Sunday, November 19, 2017

Oslo, Norway — Part 1

The Vigeland Park.It’s been a good two months since we came back from our unusual for us European vacation and I have yet to write a word about our first stop. The unusual part is two-fold — it was the first time that our kids visited Europe and it was somewhat off the beaten path. Although the second part is debatable considering how popular Iceland has become in the recent years.

Getting ready to fly.Now from the start — the flight. I remember our previous trip to Europe and how tough getting to Paris was. Both Alena and I were completely wiped out by the time we got there. And our flight this time was similar — plane change in Iceland.

Oslofjord.The difference this time was that instead of booking a redeye we booked a flight departing at 2:30pm. And by our math by the time we arrive to Oslo it would be around midnight by New York time which should be manageable for all of us. None of us are good sleepers while on the plane. Quite the opposite actually.

Radisson Blu Scandinavia.Our kids handled it all superbly. They were tired, but they were still up and about, both in good mood, by the time we got to our hotel — Radisson Blu Scandinavia — in the center of Oslo.

Slottsparken -- Palace Park.A small aside to our actual destination — Norway didn’t really happen as a whole. We decide to settle on Oslo because we weren’t sure how our kids would handle too much hotel changes. Full six nights in Oslo. We were wondering if it was going to be boring or not, but more on that later.

Streets of Oslo.We arrived to our hotel at 6 or 7am. That was the second point of our worry. Usually we have little problems with Hiltons with super-early check-in, but this was Radisson. Oslo has no Hilton properties.

Playing at Palace Park.We did manage to get our Radisson status to Gold level which should give us a room upgrade among other things, but we had no idea what we were going to do if we were made to wait until 2 or even 4pm to actually check-in.

Making jewelry out of grass.At the reception we were told that there are no rooms available. Bummer. Gold status speech didn’t help. Having no options I asked the clerk if it would be OK for our kids to sleep on the sofas in the lobby. She told us to hold and went inside the office behind the counter.

Dinner at Den Glade Gris.Five minutes later she came back and told us that they had to take a room away from somebody else — I’m not really clear on the mechanics of this one — but we were getting a room right away. She told us that this wasn’t really proper and that we really need to book a room for the night ahead, but I really can’t complain. No upgrade, a little bit of grumpiness, but we got our 7am check-in. Thank you!

Waiting casually for parents to finish dinner.We got up to our room and got into our beds for a much needed energy restoration sleep. One problem that we ran into was the fact that even though we could completely darken the windows out a good amount of light was still getting into the room from the curtain edges. And interestingly enough that was the case not only with our day sleep, but all the nights as well. North and the middle of summer will do that. White nights.

Palace Park.We slept for a good number of hours — 5 or 6. We got up well rested and quite hungry. We turned to our trusty TripAdvisor for options and discovered a very highly rated restaurant right on the same block as our hotel — Den Glade Gris. I had a pork knuckle, Alena had Norwegian style salmon and kids had a steak. Everything was good.

Streets of Oslo.Another thing that was really close to the hotel — practically across the street — was a huge park with Royal Palace in the center of it. That’s were we spent the rest of the day. Kids ran around and played, we walked down to a metro station with a large fountain by the National Theater and then back to park and more running. Alena and I just laid on the grass along with many sunbathing Norwegians. The vacation has started.

Vigeland Park.Now before I start with our first full day in Norway a couple of things on the topic of “boring”. Oslo turned out to be amazing. Every single day we had a different plan be it a museum, a park, some special destination or other — we had no time to be bored. There is a ton of stuff to do and see without ever leaving the city.

Vigeland Park. Monolith.On our first day of Oslo exploration we decided to take it easy and picked an easy-to-walk-to destination of The Vigeland Park. The walk was about 2 miles in each direction. We walked through some small parks, a rather big flea market and just regular streets — taking in the sights of an unfamiliar city.

Vigeland Park.The Vineland Park itself is know for a huge abundance of various statutes created by Gustav Vigeland. And when I say huge I really mean it. Probably hundreds of them. The park also had large patches of flowers and grass. It took a while to explore.

Vigeland Park.On the far side of the park there was a large obelisk which was carved out in a way to make it look like it’s built out of human bodies. This one was also surrounded by various statues.

Zodiac installment.And yet another thing that stood out was a zodiac signs structure. Our kids weren’t really familiar with those yet, so we talked about all the signs we were born under — actually four in a row — Leo, Virgo, Libra and Scorpio. We also have all four elements in our family — fire, earth, air and water.

Kids at Vigeland Park.That was the big part of our day. We decided to eat dinner right by our hotel again — just across the street from it. This time we picked a Spanish restaurant with a high rating. We ordered a large dish of seafood paella — something that we actually failed with epically during our Spanish trip — no offline TripAdvisor back then.

Dinner at Spanish restaurant.We also ordered a bunch of tapas and a pitcher of Sangria. Our kids weren’t all that impressed with paella, even though they typically like rice, especially Arosha. But they did enjoy some of the tapas.

City Hall in the background.And we concluded our day with a trip to a hotel pool and sauna. That was a conclusion of most of our days while in Oslo. At first Arosha didn’t like the sauna, but after I told him some stories about our previous visits with parents and with Alena and all the good memories he insisted on going every day.

Streets of Oslo. Bygdoy Peninsula.For our third day we had big plans — something we actually planned and researched beforehand — a trip to Bygdoy Peninsula. We started with a walk to Radhuset — city hall — which was only half a mile away from our hotel.

On the ferry to Bygdoy Peninsula.Radhuset it located right next to a pier from which ferries depart to Bygdoy. Also it was close to a neighborhood called Aker Brugge — lots of restaurants of all kinds — a foodie paradise.

Viking Ship Museum.The reason why Bygdoy Peninsula is a great place to visit is the fact that it has 5 or 6 museums in close proximity to each other. For our first stop we decided to pick Viking Ship museum and disembarked our ferry accordingly.

Viking Ship. This one is approximately 1,200 years old.Viking ship museum wasn’t very large, but it did have a nice collection of a thousand year old large “boats” or whatever those vessels are called. The boats were located on the lower level and each one had an observation deck nearby that people could walk up to to look inside.

Viking Ship Museum.There was also a good collection of ancient weapons and tools. We told our kids as much as we know about the Vikings and our kids were quite interested in all those things. Though Alena and I kept thinking — Ragnar, Ragnar!

At Vigeland Park.Then we stocked up on some very warm Norwegian hats at a gift store and had a fast-food type of lunch at nearby food stand — we actually had crab and shrimp sandwiches from what I remember.

Kon-Tiki raft.Our next stop was Kon-Tiki museum. I didn’t know much about it beforehand and we only found out about it during our pre-trip research. Alena actually read a book and then her, Arosha and I watched a movie.

At Vigeland Park.Kon-Tiki is a story about a Norwegian scientist from the mid 20th century who had a theory that Polynesia was actually populated by people from South America and not Asia. But the scientific community dismissed it as complete nonsense.

Ferry.The only thing he could do at that point is prove it. So he built a raft and after a 100 year journey with a small group of people they actually reached the island as he had theorized. So that actual Kon-Tiki raft that was used for the expedition is exhibited in the museum. It was interesting to look at the real thing when you know its story. And it turned out to be quite a lot bigger in person than I thought it was.

Fram -- polar exploration ship.And for our third and final museum of the day we decided to go to Fram Museum. Fram is a polar exploration ship from the end of 19th century. It’s actually the only ship that was used to explore both poles of our planet. This turned out be Arosha’s favorite stop.

On the top deck of Fram.The ship is quite large and the museum had it installed in a such a way that you could see it from top to bottom. There were ramp all around the ship and people can actually get to the very top of it and walked on to the deck. And from the deck you could go inside the ship itself and explore its innards.

Fram explorers.We probably spent the most time at Fram. And by the time we were done with that we were feeling quite tired. Although kids still had plenty of energy and they ran around and played around some small tower near the shore while we were waiting for the ferry back.

Fram Museum.We walked back to the hotel again and were going to go to a highly rated Indian restaurant a block away from our hotel. But it turned out to be closed on that particular day and we ended up eating our dinner at an Italian place that was yet again right next to our hotel. Even though it wasn’t very highly rated our kids really loved the pizza at this place and kept asking to go back there afterwards.

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Friday, November 17, 2017

Anniversary In Quebec

For this year Alëna and I have planned a trip that is smaller than our usual anniversary trip. Instead of flying somewhere far we decided to simply drive to Quebec Province of Canada1. Our total trip is six days long including two full days of driving.

Our first stop is Quebec City where we will spend three nights in Hilton Quebec2 and celebrate our anniversary. We’ve been to Quebec City once a long while ago, so we’re looking forward to re-exploring it again. On our way to Quebec City we will try to make a stop at Montpelier — the capital of Vermont. We’ve been there as well, but it was in the middle of the night, so we haven’t seen much.

Our second stop of the trip is Montreal. We’ll spend 2 nights in Hilton Garden Inn Montreal Centre-Ville3 — the same hotel that we stayed at with kids during our trip of 2015. Montreal we remember rather well, but it’s just a nice city.

This is the first year since our wedding when Thanksgiving falls on the same date — November 23rd. And my parents will look after our kids.

One of the concerns that we had with Quebec was the fact that it was going to be too cold. But looking at the map ALL our European vacations except for Italy, Spain and Portugal were in locations closer to the North Pole than Quebec City is. So we just need to get a little bit lucky with weather.

  1. 1 USD was worth 1.28 CAD at the time of the posting. []
  2. Hilton Quebec — C$464.10 for 3 nights for kind bed room with taxes included. []
  3. Hilton Garden Inn Montreal Centre-Ville — C$383.75 for 2 nights for 1 king bed room with taxes included. []

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Sunday, October 8, 2017

Iceland — Part 2

Strokkur Geyser.On Wednesday, July 22, we went to our farthest point of interest — Gullfoss Waterfall. I have not researched this place in advance, so its power and beauty took me completely by surprise. There were plans in the past to turn the fall into the power station, but luckily they never came to be. Nowadays Gullfoss is protected by the government, and I hope it stays the same.

Enormous Gullfoss waterfall.We were able to get really close the the waterfall. The path that leads to one of the observation spots is muddy and slippery in places because it gets water mist from the fall. I had to carry Anюta in some places for safely, and Danya held Arosha’s hand, but we have to do it in many American National Parks as well. It was pretty cold and windy, so children and I even wore hats or hoods.

Gullfoss Falls.On our drive to Gullfoss we enjoyed the view of some truly beautiful landscapes. Videos and pictures don’t do it justice. I thought that Iceland will be more bleak and kind of grey mouse-ish, but this little Northern country proved me wrong. Its allure is different from the lush riches of tropical forests or hardy red mountain ranges. It is subtle, yet powerful. The emerald velvety moss covering volcano stones, the grey sunless skies, the sheep and horses grazing on road sides — all of this resonated with me in unexpected way.

