Tag Archives: vacation

Vacation! Part 2: Tanks, Horses & Hot Dogs

4 Nov

 

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I find nothing says, “Welcome, Americans” like a tank in front of the Parliament Building.

We arrived Vienna on Wednesday, after exploring Budapest for 3.5 days. People had cautioned us that Vienna was really expensive and the least interesting of the three cities we had on our itinerary, so we entered with low expectations… and were pleasantly surprised!

Our first full day in town was their big state holiday: National Day. Having googled it, I now know that they’re celebrating their declaration of permanent neutrality and regained status as an independent and sovereign nation in 1955. Before googling, I would’ve thought that it was a celebration of all uniformed professions, with an emphasis on the military, because we woke up to a town swimming in soldiers. Ironically, with troops marching in formation everywhere around town, it made it pretty easy to imagine Nazi-occupied Vienna.

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In an attempt to get our bearings (and fill in the gaps in our knowledge of Austrian history), we took a free walking tour. Maybe on another day, it would’ve been a superb tour, but on this day our guide (named Franz Joseph, like the former Austrian emperor) seemed to be phoning it in. I’m going to go out on a limb and say he may have overdone his patriotic celebrations the night before and was nursing a monster hangover; he offered little by way of historical facts and instead spent the tour making cracks about the Austrian military’s ineffectiveness and the inbreeding habits of the royal families.

While we’re usually not quitters, with a limited amount of time to explore this grand city, we decided to cut our losses and ghosted mid-way through the tour. We used the money we would’ve tipped a good guide to instead get fancy coffees and Kaiserschmarrn (an Austrian tradition!) on the patio of Café Mozart. Perhaps the best decision we made in Austria!* 

I couldn’t talk Alan into seeing an opera (I KNOW, right?!) but he was interested in seeing the famous Lippanzer horses, so we grabbed tickets and took in a practice session, which, as it turns out, should more accurately be named, “Horse Walking.” The practice consists of four 30 minute blocks featuring six different horses and riders in the ring at a time. A few horses were actually working on tricks (like weird little dance steps or balancing on their rear legs) but most of them seemed to be tasked with the basics, like walking close to a wall. While it certainly wasn’t riveting theatre, it was still interesting to learn about the Spanish Riding School and the training process. And it was raining outside, so… not the worst way to spend the morning.

Speaking of rain: on our way to the flea market (Naschmarkt) for lunch, the skies opened up and dumped on us. We arrived at the market just as the rain started falling in sheets, and took shelter under the awning of a fish stand where we ordered a basket of fried shrimp. Our intention was to lazily eat our way through the market, but there’s nothing relaxing about eating in the middle of a downpour where hurricane-force winds are driving the rain sideways at you. On another day, it would’ve been a great plan. Instead we ended up bailing and running in a restaurant across the street to dry off and split a plate of fish and chips. So much for channeling Anthony Bourdain.

Speaking of plans gone bust: I’d read that heurigers (quaint little estates where they have weingartens that also serve food) are a uniquely Austrian experience. I thought hitting one on our last day in town would give us a reason to check out a different part of the area, since some are a tram ride about an hour outside the heart of the city. After navigating a tram-line under construction (which called for a partial detour using the subway), we arrived in Nussdorf with high hopes.

Alas, the first one we went to had a sign on its gate indicating that it was closed all day for a private event. Boo. Fortunately, there was a second heuriger in town (and on the same street) so we shuffled along. Unfortunately, it ALSO had a sign on its gate, but we couldn’t figure out what it meant. I tried using Google Translate’s photo app on my phone, and the resulting (obviously incorrect) translation had us raising our eyebrows: “Nazis – attending – pay – listen.”

I was like, “Whelp. I think that means we probably should just keep walking.” Alan was undeterred, so he opened the gate. We found ourselves walking through what appeared to be the backyard of a home, which lead to a room that looked like a restaurant. The back door to the apparent restaurant was open and a woman was washing tables. It seemed pretty obvious that whatever the sign said, they weren’t open for business. Alan cheerfully proceeded, not at all concerned that we might be intruding on a Nazi lair. I pointed my toes toward the gate, ready to take off.

