Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Norway & Iceland

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

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

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

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

  1. Icelandair from and to JFK through Reykjavík — $399 x 4. []
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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Easter Egg Hunt

Sakura blooming at Brooklyn Botanical Garden.This year Arosha got lucky with the length of his Spring Break. First, we took him from school one week in advance, and then he got some extra days on the account of Easter.

Friends.I just wanted to say a few words about our week off after vacation. First, we went to Brooklyn Botanical Garden with Erica and her children and Natasha with hers. It was a hot and sunny day, and we spent around 5 hours in the park.

Arosha and Alex.The children had so much fun just playing in the unfamiliar place, watching the koi fish at the pond and visiting different exhibits, like the one with cacti. We even got a small pot with basil in it, and it took its proud place among Arosha’s plants on our living room’s window sill. Funny thing is that Arosha thinks that basil smells delicious, while Anюta finds it quite disgusting.

Anna and Liza.Another field trip was to Floyd Bennett Field to participate in the Easter Egg Hunt. Erica was the generator of the idea and I am very glad that we joined them this year — last year I passed on the offer. Natasha and Ilona, both with children, joined us. To my surprise, there was not just the hunt, but the whole bunch of other activities for the children — pony ride, hay ride, “fun” house, cow milking, goat petting and others.

Easter egg hunt.The weather was so-so, but at least it was not raining. The children had a lot of fun. Anюta took special liking of the Easter Bunny and asked me to take photos of her next to him on 4 separate occasions. I hope that we’ll go to this event next year again.

Easter Bunny.Other than that, we spent a lot of time outside on the playground, so that the children will just relax and play. I can’t wait for the Summer break to start!

Pony rides.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Costa Rica Vacation RIU

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Costa Rica 2017

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

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

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

Now a little bit about everything.

Resort


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fitness


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

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

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

Excursions


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Day


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

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

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

Amsterdam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monday, February 20, 2017

Costa Rica

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

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

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Sunday, January 15, 2017

Brussels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paris — The City of Lights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Paris, Belgium, Amsterdam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Grand Teton National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yellowstone 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yellowstone sign.
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Saturday, August 20, 2016

Glacier National Park

Saint Mary Lake.Glacier National Park was the new destination for myself and Alёna on this trip. We’ve been to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in 2009, but Glacier was a bit too far off for that trip so we left it for some time later. So seven years and two kids later we finally got around to booking this trip. We also did look forward towards the rest of our family enjoying all three of these places already knowing that two of them will definitely be awesome.

Glacier Park Lodge.But I’ll start from the beginning. We arrived to Great Falls, Montana at around noon. It was the closest airport that we could get to without having to do more than one plane change. We rented an enormous three row Chevrolet Suburban which fit all six of us quite comfortably along with for large suite cases. As for Great Falls itself — we really didn’t find anything to look at or see, so after driving through a couple of streets we got on a highway and left for our first destination of this vacation.

Entering Glacier National Park.We were staying in East Glacier Park Village in an old lodge — Glacier Park Lodge — right on the edge of the park — 10 miles away from the nearest entrance. The drive from Great Falls was 140 miles which wasn’t too bad. Everything started on large plains, often covered by fields of flowers with dark silhouette of the mountains visible on the horizon. The mountains themselves are located inside Glacier National Park — the continuation of Rockies which run through the whole continent from top to bottom. As we were getting closer, the mountains were getting bigger and we could make out their snow covered peaks.

Two Medicine Lake. On our way to Stain Mary entrance.We arrived at our lodge at around 5pm local time, which is 7pm in New York. We were pretty tired. We got a pair of rooms next to each other at this magnificent looking lodge made out of enormously sized logs. The lodge itself was built over a century ago and it feels nice. The rooms were not akin to a 5 star hotel, but that was expected. I’m sure they were renovated from the time that the lodge has been built, but not quite obvious how long ago.

Our rental Suburban.By the time we got to the lodge everyone was pretty tired and I was quite sleepy since I woke up way too early in the middle of the night. And I can’t sleep on the plane at all. So we just went to the diner room of the lodge, ate our dinner and I turned in for the night to explore the park the next day. Alёna though took kids to the pool if I remember correctly, but I think I slept through all of that.

