Saturday, March 16, 2013

Costa Rica — Vacation Start

Hilton Papagayo Resort.Vacation time came unexpectedly fast as always. As the majority of people, I dislike packing, but at least I’ve become quite efficient with it over the years. It takes me 2-3 hours on average to pack bags for the three of us, and even though I usually overpack, the amount of unused stuff nowadays makes up a considerably smaller proportion of our overall luggage than it used to.

Anyhow, we packed, we made arrangements for Shublik, we went to bed early on Suturday and got up early on Sunday. The drive to the airport was quick — we do live very close to JFK after all. Checking in and going through the security lines was a pretty fast process too. We had a flight on JetBlue.

Our first set of rooms — 404 and 406.Aroshka was excited. The best thing about the airport as far as he is concerned are escalators. He kept telling us from the moment we set foot in terminal #5 that he wants to take a ride! He had to wait for all the necessary procedures to be finished (and that included breakfast), and then he just ran to the escalators and kept going down the escalator and up the stairs (there was no escalator up) over and over and over again. By my count he did it for about 20 times before it was time for us to go and board the plane.

Our second set of rooms — 202 and 203.What I love about JetBlue planes is more spacious leg room. In majority of airplanes my knees touch seat in a row ahead, and when people lean back, it actually hurts. I don’t have this issue while flying JetBlue. We had 5 seats next to each other — Aroshka, Danya and I were on one side of the isle, and Danya’s parents on the other. Arosha got a window seat. He first watched cartoons for about 10 minutes, but got quickly bored (maybe because they were in English and he does not understand it yet). We talked to him a lot, I read one of his favorite books for a little while, he watched cartoons on iPad for a little while (no more than 20 minutes I think). He ate potato chips snack — he likes chips, but we don’t buy them, so for him it was a rare treat. He did not sleep, but we kind of expected this. I was a little worried about him using the restroom on the plane — we have not had any accidents in months, but I was not sure if unfamiliar situation will affect him — but it turned out that I had nothing to worry about.

Aroshka playing on the beach. Check out the running part.Upon our arrival to Liberia airport, we took a shuttle which drove us to Budget car rental. Danya made a few reservations with other places in advance, but at the airport he got a better price quote from the Budget representative, so we decided that there really is no point to pay extra. We rented a Toyota RAV4, and there was plenty of room for all 5 of us and all our luggage. Before the trip we bought an inexpensive car seat at Wallmart for Aroshka and brought it along. It makes me feel better to use our own car seat — not only it’s cleaner, but we also know its complete history of accidents.

The drive to our hotel was relatively short, around 20 minutes. Hilton Papagayo resort, where we stayed, is located in Guanacaste area. The bay where resort is placed is really beautiful. I did not tire of the view throughout our stay, but kept thinking of how nature can create such an amazing, breathtaking grace. There is an old tree at the center of the beach line, and due to the dry season it was absolutely naked. Each time I looked at it, it seemed as though its branches formed faces and bodies of some magical creatures.

Main buffet-restaurant.We were pretty exhausted and starving. When we were checking in, in turned out that they only had rooms which required taking a shuttle to get to the main area where beach, restaurants and pools were located. It was slightly disappointing, but not a big deal, since this particular Hilton had a lot of small bungalows covering large territory and I think that majority of people have to take shuttles to move around. When we arrived to our rooms, it turned out that they were not interconnected as we have requested months in advance, but just next to each other.

Danya went to the front desk to see if it was possible to fix this, since having interconnected rooms was really convenient because of Aroshka. After initial reluctance of a lower level manager to do anything, the upper level manager fixed it — he told us that tomorrow a pair of interconnected rooms will be available, and that if we wish, we could move. And so we did. Our new rooms were also much closer to the center, which was an added bonus. We did not have to take a shuttle to get to the beach anymore. I have to say though that shuttles were driving around often and you could always request one. Moreover, Aroshka LOVED riding on shuttles, so pretty much each night we were taking a ride just for the fun of it.

One of hotel's frequent shuttles.We had a dinner at local buffet, and the food was pretty decent. They have a salad bar, and then everyone has to order the actual meal. It was functioning as a 100% buffet only at breakfasts. There were three other restaurants, but I find that the food was very similar in all of them. We got progressively more tired of it, but this usually happens to us in all-inclusive resorts. The only exception was Riu Palace hotel in Cancun — their food was far superior to other places we stayed in, and their restaurants were definitely high end. Aroshka ate pretty well. I felt slightly bad that he was eating french fries almost every day, but he ate a lot of fruits and vegetables too, so whatever.

We spent Monday at the resort. Woke up early, ate breakfast and headed to the beach. The sand on the beach was not yellow as we are used to, but grayish-black in color due to its volcanic origin. I think it also had a smaller grain and was lighter. There was also a lot of small pieces of corral on the beach, so I guess the beach itself has a mixture of volcanic-coral sand.

Hard at play.Aroshka loved the ocean. He spent around 3 hours running around, playing in the water, playing with sand and overall being happy. The sand area of the beach was pretty much deserted. Sometimes there were people going for a swim in the ocean, but they preferred to stay under umbrellas in the grass-covered area above the beach. Which worked perfectly for us — it was much easier to track Aroshka when there were no other people around.

I used a combination of zinc oxide sunscreen by Badger, which made Aroshka and I look like a pair of mime artists, and a more conventional spray which provides a chemical block. The combination of Badger and small-grain black sand was really something, plus it was hard to wash off!

Hilton Papagayo from the top.After the beach we ate a lunch in one of the cafes, and went to get some rest. After a shower Aroshka was fast asleep. He did not require any song-singing or fairy-tale telling throughout the whole trip. The only thing that was needed is the cosiness of his crib. By the way, he could barely fit into the standard hotel crib. I fear that in a few months he will outgrow it completely.

We planned a trip to Santa Rosa National Park for Tuesday, but I’ll leave it for the next post.
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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Anniversary in Venice

Sunny day in Venice.Venice was the final stop of our Italian trip. We timed it so that our 6th wedding anniversary would fall on one of the days that we would be staying in Venice. In fact, originally we planned to spend 2 nights in Venice and 2 nights in Milan, but shifting one of those nights over to Venice was definitely the right thing to do.

Venice character.If I were to write a short story it would be this: Venice was magical. It really was the peak of our trip. Rome was a great place to start our vacation and Venice was the right place to finish. I’m glad that it wasn’t the other way around. And it really would be hard to find a more romantic place on Earth to celebrate our anniversary at. And our hotel was the most luxurious one of our whole trip. While other cities have places to see Venice itself is a place to see.

Canals of Venice.And now into the details. We arrived to Venice by high speed train sometime in the early afternoon. Venice has two train stops and luckily we did our research ahead of time, so we got off on the right one — the very last stop of the line. We were slightly worried about getting to our hotel as we had to catch the right “bus” boat since we couldn’t really walk to the right place and taxi-boats would be very expensive. However directions that we prepared ahead of the trip turned out to be very easy to follow.

