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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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Wilkes-Barre Labor Day

Locomotive at Steamtown National Historic Site.Планов куда-нибудь поехать в этом году на длинные выходные в честь дня труда у нас не было. Поэтому я немного удивилась, когда после обеда в пятницу Даня предложил: “А не сьездить ли нам куда-нибудь на пару дней?”. “Ха, а чему тут удивляться — тут же мысленно одёрнула себя я — было бы удивительно, если бы при его любви к путешествиям, он НЕ предложил бы куда-нибудь прокатиться.”

Kids by an old steam engine.Вобщем, пару идей у моего любимого мужа уже было, и после кратких раздумий мы остановились на относительно недорогом варианте гостиницы Hampton Inn в городке Wilkes-Barre (произносится “Уилксбэри”) в штате Пенсильвания. Ехать туда по нашим меркам относительно близко — около 140 миль. Мы приглашали и собой и даниных родителей, но в связи со скороспешностью наших планов, они не без сожаления отказались.

Taking a ride on an old train pulled by a steam engine.Я быстро собрала чемодан, Даня сьездил на физиотерапию всвязи со спиной, и часам к 6 вечера всё наше довольное семейство отправилось в путь.

Kids taking a ride on a miniature train model.Выехали из города мы без преключений. Я ожидала застрять на мосту Верразaно и/или на Стайтэн Айланде, но мы проехали эти, как правило забитые в такие дни, места без всяких проблем. По пути мы остановились поужинать в японском ресторане “Мизуки”.

Machinist room of a Big Boy locomotive.Это получилось случайно — мы сначала попробовали сунуться в один из сетевых американских ресторанов (Friday’s), но в пятницу вечером там была очередь минимум на 40 минут. В “Мизуки” же не было очереди, еда была очень вкусной, а счёт оказался совсем небольшим — нам с лихвой хватило двух порции хибачи на четверых.

Different generations of locomotives.В гостиницу мы приехали около 23:00 и сразу же отправились спать.

Italian festival at downtown Scranton.Следующий день, субботу, мы начали с посещения музея паровозов в соседнем городе Scranton. Музей Steamtown, основанный в 1960-х годах в депо, где когда-то оперировала большая железнодорожная компания DL&W, был выкуплен конгрессом в 1980-х годах и превращён в национальное историческое место — National Historic Site. Теперь он оперируется государственной службой парков, что для нас дополнительный плюс из-за коллекционирования печатей национальных парков.

Lunch at ale house.В музее было много разных старых поездов. Мне лично очень понравился вагон первого класса с купе на одного человека. Кровать там складывалась днём в удобное кресло, а в комнатке был умывальник.

Great beer is served. Waiting for food.Ароша и Анюта с удовольствием залазили в разные кабины паровозов, где можно было крутить разные колёсики и дергать рычаги. Мне было там скучновато, но это не главное.

Go-karts! Alёna's driving Anna.Еще мы там приобрели билеты на короткую поездку на паровозе. Честно говоря, там тоже было не супер интересно, но в какой-то мере любопытно. Сиденья там были составлены в ряд, как в автобусе, но их направление можно было менять, передвигая спинку с одного края сиденья на другое — такое я видела впервые. Ароше это дело понравилось, и нам даже пришлось его остановить из боязни повредить что-то в старом вагоне. После поездки на настоящем поезде, дети прокатились на миниатюрной версии, где сидеть надо было поверх вагонов.

Lunch before our hike. Waiting for food.После музея мы отправились в Скрэнтон пообедать. В центре города, куда мы приехали в пивную с высоким рэйтингом в TripAdvisor, как раз проходила ярмарка итальянской еды, но к счастью мы смогли запарковаться возле ювелирного магазине недалеко от нужного нам места. Хозяин магазина решил немного заработать, и продавал право парковки на лоте возле магазина по $6 за два часа. Что же, очень даже резонно.

On a trail.Когда мы проходили мимо палаток с едой, то был соблазн купить что-нибудь сьестное прямо там, недоходя до запланированного места, но так как на улице было жарко и есть бы пришлось стоя, мы всё же дошли до Backyard Ale House, о чем ничуть не пожалели. Еда там была вкусной, пиво лёгким и холодным, да и народу было немного. На ярмарке мы потом купили лимонада. Он очень понравился Ароше, и я обещала как-нибудь сделать такой же дома.