Us on one of the meadows.We had two full days in the park and thus we had two different locations that we wanted to visit, both on the east side of the park as the western entrance was too far away to drive to and back to the lodge on the same day with kids. We decided to start with a further objective on the east side of the park — Saint Mary entrance and visitor center. That’s where Going-to-The-Sun Road starts that runs across the whole park to the western exit.

Saint Mary Lake.On our way there we stopped by a couple of lakes to take in the views and eventually got to the visitor center. We stamped our passports and inquired about hikes that we could take. I always imagined Glacier National Park to consist of multiple lakes surrounded by mountains and I wanted to visit something like that. Out of all the possible hikes we decided to take a trail leading to Hidden Lake which starts at Logan Pass Visitor Center and is 2.7 miles long.

Trail to the Hidden Lake.And while driving to Logan Pass we made numerous stops along the highway. The most spectacular view was on the shore of Saint Mary Lake. There was no wind and the water was very still and mirror like. That’s where I took one of the best photographs of this trip — mountains reflecting in the water of a lake — just like I imagined this park would look.

Snow on the trail.When we got to Logan Pass Visitor Center parking lot we were surprised to find out that there is absolutely no parking. After circling around the parking lot for some time we eventually got lucky with somebody driving off right in front of us. This turned out to be a common theme all-throughout our vacation. Yellowstone was the worst.

Mountain goat.While the trail itself didn’t seem all that hard if you’re a young adult it ended up being fairly steep for kids. And my 77 year old dad a lot of the pain in his knee lately, so he ended up not going — the only trail that he missed. As soon as we started up Arosha decided that he urgently needed to use the bathroom, so Alёna had to go back with him. And Anna’s pace was — well, not fast, her not being even 3 and all.

On the trail.I had my tripod with me and Alёna told me to just continue and not wait for them. So I did. The fact that the trail was fairly steep was exacerbated by the fact that soon after you start the climb the trail is covered by snow that still hasn’t melted by the end of July. So climbing up the mountain via a slippery snow is not exactly fun, but I was determined to get to the lake.

Hidden Lake.On my way up I ended up seeing at least 10 mountain goats in different places. I was feeling sad that I’m going to be the only one to see all this, but I took enough photographs to show all this to the rest of the family. And eventually I got to the overlook of this lake. It turned out that the lake itself was still quite a bit away down from the mountain and I felt that I probably should head back after taking the pictures from the overlook since everyone was waiting for me.

Hidden Lake overlook.And as soon as I turned around I saw Alёna and Arosha standing next to me. I was so happy to see them. They actually did get to see all the snow, the lake, the goats and I really at all didn’t expect to see them here. I knew Alёna could easily do the hike, but the fact that Arosha was there with her made me very proud. She says that she kept her own pace and he kept up with her just fine.

Hidden Lake.After taking in all the views we decided to head back. And when we were somewhere in the middle of trail down we ran into my mom who was carrying Anna up the hill. That was another very surprising discovery. We took over Anna and my mom continued all they way to top of the trail. Interesting things about my mom is the fact that it’s really hard to pull her out of the house for a walk around Brooklyn, but when we go to a vacation she turns into a hiker that doesn’t miss a single trail.

Inside our lodge.Heading down the trail was actually quite a bit harder than it was going up. Some places which seemed just fine on the way up looked downright scary on the way back. One wrong step and you are sliding down a steep mountains into somewhat of an abyss. So we took it really slow, holding kids by their hands or in the hands in Anna’s case. Anyhow, the hike felt really exhilarating. And the fact that we ended up seeing so many wild animals on our first day was exciting too.

Glacier Park Lodge.And that was mostly it for our first day. On our way back we drove by the shore of Saint Mary Lake again and the view has changed completely. There was a slight breeze and the water has lost all of the reflections. We were glad that we stopped by the lake in the morning and didn’t leave it for later.

Two Medicine Lake.When we got back to East Glacier Park Village we decided to go to a Mexican restaurant that had high ratings on TripAdvisor, but it turned out that they have a long line. So we went back to the lodge for their not exactly stellar food. It was decent, but not anything to write home about. And I think I started falling asleep again. Kids played around the lodge on a big grass field that it had for a long time. And that’s how the first day ended.

One of the meadows on the trail.On the second day our plan was to explore the other of the two eastern entrances to the park — Two Medicine entrance. This entrance was only 10 miles away from our lodge. The main event would be a hike along Two Medicine Lakes to Aster Falls.