Turns out, it wasn’t a Nazi lair, but it also was closed for the day. We cut our losses and instead found a quaint local restaurant where we were able to split a delicious pork roast with a single potato dumpling the size of a tennis ball (weird) and a bowl of cabbage with bacon.

A word on food: If you are a fan of meat and potatoes, central Europe is your friend. Our trip featured multiple meals of schnitzel, sausages, goulash, and stroganoff. My pick for the best hot dog: Vienna. The street vendors will drill a hole in a baguette and drop a foot-long sausage down the hole with either ketchup or mustard, then put the tip of the loaf back on top like the sausage is wearing a hat. Delicious!

 

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This is where the magic happens. 

 

It was ambitious to try to hit three cities in 10 days, but I’m glad we took the time to stop in Vienna. On Saturday we said, “Auf Wiedersehen” and headed to the train station for our four hour trek to Prague.

*Clarification: I would’ve said that the best decision we made in Austria was asking a stranger to verify that we were at the correct train station when we had only 3 minutes to make a connecting train to Prague, but technically that happened in Breclav, which was just across the border, in the Czech Republic. More on that – and the frantic tossing of baggage off the train – later. 

 

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Look Ma – I’m flying!

5 Apr

Chopper ride over Oahu

Anyone who knows me knows I hate flying. I’m convinced that I’ll meet my end in a fiery blaze of jet fuel.

When we started planning our trip and I asked Alan what he absolutely wanted to do in Hawaii, his response was immediate: Helicopter ride.

My response was equally fast: All you, buddy.

Then a few things conspired to change my mind.

  1. Alan began guilting me. “If you’re ever going to do it, Hawaii is the place.”
  2. Alicia told me she had a few solid “posts from the grave” ready to go for Facebook, such as:
    1. Worst helicopter ride ever.
    2. Don’t do it – see my Trip Advisor review.
  3. My friend Brent hooked us up with his friend who is a pilot/instructor in Honolulu and flies with the fire department. There’s a vote of confidence.

So it was that we found ourselves lifting off over the water on Wednesday afternoon for a loop around the island with Joey, the pilot, whose calm demeanor did a lot for putting me at ease.

Because pictures are worth a thousand words, I simply offer you this:

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When it rains it – ZIPS!

1 Apr

Ziplining at Climbworks Oahu

Our first full day on the North Shore started with a walk along the beach, a brief wander around Waimia Valley and a run to the grocery story. By noon, I was starting to get my first inkling of “I want a nap!” just as it started to lightly mist outside. Within minutes, that mist had turned into a full-on downpour and Alan and I sat staring at each other, wondering if we should give in to the urge to nap.

Answer: NO! When you’re on vacation, you milk every minute out of it. (At least, this box-checking, spreadsheet keeping person does.) Relaxing and sleeping are NOT the same thing.

So we brainstormed things that would be fun to do in the rain – and decided that ziplining was the way to go. We headed to Climbworks Keana Farm, signed a rather extensive waiver and got strapped into our gear.

Foolishly, it was only as we climbed to the top of the first platform that it dawned on me that there might be an aspect of this that was mildly terrifying. I couldn’t pinpoint if it was the height or the fact that my entire body weight would be suspended from a cable using just one point of contact. The weigh-in they’d performed upon arrival suddenly seemed less embarrassing and more alarming.

As soon as I had this realization, I began scrutinizing our three guides – all appearing to be in their 20s and potentially having a taste for weed. Did I really trust them to attach me to a cable correctly? At this point, my heart began to race, and I hadn’t even stepped off a platform yet.

By the time I arrived on the other end of the first zipline, my mouth was dry and my knees were weak. I obsessed over watching the guides clip people to the cable to make sure they were doing it right. Nevermind that – thirty minutes prior – I’d had no idea what “right” even was.