Strokkur Geyser.Anyhow, back to our sightseeing day. Our next stop was Geysir hot springs area, where Geysir geyser is located. Geysir was the first geyser known to Europeans, and the actual English word “geyser” originates from it.

Litli Gesir.We watched Strokkur geyser erupt 3 times. It was possible because it erupts very often, every 6-10 minutes, although the eruptions themselves are brief. You literally have to stand around with your camera ready if you want to catch it in the act.

German biker club.When we were walking to the geyser area, we saw a big group of bikers with German biking clubs insignias on their jackets. Daniel was curious, so he approached them and asked them where they were from and how did they got to Iceland with their bikes. They were very friendly and told us that they were indeed from Germany and that their club traveled to Iceland by boat from Denmark if I’m not mistaken. They also put our children onto their bikes when they saw that the kids were interested.

Geysir.We saw a few more geysers and hot springs, but Strokkur was the most impressive one. The whole area reminded me of Yellowstone, but I have to say that Yellowstone was much more spectacular — I guess, it is just considerably bigger and has a lot more fascinating things to see. But I still was happy that we were able to visit Icelandic geysers. Now I wish it was as easy to get to Kamchatka, but as far as Russian geysers are concerned, I doubt that I’ll have a chance to see them.

Geysir.There was only one food place open at lunch time. We ended up paying $80 for a set of subpar burgers (Arosha claims that he almost threw up eating his portion) and fish sticks. I think it was the worst food experience of our whole vacation if not ever.

Iceland landscapes.We ate dinner at the executive lunge. There was not much choice, but we filled on nuts and snacks and cookies. And it was free.

Thingvellir National Park.On Thursday, July 23, we checked out of Reykjavik Hilton. We had a not too early morning flight on July 24th, so in order to minimize the commute and all the variables associated with driving for an hour, we moved to Keflavik’s hotel, which was very close to our car rental place and the airport.

Continental rift between the North American and Eurasian plates.Before going to the new hotel, we continued with the exploration of Iceland and drove to Þingvellir National Park. Þingvellir is worth seeing for multiple reasons. First of all, you can look at the rift between North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. If I did not know what it is, I would not have guessed, but it was pretty awesome to look at the continental divide equipped with that knowledge.

Trail through Thigvellir National Park.Secondly, Althing, or Iceland’s national parliament, was gathering in Þingvellir for over 900 years starting from 930 AD. This was the oldest parliament in the world, and all the free men of Iceland could participate. I was expecting to see some kind of old building and it took me a while to realize that this used to be different from modern day political realities. No buildings, but just the place to gather, discuss things and make laws. The parliament meetings were held in summer time every 2-3 years.

Thigvellir National Park.We took a nice hike around. The nature was beautiful. There was a small lake with wild gees and the children liked watching them.

Thigvellir National Park.For lunch we bought some vegetarian sandwiches at a local store and they were pretty decent.

Thigvellir National Park.Afterwards we drove to Start, our new hotel. We got a nice big clean two-bedroom suite. Then we drove to car rental place to check how much time it would take to get there from our hotel. It took us 5-7 minutes, which was nice.

Thigvellir National Park.After considering different options for a while, we decided to have dinner at an Irish Pub. To our disappointment, it only served alcohol, so we went to a highly rated pizzeria next door instead. The food at pizzeria was OK, but nothing to write home about. Our waitress was a Russian girl, who studies in Keflavik to be a pilot. She told us that weather in Keflavik is really severe, and it gets so windy in winter time that they have to cancel flights on that account from time to time. It was really interesting talking to her, but she had to attend to other tables. After dinner we went back to the pub and got a pair of nice blond beers.

Keflavik shore line.We took a stroll on the promenade by the water. It was nice, but so windy indeed. I put hats and hoods on the children and wore a hat and a worm coat myself and was still cold. We saw a metal anchor statue and an old decommissioned fishing boat Baldur. It was interesting, but we cut our walk short in fear of getting a cold from the chilly winds.

Anchor statue in Keflavik.On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at a gas station to fill up the car and impulse bought a package of dry fish and two Icelandic beers. Both fish and beers turned out to be mediocre, but they still had a flair of novelty and exoticism to them.

Old fishing boat in Keflavik.There was nothing much left to do, but to sleep. It was a little difficult on the account of white nights and flimsy curtains that did not block all the light, but we managed.

Keflavik.We got up pretty early next morning, had breakfast, which is served from like 3am at this place, and drove to return our car. We had to wait at the car rental again, since we did not fit into the van going to the airport and had to wait for it to get back. Oh well, we still made it to the airport with time to spare.

Our Start Hotel in Keflavik. Anna's bed.Funny thing at the airport is that Danya got confused for and Icelander by local airport staff. When they heard him speaking English, they switched to Icelandic on a few occasions. One of the employees explained to us that Daniel’s English accent sounds very Icelandic. I too had airport staff starting to talk to me in Icelandic twice, so I wonder if they also thought that I might be local.

Gulffoss Falls.Danya and I think that the reason for Russian and Icelandic English accents being similar is the hard sound “R” which is present in both languages, but is quite different in English. I have noticed the similarity of accents too, and I even thought that our waitress at VOX was Russian before I read her name on the tag.

The flight back was easy and uneventful.

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Friday, October 6, 2017

Iceland — Part 1

Blue Lagoon and silica masks.Our flight to Iceland was on Monday, July 20th. Originally we planned on taking a taxi to the airport from Oslo, but after talking to our hotel’s staff we realized that taking a bus is a much cheaper and more convenient option. There is a FlyBus stop right in front of the hotel, and buses leave for the airport every 15 minutes or so. We saved some cash for the tickets, but apparently paying by credit card was an option as well. We only had to buy two tickets since children were free of charge, plus we got a discount for staying at Radisson Blu hotel. It probably took us 15 minutes longer to travel by bus, but we did not have to wait for the taxi to come to the hotel, so we pretty much have not lost any time.

Hilton Nordica.After a quick check in at the airport, we still had some time for lunch. We ended up eating burgers and drinking Hoppy Blond beers (adults only). The lunch was expensive as all the food in Norway, but it did not feel like there was an airport premium. We had some Norwegian coins left, and Arosha decided to use them as souvenirs. The cool thing about 1 and 5 Norwegian Krones is that the coins have a hole in the middle. When we got home, the children made necklaces and bracelets using krones for themselves and their friends. They were a big hit.

Our Fiat.The flight to Keflavik was relatively short and uneventful. We did have a bit of an issue locating our car rental company representative who was supposed to pick us up at the airport. Danya had to call them and was told that the staff member will be at the airport shortly and we have to look for him walking with the company’s sign. We waited for about 20 minutes after that, which was a little annoying. There were other people who were waiting for the same company, but luckily we were all able to fit into the company’s van. The driver turned out to be Russian by the way.

Our room.We got our car without any hiccups. It was a dark blue Fiat. We paid for the full insurance, but a few things were not covered, such as doors torn off by the wind, or damage done by driving on certain prohibited gravel roads. The wind part was really surprising to me, but I suppose Iceland is really windy. So we made sure to open the doors with caution and to not leave them open. Also, there was a sandstorm in the area, so not buying a full insurance was too risky.

Sun Voyager.After approximately an hour long drive we got to Hilton Reykjavik Nordica Hotel. When we were booking our stay, the biggest room that we could find was a room with two twin size beds. However, knowing how accommodating Hilton usually is to its Diamond members, Daniel called the hotel before making a reservation and inquired if it will be possible to get a roll-away bed and a crib into the room. He was told that they normally don’t do that, but they will for us. When we arrived at the hotel, the receptionist did not know about the roll-away bed situation and he said that the room that we have booked will not fit it. However, after Daniel explained our booking circumstances to him, he upgraded us to a much bigger room in which all the beds fit perfectly. We also got a higher floor — 5th instead of 2nd. Since he had to make some changes, we had to wait for about 20 minutes. The receptionist went out of his way to make us feel welcome and gave us two sets of drink vouchers, which was very nice of him.

Sun Voyager and Arosha's sneeze -- the only pictures we have.Everyone was tired and hungry, so we’ve decided to eat at the hotel’s restaurant VOX. It was pricey, but it had a Michellin star rating, so it was supposed to be top notch. I ordered salmon for myself and for the children — they shared one adult portion, and Danya got fish and chips, which at $35 were the most expensive fish and chips that he ever ate. The food was good, but not as spectacular as I was hoping.

Shore line.The next day we had Blue Lagoon reservation at 18:00, so we did not want to drive anywhere far in the first half of the day in order not to be stressed about making it to the lagoon in time. Exploring Reykjavik seemed like a perfect thing to do.

Building stone towers.After breakfast we got into our car and drove for about 15 minutes to the city center. We parked close to the waterfront, payed a very reasonable parking fee and schlepped to see Solfar, or Sun Voyager, metal boat sculpture. It is one of Reykjavik’s landmarks, so naturally there were plenty of people around it taking pictures. We participated in this activity as well. By the way, I’ve noticed that there are different parking zones with very different pricing. If we were to park next to the statue instead of parking across the street, we would have payed 3-4 times more for the meter.

Concert Hall.Next point of interest was Harpa concert hall located nearby. We took a walk down the waterfront promenade — Danya and I used the paved path, but the children preferred to run and jump on boulders next to the water. They spotted spiders and their webs from time to time and were really excited about those. The sea, the skies, the shore looked sort of milky grey and very serene. Reykjavik on that day elicited a peaceful feeling in me, like I was suspended in a big, soft, melancholic and dreamy cloud.

Streets of Reykjavik.When we reached tall glass building of concert hall, Danya went to take some pictures of it, and I stayed by the water with the children, who really wanted to build some stone sculptures. There were plenty of such sculptures already in place, so naturally they wanted to add a few of their own. It was fun to watch them busy at it and I wish we had something similar close to our home.

Hallgrimskirkja.After this we went to see Hallgrimskirkja — a modern church, which also happens to be the tallest church in Iceland. Luckily for me, Danya is so good with maps and finding his way in new places. I think I would have struggled so much if I had to locate all the landmarks by myself. Anyhow, the church looked fine, but it did not leave any special impression on me.

Shore.We walked through the streets of Reykjavik for a little while, visited some souvenir and clothing stores and started looking for a nice lunch spot. I have to say that prices in Iceland are very steep. Three t-shirts from the souvenir store cost us $100, and we did not buy any of those nice looking wool sweaters because they were $200-400 each. I did get a hat and a pair of really warm gloves for myself though (we got a bunch of hats for the kids in Norway) at a very reasonable price.