Meadows.Before setting out to a hike we stopped by a general store to buy a pair of light aluminum hiking sticks for my dad. A lot of people use them on the trails and we thought it makes a lot of sense to take some of the weight away from his aching knee. We spent some time in the store picking out the sticks and some other souvenirs.

Aster Falls.When we walked out and put our hiking gear on — backpacks, hats and all it started raining. Within 3 minutes of us starting our hike it switched from raining to pouring and it got really cold. We were glad that we decided to pack our light rainproof jackets with us, but the weather was not hikable at all. So we figured we should have a quick lunch and see if our fortune changes.

Photographing.We went back into the general store and had a nice hearty lunch — I had a chili soup and a hotdog. We bought hotdogs for our kids, but they have a strange way of eating those. Anna only eats the hotdog itself and refuses to eat the buns and Arosha does the exact opposite. Also we figured by having an early lunch we would be hungry just in time for dinner.

Aster Falls.By the time we were done even though the sky stayed very dark and ominous the rain has stopped. So we set out for the falls which ended up being a four mile three and half hour hike. We made a lot of stops along the way to take pictures — tripod setup takes time, Anna is not a quick walker yet, but the views were worth it.

Two Medicine Lake.Most of the trail took us through the forest and multiple blooming meadows and valleys. Some valleys had lakes by them with magnificent reflections. The sky though was dark and uncooperative for photography, so it’s really hard to really convey how beautiful the setting was. So many flowers.

Us by the lake.The waterfall itself was usual. Just your average waterfall. But as I said before — the final destination was not the point. There was a ton of people with little kids at the falls. Some of them kept falling into the water from time to time, but we managed to keep ours from getting wet.

Trail to Aster Falls.On the way back we made a little detour to get directly onto the shore of one of the lakes — the trail itself starts from the opposite side of the lake. I again tried to take some photographs, but Saint Mary shot from the previous day was still my best.

Trail to the falls.By the time we were back at our car everyone was tired and hungry. So we drove back into East Glacier Park Village. We again tried to go the Mexican restaurant I mentioned above and again there was a ton of people outside, waiting. I decided to try my luck and asked for a table anyhow. And what do you know — because most parties were smaller they were waiting for smaller tables, and because there was six of us we got a table right away.

Hidden Lake overlook.Our kids love Mexican food. One of Arosha’s favorite cuisines — mix rice with black beans, add some guacamole and sour cream — there is nothing better. I love fajitas and Anna just eats a bunch of meat of all kinds. We also washed it all down with some nice margaritas.

Two Medicine Lake. Panorama.And that’s how our introductory trip to Glacier National Park came to an end. The park has a lot of beautiful places and trails, but we’ll have to explore its other parts on some of our future trips. We spent our last night at the lodge and in the morning set course south, towards Yellowstone.
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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls. Both sides.We arrived at Niagara Falls, Canada via Rainbow Bridge. There was a long wait line of cars for passport check, and children were getting a little stir-crazy, but as always we survived with only minor damage to our nervous systems.

Our hotel. DoubleTree Fallsview Resort and Spa.We stayed at DoubleTree Fallsview Resort and Spa. It is the same exact hotel where we stayed with Daniel and his parents last time we visited this town. We got a nice room at high floor, albeit one level below the executive one.

Us in Niagara Falls.We were pretty hungry by the time we got there, so we decided to have a light lunch at the hotel’s restaurant. The restaurant was quiet and empty, and the lunch food that we ordered was not bad, with the exclusion of Caesar Salad. I think once I started making it at home, restaurant versions with their bottled dressings got much less satisfying.

On a ship to the falls.After lunch we headed for the falls. They were a relatively short walk away from our hotel. It was cold-ish outside, but bright and sunny. To our surprise, the boat ride underneath the falls was running, and Arosha REALLY wanted to go. What do good parents do when their five year old is bubbling with need to go into the cold mist of giant waterfalls? Of course they do exactly as he asks!

Red raincoats.Since it was so early in the season, the line was very short, and we had hardly spent any time waiting for the ride. Each one of us got a red disposable raincoat, which we put on right away. In fact, we put two of those on Anюta (one was smaller, one was bigger) to make sure she’ll stay dry. We all enjoyed this little adventure. When we were near a big waterfall, the mist turned into a full fledged pouring rain, but luckily, it did not last too long.

