Monday, September 10, 2012

Italy Vacation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Saturday, September 15, 2012

Labor Day in Catskills

Catskill Mountain Lodge. Main building.We didn’t really have any plans for the long weekend and were thinking that we’ll end up spending it in hot, humid and noisy Brooklyn. But on Wednesday I had a strong urge to just get away and unwind a little bit from what seemed to be a barrage of bad news and annoyances that has been getting to us in the past month. So I opened Google Maps, navigated to Catskill region and typed in “lodge” in the search box.

Our rooms at the lodge. Second floor, center.We didn’t want to spend a lot of money — our favorite cabins in Pocono run $1,200 for 2 night stay. I looked through several sites and saw a place that looked like it could work for us. Their website didn’t have rooms available, but a call turned up 2 free rooms, next to each other with a single queen bed in each for only $95 a night. Even though the place had very mediocre ratings on review sites I figured — how bad can it be?

Arosha near the lake.I booked it right there on the phone for a two night stay. Even if the place turned out to be bad, we wouldn’t be spending too much time indoors anyhow as there were tons of parks around and things that we could do. That was a good call on my part. Now we had a family getaway set for the upcoming weekend and we would be staying in Catskill Mountain Lodge in Palenville, NY.

The drive to the lodge on Saturday morning ended up being much better than expected. We only got stuck in some mild traffic outside of the city and got to our destination in a pretty decent time. On our way we stopped by a Chinese buffet which was a new experience for Arosha and a well forgotten experience for the rest of us. Arosha liked picking and tasting a large variety of food — even though he might end up not liking something he never minds to try — anything and everything.

North-South Lake.The lodge turned out to be just fine. The owners were pretty friendly. They instantly checked us in and even gave us a refrigerator free of charge once we requested one to be put in our room — mainly for Arosha’s milk. The interiors were pretty dated, but rooms were clean and side by side to each other — as promised.

There was a what looked like a nice pool on the premises, but we never got around to trying it out. Either way — the people who leave bad reviews are just not living in the real world — don’t expect to get a five star Hilton when you’re paying $95 a night on a holiday weekend. Just be realistic and you will not be disappointed.

North-South Lake.We decided to spend a second half of our first day exploring a nearby state park — North-South Lake Campground. This place was familiar to Alёna and myself as we discovered it back in 2003 while spending a weekend in the region. In fact, we liked it so much that we ended up bring the whole circle of our friends here — twice — for camping.

Lots of flowers around the lake.I wanted to take a couple of pictures of the lake and everyone else just wanted to go for a walk. At some point Arosha managed to escape far enough from Alёna and by the time Alёna realized what was going on Arosha made a run for the lake and took a complete dive fully clothed. Alёna seemed distressed, Arosha was ecstatic. At this point she just took off his clothes and let him have at it.

My picture taking though didn’t go too well. I was taking long exposure shots while forgetting to block off the viewfinder. As a result all the photos ended up being overexposed in the center of the frame. I had a couple of normal shots which were OK, but all long exposures are junk. But it was a good end of the day nevertheless.

Kaaterskill Falls.On the way back to our lodge we stopped by Kaaterskill Falls and I took a couple of photographs that I ended up liking. And by this time there were practically no people there as opposed to the time when we were passing them on our way to the park. It was a long weekend after all. Everything was crawling with people.

We finished our evening off with a dinner in a steakhouse located on the lodge premises. The restaurant actually had a live jazz band inside, but it was a bit too loud — we wanted to be able to have a conversation during the dinner, so we opted for a table outside. Since the sun was down at that time the temperature was very pleasant and we still could hear the music just at the right volume.

Kindred Spirits Steakhouse & Pub. Our lodge restaurant.My steak was very good (a filet mignon) as was Alёna’s duck. My parents decided to try a ribeye and a New York strip and while they were not bad they weren’t as good as my choice. We started the dinner with baby clams in garlic souse and topped the whole thing off with a nice bottle of red wine.

Overall it was a very good start of a nice little trip except for the fact that Arosha kept needing a diaper change about 10 times a day which is not normal at all. At the end of the day his butt hurt so much that he couldn’t sit which was putting a damper on all our moods.

Arosha at an apple orchard.Our second day was even simpler than the first. After waking up and eating a breakfast (sandwiches, eggs) that we brought with ourselves we decided to find an orchard and do some fruit picking. But at first Arosha went for a ride on a set of ancient swings and carousels that were present on our lodge territory.

On our way we were stopping at numerous yard sales and then we stopped by a supermarket to buy some ointment for Arosha’s butt. At that supermarket Arosha ran off from us and my dad ran after him. Apparently at the end of that chase my dad fell down pretty hard while trying to avoid Arosha who fell down in front of him. That was quite unpleasant for everyone.

Arosha on apple tasting quest.Finding an orchard wasn’t a problem. There is a number of them nearby and we picked the closest one to our lodge. Even though their website hasn’t been updated since 2011 we decided to take our chances and we lucked out. First of all this orchard was huge — they had rows and rows and rows of apple trees covered with apples and basically no people at all. A very different experience from our last fall.

Two of many many rows of apple trees.I think Arosha took a bite out of every kind of apple that orchard had and it had a lot. We picked 2 full bags of different kinds of apples and then 2 small boxes of raspberries. Arosha of course was picking raspberries right into his stomach. I tried a few too. Raspberries and apples were delicious. The staff was very friendly and we bought a liter of their fresh apple cider which also was very delicious.

Lunch at a local market.Then we ate lunch at some local spot that we stumbled upon accidentally — thin crusted pizzas. Everyone liked these very much. At this point we didn’t have any more plans so we started driving home. However on our way I saw a sign toward a historic lighthouse located on Hudson. We decided to make a small detour and stop by.

Lighthouse trail.It ended up being a very nice hike along Hudson shore through the luscious woods. This was the first time when I actually touched Hudson waters. My dad also showed us a plant that he used to show us when we were kids. It has small bean like things growing on it and when you touch it they explode with their seeds. Alёna saw it for the first time and every time one of these would explode at her touch she would scream loudly and jump about 2 meters (almost) into the air. Arosha also enjoyed popping these things up.

The trail got flooded. Lighthouse is barely visible.Even though the hike was nice we didn’t get to our final destination. There was a high tide and it flooded the final part of the path. We did see the lighthouse, but could get close enough for good photographs. The hike was still worth it. I’m glad we did take that detour.

Hudson shore.And we finished the day at the same steakhouse at our lodge. This time we decided to simply go for burgers with a round of beer. And again it was nice and thus our second day came to a conclusion.

Ashokan Reservoir.On our last day our main objective was to get back home and hopefully avoid getting stuck in a lot of traffic. But before leaving Catskill region we decided to make one last stop near Ashokan Reservoir — the main source of drinking water for New York City as it turned out.

Bridge crossing Ahoskan Reservoir.The lake was beautiful with somewhat menacing looking clouds and dark mountains on the horizon. We walked along the shore and I took a number of long exposure shots, remembering to close off the viewfinder this time around. I ended up with a good number of photographs and some of them came out well.

Ashokan.All that came to an abrupt conclusion when a police officer approached us and informed us of the fact that we were trespassing. Turns out that there were indeed signs hidden in the bushes stating that you can only get down here with a proper permit, which we obviously didn’t have. Luckily for us he was a nice guy who ended up just giving us warnings and asking us not to do it again.

Flowers near North-South Lake.And that was pretty much it. We got into the car, stopped on our way for lunch and got all the way home without many problems, while Arosha slept. It ended up being a really nice Labor Day family getaway.

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