Soups for lunch.We ended up eating soups in bread bowls for lunch. We got lucky getting seats in the little restaurant, Svarta Kaffid, that was serving them. We got the last available table, and by the time we were leaving the waiting line was impressively big. Danya found this place on TripAdvisor, where it had an excellent rating. The restaurant only served two types of soup — vegetarian curry and Hungarian meat stew. Arosha and I got curries, and Danya and Anюta got stews. Everyone except Anюta liked their soups — me and Danya shared for variety as we often do. The price per soup bowl was $18.

Streets  of Reykjavik.After lunch we walked around the shopping streets of Reyjkyavik for a little while longer and headed back to the hotel for quick rest before heading out to much anticipated Blue Lagoon.

Streets  of Reykjavik.We arrived at the lagoon 15 minutes ahead of time, but got in without any queues or delays. This time of year it does not really get dark in Iceland. It gets a little darker for a few hours when the sun goes down, but never gets pitch black. I have to say that it presented certain difficulty for us at bed time, especially in the beginning of our vacation in Norway, but as far our lagoon experience went, we enjoyed the day lighting conditions in the evening hours.

Entrance to Blue Lagoon.By the rules of Blue Lagoon all guests are required to take a full body shower without any clothes on. Naturally, there were separate gender specific showers, so Danya and I got one kid each to shower and to change. The staff recommended to amply use hair conditioner and leave it in to minimize the effects of silica, which apparently makes hair all dry and unmanageable. We did just that. Luckily, individual showers had doors, so people could minimize being naked in front of strangers. Some people felt perfectly fine being naked in the crowd though. I think it’s probably more of a cultural than individual thing.

Path to Blue Lagoon.Anyhow, when we finally got outside, we jumped into the water right away since the air itself was freezing. Oh boy, it was pleasant! The water was so hot indeed, that at some point the children got a little overheated and jumped out for a few minutes to cool off. The water was milky white in color and it was 98-104 F in temperature. The temperature varied in different places, so we would feel it change from hotter to less hot spots and back up as we walked around the lagoon. The children got free floaters to wear, which was nice. There were steam and dry saunas available — we checked them out, but did not stay in either one for long.

Blue Lagoon.There were also free silica mud masks included in entrance fee, so Danya and I tried them on. We were offered by Blue Lagoon employees, who were sitting on the raft in the water, to have our picture taken on their iPad and get it e-mailed to us. We happily agreed. Oddly, many people who see those pictures think that our mud masks are a thick layer of sunblock. I don’t remember by now if my skin got smoother after the mask, but it probably did as it does after all similar products.

Streets  of Reykjavik.I was surprised to learn that this lagoon was man-made and is fed by water from the geothermal power plant. But on the other hand, the plant just uses the natural occurrence to produce electricity and then re-uses the water for the lagoon, so in a way it is not truly man-made after all. The water is rich in minerals by the way and supposedly is very good for the skin, especially psoriasis. I think that one visit certainly does nothing to improved any skin condition, but it’s pleasant to know that you’re bathing in something health-promoting.

Executive Lounge.We spent close to three hours soaking in the wondrous Blue Lagoon. The whole family really enjoyed it and was sad to leave this unusual place.

We arrived at the hotel totally wiped out, so dining in VOX was the easiest option again. Anюta got really cranky after falling asleep in the car, and she barely ate anything. In addition, she lost her favorite toy bear somewhere on the way from the car to the hotel room and we could not find it no matter how much we looked. It was very sad since she adored that bear so much. Arosha got it for her on Valentine’s day sale at school and she was absolutely in love with it for the longest time. For the record, the bear’s name was “Кленовый Сироп и Небо” and now he lives in Iceland. Oh, and Arosha only had $2 for that sale and he spent them all on the gift for Anna and nothing on himself. Just a side note.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Mountain Spring Lake Resort Getaway

Our cabin at Mountain Spring Lake Resort.В конце августа со дня свадьбы Даниных родителей стукнуло ни много ни мало, а ровно 40 лет! Желаю им счастливо и здорово дожить до следующего юбилея!

Our cabin inside.Чтобы отпраздновать это событие, Данины родители забронировали на три ночи домик в Mountain Spring Lake Resort. В прошлом мы пару раз ездили в этo место, и нам там очень нравилось, но в предпоследний раз мы там были больше 5 лет назад. Причина простая — цены. В Poconos в принципе везде не очень-то дешево, но этот резорт стоит раза в полтора-два больше среднего.

Tree climbing.Выехали мы около 4 часов дня в пятницу, и ехали ужасно долго, застревая в пробках на протяжении практически всего пути. По дороге перекусили в McDonald’s потому как все были голодными, а ужинать по прибытии прямо перед сном не хотелось.

Swing.Домик Данины родители сняли трёхкомнатный — в одной комнате спали они, в другой Лина с Арошей, а в третьей мы с Даней и Анютой. Для Анюты мы привезли её переносную кроватку, что было очень кстати, так как две кровати было только в одной комнате. Место у домика было просто шикарное — прямо напротив пляжа (а их на этом курорте два) и детской площадки.

Ambush.Лично я получила большое удовольствие от озера. Вода была не такой тёплой, как, например, на Коста Рике, но всё равно достаточно приятной по температуре. Я плавала несколько раз довольно долго. Для разнообразия было здОрово не бояться волн и подводных течений. Дети тоже купались несколько раз за время отдыха, хотя Арошу в воду тянуло явно больше Анюты.

Grilling.Еще одной радостью была еда с гриля. Всё так вкусно получилось — и бургеры, и овощи, и рыба, и мясо. Хотя skirt steaks вышли какими-то немного резиновыми. Не увереа в качестве ли мяса дело, или ещё в чем-то, но последние два раза, когда мы с Даней готовили их на гриле, получилось хуже, чем мы ожидали.

Burgers.А вот prime rib вышел очень удачно. Наверное, в следующий раз стоит воздержаться от skirt steak.

Grilling vegetables.Еще на территории резорта было огромное количество грибов. Ну буквально на каждом шагу. Наверняка, какие-то из них были вполне сьедобными. Мы были уверены только в сыроежках, и Даня даже зажарил один небольшой грибок на гриле для Арошки.

Row boats.В воскесенье мы с Даней и детьми сделали хороший круг вокруг озера — прошли где-то около двух миль. Было интересно.

Our cabin assigned boat.А еще мы два раза катались на лодке. Даня грёб, Ароша пару раз пытался, но у него получалось еще не очень. У меня тоже, кстати, не очень хорошо получалось, так что мне самой с детьми лодку без особой нужды лучше не брать.

On a trail.А еще мне очень понравилось по вечерам просто сидеть в большой уютной гостинной и со всем общаться. Мы, конечно, видимся с Даниными родителями, но так долго сидеть и разговаривать обычно не выходит, потому что надо или заниматься детьми, или укладывать их спать, или еще что-нибудь.

Also grilling.А Ароша с Анютой вечером долго занимались огнём на гриле. Они подкладывали туда веточки, раздували огонь одноразовой тарелкой, шевелили угли длинной палкой — вобщем, получили море удовольствия.

40th anniversary.В понедельник мы поехали домой. В этот день над нашими широтами должно было быть частичное солнечное затмение. Мы заранее обзавелись специальными защитными очками, чтобы иметь возможность посмотреть прямо на солнце. Честно говоря, я думала, что во время затмения будет гораздо темнее. Наверное, было немного темнее, но не настолько, чтобы мы это заметили, не зная заранее о происходящем событии.

Yum.Когда мы посмотрели через очки на солце, то затмение были видно очень четко. Солце было похоже скорее на громадный оранжевый месяц. Мне понравилось, хоть я и ожидала несколько иного.

Lina.Еще мы по дороге заехали в торговый центр и провели там часа два делая разные закупки типа курток, маек и джинсов (кстати, для Ароши мы купили джинсы размером на 10 лет, и он их уже носит в школу).

More Anna.После перекуса в противном гамбургерном месте, мы отправились на ферму собирать малину. Для нас это был небольшой обьезд — по 8 миль в каждую сторону, так что оно того стоило. Было очень жарко, поэтому собирали мы ягоды не очень долго, но успели набрать каждый по коробочке (а я две — за себя и Анюту).

Hike around the lake.Малина там была разных сортов — и красная, и жёлтая, и даже чёрная (не путать с ежевикой, которая там тоже, кстати, была). Еще мы купили там две баночки мёда — одну для себя, другую для Эрики, которая в эти дни приглядывала за Шубликом.

Sunset on the lake.К сожалению, Данин папа в кустах случайно обжёгся ядовитым плющом. Похоже, что он разнёс частицы масла этого зловредного растения по телу, и на следующий день у него распухла мочка уха и отёк один глаз. Кроме того, у него выработалась аллергическая реакция на ядовитый плющ, и жутко зудящие пятна появлялись потом по всему телу в течении недель двух. Из этого я сделала вывод, что даже на фермах не стоит соваться в кусты.

Parents.Не считая этой неприятности, сьездили мы очень хорошо. Я бы с удовольствием повторила как-нибудь еще.

On a trail.
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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Norway & Iceland

Norway and IcelandAll the way back in February after weeks of consideration we have booked ourselves a vacation to Norway and Iceland. What makes this one more special than usually is the fact that this is the first European vacation that our kids will come with us on. And it took me all these months to finally write some things down about it — the day before our actual departure.

It all started with us considering what we could do. We considered Moscow and Saint Petersburg. We considered Helsinki and Talin. We considered Poland. But in the end what pushed Oslo and Iceland ahead of the pack was the incredibly low price of the flight. And since at this point we are in four ticket buying business it is an important consideration.

We are flying1 from JFK to Oslo on July 13th. Then on July 20th we fly from Oslo to Reykjavik. And on July 24th we’re flying back home. All that for a price of $399 per person. One heck of a deal. The Iceland stopover is made possible by the fact that Iceland Air allows one to catch a connecting flight through Reykjavik with a layover of up to 7 days.

Also as far as Norway goes it really is just Oslo for us. Since this is the first trip of this kind that we are taking with kids we wanted to limit the number of cities to a minimum. So essentially we are going to have a lot of time to REALLY explore Oslo. Continue Reading

  1. Icelandair from and to JFK through Reykjavík — $399 x 4. []
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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Poconos Summer House

Summer house.В пятницу во время прогулки Илона пригласили меня и Эрику с семьями к ним на дачу в Поконо. С ночёвкой. Эрика сперва отказалась, сославшись на то, что Юра ни за что не согласться, а я сказала, что поговорю с Даней и возможно мы приедем.

