the deluxe package that included the larger of the rooms…big enough for a small party with its three hot tubs and spacious straw bed for relaxing. I’ll let your mind wander from there…

Back to reality, we had one other quest to fulfill on our Prague adventure.  The Czech Republic is known for its crystal, and we had come with our minds set on buying crystal aperitif glasses to round-out our wide-ranging bar collection.  We had shopped dozens of stores and finally found a set we liked.  It was time to break out our credit card and make our purchase… The clerk very carefully wrapped each piece in layers of bubble wrap and boxed up our find.  Having fully met our Prague goals, we made our way back to the hotel to pack for our return flight. We were ready to come home, but certain that Prague is one of those places worth a second visit.

Epilogue

If there’s one thing we’ve come to count on in our travels, it is German efficiency.  Trains and planes run on time.  So we were quite a bit surprised when our flight from Prague departed late.  We had a tight connection in Frankfurt, but one that Lufthansa said was well within their window of acceptability.  We RAN nearly across the entire Frankfurt airport to catch our connection to Dulles, only to be loaded onto a bus that took us to our plane located mere steps from the flight we just got off! Apparently, there was a last minute “equipment” change that necessitated the histrionics.  The good news is that we made our flight and enjoyed an uneventful ride home. The bad news is that our bags did not arrive with us.  Since, thanks to Global Entry, we breezed through U.S. Customs and Border Protection, we were early to baggage claim. We were surprised to hear my name announced over the PA system with a request to see the Lufthansa rep. Judys bag damageHe let me know our bags were delayed, would arrive the next day and be delivered to our home. This was GREAT customer service in my view…we didn’t have to wait until all the bags came down the carousel before realizing that ours didn’t make it.
We grabbed a cab for the ride home. The adventure continued when the brand-new hard-sided composite bags were delivered the next day. They were BOTH broken.  To say we were a bit miffed is an understatement.  All’s well that ends well, however.  Judy contacted Lufthansa and after a few quick weeks, we had a full refund for the cost of our bags.

The moral of this story…when traveling, stuff happens.  But it’s no use ruining a trip just because your bags don’t make it or you miss a connection.  Roll with the punches, be firm but nice with the folks trying to help, and let things work themselves out.

There’s a whole world out there, just waiting to be explored.  Isn’t it time you booked a trip?

 

 

Diversion: Key West – a warm winter weekend

KeysPoles (1) A recent trip is proof that good advertising works.   A series of attractive and funny poster-sized ads promoting the Florida Keys splattered throughout one of the Washington Metro system’s busiest stations caught Greg’s eye as the weather turned frigid.  With headlines like “Strong response to the latest poles” while showing fishermen casting their lines in azure seas, the campaign mocked DC in winter. We’re big fans of Key West and try to get down once a year, but when we spotted the posters, we realized it had been 14 months since we were there last – getting married. We took the bait – hook, line, and sinker.

blizzard

To say we were “jones-ing for some down-island time” is something of an understatement. We were still reeling from almost two feet of snow from a recent blizzard; the forecast was calling for single digits over the weekend.  I got home, popped online and checked to see if it was possible to get any deals for the looming three-day weekend. “Deals” is such a subjective word. Two round-trip tickets at the last-minute on a holiday weekend … let’s just say with patience and hard work, it is possible to find “deals” online. A quick e-mail to Susie at the world’s BEST travel agency, Key West Key Inc,  secured us a room for two nights.

two drinks on the bar

One of the best things about Key West is the laid-back vibe. You really don’t NEED to do anything other than eat … and there are plenty of places to do that.
We landed about noon, checked in to our room and checked out of our stress.airplane bar - long shot.jpg First stop – a nice, icy, tropical adult beverage.

After all … this is Jimmy Buffet country and “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere” is a state of mind.  We wandered to Kelly’s Caribbean Bar & Grill Brewery where I’d found out the bar was made to resemble an airplane wing.

IMG_5596.JPG

 

I wanted to take in the daily tradition of watching the sunset on Mallory Square.  So we followed the crowds to the edge of the pier where we caught the act of a unicycling, comedian named Juggling Jase just as the day faded.

A hundred-or-so steps away and we bellied up to the bar at the iconic Sloppy Joes for a frosty chilled beer as we toasted the warmth and posted a status update on Facebook to tease our friends back home who were bundled against temps in the low teens while we were wearing shorts and short sleeves.

Carols Art purchase Our only full day included a must-see exhibit at a local art gallery, KEPart,  where a friend (and our wedding photographer) had a showing of some special, layered photographs. We fell in love with one and managed to get the first printing of a limited run.

Next it was time for a little more destination-free wandering before the laziness of the day took hold of us and we plopped onto lounge chairs by the hotel pool to soak up some sun and read books borrowed from a lending library with a view of a perfect blue sky through the trees.  view through the trees

A laugh-filled dinner with friends inspired great conversation to cap off a perfect day.