Fortunately, the course is long so I had ample opportunity to shake my jitters so I could actually enjoy the ride. And once I did? Yee haw!

Perspective on a zipline

The course consists of seven zip lines, two repels, a rope bridge and one climbing station. It’s spread out over sixty acres and starts at the top of a jungle-like mountain and works its way back down to ground level, taking you over the tree canopy along the way so you can soak in some pretty spectacular views of the mountains and the ocean.

At times you’re zipping 120′ in the air, and the longest line is over five football fields long, so you can really pick up some speed – and have a chance to look around.

The guides ended up being completely professional and hilarious. We had a trio of Tyler, Andrew and Cami, and they made the three hours pretty fantastic. There were about 10 people in our group, and they did a great job creating a friendly vibe so we all felt “in it together” even though we were strangers.

There were a few mis-steps along the way – like when I came in a “bit hot” (read: too fast) and almost kicked the receiver in the balls. Here’s what it looks like when you’re worried you’re about to sterilize your guide:

Climbworks Keana Farms

By the end, we were zipping backwards and upside-down. Even people who had admitted a fear of heights had broad smiles on their faces. And we only ended up getting rained on a little bit.

All told: awesome first full day on the island.

Next up: Pearl Harbor brings WWII to life for us. Also? Our obsession with the shaka. 

Travelogue: Aloha!

30 Mar

Aloha from Oahu!

You’ve probably gathered that I work for a pretty spectacular company and am one of the few people who can say that I love my job and mean it. I realize you probably want to stab me, so I’ll just add fuel to the fire: one of the perks of working for my organization is use of a beach house in Hawaii.

Not too shabby right?

Which is how Alan and I found ourselves at DCA at seven o’clock Friday morning, checking in for a flight to Oahu by way of Seattle. And how – a mere 19 hours later – we were standing at the luggage carousel in Honolulu, watching as a lone bag made its victory lap, my own bag no where to be seen.

I was trying to reassure myself  when a representative from Alaska Air approached. “Are you Alison?” I nodded. “Your bag is on the next flight arriving from Seattle, which gets in in two hours.”

I wanted to cry. It was 8:30pm Hawaii time, which meant that in my world, it was 2:30am. I hadn’t slept on the flight and was deliriously tired. Alan wisely persuaded me against having the airline deliver the bag to us in the morning. “You’ll sleep better with your own clothes and toothpaste,” he argued.

Finally, I acquiesced, so we headed to Waikiki to burn an hour while waiting for my bag to arrive. Waikiki was low on my list of places to see, so I was completely fine knocking it out while I was tired and just needed to kill a bit of time. Check. I’m fine if we never go back.

Two hours later, we retrieved my bag (yay!) and were bound for the North Shore, where we’d made reservations in Haleiwa via AirBNB. Although I was so tired I wanted to stab someone at the time, it probably was the best thing for reseting our clocks and shaking jet lag. We crashed at midnight and got a solid eight hours in – and have been running on Hawaiian time ever since.

Lesson: Thank You, Alaska Airlines for losing (then quickly finding!) my luggage.

Well, it probably didn’t hurt that our lodging was right on the Ali’i Beach. It’s hard to wake up angry when you’re looking out over the Pacific.

Next up: What to do on a rainy day on Oahu?

 

Travelogue: Carmel-by-the-Sea

3 Nov

We arrived in California today for our week-long vacation. Everything went smoothly until we went to pick up our rental car. For some reason, the line at Hertz was worse than airport security. It took 50 minutes of standing in line before we were given a car assignment. But if that’s the biggest complaint you can lodge after a full day of travel? Not bad at all.

When we went to retrieve it, the car was NOT in slot 161 as promised on our paperwork – so a scavenger hunt commenced to find it. Finally it turned up – a grey Malibu with no pick-up in slot 282.  Maybe this was karma’s way of paying us back for driving through a flash flood in Charlottetown, PEI last year and almost ripping the underbody off our rental.