Nearby playground.Я очень надеялась, что Даня согласиться. Дело в том, что Ароша очень хотел побывать на даче у Сени. Ему не раз снилось, что он там был, или что он с Сеней и Сашей ездили в совместный отпуск в другое место, например, на Коста Рику. Сеня тоже давно уговаривал Илону показать дачу своим друзьям. Вобщем, Даня согласился поехать, а когда Саша узнал, что Ароша едет, он смог уговорить Юру.

Hike to Dingmans Falls.Мы выехали в субботу в 11:30, а вернулись в воскресенье около 21:00. Что могу сказать? Время провели просто замечательно. И детям, и взрослым из нашей семьи очень понравилось. Кроме нас и Илоны с Денисом и детьми были еще родители Дениса и Илонина сестра с мужем и млашим сыном.

Off the trail on a trail.Дача находится в очень зелёной части Пенсильвании. Дом большой, двор большой, там даже стоит довольной большой надземный бассейн.

Dingmans Falls.В субботу вечером мы ходили на реку немного порыбачить. Денис поймал аж 4 рыбы, включаы довольно крупного сома. Весь улов был отпущен обратно в озеро, потому что всем было жалко убивать рыб.

Us at Dingmans Falls.В воскресенье утром мы сьездили на Dingmans Falls, которые находятся милях в 15 от дачи. Оказывается, эти водопады находятся под опекой национальных парков, и там есть visitor center с печатями, картами, прочим. Вход на водопады бесплатный, и к ним ведёт отличная деревянная тропа. Мы провели там около 2 часов и получили массу удовольствия. Анюта прошла пешком около 2 миль и жаловалась на усталость буквально за 100 метров до парковки.

Dingmans Falls.Кстати, нам очень повезло, что мы приехали туда не слишком поздно. Около водопадов есть парковка, но она небольшая, машин на 50. Когда мы приехали, еще были места, когда мы уезжали, то на парковку стояла очередь из полусотни машин. Я думаю, что в такой очереди можно простоять больше часа.

Grilling.А еще мы жарили шашлыки, общались, пили пиво, а кое-кто и что-то крепче, ходили на детскую площадку и даже пару минут прокатились на велосипеде. Дети практически всё время играли вместе, хотя как всегда не обошлось без мелких стычек и драм.

Fishing. Yura in the front, Elona and Denis in the background.Спать было тоже очень удобно. Нам отвели отдельную комнату с 2 кроватями. Для Анюты мы прихватили с собой её складной манеж. Несмотря на то, что днём было жарко, а в комнате нет кондидионеров, спать было хорошо. Сначала мы укрыли тёплым одеялом только ноги, а под утро укутались в него до шеи.

Fishing.Вечером жгли костёр, и Илонин племянник запустил одну ракету с салютом. Детям очень понравилось.

Checking out the fish.Хозяева были очень гостеприимными и старались, чтобы всем было хорошо, весело и сытно. Вобщем, отличные у нас получились выходные.
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Saturday, June 17, 2017

Memorial Day in Cape Cod

Nauset Light.We wanted to go to Cape Cod for years it seems. The place is relatively close, but somehow we never went, in part because it gets pricey in season. It was not cheap this Memorial weekend as well — a little over $250 for a room per night, but definitely more affordable.

Salt Pond Bay.We booked Hampton Inn hotel by Hilton in Hyannis. The location is not ideal since it’s still a 40+ miles ride from Provincetown, but we wanted to book something with a big chain rather than a small business in case we will have to cancel the trip on the account of children getting sick.

Nauset Beach.The original plan was to leave at 15-16 o’clock, but after some consideration we’ve decided to go as early as possible in hopes to beat some of the traffic, which in our case was right after picking Arosha up from school at 14:20. I prepared chicken sandwiches and tea so that Arosha could eat in the car and save us some time.

Down to Nauset Beach.Well, what can I say? Getting out of a megalopolis on the verge of the long weekend is not pretty. It took us 4 hours to drive the first 90 miles. We did stop at some point to get a quick dinner at a Turkish restaurant, which kids really liked, but pretty much all we did for the rest of the day was driving and standing in traffic. We got to the hotel at 22:30 and went to bed after 23:00.

Eroding Cape Cod.On Saturday the plan was to drive to Provincetown and make a few stops on the way in order to see different lighthouses and maybe take a hike or two.

Balancing at Nauset Beach.Approximately midway we stopped at the visitor center, where Danya and the kids got their passports stamped, and then proceeded to Nauset Lighthouse and Three Sisters Lighthouses. We went down to the beach, but did not spend too much time there since we had a lot of other plans.

Streets of Provincetown.The children started climbing sand dunes on the beach, which apparently is not a good idea because it can facilitate coastal erosion. We did not realize it at first, but within a few minutes someone pointed that out to us, so we explained it to Arosha and Anюta. I think if they were allowed to proceed, they could have enjoyed this activity for a very long time.

Streets of Provincetown.We then went and looked at the Nauset Lighthouse and took a few pictures of it. There were no tours to the top available. We did not take a hike to the Three Sisters, but drove by them — the remnants of the replacement wooden lighthouses (the original brick ones fell into the ocean over a century ago) are not on the shore and only one of them looks like a lighthouse.

Streets of Provincetown.We then proceeded to Provincetown. The roads were quite busy, but no major traffics. In the city though it was tough to find parking. Luckily, we stumbled upon a big public parking lot (it was relatively inexpensive) and on the farthest parking field there were still some spots left.

Cape Cod Bay. View from Provincetown.What can I say? Provincetown seemed too busy for my taste. I guess, if we did not have children, it would have felt nicer, but it was a little unnerving for me to keep track of them in the crowds of people, especially considering the fact that Anюta stopped in front of every single dog and tried to communicate with it, and there were a lot of dogs in Provincetown that day.

Breakwater walk to Wood End Lighthouse.We picked one of the less popular places for lunch — it still had relatively decent rating on TripAdvisor — and got some beer, burgers, chowders and a lobster roll to share. The seafood in Cape Cod is fresh and tasty, and even though I am still not a huge fan of lobsters, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Breakwater walk to Wood End Lighthouse.We walked around the town for a little longer after lunch, and then drove to the Wood End Lighthouse. People at the visitor center warned us that we won’t be able to take a hike to it with little children in tow since the path to it is made out of huge rocks going through the water. We decided to see what exactly that looks like, but could not find any parking. Luckily, there was an inn with a big parking lot right next to the path, and the management let us park there free of charge for an hour.

National Seashore headquarters.The children were very excited with the rocky path — they were jumping from one rock to the next with the speed of a fit adult, but I was worried that one of them would slip and get into the cracks in between the rocks and break something. So we walked towards the lighthouse for about 15 minutes and then headed back to the children’s great disappointment.

Marconi Wireless Station Site.Originally, we planned to see one more lighthouse located in the area that day, and also to get another stamp at the farthest visitor center. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, the center was already closed. Everyone was tired, so we decided to postpone the lighthouse visit until tomorrow, if we would feel like driving so far from our hotel again.

Authentic Cape Cod lunch at Moby Dick's.When we got to the hotel, the children went to the pool, which was also super crowded. Danya and I also changed into our bathing suits, but to be honest, neither pool, nor jacuzzi looked appealing enough to get in, although I did put my legs into the hot tub — I guess, Costa Rica spoiled us in this regard.

Lunch at Moby Dick's.We spent about an hour in the pool, and after a quick shower went to get dinner at local Peruvian restaurant. Danya and the children got fajitas and I got some Peruvian seafood dish that our waitress recommended. It turned out to be really good even though I oftentimes don’t like stuff like that. I think that the quality of the local seafood really makes all the difference.

Cape Code Lighthouse or Highland Lighthouse as it is known now.The next day we have decided to drive to the top of the Cape Cod again to see the Cape Cod Lighthouse. We stopped at some ranger station first in hopes to get an extra stamp, but it was closed. We did make it to Marconi Wireless Station Site though. We had lunch at Moby Dick’s restaurant. It was a nice experience — you order your food at the counter and take any table that you like and they bring the food to you, and the food was good too.

View from the top of Highland Lighthouse.After getting the passports stamped, we went to see the Cape Cod Lighthouse. Danya and Arosha took a tour to the top, but Anюta is not tall enough to be allowed in, so both of us waited for the boys outside. Daniel liked the tour and one of the interesting things that the guide told them is that the lighthouse was moved 3 times already due to coastal erosion.

Light lens itself up top of Highland Lighthouse.We wanted to see another lighthouse and maybe take a hike on the beach to it, but were not sure where to go exactly. A park ranger at the entrance to one of the $20 per car beaches (which we skipped) explained to us that there is a small hidden parking lot from which we can take a mile long hike to the lighthouse, and we even managed to find it, but it had no empty spaces. Oh well.

Highland Lighthouse.We ended up parking at Herring Cove Beach, which was free by the way, and taking an hour walk in the direction of the lighthouse on that beach. We could have walked longer, but it was just so windy and chilly that we could not take it any longer.

Herring Cove Beach.After this we went back to the hotel and the children enjoyed the pool once more. For dinner we went to Brazilian Grill, and it was a real treat. I think kids each ate about as much meat as I did, as they tend to do in this type of restaurants.

Hike at Herring Cove Beach. Windy.Our last full day at Cape Cod happened to be rainy. We didn’t do much. First the children went to the pool and spent 2 hours there. Then we drove to one of the restaurant streets in Hyannis, and had lunch at The British Beer Company and some deserts at the local cupcake store. We also checked out a few souvenir shops and got a cool looking magnifying glass for Arosha and small pink plush seal for Anюta — they christened it tюlenьka.

Herring Cove Beach.We then went back to the hotel and kids hit the pool and a hot tub again. This time around they spent 3 hours enjoying the water activities.

Collection of shells.Danya and I used the fitness center to get a workout on an elliptical trainer. I enjoyed it, but I still like our Peloton much more.

Seashell castle.Then at the evening I felt a massive migraine building up, so by the time we went to the restaurant and ordered dinner, I could barely sit straight. We took the food to go, and Daniel with the children ate their meals in the dining area of our hotel. I did not touch my meal, which was for the better, since I ended up throwing up a few times, which I suspected would happen.

Race Point Lighthouse from afar.Long story short, I was able to sleep most of the night and felt better the next day, although I still had a slight headache and queasy stomach.

Rhode Island Capitol.After breakfast on Tuesday we headed home. We stopped at Providence, the capital of Rhode Island. We visited the state capitol there — looked around, took some pictures, got special stamps.

Inside the capitol at Providence.We ate lunch later on at McDonald’s to save time and arrived home at 7 p.m. The total millage for the trip was 763 miles, which is a lot considering that it was just an extended long weekend getaway.

Arosha with Liberty Bell.I had fun overall, but at the moment have no desire to revisit Cape Cod. I understand that the timing was not ideal since a lot of people travel during this particular weekend, but it just felt so overcrowded. Our average speed for the trip was 30 miles per hour, which means that we spent 20 hours in the car altogether, and this was definitely tiring for everyone, especially Daniel.

