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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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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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Olympic National Park

View from Hurricane Ridge.Our vacation to the great state of Washington had three distinct parts, so after thinking about the way to write down our memories for the past several weeks the approach to make three posts about each part separately in chronological order makes the most sense. Our arrival to Seattle and our four nights at Olympic National Park is where it all begins.

Our Flight


Road at Olympic.Luckily for us we’ve confirmed yet again that flights with Aroshka that take more than 5 hours are largely uneventful. He has no problem sitting in his chair and talking about something, looking out of the window, listening to books and a little bit of cartoon watching on iPad — cartoons on the flight there seemed to bore him, and the ones on TV are not in Russian. When he needed to go to the bathroom he would just ask, but that’s not really new for him.

Lake Crescent.The flight back was even better. He actually ended up watching a bunch of cartoons in English on the TV after which he declared that turns out that he actually does speak a little bit of English now — which he really doesn’t. In between the cartoons he also managed to take a nice nap — also something quite usual for him and after waking up watched some more cartoons on TV. The flight was a breeze. With either flight we couldn’t be happier. He gave us zero problems.

Renting a Car


Our rented car.Upon arrival we retrieved our luggage which consisted of two large suitcases, two very large suitcases, Arosha’s car seat and an umbrella stroller which we yet again had no use for. We proceed to car rental place to claim our reserved car. Of course I must’ve not been thinking straight when I did book that — so called full-size Chevy Malibu had no chance of fitting all five of us with our luggage in. I ended up having to upgrade it to a nice big Chrysler 300, the next generation after the one we have.

Lake Crescent.However after an initial futile attempt to load all our stuff into the trunk it was recommended to us to take Jeep Compass instead. They were the same price. And to me Jeep Compass is a really crappy car — I had to drive one for several days when my own 300 was in service several months ago. Not only is it crappy it happened to have even less space in the back. All the rear window view was obstructed, luggage was plainly visible to everyone — so we wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving it anywhere while on our way from place to place and we still couldn’t close the rear gate with it all in.

At Hoh Rainforest.So we tried 300 again. It probably took us an hour if not more overall, but we did solve this real-live puzzle. I really regret not taking a picture of our final trunk configuration. Every inch of it was used up. And by the end of our vacation we got so proficient at it that we packed it up in 5 minutes on our way to the airport for the flight back. And off we were in our nice luxurious sedan with all our stuff hidden from everyone’s view in a trunk and zero view obstruction.

Port Angles


Olympic Lodge. Our hotel at Port Angeles.We decided to stay in a small town of Port Angles on the northern tip of Olympic National Park for the four nights that we were going to spend here. Originally we looked at the lodges inside the park itself, but most of them were described as “very rustic” to us or were sold out. So instead we opted in for a nice clean and beautiful hotel called Olympic Lodge. The hotel was located 2 miles away from Olympic National Park visitor center and 7 files from one of the entrances into the park itself.

At Hoh Rainforest.We got a pair of interconnected rooms as we requested in our reservation. The hotel had a nice pool and a hot tub which we even ended up using in 60 degree weather with the help of Arosha’s strong persuasion skills. The breakfast was not included, but there was a restaurant, which we used a couple of times for the first meal of the day.

By Lake Crescent.On our first evening we were pretty tired from any early and long flight and our 120 mile drive from Seattle to Port Angles. We decided to have a nice dinner and call it a day. Even though we were given a recommendation for a restaurant I didn’t feel like it and picked a random place because I liked its name — Kokopelli Grill — it was just a familiar word that we encountered in our travels before. The food was great, the service was even better. It did turn out to be pretty highly rated on Trip Advisor, which I started using later on during our trip for references on restaurants.

Hoh Rainforest.Most restaurants in Port Angles actually specialized in steaks and seafood, and we decided to stick to those. When in Maine we ate a lot of lobsters even though we’re not big fans of it. So we figured seafood on Olympic Peninsula should not be any worse — well, maybe slightly worse because there are two big cities in the vicinity after all — so that’s what we ate.

Olympic National Park


Olympic National Park entrance.The national park itself is very big and we would have to do much more driving than we did to really cover all of it. But we did end up covering a nice portion of Olympic, and Port Angles was perfectly situated for such excursions. However we were really extremely tired by the the end of each but the last day when we decided to really take it easy. And even then we did see a couple of cool places.

