Thursday, December 31, 2009

Cruising into 2010 - Happy New Year!

Each new year brings the promise of new destinations. . .new deals. . .new discoveries. . .new friends who share a passion for travel. . .books to be read. . . and maps to be studied.

We've been watching certain Australian/Asian cruises for several months now -- by monitoring the fluxation of prices on a variety of internet sites, such as CruiseCon, and Vacations to Go, from whom we receive emails regularly announcing sales and deals from all cruise lines. Then when a particular cruise really hits our fancy we turn to our friends at a web-site where we remain anonymous while obtaining price quotes on that particular cruise from cruise specialists from throughout the country, who respond to our request.

And yes, the prices do differ - sometimes by hundreds of dollars for the same cabin categories. We thought this balcony cabin was a great deal at $125 per night on Holland America's transatlantic crossing last spring; and friends, using a different agent, booked the same cabin 10 doors down for $100 per night.

Our continuing recommendation to friends who are new to cruising - sometimes heeded and other times not -- is to get quotes before booking your floating adventure. We've saved money and had on-board credits, shore excursions and parties as result of shopping around. In fairness, sometimes the quote is no better than that given by agents we have dealt with in the past, in which case we end up returning to the agency we've previously used. . . but we have found deals by shopping around.

Before we book any cruise we routinely refer to where we find a comprehensive report by Cruise Critic staff on ships, and extensive cruise ship reviews by fellow cruisers and information on the cruise line industry and ports of call. keeps tabs on all aspects of the industry and in a recent update noted that 15 new cruise ships will be debuting world-wide in 2010 in cruise lines ranging from Holland America and Costa to Norwegian and Cunard.

For cruise bargain hunters like us, they predict cruise deals will be harder to nab as prices are heading back up to pre-2009 levels. Sounds like there will be deals in the shoulder season and for last minute (gotta fill the boat) bookings.

for now we continue to ponder prices and cruise destinations. As the year goes along we hope to hear from you about your travel plans and recommendations. Here's to 2010!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Vegas "Deal-ing"

We are taking a Vegas sunbreak thanks to Expedia ( dealing up some good prices on packages. We'll fly round-trip, on Alaska Airlines ( from Seattle, staying four nights at Wynn for $808 - total package price for two. It was a winning hand for us.

We probably should have tried one of the new City Center hotels ( the $11+ billion, 68-acre mega-development on the Las Vegas Strip between the Bellagio and Monte Carlo, but decided to stay loyal to Wynn, where we have consistently had great service, enormous rooms with floor to ceiling windows that provide expansive views such as the one I added to this post. (For those not familiar with Vegas, that space-age like structure at the bottom of the photo is the entry to the Fashion Show Mall.)

City Center began its phased in open this month so we do plan to explore the hotels there: Aria, the hotel/casino with 4,004 guestrooms, 16 restaurants and 10 bars and lounges; the non-gaming Vdara Hotel and Spa, which brought a total 1,495 new suites to the Vegas inventory; and the Mandarin Oriental, a combination of 392 guestrooms and 225 residences - and six restaurants.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Seattle: America's Most Literate City

Seattle, our neighbor to the west, has reclaimed the title of America's "Most Literate City" it was reported in today's Seattle Times newspaper. In an annual survey that has been conducted since 2003 by Central Connecticut State University, the Emerald City has reclaimed the number one spot. Seattle was first in number of bookstores per 10,000 population and fourth in library usage.

It's worth visiting the Seattle Public Library because of its architectural fame alone. If you find yourself in town, make it a point to drop by and explore the structure. Another stop for book lovers is The Elliott Bay Bookstore, ( the near legendary independent bookstore, that for decades has been located in the city's southcentral Pioneer Square area. This spring the store will be relocating to a new Capitol Hill location, on 10th Ave. between Pine and Pike. Although the location is new, the building is vintage Seattle; built in 1918 and complete with squeaky wood floors. The new location will have space for a cafe and author's speaking area.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Countdown to 2010 Olympics

Washington State is as giddy over the upcoming 2010 Winter Olympics as are our friends to the north. Those in our tourism industries are hoping to catch a bit of the spotlight as it sweeps the Pacific Northwest landing on the host city, Vancouver B. C.

I noticed the Bellwether Hotel ( about 50 miles to the south of Vancouver in Bellingham, WA is in the spirit, offering an Olympics package: At the Gold level your three-night stay for two persons includes a personal town car service to and from Vancouver and other goodies, starting at $6,300. The Silver will get you the same length of stay in an Executive waterview room and a daily shuttle starting at $1,320. At the Bronze you also stay in a waterview room but you are on your own for transportation. That starts at $669.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Cruise News: Cunard's World Cruise

One of our favorite website's Cruise Critic ( reported last week that a couple from Leeds, England who had been guests on the high-end Cunard cruise lines world cruise in Jan. 2008 had sued the company because of the bad weather they experienced along the way, the sleepless nights they had experienced and for resulting health problems. They had paid nearly 100,000 in US dollarsfor the cruise.

A Yorkshire Court awarded them $80,000US in refund and additional $36,000 in damages. Need I say Cunard is appealing the judgement? Read the article on Cruise Critic for details of the couple's complaint. Any one who's ever cruised will find it good for a chuckle.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Austin: Strolling through History

It is easy to stroll through history in Austin, with only a word or two of caution: sidewalks are uneven in places as mighty Oak tree roots have shifted cement slabs in certain sections over the decades. The town also has a strange way of sloping sidewalk handicap access points at a street corners - making it easy to trip over curbs in places you thought should be flat. And sidewalks sometimes have stairways and elevated sections in them. This is only worth mentioning because there is so much history to see on a simple walk through town that it is hard to pay attention to the surface on which you walk.