Rhode Island Capitol in Providence.But then again, this was a quality time spent with my family and I am grateful that we were able to get away from our everyday routines and just explore new places together.

Providence.

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Friday, May 12, 2017

Cape Cod Weekend Getaway

Cape Cod map.During our last weekend’s trip to Fire Island I again started reminiscing about us visiting so many places and yet still not being able to make it to Cape Cod. Well, we decided to take an upcoming long Memorial Day weekend and remedy the situation.

One of the issues before was that we have tried to look into visiting the cape during the peak summer time and the prices are just way out there. We decided to go there ahead of the season — there are still supposedly plenty of things we can spend our time on without having to actually swim in the ocean.

Another decision that we made was to stay at the very start of the Cape Cod peninsula. Most of the land along the National Seashore is covered by little motels and lodges and they have less than stellar cancellation policy. Having two little kids who can decide to develop a fever on whim’s notice we prefer bigger chains.

We booked our stay at Hampton Inn & Suites Cape Cod1 in Yarmouth-Hyannis area. There was another Hilton property in close proximity, but we settled for this one because it had a hot tub in addition to an indoor pool that both properties featured. Provincetown itself is 45 miles or 1 hour away, so we’ll be able to visit it on one of the days while we are there. Continue Reading

  1. Hampton Inn & Suites Cape Cod — 4 nights, total of $1,115 with taxes included. []

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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Costa Rica Vacation RIU

Riu pools.It was a truly nice, relaxing and pleasant vacation! Except for our trip to volcano and Daniel’s mom sickness, but I will not write in detail about those.

Pacific.What I liked the most was the water, both the ocean and the pools. It was just so warm! I remember that when we were in Costa Rica four years ago, the ocean was much colder and I swam in it briefly just a few times. This vacation was so different. We spent hours in the water.

Kids by Arenal Volcano.Of course, the ocean was wavy, and it was not easy to watch both kids at the same time by myself, but luckily Daniel and his dad were both helping me out most of the time. Also Daniel’s mom was watching the children in the pools sometimes, which was nice especially when Danя, his dad and I were doing water aerobics.

Pools. By Boris R.I also really liked the fact that the resort did not feel crowded. You could get a nice spot on the beach at any time of the day. Anюta and Arosha liked playing in the sand in the shade of the trees and they were pretty much the only children doing this. The pools were not crowded either, and we could almost always get a ball to play water sports with.

Dad. Anna in the background.There was a program for the children in the evening — they would get on stage and dance and have a little competition afterwards. Arosha was shy the first few days, but then he got a taste of it and was really excited to participate. Anюta was joining him too, but she still felt a little shy throughout.

The beach at sunset. By Boris R.The food was OK. Not bad, but kind of very similar in all the restaurants. As it always happens on such kind of resorts, I’ve came home a few pounds lighter, and so did everyone else. I liked fresh fruit the most, especially pineapples. You simply can’t find pineapples this tasty in Brooklyn. Anюta insists that eating watermelon was one of her favorite vacation parts.

Anna with coconut. By Boris R.I also got a chance to wear my pretty summer dresses! And so did Anюta. One day we were wearing a matching nesting doll dresses, and people kept commenting how adorable we look.

Anna with grandma.Talking about clothes, I got Daniel a long sleeved rash guard. He never used one before, and I think it really changed his beach behavior for the better. He used to avoid being in the sun or getting in the water in the first half of the day unless there was shade. Like most of us, Daniel really hates putting on sunblock, and this took care of it for the most part. I also think that having apple watch gave us extra incentive to be more active, hence we participated in water aerobics classes for the first time ever.

One of many monkeys in the trees. By Boris R.One of the highlights of the trip for me was going down the beach and seeing semi-wild monkeys in the patch of the adjacent forest. Daniel’s dad, the explorer he is, brought me and the children there after discovering them on his own. We saw two different kinds of monkeys up close.
Arosha on a trail.
They were not afraid of people at all — in fact, they were used to people feeding them and taking pictures of them. One of the monkeys was eating a hard boiled egg, and children found it to be pretty amusing. Unfortunately for Danя, when we made another trip to watch the monkeys in his company, there were none to be seen.

Giant leaf Arosha found in Arenal National Park.We also encountered different kinds of lizards and iguanas both on the beach and on the resort’s grounds.

On a trail at Arenal National Park.It was sad to leave this wonderful country and splendid resort. The children are begging to go there again in the future. I hope we’ll be able to.

Riu pools from the top floor.
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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Costa Rica 2017

Riu Palace Costa Rica.We are back from our trip to Costa Rica and I’m happy to report that it went well. Actually it was pretty great with a couple of small exceptions. It was a nice change of pace from our usual very active trips and it was quite refreshing not to rush anywhere and just relax.

Breakfast at the buffet.And if after our usual exploration vacations we’re pretty tired and are happy to get home, the downside of this one is that I could easily do another week of doing nothing. It was a little too short.

Breakfast juices.The exceptions came in the form of my mom getting what seemed to be a food poisoning which made her stay in bed for a day and our excursion. More about that later.

Now a little bit about everything.

Resort


Pools.Last time we stayed in Hilton all-inclusive. It was somewhat mediocre. One of those rare cases when Hilton really disappoints. This time we decided to stay in place that is famous for doing all-inclusive correctly — Riu. And Riu Palace at that. I checked up on Hilton and the property was actually sold to some other chain. Riu Palace was also in Guanacaste Province as was Hilton, but a little bit to the south of our previous stay.

Our room.When we were assigned our rooms we had to make quite a walk to the far end of the hotel from the front desk. My mom was actually upset that it was so far. However as it turned out it was the best location possible for several reasons. It was the place from where the walk to the pools and the beach was the shortest.

Riu Palace.All the eateries were also easily accessible. It was on a ground floor — no stairs to climb. Rooms faced the back gardens away from the pools and the theater which made them very quite — very good for kids who need to take naps and go to sleep relatively early.

Omelet cook.As far as food goes there were breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets, 4 thematic restaurants and a mid-day pool BBQ, all of which we have visited. And as usual there was a countless number of bars serving all kinds of drinks one could desire day and night. There were a couple of things that I enjoyed from the restaurants, but mostly the food wasn’t very memorable.

Ocean beach.The temperature of the pools was amazing. We actually sampled one on our very first night in and it was the warmest pool I have been in. You just walk in and enjoy — no need to use any power of will to actually submerge. There were at least 5 pools and there were always empty chairs and beds available. The beach was the same in many respects. There was always space available in the shade of the trees and the water was also very warm — same deal — just walk in and enjoy.

Our water gymnasts. By Boris R.The ocean was often quite wavy though. Kids enjoyed playing in the sand, but we had to hold them very close to us when in the water. On the very first day Alёna got knocked over by a wave and lost her $500 prescription sun glasses. My dad lost his hat towards the end of the trip. There were several cases when breaking waves were several feet over my head. So we would usually relocate to the pools as the day progressed.

Lina.Our Anna is a very proficient swimmer in her floating pads and she would torpedo all over the pool for hours. Arosha refuses to use any flotation devices for years now, so all the practice made him a decent swimmer as well — self thought. We probably should sign him up for some swimming lessons so they would teach him some correct techniques.

Riu Palace.All in all Riu Palace Costa Rica was a great resort to stay at. We can highly recommend it.

Fitness


Us.A day before the trip Alёna and I exchanged watches. She didn’t want to take her Apple Watch with her, much preferring our indestructible Casio Pathfinder for this kind of vacation. Yet hers was the waterproof Series 2 watch, while mine was Series 0. I’m glad we did that. I spent hours upon hours with my Apple Watch in the water.

Matching dresses.Originally I thought I would have to visit the gym daily to keep up my exercise and calorie burn streak going, but it worked out even better. Every day at 11:30am there was a water aerobics class in the pool that lasted for about 30 minutes. It provided enough exercise minutes and even though the calorie burn was moderate the rest of the day easily put me over my goal of 400 active calories per day. It was a nice change of pace.

Kids.I also attempted to do a swimming workout on my first day there only to realize that doing a swim for 15 minutes is a LOT harder than doing an hour on our spin bike. I did manage to eek out my 15 minutes, but that was my one and only attempt.

Excursions


Our van. Hyundai H1.This part was a very expensive and very epic fail of our vacation. During our last trip to Costa Rica we enjoyed our visits to local national parks. This time things didn’t go as smoothly. First of all we needed a big car — there were 7 of us. Chevy Suburban just doesn’t exist in Costa Rican rental places. I also wanted to get the car with full insurance considering that my regular insurance doesn’t cover anything overseas and realizing that stuff like bison vs Suburban can happen.

Lago Arenal.After finding what seemed a decent option for a car that was supposed to fit 7 people and 4 suitcases we realized that the 3rd row of seats was more of a gimmick than an actual set of seats that even kids wouldn’t fit into comfortably and there was no space left for our bags. So we had to get one rental place to shuttle us to another one. At that other one we ended up with a cross between a full-sized van and a minivan — Hyundai H1.

On a trail.This van had no proper seat belts nor did it have any latch anchors for kid car seats. It did have a lot of space and a lot of size which made it’s puny engine very noticeable. The damn thing could barely climb any kind of incline. All that came out to $856 for 8 days — crazy expensive. But that was the least of our problems.

Lava fields by Arenal Volcano.On our second full day we decided to revisit Arenal since we didn’t get to actually see the volcano because of all the fog last time. The trip was extremely long end tedious. The roads were bad and umarked. At one point we had to drive down a dirt hill where they suddenly forgot to put any asphalt down. We met zero animals of any kind which was a sharp contrast to our previous trip.

Arenal Volcano.When we got to the park we were charged $85 to enter — they charge per person not per car. In United States I can get a pass to ALL of national parks for $80 for all of us.

Lava field.Arenal National Park had two short trails. We took the one up to the lava field which was a mile each way. Lava field turned out to be a collection of large black boulders — much less impressive compared to what we saw in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. And the view of the volcano itself was better from the road to the park, not inside. Anyhow.

River.We also stopped by the river that was mighty impressive on our last trip. This time it was your usual mountain river — quite bland and empty. On our way back we wanted to get some late lunch at the same German place that we ate at the last time, but by the time we got there the kitchen was already closed. It wasn’t even 4:30pm yet. So we ate at a nearby Italian place.

On a trail.And then the scary part. It was already quite dark outside when we got back to that dirt-road patch that I mentioned earlier. And when we attempted to drive up that road our car started sliding down. Every attempt seemed to make things worse. At one point it actually got caught by the underside on some dirt pile and just would not move in either direction. Everyone had to get out. The car just wouldn’t go up and the width of this road was about the length of our car with cliffs raising (luckily) on both sides. Everyone got really scared and stressed out. Getting completely stuck in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere with little kids.