Hoh Rain Forest.On the morning of our first full day the first order of business was to visit the closest to us Olympic National Park Visitor Center, get a good map of the place and talk to a ranger about our time in the park and the places that we should try to see (we also did get our passport stamps) — basically build out a nice plan of action.

On a trail at Hoh Rainforest.So after that it was decided that on this first day we will visit the farthest parts of the park that we were going to go to — namely Hoh Rainforest and Rialto Beach, both situated on the western side Olympic NP.

Hoh Rainforest


Hoh Rainforest.It took us a couple of hours to get to the Hoh Rainforest entrance. We made numerous stops along the way. Route 101 — the roads that runs around the park goes through a lot of beautiful mountain vistas, lakes, meadows and canyons.

Road to Hoh.There were a lot of different flowers on the side of the road and we couldn’t help but stop and try to take as much of it in as we could. The road took us through a tiny town of Forks — we ended up eating our lunch here after our hike at the park.

On a trail at Hoh Rainforest.We decided to take it easy as we had no idea how Arosha would handle the hikes. Everything was new to him and it actually made things more exciting for us as well — taking it all in through his eyes.

Hoh Rainforest. On the trail.We got our stamp at the visitor center and picked a 0.8 mile loop hike through the forest. Aroshka kept running around with a large stick that he would pick up, claiming that it is his lightsaber and attacking fallen down trees because “they had their names in red and needed to be defeated” — such are the rules of the game that I play on the computer that he likes to help me with.

On a trail. Tree arch.And even though we have been to rainforests before, this one was very unusual. There were tons of enormously tall pine trees all covered in moss. Pines on their own would’ve been impressive enough, but the moss transformed this forest into a fantasy world of a kind.

Giant pine.I took a large number of pictures — and I will repeat this many times — it is impossible to capture how it really felt being there.

Wild blueberry.Somewhere along the way Alena spotted bushes of wild blueberries and we all took part in eating them — Arosha ate the most since Alena was giving him all her pickings.

On a trail at Hoh.What was the most surprising and encouraging thing for us all was the fact that Arosha did the whole hike by himself, running back and forth and didn’t ask to be carried a single time. He also was perfectly fine with long drives and would look around, ask questions, come up with made up stories and so on. It all was great.

Rialto Beach


Rialto Beach. Olympic National Park.After eating our lunch at Forks, WA we drove to the portion of the park located on the west coast of the continent right on the open Pacific Ocean. We managed to take a wrong turn and as a result arrived to the ranger station after its closing — or so we thought. Later I found out that it was not open for the season to begin with anyhow, so no stamps for us at that location.

Giant trees on the beach.The beach itself was very unusual. It was covered by huge old gray downed trees. Tons and tons of them. Arosha had a blast playing with the water and throwing stones into the ocean. What made the beach beautiful was the fact that there were several huge rocks that were more like islands sitting in the water.

Rialto Beach. Small islands in the water.However the problem was that sun was hanging relatively low since it was towards the end of the day. And since we were on the west coast it was shining right into the lens creating a nasty haze. Bad haze — no good pictures. I actually tried to hike down to some other rocks, but I was unable to cover a big distance by walking on the sand and the tide was starting to rise. It was beginning to look like if I didn’t get back in time I wouldn’t be able to get back at all, so I turned around before reaching my destination.

Rialto Beach at Olympic National Park.All in all we spent several hours on the beach and all of us were fully spent — except for Arosha — by the time we got back into the car. A drive back took a bit of time, we reluctantly (since we were so tired) ate our dinner at Garden Cafe and called it a day.

Sol Duc


Lake Crescent.For our second day we had less ambitious plans — two locations to visit — Sol Duc and Hurricane Ridge. Both are much closer to Port Angeles than our destinations a day before. Sol Duc actually is one of the locations where we looked at the lodges to stay at.

Sol Duc trail.It has hot spring pools right on its premises and those are usually accompanied by an according smell of sulfuric acids. But the reason we didn’t stay there was two-fold — location was far from other destinations and we couldn’t find good rooms for decent prices.

Stamps at Lake Crescent Lodge.Another place that we looked at was a lodge at Lake Crescent, but it was all booked out. The road to Sol Duc from Port Angeles actually runs along the shore of Lake Crescent (same road that goes to Hoh) and we spent a little bit more time on the lake this time around. The lake was beautiful the sky was blue — it was a great day.

