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. Iceland. Norway. Denmark. Covid-19. The journey continues..

Friday, February 2, 2024

London Is Calling

Would you believe that I've been all over Europe but had never set foot in London proper?! I've transited through the Heathrow airport many times but had never spent anytime in the grand city just outside of it. This year, for what seems to be my annual winter birthday trip, I had decided that it's time to check London off the list and my friend Noreen from NYC was up for meeting me there. 

I landed on an early Monday morning and fortunately, the Clermont Victoria Hotel was nice enough to allow me to check in early where promptly after, I hopped on the on/off London bus tour for about 3 hours while I waited for Noreen's arrival. I will say that the big streets that the bus tour takes you through is a very different experience than the quaint streets and lanes of the various neighborhoods. Once Noreen arrived, we set out on our first of many neighborhood self walking tours. First up would be Chelsea. The sun would start to set around 4pm and so our experience of Chelsea was seen during the settling in of dusk.

The next day, we ventured off to the neighborhoods of Kensington, Notting Hill, Primrose Hill and Camden. Kensington is what I would consider the old money neighborhood of London. The architecture and private gardens that surrounds the neighborhood makes this very apparent. While it lacked some of the charm of the other neighborhoods, I did speak regal. 

For the sake of time, once we were done with out 2 hour self walking tour of Kensington, we hopped in a taxi and headed to the infamous Portobello Road in Notting Hill. In my mind, I had these idyllic imagery of the neighborhood being quaint and cute after all, the movie is one of my all time favorites. Real life Notting Hill was a big grungier than I had imagined. Tragically, the corner book shop that was the main feature point of the movie has turned into a cheesy movie tourist shop. I wondered why the city or the neighborhood didn't enforce that the property stay a book shop? Meanwhile, someone must have thought the same and capitalize on the idea by opening The Notting Hill Book Shop down the street. While strolling down Portobello road, you'll also see shops featuring the Notting Hill jacket which is inspired by the jacket that Julia Roberts is wearing in the movie where she goes to William's sister's house for a birthday dinner. 

In the interest of time, after our time in Notting Hill, we hopped another friendly London taxi to Primrose Hill where we got a glimpse of the where seemingly many young families choose to reside with it's large park on the hill and quaint street of shops. Real estate was noticeably a bit lower priced in this neighborhood than the rest. Shortly after, we made our way to Camden and walked through the many stalls of the Camden market. What a night and day feel between Primrose which is literally down a canal to Camden. If I had to compare Camden to a neighborhood in San Francisco, it'd be a cleaner Haight Street or Pacific Beach in San Diego. It's definitely the grungiest part of London we had visited during our time there.

The next morning, we started off in Soho before venturing into Covent Gardens. How does this Soho compare to the Soho in New York? It's cleaner for a start and that is what I would say about all the neighborhoods in London. While it felt like New York in some aspects, it was definitely cleaner and classier. The picture above is of Neal's Yard which is probably London's current most instagrammed lane but in person, it's much smaller. 

I don't know how London operated before but current London is cashless everywhere. I paid about 95% of my transactions via Apple Pay and only took my credit card out twice. The tube was clean and people were respectable. While I am sure pick pocketing happens, you wouldn't really know it on the London tube. 
On our last full day in London, we decided to hit up the tourist spots. We started off at Kensington Palace where we visited the Princess Diana statue in the sunken gardens of the palace then made out way to Buckingham Palace. Noreen had seeing 10 Downing St on her list but the reality was a disappointment as access to anything outside of the iron security gates was blocked. We paid for two tours during our visit: The Churchill War Room which was quite an interesting tour. It'd be the first tour I had ever taken where I listened to almost the entirety of the audio tour. It's amazing how preserved the city has kept it. The other paid entry would be to Westminister Abbey where we were both dumbfounded at how small the steps actually were. You know, the main steps were the Royal Family is often seen standing on waving to the crowd (William + Kate's wedding). 