One of many many mushrooms we saw.Потом мы поехали в гостиницу и провели несколько часов в бассейне — наличие джакузи всегда сильно увеличивает время, которое дети могут потратить на водные процедуры.

Kids throwing stones into some river at Ricketts Glen State Park.Поужинали мы в ресторане “Lucky’s Sporthouse” возле гостиницы. И еда, и пиво были так себе, но мы были слишком уставшими, чтобы ехать куда-то в более заманчивое место.

Steep stairs.В воскресенье мы запланировали поехать в какой-нибудь парк и погулять на лоне матушки-природы. Вариантов было много, но мы остановились на Ricketts Glen State Park — там должна была быть живописная дорога к водопадам, а водопады мы любим. Ехать туда от нашей гостиницы было миль 30.

People by a cliff at the brink of the biggest fall on the trail.По пути мы совершенно случайно увидели небольшую площадку с go-carts и минигольфом. Так как времени у нас в принципе было много, мы решили на этих самых go-carts покататься. Честно говоря, я ужасно трусила и даже немного поотпиралась, когда Даня сказал, что я тоже буду кататься. Как оказалось, я зря боялась, и было очень даже весело. Даня ехал в машинке с Арошей, а я с Анютой. Детям тоже понравилось, хоть они и не рулили. Ароша просился поиграть в мини-гольф, но было жарко и много народа, поэтому мы поехали дальше.

Snack break.Перед тем, как пойти на прогулку по парку, мы зашли подкрепиться в небольшую забегаловку. Там продавали roast beef sandwiches и картошку фри. Ароша от сэндвичей с мясом, само собой, отказался, и мы купили ему салат с овощами на гриле — овощей там оказалось мало, но он поел и поделился с Анютой. Было не очень вкусно и дорого.

Family units.Мы боялись, что идти по парку будет тяжело, потому что была как раз середина дня и ярко светило солнце. Но оказалось, что тропинка идёт через прекрасный теснистый лес, где царят полумрак и прохлада. Лес оказался очень грибным. Примерно раз в минуту мы слышали радостный Арошин крик “грибы! смотрите, грибы!” и первые раз 7 мы честно шли и смотрели. Потом нам надоело, а Ароша всё время сокрушался, что с нами нет дедушки, который наверняка просветил бы любознательного внука и рассказал бы ему какие именно грибы он имеет счастье лицезреть.

One of many waterfalls on the trail.Гуляли по лесу мы пару часов. Видели три мелких водопада и один побольше. Спускаться до конца, чтобы лучше увидеть самый большой водопад, мы не стали, потому что дорога стала скользкой из-за воды, и мы решили, что с маленькими детьми туда идти опасно — плюс у нас с Даней была неподходящая обувь.

Daniel.На обратном пути Ароша и Анюта уговорили нас снова заехать на площадку с го-картс, чтобы поиграть в мини-гольф. Они даже отказались от бассейна — и то, и другое было бы слишком утомительно — в пользу этой забавы. Что ж, почему бы и нет. Лично мне мини-гольф кажется ужасно скучным, но дети получили удовольствие. В какой-то момент Анюта отправилась там на небольшую детскую площадку с качелями и горочкой, а Даня с Арошей еще раз прокатились на машинках — Ароша помогал рулить.

Mini golf.Поужинали мы в мексиканском ресторане. Было очень вкусно, особенно приготовленное на наших глазах гуакамоле, и совсем недорого.

Putting apples into a bag.На следующий день, в понедельник, мы отправились домой. По дороге, мы решили заехать в большой торговый центр (mall) в надежде купить что-нибудь стоящее с хорошей скидкой в честь дня труда. Когда мы заехали на битком забитую парковку, то начали сомневаться в правильности нашего решения идти по магазинам в такой день. Но, как говорят, охота пуще неволи, поэтому после 20 минут кружения по лоту, мы наконец запарковались и отправились за покупками. В результате мы купили всем пару необходимых и не очень вещей (зимние куртки детям, спортивные штаны и тёплые рубашки Дане, юбку мне), и поехали на ферму собирать яблоки.

Lots of apples. Heavy.Поесть в торговом центре, как мы планировали заранее, мы не смогли — слишком много людей было в кафетерии, так что там были грязь, шум, очереди и отсутствие свободных столиков. Вместо этого, мы немного проехали в нужном нам направлении и быстро перекусили фаст фуд. На нормальный ресторан времени не было — боялись опоздать на сбор яблок.