The Historical Commission has done a thorough job of telling the story of Austin's buildings by posting signs on those of historical significance. Stop by the Visitor's Center on 6th Street and pick up a brochure if you don't want to set out on an uncharted course of exploration.

Among our favorite historica buildings were The Driskill Hotel ( just off Sixth St. and The Austin Club ( on Ninth St. The hotel, built in 1886 by cattle baron Jesse Driskill, has 189-guest rooms in its Historical and Traditional wings. We began our weekend days with breakfast in its cafe/bakery and ended them sipping locally brewed beer in its bar. The Christmas season kicked off while we were in Austin so the enormous lobby with its columns and marble floors had a centerpiece tree that stretched to the ceiling. We found its food and beverage prices reasonable, if not on the inexpensive side for a luxury hotel; a tumbler-sized glass of fresh squeezed orange juice was $4 and a pint-sized brewskie $5.
Three blocks away, The Austin Club, is housed in the one-time Millett Opera House, built in 1878 by Captain Charles Millett. Over the years the Opera House has hosted legislative sessions, political conventions, dances and roller skating. The building is now owned by the Austin Independent School District and is being leased to the private club.

The Club's website offers a link to the history of the club and the building. One of the stories it features is that of "Priscilla" the Third Floor Ghost. As the story goes, Priscilla, was an opera singer who fell to her death from a catwalk above the stage on the night prior to her wedding. Periodic Priscilla sightings have been reported by both guests and employees over the years.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Keep Austin Weird

There's an unofficial slogan they use around these parts, "Keep Austin Weird". They have it on bumper stickers, key chains, shirts and other tourist items. It didn't seem that weird to us until we spotted this great pig-mobile parked downtown on a Sunday afternoon. A speaker I heard joked that he had spotted a bumper sticker in Houston that read, "Keep Austin 150 miles from Houston".

Monday, December 7, 2009

Austin: Hook 'em Horns

Texans are known as enthusiastic football fans. So much so that a book Friday Night Lights was written about their high school football mania and subsequently led to a television series in the U.S. We had our own taste of Lights Saturday night when the University of Texas at Austin Longhorns met the Nebraska Cornhuskers in their Big 12 championship game. As West Coast Pac-10 football fans we thought we knew football fan support . . .wrong!

The Texas Horns, as they are called, 'hooked 'em' in the final second of the game with a field goal. Score: 13-12. We were standing (three deep) as tables and booths were packed in Champions in the Courtyard by Marriott when the magic moment occurred. As the football passed through the uprights, I am sure seismologists thought it was an earthquake when a city-wide cheer swept through the area - with an epicenter in our cafe/bar.

We strolled through a very quiet campus Sunday morning and these two statues to the side of their enormous Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium caught our attention. One shows the longhorn as a calf being greeted by a young girl depicting the joy and learning ahead of them and at the opposite side of the courtyard is their mighty longhorn mascot.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Austin: A chilly reception

That title refers only to the weather! My earlier post of 300+ days of sun and December temperatures in the 60's is not to be believed. They were anticipating snow yesterday, yep y'all, snow. Thursday night they announced schools would be shutting down at noon - just in case. Joel reports seeing a few flakes. However, the sun finally reappeared and the temperatures continued to drop. Last night's temperatures were predicted to be 24 - 35-degrees.

Locals we've chatted with more than make up for the chill outside. They are warm and welcoming and more than ready to visit. Tourist bureaus everywhere could learn from this city whose unofficial motto is "Keep Austin Wierd". We've seen an ecclectic mix of cowboy, urban hippie, business folks and visitors as we've bundled up in long johns and layers of clothing to explore this pedestrian-friendly Capitol of the Lone Star State.

Tonight the town welcomes Christmas with songs and celebration. Christmas carols will be sung on the steps of the Capitol. It was refreshing to see a Christmas tree in the chamber of the House of Representatives. Instead of arguing about symbolism, as our state does, here they are celebrating the state of Texas with each representative having an ornament on the tree with a scene depicting the area they represent. For example, Tyler, known for its roses, has a beautifully decorated globe with red roses on it.
And none of this Happy Holidays - this morning the man in front of me at Starbucks turned and wished me in no uncertain terms a "Merry Christmas!"

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Cattle, cowboys. . .and wine?!

We know its reputation and claim to fame is live music, but the fact that Austin is in the heart of Texas still conjours up images of the ol' Wild West. . .cowboys and cattle, blue jeans and boots with spurs. Wine country didn't really come to mind.

But a bit of research prompted by a recent article in the New York Times took us to the web site of the Texas Wine Trail ( Austin's location is perfect for wine country exploration through the Texas Hill Country, which is home to some 24 wineries. While we won't have time to explore the trail, we'll make it a point though to sample some Texas vino while visiting some of Austin's wine bars like Cork & Co. or Max's Wine Dive. With names like that we can't pass them up.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Washington's Winter Getaways

The folks at Friday Harbor House ( on San Juan Island are offering up two cleverly-named packages that are going into our 'traveler tickler' file, the place we store good ideas about places we have not yet visited. This 23-room hotel has an Eat, Drink and be Jolly package starting at $239 a night, (two-night minimum stay required) that includes Continental breakfast and two 60-minute spa treatments - facial or massage - followed by milk and cookies in your room. Also included is a CD of holiday tunes. While that package runs through Dec. 31st, another even more tempting is the 0ne-night Curl Up with a Good Book package that includes a $30 gift certificate to a local bookstore and hot chocolate. It runs through April 30, 2010 and starts at $229 a night.