Inside the casino.After the ride, we walked along the waterfront, admiring the views and smelling first daffodils. For dinner we decided to go to the buffet in one of the casinos, but they were really strict and did not let us pass through the casino to the restaurant on the account of children. For me it was quite unusual after the family-friendly atmosphere in Las Vegas, but oh well.

Alёna and Arosha.We wondered around the shopping area attached to the casinos, and ended up going to the Chinese buffet. The food was very mediocre, but they had sushi, and Arosha stuffed himself up with them. There was also a pretty decent variety of vegetables (not so with meat), so I did not left the place hungry either.

Whirlpool on Niagara.We started the following day with the trip to the Niagara whirlpool. The day was nice and sunny again. There is a cable car running over the whirlpool in season, but it was not open yet. I am not sure if we would have taken a ride anyhow, since to me it seemed like a pretty scary endeavor.

Ride over whirlpool was closed for the season.When we were in Niagara Falls area last time, we visited the Butterfly Conservatory. I remember being very impressed by it, and we wanted to share this experience with the children. They’ve been to similar thing during our visit to the Museum of Natural History, but their butterfly exhibit was tiny compared to this conservatory.

Arosha hoping that a butterfly will land on his hand.Arosha and Anюta both liked the butterflies, although at some point Anna ran to us all excited holding a big butterfly in her hand. I honestly hope that she did not catch it, but picked up from the floor, but who knows.

At Butterfly Conservatory.We explained to her how we should never do such things and that she might have accidentally killed the poor insect. It made a lasting impression on her. She was not very upset, but to this day she remembers it now and again and tells us that she is sad because she killed a poor butterfly.

Алёна с бабочками.We went to the hotel after this, and had lunch at the local restaurant again. The kids were really excited at the prospect of going to the pool, so that’s exactly what we did. We spent a good chunk of time there, since there was a Jacuzzi to get warm after a cool pool.

Skylon tower.Our next objective was the Skylon tower. We walked around the observation deck for a little bit and enjoyed the falls views from high up. Originally we wanted to have dinner at their buffet, but it was only open for lunch on that particular day. There was a highly-rated revolving restaurant on the tower as well, but we decided to save the experience for the CN Tower in Toronto. Plus it was rather expensive, as one might expect from a place like that.

Conquering the fear of heights.Instead, we ended up going to a Brazilian steakhouse, and it was just so good! It was probably our best dinner of the whole vacation. It was not cheap either, but the children ate for free, so it was a very good deal for us, considering that Arosha ate more meat than I did, and Anюta was in a close lead to me.

SkyWheel.I have to say that normally Arosha is not a big fan of meat. He oftentimes refuses to eat meat that I cook at home, unless it’s in the form of meat pie or samsa or part of the soup. However, he loves shish-kebabs and good steaks in restaurants, and when we go to Brazilian places, he always surprises me with his appetite.

View of the waterfalls from the top of SkyWheel.Our last day at Niagara Falls was cloudy and grey. We started our adventures with the ride on the SkyWheel. For some reason, our children really enjoy Ferris Wheels, so we try to take a ride on one whenever the opportunity presents itself.

View from our window.After the ride we went to some arcade place. The most interesting thing there was an air hockey table. Danya and Arosha played a game, but Anюta was too small to hit the puck. To be quite honest, I get really bored with arcades after spending more than 5 minutes in such places. I think Danya feels the same, so we did not linger.

Clifton Hill.We walked around the city down the Clifton Hill street for a while. There are a lot of souvenir shops, different strange entertainment places, where the visitors are either being scared or are supposed to laugh. There are also some “museums”, most notably the Guinness World Records one, but they did not look interesting enough to spent our time and money on them.

Lunch at Niagara Brewery and dinner at Rainforest Cafe.We were not sure where to have lunch. We almost went to Friday’s, but the prices there are unjustifiably high. How weird is it, that they charge almost a third more than in our local TGIF? The Outback Steakhouse had the same issue. So we ended up going to the Niagara Brewing Company. I really enjoyed our lunch, and so did Danya. The children were not impressed with the food, but I am still glad we went there instead of some chain place.

