Czech Republic. Italy. Spain. Portugal. Croatia. Slovenia. Hungary. Poland. Austria. Germany. Greece. Thailand. Australia. Tanzania. Zanzibar. Malawi. Zambia. Zimbabwe. France. Monaco. Colombia. Cambodia. Vietnam. Laos. Myanmar. Cuba. Mexico City. New Zealand. Banff. Japan. Netherlands. Scotland. England. Chile. The journey continues..

Monday, January 29, 2018

Adventuring In Chilean Patagonia

Patagonia has been on my list of destinations for quite awhile. Last April, I mentioned to Steve that I think maybe Patagonia is what I’d want to do for my 40th! A week later our flights were booked! I had a choice of connecting either through Miami or New York to Santiago. I chose Miami as I didn’t want to roll the dice on a New York connection in January. It turned out to be a good strategy as we checked in for our flights at SFO, the woman next to us connecting to Lima through New York was throwing a fit because her flight was delayed. Getting to Torres Del Paine took a bit of effort. We flew from San Francisco to Miami to Santiago to Puerto Natales. Not too long ago, to get to Torres Del Paine, you had to fly into Puerto Arenas which is theee hours south of Puerto Natales and five hours to the park. They recently opened up Puerto Natales to commercial flights a handful of times a week. It’s a small airport with one baggage claim inside a modern newly built bungalow. After 20+ hours of travel time, we arrived to a rainy PNT!


The rental car. I’ve  found that when renting a car in a foreign country, Expedia.com was the best source with the better prices. We dropped our bags off at the lodge and walked down a few blocks to Europcar for our reserved Mazda 5. When we arrived, there was a room full of travelers waiting for their car. I was fixated on ALL the luggage they brought. No joke, 3 bags each! What do they put in them?! Since traveling together, I’ve converted Steve to carryon. Anyways, I handed the rental guy my international driving permit which I got got from AAA back home and was pleasantly surprised when the car rental guy said he upgraded us to a Subaru Forester. I was unpleasantly surprised when I looked at the bill and saw that it wasn’t a free upgrade. I had to sign a few extra forms because I was declining their rental accident waiver insurance. He made it known that he didn’t think it’d be a good idea because of the roads but I had rental waiver insurance through my Chase Reserve, so I was covered either way. We did the car walk through pointing out every ding and scratch on the car before taking it off the lot. When we returned it, it was pretty much covered in mud. You wouldn’t even be able to tell if there were new scratches on it! “Oh, very dirty!” was the comment when we returned it!
The roads. We got up early the next morning and was on the road by 7am. Google maps said 1.5 hours to our hotel for the bag drop so we can make the 9am catamaran. Google maps did not know about the road closures so we were rerouted which added another 30 minutes to our drive. As I was driving along, I realized all the eyebrows I was getting from rental guy. Once you’re out of the town, the roads are unpaved, they’re full on gravel with potholes and they’re narrow for two way traffic lanes. I only fishtailed once as I took an edge too closely. Mid drive, I had to tell Steve that he had to be nervous silently. It wasn’t helping the zen mode I had to keep myself in. So, my tip on driving in Torres Del Paine, get an AWD vehicle otherwise your wheels might fall off and perhaps the insurance if you’re not covered by your credit card company for peace of mind as my heart rate spiked with every rock that hit the car and every oncoming local driver or tour bus!