While our visit added some great memories, we've agreed that London is too expensive to do for a more prolonged period of time especially when it comes to eating out. Sitting at a restaurant is an automatic 20% tax and a 12.5% gratuity tip added on to the bill. We had our best meals at a place called Dishoom (definitely go there for breakfast) and Palomar but I can't tell you when I will be back. Maybe I'll transit for a day through London and stopped by Dishoom for one of their breakfast naan sandwiches! Maybe next time, I will look the right way of the street for traffic as somehow, I managed to look the opposite way even with a the direction painted in front of me!

On the flight back, I watched every movie that United featured London in: Notting Hill, Love Actually and Last Christmas. It was a delight being able to recognize the streets and locations now while watching some of my all time favorite films. Until next time...!

Friday, February 3, 2023

Oh, bonjour Paris. It's been a minute!

Back in late 2022, I started searching on google flights to see what airlines were offering a direct flight from SFO to CDG. There was only 1 flight and 1 airline which was Air France. The cost was $2200 or 70k miles for the roundtrip. I have 70k miles! Texted my friend Noreen (who I met while traveling in Vietnam) and asked her if she'd be up for it? It'd be a short trip as I wanted to be around for the weekend with the kiddos. Days later, we were booked for January!

It's the first time I've used my passport since the pandemic and it was a little weird. I had been scoping out seats for a few months trying to gauge how full or not the flight was going to. I showed up to the gate a bit early and asked one of the gate agents if there was an empty row that he might be able to switch me to. He said that there would be a charge and no guarantee that the row would remain empty. I asked him how much? To my delight, his colleague than came over, switched me, waived the fee AND blocked the two seats next to me. Amazing! Tired mama appreciated the entire row.. thank you very much! The flight was short but not uneventful. The rows next to me and in front of me was empty was well and so two other passengers decided to make it their new rows. The one next to me was had a phlegmy cough the entire flight with nyquil in her bag. How I wished that she had the courtesy to put a mask on since they gave every passenger one! Her friend took the row in front of me and throughout the entire flight, his feet would be the nuisance of the flight crew. His feet would stick out across the aisle as he slept or propped up on the seat where my entertainment screen was located. I guess after the 100th time a crew member had asked his feet to not block the aisle, he got annoyed and decided to move himself to business class. Hours later, he got moved back with a lengthy talking to from the lead crew. I wonder if he got any further consequences for that?

I landed at CDG an hour before Noreen and waited for her at her flight's baggage claim. She arrived with cookies from Levain Bakery which sadly neither of us ate. We arrived at the hotel, dropped out stuff off, took a quick 20 min nap and then off we went to lunch. It's been a minute since I've been on the Paris metro .. long enough for their to be a price increase on the tickets. Thank you to the gentleman who voluntarily directed us to the terminal where we could buy tickets when he sensed that we were a bit confused. Who says all French people are rude? Day 0.5 in Paris was lunch at Chez Janou and then a walk through Le Marais as we make out way back to the hotel. 

Day 1.5 in Paris was a check list day! First stop was to the newly open Bernachon Chocolate shop. Previously, you can only get their chocolates at their factory in Lyon or from this shop in Pigalle called A I'Etoile d'Or with the most charming and friendly shop owner, Madame Acabo. The guy at the Bernachon Shop had told me that Madame Acabo's shop is sadly no more. I wonder if that had meant she sold it or she closed it. She had closed and reopened it previously after a gas leak fire. I was sad to hear that and glad that the new shop exists. Next on the list was Emily In Paris...the netflix series in case you didn't know. We made our way to the location of the Boulangerie Moderne (which had subpar croissants to my slight disappointment per Parisian standards) and had breakfast there while losing count of gals taking cheesy selfies of themselves taking a bite out of a pain au chocolate like Emily. We watched enough people stick their heads inside Gabriel's restaurant (which in real life is called Terra Nova) that they closed the door and lastly, wandered outside Emily's apartment area. This entire square while large onscreen was much smaller in person. Next on the check list, the Goyard boutique on St Honore. One of the highlights of that was the manager telling all the patrons that was waiting in line that they service 7 people an hour and so he pointed to the person at the back of the line.. that's 2 hours for you. Dinner destination for the evening was Frenchie. I had been to Frenchie Au Vin on a prior visit and had one of our best meals there and this would be the first time at the restaurant. While the meal had a wow factor, the atmosphere was ruined by my developing headache that was made worse by the sharp and overpowering of the guest next to me. Noreen and I couldn't quite believe the conversation they were having and couldn't figure out whether they were colleagues or married? We weren't sure why she thought the topic of laundry and sweaty balls from running was appropriate conversation for any dinner?! Right?? 

