Sunday, July 14, 2019

Canada 2019

We're all over Canada.This is going to be somewhat of a different approach to a vacation post that I usually take.

Kids.The main difference is that the vast majority of our trip was very similar to the one we took exactly three years ago. Even the time of the year was pretty much spot on.

First dinner of the trip. A short top close to Canadian border.So I’m going to concentrate on things that were different instead. And the first thing that was the biggest difference was the company.

First dinner of the trip. A short top close to Canadian border.Since Ilya’s kids have a spring break at the same very time as our kids and they wanted to go to Canada for a while now I offered to join us up once I booked it. And they took us up on this offer.

Looking at lit up falls.We tried our best on sharing things that we liked and saw and I hope that we mostly succeeded. Different people do vacations differently and our typical approach to vacations, for many many years now, was that we try not to concentrate on fitting into a specific budget. This is one time when we just close the eyes on the costs and try to just enjoy it.

Pretty colors of the falls.This kind of approach started way before we had kids and had less responsibilities, but it kind of stuck with us. So we had a couple of slight hiccups on this front, but overall, no major differences.

First morning.We all wanted to see similar things and because of Ilya’s family we ended up visiting a bunch of new things that we would’ve probably skipped on our own.

American falls.Plus we loved the company in the pools. Kids typically are quite demanding in the pool and always want us to play some kind of games with them. This time they had friends to play with. But not only that, but Ilya is one of the most dedicated dads I know. He spent hours upon hours of playing games with all the kids while I lazily soaked in a hot tub.

Mandatory selfie.One of the big achievements on the swimming front is our discovery of Anna’s swimming abilities. While all the time she used floatation devices, it turned out that when you take them off she actually can swim. And pretty well at that. She swims going forward and she can swim on her back like a little torpedo.

Horseshoe part of the falls.I guess she was as surprised by that discovery as we were, so we couldn’t really talk her into using her floatation devices anymore. She wanted to go and go and go on her own.

Under the falls view.And we also might’ve solved her ear problem. She kept ending up with ear infections and pain in her ears after the pools. This time we used a rubber cap to protect her ears and it seemed to have worked well.

Us under the falls.Back to the itinerary of our vacation itself. This was the first time when we drove out from Ridgеfiеld instead of Brooklyn. I was amazed that by the end of our drive to Niagara Falls — our first stop — my average speed was 68MPH. Never could we just get on the road and drive without getting stuck in a single traffic congestion while living in Brooklyn.

Rainforest Cafe.The drive was uneventful as was the border crossing and we were in our hotel at around 8PM. About six and a half hours of driving plus an hour or so for dinner.

Rainforest Cafe.Last time Anna was only 2 years old and we always ended up going to bed before sun sat down. This time kids noticed lit up waterfalls from the Rainbow Bridge — border crossing — and once we checked-in, talked us into going down to the falls.

Rainforest Cafe.So this was the first time they saw Niagara at night. We saw the Bride’s Veil falls well with all kinds of animating lights, but the water mist rising from Horseshoe part of the falls and light reflecting in all that obscured the bigger part of the falls pretty much completely.

Ferris wheel in Niagara.We started the next day with a trip through the tunnels under the Horseshoe part of the falls. Unimpressive is the word. Just a tunnel with a couple of small openings and a viewing platform with mediocre views.

Go-karter.The movie that we watched about the history of the falls and a little bit of a 3D experience that was included in the package ended up being more fun. I learned that the whirlpool on Niagara actually formed in a matter of hours. The river hit some soft portion of the rock formations and everything came crumbling down.

More pro-drivers.For lunch we decided to go to Rain Forest Cafe. Kids remembered it from the last time and really wanted to go. While we remembered the food wasn’t really stellar it somehow turned out to be ever worse this time. Kids did enjoy the animal shows, but everyone suffered through their lunch.

Outside the go-carting course.I think that was probably the biggest fail of a food experience during the trip. We also had a very mediocre lunch on our way to Montreal from Toronto. We stopped a in a tiny town of Gananoque in a Thousand Islands region. Every restaurant was closed for the season and we actually ended up in the same exact place as last time. Zero choice.

What is this ancient thing?Back to Niagara — dinner in a Brazilian Steak House — Brasa — was as good as we remembered. I ate a lot of steak. Arosha was finished with steak fairly quickly, but then he proceeded to consume what seems to be two full roasted pineapples.

Cable car.While walking through the town of Niagara we discovered a newly constructed Go-Kart course. Everyone partook in the experience. Arosha for the first time in his life actually drove a kart by himself. He did well and really enjoyed the experience. All the other kids had to ride with parents because of height limits.

Over the river.The second day in Niagara turned out to be quite rainy. But we did two interesting things. First of all I finally rode in 1916 Whirlpool Aero Car — a carriage that is supported by six steel cables that goes over the whirlpool of Niagara River.

Cable car ride over Niagara whirlpool.I’ve seen this thing many many times before. But either it had very long lines during tourist season or it was closed for the low season. This time it seems to have just opened and there were no people. It was very rainy and cold. And the ride wasn’t really anything special, but I was happy to cross this achievement off my list.

Butterfly Conservatory, Hoping for a landing.Another new thing we did was visit a place called Bird Kingdom — world’s largest free-flying indoor aviary. Kids had a blast. Two parts stand out the most — they were able to take pictures with large macaw parrots on their hands.

Butterfly on Anna's hair.And another thing was that they were able to participate in feeding lorikeets — a kind of parrots. And because there weren’t too many people due to low season they ended up going on multiple circles of this adventure.

Butterfly Conservatory. Looking for more landings.In Toronto we ended up doing a couple of new things beside the mandatory tour and dinner at the top of CN Tower. We explored a complex of office buildings linked together by a beautiful galleria. The complex is called Brookfield Place. The unusual interior makes it quite photogenic and interesting to explore.

Aroshka's shoulder.There is also a Hockey Hall of Fame inside, but we only took a couple of pictures at the entrance of it and didn’t go inside. I guess none of us know much about hockey and its history so nobody had an urge to explore it fully.

Success.The big thing that we did this time was a visit to Toronto’s Ripley’s Aquarium. I must say that this must’ve been the best aquarium that I’ve been to and I’ve been to quite a few.

Success.It has a lot of different exhibits, but the best thing was a glass tunnel that goes right through the aquarium itself. And the most amazing creature that I saw while walking through it was an enormous saw fish. Huge. Not to mention a multitude of sharks, turtles, rays and all other kinds of things swimming around you.

Bird Kingdom.In Montreal we, again, did a lot of the same things as last time. However we did catch an organ playing at sailors’ church. For lunch we went back to the fondue place that we’ve been to two times before. This kind of unusual and authentic food connects you more to a foreign place that you are visiting.

Down the falls.We went for the beef broth again, since our kids really do not like cheese for some reason. Our family enjoyed the experience with kids cooking their own meats and vegetables. And we felt more of French Canada, so to speak.

Feeding lorikeets.Second day in Montreal was again rainy. Ilya, thought, found an archeological museum that we haven’t been to before. I didn’t expect much from it, but it turned out to be very interesting. We actually stood at a place where Montreal formed and learned about its early days. It’s always nice to learn new things about the place that you’ve been many times to and yet haven’t delved into its history much before.

Wing-span.For dinner the four of us went to a place that Alёna and I have discovered on our last trip. Although we had a bit of a lunch fiasco. We decided to be hungry when EVERYTHING got closed for a switch-over from lunch to dinner menu. We were very close to actually eating at Burger King.

Bird Kingdom.But we found a coffee shop where we bought a pair of croissants for our kids, so we were able to hold out for pretty much two hours until places started to open back up.

Brasa — Brazilian steakhouse.The memorable part of this dinner was our acquisition of authentic Kronenbourg 1664 Blanc beer glasses. This beer happens to be our current favorite and we couldn’t find these glasses for sale. So we asked if we could buy a pair from the restaurant.

Brazilian steakhouse.The waiter said that he will give them to us. I guess what he really meant was that he will not tell anyone at the restaurant either, but we did take them. We also gave him a really good tip. So these glasses now have their history.

Somewhere in Toronto.And we have crossed another achievement of our list — we actually rode Uber for the first time. We didn’t want to walk all the way back to our hotel under the rain, so we tried it. It worked really well. I guess there is a reason there is all this hype about the service.

Inside Brookfield Place.And our last stop was Albany. The new thing we did here was visiting New Your State Museum that Ilya’s family discovered. Third time in Albany, never noticed that it existed.

Brookfield Place.The museum turned out to be free and much more impressive than I expected. Its exhibitions are a nice combination of a history and natural history items. A lot of a fun sections including an almost full skeleton of mastodon. I was very surprised to discover that African elephant is actually larger in size than either mammoths or mastodons ever were.