Canals of Venice.Right after walking out of the train terminal we saw what looked like a bus stop, only for boats. We had two options — either take one directly to the island where our hotel was located and walk, or take the boat to the island across the canal and catch a shuttle provided by hotel directly to the doors.

Streets of Venice.We figured we’ll just take the one that shows up first — they had numbers just as buses do. The one that arrived first actually stopped at both places, but the shuttle schedule didn’t really line up, so we figured we’ll take a walk, even though we worried slightly that there might not be a sidewalk or something like that.

Hilton Molino Stucky Venice.Our hotel was located on an island called Guidecca, which is directly to the south, across the canal from the main Venice itself. The stop that we got off at was called Palanca. Turned out that the walk itself took no more than 10 minutes at a relaxed pace and the only slight complication was that we had to carry our luggage up to a pair of small bridges to cross the canals — no big deal at all. Soon after we were inside the lobby of Hilton Molino Stucky Venice hotel — the most expensive (point-wise) stop of our trip.

Our suite.Several days before our arrival I got an email from the hotel manager asking what is the occasion for our stay and I told him that we are celebrating our anniversary. When we arrived instead of getting an upgrade to executive floor (our Diamond VIP benefit) they actually upgraded us to an executive floor suite with a view of Venice. When I checked the actual cost of the room it clocked in at over $1,000 per night. And we were getting this for free.

Window view.The view really was great. Included breakfasts were usual Hilton style — full kitchen with hot food. And executive lounge provided free drinks and snacks all day long. We really did drink a lot of wine throughout our vacation. There was no way to walk to the main part of Venice, but there was a ferry running every 30 minutes provided by our hotel with two stops on the other side: Zattere — a stop right across the canal and San Marco — main squire of Venice. The ride to Zattere was about 5 minutes and to San Marco around 15.

Ponte dell'Accademia. View from Accademia Bridge — one of four bridges over the Grand Canal.We also soon realized that you can walk all across Venice by foot. All the places are interconnected by tiny bridges along with several large bridges across the Grand Canal — no need to figure out public transportation or anything like that. Plus Venice itself is pretty tiny and can be walked across in a short amount of time.

Streets of Venice.Now we heard things from people that Venice doesn’t smell good, is very hot and humid. It very well might be that during the summer, but it defiantly is not the case at the end of November. We didn’t notice any smells and the temperature was very mild.

Venice. Daniel.We actually lucked out with the weather. Less than a week before we got to Venice there were a lot of reports of Venice being completely flooded. When we were there it was perfectly fine and we didn’t see any signs of flooding. However right after we left the city got flooded again. Talk about good timing.

Foggy night.I also got a good amount of great photographs. First day was cloudy, second day was sunny and third and forth days were very very foggy which made the place even more cozy and romantic. The city definitely has character. We spent hours upon hours just walking around, looking for the tiniest and quietest streets and bridges we could find. All in all we absolutely loved it.

San Marco. The center of Venice.On the first day we just walked around and looked around and had a very nice dinner at Santo Stefano. Alena’s black ink risotto was especially nice.

Inside San Marco Cathedral.On the second day we went to explore the main square and San Marco Cathedral itself. It’s an eastern influenced architecture and has 5 domes more reminiscent of those that you would see on a mosque.

Piazza San Marco.There is also a high tower next to it. There are no stairs and only an elevator ride to the top. As a result it didn’t seem as impressive — there is no sense of accomplishment that I’ve experienced when I was at the top of the tower in Florence. But the weather was nice, so we got some bird-eye view photos.

View from the top of the tower.And we did a lot of wondering on this day as well. We also stopped by Venetian Guggenheim museum, and quickly realized that if you want to visit Guggenheim you do it in New York. They advertised that they had Picasso, Dali, Kandinsky and such, but in reality had one of each. New York is where you go.

Anniversary dinner at Trattoria Ai Cacciatori.This was the day of our anniversary. We decided to find a dinner place somewhere on Giudecca for this night. We ended up walking all the way from our hotel on the west side of the island to the very eastern side of the island and in the process discovered only two open places. I guess in low season this island is really asleep. We ended up eating dinner at one of the places that we found online prior to our walk — Trattoria Ai Cacciatori.

Streets of Venice.Although the pictures that we saw showed a very rustic looking place when we got there it turned out that they renovated and ended up with plain white walls. Sounds like a mistake to me. The food however was good. We ordered a couple of appetizers, I had Venetian liver and if I remember correctly Alena had some fish. And of course more wine again. This also was the only place where our waiter (a young guy) had trouble understanding our English — probably one and only such occurrence during our whole trip.

Venice masks.On our third day we did a lot of wondering around again. I’m repeating myself — but what a beautiful place. On this day we started looking for something authentic to bring as a gift to my parents and something for ourselves. When we first arrived to Venice we noticed tons of shops selling masks. At first we thought that it was weird, but later on, when you start looking at them you see how really beatiful and well crafted some of them are — they are indeed art. However the trick is to find the real ones that are made in Venice and not some imports. At first imports might sound like a good deal price-wise, but when you hold both in your hands you feel a substantial difference.

Mask shop.We walked through a lot of stores until we found one that we really liked. This place didn’t even have a sign, but when we walked in it had a nice collection of all kinds of masks and there was no sales person to pester you. There was a master working on them. When we walked in he was picking the masks out of the forms and cutting them out. He greeted us and carried on doing his thing leaving us to look at everything at our own pace.

Venice. Fog.We ended up picking out the ones that we really liked and got a pair of them for a very nice price of about €50 each — it really is a good deal. I asked him to pose for a picture, but he, what seemed like a typical Italian, said that he doesn’t really like himself on pictures, but instead will do something else. So he grabbed a mask, a cape and a hat and stroke a rather cool pose for us. We were quite happy with our acquisition and were actually glad to see the process of those being created with our own eyes.

Streets of Venice.In the evening we picked another restaurant to eat at, but this was really the only time that we struck out with our random picking. Not that the place was bad or anything, it just wasn’t anything special either — and by now we were spoiled with our luck with restaurants.

Foggy day. Venice.When we got to our hotel we ordered a taxi to the airport. The price was quite high — €105 if I remember correctly. But we were aware of it from the time that we were booking planes and decided that we don’t want to fumble with public transportation and other people’s schedules on the day of our departure. My nerves are worth to me more than the money and me being me — this was money well spent.

Canals of Venice.In the morning taxi picked us up at our scheduled time and gave us the last ride through the romantic canals of this beautiful city. We arrived at Marco Polo aiport and had an uneventful non-stop flight back home. Now some time has passed and all those cities have a very fond place in my memory. So many great days and places I’ve seen with my bestest friend in the whole wide world, my beautiful wife.

Streets of Venice.P.S. I have a lot of great photographs of Venice left, but no room to post them. The city is just too photogenic.

Fog. View from our window.
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Friday, January 11, 2013

Our Day in Milan

Milan Cathedral.Milan. The commercial and industrial center of Italy. One of the fashion capitals of the world. We were not sure if we wanted to visit you. There are some people, who think you can be easily skipped on the first trip to Italy, but we did not, and we have no regrets.