Day 2.5 was strolling Paris as we were checklist light. We started at a recommended bakery called Mamiche and then took the metro to one of my Paris favorites, I'le Saint Louis. it was nostalgic to see that the same flower shop (one of my fav photos I took from 2012) was still there, as well as the Cafe St Regis where I spent awhile journaling. We passed by Berthillon where if you watch Emiy In Paris, Emily and Luc are often congregating. We saw the work in progress of restoring the Notre Dame Church, bought a few books at the Shakespeare and Company book shop, had lunch at my favorite square in Paris, Place Dauphine. We spent the rest of the day strolling along the Seine and taking in the magical air of Paris before ending up at Cafe Jacques which Noreen really wanted to show me because it had a perfect view of the Eiffel Tower without being at the Tower. Dinner that evening was at an Indian restaurant called Baranaan. Noreen couldn't stop talking about how cool the vibe was and so we went and she was right. Our waiter was hilarious.. when Noreen asked him chicken or beef, he said that it was like asking him who his favorite son was. 

Day 3.5 was spent solo. Somehow, Noreen and I had a miscommunication. As we were walking the previous day, she mentioned something about having to pack already since we were flying out the next day (today) and I said no we weren't and she said yes we are. I said .. 4 nights? She said yes 4 nights.. but wait? I asked if she counted Sunday as a night (she would be on the airplane) and she said that she didn't think so. Back at the hotel.. she pulls out the text receipts.. she showed me a text that I somewhere gave her the date ending 2/2. We were cracking up.. I also said 4 nights.. you have to double check my mom brain I tell her! So, Day 3.5, she was off to Copenhagen and I continued my time in Paris. To my delight, there would be no metro disruptions today as it’s been common with the locals protesting the government wanting to raise the retirement age.

I started my morning at the one matcha cafe that I was able to find in Paris. While boba shops and poke shops are popping up all over Paris.. it seems that they're just starting with matcha. They serve it up like they di their espressos, no vanilla sweetner. No complaints.. just an observation. I then made my way to the Paris version of the NYC Highline called Promenade Plantee. I couldn't believe that a piece of Paris was still a hidden gem as I saw only 2 other travelers aside from myself. After the Paris highline, I was going to make my way back to Chez Janou but then I saw the metro stop E'cole Militaire and decided to make a stop to Rue Cler where I stayed at in 2012. Rue Cler is a little market street free of traffic and full of little shops and restaurants. The boulangerie that used to be across the street from the metro station was no longer there and poke shops, boba places and Laduree took the places of a handful of former store fronts. I suppose all things evolve but I couldn’t help but feel all the nostalgia of what it was like before. Speaking of before, take away options were everywhere. I remember a time when anything take away, even coffees were side eye’d at. After a late lunch at Chez Janou, I checked off one last thing on my list, the Wall of Love in Montmartre... "I love you" written in 250 languages. It was a fitting place to facetime my family back home. Before calling it a night, I meandered to Plaq on Rue du Nil for something that I had wanted the other night when we dined at Frenchie, a hot chocolate aka chocolat chaud. I ordered a small not knowing that a small was the size of an espresso cup but it was so decadent that it was enough. 

January in Paris in this instance was ideal! We didn't see any lines for the museums, a long coat and scarf was enough for the weather. I had debated whether to bring my Uggs but I read that Parisians don't wear Uggs outdoors (witnessed many Parisians walking in them). On one of my last metro rides, I witnessed an older senior guide a younger blind gentleman to a seat. It’s been maybe 7 or so years since Noreen and I traveled together. We used to walk miles and miles with our backpacks without issue. This trip, we noticed our eye sight isn’t as clear and our knees starting to click. So, with that, merci beaucoup Paris. A quiet Paris was just the version I needed to feed the soul. 

