Sunday, May 18, 2014

Tennessee Trip Highlights

Time really flies. It’s been more than a week since our vacation has ended and I, as usual, am having trouble figuring out which way to go about these posts. So I decided to just pick out some general categories about the whole trip and then split off location specific notes into separate posts.

Hotels


Throughout our trip we stayed at five different places. Four of those places were Hilton properties. We did not take advantage of our points for any of these since we’re saving them for our November trip, but we did get the full benefits of our Diamond VIP status.

Park Vista by DoubleTree. Gatlinburg, Tennessee.All Hilton properties are great. Clean, big rooms, nice blankets, good breakfasts. I would rate them all at four out of five starts with the exception of one. The hotel where we spent six nights — the longest and most important part of our vacation was just superb and by far the best one of our trip. It was Park Vista by DoubleTree (Hilton property) located right on the edge of Great Smoky Mountains in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

Our hotel. 15 stories atop a hill.Everything about it was great. The hotel itself was located on top of a mountain located right in the middle of a forest. We got upgraded to the top, fifteenth, floor. We had a balcony with a great view of Gatlinburg and the mountains that surround it.

View from the inside.This hotel had a very nice breakfast included with a chef that would cook hot to order meals. We also took advantage of the on property restaurant practically every day. Once we ate directly at it, but mostly we would order some dishes to go to bring up to our room and had our dinner while Anechka was tucked in for the night in the same room.

Other Hilton properties that we stayed at were located in Hershey, Pennsylvania — right near PA capital of Harrisburg, Chapel Hill, North Carolina — not far from NC capital of Raleigh, and the last one was located in Arlington, Virginia — right across the bridge from Washington, DC.

Skyland Resort at Shenandoah National Park.Our only non Hilton hotel was a lodge located right inside Shenandoah National Park. We did stay at the same lodge at the end of 2010. However because we had to reschedule our trip we ended up having to take the only left over room. It was located in a different part of the lodge (cabins are all over the property) and was somehow way below the standard that we are used to.

DoubleTree at Gatlinburg.Floors we were not covered with carpet and cold. Beds were small, mattresses were old. Arosha kept falling off the bed throughout the night. Hot water would run out before one could take a quick shower. There were no laundry facilities and we couldn’t do without them because of Anna’s diapers (more on that later). And it smelled like … — well, it just smelled.

The only thing that it had going for it was the fact that it was located right in the woods and we had a nice porch where Arosha could play with leafs, sticks, stones and all other things he loves playing with. And the restaurant was nearby as opposed to the other cabins from which one had to climb atop a rather steep hill to get to it.

Arligngon, Virginia.Overall this contributed to us cutting our Shenandoah stay one night short. We ended up adding the night to our Tennessee stay which proved to be a very good move on our part.

Pools


The hotel in Tennessee had probably the best pool we’ve encountered during all our previous travels. It had a pair of shallow pools for kids, a hot tub, and an adult pool with a two story high slide leading right into it. Arosha loved it. I would put him between my legs, we would lie down on our backs and slide down right into the water. I have to admit that it was quite fun for me as well.

Pools at Gatlinburg DoubleTree.There was another smaller slide leading into the kids pool, but it was a tube going through the wall. It was pretty dark inside and only on our last day I managed to talk Arosha into trying it. He had to go through it alone as I would not fit into it. So when he was ready to go in I told him that I’ll run down to the pool and catch him at the bottom.

The first time by the time I got there I saw a huge splash and Arosha managing to get above water on his own. Naturally he wanted to go again. On the second time by the time I got down to the pool I heard yelling coming through the tube:
– Ready??
– Ready.
– Ready???
– Ready!

Water slide.The next thing I see is Arosha flying through the tube with complete terror on his face. He splashes down into the pool, jump out with with complete ecstasy written all over his face. Again! Third time went very much like the previous run. Same “readies”, same terror, same happiness.

Alena also took Anna out to the pool. She also enjoyed it along. Alena would hold her in the water with her head above it and they would “swim” around the pool. One time Arosha and I talked Alena into trying the slide. We practically had to coerce her into it. Eventually she reluctantly agreed.

Another view of the slide.When she got up there I told Arosha — now listen to this! And then we heard multiple high pitched yells, screams and howls. She did end up liking it too. I’m glad we made her try.