Milano Centrale Train Station.We arrived to Milan on Wednesday (November 21st) afternoon by train. Before we boarded the train, I was secretly hoping that our travel companions will be as much fun as Lorenzo was. No such luck. First of all, they took one of our seats, which apparently is not a big deal, but we did not know it and felt uncomfortable at first. And secondly, they had no interest in communicating with us, which I absolutely expected, but still hoped for something more fun.

Streets of Milan.We ended up changing our sitting arrangement so that we would have no travel companions at all (there are usually two pairs of seats facing each other). The ride itself was relatively short, just under two hours. I think that one of the reasons why trains are so popular and well-scheduled in Europe is that distances between major travel destinations are not that great.

Our suite at Hilton Milan.Upon our arrival we took a short walk to the hotel and checked in. Since we only spent one night in Milan, we’d decided that staying close to the train station would be very convenient, and it actually was the case. The Hilton that we stayed in was very nice, and as Diamond VIP members we got our room upgraded to a suite, access to the executive lounge, free internet and free breakfast. The area around the hotel seemed safe, and the added benefit was that subway was close by.

Subway of Milan.After checking in we went to see the famous Milan Cathedral. It was just a few subway stops away, so we spent very little time getting there. The square in front of the church was quite busy — there were a lot of people and pigeons. The cathedral looked impressive from the outside, but I have to say that to me it was a bit less magical than the Florence one.

Inside the cathedral.After admiring it for a little while, we entered the place to check the inside. It looked expectantly Gothic — high ceilings, echoing steps, colorful mosaics depicting biblical scenes, altars, candles. I sat on one of the benches and thought about life; meanwhile Danya tried to take a few pictures despite poor light conditions. We also went to some sort of basement where sarcophagi with the corpses of a few religiously significant people were being stored. It felt a bit creepy.

On cathedral's roof.After that we decided to take a tour of the cathedral’s roof. We found the entrance easily, but it turned out that the tickets were sold in a separate shop, so we needed to acquire them prior to our admittance. The guards gave us good directions, so it was not a big deal (although I still don’t understand why they don’t sell them by the entrance). We opted for the elevator this time around.

Walking on the roof.Walking on the roof was a unique experience. You can’t really appreciate all the delicate details of the sculptures, spires and arches while looking at them from afar, so I am very glad that it’s possible to get so close to them. We also had an opportunity to look at Milan from above, but the day was somewhat hazy, so the view was just OK.

Another view from the top.There were also maintenance repair jobs going all over the place, so Danya was disappointed about the lack of more picturesque views. Oh well. It was still very nice, I am glad we did it. I’ve noticed that many statues had thin long sharp metal sticks attached to their tops. My guess is that it’s done to prevent pigeons from being too comfortable there.

Charleston.When we finished, it was time to eat. We walked around for a bit and picked a place at random. It was called Charleston, and we ended up having one of the best meals of our vacation over there. Since it was lunch, we ordered light — just a buffalo mozzarella pizza and spaghetti with chilli peppers. Both meals were super delicious, and I still salivate when I think about that pizza.

Buffalo Mozzarella Pizza.If I had a chance to eat a single meal from Italy again, it would definitely be buffalo mozzarella pizza. And pasta was just the right firmness. I’ve heard the term al dente so many times, but only at Charleston I understood the true meaning of it. I actually started to make firmer pasta at home upon our return from Italy.

Square in front of Milan Cathedral.We wondered around after lunch for a short while and went back to the hotel. There was nothing much to do, so we just relaxed, read, called Danya’s parents and Aroshka via face-time.

View from the roof.In a few hours we went to the executive lounge for some snacks and drinks. We’ve decided not to go out for dinner and just fill up on the free stuff that Hilton has to offer. And it was actually more than enough, because they had a great selection of snacks (salads, grilled vegetables, bruschetta, fish, olives) and wine was a plentiful as always. We went to bed early to be fresh for our last train ride next morning.

Street leading to our hotel.When we were reading about Milan we saw a lot of references about people gazing and looking at fashionable clothing. However people in Milan did not strike me as extra fashionable. I guess, after living in New York for over 10 years, it’s hard to be impressed.
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Sunday, December 9, 2012

Grand Italian Vacation

One of magical canals in Venice.It’s already been seven days since we returned from our “Grand Italian Vacation” and I’m faced with my usual post-vacation conundrum — how do I do a good job conveying and preserving all the great feelings and experiences that we had, through words and pictures.

I think I will start by saying a couple of general things and will go into more details as I go on. Our Italian vacation — as most of our vacations tend to be — was great. We really liked Italy and all the cultural and historical experiences that it has to offer along with an abundance of famous places to visit.

Having said that I probably should mention that while we enjoyed our trip greatly we weren’t completely swept off our feet the same way we were in Japan. I’m not exactly sure why, but it probably has something to do with the fact that we really wanted to visit Japan for many years and year after year some obstacle would prevent us from going. So when we finally managed to do it — the achievement itself made if feel more special. And then there is the fact that it still is much more exotic of an experience. After all — United States itself, even though quite a bit different — did originate from Europe, while Japan existed and developed on a very different trajectory for thousands of years.

Florence. Climbing the tower.But not to get way too off course — back to Italy. The trip was great and everyone who has a chance should visit Italy. The country has so much history to offer in various forms that 10 days is barely enough to touch upon it — ancient structures, famous locations, familiar to everyone paintings and sculptures, unique cities and a great selection of local cuisines. We spent 10 amazing days in Italy that we will probably remember for the rest of our lives.

So a short summary of our trip would be that we got lucky with the weather, loved our Hilton hotels, used trains with great success to get around and even rented a car for one day. We tried a good number of Italian specialties and had a rather good luck with randomly picking places to dine at. All the cities look and feel quite differently from familiar to us U.S. cities and we loved exploring each and every one of them. But my favorite stop of all would have to be Venice — there is just nothing like it in the world and you feel how special it is when you’re there.

Milan. Main square.One of the things that we were worried a bit about was the time of the year that we were going at and all the floods that happened in Italy a week before our departure. However it turned out that weather was warmer and more pleasant than it was in New York at the time even though the most southern city (Rome) in our itinerary was still closer to the north pole than New York is. There were no signs of recent flooding when we were there, but even more surreal was the fact that the flooding has started again right after we left.

However a bigger advantage of the time of the year that we picked was the fact there were no enormous crowds. There were still tons of tourists everywhere, but we didn’t encounter a single line — no line to Saint Peter Basilica, no line to Vatican Museums, no line to Uffizi Gallery and tons of empty restaurants which were very happy to serve us.

Venice. View from Accademia Bridge over Grand Canal. Basilica of Saint Mary in the background.Speaking of which — the service everywhere was great. I couldn’t tell a difference between the typical great service that you would get at restaurant in U.S. from what we were getting in Italy — fast, courteous and very polite hosts and waiters everywhere. A lot of places put a sitting charge on your bill — ranging from 1 to 4 euros per person, but from what we learned from other Italians that we talked to — this pretty much frees you up from having to leave a tip. Even though we still left tips at certain places we felt very much OK with leaving a small tip or not leaving a tip at all.