Brookfield Place.And on our last night of vacation all eight of us had a nice dinner at a table meant for six people. But I think it actually made things more intimate and close and put a nice period on this trip with good friend and good company.

And just a whole bunch of addition pictures follow below. Continue Reading

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Friday, May 17, 2019

Venice 2018

Canals of Venice.It’s been a while since our Italian vacation, but Danya and I keep thinking about writing a few words and posting a few pictures about Venice. So here it is.

Doge's PalaceDanya and I have been to Venice once before, but for our children it was the first time. Before the trip we told them stories about this city on the water — how unusual, beautiful and epic it is. I think they were not disappointed.

Gandola ride.We arrived by bullet train and took a water bus to get to our hotel — Hilton Molino Stucky. We booked a suite room, but got upgraded into a humongous two bedroom two bathroom suite. Probably the largest room that we’ve ever stayed in.

Gandola ride.We had our first dinner at Trattoria ai Cacciatorri on Guidecca — same place where we enjoyed our anniversary dinner 5 years ago. It was nice. We got grilled calamari as an appetizer, and I am proud to say that both of our children tried them, although I don’t think that they were particularly taken with the meal. They did love their main pasta dish though! It was Thanksgiving too, so we toasted and gave thanks for all the good things that happened to us last year.

Walking around Venice.The next day was our wedding anniversary. We did a lot of Venice sight seeing. It was cold, but at least it was not raining and the streets were not flooded. After some bargaining, we took a gondola ride. Our gondolier was a tall good looking blue eyed Venetian, who was steering gondolas in narrow Venice canals for the last 10 years. He said that it took him 6 months to learn how to do it, but just as with driving cars, some people learn slower, and some will never be good.

Tiny streets of Venice.During the ride it was even more obvious that Venice is sinking — slowly, but surely. Some buildings had water covering the steps completely and getting uncomfortably close to the windows. As much as I liked visiting Venice, there is no way that I would have chosen to live there.

Wedding anniversary dinner.We ate dinner at some fancy and expensive place, which to my dismay did not have a risotto on the menu. I ended up ordering black ink spaghetti, which were just OK. It was still a nice and memorable experience with my most favorite people.

Hunting for Venetian masks.We wanted to buy some Venetian masks, so we visited all the mask stores that we could find. Sadly, we were not able to find the place where we bought our joker mask last time, but we found a few authentic stores which produced real things and not cheap made in China counterfeits. I also love buying jewelry while traveling, so Daniеl got me a nice set of earrings and a matching necklace made with Murano glass.

Lunch.Executive lounge in Hilton proved to be very useful for having light free dinners, and that’s exactly where we went in the evening. Sadly there was no indoor pool in the hotel, but Anna was having trouble with her ears as is, so maybe it was for the best. By the way, we figured out that swimming cap in the pool greatly diminishes ear issues, so during our last Canada trip she had zero ear ache, even though she used the pool almost daily.

Flooded Venice.The next day was a little rainy, but not overwhelmingly so. Venice was somewhat flooded, and we had to use those raised wooden walkways on some streets and avoid certain streets altogether. A number of people was using special waterproof bags to protect their shoes, but we decided that we can get by without and as I mentioned just avoided especially flooded streets when possible. I’m sure it was fun to be wading though the humongous puddles though, but at 15 euros per shoe bag it was not worth it.

Saint Mark's Basilica.We visited Saint Mark’s Basilica, which is beautiful and unusual. The children seemed to like it too — it will be curious to see if they will recognize it on the pictures.

Flooded Venice.We continued our search for masks, and ended up buying a whole lot of them — four for us and one for Aaron. Anna got a cheap mask which she could wear the previous day, and it looks very cute on her. Arosha could not decide for a long time which variety of masks he likes best, but at the end he bought a sun and moon mask to match the overall stars and planets theme of his room. I think it fits very well and getting it certainly was very exciting for him. The masks that we got are three female faces, which we hanged over the fireplace in the living room, and a borg-looking mask which Daniеl keeps in his home office room.

Gnocchi!We tried to find good gelato places, but I guess late November is not the prime time for this treat, so even though we bought it on few occasions, it was not as good as the one that we bought in Milan. By the way, there were a lot of Russian speaking people working in food industry in Venice. Pretty much every food place, including Hilton buffet, had someone who spoke Russian. Also, if on mainland Italy Anna’s and Aarons blond hair and blue eyes attracted extra attention and smiles, Venetians were completely indifferent.

View from the top of the bell tower.On our last day we went up the bell tower of St. Mark’s Cathedral. Sadly, we had to take the elevator — no option of using steps. The view was very beautiful.

Bell tower.Afterwards we walked around some more, bought more jewelry for me, ate lunch and went back to the hotel. It was raining pretty hard, and walking in the narrow streets with umbrellas was not very enjoyable.

Lunch.The next day we took a water taxi to the airport and departed home.

Water taxi to the airport.I know some people love Venice, and some find it smelly, hot and overcrowded. I think a lot of this experience depends on the time of the year when people visit. Yes, it was cold and rainy, but I still think that visiting during less popular months beats being there in crowds of people during the peak season.

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Friday, March 1, 2019

Florence and Pisa

Main cathedral of Florence.Our next stop in Italy was Florence. Since our Milan hotel was so close to the train station, we did not need to take a taxi or bus to get there. We just walked and then waited for a while inside the station to see which platform our bullet train will depart from.

Train to Florence.The ride itself was not especially eventful. We were all pretty impressed to see that our train was going over 300 km/hour at some points. We played a guessing game using complimentary magazines laying around, the children felt and behaved well.

From from our hotel. Duomo is on the left.Our hotel in Florence was unfortunately quite far from the center. However, we got a spacious room on the top floor, free breakfast, access to the executive lounge and this hotel had a mega whirlpool. The whirlpool was pretty much the size of a regular pool, it had nice little areas where you can lie down and get your whole body massaged by water, plus it had a traditional jacuzzi area and a waterfall. I’ve never seen pools like this one, and the water was so warm that we could stay there without much motion for two hours and not get cold.

Massive hot tub.Plus, there were very few people in the pool, so oftentimes we were the only ones there. Kids LOVED it, although I think swimming had a mild negative effect on Anna’s ears. She just finished drinking antibiotics for acute ear infection which she developed as a complication of a viral infection, and her ears started bothering her again. Luckily, garlic ear drops helped to keep the pain at bay and to heal faster.

Our women.In order to get to the center of the city, we had to take Hilton’s complimentary shuttle and then a tram. The shuttle was going once every half our or so and there were longer breaks, so it was a little annoying at times, but still the benefits of Hilton for us outweigh the sub-optimal location.

View from the top of cathedral tower.When we got to the center of Florence, we walked around, enjoying the beauty and special historic flavor of its narrow streets and old dwellings. We admired Duomo for a while.

Anna and hers and mine Florentine steak.Then we went to ZaZa — which we visited on our last trip as well — and had a nice dinner. Daniеl and Anna got a Florentin steak, which was much better this time since it was more cooked through per our request. The steak itself was enormous — the size of a soccer ball. After that we walked around some more, grabbed a cab to the hotel and hit the pool.

At the stop of 414 step high tower.We dedicated the whole next day to more Florence exploration. We took 414 steps to the top of the bell tower. Everyone did a great job climbing by the way! It was really windy at the top, but the view was magnificent.

Florence.We ate lunch at some restaurant in the center. There was a Russian hostess inviting us in, and we thought that we might as well try it. I got a risotto, and it was quite delicious.

414 steps up and down.We walked for a while after lunch. Visited famous Ponte Vecchio, tried to take in the beautiful views of Arno river, window shopped little jewelry and souvenir stores.

Ponte Vecchio.We tried to find a good gelato, but for the lack of options settled on the overpriced mediocrity at the end. The only plus side was that we could eat the gelato inside, and that’s exactly what we did. We took a cab to the hotel again, and after a light snack at the executive lounge hit the pool again.

Gelato!Our last full day in Florence was supposed to be spent on visiting the world famous Ufizzi gallery. However, Aaron made us change our plans. The thing is that he heard about the tower of Pisa before visiting Italy, and was under impression that he’ll get to see it on this trip. When he found out that we were not actual planning to go there, he got a little upset and really asked us if it was possible to do it.

A LOT of gelato!When we were making our plans originally we explored that option and decided that an hour trip each way on the train was too tiresome for the children, but as I said, Aaron really wanted to go. So that’s what we did. We got to the station, bought open-ended tickets and took a train to Pisa. We had to walk for a while to get to the tower, and it was drizzling, but the children were excited.