Apple picking.Несмотря на небольшую пробку, мы успели приехать на ферму где-то за час до закрытия. Мы были на этой же ферме два года назад, когда Анюта была еще совсем крохой. Мы насобирали 30 фунтов яблок, 12 початков кукурузы, и пол небольшой коробочки малины (больше не было).

Kids on a farm.Дети получили кучу удовольствия, а яблоки мы потом ели две недели (в холодильнике осталось еще штуки две). Еще я купила баночку очень хорошего местного мёда. Жалею, что не две, потому что Ароша с удовольствием пьёт воду с мёдом и лимоном. Кукуруза оказалось слишком сладкой на мой вкус, но детям она очень понравилась, и они сразу же стрескали по два початка (просили еще, но я не разрешила).

Corn picking.Добрались мы до Бруклина без больших пробок, и к 7 часам уже запарковались возле дома. Данины родители пригласили нас на ужин и накормили вкусным пловом, что было очень кстати, потому что к вечеру мы изрядно проголодались.

Raspberry picking.
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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton mountains from Jackson Lake Lodge.Grand Teton National Park was the last destination of our Montana-Wyoming vacation. We spent three nights in Grand Teton, albeit in two different location to make the drive to the airport on our last day easier to avoid unexpected road blocks along the way.

From Jackson Lake.For the first two nights we opted in to stay at Flagg Ranch which is the same place we stayed at during our last visit to Grand Teton. Grand Teton National Park itself is pretty much adjacent to the southern end of Yellowstone. So Flagg Ranch is located on the northern end of the park and somewhere under 30 miles south of West Thumb — which is really on the southern end of Yellowstone — our last stop in Yellowstone itself, as Alёna wrote earlier.

Flagg Ranch cabins.We got to our cabins closer to the end of the day which we mostly spent in Yellowstone and were pretty tired. We had our dinner at the main lodge as there are zero other choices in a reasonable range. The food was nothing to write home about, but it wasn’t bad either. Soon after dinner we turned in for the night to recharge for park exploration on the next day.

Shore of Jackson Lake.We decided to set a hike along a trail on Jackson Lake as the goal for our day. The road through the park runs on the eastern side of Teton Range itself and magnificent views in the forms of lakes and vistas open up between you and the peaks of the mountains.

Throwing pebbles.The trail that we picked was in the Colter Bay area of Jackson Lake. There was a visitor center where we obtain a new set of stamps and acquired some Grand Teton National Park themed apparel. We also decided to eat lunch before heading out in order to avoid our awkward schedule of nobody being hungry for dinner in time.

Grand Teton National Park.The trails itself starts right near the visitor center and runs along the shore of the lake onto a peninsula. Once you make it to the west-most end of the peninsula itself you are presented with a grand view of the Teton Range reflecting in Jackson Lake.

Picking out pebbles.The water wasn’t as still as I wish it was and there was a considerable haze in the air. That seemed to be a theme throughout our stay at the park. On the beach itself though, while I was taking photographs, kids played in the sand and threw an uncountable quantity of pebbles into the lake.

Little boat.After we were done with this trail we drove south to Jenny Lake. Last time when we were here with Alёna in 2009 we took a ferry across the lake and then went on a trail up to some waterfall. The thing that I remember the most about that trail was a huge population of giant mosquitoes which that particular piece of the forest sported. Actually that’s not true. Last time mosquitoes were everywhere. Including at least 50 of them in our cabin at Flagg Ranch whom we proceeded to eradicate viciously with Eldar.

Jackson Lake shore trail.Anyhow — there was a lot of construction going on at Jenny Lake visitor area and we were all pretty tired either-way. So we settled for a set of new stamps and all the scenic views along the lake shore that we stopped at. However by that time the sun was shining directly into the lens along with all the haze presents a very challenging set of conditions for any decent photographs.

Tetons.We set course back north hoping to find a new place to have dinner at. We stopped by Jackson Lake Lodge which had multiple restaurants. Everything was extremely overpriced, so we decided to just go with Flagg Ranch dining room again.

Colter Bay.But at Jackson Lake Lodge one can walk out onto the back porch of the lodge which has one of the best vantage points to look at the mountains from. I remembered that this is exactly the place that I took a picture from the printout of which I had on my desk for the last 5 years or so.