The nose-numbing crisp winter air of Central Washington tempts at Stehekin, the tiny hub nestled on the slope of the Cascade Mountain range at the tip of the 55-mile-long glacier-fed Lake Chelan. Stehekin Landing Resort ( has become a favorite summer/fall destination but unfortunately, they don't rent rooms in the winter. We don't have the equipment - nor desire - to camp in the snow. Two cabins are available for rent so we may just round up some adventuresome friends to join us in this mountainous wonderland where the winter days are short and the piles of snow tall. If nothing else a day trip aboard the Lady of the Lake to the Landing for a bowl of steaming hot soup may be in order. For more about Stehekin in the winter, check out my article in the Seattle Times, November 26, 2009.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Headin' to Austin

I'll be writing y'all from Austin, Texas, 'the live music capital of the world', next week. While the trip is prompted by a conference I am attending, we tacked on a weekend stay to explore a bit of this part of the Lone Star State. After three weeks of continual Pacific Northwest rain and wind, we are looking forward to a place that also boasts 300 days of sunshine a year and average daily December temperatures of 62F.

If the town is half as much fun to visit as its Visitors and Convention web site (, we will have a great time.

Founded in 1839, it sounds like there's a lot of history to be found there. Two free guided walking history tours are offered each week; one of Congress Ave./6th Street (Thurs - Sat. 9 a.m. and Sunday 2 p.m.)and one of the Bremond Block Historic District (11 a.m. Saturday and Sunday). All we need do is register 48-hours in advance by calling 866-GO-AUSTIN.

Getting to Austin will be a snap as Alaska Airlines ( just started non-stop service between Seattle and Austin, (every day but Saturday when they loop passengers through a San Jose, CA, connection to get back to Seattle). Alaska's introductory fares are starting at $119 each way.

We'll be staying at the Courtyard by Marriott at the Downtown Convention Center. The conference rate of $185 per night drops to $135.96 AAA rate per night of our weekend stay. However, a friend who just returned from Austin reports even better deals; she nabbed a 4-star hotel in downtown Austin for $105 a night, including taxes, on

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Honolulu: Surf's up and prices are down

We started planning the January get-away several months ago by locking in the dates of our Marriott Vacation Club stay at Ko Olina near Kapolei but later when booking the airline decided to tack nine nights in Honolulu on to the front end of our stay. For two years we've rented a condo at The Banyon but this year our dates and its availablitiy didn't match. After following up on suggested alternatives, we found they either lacked in location or view or they are owned by people who haven't yet heard there is a slump in tourism.

Hotels were a different story: The Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort & Spa ( that two years ago had January city view rooms at $269 per night currently is offering a $144 (AAA rate) per night. That seemed an incredible savings until Joel, this travel duo's researcher, found the Hilton Waikiki Prince Kuhio, ( located on the same intersection as the Banyan and Marriott, had ocean view rooms for our January time period at $99 per night. We booked it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Kitron sipping in Naxos

I neglected to say much about the Greek Island of Naxos, the last stop on our itinerary-less fall trip only as result of lack of time and technology. But this, the largest of the Greek Cyclades, shouldn't be overlooked for a number of reasons - one of which is sipping Kitron (Citron) a drink only distilled here.

In appearance the citron, appears to be a large, oversized lumpy lemon. The story goes that it was introduced into the Mediterranian region back in 300 BC by Alexander the Great. Believed through the centuries to have medicinal value and reputed to be a symbol of wealth and fertility, its popularity grew to such proportions that citron groves nearly blanketed the entire island.

Today the island has two major producers and the limited production pretty much limits availability to the island. It is great for souvenirs. The key ingredient to the drink are the citron tree leaves, not the fruit. The family-run Vallindras Distillery opened in Halki town in 1896 and continues to use the old method of drying the leaves, then mixing them with alcohol and water in a boiler heated with olive wood fires; ultimately adding water and sugar to the mixture creating the popular drink. It is worth a visit when you are on Naxos.

Our nightly ritual for the three of us -- Joel and I and Rob, the traveler from Australia with whom we forged a friendship as we hauled suitcases up the hill in Folegandros -- was to sip a Kitron (or two) at Kitron Naxos, a popular waterfront bar, across the street from the marina. We had actually begun our nightcap tradition in Folegandros, sipping Greek raki, and we continued the ritual sipping Kitron in Naxos.
Kitron comes in three versions: green with the most sugar and least alcohol (30%), clear, which tastes somewhat like Contreau (33%) and the yellow which has the least sugar, most aroma and alcohol (36%). We liked the yellow best - although each was good.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Wynn-ers In Vegas

Our Pacific Northwest location allows us to head to SeaTac, hop a two-hour Alaska Air flight and be in Las Vegas in less time than it sometimes takes to drive across the state of Washington. So it seemed the logical destination last week for a quick trip to 'see the sun' now that the winter clouds and rain have arrived here.
This trip, like two before it, took us to Wynn Resort and Casino, just across The Strip from the greatly expanded and upgraded Fashion Show Mall. While Wynn was offering some good room rates, Joel found the best deal on Expedia ( where we got the same rate as offered by the hotel as well as a $100 resort credit, which wasn't available by booking direct. Wynn's spacious guest rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows provide expansive views out to the mountains. ( As shown above - our room was on the 23rd floor, not quite half way up the building and provided great views of the fountain light show as well). And its casino has penny slot machines that can keep one entertained for hours because they pay out often enough to keep us non-gamblers happy.