Waterfall with a ship.After lunch, we walked by the falls again and headed to the hotel. My head was starting to ache, which unfortunately happens to me at least ones on vacation with kids. I am not sure if I just get overtired and my body protests in such a way, but this seems to be the trend. I think we went to the pools again, but I am not sure 100% if we did.

Brazilian.By dinnertime, my headache got worse, but the children were getting really hungry especially considering that they barely ate anything at lunch. We decided to head for the nearby Mexican restaurant with good reviews, but unfortunately it was closed.

View from our window.We could not find anything good close to the hotel, and ended up going to the Rainforest Cafe, which we spotted during the day. It was pretty far from the hotel, but since we did not anticipate going there beforehand, we did not take Anna’s stroller. She did not mind walking by herself, but sometimes we carried her for better speed.

Crossing the street.The food in Cafe was nothing special, but the atmosphere was perfect for the children. We were sitting next to the gorillas, and our little ones were fascinated when they were moving and talking. Arosha also went to explore other parts of the restaurant to get a closer look at elephants and waterfalls, and Anюta followed him around like a little pup.

Niagara Falls.I was feeling quite nauseous, so I just ordered hummus and water. I think I would have been better off skipping dinner altogether, but I did not know that at the moment.

Rainforest Cafe.We went to the hotel afterwards, and Danya had to carry Anюta most of the way, since I felt too sick to do it. When we got to the hotel, he and Arosha took a car and drove to the Falls to see the night illumination. They only saw the white lights, since the colored illumination comes up fairly late.

On a ship.I felt even worse, but after throwing up a few times, I took tylenol for the headache and was able to fall asleep. I felt just fine the next day, to everyone’s relief.

Skylon Tower.

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Friday, May 13, 2016

Montreal

Streets of Montreal.The drive to Montreal was the longest one we did on the same day during this trip — somewhere close to 340 miles. Actually, our GPS switched to kilometers as soon as we entered Canada, so we had to drive 550 kilometers that day! Sounds even scarier, doesn’t it?

To be completely honest, I was slightly dreading the drive. Luckily for me, I did not have to be at the wheel, but I was worried about the kids getting tired and bored and really whiny. Surprisingly, the day went relatively smoothly.

One of many islands on the river of Saint Lawrence.We drove for a few hours and then made a stop at one of the little towns in the Thousand Islands area. There was a visitor center, where a very nice lady had disappointing information in terms of us being there a few days prior to the start of the season: no boat rides after 12pm (it was already 2pm), fun castles we can ride to are closed, fancy restaurants are opening in a few days. Alas, it was slightly sad to be there on the verge of the beginning of the touristy activities, but we still spent around 2 hours over there. The kids ran around the playground by the visitor center, and then we went down to the river for a little walk, had lunch in a Greek Pizzeria and even did some shopping (got jeans for Danya and earrings for me).

Streets of Montreal.Afterwards, Danya took a scenic route which zig-zagged by the banks of the Saint Lawrence River, and we made a few stops for pictures. After that we just drove and drove and drove until we finally arrived to Montreal. Arosha was often asking about the remaining distance — I think the diminishing number of kilometers helped him to cope with the long ride.

When our GPS led us to the hotel’s address, we were surprised to see that there was no hotel to be found. Apparently, the street it is located on has an East and a West side, and GPS led us to the wrong one. We soon figured out where to go, although kids were even more anxious to get out of the car due to this delay.

On the way to the center.The rooms of the hotel, Doubltree by Hilton, are located on the first 10 floors of the 20+ story building. We got a spacious corner room at the 10th floor. There was no good view from the windows though — all we could see was a tall building undergoing contraction in front of our hotel. There was also some strange rubbery odor in the room, which especially bothered Danya, but considering that it had disappeared the next day, we assumed that it was probably some cleaning solution smell. Another thing was that the pool and gym were located on the 11th floor, so during the first evening we heard some loud bangs from dropping balls upstairs. Luckily, it did not bother children, and the gym closed at 11pm. We had no similar issues the following night, so all in all, I am quite happy with the room we got.

Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal.Since it was late, we decided to have dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, which turned out to be pretty good. We just ordered a soup and a few appetizers, and I was especially happy that kids ate steamed vegetables, which were delicious, even the asparagus, which none of us is a big fan of. We got lucky with a very pleasant waiter, who totally won Arosha’s heart. Arosha felt very comfortable chatting with him in Eglish, and even tried to teach him a few Russian words (privet, poka).