But of course the best part of the timing of our trip was the fact that we ended up celebrating our 6th wedding anniversary in possibly the most romantic place on earth — Venice.

And now having all of the above laid out I can jump right into our trip and start from the beginning and get deeper into details.

P.S. Selecting photographs for the introductory post was really hard. I didn’t want to use up photos from the stories about each city, yet this post came out looking really photo-scarce. We’ll probably readjust this when we are done with all the posts.
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Friday, December 7, 2012

Italian Vacation — Start

Colosseum.Our Italian vacation was expedtedly grand. It seems like almost everyone we know have been there, and the consensus is that one must visit. I mean, what’s not to like about Italy? The churches are mysterious and old, the art is beautiful and famous, the food is delicious and flavorful, the people are warm and emotional, the cities have so much character, the wine is abundant and cheap. Need I go on? It was a really, really good vacation.

I have to say though that somehow our last year’s trip to Japan was a bit more exciting. Maybe, Japan is just more exotic; or maybe we planned and prepared for it more. I am not sure. There really is not reason to compare, but I felt compelled to mention this. I loved Japan. I really liked Italy.

I also have to say that as far as logistics of the trip go, Danya did most of the work. I know it made the whole thing more stressful for him, but for some reason I could not put my mind to it.

Look at Florence from the top.We stayed in four cities during this vacation — Rome, Florence, Milan and Venice. Originally we were not sure if it makes more sense to rent a car and to drive from place to place or to travel by means of public transportation (Eurostar Italia). Traveling by car seemed attractive at first because it would allow us to see more cities on our way, but at the end we’ve decided that trains will be faster, cheaper and simply more convenient. I am happy with the way things went, and if I had to decide again, Eurostar would undoubtedly win. We also decided not to buy a train pass, since unlike Japan, you can’t board any train with it, and must do reservations (which cost extra) for specific trains. Considering we only traveled by train three times, pass would have been more expensive without providing any extra convenience.

Italian bullet train.Our plane to Rome departed at 9:50 p.m. on Thursday evening. One thing that happened the day before was that Danya’s dad got a pretty severe allergic reaction (horrible rush, fever, headache), and we were not 100% sure if it was an allergy indeed, although the doctor said that it should not be anything else. Danya’s dad never had anything like that in his life, so understandably everyone was really worried. A multitude of of bad case scenarios galloped through my brain, but luckily he got well within a few days and we did not have to change any of our plans.

Aroshka let us go easily. We’ve been telling him about our upcoming trip for some time, so he knew that we would leave and then come back in a week. He promised us not to cry and to listen to his grandparents, and that’s pretty much what he did. Aroshka and Danya’s mom waived us good-bye, and then Maruk gave us a ride to JFK airport.

I was not looking forward to the flight itself, since I am never able to sleep on planes and the flight was during the night. Also, I don’t know who decides how many people could be stuffed into one plane, but rows of seats are just too close to each other to be comfortable for a 6 feet tall long legged girl (especially when people in previous row recline all the way back). But whatever. After flying with a toddler ones, I appreciate having to worry only about your own comfort.

We arrived to Rome on Friday afternoon. It was my birthday, and even though we were really tired, I was looking forward to celebrating it in such an interesting city!

Rome street.We took a cab from the airport to our hotel. Danya has arranged everything in advance with hotel’s staff help. It cost us 55 euros, and we left 5 euros as a tip. Our driver looked really surprised that we left him extra money, but since we were not sure if it’s customary to tip in Italy, we’ve decided to be nice just in case. Since then we left tips on a few occasions only (first time we ate at a restaurant and when we were particularly happy with the service). The thing is that when we traveled by train from Rome to Florence, we spent our time chatting with a very nice Italian guy named Lorenzo. He was traveling home to some small town in the province of Venice after attending a rock band concert in Rome. Among other things, he told us that people rarely leave tips in Italy. There is a cover charge, or coperto, in each restaurant, and from what we understood it serves as a substitute for tips. The lowest coperto we’ve seen was 1 euro per person (during our first dinner in Rome), and the highest was 4 euros (during one of our dinners in Venice).

Lorenzo. Our companion on the train to Florence.By the way, Lorenzo’s English, to his anguish, was not fluent, but he could understand pretty much everything that we were saying and could communicate his thoughts well enough to have a 1.5 hour conversation with us. Many Italians that we’ve encountered (granted, a lot of them were in the service industry) had decent English, which made it easy for us to travel. Lorenzo is a pastry chef by the way, so his line of work does not require knowledge of English. Since we spent most of the time in tourist areas, almost all restaurants had English menus (and some places in Venice even had menus in Russian).

Alena and a tiny car.But back to our ride from the airport to our Rome hotel. The driver took us through the city via some scenic route. You can tell that Rome is an old city, and we were particularly excited when he drove through the area around Coliseum. I’ve noticed that there are a lot of bikers on the streets, but unlike American bikers, Italians somehow looked more casual, like they were riding bikes for convenience and not just to have fun. Cars in Europe are also different from what I’m used to. They are much smaller on average, and there are a lot of European cars in use (and very, very few American). One of the obvious reasons for the abundance of bikes and small cars is the price of gas, which is considerably more expensive in Italy than in the United States. I also have a feeling that majority of cars have a manual transmission. At least when we were renting a car, we got one with the stick shift (and it went without saying) — good thing that Danya had a lot of practice with it before.

It was pretty funny when our driver got emotional on two occasions — first he cursed some girl who inconvenienced him by crossing the street, and then he had an exchange with a fellow driver after our taxi blocked an intersection on a red light. It seemed to us that Italians drive somewhat more carelessly when Americans, but later on I actually started to appreciate how nice they are to pedestrians. On multiple occasions when we had to cross the street without a traffic light or a crosswalk, some driver would eventually stop and let us go.

Hilton Garden Inn Rome Claridge. Our hotel.Our hotel, Hilton Garden Inn Rome Claridge, was located close enough to the main tourist attractions, but not too close to be overly expensive. When we took a walk in the neighborhood, we actually saw a lot of embassies around. The hotel itself was not big, but very nice. The elevator was really tiny, but the room itself had plenty of space, and I especially liked red sparkling marble in the bathroom.

After checking in, we walked around for a bit and almost visited some museum in the local park, but then decided that we’re too tired and it’s time to get something to eat. By the way, one of the things that I loved about Italian architecture is that all the windows have outside blinds, which to me makes the buildings look old and romantic.

In a park near Borghese Gallery.There were a few restaurants close to our hotel, and we randomly picked one. It was almost empty. I ordered a seafood risotto (my fist, but not last) and Danya got steak with potatoes. The food was Ok, but I would not return to that place again. We also got some red wine to go with dinner. Wine was so abundant and relatively inexpensive in Italy, that we ended up drinking a glass or two every single day.