Sol Duc Falls.I need to note that all the weather predictors predicted rain for us every single day and luckily for us they were always wrong, except for one day — more on that day later.

Arosha on a trail at Sol Duc.We got to Sol Duc, got our stamps and this time took a much more ambitious hike — 0.8 hike each way to Sol Duc Falls — or 1.6 miles total. Arosha was as great as the day before. Did the whole route himself with no problems.

Waterfall on the way to Sol Duc Falls.Along the way we went past another waterfall — water gradually running down the side of the mountain. Later on we saw a river running deep inside a big canyon. As before — impossible to really capture on “film”.

Sol Duc Falls.As for the Sol Duc Falls themselves — wow! You are standing on a wooden bridge over this deep deep canyon in the front of the top of waterfalls themselves and only by actually being there you can appreciate the real power of water with all its speed and sound. I took many many pictures, but none of them really came out all that impressive.

Sol Duc Falls.After our hike we ate our lunch at Sol Duc Lodge deli and went onto our next destination.

Hurricane Ridge


Hurricane Ridge.The road to Hurricane Ridges starts right from Port Angeles itself. It keeps running up and up and up all the way to the top of the mountains that we were driving under all this time. Amazing vistas open up with views of Port Angeles below.

Road to Hurricane Ridge.By the time we got to the top we realized that there was a ton of snow all over the place. We couldn’t really do any hikes here, since the trails were also mostly covered by snow, but the views were magnificent in all directions. Arosha had a blast playing in the snow. So much fun to actually play snowballs in the middle of June. His clothing was all wet afterwards, but Alena had a spare set for him.

Arosha loved the snow.I, again, took a lot of pictures, but was yet again disappointed with my inability to capture all the depth of being that high up in the mountains. Only later in the day when looking at my photos on iPad I realized that I should’ve placed the visitor center itself into more of the pictures to give the viewer some perspective. I have a lot to learn still.

View from Hurricane Ridge.At the end of this day we actually stopped at a supermarket and got ourselves some instant noodle soups and some other food and that’s what we had for dinner. We were very very tired again.

Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge


Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge.At this point we were done with all main objectives and still had a full day at Olympic. We looked at the map and decided to visit one of the closest destinations to us — Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge which is located on one of the world’s longest natural sand spits.

Bald Eagle.Before we got to the park itself we stopped on a small pullover that turned out to be a cliff overlooking the ocean. We were lucky to see a bald eagle seating on one of the cliffs below. I attached my 200mm lens to my camera, but he was still too far away for a nice close up shot. I did manage to catch another one in flight though right at the same spot.

Crab kingdom.Later we took a nice hike through the woods and ended up on a long sand spit — peninsula. At the end of it there was a light house, but it was too long of a hike. The beach itself looked very similar to Rialto Beach — it had a lot of old trees on it. My dad and I went for a short hike, found a tiny river full of little crabs and Alena let Arosha play in the water — he again had a blast.

Lighthouse at the end of the peninsula. Mt. Baker is 90 miles away.I could also see a huge mountain visible on the horizon, but I wasn’t able to get sure answer from anybody as to what mountain that was. Most probable version judging from replies I got and looking at the map is that it is Mt. Baker which is located more than 90 miles away.

Arosha at  Dungeness.Also visible was the coast of Canada. We thought about taking a ferry there originally, on this day, but it turned out way too long and expensive of a trip.

Strawberry picking.After spending some time at the park we drove back and stopped at a strawberry farm that we passed before. Arosha loves strawberries and we wanted him to see how it grows. The lady that was working there actually told us that he most definitely should collect those strawberries inside of himself — quite nice of her. Usually they are quite strict about people eating stuff — or at least pretend to be. The strawberries were delicious!

Evening


At Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge.Then we proceeded to a restaurant that I spotted on the map that was given to us at the hotel on the first day. When we got there I checked it on TripAdvisor and happened to be ranked as a number one spot at the time — Woodfired Grill. I had a steak and everyone else had seafood risotto. It was probably the best meal of the whole trip for all of us. We even got some non-alcoholic beer for Alena.

Bald eagle at Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge.And on this day we actually had some energy left at the end of it that Aroshka and I went for a swim in the pools — I preferred to sit in a hot tub, but Aroshka kept demanding to swim in the cold big one. It was too cold of a day for that for me, so we kept running back and forth. And that was our last night in Port Angeles.

At Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge.In the morning we packed our luggage-puzzle, checked out from our hotel and set course towards Mount Rainier National Park through the city of Olympia — the capital of Washington state.
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Saturday, April 6, 2013

Exploring Costa Rica

Our Toyoto RAV4 at Santa Rosa National Park.As I noted in my previous post, not being confined to the extents of our resort by virtue of having a rented car and going out to actually explore some nearby parts of Costa Rica was the most fun part of this vocation for me. We made two such excursions, since it’s still hard for Arosha to spend so much time sitting in the car.

Scenic view stop.Luckily for us two places that we picked out to visit turned out to be vastly different from each other. The whole ecosystem reminded me of our trip to Big Island of Hawaii. On one side of the island there is an eternal summer with very high temperatures and dry climate and only 60 miles away there is an non-stop rain with lush green forests. Costa Rica is very similar in this regard and we got to see both sides of the so-called coin here.

Santa Rosa National Park


Trails of Santa Rosa National Park.In the morning of our second full day in Costa Rica we got into our car, turned on our GPS and headed North in the direction of Santa Rosa National park — the closest destination we could find. Right across the road from Santa Rosa there was another park — Guanacaste National Park, but as we later found out the park was closed to visitors.

Arosha in a hole of a volcanic stone.Soon after we were at the park entrance. It was very easy to find and especially so with GPS’s assistance. At the entrance we were given a map and a nice explanation of what’s worth seeing in the park by a nice and very polite young guy with very good English. The entrance to the park was $10 per person.

Dry tropical forest of Santa Rosa.Soon after we came to appreciate the fact that we rented a 4×4, because there is no way we would’ve gotten through to any of our destinations by the so-called road on any other car. It was not paved and it was covered in rocks and in certain places with deep muddy puddles. The ride that was only 12 kilometers long took us not less than an hour.

Creepy tree at Santa Rosa.We did 3 hikes. One fairly long one — 1.6km each way and two shorter ones. The park was not at all what we expected Costa Rica to look like. It was a dry tropical forest and March being the peak of a dry season made the forest look pretty much dead. The temperature was in the 90s so the hikes themselves were quite exhausting, especially with the fact that Arosha expired very quickly and one of us had to carry him as he didn’t want to walk by himself anymore.

Santa Rosa hiking trail.We did get to see the canyons at the end of the hike and later on — our third hike — even got onto the shores of open Pacific Ocean. And even though it is called Pacific it was anything but. The waves were just humongous. The beach was deserted and nobody wanted to risk getting into that water, but it was beautiful.

Iguana.We also saw a whole lot of iguanas. Arosha even tried to catch one — and hit it on the head with the stick as he claims, but luckily for that iguana it was a lot faster than Arosha was. But now every time we mention an iguana he points out he wanted to hit it on the head with a stick, but was unable.

Open Pacific Ocean. Naranjo Beach.At the end of the day we were quite exhausted. The unpaved road back took a long while, and we were extremely pleased to finally get onto the highway and drive back to our hotel. The only thing is that for some reason our rental car came with no cruise control and it’s really hard to go long distances without it once you get used to such a convenience. My foot was ready to fall off by the time we got back.

Second Excursion Planning


Naranjo Beach.At this point we really wanted to see the Costa Rica that we imagined before the trip — lush green rain forests. However research proved to be very difficult. The information that comes up is often that on various tourist agency sites and lacks any kind of useful information for touring without a guide. There was a number of parks not too far from us, but from what we read they would either be very similar to Santa Rosa and all of them had long hikes that we would need to take to see anything. As we understood it was not really a great option for us with a 2 year old.

Unpaved road at Santa Rosa.One place that was often mentioned was Monteverde cloud forests. But from what I could find online it really is more of an area than a park and the same thing — long hikes. It took us several days to finally come up with a plan for our second, and last trip.

Arenal Volcano National Park


Green forests.A place that we were aware of before we got to Costa Rica was Arenal Volcano which in fact was located inside the national park. And even though we again couldn’t really find any good information we looked at the map of the route there and seeing as it goes along the coast of a large lake we figured it was worth a drive. We were hoping that maybe if we don’t even get to do a hike in the park we’ll catch some good views along the way. And right we were.