We had only one full day to spend in Montreal, so we did not make ambitious plans. The only thing we knew we wanted to do for sure (apart from going to the pool of course) was to visit the Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal. Danya and I have been there before, and I remember being very impressed by the gold and blue interior of the church.

Inside the Notre-Dame.The Basilica was a walking distance from our hotel (a little over a mile I think), so we just strolled there at Arosha’s pace. The day was rather cold, but still nice and sunny. We spent probably about 30-40 minutes inside the church. The children especially liked the lit candles. Arosha even insisted on lighting a candle in the memory of his great-great-grandfather Aaron (even though he was a bit confused and thought that Aaron was the one to fight in the World War II, while it was his great-grandfather Leonid/Levy). Daniel pointed out the fact that neither one these grandfathers belonged to the Christian church, but I don’t think it really matters. To be honest, I am not even sure that we lighted the right candle, but I strongly believe that in cases like that intent is much more important than following established traditions.

In front of the Science Museum.We also told Arosha a short and most probably imprecise version of the life of Jesus, and again he was quite fascinated by the story. I wish I knew the Bible better, but my knowledge is very limited.

Afterwards, we just walked around the city a for a little while. We were considering going to the Science Museum, but decided against it in favor of exploring Montreal a little bit more. Danya suggested to take a horse carriage ride, and the children were very excited about the idea, as was I to be honest. As my smart husband had pointed out to me, we finally got a reason (kids) to take one of those rides.

Carriage ride.We were a little short on cash, but the coach driver gave us a discount for a shorter ride. She drove us in a pink carriage for about 20 minutes, which was plenty to have all the fun it could be. I am glad we did it, and next time we visit Venice, we should have a reason to take a gondola ride as well.

After our first ever carriage ride.By the time we were finished, everyone was pretty hungry. We walked down the Saint-Paul Street, which had a great variety of restaurants. Danya used TripAdvisor to see their ratings, which is now always one of the factors when we’re weighting options for our dining choice. We ended up going to a well-rated French place and it really felt like we traveled outside of North America. We ordered a vegetable soup, fondue and crepes with ratatouille. Everything was very good.

After our very French crepe and fondue lunch.After lunch we went back to the church to take some more pictures, and then leisurely went to the hotel. We stopped at a little jewelry boutique and got me a modern-looking set of necklace and earrings and a pretty ring.

The children were very excited at the prospect of going to the pool, so as soon as we got back we changed into our bathing suits and headed up to have some water fun. I have to say that this place had the best pool of all the hotels we’ve been to on this trip — the pool itself was big with very warm salt water, the Jacuzzi was spacious, the restrooms and water fountain were close. There was even a sauna, but we did not use it. We ended up spending almost two hours there.

Lunch. Fondue!We were so wiped out by the end of the day, that we decided to have dinner out our local restaurant again. We got the same friendly waiter as the night before to everyone’s delight. The waiter asked if Arosha wanted to teach him any new words in Russian, and Arosha, after a 30 second deliberation, chose the word “spasibo”.

To sum up, even though we stayed in Montreal just one full day, it gave our vacation a pinch of extra flavor. French Canada for me feels very different from its British counterpart, and it’s exciting to submerge into less familiar waters ever so often.

Square in front of the basilica.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Niagara, Toronto, Montreal Road Trip

Canada 2016 road trip map.For this spring we decided to forgo the trip to a warm sandy beach in favor of a road trip in our own car to a cold Canada. Our kids haven’t been to Niagara Falls yet and I wanted them to see it. Another big factor is a matter of having to purchase four plane tickets which comes out to quite a bit of money for a type of vacation I enjoy the least — laying on the beach, doing nothing.

The total round trip ends up being 1,200 miles. One other option that we have considered was going to Great Smoky Mountains again, but it’s quite a bit farther away and we all have been there. I wanted our kids to explore something new and it’s always interesting to see those new to them things through their eyes.

We tried to beak the trip up into many parts so we wouldn’t have to drive for very long periods of time in a day. Our first stop of the trip is the Finger Lakes region of New York state. We’re going to spend 2 nights1 in a hotel in Seneca Falls and try to do a hike or two along one of the lakes. The drive there is 271 miles long and we hope to do it on the first eve of our vacation.