Torres Del Paine. First of all, toilet paper in the toilet is a big no-no in the park and surrounding areas of the park. The area doesn’t have a sewage plant but they do have a sewage treatment system and toilet paper would interfere with that. Onto the hikes itself! I looked at all different ways of tackling Torres Del Paine. Did we want to do the full W trek? Did we want to camp all those nights? How did we want to split our time?! After some reading and research, I decided on the two hikes that was our must do. The hike up the French Valley which is the middle stick of the W and the base of Las Torres hike which is the last stick of the W. To do the French Valley hike, we had to secure a campsite and the reason we had to make the 9am catamaran. More on the campsite later. The French Valley hike did not disappoint! It’s windy, it’s uphill, the views of the glacier covered mountains in front with the glacier lakes behind. The French Valley trail is a busy one because most people start the hike at the same time pending the catamaran arrival. We hiked up then back down to Camp Frances. The French Valley hike can be done as a day trip, however, we were told at the hotel that some people got denied entry because they didn’t have a campsite reserved. I suppose the park is trying to crackdown on illegal camping due to fires started by irresponsible tourism. The Las Torres hike is the highlight of the park. Most tour groups leave the hotels at 730am, we decided to leave at 7am to beat the crowd. We made the 11.5 miles in about 6:45hours. I was mentally prepared for an eight hour hike so I was stoked that it didn’t take that long. The first hour is all uphill and rough but it’s the beginning so you’re stoked! Hours 2-2:45 are manageable peaks and valleys. The last 40 or so minutes is a windy rock climbing stinger to get up to the base of the Torres. I was reminded of how out of cardio shape I was! Once we got up to the base, it was breathtaking! It was quiet, the sun was starting to warm, we took a nap and marveled at the natural beauty. As we made our way down, a lot of folks were making their way up. The sun was heating up now and it would be our first day in the park that we actually felt heat! The return hike is pretty hard on the knees and the beginning of the last hour is a killer uphill punctuated by bees and flies wanting to sting you if you’re a female and it’s that time of the month. We wanted to see Glacier Grey which is the first stick of the W. We wanted to get up and close to it so we boarded an excursion boat. The glaciers up close are stunning and massive. It’s hard to think that we are only seeing a tiny portion, 4%, of what it used to be. 

The lodging. My lodging strategy was that it’d get better as the trip went on. Our first night in Puerto Natales, we stayed at a lodge in town that was basically an ensuite tent with drywall to enclose it. I will not be recommending that place even though the staff was all so kind! Our next lodging set up was a premium platform tent at Camp Frances. I emailed Fantastic Sur to reserve this campsite in April. I didn’t get a first response back until June. June! I had almost forgotten about it by then. We were confirmed by July. Premium platform is an option that is new. It includes a comfy sleeping pad and a very warm sleeping bag in these new Marmot tents! Hot showers were an option from 6-10pm. We chose the full board option so we didn’t have to worry about meals. After camping, we checked into the Rio Serrano hotel. There are many options for areas to stay at in the park and I chose this one because the hotel had space. It turned out to the better choice as we were in the middle of any direction we needed to travel to. I was REALLY close to booking the Instagram famous domed Ecocamp Patagonia ones but it was way too costly. As we drove through the park and past the domes, it turned out to be a smart choice. For nearly $1k a night, you don’t even get view of the infamous mountain peaks! Our last hotel stop would be back in Puerto Natales at the Simple Patagonia Hotel. The hotel has been opened for a year and if just about as perfect as it can be to end a trip. If this was perched on a hillside in Big Sur, it’s easily be $1k a night but in Chilean Patagonia, this 11 room gem costs $225. The decor, the simplicity, the peace you feel watching the sea and grass move in the wind is pretty much on point. 

Part of the planning process was to book a tour or not book a tour. I opted to not book a tour mainly because I like being on my own time. Aside from that, tours are expensive! I suppose companies have to make a profit. When we calculated what we’ve spent, we concluded that it was half of what we’d spend had we gone with a group. Besides, part of the adventure is the planning, the research and the surprises along the way. Prior to coming here, I knew the park would be spectacular. The hikes would bring pretty epic experiences but what I didn’t expect was the simplistic beauty of the architecture in this region. The Chilean people have all been so helpful and we will miss it here. Adventuring through Patagonia at 40 with my hubs is an adventure for the books!

Monday, September 11, 2017

13 Years Later ...Lake Como!

Seven train rides later from Murren and we made it to the town of Varenna in Lake Como. The last time I was in Italy, it was October 2004 and I was on my first solo trip abroad. Lake Como was on my list but I thought it'd be too romantic of a place to go solo, so I skipped it but it was always on my list of places to come back to. Here we are ...13 years later! We arrived to a sunny and warm picturestic lake. What a world of difference in temperature compared to the Swiss Alps. We booked a newer built apartment that sits above the train station and overlooks the lake. In many ways, I prefer this vs the older rooms in the center of town. It's a bit too crowded for my taste. Lake Como is a place you come for total relaxation. There isn't much to do other than eat ice cream, meals, walk the town's and gardens and spend time with your company.