Official Grand Teton National Park sign.Since the sun was still shining in our face we decided to make a stop here again the next morning on our way to Jackson for our last night stay of our road trip. The dinner we ate at Flagg Ranch, as I said, and for breakfast we stocked up on Cup-A-Noodle soups at the general store. These, for me, have a strong nostalgia feeling connected to our breakfasts in Shenandoah at the end of 2010.

Store. Great prices on awesome things.On the last day we did stop at Jackson Lake Lodge again for pictures and drove down to the town of Jackson via a route that runs through the town of Moran — a more eastern way to go than the route we took a day before. There were still numerous scenic overlooks that one can stop at — which we did — to take in the views of the mountains from all possible angles.

Janny Lake overlook.We grabbed some lunch at a visitor center near Moose — along with some stamps of course and decide to finish our Grand Teton stay with a place that we missed the last time around. There is an old abandoned Mormon town on the southern end of the park — Mormon Row with a number of old houses and barns. In fact one of those barns must be the most photographed barn in the world.

Jenny Lake.And that was pretty much it for the park. When we arrived to Jackson we checked into a huge two-story suite at Jackson Hole Lodge. This was probably the best setup for a family trip that we had — too bad we only had this for a single night.

View from Jackson Lake Lodge.Town of Jackson turned out to be a pretty busy place with a ton of people. It’s somewhat surprising seeing how it’s quite a long way away from Yellowstone and not all that close to most places in Grand Teton either. It’a great place to finish one’s trip, but not so much as a base of operations.

One of scenic stops.We went for a walk along the busy streets of the town, stopping a numerous souvenir and jewelry stores. But windows shopping was all we could afford as most prices really make no sense. Too much tourists equals to too high prices.

Mormon Row.Here, however, we ate probably the best dinner of our vacation. We stopped by a Spanish — as in Spain — tapas place called Bin 22. We ordered a bottle of Beaujolais wine and a good number of tapas. In fact we just tried to recreate the experience with Alёna yesterday in a placed called Brook Vin in Park Slope. Parents also enjoyed the experience very much which made us happy that we had them try something new.

Barn at Mormon Row.And then we walked to the central square of the town which had four sizable arches — on each corner — created of antlers collected at a nearby National Elk Refuge. The square, by the way, was full of people complete obsessed with Pokemon Go — it was that week when it just came out.

Jackson central square.The next morning Alёna and Arosha brought us all breakfast from a nearby bagel place. Afterwards we drove to the airport, turned in our banged up car without any hassles and boarded a plane to New York with a layover at Salt Lake City. There the flight was delayed many times so we arrived home very very late. Thus another one of our great road trips has concluded. Another trove of great memories.

Antler arches at Jackson Hole.
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Sunday, September 11, 2016

Yellowstone 2016

Grand Prismatic Spring.Every time I speak about Yellowstone to people who have not visited the park, I tell them that it’s one of the most amazing places in the United States, and probably the whole world! I am so happy that we were able to visit it with our children and Daniel’s parents. His dad read about Yellowstone in some Soviet Union magazine when he was still a boy, decades ago, and it left everlasting impression. Finally, he was able to see it with his own eyes, and his joy added to ours.

Road to Yellowstone.The road from Helena to Yellowstone took us through beautiful mountains. We stopped a few times to take pictures of the clean mountain rivers racing along the highway, of fresh green pine trees and bright blue skies.

First dinner at Madison Crossing.We arrived at the hotel in the late afternoon, and even though our rooms were not ready right away, we did not have to wait long for them. The hotel did not have interconnected rooms available, but they gave us two rooms next to each other. There was an unpleasant smell of tobacco smoke in Daniel’s parents’ room, but luckily they were able to air it out to a tolerable state.

Dinner.We did not eat lunch, so everybody was pretty hungry. We decided to check out the West Yellostone Visitor Center first — it was within a walking distance from our hotel. We got our stamps (Anюta kept asking for a passport, but we did not get it for her until later in the trip), and got a map of the park.

Old Faithful trail.We decided to eat at Madison Crossing Restaurant based on TripAdvisor reviews, but it only opened up at 5pm, so we had to wait for about 40 minutes. Kids were really hungry and whiny at that point, so t. Oksana, me and the children made a short trip to the local supermarket and got some bananas and the like, while Danya and his dad went to look for a post office.