Tower of Pisa.After looking at the tower and taking pictures, we ate lunch at the nearby restaurant, and headed back. Daniеl had gnocchi with pesto and Arosha was brave enough to try them. He liked it so much that he ordered them for himself at some point later in the trip instead of his meal of preference — pasta with marinara sauce.

Our women.The children bought little souvenir towers and were extremely excited about those. We had to hurry though to make it to the train in time in order not to lose another hour for being a few minutes late, so I grabbed Anna in my hands and we ran. Unfortunately, Anna was partially obstructing my view and I managed to bump into a short pole near to the train station and fell down. Luckily, Anna was not hurt and I just got a nasty bruise on my right knee.

Pisa.We made it in time for the train, then took a cab from the train station, got light dinner at the executive lounge and finished the day with the pool again.

The next morning we headed out to Venice.

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Sunday, January 20, 2019

Our Day in Milan

Milan Duomo.The biggest Milan attraction for us was the Milan Cathedral. I remembered what it looked like really well, and was hoping that the children will be impressed by the Duomo and by the fact that they could get on its roof.

Inside the cathedral.A week before the vacation I finished reading a book about Italian resistance during World War II “Beneath a Scarlet Sky” by Mark Sullivan. It is based on a real story of Pino Lella, who was a Milanese native, so a big part of the action took place in Milan. My reading about the city and its people made visiting the city more interesting and somehow nostalgic. Milan took heavy bombing during those years, but I’m glad that the Duomo is still standing.

Rose windows.After a substantial Hilton breakfast, we took a subway to the Milan Cathedral. On a side note, there are a lot of shady looking characters who volunteer to “help” with entrance ticket purchasing, but we just asked to be left alone, and luckily they did not persist, although a young guy was eyeing Daniеl up and down for a few minutes, while I was eyeing him in return.

View from the roof of Milan Cathedral.There were a lot of people by the Duomo. A lot of pigeons too. There was a huge line to enter the cathedral and a separate huge line to buy entrance tickets. Luckily, we got preferential treatment in both lines on account of kids and skipped both of them. I think that saved us 1.5-2 hours of waiting. Hooray such an attentive and kind attitude to children!

On the roof.Interesting thing is that both Aaron and Anna remembered being told about the cathedral during art classes which they took in Brooklyn. Aaron told us that he recognizes the rose windows and some of the statues. When we were inside, I saw remains of cardinal Schuster, and it was such a strange experience, since I was just reading about him in the earlier mentioned book.

On the roof.After appreciating the beauty of the Milan Duomo from the inside, we proceeded to the rooftop of the cathedral. There was an elevator going to the top, but we picked an option of taking 250 stairs. We all think that a little effort only enhances the experience — you feel the sense of achievement (however small) and endorphin rush because of that. I knew that for adults and Aaron this should not be a difficult task, but we were a little worried about Anna and her ability to make it to the top without my carrying her.

Top of the roof.To our surprise, not only she made it to the rooftop without any complaints, but she was not even out of breath. In fact, she and Arosha practically ran all the way! Another thing that was on our minds is Arosha’s mild fear of heights, especially on top of man-made structures. To our relief, he was not afraid! He and Anna had quite a lot of fun, and I even had to stop them from running since it did not seem appropriate and very safe.

All of us.After Duomo we went to get lunch. Last time we were so impressed by buffalo mozzarella pizza in Charleston restaurant that was located nearby, that we decided to revisit it with Arosha and Anuta. The food was as good as we remembered. Our waiter, an older Italian man who could speak some English, liked our kids and called Anuta a “principessa”, which is princess in Italian. We took liking to it right away and were calling her our principessa a lot during the trip. We still call her that now and then.

Streets of Milan.After lunch we decided to see Sforza Castle which is located in the walking distance. Got our first Italian gelato on the way. I think it was the best gelato of the entire trip. I don’t remember much about Sforza Castle since we did not get inside any of the buildings. I do remember the surrounding walls and the fact that Moscow Kremlin was originally modeled after this castle. Maybe next time we’ll explore it in more detail.

We ate light dinner at the executive lounge again and went to bed early.
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Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Arosha’s Italy Notes

Arosha was writing down little things about his days all throughout our vacation to Italy. We decided to post them to the blog under the tag of this trip as well, with some small editorial notes — in brackets.

November 17


Airport lunch.Today I made it to the first stop. It is Milan. We flew out of JFK, which stands for John F. Kennedy. I was flying for 7 hours and then for 2 more. What I didn’t really like [on the plane] was food. Another thing I didn’t like is that they did not give us room for hours [when we arrived to Hilton Milan]. I have not slept on the plane, so when they gave us our room I have not slept for 25 hours.

November 18


Milan Cathedral.Today I did a lot of interesting things like eating combs [honeycombs at breakfast buffet]. Another thing is that I saw a big cathedral [Milan Cathedral] and I was on the roof. It took 600 years to build the cathedral. There were lines [to get inside the cathedral] for one hour, but we are kids, so we skipped them [got priority treatment].

After the cathedral we went to a restaurant. I had pizza and spaghetti.

Then we saw a castle. It had holes in its walls. Also we tasted gelato. I picked lemon and coconut [flavors].

November 19


Bullet train to Florence.Today I’m going to my second stop. It is going to be Florence.

First we woke up and ate breakfast. Then we walked to the train station and waited for bullet train. When we got in, we realized that we came in from the wrong side of the train car because we got [seats] number 3 and 4 and we came in where numbers 18 and 17 were. The bullet train was so fast that it went 300 km/hr [at some points].

I saw Florence Cathedral in the evening. Then we came to the pool [in the hotel]. We really liked it. It was a giant hot tub.

November 20


At the top of bell tower in Florence.We went on top of the bell tower [in Florence] today. It has 414 steps and me and my sister made it to the top. It was so high that I was scared.

Then we went to eat.

November 21


Leaning Tower of Pisa.Today I went to Pisa. There I saw a cathedral and the falling tower.

Then we ate at a restaurant where my sister liked my food less than hers. I got a souvenir [tower of Pisa].

November 22


Waiting for a water bus in Venice.Today I am excited because we are going to Venice. Today is also a Thanksgiving.

First we traveled on a train. When we made it to the water, I knew it was Venice.

Then we checked in [to our hotel, Hilton Molino Stucky] and went out to eat. Oh, and before that I traveled on a water bus. The first bus that we saw did not travel to the hotel.

After the restaurant we went to look for gelato, but we found none and an hour! At the restaurant I ate home made spaghetti.

Then we went to the hotel and went to sleep.

November 23


Gandola ride.Today is my mom’s and dad’s wedding anniversary.

Also, today we got a gondola ride. I really liked it, though it was expensive. It cost 100 euros.

Right after that we ate gelato and looked at Venice. Here are things that I noticed: not a lot of trees, lots of bridges, lots of glass stores.

After that we went to a fancy restaurant. Me and my sister had vegetables and spaghetti. It was very nice, and I also tried black spaghetti [which my mom was having].

A bit later we found a mask store, but I did not buy any [masks yet].

November 24 and 25


Venetian masks.Today we ate our breakfast and went on a ferry [from our hotel on Giudecca island]. Venice was a little flooded.

We went to into the [Venice] cathedral. It was pretty, and inside on the floor there was a mosaic.

After that we looked for masks. I was looking for sun and moon masks, and I bought one of them.

Then next we rode [by elevator] to the top of the Venice tower. It was a wonderful view.

It was raining all day, so we went to the hotel.
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Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Italy — Flight and Day 1

Us on a plane.The day before vacation it was snowing in our part of the woods. Children were dismissed from school early, and if we knew any better, Daniеl would have left work in the early afternoon too. Long story short, it took him over 5 hours to get home, and he was stressed and tired. So was I to be honest.

On that same day we also realized that both of our medium sized suitcases were broken, so Daniеl had to stop at a store on his way from work and get a new one. When Daniеl was leaving the parking lot of the store he noticed that his wedding band was missing! Oh no! He ran back in and by some miracle found it inside one of the suitcases that he looked at earlier. Phew!

Anna and dad.Anna was on day 6 out of 10 of antibiotics treatment for ear infection. Having our vacation in mind, I asked the doctor to prescribe them in chewable form as apposed to the liquid that is usually prescribed and needs to be refrigerated. Anna had a terrible virus a week before that, with her temperature rising sky high and not going much down for 3 days. I have not slept a bunch of nights during that time because regular fever reducers helped very little, so I kept rubbing her with water and vinegar solution for hours at a time to bring the fever down.

That same day I finished my course of antibiotics too — I was treated for viral bronchitis, which I most probably got when Anna was sick.

Airport lunch.The night before Arosha’s nose started running, so I’ve decided to pack his nebulizer and use it during the vacation. We ended up completely ruining it by the way, because it slipped my mind that voltage in Europe is different from the one in the USA, and unlike all the Apple devises that are designed for dual voltage, the nebulizer needed an adapter. Luckily, Arosha got better pretty quickly and the nebulizer was not needed throughout the vacation.