Giant tree.I managed to pull off a U-turn without any regard for the bumpers at this point. We had to take a long detour back to our hotel. This day completely took the wind out of our further excursion plans and we had no desire whatsoever to go anywhere else. We just hoped that this car would be able to take us back to the airport when the time came without any additional stress. Which it did.

Lago Arenal dam.So there you have it — $856 for the car, $85 for the park, $60 for the gas plus credit card currency conversion fees and you have a very expensive epic fail. Not doing that again in the future.

Our Day


Riu Palace.Our days were great. We would wake up at somewhere from 7 to 8am and go eat breakfast at the buffet. Then we would go to the beach and play with the ocean. By around 11:15am we would move to the pools and do our water aerobics until 12pm. Then we would get some lunch and go back to our room for a couple of hours of nap. After nap we would again return to the pool and stay there until 6:30pm after which we would go get some dinner. And then back to bed for a good night of sleep. Rinse and repeat.

On a trail.Towards the end we started going to the theater where kids would participate in a kid show and games on the stage at 8pm. And then there was a show done by the hotel crew at 9pm. It’s no Cirque du Soleil, but some of these shows were quite fun to watch.

Swimming in the ocean.That was a very nice routine. I could easily do another week of this. I am already feeling some nostalgia for our Costa Rican stay.
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Friday, February 24, 2017

Amsterdam

Amsterdam canals.Amsterdam was the final stop of our November anniversary trip. I did not have especially high expectations of the city, but thought that it is worth visiting in any case. Some people that I spoke to before going really love Amsterdam — the so called energy — but for my taste it was a little too heavy on the pleasure seeking crowd. Granted, our hotel was pretty much next to the red light district, so it might have skewed our impression a little.

Our DoubleTree by Hilton Amsterdam hotel. Our room was in that hanging section.We arrived to Amsterdam by train and walked to the hotel since it was close to the train station. Hilton upgraded our room to a fancier one with an amazing view. The thing that surprised me was the size of the hotel — it took us a few minutes of brisk walking to reach our room from the elevator. Longest hotel ever!

View from our window.We had our first Dutch lunch at the bar downstairs. Danya got a cheeseburger, I got a risotto, and we washed it down with some very nice tasting local wheat beer. I am still not sure what Dutch cuisine is apart from the cheeses and herring sandwiches.

Cheese shop.The breakfast bar was indistinguishable from other Hilton buffets in Europe, and the snacks in the executive lounge were worse than in two previous cities. The one thing that stood out in the executive lounge was the Heineken beer on tap. I’ve never seen tap beer in such places before.

Royal Palace.Later in the evening we went for a walk in the hotel’s vicinity. There were a lot of bicyclists by the way, which reminded me of Munich. Unlike Munich though no one was yelling at people when they were walking on bicycle paths, and the reverse was true — no one scolded bicyclists for riding at pretty high speeds through the crowds.

Red light district.What surprised me was a traffic regulator on one of the relatively quiet intersections. Later we had a chance to see him in action — he ran to the car which was taking a wrong turn yelling (in English) something about the driver smoking too much pot and being stupid. I guess, these Dutch people know what they are doing when they assign traffic controllers.

Amsterdam canals.The red light district left an uneasy impression. I’ve never tried any kind of drugs, so even though pot seems benign to many people, I look at any kind of drug use more harshly than some. So for me it was not very pleasant to walk in the cloud of pot smoke. The smell to me is pretty disgusting (I feel the same about cigarette smoke), and I kept thinking how many of those people were using something stronger than marijuana.

Streets of Amsterdam.As for the prostitutes, we’ve seen a bunch in the windows. Some were young, some were more middle aged, some were skinny, some were curvy, but it just felt so weird that they do what they do in the open. Don’t get me wrong, I think legalized prostitution is better for everyone than the illegal one, but the whole idea of selling sex like candy makes me feel bad for women who resort to that profession.

Amsterdam.The next day after breakfast we went for the walk in the red light district again. Amsterdam has a lot of canals going through it like blood vessels. We also saw many bridges connecting the banks of canals, which gave it more romantic haze in my view. The city itself is beautiful, even though it does not have some famous landmark which would make it instantly recognizable in pictures.

Heineken Experience.We walked around for a while and ended up going to the Heineken Experience museum. It is worth mentioning that there was a sizable line to get in — longer than we’ve encountered in any European museum in the second half of November.

Beer stages.The museum was OK. I somehow expected more, but it was interesting to taste… whatever it’s called, the liquid which will later becomes beer. And see and smell hops. And hear about Heineken way to fame. The beer tasting at the end was disappointing — it was just regular tap Heineken, which I could have gotten for free in the hotel lounge.

Boat tour.We also booked a boat with Heineken Experience to take us to the Amsterdam lookout. Danya’s parents really enjoyed their tour on Amsterdam canals, but for me it was fun for the first 5 minutes, and then I just could not wait to get out of there.

On Heineken boat.Maybe if we had a guide who would have told us about city’s history, or if our driver was not an inexperienced lady, who was going sooooo slowly, it would have been a different story. Oh well. I am glad that we did not book a longer tour — our ride took about 45 minutes, even though it was supposed to be 30.

View from the top. Amsterdam Centraal train station across the bay.When we arrived to the Amsterdam lookout, we went straight to the top and Danya took a bunch of pictures. It was cold and windy out there, so we went inside a few times to warm up.

Window view.There was also some sort of swings which was putting people outside of the roof and they were kind of hanging in the air. There was a lot of excitement and screams associated with that contraption, and the line to get in was long, but I know that I would not get there even if I got paid. Adrenalin rush? Thank you, I will pass.

Streets of Amsterdam.We ate dinner at our hotel’s restaurant. It was very decent. Danya got a steak, and I just ordered a few side vegetable dishes, which turned out to be tasty and very sizable for the price.

By Delft shop.By the way, when we were walking by the canals we tried to find, unsuccessfully, the famous herring sandwiches. I suppose, they don’t sell them in November. What a shame!

Delft vases.On our last day we went searching for gifts. Danya found an interesting looking tulip vase online and we thought that something like that would be an original gift.

Little Delft museum.We started with souvenir shops, but buying things that are made in China seemed… I don’t know… boring? So when we spotted a real Royal Delft pottery store, we were very pleased. Unfortunately, if you want an authentic thing, you have to pay prices corresponding to developed country labor costs.

Walking around.Luckily for us, they had a 50% discounted section with last season’s stuff, which made the pottery more affordable. The vases were still in 100-200 euros range, but the one that we’ve chosen had a little defect, which Danya discovered at the counter, so they sold it to us at additional 50% off (we bought two vases total).

View from the top of Heineken Experience.We also visited the second floor of the store and watched an artist decorating the pottery for a while. We talked to her a little bit about the process and she was informative and also let us into the little museum belonging to the store for free — normally it is 5 euros per person.

Hearty lunch at Irish pub.After that we wondered the streets for a while, but did not buy anything else except for some wooden tulips.

Irish beer at Irish pub.We ate a very nice lunch at an Irish Pub — I washed it down with Guinness, Danya stayed loyal to wheat beer.

View from our hotel window.And this was our Amsterdam. It has its charm, but I liked it less than our other stops during this trip.

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Monday, February 20, 2017

Costa Rica

Costa Rica.At the very end of 2016 we have booked our next vacation. We as a whole family — kids, us and my parents — are going to Costa Rica in the beginning of April. Again. We have been to Costa Rica before — in 2013. Arosha was two and a half years old and only remembers anything from the pictures we showed him. Anюta has technically been to Costa Rica too, but I doubt she remembers much considering she was inside of Alёna’s belly.

Last time we stayed in Hilton Papagayo Resort which was less than stellar — one of those rare cases when Hilton actually disappointed us. And this time around it simply doesn’t exist anymore — has been sold off to some other company. We haven’t done many all-inclusive vacations, but the one that stands out the most was in Mexico when we stayed in Riu Palace. So we opted in to stay at Riu Palace Costa Rica. Continue Reading

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Friday, February 17, 2017

Bruges and Ghent Day Trip

Bruges. Bruges Photo Point.During our latest November vacation to Europe our longest stay was in Brussels — 4 nights and almost 5 days since the ride from Paris takes only 1 hour. Our 10th wedding anniversary — November 23rd — also happened to fall on that stay in Brussels.

Street of Bruges.The reason why we made the stay in Brussels longer than in other cities and to make our anniversary stand out more we planned to take a side trip to a pair of old Belgium cities — Bruges and Ghent.

Streets of Ghent.As with all our side-trips there was a slight fear that we might flake out and not make it as happens with about half of our planned trips of such kind. In our overseas vacations we managed to keep our trip to Miyajima Island in Japan and we rented a car for a day to drive to Pisa in Italy. Yet we didn’t make it to Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany nor did we visit Toledo while in Spain. Luckily us skipping out wasn’t the case here.

Streets of Bruges.What made this trip especially easy was the fact that trains running to Bruges and Ghent originate from Brussels Central Station which was located right across a tiny square from the entrance to our hotel — extremely convenient.

Our train tickets.I did a little bit of research beforehand and knew that we could buy an open “via” ticket — no specific time — which would allow us to break our trip in two on the same ticket. In other words we could go to Bruges, get off at Ghent on our way back if we felt like it and get back on the train to finish the trip off. And this whole privilege ended up costing us only a couple of extra euros.

Bruges train station.We were definitely set on seeing Bruges which was the farthest of the two cities and it also was older than Ghent. I wasn’t sure if we were going to stop at Ghent at all and neither was Alёna. So we got on a train and in a little more than an hour were standing at Bruges train station.

Streets of Ghent.The unfortunate thing for us was that it was the only day of our whole vacation when it was really raining. When we left Brussels in the morning it seemed like it would be a nice day, bus alas, it wasn’t. In fact it was raining to hard that we had to find a store to acquire a pair of umbrellas. But overall walking through an old town and it’s narrow empty streets and rain soaked alleys ended up being quite romantic.

Bruges central square.When we got closer to the center we stepped inside Sint-Salvator Cathedral for a couple of minutes, but it was pretty bleak inside compared to some of the other cathedrals we have seen in Europe. And soon after we were on the central square of Bruges which had a good number of tourists all over it. However the rain was still strong, so we didn’t walk around too much.

Belfry of Bruges.Instead we decided to climb to the top of Belfry of Bruges. It’s 83 meters tall and it takes 366 steps to get to the top. But the views from the top were magnificent, as expected, including the main squire right below. I also spotted some waterfront from the top to which we walked to and took some nice shots. It seems that it actually is a pretty popular place for photography.