Boiling water.Needless to say that everyone survived until dinner, which was absolutely worth the wait. Madison Crossing Lounge is located in the building which used to be the first West Yellowstone School. The beer was good, the food (I ordered ratatouille risotto for myself and steak for the children) was delicious and the server was attentive and friendly. We got some ice cream after dinner, and went back to the hotel to rest. The children went to the pool for a short while and we went to sleep.

Bacteria life.The night turned out to be more eventful than we hoped it would be. At some point I was woken up from sleep by Danya, who thought that Arosha was peeing on the floor for some unknown reason. I jumped out of bed still disoriented, and it took us some time to realize that both our children were sound asleep. The noise that we heard was that of the water flowing from the ceiling through our smoke alarm. We put a bucket under the stream, and Daniel went outside to investigate what’s going on after his attempts to reach the administration of the hotel by phone have failed.

Doublet Pool.To make long story short, he did found the staff member in a room above the parents’ room. Parents had “rain” from the ceiling as well. Something happened in the room above, and both of our rooms got affected. Luckily for us, the water stopped flowing soon. Not so luckily for parents, it happened again in a few hours. So they had a pretty sleepless night.

Spasmodic Geyser.The next morning the administration said that they can move us, but we had to wait since the whole hotel was booked. We agreed to stay in the same rooms granted there will be no more midnight awakenings. They also promised to take care of us, which at the end came up to a $70 discount per each room (roughly 30% of the cost). I have to say that I don’t think that the 30% discount of one night (we stayed there for 5) is adequate, and we argued our case with the staff at the checkout time (since management was not available), but to no avail.

Chromatic Spring.Next morning after breakfast we drove to the park itself. I have to say that this year the park seemed extremely crowded, much more so than I remember from our first visit seven years ago. We decided to start with the geysers, and it took us nearly 2 hours to get there from the park entrance. It was also difficult to find parking, but we got lucky eventually.

Non-irrupting Giant Geyser.We started with the visitor center, and found out to our disappointment, that none of the predictable geysers, with the exception of Old Faithful of course, were going to erupt in the next few hours. The Old Faithful was about to start, so we waited for a little while and watched it go off. To be honest, it was not very impressive not just to us, but to all other members of our party.

Morning Glory Pool.I was hoping that Daniels’ parents will be more excited to see colorful bacterial pools, chromatic springs and other thermal wonders one can see at the park. And so they were! If geysers left them quite indifferent, pretty much all other things left them impressed. I think their favorite thing of all was the Great Prismatic Spring.

Us by Morning Glory.We spent a significant amount of time walking the trail from the Old Faithful to the Morning Glory Pool. We stopped often to admire the views and to take pictures. It was hot and sunny, but not too bad overall. When we headed back, we took a different, shorter trail.

Crowd waiting for Old Faithful eruption.By the time we reached the Old Faithful, it was about time for it to erupt again, so we decided to wait and see it once more. The geyser erupted about 20 minutes later than predicted, so we ended up sitting in a big crowd of people for the total of 40 minutes.

Old Faithful Geyser.One good thing that came out of the waiting though was that after the Old Faithful was done, another geyser, the Beehive, went off. It was higher and stronger than Old Faithful, and Danya and I have not seen it in the past. It erupts once every 16-18 hours or even less frequently and is not predictable. We watched it for a few minutes from a distance and then decided to take a closer look and maybe take some pictures. By the time we got close, it stopped. Oh well. It was still somehow very exhilarating to see it.

Old Faithful Geyser.Because of the traffic and a long walk, we skipped lunch, so by the time we got back to town everyone was ravenous. We planned to go to Madison Crossing again, but to our surprise it was closed. On our way to the restaurant, Danya has noticed that none of the traffic lights were working, so the closed restaurant confirmed out fears — there was a blackout!

Beehive Geyser.We went to the hotel and went to look for food by foot. Daniel suggested that town’s pizzerias might be still open, since they were the only restaurants open during the blackout in Brooklyn in the past. We tried calling two pizzerias we found in the town phone book, but with no luck.

Old Faithful visitor center.When we passed the first place, there was a big line. There was also a big line across the street from it next to some barbecue place. We then proceeded to check the supermarket (closed), baker shop (closed) and another pizzeria (only serving alcohol), and returned back to the first pizzeria.