For some the thought of Vegas still conjours up images of dark, dank, smoke-filled casinos but that isn't the case these days. Casino resorts offer high end clothing, jewelry and shoes, restaurants feature the menus of culinary award-winning chefs and pool areas and spas are the perfect relaxation havens.

Window shopping at Caesar's Forum Shops and strolling through Bellagio's plant conservatory are always on our itinerary; both provide great free entertainment. Fall was in the air at the conservatory.

Another way to save money in Vegas is to stop by one of the many half-price ticket outlets that dot The Strip. Tix 4 Tonight ( offers discounted tickets to shows and for dining. We nabbed a good deal at a Paris steakhouse on our last trip down by just standing in the (sometimes lengthy) half-price ticket line at the Fashion Mall.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Paris Postscript: getting around

There's no better city for strolling than Paris with its long, wide tree-lined boulevards and narrow sidestreets that twist and turn past centuries old buildings. We've strolled on snow dusted sidewalks in March, through downpours of rain in late October and under rays of intense September sun ~ and it ranks as our favorite way to see this city. These strolls are perfect for window shopping, my two favorite stores being the floral shops

and, of course, the chocolate shops' art displays.

While we love the strolls, it is nice to hop the Metro to get back to the hotel when the weather is particularly nasty or our throbbing feet tell us the stroll has become a hike. It took awhile for us to get the hang of the efficient mass transit system coming from an area of the Pacific Northwest where the addition of lightrail was this year's headlines. Now we find using Paris's underground system as easy as the guidebooks told us it would be. Paris Visite passes are available for single or multiple day use and single tickets are sold in carnets or packets of 10 tickets. Because we like walking we opted for the carnet, which we purchased at the Metro station. The carnet at 11.60E ($17.40US) was a savings over the single ticket price (1.60E each way) of 16E ($24). Tickets can be used on RER trains in the city, buses and Metro. Bus 69 is recommended in tourist guides for inexpensive sightseeing -- and it is -- but we've found every bus to be a great sightseeing route.

Batobus, ( operates river boat taxis that travel the Seine making stops at eight notable locations in Paris, including Notre-Dame, Louvre, and the Eiffel Tower. A day pass, that allows hop-on, hop-off stops is 12E these days. Multi-day passes are also available. From the back deck of the boat you can get some great photos although the glass enclosed walls and ceilings can get a bit steamy when sitting inside with a large group of other tourists.

We traveled from Charles de Gaule (Roissy) airport using the Air France bus, Les Cars, ( You don't have to fly Air France to use the bus. We made a rather costly decision to buy two one way tickets at 15E ($22.50US) per ticket instead of buying round-trip tickets at 24E ($36US). The bus makes several stops in the city; one of which was two blocks from our hotel. We had considered taking a taxi to the airport but as our desk clerk pointed out, both bus and taxi will get stopped in the commuter crush - so the taxi wouldn't get there any faster - but its price isn't set as is the bus.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Paris Postscript : L' Entrecote

A chance conversation with a couple of Pariseans while sipping a glass of rose in our neighborhood bar led to one of the best dining experiences we have ever had in Paris. The young couple suggested we try , "L' Entrecote" a place popular with locals and tourists alike. Their words were echoed by our hotel clerk, so we set off to find le "Le Relais de Venise son l' Entrecote" at 271 boulevard Periere, Porte-Maillot- a place, they said, is known for its 'special sauce'. The legendary sauce was created in 1959 by Marie-Paule Burris and her father.

We arrived at the restaurant at 6:40 p.m., twenty minutes before it opened for the evening's dining. There were only four others outside the restaurant when Joel read the hand-written menu posted outside the door. Not wanting to perpetuate the image of Americans -- who eat unfashionably early -- we went down the street and nursed a small glass of rose, finally giving in to hunger and returning to the restaurant at 7:20 p.m. In that 40 minutes the place had filled. Jam-packed filled.

We sat shoulder-to-shoulder, with other diners, our tables only inches apart. The only thing we had to decide was "rare, medium, or well-done" and the rest is taken care of by teams of efficient wait staff. We were served a green salad with walnuts before the entre: steak frites, french fries and a cut-it-with-your-fork rib steak drenched in an herb sauce that lived up to decades of accumulated accolades. Wait staff whirled around the crowded room, but kept a watchful eye on their assigned diners, as the moment we finished this first plate, they returned with platters from which they served us a second round.

And of course, we had to try a dessert; a delightful artery-clogging, calorie-laden Profiterolles Chocolat a plate of ice cream filled puffs swimming in dark chocolate (almonds are good for you though, I reasoned):
We had this gastronomical romp for 69E, just over a $100US which included a bottle of house wine. It was one of the best food buys we had, particularly when 1E = $1.50US. When we left at 8:30 the line of people waiting to eat their stretched into the street:
Reservations aren't taken at this place but we recommend it highly no matter how long the wait. We dined at the original restaurant location, however its website says it is now open in Manhatten and Bahrain as well.