Since this is a lake of villages, we ventured over to Menaggio on the other side of Varenna and found a town that seems more lived in than Varenna. It has more traffic, hotels seem a bit bigger and the square is right in the water and that's about it for Menaggio. No pretty gardens. The next day was rainy so we ventured out for meals and then cozied up in our apartment. Steve has been deep into his James Bond movies since our visit to the Schilthorn. Our last full day here, the rain lightened up so we ventured to Bellagio, known as the glam gem of Lake Como, to see what that was all about. Bellagio has shops for days compared to its other villages on the lake. The streets are filled with more people and certainly more cars. While walking the shops, Steve asked if he can get a fishing boat. My questions are always 1) where are we putting it? 2) how are we getting it back home? Later in the afternoon, we went back for the fishing boat.


Lake Como is beautiful. I don't know that it's the most beautiful lake in the world as one poster claimed, but it is beautiful, serene and peaceful with some of the largest mansions you'll ever see. 13 years later, definitely worth it!

Thursday, September 7, 2017

In Awe of The Alps In Switzerland

One flight and a couple of expensive train rides later, we arrived in Switzerland from Mallorca. Zermatt was our stop and we arrived to cold and rain. Yours truly must have read the wrong weather report and had to go shopping for leggings! I knew Switzerland would be expensive but wow!! This will go down as the most expensive country I've traveled to. We got off the train station in Zermatt, wandered up the street and found our hotel. We had a sweet room with a deck that faced the Matterhorn except it would take two days before we were able to see it due to weather. On the one sunny day that we were there, we were able to do the Seenweg trail which is also known as the Matterhorn's five lakes trail and it was truly stunning! Cold but stunning! We were in Zermatt for three nights and felt that was a good amount of time there. It was time to move on to another part of the mountains- Oberland!
After five train changes and one gondola ride, we arrived in the town of Murren from Zermatt. Unlike Zermatt, where luxury commercialism (Hublot, Rolex, Patik Philippe) is in your face, Murran is a quiet small village. Although we did hear that in the prime of summer, this little village sitting on a cliff brings in 4K folks a day. Crazy to think! While folks go to Zermatt for the Matterhorn, folks come to Murren for the Schilthorn, the Eiger, Münch and the Jungfrau. On our second day here, the sun burst through the clouds so we decided it'd be a perfect day for the Schilthorn. $80 Swiss Francs takes you to the top of the Schilthorn from Murren and it was worth it! Views of the big three: Eiger, Münch and Jungfrau floating in the clouds with the cheesy James Bond theme in the background. We spent the next two days hiking the North Face Trail and the Mountain View Trail around these mountains with town visits to Gimmelwald and Lauterbrunnen.

The debate I've often read is, given one choice, would you choose Zermatt or Oberland?! Zermatt is busier, more commercialized, more hotels, more restaurants with tasty pizza such as Grampi's and Molino's. And, of course it has the Matterhorn which was my favorite hike in Switzerland. Oberland is smaller, hotels are more rustic, less traffic because cars aren't allowed in many of the towns above the valley. There are restaurants but only one deserves your money, time and calories and that's Le Grotte in Murren. Of course, you can choose to have broccoli beef for $28 Swiss Francs or pasta from the freezer for $25 Swiss Francs at neighboring restraurants. Oberland has countless hiking trails and view of Europe's highest mountain tops. So, I suppose it comes down to the atmosphere one wants! We were lucky enough to fit both in!

That's it for Switzerland!


Friday, September 1, 2017

Is It Mallorca or Majorca?

Depends on who you ask, I suppose! I funded this flight for my second trip to Europe with my United miles and it was quite a journey. SFO-->ORD-->ZUR-->PMI. During my journey over, I was convinced that I would take the $25 euro cab ride to my hotel for ease and convenience but then I got off my last flight and thought, I can figure this bus thing out! Hopped on the #1 Aeroport bus into town for $5 euros, got off at Place Espanza, got my bird's eye view map out, located some buildings around my hotel, followed two directional signs and viola, Hotel Convent Missio! Steve would be joining me the next day after having attended his brain conference in the south of France.

Mallorca is a much larger island than I thought it'd be but thanks to their awesome bus system, you can just about get anywhere on the island. I spent my first day on the #3 bus to a beach club strip called Illetas. The waters were warm but it was way to crowded for my liking, so I cut my beach day short, headed back into Palma and explored it more. Palma is a town where you don't necessarily need a map to guide you. All the lanes and roads eventually intersect again. Palma is busy, humid, tapas and ice cream shops galore but the main stand out is their Cathedral. Wow, that stained glass in there with the high ceilings and ancient architecture is stunning. The Gaudi architecture you see
around town isn't bad either. Just have to remember to look up to catch it!