Oh – I haven’t told you that story? Another time. Still waiting for the statute of limitations to expire.

Once we got our car, we zipped out of town, heading to Carmel, about two hours south of SFO on the Monterey Penninsula. If you’ve never been, it’s an adorable ocean-side town with cute shops, tasting rooms and restaurants that all look amazingly homey. The architecture probably has something to do with that – the town has a funky Bavaria-meets-smurf-cottages kind of vibe. Don’t believe me? Check out these photos.

We were starving when we arrived – with the time difference and the flight, it was approaching 7pm Eastern time and our last meal had been a 9am burger at the airport Five Guys. Fortunately, I’d happened to check TripAdvisor before we tumbled out of the car, so instead of blindly choosing the first place that looked halfway good (and there would’ve been no shortage), we made a beeline to Dametra Cafe.

It’s funny – neither Alan nor I were particularly feeling mediterranean food, but the TripAdvisor reviews were so overwhelmingly positive, that we felt we should give it a go. I’m so glad we did – if I were dying, I might make a special trip to this restaurant for my last meal.

Let me set the stage. The place is tiny. There are approximately 18 tables which can each seat two people. The decor is simple but warm – it feels like you’re a guest in someone’s overly large kitchen. Perhaps part of why you feel like you’re in someone’s home is because of the hospitality the owners show.

Bashar, one of the owners who also serves as the host, welcomes everyone who sets foot into the place as if they’re a friend, placing his hand on your shoulder while he looks around to see if they have a table for you. Unfortunately, the answer to this query is usually, “Sorry – we’re completely full. Do you have a reservation?” Alan and I somehow managed to snag the last unreserved table (probably because we arrived 4:45pm) and felt incredibly lucky every time we heard him turn away another couple.

This photo doesn't do it justice.

This photo doesn’t do it justice.

After spending a ridiculous amount of time debating what to order, we decided to split two of the most basic Greek staples: spanikopita and chicken kabobs. It was the right decision. They were so different than any other version of those foods I’d eaten before that – had my eyes been closed – I wouldn’t have recognized them. The spanikopita was huge – imagine getting served two perfectly golden, flaky poptarts sprinkled with sesame seeds and filled with garlicky spinach hugging little gems of salty feta unlike any feta you’ve ever tasted. Delish.

They split our entree in the kitchen, bringing us each a generous plate with rice, Greek salad and a kabob of chicken, tomatoes and onion, drizzled with a garlic aoili. This sounds like a boring line-up, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say that it was amazing. The chicken was beyond tender, and I don’t know what they marinated it in, but it was magical. The homemade salad dressing and the aoili completely transformed the meal – and I’m normally very finicky when it comes to sauces.

Midway through our meal, as we were marveling over how something so simple could be so mind-blowingly good, we heard someone begin to tune what sounded like a guitar. Then, from the kitchen, Bashar emerged, playing some kind of Middle Eastern guitar, followed by two servers banging drums. They shuffled through the small restaurant playing and people rose from their tables to begin dancing. It was like a party had just broken out, and everyone was up for it. It felt like being included in a secret.  Here’s a snippet:

When we finished our meal, they brought us a plate with complimentary baklava drizzled with honey and whipped cream. I had no room for it, but managed to choke it down since it is tied with fried ice cream as my favorite dessert of all time. One our way out the door, we thanked Bashar for having us. “Every time you turned away someone, we felt so lucky that we had managed to snag your last table,” Alan told him.

Bashar countered, “No – the luck was ours. We were lucky to have you dine with us tonight.” And with that, he asked our names and said he hoped to see us again soon. And like a good host, he truly seemed sincere.

After dinner we walked down Ocean Avenue and it’s adorable cottages to the beach. We arrived just in time to catch the tail-end of the sunset as we smelled the wood smoke from various bonfires dotting the beach. Not a bad way to end our first day of vacation, though it does set a high bar for the rest of the trip.

Sunset in Carmel