Paris Postscript: Rue Cler

We were introduced to Paris a few years ago while staying in the 7th Arrondissement's (district's ) Rue Cler because Rick Steves', the Edmonds-based travel guru, recommended it in his guidebook. Rick didn't steer us wrong. Settled in to one of the hotel's he recommended, we were charmed by the area's street markets selling everything from fruit to flowers on the pedestrian-friendly two-block stretch of street. Cafes, bars and bakeries line the street, providing a backdrop to street merchants. It snowed often during our week-long stay and temperatures seldom got above freezing that March, but the merchants bundled up and sold their wares.

This trip we stayed in the 17th Arrondissement, a new favorite part of town; our hotel a block from the Arc d' Triomphe, but we couldn't resist a Sunday morning stroll through the Rue Cler. Paris street markets are open until 1:30 on Sunday then close until Tuesday morning, so the place was packed with shoppers. And despite the joke that it has become Rick Steves' Rue Cler, packed with tourists, we visitors were few and far between.

In addition to the vendors the organ grinder kept the atmosphere lively much to the delight of children drawn to his music. Just a bit further down the block this kid stole the show.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Bagless-Lady - did it work?

The question had been: could Joel and I spend five weeks traveling out of two carry-on-sized roller bags and two Baggallini totes while visiting two distinctly different places: Greek Islands (sandals, shorts and tee-shirts) and Paris, home to haute-fashionistas?

The answer is - YES! But not everything worked as planned, so for those of you head-shakers, here's the skinny:

Our plan was to carry our bags on to the planes, as one was the size of a large purse and the other a cabin-size-approved bag. For that reason we took no toiletries that couldn't fit in that miniscule quart-sized baggie, planning to buy what we needed once we arruved. The plan worked for our British Air flight and was resoundingly dashed by easyJet, the low-cost European airline. They make their money on the extra charges so one bag - of whatever size- means one bag. So we paid to check the roller bags 16L each ($26US) going and 22E ($33US) on our return.

We ended up still buying the toothpaste, mouth-washing and toiletries that we could have brought from home. First, lesson learned: plan on checking bags.

Our wardrobes, while not having the variety of the home closet, were more than adequate. We each took one pair of shoes (to wear in Paris) and a pair of Clark's ( unstructured black walking sandals for Greece. They are by far the most comfortable shoes we have worn on our travels and my pedometer tells me we walked more than 100 miles while gone. Mine are un.hull ($100, weighing only 6 ounces) and Joel's un.mast ($120- weight 9 ounces). Two downsides: my feet are now suntanned in zebra stripes, but now back in the Pacific Northwest, no one sees them. We were also prevented from taking some of the wonderful hikes in Greece as these two styles didn't quite have the tread to tackle the trails. Next time we will pack hiking sandals as well.

I could have taken fewer tee-shirts and a second pair of shorts. But not having the shorts led to one of our funnier shopping experiences at a farmer's market in Crete. We each decided to buy a pair of unisex (hiking style) shorts for 5E ($7.50US) a pair. The little old lady selling them had me try mine on over my clothes in the middle of the pedestrian walkway (blocking traffic ) and insisted the large that hung to my knees fit perfectly. I ended up purchasing a smaller size!

My Paris wardrobe was black - everyone it seems wears black with a scarf. I had two scarves - more than enough for five days. I was approached by a lady who asked a question of me in French and seemed surprised to learn I spoke English - my wardrobing must have worked. My Paris outfits came from Chico's ( Zenergy line. I found it to be lighter weight than their Travelers and also dried much faster. I had two pair of pants, a lightweight jacket and a heavier rain-coat (worn in the photo). All took up so little space in the suitcase that I am sold on them for all travel now.

The Baggallini ( bags we took were my small Around Town ($74.95, 8" tall, 11"wide and 4" deep, 14 ounces) which fit nicely into the larger Only Bag ($69.95, 10"x 15.5"x 7.5", 20 ounces) The smaller bag fit into the zippered center section and our Acer Aspire One netbook (2.7 pounds)slipped easily into one of the outside pockets that snapped to close. Baggallini was founded in 1995 by two fomer flight attendants. Their products have served me so well that I may never use a conventional purse again at home or while traveling.

I've noted weights on this entry because the reality of European travel is that you are going to be carrying your bags into tight places such as metro cars, airport shuttle buses, over uneven sidewalks, and often times up and down stairways. Metro stations are always interesting with usually a modern escalator going up or down and stairs going the opposite direction. I counted 60 steps, spread over three flights of stairs, at the metro station in Athens near our hotel. Train and Metro stops are often quick and marked with crushes of people jostling each other to get off and get on. Fellow passengers are not sympathetic of tourists attempting to haul huge bags into the cars.
I am now thinking about 'next time' and ways we can further save weight and space. I'll let you know when come up with the next plan.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Autumn in Paris

Leaves are falling but the trees on the grounds of the Royal Palace were still shades of green and gold this afternoon. Just down the street the flower beds were filled with lavender and white blooms. The sun was out but just a hint of a chill in the air. Rain is predicted to return tomorrow.

A toast to Paris

So many champagnes and so little time. The photo on the left is of just one of the hundreds of window displays showcasing more champagne brands than one can imagine. The other is of me with one of those bottles. I couldn't resist the temptation. Bottle prices are reasonable, in fact, less than back home in many cases. Champagne by the glass in local bars and restaurants we've been to ranges from 10 - 12 euros; about $15 - $18; making the decision to buy a bottle much easier.