With Mallorca's awesome bus system, we took day trips to Soller, Valldemosa and Alcudia. The town of Soller isn't much but it has a busy port full of shops and restaurants that's worth taking a wander in. The highlight of Soller is the one hour train ride from Palma and then the tram that takes you to the port. Beyond that, time is best spent having a lunch by the water and then a drink back in Soller town while people watching in the square by their cathedral.

Valldemosa, which I deemed the gem of Mallorca. A 30 minute bus ride takes you there from Palma. You come upon a charming old town surrounded by nature and hills. It's stone buildings and houses are decorated with little potted plants all around the entry ways.

And then there's, Alcudia. The last day trip we did from Palma. It's a longer bus ride at an hour from Palma. It's an old town surrounded by a wall or fort with charming pedestrian only narrow lanes. You can roam these lanes ....for what seems like awhile and not be bored because each time.. you discover something different. We took a taxi from Alcudia to a nearby beach called S'illot. You may get there by taxi but no guarantees that you'd make it back! You can call for one at the beach restaurant but taxis aren't efficiently run in a Alcudia and you can be waiting for days. It took us a few tries but we were able to hitch a ride back from after enjoying some sun and warm waters of S'illot!

That's it for Mallorca, next up, Switzerland!

Sunday, July 16, 2017

It's Castles and Beaches In England!

I've been traveling since 2004 and while I've been to the London Heathrow Airport many times, I've never actually set foot in its cities or towns. I've always thought my first experience of England would be London but instead, it's turned out to be the villages of the North. We (Steve, his brother and myself) set out on an early drive out to a town called Alnwick where Steve's parents grew up and now live. It's what you'd imagine a small English village would be with its small houses, quaint roads, peaceful stretches of sandy beaches with the clouds as a backdrop. I spent a total of 3 days here in the North of England and absolutely fell in love with this area. His parents busied us with visits to a handful of historic castles, beach walks with the dogs and stops for tea and cake. I love a good tea in a cute shop!
There are hundreds of historic castles here in England. Some are ruins and some are still serve as homes to the royal. We personally visited Almwick Castle, Bamburgh Castle, Dunstanburgh Castle and Warkworth Castle while driving by a few others. Of the bunch I saw, Bamburgh is the most epic standing massively on a small sea front hilltop with records of its existence dating back to the year 547. When you see something built from the year 547, it makes everything else I see back at home seem insignificant. I used to marvel at the "est 1907" plaques. I may scoff at them now! Maybe. The most charming castle of this bunch for me would be, Dunstanburgh and that's because of the sheep fields you passby leading up to the castle. Dunstanburgh dates back to 1313 and it's shown in ruins but you're able to climb the steps to see field after field of this North England beauty.
This part of England is so quaint and quiet that it's hard to believe the reality we currently live in with the situations of a Trump presidency in the US and Brexit looming for Britain. The common thoughts from some locals around here seems to be that the US will be able to recover from a Trump presidency as this will blow over in a few years and the damage he has done is fixable with the next administration. So, while the short term effects seem drastic, the long term effect may be nominal. However, I have the Supreme Courts appointments on my mind! With Brexit, the thought is that while there aren't any short term effects, the long term effects could be quite detrimental particularly to the younger generations. I wouldn't disagree.
Another observation I had here was that their pharmacy drugs are significantly cheaper! My allergies came alive when Steve and I were on our way to Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh. I was able to buy some rather effective allergy meds at half the cost of what I'd get in the US. For example, a 24 pack of Zyrtec D would cost $29. A 30 pack of Prinsitine cost £9 pounds or $13 and it was on abut one get one half off so I essentially purchased a 30 pack for $9. The cost of our healthcare in the US has weighed heavily on my mind ever since I had my preventive annual check up and saw the bill for lab work. Outrageous! Needless to say, I've loaded up for the next three allergy seasons!
 This Europe trip of mine wasn't quite planned. It came up rather last minute as Steve had a conference to attend in Edinburgh and I tagged along to meet his family. His family have been so kind and gracious, I will miss them and look forward to our next visit. The funniest was when Steve's dad asked me,"does Steve still pile the sink full of dishes?" And when I replied, "um, no." His mother added, "Yi put a stop to that, she's very tidy." I'll miss our mornings waking up to views of sheep and open skies. Until next time, England! And with that, it's countries #32, #33 and #34 going on the backpack!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Scotland... A City Of Closes

After a few days of discovery in Amsterdam, I flew to Edinburgh to meet up with Steve now that his conference is over. We were hosted by his older brother, who greeted us at the train station in a Golden State Warriors T shirt not knowing the relativity of it, in a small seaside town, about 30 minutes outside of the city called Kinghorn. 