Traffic-causing deer.To our luck, at that particular moment not only there was no line, but a table big enough for all of us just freed up. We were very happy to go there, even though they warned us that they only have spaghetti and a simple salad on the menu. And of course, they only excepted cash (luckily we had some for situations like this one). They also had cold beer, which went very well with our pastas.

Grand Prismatic Spring.The next day we decided to explore the Grand Prismatic Spring. There was traffic again, but it was not as bad as on the previous day. I was really looking forward to see this magical place, and I am happy to say that everyone was really in awe of its beauty.

Units by Grand Prismatic Spring.For me personally this time around it was slightly less enjoyable to be there due to huge crowds. There were just so many people, and I also was constantly worried about the children falling off the trail into the thermal ground, so I could not fully immerse in its beauty. I don’t know if its a common trend in all the major parks, but there seem to be a huge number of Asian tourists in Yellowstone. I wonder if with growing affluence of Chinese they travel around the world more. And Yellowstone is really a place worth visiting!

Excelsior Geyser.After the Grand Prismatic, we decided to drive to Yellowstone Lake Lodge to have lunch — it was not easy for children to skip them. On our way we had to stop due to bison crossing the road. To our luck, one of the huge bison bulls decided that he does not like our car too much. He stopped right in front of it, started to make scary snorting sounds and was flicking his tail up and down. Also his eyes were getting redder and redder. In all honesty, I got really scared. I even asked d. Borya to close the windows, just in case.

Crowds on a narrow trail.The park ranger noticed a situation escalation, and came to our rescue. She did scare the bison successfully, but managed to ram our car in the process. Not only she rammed into us, but she also increased the damage by driving forward, instead of backing out. Danya got really angry and upset, and before I saw the damage with my own eyes, I thought that the car was in not drivable condition anymore. Luckily for us, this was not the case. Yes, the car was scratched and damaged a little, but we still could continue on our journey.

Yellowstone Lake.We had to spend nearly two hours filing the accident report with park rangers. They said that they were sorry this happened to us, but good thing is that nobody got hurt. The ranger who helped us with paperwork also showed me a hole in his car, which was a result of a bison attack. So at the end, I suppose that being rammed by ranger is still preferable than being rammed by bison.

Lunch by Yellowstone Lake.The worst thing about an accident was that it cast a shadow on the rest of the trip for Danya. During the next day he called our insurance company, and the rental company, and was still not sure if we would have to pay extra money to either one of those agencies.

Bisons are no longer our friends.By the time we got to the Yellowstone lodge, the only place where we can get any food was a self-service cafeteria with a poor selection. So much for driving there to have a nice lunch. Oh well.

Yellowstone Falls.After that we went to see the Yellowstone Canyon. The views were quite glorious, especially one of the waterfall overlooks, where one can see the falls close up from above and feel the power of nature.

Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.On our way home we got stuck in another traffic jam. This time it was deers and inconsiderate people, who were stopping to snap pictures of them and blocking the ongoing traffic. Luckily, at some point park rangers came to the rescue and dispersed the crowd.

Brink of the Upper Falls trail.We went to the pools in the hotel, and due to late lunch, we skipped dinner. I had some nuts and bananas left for the kids, and Daniel’s mom bought them pop-corn from the vending machine. To be honest, all this dinner skipping worked out not too bad for me, Danya and his dad — all of us shed a few pounds during this trip.

Brink of the Upper Falls.The following day we decided to drive to see the Mammoth Springs. The drive was pretty long, but I remember being pretty impressed with that place back in 2009. This time around the hot springs did not leave as big an impression on me. I am not sure if they changed, but in my memory there was more water flowing down the steps. It was also very hot, which made me want to get to the shade sooner rather than later.

Mammoth Hot Springs.We had a nice lunch in the nearby lodge, which resulted in another skipped dinner later on.

Mammoth Hot Springs trail.After lunch, we drove to the Porcelain Basin side of Norris Geyser Basin. By the way, the Norris Geyser Basin national park stamp was the only Yellowstone park stamp missing from Danya’s collection, so he was happy to get it. We walked the trail and it was really interesting to see some things, for example two streams of water with different temperature, which have different colors, becoming one stream with two distinct color patterns depending on the exact water temperature of the stream in specific places (so-called natural thermometer).