Since our room doesn't have a refrigerator we've chilled our champagne on the window sill; the crisp fall weather was a perfect device for doing so. We added some of the fresh raspberries we got at the street market and toasted our stay in this fabulous city.

Numerous guidebooks say that wine (that doesn't include champagne) is cheaper here than water. Today at lunch we ordered two salads and 'still' (tap) water. Silly us. . .we thought tap water was free; not so at Fauchon, the trendy shop that sells wine and other tasty items. We paid 5 euros or $7.50 for it.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Marche Poncelet - Saturday morning market

Thought you'd like to join us at our Saturday morning market walk today: Marche Poncelet, about five blocks from our hotel. I chose fruit and cheese to tempt your taste buds.

Bon Jour from Paris!

I am sitting just inside the top left hand window writing this post from Paris. We arrived at our hotel at 8 p.m., our delay thanks to the Orly ground-handlers strike was only about three hours. We are in Hotel Cecilia, a charming three star hotel about two blocks from the Arc de Triomphe.
It is a rainy, cloudy day here and the leaves are falling. Definitely a change from the month we have just had in Greece. We put on shoes and socks for the first time since mid-September today; rather a confining feeling but good for jumping rain puddles.

Credit card safety tips -

We spent the first couple of hours in Athens cancelling the credit cards that Joel had in his wallet -- several locals told us that generally the bad guys take the cash and toss the rest, but to be on he safe side, we cancelled the cards anyway.

Prior to the trip we had notified the fraud department of each company of where we would be traveling so that they wouldn't put a hold on the card when activity showed up from places outside our normal circle. What we didn't do was to verfiy the phone number to use should the card get stolen. Turned out the numbers on the back of two of the cards weren't valid; one had been changed, one was an 800-number that only worked in the US. (They have collect call numbers to use outside the US). We used our laptop to access their web sites and get correct numbers, but could have saved much time had we had the numbers with us.

What has saved us real inconvenience is that I have a credit card account in my own name; Joel isn't on it. I had it and we are using it for the remainder of the trip. I also had a card for each of the accounts we cancelled which provided us the number of the account to cancel. Single travelers should keep credit cards in different bags and make sure you have copies of the card numbers somewhere other than on the card.

We will have new cards waiting for us by the time we get home.

Welcome to Athens: pick-pocketed

While we have met some of the most incredibly kind people along the way, we also have now experienced some of the world's worst: pickpockets. Throughout the world we have encountered folks who told tales of taking precautions and being on alert for criminals and still were crime victims. Guidebooks tell you to be on the lookout as well. We have usually been obsessive-compulsive about theft prevention. But we've now joined the ranks of pick-pocket victims.

Subway trains, tourist attractions, crowded shopping areas are all ripe for the picking (pun intended) and we usually are on high alert when in those places. I have a lock-hold grip on camera and purse, with bag clamped under the arm. Joel has hand in pocket and similar grips on bags. But we weren't on high enough alert in Piraeus as we caught the metro into Athens.

Hindsight is 20-20. I thought the man that blocked my way out of the doorway and down the isle was simply being rude. He continued to be 'rude' to Joel not letting him move past with suitcase and bag. I was so focused on Mr. Rude that I didn't pay attention to his two sidekicks; one of which removed Joel's wallet from his pocket so swiftly that he didn't realize it was gone until they had hopped off the train at the first stop out of the port.

I can tell you I am no longer the nice traveler on metro trains or buses; look at me for more than 30 seconds or glance at my purse, and I am likely to start swinging my umbrella at you.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Off to Athens

We head to Athens on Thursday after a far too short a stay in Naxos, another delightful island in the Greek Cyclades islands. After all my writing about short notice hotel bookings, we found a boutique hotel on line that sounded so good that we booked it several days in advance just to make sure we had a room in it. So much for advance bookings -- after we had it confirmed, they wrote yesterday saying they really had no room and we were out of luck. We are now booked in another boutique hotel, this one only 400 meters from the Acropolis. So we may have inadvertently lucked out again. More details to follow on the hotel after our arrival.

We travel there by ferry leaving at 9:30 a.m. and five hours later arrive in Piraeus.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Baptism

Baptisms are second only to weddings around here - very important and very special and for that reason the entire town turned out for the baptism. Anna told us we were invited, we all went. We joined the townsfolk in the climb up the hillside walk to the cathedral and attended the ceremony in the cavernous Greek Orthodox Church.

Angels among us

As I left the previous post I was considering ditching myself or the bags at the side of the road on our hike up the hill and into town. . .after all Joel had pointed out, it was only 3.3 kilometers up the hill and we walk that much all the time. . .

A car passed us, slowed and came to a stop and the man from Spain hopped out of the passenger side telling us to pile the bags (and me) into the car - a lady from town had agreed to give them a ride and since bags and people didn't all fit, the bags got shipped as well as me. Joel and Rob would follow.

The lady, Anne (Anna) I've decided is one of those angels among us that seem to suddenly appear when you need them and then do incredible acts of kindness. She deposited three of us and our bags at the appointed spot but when we asked for a hotel recommendation she winkled her brow, had an animated chat with two ladies sitting on a balcony above and said, "I am sorry there are no accommodations." A bit of a problem as the next ferry was the next day.