Edinburgh is small and not nearly as colorful as the city I had just spent a few days in but it packs a punch in history! It's charm is in its centuries old monuments, the castle on the hill, the way they refer to an alley way as a "close" and how even their "new town" looks much like an "old town." And, of course the bagpipes! We spent our days roaming around the main downtown area marveling at this aged architecture wondering how many tales and stories must these lanes and closes have. One of my favorites was a tall clock tower with the label, "toll booth." I suppose they used to be the entry to town having payed some form of currency. One of the most popular attractions in Edinburgh is a hilltop called Arthur's Seat which gives you 360 degree views of the city, however when in a city, my photog eye prefers to see the details of the forest! If you're in the New Town area, an eatery named The Pantry serves a tasty turmeric latte..must try!

 While Edinburgh is lively with the Queen's Mile packed with live acts and history, I'd be missing out on the sights of inviting Scottish villages had Steve's brother not live a short train ride away. Every train journey into and out of the city gives sight to their Forth Bridge, one that resembles exactly the Bay Bridge of back home, as well as, the Gypsy Carnival grounds in Burntisland. Burntisland is a neighboring seaside village to Kinghorn with a beautiful and large open seaside green space. Apparently, every year and for many months during the summer, this green space is occupied by this random carnival that just shows up. According to land laws, the field is public so no laws are broken although if I was an owner of a seaside home in this town, I'd have other thoughts! 
Warm and dry months or even days and weeks don't come often in Scotland. I was fortunate enough to have brought the sunshine from Amsterdam with me! Next stop: my first experience of England!

Monday, July 10, 2017

Haarlem, You're A Gem!

Day 2.5, I wanted to escape the crowds and found myself with many options. Do I rent a bike and ride out to Ouderkerk as suggested by a local bike renter? Do I ride a bike out to the beach? Maybe to Haarlem? Maybe out to Zaanse Schans, a village of windmills? I ended up taking the bus out to windmill village and then hopped the train to Haarlem. I arrived early enough to Zaanse Schans to avoid the large group tour buses which is at its best. The shops in the village aren't open yet at this hour (before 9am) but you get the morning peace to yourself and see the farm animals at its glory feeding in the fields. Windmills in a field, it's so Tour de France like! After an hour or so in this windmill village, I hopped the train to Haarlem and instantly fell in love!

Haarlem is a gem. While everything in Amsterdam is in your face, in Haarlem, you have to seek the details of the charm. It has quaint streets, a vibrant but low key town square and my favorite were the floral adorned quaint residential streets. The square packs your typical bit hits: museum, a couple of churches and a formal hall of sorts. This town's St Bavo church houses a beautiful massive organ that a young Mozart played on in 1766. The age of history in Europe still baffled my mind. While the town square is low key inviting, the residential
streets own the charm of this town. Nearly each door had a bike in front of it. Folks of all ages live here but it's the older women congregating on their bikes in front of door steps speaking with such succinct enthusiasm that made me smile. They would end every sentence with a "looo".... helloooo... good day-ooo. This little town packed a character that I consumed fully. 


What I enjoy most about Europe is the ease of train and bus travel! All in all, my time in the Netherlands did not disappoint and I remembered how much I love travel in Europe. The Dutch are kind and always so gracious when I ask for directions. Yes, even the sort of creepy gentleman that stopped me in the streets insisting on helping me get to where I wanted to go because I had a map in my mind and went on to insist that I was must be "rich" because I live in San Francisco. Is that the reputation we have?! Everyone in general have been extremely helpful and so nice! They want to get you to your destination as much as you want to get there. Every time I've asked a train info person which platform I should go to for a certain destination just to make sure, they always look me in the eye and succinctly say "It leaves in X minutes." A thought I had most often while strolling through Haarlem is if I could live as efficiently as these locals. Their residences here are quaint and small but efficient. Nothing is oversized here, unlike home where it seems that the bigger it is, the better it must be. I don't follow that norm much... perhaps I was European in my past life!