At the end of the dinner both of us could barely keep our eyes open (and it was not even 4 p.m. yet), so we went to the hotel right away and happily jumped into our big and cozy bed. Danya was saying that we’ll end up waking up in the middle of the night because we went to sleep so early, but apparently he was wrong. Apart from a brief period of non-sleeping at 10-11 p.m. we slept until the alarm went off at 7 a.m. After a quick breakfast and shower we went to explore some of the things that Rome has to offer.

Our room in Rome. Time to sleep!
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Monday, September 10, 2012

Italy Vacation

ItalyIn light of the fact that our Grand Canyon and Las Vegas vacation fell apart due to the fact that we were unable to obtain a visa for Alena’s sister we decided to stay positive and still plan a vacation even though it was not what we originally hoped for.

We asked my mom if she would still stay with Arosha for the duration of our trip and she very graciously agreed. She has to take time off work herself for us to be able to make this vacation happen so we appreciate this very very much.

We did some initial research and based on this outline we booked the whole trip already. We know the route that we want to take, but now we need to fill in the gaps and build out an exact plan for each destination and means of getting from one place to another — trains and car rental. The list of things that we made certain decisions about and things we know already follows.

On late night of Thursday, November 15th we fly out on a direct flight1 to Rome and will be coming back on Sunday, November 25th on a direct flight from Venice. Thus we’ll be able to have our 6th anniversary dinner in Venice — one of the most romantic places in the world.

We, again, are taking advantage of our Hilton points and our Hilton Diamond VIP status to get the best bang for the buck. Hilton points are better used if they are being spent in one place at once. Since it was not really possible with a trip like this we took an advantage of a new program that Hilton recently introduced — an ability to pay for the room using points and money.

The hotel portion of the trip ended up costing us 215,000 points (free portion) and €428. We’re getting a room upgrade, access to executive lounge, free breakfast and internet as benefits for our Diamond status. If we were to book the same hotels without points it would amount to €1,627 and everything I mentioned above would cost additional money. Needless to say we’re quite happy with how this program has been working out for us.

We will spend 2 nights2 in Rome. We’re assuming that even though we’ll get to Rome somewhere around noon on Friday we will be very tired, so we’re not making any complicated plans for the evening. We’ll do something simple based on how we are feeling. On early Saturday morning we are going to explore the Colosseum and its surrounding, eat lunch and spend the second half of the day exploring Vatican.

On Sunday morning we’re planning to catch a train to Florence where we will spend 3 nights3 and rent a car. We’ll spend one day exploring Florence itself and another day we’ll drive out to Pisa and take a look at its leaning tower and drive through Tuscany back-roads.

On Wednesday, November 21st we leave for Milan. We will spend 2 nights4 there. We will try to make a short stop at Bologna on our way. In Milan we plan to explore a huge Milan Cathedral and go up to its roof. We also would like to explore Lake Como if weather permits it and if we’re in the mood.

And on Friday, November 23rd we’ll drive to our final destination — Venice. We’ll spend 2 more nights5 there, making stops along the way at Verona and Vicenza. We haven’t yet decided where exactly we will have our anniversary dinner, but any place in Venice should be quite romantic. Our final Saturday we’ll dedicate to exploring Venice with Piazza San Marco being one of the main objectives.

As always it sounds like it will be a great vacation, but how and where exactly we’ll end up going we’ll only find out after it’s over. Now we need to start the work on researching our destinations.

Update: We ended up reshuffling the days a bit. Rome and Florence portions stayed exactly the same as listed above. However we spent 1 night in Milan and 3 nights in Venice. We also ended up having enough points to full pay for those 4 nights — 40,000 for Milan and 150,000 for 3 nights in Venice. The final total cost for the hotels came out to €232 and 275,000 points. Points worked out great again. The suite that we stayed in in Venice, for example, would’ve cost $1,100 per night if we didn’t have our points.

  1. Alitalia to Rome and Delta from Venice non stop flights for $886 per person. []
  2. Hilton Garden Inn Rome Claridge — 20,000 points, €56 and taxes per night. []
  3. Hilton Garden Inn Florence Novoli — 15,000 points, €40 and taxes per night. []
  4. Hilton Milan — 40,000 points per night. []
  5. Hilton Molino Stucky Venice — 25,000 points, €98 and taxes per night. []
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Saturday, December 10, 2011

Япония — О Еде

Street vendor on Miyajima Island.Наша поездка в Японию удалась. Мы погуляли по многим новым местам, попробовали много необычных блюд, услышали много непонятных слов, увидели много красивых лиц, и в целом на мгновение окунулись в другой мир. Мне было одинаково интересно смотреть и на Японию, и на самих японцев. Очень хотелось пообщаться с ними поближе и попытаться лучше понять их обычаи и культуру, но такой возможности не было. Несмотря на то, что все были чрезвычайно вежливы, много кланялись и улыбались, я иногда остро ощущала себя чужаком в этой мононациональной стране. В целом же японцы произвели на меня очень и очень приятное впечатление, и я лично убедилась, что японские женщины не зря славятся своей красотой.

Plastic dishes.Вообще очень сложно писать о нашем отпуске, потому что он был очень насыщенным и от этого не знаешь с чего начать. В эту субботу мы ходили в местный японский ресторан с Маруками, и с тех пор мне очень хочется попасть на рыбный рынок в Токио и отведать вкуснейших суши из Суши Дай. Разница в качестве морепродуктов, риса и чая очень заметна — а это значит, что еще не скоро я смогу получать удовольствие японских ресторанов в Бруклине. Итак, о еде.

Суши Дай


Chefs at Sushi Dai.Вопреки распространённому мнению, в Японии есть очень много разных блюд, которые не включают в себя морепродукты. В суши-ресторан мы сходили только один раз, но зато как метко! Даня почитал на интернете отзывы о разных местах, и этот ресторанчик, расположенный на рыбном рынке в Токио, очень хвалили. Работает он в первой половине дня — с 5 утра и до полудня, и попасть без очереди туда невозможно.

Japanese omelet.Мы запланировали поход на рыбный рынок на утро понедельника. Наша гостиница находилась минутах в 15 ходьбы от рынка, что пришлось весьма кстати, так как метро в Токио закрывается на ночь. Мы проснулись в 4 утра (разница во времени между Токио и Нью-Йорком составляет 14 часов, и к понедельнику мы были на каком-то промежуточном времени) и в начале 6-го вышли из гостиницы. Благодаря тому, что Даня хорошо изучил карты еще до нашей поездки (а так же тому, что в моего мужа при рождении кто-то встроил компас), мы нашли и сам рынок, и нужный нам ресторанчик без каких-либо проблем. В 5:40 утра мы присоединились к очереди (которая, кстати, заметно выросла вскоре после нашего прихода), а в 7:10 нас запустили внутрь. Стоит заметить, что в целом ряду маленьких ресторанчиков, наш был единственным возле которого в такую рань стояла очередь. В очереди там и сям встречались европейские лица, но большинство ожидающих являлось азиатами (скорее всего японцами). Прямо перед нами стояла пара средних лет — муж японец с русской женой. Живут они в Калифорнии, но у него в Японии мама и бизнес, и каждый раз когда они прилетают погостить, то заходят в это место.