Overall, everyone was healthy enough for the trip, but I was a little anxious that everyone stays this way.

Our flight.On the day of the flight, which coincided with my birthday, we got up around 7, ate, finished packing little things like snacks and books and went to Daniеl’s parents. It seemed that the most sensible thing to do would be to leave the car near Daniеl’s parents, and get a cab to the airport. It worked out even better than that, because we did not have to get the cab — Daniеl’s dad drove us to the airport. He was not sure in advance if he’ll be able to do it because he recently had a minor surgery and was in recovery, but it all worked out. Daniеl’s mom was at work that day, but she cooked us delicious lagman and even bought cheesecake for desert, so we had a nice lunch and got some rest after a ride from home to Brooklyn.

Yellow tram of Milan.The flight itself was pretty uneventful. We were lucky to get 4 seats together in the middle section of the plane, so me and Daniеl took isle seats with the children seating in the middle. Arosha and Anuta both behaved wonderfully. Neither one of them liked plane food though, so they barely ate anything. Anuta managed to snooze for about 2 hours on our flight to Paris, where we had a stopover. Arosha slept for about an hour on the plane from Paris to Milan. That smaller plane did not have 4 seats together in a row, so Danya was separated from us by the isle. However, the flight was short, so it did not matter much.

In front of Milano Centrale railway station.When we arrived to Milan, everyone was pretty spent. We took a cab to our hotel. Funnily enough, the first people who tried to sell us their transportation services were nice up to the point when we said that the fixed price of 65 euros seems a little excessive and that we’ll try our luck with another company. They became somewhat rude, but it turned out that it cost us just 25 euros to get to the hotel by a metered cab. No wonder the price seemed high!

We stopped at the same Hilton as last time we visited Milan. It is very conveniently located by the train station, which made life a little simpler for us.

Window view from Hilton Milan.When we were booking the hotel room, we had to book the big family room on account of children. Sadly, there are much fewer such rooms in hotels, which makes sense I guess. As a consequence, Hilton was not able to check us in early as we had hoped. They were kind enough to let us use the executive lounge, which still served breakfast at the time of our arrival. Unfortunately, all of the rooms like ours were booked and we had to wait for the people to check out first, and then for the room to be cleaned, which apparently takes about 2 hours.

Sweet sleep.We ate breakfast at the executive lounge, then we walked to the train station and got tickets for the trips to Florence and Venice. We had to wait in line for over 30 minutes, but it was worth it, since the clerk was able to book us better seats at lower/deal prices, which were not available from the automated booth.

Sweet sleep.When we returned to the hotel, the room was still not ready, so we just stayed in the lobby falling in and out of sleep in turns. The adults that is. The children were not falling asleep, but in fact were pretty active and were playing different loud games. By the time we finally got into our room, we have not slept for 25 hours. I am still amazed at how well the children endured this whole hard day.

Window view.It was a little after 2 in the afternoon, so we went to bed and put an alarm clock to wake us at at 6 in the evening. It made sense to break the sleeping cycle for a few hours in the evening, lest we woke up in the middle of the night rested and unable to sleep. We went for dinner to the executive lounge. It had light snacks and drinks, and it was just enough. We went to bed shortly after that and slept until the next morning.
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Friday, September 28, 2018

Italy Vacation 2018

Plan MapIt’s been a long time since we’ve had a vacation. This year was very busy with a house purchase, so we had to put our 3 times a year vacation rate on pause. But now that things are settling down we felt that it would be nice for our family to see something and relax.

We’ve been thinking of a place that our kids would find memorable. My initial though was Venice. However full 10 day vacation in Venice would be too much, so we tried to add Florence. And the plane tickets were in the range of $1,000 per person.

Then we tried London and Paris. Great plane tickets, insane hotel prices. Each night was coming out to $500-600. The reason for that is that Anna can no longer fit in a crib, so we need a room with at least 2 beds and a roll-out bed in addition to that.

So we kept looking and looking and looking. Nothing was adding up to a reasonable price. There are a lot of nice places in United States to see, but end of November would be either too cold or too crowded.

We decided to return to our initial location. Plane tickets were still too much. I tried adding Milan in place of Florence and that did it. Good times, good flights. And reasonable hotel prices. So we booked a full trip for Thanksgiving week.

The reason why we like Thanksgiving week is two-fold. First — school has only half day in addition to the holiday itself. And our wedding anniversary fall on this week as well, since we did get married on Thanksgiving day after all.

The plan is simple. We fly out1 from JFK to Milan on November 16th and spend 2 nights2 there. One must see thing is Milan Cathedral. Then we take a train to Florence and spend 3 nights3 there. The plan is to see Duomo and visit Uffizi Gallery. And we finish our trip with a 4 night4 stay in Venice where we will celebrate our 12th wedding anniversary.

Looking towards this vacation and introducing kids to some of very unique places.

  1. Air France with a stop in Paris — $578 per person plus $37 insurance per person. []
  2. Hilton Milan — €199 per night. []
  3. Hilton Florence Metropole — King Junior Family Suite, €462 + 88,000 points total. []
  4. Hilton Molino Stucky Venice — King Family Suite, 368,000 points. []

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Saturday, January 20, 2018

Montreal in November

Notre Dame de MontrealThe ride from Quebec to Montreal was relatively short. We left Hilton, Quebec on Saturday morning at around 11am and got to Garden Inn in Montreal at around 2pm.

Our room in Montreal.We stayed in this particular hotel in Montreal last spring during our Canadian trip with the children. I remembered the great salt water pool, which I definitely wanted to use. I forgot about their fancy made to order breakfast with daily crepe selection, which is quite unique, so it was a pleasant surprise to rediscover it the next morning.

First dinner in Montreal -- Brasserie 701.Danya researched TripAdvisor for dinner options, and we’ve decided to try Brasserie 701, which was less than a mile walk from the hotel. The GPS brought us right to the Notre-Dame de Montréal, but we could not find the restaurant at first and made a few circles around the block. Brasserie 701 ended up being in the same square as the Cathedral, so we had a nice view during our dinner.

Borg buildings at the center of Montreal.I was excited to see a risotto on the menu, but after we got seated the waiter told us that since it was only 4pm, the dinner menu was not yet available. Danya’s steak was on the lunch menu, but my risotto was not, so I was really disappointed and considered leaving. The waiter went to the kitchen to see if they can make an exception for us, and to my delight, they did. We spend a while trying to figure out the wine menu, and ended up ordering beers instead.

Streets of Montreal.Both of us got Kronenbourg 1664 brand, but Daniеl ordered a wheat blanc variety, and I got the regular one. Both beers were really good, but if I were to order again, I’d go with the blanc as well. It turns out that we’ve already tried this beer in Irish bar in Keflavic. Danya says that it’s one of his favorites now, so when he went to stock up on beer before Christmas, he bought it along with some sour blueberry and Erdinger beers. The food was also really delicious.

Streets of Montreal.After we finished dinner, it was already dark and still cold in the city. We walked around the Notre-Dame a little more and then went back to the hotel. The pool was waiting! I felt a little bit sad that the children were not there to enjoy it with us, but at the same time I could fully relax without having to worry about them being safe and happy.

By Notre Dame.We chatted with a French-Canadian couple in the hot tube, which was really nice. The woman told me that my accent was more New Yorkian than Russian, which was somehow pleasant to hear. I know that I have a hard-to-place accent, which is different from Daniеl’s. Still don’t know if my speaking Belorussian is the reason for that.

Light dinner at hotel restaurant.We had a light dinner at the hotel’s restaurant — buffalo mozzarella, poutine and Belgian Moon, which is what they call Blue Moon in Canada.

Poutine.Now on the subject of poutine. Apparently, it’s a Quebec specialty, but I only found out about it in Montreal while watching Antony Bourdain’s guide to French Canadian cuisine. Poutine is pretty much french fries with brown gravy and cheese curds. When we dined in Quebec, the waitress offered us to upgrade our french fries, but we politely declined. What a pity! The hotel’s poutine was pretty good, but our waitress hinted that it was far from the best. Note to self — next time we’re in French Canada, we should try this in other places.

Streets of Montreal. From our hotel window.Next day we walked back to Notre-Dame. There is an entrance fee, so we did not go inside the night before, but decided to do it during day time. Next to the entrance we’ve noticed a poster advertising a live organ concert at 2pm. The tickets were relatively inexpensive, and the whole idea was so enticing. Ever since we’ve heard the organist in Washington National Cathedral I dreamed of hearing the great instrument in its natural environment again. Danya was not as excited as me at the prospect, but he did not mind going either, since he was also really impressed in Washington.

Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel.It was still about two hours before the concert, so we went for a walk with plans to return. First we visited the Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel, also known as the Sailor’s Church. On the top it has a statue of the Virgin as Star of the Sea, and inside it has models of ships hanging from the ceiling. Very unusual, very distinct place. I am glad that we stopped by.

Jacques Cartier Bridge.Then we walked to the river shore, took some pictures of the Jacques Cartier Bridge, saw an empty ferris wheel and a whole bunch of closed kiosks, which in season sell different food items, accessories and souvenirs. It was chilly and windy, but we were dressed for the weather. There was quite a number of people running and fast walking on the promenade. I guess, they are used to this weather and it does not deter them from excersizing.

Organist at Notre Dame de Montreal.We came back to the cathedral with a small cushion of time before the concert. There was an option to pay extra to sit on top near the organ, and we’ve decided to do it. The administration only accepted cash, but we had no CAD. Luckily, they’ve accepted USD. Of course, they didn’t account for the exchange rate, so we ended up paying a little extra for the convenience of using another country’s money, but at least we had that option.

View from the top.The concert turned out to be a big disappointment. I never thought this possible, but the organ did sound bad. At first, I thought that we made a huge mistake of paying extra and getting to the top and sitting next to the organ player. I kept wondering if the acoustics were better at the bottom, and they probably were, but when we changed seats closer to the end of the concert and went down, I did not hear a significant difference.

Top seats by the organ.The organist was very VERY mediocre. I understand, that playing organ is not easy, but it was the Notre-Dame and not some small village church after all. Danya did not even recognize half the melodies, and he commented that the playing was sloppy and inconsistent.

Organ.And the repertoire was something horrible too. The first and the last songs, which were Zarathustra by Strauss and Toccata and Fugue in D minor by Bach respectively, were great, but majority of the rest was “contemporary music”, which included “Beauty and the Beast” song, “Somewhere over the rainbow”, “New York, New York” and the likes. Call me old fashioned, but I was looking forward to classics, and got bored with organist’s choices.

Streets of Montreal.All this being said, I am still glad that we went. It was a unique experience, and at times I even enjoyed it. More than anything, I realized that even in the acoustics of the church and with the music by greatest composers, the organ sounds only as good as the person who plays it.

Fondue dinner.Our next stop was the Creperie-Fondue place that we visited last time with kids. Since Danya’s stomach is sometimes sensitive to cheeses, we’ve decided to try beef bullion fondue this time around. First time for both of us. We ordered a ratatouille crepe to share as last time as well. The fondue was great!

Tasty broth.The best part about it was actually not the meat or the vegetables, but the broth. Danya said that we should not waste it and that it will go down superbly on such a cold day. I asked for two cups, and got them along with a ladle. Apparently we were not the first people who wanted to drink up the bullion, although the waiter said that not that many people did this. The broth was so rich, filling and spicy. Heaven! I tried to replicate it at home, but fell short. Not sure if I need marrow bones or some special spices for that… Maybe, I’ll crack this one day.

Cross the border. Going back home.We went to the hotel and up to the pool again. Spent almost two hours there. So relaxing again. We ate dinner at the hotel’s restaurant again, but ordered sangria’s instead of beer this time. They were pretty decent.

Inside New York capitol building.Next day was the long drive home. Good thing that we planned a vacation the way we did, because driving from Quebec would have been even more tiring.

Staircase inside New York capitol building.There were not a lot of cars at the border, but the patrol officer really took his time with both cars in front of us (inspecting the cars and talking to the people for 10+ minutes). We went through in probably under a minute. I guess, we look trustworthy.

Famous governor.On our way we stopped in Albany. We’ve been there a few times before, but never got a chance to go inside the capitol. I was surprised to discover a big underground mall that leads from parking to the capitol building. We’ve gotten the stamp for Danya’s NP passport and took a self-guided tour inside.

Hall of Governors.The NY capitol is big, impressive and you can see that the state has a lot of money. The staircase alone is something! I particularly liked a hall of governors, with portraits of all the governor’s of New York. Well, almost all. Spitzer’s portrait was so obviously and shamefully (for him) missing.

New York capitol building.Originally we planned to eat in Albany, but after walking to the restaurant, we changed our minds and decided to eat fast food somewhere along the way to save time. I think it was a right decision, since we got home at around 7 o’clock. There was a little bit of traffic closer to the city, but it was expected. The whole trip came up close to 1,200 miles, which is a lot of driving for a short getaway. It was still very nice and memorable.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Oslo — Part 2

Oslo Botanical Garden.On our forth day in Oslo we decided to go to a botanical garden of Oslo. This was actually the only place that was a little bit too far to walk to.

On a tram to garden.We bought four round trip tram tickets at a gift shop inside the hotel.

Straw sculptures at the garden.We spent a good portion of the day exploring different parts of the garden. Kids ran around, climbed the hills, ran down the grass and on and on.

Viking ship.Also there was a nice Viking exhibition at one part of the park — a ship-like sculpture with a throne-like chair and a bunch of notes and little guides on how Vikings used to do certain things.

Botanical Garden.We decided to walk back to the hotel with a stop by Oslo Opera House building. I spoke with my dad earlier and he told me that one could walk up to the roof of the Opera House for some really nice views.

Throne.So our total walk back to the hotel was around two and a half miles. Not too bad at all.

Garden.So we did make it to the Opera House. And there actually was a real wide road really going around the building and ending up on the roof. And as expected there were great panoramic views from the top.

Garden.At this point we were getting kind of hungry, but in a typical European fashion majority of the food places were closed in the middle of the day. It took us a while before we found an open place called Celsius Cafe. Alёna went for some big bowl of Norwegian soup of some kind and kids and I had regular burgers. It was pretty decent.

From the roof of Opera House.When we got to the hotel we did some swimming at the pool. And then everyone was hungry again by dinner time. We went into a small bar across the street from the hotel and ordered some beers, burger and some French fries.

Opera House.We always ask for hot sauce to go with the fries and this place had Sriracha. The combination turned out to be really great.

Opera House.In fact we went there to repeat the same deal a couple of times more. During our first visit to this place we ran into a lonely Russian-speaking guy who was drinking beer by himself. We offered him to join our table. Turned out that he lives in Norway and does some construction work, but overall the conversation ended up being quite boring.

Opera House.We started our fifth day with a visit to a History Museum that was yet again across the street from our hotel. The hotel had a really great location if you didn’t notice a pattern on your own yet. Anyhow — the tickets from the Viking Ship museum that I wrote about early also included admission to this museum.

Viking Museum.Lots of Viking stuff inside. And a bunch of other exhibits. Definitely was worth a visit, especially for “free”.

City Hall.After that we went to city hall again and actually explored it inside this time. A bunch of different stuff to see.

City Hall.And then we went to Aker Brygge — which I wrote about earlier as well. We looked through a bunch of menus and settled on an Asian restaurant with some really good curry. Everyone enjoyed their lunch.

Lunch at Asia restaurant.After the lunch we went onto the opposite side of the bay to explore Akershus Fortress — a really short walk. The fortress was quite big and we had a lot of ground to cover. We walked upon some pond that kids ended up playing at for a good while.

Pond.While they were playing Chinese tourists started photographing them and pushing them to pose for them.

View of Aker Brygge from Akershus Fortress.I walked over and told them to stop. And they couldn’t care less — like I wasn’t even there. I started getting quite angry and that’s when they finally got a “hint”.

Inside Akershus Fortress.Our kids are very blond and I get that is’s a non-existent thing in China, but come on! On the same note — a lot of Norwegian kids are actually just as blonde. Even in Brooklyn this is kind of rare, in Norway — it is not.

By Resistance Museum at Akershus Fortress.We also visited Resistance Museum on the fortress grounds dedicated to Norwegian resistance of a Third Reich. Arosha knows a bit of history about WW2 so he found the museum quite interesting.

At Akershus Fortress.He is still a bit too little to fully grasp the horrors of that war, but I think he starts to understand it all more and we are trying to do our part of educating him.

Inside Akershus Fortress.When we got back to our hotel we decided to eat dinner at the same restaurant as we did on our first day — Den Glade Gris. This time we decided to try something more authentic. We ordered smoked whale and reindeer sausage.

On our way back to hotel.Eating whale was really mentally hard. Especially whale being pretty much raw. We didn’t enjoy that in the least. Had no problems with the deer though.

Ferry to Bygdoy. Akershus Fortress in the background.On our final full day in Oslo we decided to go back to Bygdoy. There was a large open-sky Norwegian Folk Museum there that we didn’t go to during our first visit. What a good thing the decision to go back was. Probably one of the most interesting things to visit.