The next morning the bright, tropical sun blasted through the palm trees outside our room. It was time to slip on the flip flops and see the sights. Despite repeated visits here, we’d never taken the “Conch Train” tour and since everyone seems to recommend it, we figured now was as good a time as any. I grabbed my camera and we snagged the back seats on the open-air “train” for an hour-and-a-half narrated tour of the southernmost city in the US.

We passed gorgeous little houses, funky little sights and a couple of historic attractions before hopping off the train for a slow walk down iconic Duval Street. IMG_5702.JPGTummies rumbling, we came upon a hidden gem of an Italian place we had been before. Wood-fired pizzas are a specialty at Onlywood, but we opted for pasta and savored the flavors as we watched a tiny lizard sunning itself on a nearby leaf.

The day began to wind down as we headed for the airport for our flight home – rested, relaxed, rejuvenated. Visits to the Keys always seem to take away all your stress and leave you wanting more. If you get a chance … you should find a way to go there. After all, there’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored.

Diversion: Take the Upgrade

What do you do with an extra week of vacation? I recently reached a milestone work anniversary and now earn an extra week of vacation every year. Greg is a few years behind me, so that leaves me with a week to use that he doesn’t have. The trouble is, I really prefer traveling with him. In fact, since we’ve been together, I just don’t even want to travel alone anymore like I used to because Greg is so much fun. So when I found out he had to go to New Orleans for a week for a conference, why not spend that extra week in the Big Easy? While he’s listening to keynotes and participating in plenaries, I can spend a week exploring the sights, sounds and flavors of the town.  At night, I can even swing a couple of dinners at a jazz club with my husband instead of staying home alone.

Why am I telling you this? Well … sometimes a trip like this deserves an upgrade. Looking forward to a whole week of relaxation and fun, why not spend the cost of a nice meal to give yourself a treat? I mean, who among us hasn’t walked onto a flight envying those comfy, beverage-wielding passengers looking all relaxed and polished in their front-of-the-plane seats while we shuffle back to coach to cram into a seat that leaves us shoulder to shoulder with our seat mates? As we checked in online for our flight, the airline offered a First Class upgrade for just $90.  We had to spend $25 each anyway to check a bag, so the upgrade was really only going to cost $65 because it included those checked bags.

I could hear my dad’s voice in my head. When I was young, he always used to joke, “It only costs a nickle more to go first class.” For the cost of a decent pair of shoes, we could enjoy a complimentary breakfast served on china, drinks in glass, loads of leg room, and bags checked with priority delivery when we landed. For a three-hour ride, the leg room alone might be worth it. We got to the airport the next morning, cruised onto the flight with the first boarding group and ordered a pre-flight drink. This vacation (well, a vacation for me anyway) was starting out with a little bit of extravagance.

Sometimes we all deserve a little treat …especially when heading off to check out some new destination.

After all … there’s a whole world world out there just waiting to be explored, why not go see it in style?

N is for Nürnberg

Christmas in Germany is magical, at least for me. The Germans are the best at Christmas markets and somehow walking around a market square sipping gluhwein and shopping for seasonal specialties feels very Christmas-y.with gluhwein

That’s why we decided to head to Nürnberg for the “N” trip. The Christmas market there is known around the world and the idea of spending a piece of the season in Bavaria evokes thoughts of snow and gingerbread and sounds of “O Tannenbaum” ringing in my head.red ornaments

Sure enough, the sights and sounds of the season did not disappoint us. Our boutique hotel just two blocks from the world-famous Kristkindl Markt was an easy train ride from Munich and a 10 minute taxi ride from the Bahnhof in Nürnberg.

cathedral

 

We arrived just in time to get checked in, change and refresh and head out to the market where the medieval atmosphere and architecture added to the festive spirit in the air.aisle markersThe main Christmas market is row upon row of classic German gifts and treats.

wooden ornamentsThere are ornately carved wooden ornaments.

gingerbread heartNürnberger gingerbread hearts hang from stalls and offer greetings.

Some of the stalls showed off unique items …like the Nürnberg angels …nurnberg angels

angela twist on the classic German angel Christmas tree topper.

window box

 

Window boxes, filled with brightly colored flowers much of the year, are filled with greenery and ornaments.

 

 

 

night market

Daytime in the market is festive enough, but when the sun sets, the lights go on and the entire market square is illuminated for the holidays.

 

 

reflected bridge

 

But Nürnberg is more than just the Christmas market. The city really is ancient.

 

 

medieval reflection

 

The river that runs through the town is crisscrossed by charming walking bridges reflected on the still,
gently flowing water and dotted with charming views that transport you back to ancient times.

grilling bratsWhen it’s time for a break … there’s nothing better than a German bratwurst … hot off the grill. brat and pretzel sandwichThat is unless you opt for another German delight … the pretzel sandwich (in my case stuffed with ham, cheese and German pickles.)

I rave a little about Germany. Living there as a teenager has always given me a bit of comfort about traveling throughout the country. I feel a bit at home there.  That’s a lot of what draws me there during the holidays, but it’s a beautiful country year round. If you get a chance, go and visit. Drink a beer. Eat a bratwurst. Sample the culture. Remember, there’s a whole world out there. Go see it.