Daniel at Sushi Dai.Сам ресторанчик очень маленький и узенький. Не уверена сколько там посадочных мест — думаю, не больше 12. Мы заказали омакасе — курс на выбор повара, и остались очень довольны. Каждый из нас получил по 10 суши (плюс одну на наш выбор в конце завтрака), суп мисо, 4 кусочка рола с тунцом и сладковатый японский омлет. Еще в Нью-Йорке мы смотрели видео из этого места, и поэтому для нас не было шоком, когда одно из блюд — какой-то там моллюск — зашевелилось прямо перед нашими носами. Мне было страшновато это есть — всё-таки непривычно есть такие свежие морепродукты в сыром виде европейскому человеку — но с заданием я успешно справилась. Даня тоже сьел этот кусочек суши, хотя потом он откомментировал что большей гадости в жизни не едал. Еще мы ели тунца (жирного и обычного), морского ежа, красную икру, скумбрию, мелких креветок, окуня, угря и еще какую-то белую рыбу. Я помню, что окуня в Бруклине я прожевать не могла, а тут он мне так понравился, что я заказала его в качестве дополнительного кусочка. А еще мне очень понравилась красная икра — солёную красную икру я не люблю, а вот свежая была просто обьеденье.

Rolls and tuna sushi, I think.Завтрак нам стоил $50 на человека — не дешево, но оно того стоило.

Говядина Кобе


Kobe beef.Дегустация кобе бифа входила в планы нашей поездки. Мы точно не знали где, но надеялись, что в Осаке найдётся приличное место с умереными ценами (хотелось уложится в $100 на человека). Но то ли доллар сейчас настолько слабый (курс доллара к японской иене не был насколько плохим со времён второй мировой войны), то ли мы не там искали, но найти что-то дешевле $200 на человека мы не могли. К счастью, в ресторане, на котором мы остановились, никто не возражал разделить нам одну порцию на двоих. Хочется заметить, что так получилось даже лучше. Конечно, мяса могло быть и больше (мы получили 150 грамм мяса на двоих, но за счёт того, что в эта говядина очень жирная и соответственно относительно лёгкая, получился довольно приличный кусок), но закусок, овощей и риса входящих в цену ужина было более чем достаточно. Мы оба наелись до отвала.

Teppanyaki chef.Перед походом в ресторан мы очень боялись разочароваться ($200+ за ужин для нас довольно дорого), но получилось даже наоборот — мясо превзошло наши ожидания. За счёт его необычной “гранитной” текстуры оно было очень мягким (я бы даже сказала нежным) и сочным, и его практически не надо было жевать. Я очень рада, что мы побороли наши сомнения и попробовали этот деликатес.

Тэппанъяки


Teppanyaki.Кобе биф нам готовили в тэппаньяки ресторане. Не считая мяса, всё очень похоже на наши местные хибачи. Вкусно (особенно жаренный чеснок), но ничего необычного.

Традиционные ужин и завтрак


Traditional dinner at ryokan.На 5-летний юбилей нашей свадьбы мы останавливались в традиционной японской гостинице — рёкане. Мы решили так же попробовать традиционные ужин и завтрак, которые предлагались в этом месте. Ужин состоял из более 15 наименований, включающих в себя супы, сырую и жаренную на гриле рыбу, овощи, различные соления, рис, десерт.

Traditional breakfast at ryokan.Что-то мне понравилось, что-то было слишком экзотичным на мой вкус, но в целом мы остались очень довольны и хорошо наелись. Завтрак тоже был интересным и включал в себя успевший полюбиться мне омлет по-японски, рыбу, суп, варёный тофу, рис, соления и грейпфрут. Гостиничный персонал посоветовал нам одеть на ужин предоставленные рёканом традиционные халаты с накидками, что мы и сделали. Мне кажется, это добавило всему действу остроты, чего мы собственно и добивались.

Окономияки


Okonomiyaki dinner in Osaka.Это блюдо, представляющее собой жареную лёшку с капустой и мясом либо морепродуктами, мы ели в одной из забегаловок в Осаке. Было неплохо, но лично на мой вкус не более того. Я выбрала окономияки с осьминогом и креветками, а Даня с беконом.

Тэмпура


Tempura dinner.Я никогда не была большим любителем тэмпуры (обжаренные в кляре морепродукты или овощи) в Бруклине, но Японская темпура на голову выше местной. Не знаю в чём заключается секрет, но тесто в Японии было более воздушным, лёгким и хрустящим, и поэтому я с огромным удовольствием ела тэмпуру и в специализированном ресторане, и как часть нашего традиционного ужина.

Свинина в кляре


Fried pork cutlet dinner.К сожалению я не записала как называется эта ветвь японской кухни, но было очень вкусно. Эта свинина напомнила мне темпуру, но немного отличалась от вышеназванной по вкусу.

Бэнто Бокс


Bento box.Из Токио в Осаку мы ехали на синкансэне — “поезде-пуле”. Даня купил в дорогу две коробочки бэнто. Идея таких коробочек, где еда красиво и аккуратно разложена по отсекам, мне нравится, но больше покупать их как-то не тянуло.

Зелёный Чай


Tea ceremony.За неделю отпуска я выпила не меньше ведра этого чудесного напитка. Нам повезло, и когда мы уезжали из рёкана, тётушка-японка в кимоно угостила нас чаем, сделанным в рамках чайной церемонии. У чая был насыщенный зелёнй цвет, вкуснейшая пенка и очень приятный терпкий вкус. Второй по вкусности чай нам давали в Суши Дай.

Tea ceremony green tea.Очень многие рестораны тоже подавали неплохой чай, хотя, конечно, с тем, что нам подали в рёкане они не могут сравнится. Я покупала очень много чая в торговых автоматах, понатыканных на улицах с удивительной частотой. Причём, чай в автомате можно было купить как холоный, так и горячий. Я очень удивилась когда первый раз мне выпала бутылка с горячим зелёным чаем, но потом мы заметили, что под горячими и холодными напитками было написано “hot” и ” cold” соответсвенно, плюс у горящих напитков на бутылках были оранжевые крышечки, а у холодных белые. Мы привезли домой 3 упаковки по 100 грамм листового зелёного чая — надеюсь, что когда он закончится, можно будет пополнить запасы с помощью интернета.

Vending machine with hot and cold drinks.А еще мы пробовали буллочки с мясом, приготовленные на пару на острове Миядзима. Очень вкусно! А еще мы ели ланч в районе Сибуя в Токио, но он не представлял из себя ничего особенного. Что мне показалось очень интересым и необычным — это то, что практически кажый ресторан на витрине высталяет пластиковые модели своих блюд. Очень удобно, особенно для иностранцев.