Norwegian Folk Museum.First of all it really is quite huge. It has whole wooden villages from different parts of Norway reconstructed. Most of the wooden homes you could actually walk into.

Wooden church at Norwegian Folk Museum.They also had a huge wooden Church that is a thousand years old — pretty much all the rest of such buildings burned down long ago.

Norwegian Folk Museum.At one of the houses they had girls dressed into traditional Norwegian closing backing bread on a stone stove on an open fire. The bread was quite tasty.

Animals to pet at Norwegian Folk Museum.There were different live animals for kids to look at and pet. We also took a carriage ride along the park that our kids talked us into.

Inside one of the houses at Norwegian Folk Museum.Also there were Sami exhibits and actual Sami representative visiting. Sami are the people that live on far north in Norway.

Horse ride.We talked to one of the natives and she told us a little bit about the history of Sami people and even sang us some songs in the native language.

Norwegian Folk Museum.We spent a whole day at that place. Really worth a visit, as I said. And after the museum we took a bus back to city hall via our unused tram tickets that we had left over from our botanical garden visit.

Dinner at Rorbua.We went to Aker Brygge for a dinner again. This time we found a truly Norwegian place via TripAdvisor with very high ratings — Rorbua.

By City Hall.I had shish-kebab-like selection of meat — whale, deer, reindeer, beef and something else. Alёna had moose stew. And some great beer to go along.

City Hall.Grilled whale meet tasted a lot like beef actually. But there is not going to be any more whale meat for me. I tried it, but I’m happy to live with my mental block of thinking that eating whale is just wrong — for me.

Streets of Oslo.But overall this was probably my favorite restaurant that we ate at during our stay in Norway.

Streets of Oslo.And that is it. The next day we went to airport via a special bus that runs right from our hotel and off to Iceland we went.

Kids at Botanical Garden.A couple of side notes: Alёna bought a ton of Norwegian hats, 1 USD was around 8 NOK, everything was quite expensive — Oslo is rated as one of the most expensive cities in the world — which seems true even after New York.

Streets of Oslo.Kids were amazing — walking 5-6 miles daily turned out to not be a problem for them at all. And all in all this trip turned out to be pretty grate. Six days — plenty of things to do.

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Sunday, November 19, 2017

Oslo, Norway — Part 1

The Vigeland Park.It’s been a good two months since we came back from our unusual for us European vacation and I have yet to write a word about our first stop. The unusual part is two-fold — it was the first time that our kids visited Europe and it was somewhat off the beaten path. Although the second part is debatable considering how popular Iceland has become in the recent years.

Getting ready to fly.Now from the start — the flight. I remember our previous trip to Europe and how tough getting to Paris was. Both Alёna and I were completely wiped out by the time we got there. And our flight this time was similar — plane change in Iceland.

Oslofjord.The difference this time was that instead of booking a redeye we booked a flight departing at 2:30pm. And by our math by the time we arrive to Oslo it would be around midnight by New York time which should be manageable for all of us. None of us are good sleepers while on the plane. Quite the opposite actually.

Radisson Blu Scandinavia.Our kids handled it all superbly. They were tired, but they were still up and about, both in good mood, by the time we got to our hotel — Radisson Blu Scandinavia — in the center of Oslo.

Slottsparken -- Palace Park.A small aside to our actual destination — Norway didn’t really happen as a whole. We decide to settle on Oslo because we weren’t sure how our kids would handle too much hotel changes. Full six nights in Oslo. We were wondering if it was going to be boring or not, but more on that later.

Streets of Oslo.We arrived to our hotel at 6 or 7am. That was the second point of our worry. Usually we have little problems with Hiltons with super-early check-in, but this was Radisson. Oslo has no Hilton properties.

Playing at Palace Park.We did manage to get our Radisson status to Gold level which should give us a room upgrade among other things, but we had no idea what we were going to do if we were made to wait until 2 or even 4pm to actually check-in.

Making jewelry out of grass.At the reception we were told that there are no rooms available. Bummer. Gold status speech didn’t help. Having no options I asked the clerk if it would be OK for our kids to sleep on the sofas in the lobby. She told us to hold and went inside the office behind the counter.

Dinner at Den Glade Gris.Five minutes later she came back and told us that they had to take a room away from somebody else — I’m not really clear on the mechanics of this one — but we were getting a room right away. She told us that this wasn’t really proper and that we really need to book a room for the night ahead, but I really can’t complain. No upgrade, a little bit of grumpiness, but we got our 7am check-in. Thank you!

Waiting casually for parents to finish dinner.We got up to our room and got into our beds for a much needed energy restoration sleep. One problem that we ran into was the fact that even though we could completely darken the windows out a good amount of light was still getting into the room from the curtain edges. And interestingly enough that was the case not only with our day sleep, but all the nights as well. North and the middle of summer will do that. White nights.

Palace Park.We slept for a good number of hours — 5 or 6. We got up well rested and quite hungry. We turned to our trusty TripAdvisor for options and discovered a very highly rated restaurant right on the same block as our hotel — Den Glade Gris. I had a pork knuckle, Alёna had Norwegian style salmon and kids had a steak. Everything was good.

Streets of Oslo.Another thing that was really close to the hotel — practically across the street — was a huge park with Royal Palace in the center of it. That’s were we spent the rest of the day. Kids ran around and played, we walked down to a metro station with a large fountain by the National Theater and then back to park and more running. Alёna and I just laid on the grass along with many sunbathing Norwegians. The vacation has started.

Vigeland Park.Now before I start with our first full day in Norway a couple of things on the topic of “boring”. Oslo turned out to be amazing. Every single day we had a different plan be it a museum, a park, some special destination or other — we had no time to be bored. There is a ton of stuff to do and see without ever leaving the city.

Vigeland Park. Monolith.On our first day of Oslo exploration we decided to take it easy and picked an easy-to-walk-to destination of The Vigeland Park. The walk was about 2 miles in each direction. We walked through some small parks, a rather big flea market and just regular streets — taking in the sights of an unfamiliar city.

Vigeland Park.The Vineland Park itself is know for a huge abundance of various statutes created by Gustav Vigeland. And when I say huge I really mean it. Probably hundreds of them. The park also had large patches of flowers and grass. It took a while to explore.

Vigeland Park.On the far side of the park there was a large obelisk which was carved out in a way to make it look like it’s built out of human bodies. This one was also surrounded by various statues.

Zodiac installment.And yet another thing that stood out was a zodiac signs structure. Our kids weren’t really familiar with those yet, so we talked about all the signs we were born under — actually four in a row — Leo, Virgo, Libra and Scorpio. We also have all four elements in our family — fire, earth, air and water.

Kids at Vigeland Park.That was the big part of our day. We decided to eat dinner right by our hotel again — just across the street from it. This time we picked a Spanish restaurant with a high rating. We ordered a large dish of seafood paella — something that we actually failed with epically during our Spanish trip — no offline TripAdvisor back then.

Dinner at Spanish restaurant.We also ordered a bunch of tapas and a pitcher of Sangria. Our kids weren’t all that impressed with paella, even though they typically like rice, especially Arosha. But they did enjoy some of the tapas.

City Hall in the background.And we concluded our day with a trip to a hotel pool and sauna. That was a conclusion of most of our days while in Oslo. At first Arosha didn’t like the sauna, but after I told him some stories about our previous visits with parents and with Alёna and all the good memories he insisted on going every day.

Streets of Oslo. Bygdoy Peninsula.For our third day we had big plans — something we actually planned and researched beforehand — a trip to Bygdoy Peninsula. We started with a walk to Radhuset — city hall — which was only half a mile away from our hotel.

On the ferry to Bygdoy Peninsula.Radhuset it located right next to a pier from which ferries depart to Bygdoy. Also it was close to a neighborhood called Aker Brugge — lots of restaurants of all kinds — a foodie paradise.

Viking Ship Museum.The reason why Bygdoy Peninsula is a great place to visit is the fact that it has 5 or 6 museums in close proximity to each other. For our first stop we decided to pick Viking Ship museum and disembarked our ferry accordingly.

Viking Ship. This one is approximately 1,200 years old.Viking ship museum wasn’t very large, but it did have a nice collection of a thousand year old large “boats” or whatever those vessels are called. The boats were located on the lower level and each one had an observation deck nearby that people could walk up to to look inside.

Viking Ship Museum.There was also a good collection of ancient weapons and tools. We told our kids as much as we know about the Vikings and our kids were quite interested in all those things. Though Alёna and I kept thinking — Ragnar, Ragnar!

At Vigeland Park.Then we stocked up on some very warm Norwegian hats at a gift store and had a fast-food type of lunch at nearby food stand — we actually had crab and shrimp sandwiches from what I remember.