Finally after much conversation with the ladies Anna said, "I have a hotel. It is closed but I will open it for you." She took the three of us into her car again (and the two ladies watched the bags) to show us her hotel. It is absolutely spectacular with views of the town and see and surrounding hillsides.

The reason the few rooms still open were not available was because a baptism was being held Saturday night and guests from all over had taken anything that might have been available. So the five of us have become Anna's guests and had the hotel to ourselves. Today she insists that she take us to the ferry, she wouldn't hear of us riding the bus.
The hotel is Ampelos Resort ( and is owned by her brother who lives in Santa Rita CA and owns Ampelos Cellars, a winery in Santa Barbara CA.

As a side note, the article I had clipped didn't fully describe this magical place. We all have vowed to return again and hopefully in the not too distant future. Photos are of our hotel and looking down from the town (I wasn't joking - it is high in the hills).

Sunday, October 18, 2009

No reservation? No sweat. . .

Actually our trip to Folegandros has proven that statement incorrect. . .we did sweat a lot, quite literally, on this segment of the trip. Folegandros, as I wrote before, is a Greek island we booked ourselves to pretty much on the basis of an article I had clipped from the Seattle Times and an outdated guidebook entry we read in Santorini. Folegandros is on the cusp of tourism with delightful small resorts, rooms to let and a selection of restaurants found in the maze of the Kastro, a maze of small alleyways past plazas, homes and businesses in what was once a Venetian village. We had been warned in Santorini that we might find limited accommodations here this late in the season.

We were among a dozen or so who got off the ferry at the port - most went to waiting cars. But five of us went in search of the bus - the one we all had read met each ferry. After 20 minutes the realization was clear that the bus that would take us up the 3.3. kilometer stretch to the town wasn't coming. Our band of five had made introductions while waiting and we consisted of a couple from Spain, a man from Australia and the Smiths.

At the news finally that the bus wouldn't arrive for nearly two hours and with rain clouds threatening, three of us decided to walk, make that hike, to the town. That is where the sweat comes in. Under cloudy skies, in muggy conditions we began the trek, looking much like donkeys as we pulled our suitcases like carts and laden with those ' lightweight' Bagallini bags, I've been bragging about throughout the trip. After 30 minutes I was trying to remember what the symptoms of heart attack or stroke areas my heart pounded and the sweat dripped. (sometimes being a traveler isn't pretty).

This photo is of Joel and our now new friend Rob from Australia. . .as we set off for town.

Island Life

When we started planning this extended stay, we were counting on low season (end of the tourist season) rates to keep the budget from going bust. Joel had anticipated room rates at 50 to 60 euros a day. The current exchange rate is 1E=$1.48US. We've been pleasantly surprised to find accommodations at below that rate; the most we have paid per night was in Iraklio at 52E per night and the least in Santorini at 28E per night.

We've had no itinerary so therefore we've had no reservations with the exception of our start in Hania and we made a reservation in Iraklio just to be sure we were within walking distance of the ferry terminal. We had debated between a 90E per night hotel and the one we booked for 52E - we were upgraded to an oceanview room with a wrap-around balcony that provided stunning views of the harbor and coastline. We made the reservation the day before we arrived.

I am writing this post from a two-story home we have occupied since our arrival in Folegandros (that will be the next entry). We have enjoyed this unstructured island lifestyle - but as I've said before it isn't for everyone. Those who need to know where they will be would be most uncomfortable traveling with us. We've chatted with some American tourists on the ferry who have relied on their travel agent to plan their trip and haven't even looked up the hotels to see where they have paid to stay - that type of travel is not for us.

I can imagine some of you are wondering what kind of accommodations can be had for only 28E per night so I've included photos of our room and view at Manos Villas in Santorini . We had television, air conditioning, a pool and hot tub there.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Folegandros bound. . .maybe

While searching our file folder for ferry schedules we ran across a clipping from the Seattle Times travel section that I had been saving since last July about an island, Folegandros. Turns out to be the island that we view from our deck in Santorini. So we headed to the travel agent (they are the ones who sell the ferry tickets) and booked ourselves there, with plans to leave on Saturday morning.

While it is a great example of going where the winds blow us this trip, it may be the winds that keep us from getting there. A tremendous wind storm is currently raging its way through Santorini, kicking up dirt from the fields and whipping trees with gusto. So we may not leave if the ferries don't go tomorrow. Will keep you posted on where the winds take or leave us.
The photo is sunrise over Folegandros and the one of us was taken en route to Santorini on the ferry from Iraklio

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Greek beach wear

Several of you have asked about the one bag packing we've done and how it is working. Again, photos say it best. This one of Joel shows not only the versitility of the tee-shirt when worn on the head, but also reflects the carefree attitude we've adopted here. Rick Steves had best watch out -- we may be able to do even a better packing job than he does. By the way, the beach was pretty spectacular -

Monday, October 12, 2009


It is our last full day in Elounda, tomorrow we head to Iraklio (Heraklion) the port city where we will return our rental car, and spend a night near the harbor so we can catch the early morning ferry to Santorini, the connector island for ferries coming and going to Crete. We think we will spend a couple nights there -- everyone says we should -- and then probably head to Naxos, Paros or Hydra en route to Athens. We've tabled Rhodes (I think!) for this trip.

The weather forecast up north is for some clouds and temperatures in the 70's, cooler than our 80's and 90's here and cloudless skies.