Hiroshima steamed buns at Miyajima Island.А еще хочется отметить, что Хилтон как всегда был на высоте. Так как Даня является “алмазным” членом хилтоновского клуба, то мы получили в отеле бесплатные завтраки и доступ в “executive lounge”, где можно было вечером попить чаю или спиртных напитков, и подкрепится сладким или лёгкими закусками. Завтрак в стиле шведского стола был просто шикарным и включал в себя блюда как европейской, так и японской кухни.
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Monday, May 31, 2010

San Francisco

San Francisco. View from Golden Gate Bridge.And now onto the very last stop of our trip — San Francisco. I will start with saying that usually I loath spending more than a day on a city and much prefer to spend my vacation exploring some park. The maximum that we did before was probably several hours walking around downtown before heading into the nature.

San Francisco was a big exception in all of this. I really loved it and I would happily spend more days there then we did as there are so many things that we didn’t get a chance to explore. Where do I start?

Our hotel room.Right upon our arrive to our Hilton hotel located on the edge of Financial District and Chinatown, and half a block from Transamerica Pyramid we were given a pair of adjacent rooms on the 24th Excecutive Floors. I just love free room upgrades thanks to our Diamond Hilton HHonors standing.

And I must also go ahead and thank Brian for pointing our the error of my ways of originally booking a hotel outside the city. Staying in the heart of things was definitely the right choice.

Golden Gate Bridge.Right after checking in we got back into our car and went to check out the most famous (at least to me) San Francisco landmark — Golden Gate Bridge. Apparently the day after all the area around it was closed off because of some major triathlon competition and people swimming to Alcatraz. Sadly the light conditions were far from perfect so the photos came out rather mediocre, but we worked with what we were given and that’s that.

At first we hiked around the southern side of the bridge and took some shots from several good points of view. The place is just crawling with people thought. So many tourists. I was happy to discover that the bridge has 2 great walkways which present a completely unobstructed view of the city and the bay. If I lived here that would probably be my favorite place for walking with a tripod.

View from Golden Gate. You can see the downtown on the right and Alcatraz on the left.We were able to get only to the first tower though since the bridge ended up being closed around it. We didn’t know why. We decided to come back, get into a car and drive across it and check out Sausalito — the town located on the other side. We got stuck in bad traffic. By the time we got to the first tower though we realized what was going on. The area on the pedestrian walkway was closed off and full of police. There was a guy on the other side of guardrail, holding on. I guess they were trying to talk him out of jumping.

Sausalito itself wasn’t very interesting — full of touristy shops, overbooked restaurants and not much more. After a short walk we decided to get back to the city, but what should’ve been a 15 minute ride turned out to be a painful 3 hour crawl, for the same exact reason as the way here — people are just too nosy and everybody must stop and take a look at a suicidal guy.

The crookedest street in the world -- Lombard Street.On the way back to the hotel we accidentally ended up driving right through the crazy part of Lombard Street. When we were heading up on the hill that leads to that crooked part everyone was slightly freaking out — especially Alena and mama. It really does feel like the car is going to start flipping back over itself any second when you’re climbing that. I’m not certain if it indeed is the steepest road in the city or not, but there are plenty that do feel the same way. We started our next day with the trip back here to take pictures in better light.

Windmill in the Golden Gate Park.After that we drove around the city a bit going through some of the “featured spots” (per Gowalla) — Apple Flagship Store, Union Square, Contemporary Jewish Museum, Moscone Center, Twitter Head Quarters, SFMOMA among other things. In the end we ended up at Golden Gate Park.

Alena, Boris, Daniel, Mark, Oksana.That’s approximately when Mark called. We ended up meeting with him soon after on the western entrance to the park. I was really looking forward to finally meet him — after all, we’ve been exchanging correspondence with him for almost 3 years now and this was the first time we could talk face to face. And I think we ended up having a great time. We got to know him, he got to know us. Hopefully we didn’t turn out to be too scary, crazy Russian relatives. )

Synagogue built on the land that is a gift in the memory of A. A. Lanis.The first place we ended up going together was a synagogue that is built on the land donated by Mark’s grandfather — Jacob in the name of Avram Lanis, Jacob’s father. Avram Lanis also happens to be my great-great-grandfather. It’s an interesting and a strange feeling seeing a building built in his name. Some short time ago we didn’t know anybody, but our branch of the family that started from him. Now we know that his descendants are living all over the world — many parts of Russia, Israel, all over United States and who knows where else.

Mark, Daniel and Boris near the gates of the synagogue.Then we hopped into Mark’s car and went back to our hotel. We left the car and went for a walk around the city. We were going along the shore starting from the Ferry Building approximately. I was hoping to reach the Fisherman’s Wharf, but my dad apparently had different plans in mind. He didn’t want to see the famous places that everyone else sees, but wanted to see small empty streets that are only known to the inhabitants of the city itself. This always happens to us. )

Ferry Building and tram ways that run by it.Anyhow, we ended up getting a dinner in Little Italy and we ready to turn in for the night. Everyone was tired and after all we had a plane to catch early next morning. We said our good-byes with Mark and hope to see him in our area some time in the future. I think it was a great day.

And in conclusion I will say that San Francisco has some special character that only a few cities do. We happen to be lucky to live in one of such cities, but you can be sure that we’ll visit San Francisco again. There are still so many things that we didn’t get a chance to do this time around. We’ll be back!

The view from one of our hotel balconies -- Coit Tower and the bay.P.S. There are many more little details that I left out or forgot. One such thing is that I was really impressed by the number of types of public transportation San Francisco has. The most nostalgic one to me was the trolleybuses — I haven’t seen any since Tashkent. And yes, there are still many more things that I forgot to include in this post.

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View from our balcony. Ocean and dolphins.Ну вот и пролетел наш отпуск. Впечатления вобщем остались очень хорошие, но лично для меня многие места после поездки в Yellowstone кажутся более бледными в сравнении…

Our room.Hilton Waikoloa Village была на высоте. За счёт Даниного Gold VIP статуса в Hilton Honors club, комната нам досталась в самом дорогом здании отеля — Lagoon Tower. Окна выходили на лагуну, дельфинариум и частично на океан. В комнате был балкончик, где мы иногда завтракали. Дверь же наша выходила на водный канал по центру которого на кусочке земли росли тропические деревья. Среди деревьев важно разгуливали фазаны и утки, а еще там любили тусоваться маленькие, но очень шумные птицы — ор, который они поднимали по вечерам и ночам нас сперва просто поразил (спать нам они, к счастью, не мешали)!

Hilton hallways.Еще меня очень впечатлила коллекция статуй, ваз, и других вещей расположенных в коридорах (и не только) отеля. Иногда создавалось впечатление, что идёшь не по отелю, а по музею. Если верить вебсайту отеля, цена этой коллекции превышает $7,000,000.

Бассейны и джакузи работали до 11 вечера. Вообще бассейнов было много, и мне очень понравилось сьезжать по водному слайду в одном из них. Джакузи на мой вкус могли бы быть и погорячее, но в принципе и так было ничего. )

Hilton dolphins.Лагуна, которая сперва на нас не произвела особого впечатления, оказалась замечательным местом для загорания и купания в океанской водичке. Вода была очень чистой — я могла видеть дно даже в тех местах, где ногами до него я уже не доставала.