**Air France was very strict about weight parameters of carry-on luggage. I had to check my Away carry on which had me waiting longer than I wanted to at baggage claim after fast tracking with global entry through customs. Relieved to see my carry on appear on the conveyer belt, grabbed it, sped walked through the airport and made the Marin Airporter shuttle by 20 seconds! Going through customs at CDG, as well at SFO was a bit of a surprise. None of the finger printing, it was all biometrics via photo. Evolving indeed.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Is It Copenhagen or Kobenhvan?

I read that Oslo wasn't all that interesting of a city unless if you're a viking history enthusiast which we were not so instead of staying in Norway after our fjords exploration, we hopped a flight to a new country: Denmark! 
We had 2.5 days and 3 nights in this very livable city. We chose a hotel that was walking distance to the infamous Nyhavn which we would do again should we come back. We spent our days walking the town and the weather mostly cooperated but we did get dark overcast mist for a day or so which wasn't terrible. The thing about traveling with an infant is that wherever you go, you try to create a routine of sorts because you can't really be 100% off the cuff with a little one in tow. To that point, we had a little bakery we frequented in the mornings which served delicious drinks and muffins before starting out day. Although we were walking distance to Nyhavn, we never had a meal there because majority of them were burger joints Yes, you read that right, burger joints. An overabundance of burger joints. If Copenhagen can improve, this would be one area to improve upon.

True to form, like any town we traveled to abroad, my hubs is always on a lookout for a cycling shop to visit. In Copenhagen, it was Rapha which we have back home but of course it's a little difference abroad. When we walked into Rapha, there was a gentleman who gave me a stink eye for a quick second because Isla was hungry and crying but he hid it well soon after. Shortly after we got comfortable, he started conversation with us by asking about Isla as he also had little ones. He told us about how parents in Copenhagen often leave their sleepy infants in the stroller outside of the shop and that's just part of the culture there. I was shocked as that could never happen in the US. He also made some solid suggestions for restaurants and areas to visit which we did obliged in. 
And now to the serendipity part of our trip. We took a taxi to a more residential part of Copenhagen to a restaurant for lunch. Neighborhood street shown (right) above. We were seated and shortly after, this gal came to our table and said, "no way!" It was my former colleague and friend Alyson who I hadn't seen in over 15 years but lives in the Bay Area! 
We spent the rest of our time walking all the streets we could with a stroller and an afternoon at Tivoli which if you have a kid, this is the place to go! It's a clean theme park of sorts that has something for everyone! Carnival games, entertainment shows, restaurants and my favorite: shops. Where else would I spent $45 on a music toy for Isla without really thinking twice?! All in all, Isla was a dream to travel with. She didn't fuss much and seem to go with the flow, much like her parents! Our next destination on this leg now is to Northern England where she'll meet Steve's family. Until next time!

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Party Of Three In the Norwegian Fjords!

Norway had long been on my list with the beauty of ature that the country offers. I gave birth to Isla back inMarch and wanted to fit a trip in during my maternity leave. Steve and I had Maui booked but as I had thought about it more and more, breastfeeding in the heat did not appeal to be at all so we cancelled Maui and booked Europe! I had received all the packing with an infant tips from my friend Allan who I had met in 2004 while in passport control in Prague.
We flew KLM, a very kid friendly airline to Amsterdam then continuing on to Bergen. It's known to rain over 270 days of the year in this part of the region but we were blessed with two days of sunshine during our visit. Norway has two populated cities/towns: Bergen and Oslo. With the time we had, we chose to skip Oslo and chose Bergen, a beautiful harbor town as our base. We spent our first couple of days getting over the fatigue of travel and exploring all that Bergen had to offer.
Bergen is a cute and charming harbor town. Some would say it's too touristy but I like it. I like the cheerful crowds, seeing people take advantage of the sunny days we had by enjoying meals and drinks outside and just the culture of it all. We spent out time in Bergen walking the infamous harbor, the small narrow lanes up the hills and even took the funicular to Mount Floyen. Bergen would also be the town where I had my first sushi meal since pre-pregnancy and it was delicious minus the whale sashimi on our platter. We gave a hard no on that one! 