Mammoth Hot Springs.We decided to take it slow the next day. Everyone was tired of driving and traffic and heat. One of the things that was suggested to us by the owners of not-so-Best Western, was to visit Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center which is located literally 5 minutes away from the hotel. After reading about it, we thought that it will be fun for the children — we were hoping that they could take part in the hiding bear food program for little children, but all the spots for that morning were already reserved.

Porcelain Basin trail.As it turned out, this was a blessing in disguise, since the program was obviously designed for older children. The center employee was talking to the group of about 20 kids for almost an hour — Arosha and especially Anюta would have expired long before the actual food hiding took place.

Porcelain Basin trail.Danya’s parents skipped the center and just waited for us outside. They did not miss much, although I have no regrets of going there. We saw a bunch of birds of prey, all of them rescued after being damaged by one kind of human activity or another. Pretty much all of them would have died in the wild if it was not for the center. Bird which impressed me the most was a huge eagle who is a few decades old.

Porcelain Basin trail.The children were most impressed by the imitation of the wolf den. They climbed inside multiple times and were very sad to leave it. I think one of the reasons it fascinated them so much is that we recently read “The Jungle Book” by Rudyard Kipling, so they instantly thought of Mowgli — a boy, who was brought up by the wolves.

Nature's thermometer at Porcelain Basin.I personally really wanted to see wolves up close, since I’ve never seen one in the wild (we did later on that trip, but it was far away). As expected, they looked so much like dogs. After being brought up on the fairy tales about bad wolves, it’s fascinating to realize how important they are for the ecosystem and hear wolf-reintroduction success stories, namely the Yellowstone one. Still, looking at animals in captivity is sad as opposed to the excitement of seeing them in the wild.

Crackling Lake on Porcelain Basin trail.After the Discovery Center, we drove to Idaho. Why? Just because it was one of the states we have not set foot in, and we wanted to change that. We took a few pictures by the welcome sign, and stopped at the nearest gas station.

Weird looking puddle at Porcelain Basin.It was lunch time, so we decided to buy something there. There was not much choice, but Danya, his parents and Anюta settled on hot dogs. Arosha and I are not huge fans of those, so we had to look for something else. Arosha ended up buying a can of beans (luckily, the store owners lent us a can opener), which he devoured with such pleasure, it made me envious. I snacked on leftover almonds, which we bought a few days ago in a supermarket.

Porcelain Basin overlook.We did not do much afterwards, but relaxed in the not-so-Best Western. We ate dinner at Madison Crossing again, and got ice cream in the parlor across the street.

Wolf den at Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center.We planned to go to the pool in the evening, and so we did, but unfortunately the hot tub was broken, so the water was lukewarm. I did not even get in, but Danya, his dad and the children did. They got very cold in the end and were shivering by the time they reached the hotel room. The nice thing about that part of the country is that even though days are hot, the air really cools down by night. Of course, it does not work so well for the outside pool, but luckily they got very cold just that one time.

Wolf at Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center.Next morning we checked out and headed for the Grand Tetons National Park. We tried to get a better deal on the bill from the owners, but they were not there, and even though they were supposed to call back, of course they did not. We decided not to pursue the issue any further, but I would recommend that hotel only if all other choices are obviously worse.

Entering Idaho!The road to Grand Tetons went through the park, and we were hoping to see the Grand Geyser, which was scheduled to erupt approximately around the time we would get to it. What do you know? We saw it, but from the car on the road. It went off on the early side of its 7 hour cycle, so we were literally 5 minutes too late to see it up close. Oh well.

And back to Montana.From our previous trip I remember a beautiful lake, which is located right on continental divide and is covered by yellow pond lilies. It is called Isa lake. What I did not know before, is that it drains to both Pacific and Atlantic oceans. How fascinating! And not only that, but what makes it unique is the fact that its east side drains to Pacific and its west side drains to Atlantic — a full reverse of what one would expect. We stopped on Isa lake again for a short break.

Isa Lake.After that we had an early lunch at Grant Village, which is located on the shore of Yellowstone lake.

Lakeshore Geyser.Later, we backtracked to the West Thumb Basin, where we took a nice trail. I really liked the area. We’ve been there before with Danya, but we missed half of the cool stuff, such as Lakeside Geyser, Fishing Hole Geyser (apparently, fishermen used to boil freshly caught fish there a 100 years ago), Black Hole Geyser (which is actually a vibrant aquamarine color and just looks so deep) and other fascinating thermal pools and springs which I don’t know by name.