Kon-Tiki raft.Our next stop was Kon-Tiki museum. I didn’t know much about it beforehand and we only found out about it during our pre-trip research. Alёna actually read a book and then her, Arosha and I watched a movie.

At Vigeland Park.Kon-Tiki is a story about a Norwegian scientist from the mid 20th century who had a theory that Polynesia was actually populated by people from South America and not Asia. But the scientific community dismissed it as complete nonsense.

Ferry.The only thing he could do at that point is prove it. So he built a raft and after a 100 year journey with a small group of people they actually reached the island as he had theorized. So that actual Kon-Tiki raft that was used for the expedition is exhibited in the museum. It was interesting to look at the real thing when you know its story. And it turned out to be quite a lot bigger in person than I thought it was.

Fram -- polar exploration ship.And for our third and final museum of the day we decided to go to Fram Museum. Fram is a polar exploration ship from the end of 19th century. It’s actually the only ship that was used to explore both poles of our planet. This turned out be Arosha’s favorite stop.

On the top deck of Fram.The ship is quite large and the museum had it installed in a such a way that you could see it from top to bottom. There were ramp all around the ship and people can actually get to the very top of it and walked on to the deck. And from the deck you could go inside the ship itself and explore its innards.

Fram explorers.We probably spent the most time at Fram. And by the time we were done with that we were feeling quite tired. Although kids still had plenty of energy and they ran around and played around some small tower near the shore while we were waiting for the ferry back.

Fram Museum.We walked back to the hotel again and were going to go to a highly rated Indian restaurant a block away from our hotel. But it turned out to be closed on that particular day and we ended up eating our dinner at an Italian place that was yet again right next to our hotel. Even though it wasn’t very highly rated our kids really loved the pizza at this place and kept asking to go back there afterwards.

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Sunday, October 8, 2017

Iceland — Part 2

Strokkur Geyser.On Wednesday, July 22, we went to our farthest point of interest — Gullfoss Waterfall. I have not researched this place in advance, so its power and beauty took me completely by surprise. There were plans in the past to turn the fall into the power station, but luckily they never came to be. Nowadays Gullfoss is protected by the government, and I hope it stays the same.

Enormous Gullfoss waterfall.We were able to get really close the the waterfall. The path that leads to one of the observation spots is muddy and slippery in places because it gets water mist from the fall. I had to carry Anюta in some places for safely, and Danya held Arosha’s hand, but we have to do it in many American National Parks as well. It was pretty cold and windy, so children and I even wore hats or hoods.

Gullfoss Falls.On our drive to Gullfoss we enjoyed the view of some truly beautiful landscapes. Videos and pictures don’t do it justice. I thought that Iceland will be more bleak and kind of grey mouse-ish, but this little Northern country proved me wrong. Its allure is different from the lush riches of tropical forests or hardy red mountain ranges. It is subtle, yet powerful. The emerald velvety moss covering volcano stones, the grey sunless skies, the sheep and horses grazing on road sides — all of this resonated with me in unexpected way.

Strokkur Geyser.Anyhow, back to our sightseeing day. Our next stop was Geysir hot springs area, where Geysir geyser is located. Geysir was the first geyser known to Europeans, and the actual English word “geyser” originates from it.

Litli Gesir.We watched Strokkur geyser erupt 3 times. It was possible because it erupts very often, every 6-10 minutes, although the eruptions themselves are brief. You literally have to stand around with your camera ready if you want to catch it in the act.

German biker club.When we were walking to the geyser area, we saw a big group of bikers with German biking clubs insignias on their jackets. Daniеl was curious, so he approached them and asked them where they were from and how did they got to Iceland with their bikes. They were very friendly and told us that they were indeed from Germany and that their club traveled to Iceland by boat from Denmark if I’m not mistaken. They also put our children onto their bikes when they saw that the kids were interested.

Geysir.We saw a few more geysers and hot springs, but Strokkur was the most impressive one. The whole area reminded me of Yellowstone, but I have to say that Yellowstone was much more spectacular — I guess, it is just considerably bigger and has a lot more fascinating things to see. But I still was happy that we were able to visit Icelandic geysers. Now I wish it was as easy to get to Kamchatka, but as far as Russian geysers are concerned, I doubt that I’ll have a chance to see them.

Geysir.There was only one food place open at lunch time. We ended up paying $80 for a set of subpar burgers (Arosha claims that he almost threw up eating his portion) and fish sticks. I think it was the worst food experience of our whole vacation if not ever.

Iceland landscapes.We ate dinner at the executive lunge. There was not much choice, but we filled on nuts and snacks and cookies. And it was free.

Thingvellir National Park.On Thursday, July 23, we checked out of Reykjavik Hilton. We had a not too early morning flight on July 24th, so in order to minimize the commute and all the variables associated with driving for an hour, we moved to Keflavik’s hotel, which was very close to our car rental place and the airport.

Continental rift between the North American and Eurasian plates.Before going to the new hotel, we continued with the exploration of Iceland and drove to Þingvellir National Park. Þingvellir is worth seeing for multiple reasons. First of all, you can look at the rift between North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. If I did not know what it is, I would not have guessed, but it was pretty awesome to look at the continental divide equipped with that knowledge.

Trail through Thigvellir National Park.Secondly, Althing, or Iceland’s national parliament, was gathering in Þingvellir for over 900 years starting from 930 AD. This was the oldest parliament in the world, and all the free men of Iceland could participate. I was expecting to see some kind of old building and it took me a while to realize that this used to be different from modern day political realities. No buildings, but just the place to gather, discuss things and make laws. The parliament meetings were held in summer time every 2-3 years.

Thigvellir National Park.We took a nice hike around. The nature was beautiful. There was a small lake with wild gees and the children liked watching them.

Thigvellir National Park.For lunch we bought some vegetarian sandwiches at a local store and they were pretty decent.

Thigvellir National Park.Afterwards we drove to Start, our new hotel. We got a nice big clean two-bedroom suite. Then we drove to car rental place to check how much time it would take to get there from our hotel. It took us 5-7 minutes, which was nice.

Thigvellir National Park.After considering different options for a while, we decided to have dinner at an Irish Pub. To our disappointment, it only served alcohol, so we went to a highly rated pizzeria next door instead. The food at pizzeria was OK, but nothing to write home about. Our waitress was a Russian girl, who studies in Keflavik to be a pilot. She told us that weather in Keflavik is really severe, and it gets so windy in winter time that they have to cancel flights on that account from time to time. It was really interesting talking to her, but she had to attend to other tables. After dinner we went back to the pub and got a pair of nice blond beers.

Keflavik shore line.We took a stroll on the promenade by the water. It was nice, but so windy indeed. I put hats and hoods on the children and wore a hat and a worm coat myself and was still cold. We saw a metal anchor statue and an old decommissioned fishing boat Baldur. It was interesting, but we cut our walk short in fear of getting a cold from the chilly winds.

Anchor statue in Keflavik.On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at a gas station to fill up the car and impulse bought a package of dry fish and two Icelandic beers. Both fish and beers turned out to be mediocre, but they still had a flair of novelty and exoticism to them.

Old fishing boat in Keflavik.There was nothing much left to do, but to sleep. It was a little difficult on the account of white nights and flimsy curtains that did not block all the light, but we managed.

Keflavik.We got up pretty early next morning, had breakfast, which is served from like 3am at this place, and drove to return our car. We had to wait at the car rental again, since we did not fit into the van going to the airport and had to wait for it to get back. Oh well, we still made it to the airport with time to spare.

Our Start Hotel in Keflavik. Anna's bed.Funny thing at the airport is that Danya got confused for and Icelander by local airport staff. When they heard him speaking English, they switched to Icelandic on a few occasions. One of the employees explained to us that Daniеl’s English accent sounds very Icelandic. I too had airport staff starting to talk to me in Icelandic twice, so I wonder if they also thought that I might be local.

Gulffoss Falls.Danya and I think that the reason for Russian and Icelandic English accents being similar is the hard sound “R” which is present in both languages, but is quite different in English. I have noticed the similarity of accents too, and I even thought that our waitress at VOX was Russian before I read her name on the tag.

The flight back was easy and uneventful.

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Friday, October 6, 2017

Iceland — Part 1

Blue Lagoon and silica masks.Our flight to Iceland was on Monday, July 20th. Originally we planned on taking a taxi to the airport from Oslo, but after talking to our hotel’s staff we realized that taking a bus is a much cheaper and more convenient option. There is a FlyBus stop right in front of the hotel, and buses leave for the airport every 15 minutes or so. We saved some cash for the tickets, but apparently paying by credit card was an option as well. We only had to buy two tickets since children were free of charge, plus we got a discount for staying at Radisson Blu hotel. It probably took us 15 minutes longer to travel by bus, but we did not have to wait for the taxi to come to the hotel, so we pretty much have not lost any time.