View from the top of Belfry.After the tower we ate lunch at some Italian place and then the rain was done. So we did walk through those streets and numerous and numerous chocolateries.

Waffle on a stick.I’m not a fan of any sweets, but we bought Alёna a waffle on a stick and bought a pair of artisan chocolate bars for our kids — white chocolate for Arosha as he doesn’t like dark chocolate and dark for Anюta. I also liked how chocolate looked when it was made in a form of rusty nuts, bolts and pliers of all kinds.

Artisan chocolate.That was our visit to Bruges. We started to walk back to the train station trying to take a different route through more old quite streets. And at some point we just stood on one of those tiny streets making out — it was our 10th anniversary after all.

10th wedding anniversary!We got on a train to Brussels feeling ready to go back to our hotel. But then we though — why are we so set on skipping Ghent? It was only around 5pm and we had a ton of time to stop by there as well. Both of us felt kind of happy that suddenly decided to visit it — again, not sure why both of us were sure that we won’t make it to Ghent.

Streets of Ghent.We checkout out the map and went towards the old center of the city. It took us about 40 minutes at a decent pace to get there. We went though the usual streets of Ghent, looking at people going about their business, returning home from their day of work. When we were getting closer to the center the sun was gone, the streets got tinier and lights from all the trams running along those streets made everything look really cozy.

Ghent's main square.We walked around the main squire taking some pictures of Saint Nicholas’ Church and Het Belfort van Gent set against a dark blue sky. Sadly by now it was too late for us to climb the tower. We spent some time admiring the old structures and all the atmosphere of this place and set back to the train station.

Saint Nicholas’ Church.We also saw that there was a ton of trams running all around the city and it turned one of those runs directly back to the train station. So we hopped onto it, bought the tickets from the driver and were back on a train station soon after. Catching a train to Brussels was also very easy and soon we were back at our home away from home. We were so tired that we just went to our executive lounge for a free dinner. It was a good day.

Streets of Ghent.

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Sunday, January 15, 2017

Brussels

Grand Place.The ride to Brussels was fast and easy. We took a cab to the Paris Nord train station and after a relatively short train ride we arrived at Brussel-Zuid station. Our Hilton was located right next to another train station — Brussels Centraal.

Brussel Centraal train station.We did not know it back then, but we could have hopped on pretty much any train going in that direction for free (our tickets from Paris covered it) and would have gotten to the Centraal station in 5 minutes. Instead, we decided to take a local subway, and it took us around 40 minutes to get to the hotel. Oh well, we still saved some money if not time compared to the taxi ride.

Our top floor hotel room.At Hilton, we got an upgraded room looking out to the city center. The hotel had an executive lounge, which is a always a big plus. This particular lounge served not just appetizers, but full dinners in the evenings. The hotel’s staff was also very nice and they sent us a card and a bottle of Prosecco wine at the day of our anniversary. As I said many times before, Hilton does not disappoint.

One of the multiple fry places.We arrived to the hotel mid-day, and were pretty hungry by that point. Since all the travel guides praise Belgian french fries as superb and authentic, we decided to get them for lunch. We randomly picked a small place with a lively crowd. Danya got a burger with fries and I got a salad with the same side. What can I say? It tasted just like plain boring french fries is supposed to. Have you guessed that I am not a big fan? There was nothing special or extra delicious about it in this place, or any other place in Belgium for that matter.

Grand Place.After a quick lunch, we walked around the center and checked the Grand Place for the first time. Funny thing is that during our preliminary research both Danya and I were sure that there was a Grand PAlace — a King’s residence, and not a PLace — an old square in the center of Brussels. I’ve read that the Place looks especially Grand during flower blooming seasons, but with our vacation happening at the end of November the flowers were long gone.

Grand Place for afar.Our first impression was that even though the city center was nice, it was not distinguishable enough to stand out from the other European cities. The thought that we should have spent more time in Paris and less time in Brussels came to our minds more than once. However, Brussels grew on us as days went by. We circled around the center many more times and as the streets were getting more and more familiar, the city seemed more and more charming.

Beer tasting.But back to our first day. After lunch we picked a pub to taste some of those famous Belgian beers. The bar that we chose was cozy, but I think that we made a mistake by buying a sampler instead of just going for the beer types that we typically enjoy. There was probably one or two beers out of 6 that we’ve gotten that were more or less OK, the rest was just too bitter for our liking. We did mention to the bartender that we like wheat beers that are more sour than bitter, but with the exception of one beer she pretty much gave us the standard sampler. What a pity.

Our first beer bar.We went to pubs in Brussels two more times during our trip. Second time we picked a bar across the street from the first one and got a pair of Hoegaardens. The beer was nice — draft is draft — but the atmosphere was probably a little worse than during our first day. The bartender spoke Russian to us (we did not inquire where she was from though), and there was a big table with older people who were pretty loud.

Our second beer bar.Our third and final beer pub experience was the best. The bar itself had pretty high ratings, but it was not the beer, but the company that made it more special. We decided to sit by the bar this time around and at some point a young guy, who happened to be an American on a business trip to Europe, started a conversation with us. It was fun to talk to someone about a whole bunch of things, and he also suggested that we should try a sour beer — Belgian specialty, which I ended up really liking. In fact, we tried two different types of sour beer and one of them reminded me of kvas, only with alcohol.

Delirium Café. Largest selection of beer per The Guinness Book of Records.On our fist day we had dinner at a highly rated Belgian restaurant Fin De Siecle, which apparently translates as The End of the Century. It was really crowded and they had a layout similar to beer halls — long tables that people share and all. There was no menus available, just a blackboard with chalk writing on it by the bar, and they did not accept credit cards.

Central. Place.The food was decent and relatively inexpensive, but it was so hot and loud that I was glad when we got out in the cold and quiet of the night. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at the city center again and the buildings were lighted up in blue, which looked pretty nice I think.

Metro station.The next day was our 10th wedding anniversary. Yay to the happiness that we’ve had and hopefully will continue to have! We decided to go to Brugge and possibly stop at Ghent on our way back. There will be a separate post about that day.

Atomium.On the third day we made a trip to the Atomium, which was constructed for the 1958 World’s Fair. Travel guides say that Belgians consider their Atomium to be on par with Eiffel Tower, but I beg to differ. I have not heard about Atomium prior to visiting Brussels, and I bet I was not alone in my ignorance.

Inside one of the strands at Atomium.We took a subway ride to the place — even though we had to switch train lines ones, it was easy enough to figure out how to get there. Once we got there, we first took a stroll in the vicinity and took some pictures and then got tickets for the inside tour. It was not especially memorable — mostly a bunch of World Expo posters. The view from one of the spheres was OK, but nothing special as well.

Looking out one of the windows.After Atomium, we walked around some more and went to have lunch at another place rated well by Trip Advisor. It was almost closing, so we could only pick one of the two dishes from the day specials, which actually worked out just fine. I got fish, Danya got meat, and I ended up really enjoying it. I also got a raspberry Hoegaarden beer, which tasted more like compote.

Another window view.Funny thing is that when we were looking for that particular place, we passed a whole bunch of other places where the waiters were quite aggressively trying to lure us in, promising free beer and such. From what Danya read on Trip Advisor, such places turned out to be tourist traps, where people ended up paying high prices for substandard food. Good thing that we skipped those. Although, as a rule, if something looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Park by Atomium.In the evening we took another stroll though the city center and even went to see the silly statue of the pissing boy — Manneken Pis. I don’t know why, but it managed to be in a spotlight of tourist attention for a very long time, and people do not seem to tire of it. Oh well, why not?

Park by Atomium.The next day we just spent a good chunk of the morning staying in bed — vacations without children are the only time when I have a luxury to do this. I actually managed to read three books during the vacation. For me it’s a very fast pace, since I don’t normally have much time for reading for myself — reading for kids is the whole other story.

By Atomium.For lunch we’ve decided to check out a cheese sandwich place — Tonton Garby — which had very high ratings on Trip Advisor. The shop owner is very chatty and attentive, and he obviously knows his cheeses. We liked our sandwiches a lot.

Tonton Garby cheese sandwich shop.The downside is that you have to wait for a long time to get your sandwich since the owner spends roughly 10 minutes per customer. We stood in line for about 40 minutes — there were two couples ahead of us — but I think it was worth it. We ate our sandwiches in Hilton’s executive lounge though — more room, warmer, and who can beat free drinks?

Église Notre-Dame du Sablon.In the afternoon we went to explore the city some more. We walked to the Royal Palace, had a nice stroll in some park and even visited a church, which was probably nice, but does not stick out in memory.

Grand Place.We also stumbled upon a shopping avenue with many famous brands present, but we just passed them by since neither me, nor Danya felt particular urge to buy stuff. We did visit a BMW shop which had a free expo going. There were a whole bunch of historic BMWs, and even though I am not an automobile aficionado, it was interesting to see the car industry evolution through the experiences of this particular company.

Christmas market.And of course we ended up in the center again, where we got lucky because the holiday market, which was being built during the previous days, was finally open. We wondered through it for a while, and I even got a nice hand-made pendant on a black rope.

View from our window.After that we made our last visit to the local bar — a place called Delirium. I’ve wrote about our nice experience there a few paragraphs back.

At Delirium bar.I think we had dinner at the Executive lounge, and it was really good as always.

Brussels. Park by Atomium.
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Friday, January 13, 2017

Paris — The City of Lights

Eiffel Tower from the top of Arc de Triomphe.It’s getting to two months since our return from Europe and we have yet to write anything about it. So I will start with Paris — the first stop of our three country vacation and the rest will follow.

Our hotel. Hilton Paris Opera.As most European flights are we left JFK on a red-eye flight to Paris with a stop-over in Reykjavik. For some reason this flight was unusually tiring on us. Neither one of us can really sleep well on a plane and this time around Alёna started to get a huge migraine which in her case usually leads to inability to stand and possible fainting. And the only solution was to sleep which she couldn’t do well.

Streets of Paris. On our way to the arch.During a stop-over in Reykjavik we had to stand in line to go through passport control and I feared that she was either going to pass out or decide to lye down on the floor. Luckily after we went through passport control she started feeling better and the next flight went relatively OK. But we were very very tired after it all.

Streets of Paris.I remember during our trip to Germany we even went out right after our flight to Berlin. And when we went to Barcelona we didn’t feel as tired either. We took a short nap and set out for a long walk. As we did here. We took a taxi to our hotel which was not far from all the things that we wanted to see, got checked in after a small wait — which we spent in an executive lounge — into an small suite via a free upgrade with an “amazing” view of some roof.