Next up: the fjords! For convenience without a car, I chose to base out of Balestrand for our fjord adventure. Balestrand is a sleepy town and probably one of the bigger village alongthe fjords in this area. While this town has a handful of restaurants, the gem is called the Cider Hurst. We spent our arrival day taking in the town. The next day, we hopped on a smaller boat to tour the fjord. 
After two nights in Balestrand, we took on an epic day of transfers to cruise the Naeroyfjord. We departed Balestrand to catch the 830am boat to Flam then from Flam, we caughtthe premium carbon fiber boat cruise to Gundvagen. The carbon fiber boat did not disappoint. You might see fliers trying to sell you to the "classic" boat.. resist the nostalgia and go for the new and sleek carbon fiber one especially if you're traveling with an infant! From Gundvagen, we took the bus to the town of Voss (as in Voss water except I never saw any in Norway) before boarding a train back to Bergen.
The quiet and picturesque beauty of the fjords was a nice break from the town of Bergen. It's not easy to get to if you want to stay overnight but it is well worth the logistic inconvenience. 
Next up: Copenhagen!

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Iceland Surpassing Expectations

I didn't know what to expect when we had planned a trip to Iceland. I would be about 25 weeks pregnant by the time this trip came around. We wanted to go somewhere to celebrate our one year wedding anniversary and a baby moon. The country had been on our list, it's a place that we thought wouldn't be ideal to bring a young child in terms of the winter temperatures and Icelandic Air was offering deals- $375 direct roundtrip from SFO- which made us jump on it! I purchased some low key crampons from REI and dung out my nordic parka (or you can be like Steve and wear 7 layers- true story), packed my sorel boots and was ready!
I initially thought Iceland was just a country with pretty scenery and dodgy weather. We had a layover here in the summer and it was freezing! Having spent 7-8 days in this country, I am surprised at how much in love I fell with it. The landscape is stunning and the November weather wasn't too bad. It's much warmer than January in New York which where I often am for work at the beginning of the year. 

Our flight landed at about 6am and by 7:30am, we were on the shuttle bus to the Blue Lagoon for our 8am reservation. Coming from the States, being in any type of hot tub is a no-no when you're pregnant but there were no concerns from the Icelandic women. "We have pregnant women working in the lagoon." they say. Ideally, the Blue Lagoon is so big that not all areas are the same in terms of temperature. We were able to find some body temperature like pools to dip in which was just the right call after a long flight. I had also made a reservation for one of their floating massages which was an interesting experience. By 11:30am, we were lounging for lunch at their Lava Restaurant, which was delicious and on their 1:15pm bus into Reykjavik. Yes, the Blue Lagoon is touristy but hey it's a must do once in your life if you're in Iceland, IMHO. Besides, what else are you going to do when your flight lands at 6am and your hotel check in time isn't until the afternoon. Besides, the Blue Lagoon is 20 minutes from the airport and about 45 minutes from town so, if you're going to do it, it's best to do it either on arrival from the airport or on your way out to the airport. 

Prior to coming, we had to decide to drive or not to drive and I decided not to drive. Instead, we booked a multi-day tour with Arctic Adventures, their 5 Day South Coast, Snaefellsnes and Northern Lights Tour and couldn't have been more happy with it. I was bit nervous about joining a tour as it's not how I normally roll but we lucked out with an awesome guide, Hilmar and a small enough group to not feel like you were on a group tour. Our first stop was the Snarfellsnes Coast with the coast itself being the highlight. The main villages on this coast line are Arnarstapi and Hellnar. Mount Kirkjufell with waterfalls at it's base is a must visit stop. Wear your crampons when visiting in the winter! We spent the night at Hotel Rjukandi with the hopes of being able to see the Northern Lights but the weather wasn't on our side as the lights activity were low and the cloud cover was pretty heavy.