Lake Arenal.Remembering Hawaii I advised everyone to take sweaters because the temperature could change dramatically with higher elevation. And as once years ago during our trip to Yosemite Alena took the sweaters for us and my parents decided it was too hot for sweaters. And were they wrong or what. As we were gaining altitude we ended up literally driving into a cloud. The mist started to set down on the windows and when we got out on a first scenic view everyone completely froze.

Monkeys in the trees.The views were magnificent and they were getting better. The fog was hugging everything around, the forest was getting greener and trees were getting taller. Near one such tree we saw a stopped car and a pair of tourists looking up. From our experience in Yellowstone it was a sure sign of wildlife. We pulled over as well and saw a whole bunch of real wild capuchin monkeys sitting in the tree, eating some exotic fruit. We we already excited — even if we don’t get to see anything else the trip was already worth it.

Coatis.We kept driving and suddenly we were surrounded by funny furry animals with long noses — about 30 of them. They were all very wet because of the rain, and they were also very hungry. Sadly Arosha has finally decided to take a nap, which didn’t last long, but he did miss all the fun. As we later learned these animals were called coatis.

Rain forest.We drove a little while longer and the forest just became irresistibly photogenic. We passed a small one lane bridge and I pulled over onto the shoulder. We got out and went back to the bridge. This was probably the most beautiful thing I’ve seen during our trip. Bright brown water of a mountain river under the bridge was surrounded by lush green forest that was in turn covered by fog, or the cloud that we’ve never left after driving into it. Such a serene place.

Dad on the one lane bridge in the middle of a cloud forest.Right while we were walking around a car with some American tourists going in the opposite direction stopped and they informed us that a couple of miles down the road there are 30 lemurs running around. And sure enough, there was another large pack of “lemurs”.

Inside a cloud.Soon after we arrived to the entrance of Arenal Volcano National Park via a relatively short unpaved road. To our surprise the park was closed for some administrative restructuring, but they were letting anyone in anyhow. On the plus side the admission fee was not collected, but on the down side there were no maps or any explanation of what we were supposed to see. However we ran into a couple of tourists and an information board with a map and it turned out that park itself wasn’t very big and all the trails were pretty self explanatory.

More coatis.First we drove all the way down to an observation area and observed a volcano which was absolutely not visible because of the earlier mentioned fog. Not even a hint of it. So we decided to take a hike to the lava fields, which we actually have seen a lot of in Hawaii. It was also lightly raining, but better rain then 90 degree heat. I gave my sweater to my mom, my dad grabbed a towel and I was pretty well covered by my hiking hat.

Trail inside Arenal Volcano National Park.The trail itself was very different from the view that we saw on the bridge along the way. The path was surrounded mostly by tall bamboo sticks which look a lot like oversized grass. I was getting a feeling that I have been shrunk by some magical device and I was walking through grass which now appeared to be gigantic. Arosha was running around trying to find the biggest leaf of fern (paporotnik in Russian) and trying to pronounce this complicated word. He came up with a number of rather funny versions.

On a rainy trail.We kept walking and walking and kept getting wetter and wetter and we suddenly decided that we’ve seen what lava fields look like before and we can live without seeing them today and just turned around. It was still a fun hike, but we didn’t get to our destination. Also all around us were signs saying something along the lines of if you melt because of lava, it’s your own damn fault, and don’t blame us. Although we heard that Arenal was actually not active right now, so there was a little chance of that happening I guess.

Arosha and coatis.We got back into our car and started driving back with numerous stops along the way. We ran into a pack of “lemurs” again on the way back and Arosha got to see them. He liked them so much that he decided to generously donate an orange he was eating at the time. And then asked for some banana and did the same.

On the road.And then we got hungry and after driving and driving decided to stop at a strange German place of all things. Everyone ate some tasty goulash that goes well with cold rainy weather and I ate some bratwurst which tasted pretty well too. Although they do some really funny math when they give you a check, but we decided not to argue too much and pay.

Arenal Volcano National Park.That’s pretty much all the events from this day that I remember. We got back to the hotel after dark, so it was a full day road trip that Arosha handled very well. We’ve seen a lot of unusual things and some amazing beautify that Costa Rica’s nature has to offer.

Conclusion


Papa at Santa Rosa.So all in all, even though we only did two trips I was very glad that we rented a car. We got to see two very different sides of Costa Rica’s natural beauty and it made the vacation much more fun than it would’ve been otherwise. It was a worthy investment without a question. Thus concludes my reporting on yet another one of our great vacations.

Fog.
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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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