We've lucked out with our accommodations - they've been cheap, clean, well equipped and v ery comfortable and have provided great views such as this one we see each morning before the sun peeks over those hills.

Cretan road trip

We've called this the trip with no set destinations, and it might now be best termed the Cretan Road Trip. We are at the end of three weeks here, our original thoughts were for a two-week stay, but we had underestimated the size and beauty of Crete. We are already talking about the need to return and visit the mountain towns we haven't yet seen, and return to our favorites we''ve found along the way.

The road trip has been fantastic - but it is not for the faint-hearted. There is a single national highway here that links the west and east coasts. Then there are main roads and then secondary and then dirt. The roads leading over the moutains are two lane roads, most paved, some with guardrails, and some without these are main roads, all good - once you get used to the pavement width, and sheer drops to the side. The roadways are like ribbons looping and twisting down sharp inclines. . .the cars are all small - thank goodness. There are some turns that are so sharp, you shift into low, coast around corners and brake - praying that a bus or large truck isn't coming the other direction.

Tourists and locals all seem to respect the dangers of the roads so they drive responsibly. We had only two instances of thinking the car coming at us was losing control and might take us over the edge with him. It obviously didn't happen.
Our steepest, curviest road looked rather straight on the road map but had me putting finger imprints into the passenger door and seat before we finished the wind down the hill. We also followed one coast road that had appeared on the map as a dirt road but was nicely paved if not somewhat narrow with a drop over the cliff into the crashing waves. . .we were feeling pretty smug, until we rounded a corner and found that the paving hadn't been quite completed. It made for a tense few kilometers but a most spectacular vista spread out before us as each turn (and thank goodness we met no other car on that stretch).

We've dozens of photos taken from the passenger seat but the two I am including show a fabulous stretch of road we found on a plateau high above us - another winding no-guardrail road got us there. The other was coming back from the beach yesterday. There was water -and road.

From ruins to raki

We are finding that from ruins to raki, some of our travel 'bests' are free.

The photo I included with this post was taken in Kissamos, a port town in the northwest of Crete, where we had stopped for afternoon coffee. These types of excavations have become 'typical' street scenes in our travels. Many have posted explanations and others leave it all to your imagination. The Kissamos archeological museum is filled with pottery, statues and incredible mosiacs that took us back centuries. There was no entry fee.

Similar excations are found throughout Hania, which got its start as a Minoan city of Kydonia in 1450BC! Its old harbor reflects the buildings of its Venetian occupation in the 13th Century and to the east of the harbor the old Turkish Quarter of Korum Kapi provided winding walkways and interesting sites.

On the south coast we visited Frangokastello, a remarkably well-preserved Venetian fortress, built in the 14th century to protect from pirate attacks. You visit there free of charge; no staff, no guards, no bag checks. It overlooks a beautiful white sand beach that draws busloads of tourists to it and the beach chairs nearby.

Raki, is a clear distilled liquor of this country. It is served in miniature pitchers and drunk from thimble-sized glasses after meals. Usually it is served with some Cretan specialty like honey cake - as a thank you from the restaurant to you for having eaten there.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Flavors of Greece

I've written about yogurt and honey so it is time to add a bit more about Greek food. It has been fantastic! We are eating ripe, red, juicy tomatoes and crisp cucumbers in the Greek salads, each served with a wedge of feta cheese on top. I've given in to my love of moussaka and am making the most of it at every opportunity. Joel has taken a fancy to the slow roasted chicken that comes swimming in a broth of olive oil and lemon juice. And of course, we haven't been able to pass up the pita gyros - so large they make a meal. I'll let the photos tell the story here.
And in keeping with my food-focused travel writing, check out the article appearing in the Thursday, Oct. 8th Seattle Times, about our tasting trips in Washington State this summer (

Kalespera from Elounda

It is afternoon in Elounda (e-loon-da) on the north coast of Crete and it is in the 90's today. We finished our travels along Crete's southern coast yesterday morning and a quick 39 kilometer drive later we were back on the north coast. My last message to many of you was that we planned to head for the hills. . .of course, the winds changed direction again right after I wrote that and we continued our drive along the south coast stopping in charming seaside villages, walking spectacular lengths of sandy beaches and watching waves crash against sheer rock cliffs in other places. The scenery is so everchanging and startling that our vocabulary of late has been,"Oh Wow!" or "Look!" and our heads swiveling like periscopes.

What is amazing to us is that we have both a sea and mountain view no matter where we have been on this island. And the views just never stop.

We planned a an overnight stay in Elounda and have again fallen to a place's charms and have extended for at least three nights, perhaps more and will do day trips from here for a few days anyway.

Taking the recommendation of Lonely Planets guidebook we stopped at Corali Studios ( and lucked out with a no-show guest having left a beautiful waterfront studio for us to rent - again at a mere 40E per night. We have a view of Spinalonga Island - one of my 'novel' destinations, the bay and down the coastline.

A beautiful pool area is behind our complex and it is time to head there. . .more on Spinalonga later.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Honey and yogurt

We can't get enough of the two. If you've never tried Greek yogurt think of eating cream cheese and you've got an idea of the consistency. Then add to it a smokey, thick amber honey, seasoned with the wild thyme flowers that bloom here twice a year. We purchased our honey from the lady who owns the bakery in Hora Sfakia -- her husband, the baker, is also the one who bottles the honey twice a year. We've saved an enormous amount by having breakfast in each morning and also by having our own honey and yogurt creations.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...