Buddha Point.Еда не территории отеля оставляет желать лучшего. Завтрак в буфете (омлет с соком и фруктами) стоит по $25 на человека. Чашечка кофе – $7; а когда мы заказали еду в комнату, то нам пришлось заплатить дополнительные $10 за “сервис” и “доставку” (это учитывая, что два скромных салатика нами заказанные стоили $28).

Alena on the way to breakfast.Вообще из всех мест, где мы если, больше всего мне понравился Brown’s Beach House ресторан, расположенный в The Fairmont Orchid отеле. Да, там цены тоже были солидными, но отменное качество еды, великолепный сервис и романтическая атмосфера этого места делали эти цены хотя бы оправданными. Alena being a samurai.Сидели мы на лужайке практически на берегу океана (правда, было уже темно и океан мы не видели), толстенький гаваец играл на гитаре и очень приятным голосом пел гавайские и не только песни, там и сям полыхали огнём факелы… Вобщем, было хорошо, а эсколар (масляная рыба) с эдамаме полентой и грибами не разочаровал ни меня, ни Даню.

На День Благодарения мы, следуя американской традиции, ели индюшку (в Ruth’s Chris ресторане). Было очень даже вкусно – и мы просто обожрались одной порцией на двоих (даже представить не могу как кто-то мог умять целую порцию).

Koi poind near Imari restaurant.Раз уж речь идёт о еде, то хочется упомнянуть и походе на Luau. Мы много слышали о “kalua pig” — свинье запеченной в банановых листьях в специальной подземной печи — и каково же было моё разочарование, когда на вкус эта свинья оказалась ничуть не лучше “pulled pork”, которую я уже неоднократно готовила дома используя slow cooker. Если честно, мной приготовленная свинина мне нравится даже больше — думаю причина в барбекью соусе, который придаёт ей более пикантный вкус.

От шоу на луау я тоже ожидала большего — танцы мне показались несколько примитивными и однообразными. Конечно, было интересно посмотреть на традиционные танцы “хула”, но 2-3 танцев было бы более чем достаточно, чтобы составить полную картину (шоу, естественно, включало намного большее количество танцев). В целом я не жалею о походе на luau, но больше туда я бы не пошла.

На сей ноте хочу сделать паузу. Продолжение следует.
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Sunday, December 6, 2009

Hawaii — First Days

Lagoon view from our balcony.I still didn’t come up with a good structure to write about this trip, so I’ll just go on about things that come to my mind. Our general approach to this vacation was to take it a bit more easy than usual, but we ended up driving somewhere every day anyhow. There was only one day when we didn’t use the car at all.

Our room in the hotel got upgraded because of our Gold VIP status. I didn’t realize this at first and was slightly upset, but later on after checking the website it turned out that we ended up in the best location the whole resort has to offer. We had a small balcony. The view on one side was a lagoon and on the other dolphin pool and open ocean.

View of the ocean and some lava rocks.As for the island itself I expected it all to look like Jurassic Park. Turns out different parts of the island are polar opposites of each other. The western side is mostly a lava dessert. Everything is surrounded by dried up lava and sharp black rocks. Barely anything grows at all. Very unusual looking landscape.

Our yellow Jeep.On our first day we decided to explore the western side of the island, the part that we were staying on. Since we drove to our hotel during the night we didn’t really see any surroundings. There were also 3 official national park sites on this side of the island — two to the south and one to the north.

Sea turtle. This one was about a meter in length.In the morning, after eating our breakfast1 we got into our awesome yellow Jeep and drove south. Our first Hawaiian stamp stop was Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park. We were told that there are giant see turtles feeding near by and went went down into the water. At first we couldn’t really see anything and felt disappointed. And then we started noticing that there are numerous huge turtles sitting in the water. Since they barely move around they are hard to spot.

Wooden statue at the City of Refuge.Next stop was another NHP — Pu`uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park. This location probably has the most unfriendly and unhelpful ranger we have ever met. But since the territory is rather small anyhow we just took a hike on our own and saw the wooden carved statues that I’ve seen pictures of before.

In the evening we ate dinner in the Lagoon Restaurant that’s right under our hotel room, but the food was crap again and we still payed a lot even with coupons. That was the last time we tried eating at the hotel with the exception of Luau. And that was the end of our first day.

On Saturday we couldn’t help ourselves, but go to the Volcanoes National Park, the thing that I wanted to see the most. The drive is about 3 hours and we took the road that goes by Mauna Kea through Hilo and to the south. The ranger at the Visitor Center was very helpful and she built a good plan for us for the day.

Volcano crater at Jaggar Museum point.We went in the direction of Jaggar Museum. First short stop was near some spot where vapor was coming up form under the ground. Normally this might be a very interesting sight, but after our Yellowstone trip this looked utterly unimpressive. The next stop was a view point near the Jaggar Museum itself.

Now there one could clearly see a very large volcano caldera filled with lava and in the middle of it there was a large crater with a lot of fumes coming out. During the day the lava glow is not visible, but at as we saw later at night there is a distinct red glow inside. For some reason I always imagined the volcano in the way they are drawn in cartoons — big mountain with a top cut off. This really looked nothing like it, but it was a first time I actually saw a volcano crater.

Inside the caldera.After that we drove in the other direction to some other caldera (I don’t remember any of the actual names). What was interesting about this one is that there was a hiking trail down to it. I’m not sure about the actual elevation difference, but the hike itself was about 1.2 miles each way along a rather steep trail, so not an easy exercise, especially for those of us who barely move at all on regular basis.

Lava rocks. Walking on these sounds like walking on frozen snow.Walking on the lava is an interesting experience. At some points it felt like a good asphalt and in others it felt like walking on a frozen snow. With each step you can hear the cracking of little pieces of lava breaking up under your feet. They are actually very sharp little stones full of pores from the air when it was drying up.

Then after we got out of the caldera we went through a lava tube — the place where lava actually used to flow. It reminded me of Carlsbad Caverns somewhat because of how moist, dark and cool it was. At that was about a time when I started to realize that not taking any kind of a sweater was a big mistake. On the other side of the island, where we were staying the temperature was around 90 degrees and here it was quite cold in a t-shirt.

Inside the lava tube.Our dinner was yet another “adventure”. We found a place with really nice Zagat rating not far from the park entrance. We ordered some hot soup and hot tea in an attempt to try to stop shivering from the cold. I also ordered a $40 filet mignon and Alena ordered some salad. The said part came when our food was given to someone else and we were told that it was the last filet mignon they had. And we saw all this play-out in front of our eyes, but not like we could stop the waitress and say — are you sure that’s not our food? )

Either way, they did have another piece for me and they ended up giving us their most expensive appetizer and the soup for free and the steak was just exceptional. So we hold no grudge.

Then we drove back to the hotel and as soon as we got back we went to the pools. It was nice when they keep them open until 11pm. They had one of the jacuzzis there that can only be reached through the water and is completely secluded from 3 sides. I don’t think I have to say anymore. ) And that pretty much concludes our Saturday.

  1. We paid $40 for a rather simple buffet after applying $20 Gold VIP coupon. Would’ve been $60 otherwise []

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