Our other pool experience was rather sad. While we stayed in Arlington we decide to go to the pool. Arosha got all dressed, all prepared, totally happy. We all also got dressed for the pool. Then we couldn’t figure out which floor it was on. When we went down to the lobby to inquire where it is it turned out that this was the only hotel of our stay where there was no pool. It was a complete tragedy for poor Arosha. So much preparation and anticipation and such a fiasco. He was crushed. That will teach us a lesson for the future though.

Our Car


Our car has served us admirably. I’m really enjoying the “utility” part of our SUV. The cargo space easily fit a pair of large suitcases, a stroller and a good number of smaller bags and purses, while still allowing us to pull a cover over them.

Shenandoah fog and our car.The ride was comfortable and higher vantage point makes for a better trip — you can see more. Distronic made driving for 2,000 miles easier on me. Our car fully loaded with four people and a lot of cargo came out with a very respectable MPG of 26. That’s with mixed highway and city driving. We had to fill up only 4 times and that’s considering that we never waited for it to fall below 1/4th of the tank. Diesel rules.

One thing to note is that while I feel rather well driving Mercedes in and around New York it felt a bit awkward everywhere else. It attracts too much attention and really stands out. Something like Chevy Tahoe would feel somehow safer and more comfortable in that respect.

Another trail.However while before I never wanted anything to do with SUVs now I’m a big fan of an SUV as a family car. It is safe, heavy, stable and allowed us to easily park in all kinds of “off-road” ditches while in the parks.

Kids


Our kids did great. We feared that 400 miles in one day was not doable without many problems. Our original plan was to split it into two days when we left Shenandoah one day early. Turned out it wasn’t a problem at all. We kept planning to stop at 200 miles, 300 miles, but they just kept doing well. Only towards the end a little amount of crying ensued from Anyuta. Arosha had zero issues at all.

On the trail to Laurel Falls.The totally love nature. We could not drag Arosha away from anywhere. Sticks and stones, rivers and puddles. Arosha’s kind of paradise. Anyuta also was very happy to sit on the ground and taste grass, flowers, sticks and just plain good old dirt.

Arosha did great on hikes. We did numerous long hikes on steep trails that were about 3 miles in length and he walked them on his own without any problems. Anna on the other hand refused to sit in her ergo for the most part and Alena had to carry her. I don’t know where she gets the strength and energy. Us driving our stroller around was totally pointless. We haven’t used it once.

Nature fun.Sleeping in one room was perfectly fine too. We thought that’d all have to go on Anna’s schedule and go to sleep at 8pm. However once Alena did put her to bed we could still sit around and do other stuff. Arosha could watch some cartoons or all of us would go through our pictures we took throughout the day. Or we would eat dinner using bathroom sinks as dinner tables. It all work out rather well.

Laundry


Now this was a first for us. Because Anyuta is allergic to disposable diapers we have to use washable cloth ones. And as a result we had to do laundry every other day. Shenandoah was the worst. No laundry facilities and the closest town was 30 minutes away. Hot water would run out. Alena did hand wash them in the cold water.

View from the window of our Gatlinburg hotel.We dried them everywhere. Radiators, tables, TVs and so on. The best place though goes to the dashboard of our car while the car was sitting in the sun and we were away on a walk of some kind. Other hotels did have laundry facilities, yet it was still quite annoying to say the least.

Food


Food was … boring. This country is full of steak houses with very little variety. By the end of the trip we could not look at steaks, burgers and potatoes. We did eat at a nice Mexican restaurant once and one Cuban hole in the wall place. While in Washington we ended up running into a completely random and cheap Chinese place that was in China Town which was well reviewed by New York Times as it turned out. By most evenings my appetite for any food was nowhere to be found so we mostly ate from the appetizer sections of the menus.

Bullfish Grill at Pigeon Forge, Tennesssee.One thing that worried us slightly was the fact that Anyuta would always cry before at any kind of a restaurant. But Alena figured out a perfect solution. She can sit very well in a high chair on her own. Alena would put a plate in front of her and would put all kinds of non-choke hazard vegetables on that plate — string beans, broccoli, slices of carrots and so on. Anyuta would reach out for them and taste them. That kept her occupied rather well and would could eat in peace.

Overall


Overall it was a really nice road trip. A great vacation with an exception of one nightmarish night in Shenandoah. I’ll explain in more detail later. Otherwise we got very lucky with the weather, spring was in full bloom and we’ve seen a lot of beautiful and interesting new places. It was fun for all four of us and it was not as hard as we thought it would be. It actually wasn’t all that hard at all. Our kids are great.
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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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