Our second stop is going to be Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. We plan to get there on Saturday, April 23rd. We are going to stay there for 3 nights2 at a resort that we’ve been to before. There is a lot to do and see at Niagara Falls — the falls themselves (although Maid of the Mist is not running yet for the season), butterfly observatory and horseshoe bend among other things.

Our next stop is Toronto, which is really close to Niagara. We’re going to spend 2 nights3 here. The main thing that we want to see is CN Tower and have a dinner at a spinning restaurant at the top. Hopefully nobody will get dizzy this time around, unlike it was in Berlin.

The drive from Toronto to Montreal is going to be the longest — 336 miles. We might stop at The Thousand Islands region for a break. Montreal itself has a lot of old cathedrals to explore and had a nice World Fair site if I remember correctly. We’ll spend 2 nights4 here.

And one our way back home we’ll spend 1 night5 in Albany, the capital of New York State. And even though we have driven through Albany before I have never seen the capitol building of the state that I’ve lived in for the past 20+ years.

On the final note on all of the hotels — they all have pools — an important thing to have when traveling with kids as we have established. Also the Canadian Dollar at the time of the writing was worth only 73¢ of US currency. Hooray for strong US dollar — it makes it cheaper to travel beyond the border. Should be a fun exploration road trip with kids. I only hope Canada has proper diesel for our car.

  1. Hampton Inn Seneca Falls — 2 nights for $258 with taxes. []
  2. DoubleTree Fallsview Resort — C$450 for 3 nights with all the taxes. []
  3. DoubleTree Toronto Downtown — C$504 for 2 nights with all the taxes. []
  4. Hilton Garden Inn Montreal Centre-Ville — C$427 for 2 nights with all taxes. []
  5. Hilton Albany — $172 for the night with taxes. []

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Friday, February 12, 2016

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon from the castle.Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, was the very last stop of our vacation. I guess we somehow expected it to be somewhat more along the lines of boring and underdeveloped being on the outskirts of Europe, especially seeing the signs of all that in Spain in many respects. But we were very pleasantly surprised when our expectations turned out to be all wrong. In fact Lisbon ended up being one of our favorite locations we have visited throughout this trip.

Bus station in Seville.Of course getting there was a whole other story. As I have possibly written before, we booked the plane tickets and hotels well in advance and left the planing of the logistics pretty much to the last minute, expecting that we’ll just book train tickets with ease online as we usually do. Were we wrong or what? Not only we couldn’t book anything online, but I was somewhat shocked to find out that there simply aren’t any trains running from Seville to Lisbon.

Entering Portugal.There were few options to solve the problem, but each one of them had quite a significant downside. In order to get there via a train we would have to backtrack to Madrid and catch an overnight train. And I typically tend to stress out on trips like that so I really prefer to travel during the middle of the day and spending nights and mornings at a hotel.

Streets of Lisbon.Another option was renting a car which would end up running us close to $600 and we would still have to spend hours upon hours driving. Third option was catching a plane for even more money.

Streets of Lisbon.And the very last option, option that we decided to go for, was taking a bus. The journey on the bus takes 8 hours. And on most days buses only go to Lisbon overnight. Meaning that there was no way we could get a good night of rest and then there is the above mentioned stress. Luckily for us since we had to travel on a weekend there was a day bus departing at about 3pm and arriving somewhere around 10pm. That’s what we did.

Streets of Lisbon.We got to the bus terminal at around 1:30pm since our tickets said that boarding would end 30 minutes ahead of the departure and our departure was at 2:30pm. Little did we know that they don’t really care for schedule in Spain. The actual boarding did start much closer to 3pm. Oh, well.

Streets of Lisbon.Our bus driver decided not to let anybody use the restroom either. I guess he didn’t want to deal with cleaning it. When somebody asked for it he asked to hold on a little bit. About 40 minutes later he did pull into some bus terminal and let people go. Luckily for us we didn’t really have to go on this trip, but it would sure suck if we did have to.

Alёna.On the positive side the bus had WiFi that actually worked. So we did play some Hearthstone and even managed to do a good quality video call with our family.

Streets of Lisbon.Nothing else noteworthy happened on the trip beside the fact that everyone had to have their passports inspected when crossing the Spain-Portugal border. I suppose that was somewhat new and was caused by the recent refugee crisis that Europe has been going through.