Hilton Nordica.After a quick check in at the airport, we still had some time for lunch. We ended up eating burgers and drinking Hoppy Blond beers (adults only). The lunch was expensive as all the food in Norway, but it did not feel like there was an airport premium. We had some Norwegian coins left, and Arosha decided to use them as souvenirs. The cool thing about 1 and 5 Norwegian Krones is that the coins have a hole in the middle. When we got home, the children made necklaces and bracelets using krones for themselves and their friends. They were a big hit.

Our Fiat.The flight to Keflavik was relatively short and uneventful. We did have a bit of an issue locating our car rental company representative who was supposed to pick us up at the airport. Danya had to call them and was told that the staff member will be at the airport shortly and we have to look for him walking with the company’s sign. We waited for about 20 minutes after that, which was a little annoying. There were other people who were waiting for the same company, but luckily we were all able to fit into the company’s van. The driver turned out to be Russian by the way.

Our room.We got our car without any hiccups. It was a dark blue Fiat. We paid for the full insurance, but a few things were not covered, such as doors torn off by the wind, or damage done by driving on certain prohibited gravel roads. The wind part was really surprising to me, but I suppose Iceland is really windy. So we made sure to open the doors with caution and to not leave them open. Also, there was a sandstorm in the area, so not buying a full insurance was too risky.

Sun Voyager.After approximately an hour long drive we got to Hilton Reykjavik Nordica Hotel. When we were booking our stay, the biggest room that we could find was a room with two twin size beds. However, knowing how accommodating Hilton usually is to its Diamond members, Daniеl called the hotel before making a reservation and inquired if it will be possible to get a roll-away bed and a crib into the room. He was told that they normally don’t do that, but they will for us. When we arrived at the hotel, the receptionist did not know about the roll-away bed situation and he said that the room that we have booked will not fit it. However, after Daniеl explained our booking circumstances to him, he upgraded us to a much bigger room in which all the beds fit perfectly. We also got a higher floor — 5th instead of 2nd. Since he had to make some changes, we had to wait for about 20 minutes. The receptionist went out of his way to make us feel welcome and gave us two sets of drink vouchers, which was very nice of him.

Sun Voyager and Arosha's sneeze -- the only pictures we have.Everyone was tired and hungry, so we’ve decided to eat at the hotel’s restaurant VOX. It was pricey, but it had a Michellin star rating, so it was supposed to be top notch. I ordered salmon for myself and for the children — they shared one adult portion, and Danya got fish and chips, which at $35 were the most expensive fish and chips that he ever ate. The food was good, but not as spectacular as I was hoping.

Shore line.The next day we had Blue Lagoon reservation at 18:00, so we did not want to drive anywhere far in the first half of the day in order not to be stressed about making it to the lagoon in time. Exploring Reykjavik seemed like a perfect thing to do.

Building stone towers.After breakfast we got into our car and drove for about 15 minutes to the city center. We parked close to the waterfront, payed a very reasonable parking fee and schlepped to see Solfar, or Sun Voyager, metal boat sculpture. It is one of Reykjavik’s landmarks, so naturally there were plenty of people around it taking pictures. We participated in this activity as well. By the way, I’ve noticed that there are different parking zones with very different pricing. If we were to park next to the statue instead of parking across the street, we would have payed 3-4 times more for the meter.

Concert Hall.Next point of interest was Harpa concert hall located nearby. We took a walk down the waterfront promenade — Danya and I used the paved path, but the children preferred to run and jump on boulders next to the water. They spotted spiders and their webs from time to time and were really excited about those. The sea, the skies, the shore looked sort of milky grey and very serene. Reykjavik on that day elicited a peaceful feeling in me, like I was suspended in a big, soft, melancholic and dreamy cloud.

Streets of Reykjavik.When we reached tall glass building of concert hall, Danya went to take some pictures of it, and I stayed by the water with the children, who really wanted to build some stone sculptures. There were plenty of such sculptures already in place, so naturally they wanted to add a few of their own. It was fun to watch them busy at it and I wish we had something similar close to our home.

Hallgrimskirkja.After this we went to see Hallgrimskirkja — a modern church, which also happens to be the tallest church in Iceland. Luckily for me, Danya is so good with maps and finding his way in new places. I think I would have struggled so much if I had to locate all the landmarks by myself. Anyhow, the church looked fine, but it did not leave any special impression on me.

Shore.We walked through the streets of Reykjavik for a little while, visited some souvenir and clothing stores and started looking for a nice lunch spot. I have to say that prices in Iceland are very steep. Three t-shirts from the souvenir store cost us $100, and we did not buy any of those nice looking wool sweaters because they were $200-400 each. I did get a hat and a pair of really warm gloves for myself though (we got a bunch of hats for the kids in Norway) at a very reasonable price.

Soups for lunch.We ended up eating soups in bread bowls for lunch. We got lucky getting seats in the little restaurant, Svarta Kaffid, that was serving them. We got the last available table, and by the time we were leaving the waiting line was impressively big. Danya found this place on TripAdvisor, where it had an excellent rating. The restaurant only served two types of soup — vegetarian curry and Hungarian meat stew. Arosha and I got curries, and Danya and Anюta got stews. Everyone except Anюta liked their soups — me and Danya shared for variety as we often do. The price per soup bowl was $18.

Streets  of Reykjavik.After lunch we walked around the shopping streets of Reyjkyavik for a little while longer and headed back to the hotel for quick rest before heading out to much anticipated Blue Lagoon.

Streets  of Reykjavik.We arrived at the lagoon 15 minutes ahead of time, but got in without any queues or delays. This time of year it does not really get dark in Iceland. It gets a little darker for a few hours when the sun goes down, but never gets pitch black. I have to say that it presented certain difficulty for us at bed time, especially in the beginning of our vacation in Norway, but as far our lagoon experience went, we enjoyed the day lighting conditions in the evening hours.

Entrance to Blue Lagoon.By the rules of Blue Lagoon all guests are required to take a full body shower without any clothes on. Naturally, there were separate gender specific showers, so Danya and I got one kid each to shower and to change. The staff recommended to amply use hair conditioner and leave it in to minimize the effects of silica, which apparently makes hair all dry and unmanageable. We did just that. Luckily, individual showers had doors, so people could minimize being naked in front of strangers. Some people felt perfectly fine being naked in the crowd though. I think it’s probably more of a cultural than individual thing.

Path to Blue Lagoon.Anyhow, when we finally got outside, we jumped into the water right away since the air itself was freezing. Oh boy, it was pleasant! The water was so hot indeed, that at some point the children got a little overheated and jumped out for a few minutes to cool off. The water was milky white in color and it was 98-104 F in temperature. The temperature varied in different places, so we would feel it change from hotter to less hot spots and back up as we walked around the lagoon. The children got free floaters to wear, which was nice. There were steam and dry saunas available — we checked them out, but did not stay in either one for long.

Blue Lagoon.There were also free silica mud masks included in entrance fee, so Danya and I tried them on. We were offered by Blue Lagoon employees, who were sitting on the raft in the water, to have our picture taken on their iPad and get it e-mailed to us. We happily agreed. Oddly, many people who see those pictures think that our mud masks are a thick layer of sunblock. I don’t remember by now if my skin got smoother after the mask, but it probably did as it does after all similar products.

Streets  of Reykjavik.I was surprised to learn that this lagoon was man-made and is fed by water from the geothermal power plant. But on the other hand, the plant just uses the natural occurrence to produce electricity and then re-uses the water for the lagoon, so in a way it is not truly man-made after all. The water is rich in minerals by the way and supposedly is very good for the skin, especially psoriasis. I think that one visit certainly does nothing to improved any skin condition, but it’s pleasant to know that you’re bathing in something health-promoting.

Executive Lounge.We spent close to three hours soaking in the wondrous Blue Lagoon. The whole family really enjoyed it and was sad to leave this unusual place.

We arrived at the hotel totally wiped out, so dining in VOX was the easiest option again. Anюta got really cranky after falling asleep in the car, and she barely ate anything. In addition, she lost her favorite toy bear somewhere on the way from the car to the hotel room and we could not find it no matter how much we looked. It was very sad since she adored that bear so much. Arosha got it for her on Valentine’s day sale at school and she was absolutely in love with it for the longest time. For the record, the bear’s name was “Кленовый Сироп и Небо” and now he lives in Iceland. Oh, and Arosha only had $2 for that sale and he spent them all on the gift for Anna and nothing on himself. Just a side note.

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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 Daniеl’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 Daniеl and his dad were both helping me out most of the time. Also Daniеl’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 Daniеl 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, Daniеl 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. Daniеl’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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