Black Pool.Later, Danya, his mom and I took a half an hour trail to Duck Lake. Daniel’s dad stayed behind with the children, who were tired and preferred to play in the picnic area under nice shade of pine trees.

By Black Pool.The trail was nice and secluded, and we have not met any other people on our way to and from. There were multiple bear warning signs, so we tried to be loud and talked to each other all the time just in case. We met no bears either.

Duck Lake.The lake was peaceful and beautiful, and I had an urge to wade through its clean waters if only for a few minutes.

Duck Lake trail.When we returned, we saw a very funny looking geyser, which was spitting out mud. It was bubbling almost all the time, and it also smelled pretty bad. Needless to say, everyone liked it, especially the children.

Mud pot at West Thumb parking lot.This concluded our Yellowstone part of the trip.

Yellowstone sign.
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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Helena — The Capital of Montana

Montana State capitol.When we put together our road trips we try to include state capitals even when those require a bit of a detour. Especially for those capitals that we haven’t been to previously. But Helena, the capital of Montana, turned out to be directly in our way and not only that, but very much in the middle of our drive from East Glacier Park Village to West Yellowstone — our next destination.

Helena. Montana State capitol.However instead of going through Helena and just stopping there for a short while we decided to break our long drive apart and spend a day in Helena itself to make things easier on our kids. It was 187 miles away from Glacier National Park and 176 miles to Yellowstone. We spent one night in Helena and we stayed in the only Hilton owned property of our whole trip — Hampton Inn Helena.

Capitol from the front.The drive to Helena itself was mostly uneventful except for a bit of anxiety we experienced on the part of us running out of gas and a complete lack of settlements of any kind on our way. So we were quite relieved to reach a town of Choteau with a population of around 1,500. We decided to grab a quick lunch at the gas stations where we filled up our car. We ate some typical gas station food, but Alёna and my dad ordered some soup to-go at a small sandwich place across the street.

Inside capitol. Anюta being Anюta.Hampton Inn turned out be very pleasant. Probably the cleanest and nicest place we stayed at on this trip. The only exception is a place at Jackson where we actually had a huge two bedroom, two story suite to ourselves — the only place where we actually finally got a joint room — our last day. Anyhow, we deiced not to procrastinate and get right back into our car right after check-in.

Looking up into the dome.The only thing that we wanted to see in Helena was its capitol complex, which was only 10 or so minutes away from the hotel. Since the day was Sunday the capitol building ended up being closed, just as we expected. We walked around it, looked at various monuments and simply spent some time laying on the green grass surrounding the capitol while kids ran around and played.

Walking up.As far as the pictures go, the sun was shining from the wrong direction, but the biggest issues that prevented me from taking decent photographs was my continuing lack of a shift lens. Thus without having one on hand all my pictures in their original form have a serious case of converging vertical lines — buildings appearing to be falling down behind themselves. Thank you, Photoshop.

Hibachi dinner.While kids were running around Alёna and I were going through restaurant listings on TripAdvisor. We wanted something different from the usually available American cuisine and ended up settling on a Japanese hibachi place called Nagoya Steakhouse which was in 18th out of 115 places — decent enough. The food turned out to be very good. Kids enjoyed the show and all of us enjoyed the food. Even my dad, who is not easily impressed by restaurant food, commented on the fact of it being delicious.

Senate chambers.And to finish our day all of us went out to hotel pools which also had a hot tub. Here I was pleasantly surprised by the progress that my kids had made with swimming. If back in April during our Canadian trip Arosha used to swim like a kind of a mix of amoeba and a zombie, he was actually swimming like a typical human would. And Anna who would refuse to go into a pool alone before was swimming all around it with a help of inflatable arm bands. All those trips that Alёna makes to our building pool with them really pay off.

Senators.One the morning of the next day — Monday, before leaving Helena we drove over to the capitol complex again. The building was open to visitors, we got our official capital stamps in our passports and were able to explore all over the capitol itself. It had a lot of paintings depicting Native Americans inside. We also were able to check out house and senate halls. It looks good inside, but to tell you the truth all the capitols are started to blur together in my head by now.

Inside the capitol.And that was our stay in Helena. The next stop was Yellowstone National Park itself — the longest single portion of our whole trip — five nights in one place.

Some of my stamps along with the one we got at Montana capitol building in Helena.
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