Our DoubleTree hotel.Upon arrival to our hotel we checked-in and got some recommendations for a nearby dinner place. The hotel itself turned out to be and ultra-modern kind. DoubleTree hotels tend to be that way from time to time. It had totally black hallways, a bathtub in the middle of the bedroom, practically no light in the restroom (who needs any light beside the glow of an iPad screen, right?), but it did have a nice balcony. Maybe they overdid it a bit on the hip side, but it was a really nice hotel nevertheless.

Lisbon.Back to dinner. We got a recommendation to visit a nearby place called À Parte Grill. It had a sister part on the other side of the street which was full on that night and both parts had pretty good ratings on TripAdvisor.

Streets of Lisbon.And what a place. This was probably the best dinner of our whole vacation. Everyone spoke English, the service was great, the food was great and this was the first time we ordered a sangria. Alёna didn’t really want to get one since she doesn’t like sweet wine (nor do I), but being in the region and not trying sangria would just be wrong.

Sangria.Imagine our surprise to find out that if done properly this was one of the best tasting alcoholic drinks that I have ever tried. Our negative predisposition to it came from the fact that we did try it before in New York and several times after our trip, but now I know that it wasn’t done properly. We liked it so much that we ordered another pitcher. It was really really good.

São Jorge Castle.One of our first day in Lisbon we decided to explore São Jorge Castle, a castle built in the 11th century upon what seems to be the biggest hill in Lisbon. We decided take the shortest route from our hotel (2 mile walk) which would give us a chance to experience the views of the city within.

Tiled buildings.The things that stood out the most were all the sidewalk that were made out of stones and lots and lots of buildings which were covered by various colorful tiles.

Lisbon trams.On our walk to the castle we also noticed colorful trams scurrying around the city. I kept taking photographs of the trams, but I don’t think I ended up with a perfect one like I wanted to. Also by taking this route we went through some shady neighborhoods with shady elements, but overall the character of the city looked pretty new and interesting to our eyes.

Castle.The castle itself indeed looked like a castle and one could climb atop the walls and walk around. A lot of good views opened up on the city below, but the most interesting side — looking toward the water and the bridge had a sun shinning right into the lens. After wandering around the castle for a while we kept walking in the same direction as to the castle and eventually ended up near the water.

At the castle.The tiny little cozy streets were littered with little restaurants. We ate lunch at a place that ended up being more of a chain than a private restaurant, which was a mistake, but we corrected it the next day by preparing before hand with TripAdvisor. And after lunch we kept walking through the streets.

Streets of Lisboa.One weird aside about Lisbon — numerous people tried to sell hashish to us. All over the place right in the open. Sunglasses? Marijuana? Hashish? Strange.

Full store of sardines.Back to our day. Eventually we came upon a store that specializes in canned sardines. Apparently sardines are a big deal in Portugal. And we thought that those cans would make for a nice souvenir for ourselves and for our parents. By now most of these have been eaten, but it’s a much better thing to bring that some useless trinket that will stand on a shelf collecting dust until eventually being thrown out.

On our way to the castle.That’s pretty much was our first day. In the evening we decided to try the 2nd part of À Parte and were sad to discover that both of them are closed on Mondays.

Streets of Lisboa.The next best thing that TripAdvisor led us to was a restaurant called Viva Lisboa which was located inside a hotel. And typically hotels have overpriced restaurants with mediocre food, but this one turned out to be amazing. The was yet again extremely tasty.

View from the top of the castle.And sangria that we drank a pitcher of was also amazing. I think I’ve ended up being drunk for hours after we were done. I’m glad we made it to our hotel OK. It was really good.

Lisbon.Our second day was even simpler. We headed out towards the central streets taking a different route. This day was more like walking around central streets of Manhattan (without the skyscrapers) and stopping by some 5th Avenue-like stores, doing a bit of shopping.

One of the central streets.We also came up with a decent present for Arosha. We got him an official Euro 2016 soccer ball made by Adidas. We ate a tasty lunch at a nice place. Then we tried traditional Portuguese pastries called natas at some coffee shop and we just enjoyed the day.

Streets of Lisboa.In the evening we did make it to a second part of À Parte, but it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. I think our waiter was not very good and turns out it’s a big factor.

More trams.And that was it. Portugal was great. Lisbon was one of our last stops and it ended up being a pleasant and memorable one.

And some more trams.
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