The next leg of our trip would be the Golden Circle. We visited a huge waterfall in the Thingvellir National Park (UNESCO recognized) which was like a winter wonderland dream with the dust of frozen ice and snow on the ground. The Geysir which we visited next drew a lot of ooohs and ahhhs and the Skogafoss waterfall is probably one of the most photographed fall in this country (Icelandic tales would tell you that there is a treasure chest hidden behind Skogafoss) but it was the Seljalandsfoss waterfall that was my favorite. Prior to coming, I had thought that all waterfalls eventually look the same and boy was I wrong! Although that may ring true for places like Hawaii, it's definitely a foolish thought in Iceland! Our hotel stay on this leg was the Hotel Gierland lodge which had the best dessert, the Skye Cake. Speaking of cakes, when in Iceland, you have to try their underground cooked, in a milk carton, thermal steamed for 12-25 hours, rye bread! When I think of rye bread, I think of the American sliced rye which I won't touch but Icelandic rye bread tastes nothing like it and has the consistency of a banana bread loaf. Delicious!

The third leg of our adventure took us to the South Coast which was very glacier focused. Earlier this year, we had traveled to Patagonia in Chile to celebrate my birthday and saw views of the magnificent  glaciers there but Iceland would not be out done. On this side of the country, we walked through glacier tunnels with a mildly horrifying incident when the guide announced to the group that we couldn't do an ice staircase because of a 6 month pregnant woman (yours truly) but we ended up being led out with another guide who was with the senior group- phew! I would never want to be THAT person! While the the tunnel walk was cool and we expected the ice cave to be blue even though the glacier guide warned us and said it would be black - probably due to the lack of sunlight- it was the ride in the glacier tank vehicle with controls to alter the tire pressure depending on the terrain that I will remember. Although at times, I did wonder if it was too bumpy for me! The highlight of this leg on the south coast was our experience at the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon. Imagine this huge glacier, Vatnajokull Glacier, breaking off chunks of it's icebergs that then flows through a river into a glacier lagoon which then washes away to the Atlantic Ocean only to have some icebergs swept back onto the sand, which happens to be a black sand beach with diamonds on it. Wild and stunning! Our hotel stay here was a place called Gerdi Guesthouse.
The last day of our tour was greeted with warnings of 90 mph winds and rain which prompted our glacier hike to be cancelled. I was totally fine with it and I think Steve was more relieved because he had been anxious about me slipping. Looks like the weather Gods helped him out! With the weather conditions, Hilmar started our drive back towards Reykjavik an hour earlier to try to escape the onslaught of weather that was coming. If we were to be stuck, it would have been stuck in the middle of nowhere for about 3 hours waiting for the winds to pass. Not ideal! We did manage some stops along the way to the other side of the black sand beach and moss covered lava fields but with the wind speeds, although not 90 mph and more like 50 mph, the mini tour bus was more ideal. After we said goodbye to our tour adventures and our guide, Hilmar, with which Steve had developed a man-crush on, we spent about 1.5 days in Reykjavik. We shopped, we ate, we took photos. 

Food in Reykjavik is pricey and we knew that through word of mouth and our stopover airport experience in the summer. Every time we sat down for dinner, it was easily $100 but their food and it's preparation is delicious. Their fish is so fresh and tasty and their vegetables are fresh and creatively prepared. I've never had pickled celery! If you're looking for a cheap eat in town, head to the infamous Baejarins Betzu Pylsur hotdog stand circa 1937 for a $4.50 dog. Bill Clinton ate here! Don't be fooled by the poser, The Hot Dog Stand, in the main street leading up to the original place. You want to look for the stand along shack on a corner for this experience! Our two favorite meals were had at a restaurant in an unassuming food hall called Skal and a fish restaurant on one of the main streets called Messin. Braud Bakery is the morning spot with the nearby Reykjavik Roasters for a good hot morning drink! When choosing a hotel in town, it's worth staying on their city center main street especially in the winter. We stayed at the Alda Hotel.
Initially, we were concerned with the amount of daylight we would get but it wasn't much of a problem. The sun would rise around 10am and start to set around 4:30pm so we got a good 6-7 hours of daylight. I hear starting in December, it starts to get dark around 2:30pm. We never saw the Northern Lights, which I foolishly thought would just appear as it got dark as the skies were cloudy and there wasn't much activity. Apparently, there are websites to track the lights activity, the moon is not your best friend for this occasion because of the light and the enemy are the clouds! It didn't take away from our trip or experience though as we got so much more out of the country. And with that, until next time Iceland!