Arc de Triomphe.The hotel itself looked grand inside and out. It actually looked like some old opera house inside. So we asked whether it was converted from something else into a hotel. Turns out it was always a hotel which was built at the end of 19th century. It used to be directly connected to a large train station behind the hotel which is still there. The hotel changed ownership multiple times throughout it’s history and was acquired by Hilton group in 2013. Now it’s known as Hilton Paris Opera.

View from the to of the arch.And after a well proportioned nap we got dressed and set course towards the famous Arc de Triomphe which was one and a half miles away from our hotel or a 30 minute walk. This was our first impression of Paris. And it is grand, like no city that we have seen before. The streets seemed old yet cozy. Old churches, old buildings — lots and lots of history.

Another view of the tower from the top.There were a lot of refugees on the streets, but instead of feeling unsafe in these situations you couldn’t help but feel compassion for those families. During the day woman would spent time with kids under the blankets in cold streets and later on a father would join, probably coming back from trying to find work.

Staircase inside the arch.The arch was quite impressive and even though it was dark out there was a large number of people around it. Since climbing atop the arch was one of the things on our list and we would be coming there again anyhow we didn’t spend a lot of time around it and turned back. We tried to find some dinner place and ended up walking through some tiny streets to find a highly rated place via Trip Advisor. But it turned out to be closed on that day of the week.

The Eiffel Tower.We walked back all the way to our hotel and searched again. Ended up going for dinner into some small tapas places, but for some reason we ended up ordering full dinner entries. In retrospect that was a mistake — should’ve gone for things that they specialize in. We did, however, try some interesting red sweet beer.

Right across Seine from The Eiffel Tower.We started our first full day with a walk back to the arch, bought the tickets and took a long spiral staircase up to the top. The view was magnificent. This was also the first time we actually saw The Eiffel Tower with our own eyes. And the vantage point was perfect for photographing it. The arch itself was located in a center of circle to which a lot of streets were connecting, making it look like you are standing in a center of sun with rays running out of it.

Under the tower.We spent a while walking around and taking pictures. Sadly for my photography the sky was constantly gray making for less then stellar end results. But I had my GND filters with me, so I could still make photos without featureless skies. In fact the view was so great that we decided that there was no point going to an observation deck of skyscraper that we originally planned to visit.

Shores of Seine.Our next destination was the famous tower itself — another 30 minute walk. Beforehand we had to do a thorough inspection of a bathroom — none of which are free in Paris — of a large department store. A side note — everything in Paris was within a walking distance, so we didn’t have to use any kind of transpiration at all.

Seine.Right across from the tower there was a set of stairs that one could climb for a nice view of the tower and surroundings. And after taking a couple of photographs from there we crossed the Seine and ended up pretty much right under the tower. It really is pretty huge. To get exactly under the tower one had to go through security gates — there is a fence around the tower — and since we didn’t really want to go up the tower we decided to skip that.

Alexandre III bridge across Seine.And then we just set course towards our hotel along the shores of Seine. Since it was a weekend a lot of people were out and about — running, cycling or just walking. At one point a shady looking woman bent over in front of us and made it seem like she just found a golden ring. It was obvious to me that it was some kind of scam, so I just waved her off. Alëna wasn’t sure, so we just stood there and watched. The same exact scene repeated itself when she walked up to some other group of people. Things like this are pretty easy to spot to avoid unpleasant situations.

Alexandre III bridge. The Eiffel Tower in the background.After a nice walk we crossed Seine again and even the bridges in this city are grand — magnificent statues and all. We got caught under a bit of rain, but it stopped shortly after it started. And then we ended up on one of the winter markets that we remember so well from Germany. Lots of street food, crafts, drinks and everything else that these markets tend to have. And a lot of people.

Christmas market.This is where we tried one of the “musts” in France — crepes. We ordered a pair of crepes with different stuffing. We wanted to get some Gluehwein — hot German wine, but for some reason didn’t. The crepes were crepes. Nothing unexpected. But now we can claim that, yes, we did try crepes in Paris. And I again had to test out the local facilities — my stomach was acting up all day long — the one and only day when it was giving me problems. I don’t think it’s crepe related though, but it did put a bit of a damper on this fun day.

Parisian crepes.On the way to our hotel we stopped by another very grand looking church with huge columns for a short visit and that was it for exploring on that day. For dinner we went to Restaurant Garnier that was recommended by hotel staff — a place right across the street from our hotel. It turned out to be probably the best dinner of the whole trip. I ordered some insanely expensive fried fish, but it was totally worth it.

Louvre.The main objectives of our second and last full day in Paris were Louvre and Notre Dame de Paris. If the tower and the arch were on the west side of our hotel, Louvre and Notre Dame were on the east. The day turned out to be somewhat rainy, so we borrowed an umbrella from our hotel and were on our way.

Louvre lobby.Louvre was about 2km away — another 30 minute walk through the streets of Paris. When we arrived there we saw the world famous glass pyramid entrance and as expected — no line. We quickly passed through the security checkpoint and saw a coat check by the entrance. We figured since we’re going to spend 2-3 hours were it would be nice to to lug our outerwear with us.

Venus de Milo.The thing is that we hate going through a regular coat check though. Standing in line, getting a number, somebody handling your clothing, retrieving it, tipping and all that. But in Louvre you end up in a large locker room in which you pick any shelf from different sized ones and each one is equipped with a digital lock. You put your stuff in, set the pin and that’s it. Great.

Mona Lisa.And then we wondered through the halls of this top art museums of the world. Among the most famous things we saw was Venus de Milo and DaVinci’s Mona Lisa. Mona Lisa was probably the most crowded place of the whole museum. It was not even possible to get close to it. There were two guards, a guard rail, bullet proof glass and a “selfing” crowd.

One of very many halls inside Louvre.The museum is impossible to cover in one day. We usually places like this 2-3 hours and then we tend to get tired. Towards the end of our tour when we sat down on one of the benches for a little bit of rest Alёna remembered that we still haven’t seen the famous painting by Jacques-Louis David — The Coronation of Napoleon. I started looking around and lo and behold — we’re sitting right in front of it.

Streets of Paris.Notre Dame de Paris was another 1.7km away in the same direction — further away from our hotel. Needless to say the walk back was somewhat long. But we keep trying to take different routes and end up seeing a good portion of all the cities that we visit through non-touristy streets. These walks probably are the things that built the feel of the city for us.

Notre Dame de Paris.Notre Dame itself is not all that unusual from the looks of it inside or out to my untrained eyes. But what makes it really special is the fact that it has seen so much history. The construction of it began almost 900 years ago. Napoleon was crowned inside of it, as is depicted by the above mentioned painting. The day was quite rainy so we decided not to go to the roof though.

Streets of Paris.And after that we took a long walk back to our hotel. We were so tired by the day’s end that we decided to grab a late light lunch in hotel restaurant and later some appetizers at the executive lounge instead of going out. And thus our stay in Paris has concluded as the next morning we were leaving it for Brussels.

Streets of Paris.As I said earlier Paris has left a very positive and lasting impression on us. It really is grand all throughout. We did see a lot of things, but there are many many other things to do that we didn’t have time for. In retrospect we really should’ve allocated more time for Paris, especially considering that a train to Brussels only takes an hour. I would like to visit it again in the future.

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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Paris, Belgium, Amsterdam

Paris, Belgium, AmsterdamIn early March of this year we’ve booked another wedding anniversary vacation that Alёna and I do every year thanks to our parents who kindly agreed to look after our kids yet again.

This time around we wanted to visit the northwestern part of Europe — Belgium and Netherlands. While looking for the best deal on plane tickets1 it became apparent that starting from Paris was the best option, so we added Paris in as well. We fly into Paris, then we move onto Brussels and we go back home from Amsterdam.

Our first destination is Paris. We’ve traveled quite a bit, yet to this point we haven’t made it to this iconic city. We’re going to be spending 3 nights2 in Paris. We booked one of Hilton hotels close to the center of the city only to get an email later on that this particular hotel is closing for renovations. The email stated that they would have no problem canceling our reservation at no charge (!!!), but we could instead relocate to a nearby Hilton hotel.

At first I was quite upset. The nearby hotel was quite a bit more expensive, and I sent an email back saying that it wasn’t fair at all. However it turned out that I misunderstood the intentions of the email. So in the end they moved us to a much more expensive hotel for the same cost, put us in king-size bed room and upgraded that to an executive floor. It actually worked out rather well.

As for the sight-seeing — while we have to read extensively about most destination there is a ton of things that I want to see in Paris that I can come up with off the top of my head. But since we’re there for only two days we have to pick and choose. So far this list of our top destinations looks like this — Eiffel Tower, Musée du Louvre and climbing on top of Arc de Triomphe. Another less usual destination is The Montparnasse Tower and more specifically its open-air observation deck. The place from which I can photograph the most iconic parts of Paris — namely Eiffel Tower.

Then there is Notre Dame de Paris. There is also Les Catacombes de Paris and Place de la Bastille. And of course there is also Palace of Versailles. Versailles is outside of the city, so I’m not sure if we’re going to have enough time to make it there, but we sure would like to try to do that. At this point everything is kind of set, but I wish we would’ve booked more days in Paris. I guess we’ll have to come back.

Our next destination is Brussels, the capital of Belgium and European Union as a whole. We have 4 days3 allocated for Belgium. Here we also rebooked our original hotel from Hilton Brussels on the northern end to Hilton Grand Place in the very heart of the city. This hotel happens to be 4 minutes of walking away from the number one destination that we want to visit — Grand Place itself. On the other side of this hotel at approximately the same distance is Brussels Park along with Royal Palace on one side of it.

There are also other destination in the city itself, but we’ll figure out which ones to see while we are there. The hotel also happens to be near Central Train Station which is very handy because we’re planning to visit an old city or Bruges that is one hour away by train and possibly stop by in Ghent if time allows. The main things to do in Bruges will be climbing the 272-foot Belfry and possibly taking some ride on the canal boat, besides the obvious walking around and soaking in the atmosphere of this medieval town.

And then we take off for our last destination of the trip — Amsterdam, the capital of Netherlands. We’re still not quite sure what our plan there is, but we’re going to take a canal boat tour and walk along the streets of the famous Red Light District. We are going to spend 3 nights4 here before our flight home.

We have yet to figure out what food to try in each of these locations as that was always a quintessential part of our vacations, but again, having access to internet available everywhere we are quite comfortable planning these things as we go. Hope this vacation will be another trove of wonderful memories!

  1. Icelandair from and to JFK through Reykjavík — $1,304 total for both of us. []
  2. Hilton Paris Opera — €555 for 3 nights with all the taxes. []
  3. Hilton Brussels Grand Place — €381 and 96,000 points for 4 nights. []
  4. DoubleTree Amsterdam Centraal Station — €593 for 3 nights with all the taxes. []

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