Thursday, September 30, 2010

Dog Days of September - Greek style

We couldn't resist the charms of the street dog we named Amiga, after a similar charmer who came into our lives during the Mexico days. . .
Amiga, our Poros friend
  And because our paths crossed during our brief visit, Amiga is now one of our travel treasurers - those memories that will linger long after we've returned to the Pacific Northwest.

Amiga and a fellow street dog entertained us
Our Grecian Amiga seemed to appear one evening while we were dining.  And the next day she showed up as we walked along the quay; much further south of where we had been when we first met her. She seemed so well-fed and cared for that we didn't suspect she was a street dog until last night when she brought several of her 'street friends' to entertain us at the restaurant where we were dining and ultimately was chased away by the owner.

Then she decided she'd be my 'guard dog' and watch -- or sleep on -- my Bagallini purse. (Another use for those all purpose bags!) All the street animals, cats and dogs, were well cared for on this island.  I suspect it is through the animal welfare efforts. This donation can was next to the visitor information booth :

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Bus,Train, Plane, Bus, Boat: Poros

Flying Dophin High Speed ferry - last leg of our journey here
Our Big Adventure has begun.  This post is being written in Poros, Greece, an hour from Piraeus by fast boat; 2.5 hours by slow boat.  We arrived here 23 hours after leaving Kirkland WA. During that time we traveled on our trusty Metro bus to Seattle from where we rode the Link train to Seatac Airport, then flew Delta Airlines to Amsterdam, KLM to Athens, caught a bus to Piraeus and then the high speed ferry to Poros (pictured above).

I have to admit that at about hour 18 we were asking ourselves if such travel is worth it.  We could have stayed home, slept in a comfortable bed eaten better food and not looked like human paper clips trying to sleep in a Delta Airbus 300 or a KLM 737 plane.  As we dashed (quite literally) to three different transfer desks in Amsterdam's airport trying to acquire boarding passes, the question again came to mind.

But then as the KLM flight left the soggy gray skies of Amsterdam for the Aegean's blue skies and sunshine, we knew we were on the home stretch.

Hotel Manessi  Poros is the larg building on the right
 Our hotel, Hotel Manessi,is footsteps from the ferry landing, and just across the channel is the Greek mainland.  We watch the car/passenger ferry yo-yo back and forth from early morning to late at night. We've sipped Mythos beer, eaten the best gyros we've ever had, visited the monestery high up in the pine-blanked hillside, walked for miles along the waterfront and find that it is almost time to return to Piraeus and start part two of the Big Adventure.

The weather turned cloudy and rainy our first full day here - note the cloud cover in the photo below, however, today the sky is bright and the weather extremely humid.
Sunset from our deck
Octopus drying in the afternoon sun will be someone's dinner tonight
Greek cats on Poros lead happy lives it seems

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Life's a Trip

Our life these days is one long -- full of new sights and sounds, places and people -- trip.  And we really do keep our bags in a semi-state of being ready for whatever comes along.

Our upcoming month-long trip has posed some new challenges to our carefree approach to travel. Half of our time will be on a cruise ship and half will be spent vagabonding. We are heading to new parts of the world - unknown fashion, unknown weather so I have been focused more on on suitcases and weather reports ( is a favorite new site) than I normally would of late. 

HAL's Westerdam will take us to these places
I've just read that a portion of our cruise will be to an area of the world (Black Sea coast of Turkey) that seems to be known for gray skies and rain  (what WERE we thinking??!!) 

Our two carry-on sized roller bags are filled with clothes ranging from Joel's suit and a basic black dress for me which should carry us through cruise-ship 'formal' nights to our more usual travel wardrobe of  shorts and sandals. Warm weather, wet weather - got it covered.

We are on countdown to departure:  the part where packing is being done, travel documents being gathered, (checked and re-checked), yard care being arranged, home security is in place, and last minute projects being completed.  My least favorite part of travel are the days immediately before departure.

Joel continues to research possible destinations and routing's for our last two weeks (it was great calling the bank's fraud division to register our plastic and trying to tell them where we would be traveling when we don't know yet).

Greek fishing boat
Unless the Athens strikes cause some major upheaval to our travel plans we will head first to the island of Poros, about an hour's ferry ride from Piraeus, the port where we board our cruise ship.  We've booked ourselves at Manessis Hotel.

And so the adventure begins. . .

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Me Jana: welcome and happy times

Me Jana is an old Lebanese folk ballad sung to welcome friends, share happy times and reminisce about the old times.

Me Jana's patio was perfect for a September evening
Me Jana, 2300 Wilson Blvd., in Arlington, Virginia, is a Lebanese restaurant where friends and I were made welcome, we shared happy times and reminisced about the old. It is a restaurant that we liked so well a year ago that we ate there three times over the course of as many days.  Returning last week, we again managed to squeeze in two visits during our whirlwind trip to Washington, DC.

It was the lamb chops that drew us back. We weren't disappointed.
.Last year we sat around one of the outside tables on each of the warm East Coast evenings we dined there, shared plate upon plate of mezes (tapas) and desserts, while sipping excellent Lebanese wines that we've never found elsewhere. It felt like 'coming home' when we returned this year. 

Accolades are framed and fill the walls (including Zagat).  I am surprised to read on-line reviews noting Me Jana's high prices:  obviously the reviewers haven't dined in Seattle.  From our Pacific Northwest point of view our feast was a steal!  The lamb chops are not to be missed.

Getting there: Hop the Metro orange line and get off at Courthouse station, Me Jana is an easy quick couple blocks away.

We forced ourselves away from Me Jana one evening to return to another favorite; this one in downtown Washington, DC.  The Oval Room, 800 Connecticut Ave. N.W., isn't very far from the Oval Office. And the restaurant's website lists the famous politicians and media who've dined there.  We saw no one of name familiarity; but that could have been because we were so focused on the many flavors and designs of the modern American cuisine created by Chef Tony Conte, that we didn't notice the other diners. 

We, who live in Pacific Northwest coastal cities, admit to being 'fish snobs' and ask questions like, "Is this wild or farm raised?"  We like 'em wild out in these parts.  So when our delightful, young waitress answered our question about the salmon, saying it was farm raised near Maine and saw our response she quickly added, "it is a boutique farm!"  Our burst of laughter had her trying harder to explain that the chef would only use boutique salmon which only made it more humorous.

A boutique farm raised salmon might be worth a try but none of us could bring ourselves to do it. 
However, Chef Conte's roasted beet salad will call me back again when in DC; hopefully I'll be lucky enough to be served by the same waitress.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Doing DC in a Day

It's possible to 'Do DC in a Day."  I just did it Monday, but I know I had but a teaser of all the city had to offer . . . there's a lot more out there to see - next time. I was in our nation's capital for a conference and had most of a day for sightseeing - thanks to flight and meeting schedules not meshing.  So, with temperatures in the 80's and blue skies above, I set out to see as much of  Washington D.C. and its neighbor where I was staying, Arlington, Virginia as I could in a few hours.

DC' area Metro Map got me where I was going
I used  Metro which provided a cheap and safe alternative to a taxi.  DC, however, could learn from Paris where a simple carnet (ticket) system gets you where you want to go on the Metro.

But with the help of some very nice humans who work for DC Metro, I mastered their computerized ticket machine (figure out destination, then figure out fare, then load money into machine to load ticket). I should have purchased a day-pass which would have simplified the purchase and saved me money. Even with help, I didn't quite do it right and  ended up spending more than I should have, but for my $8 (the pass was $7, a fellow tourist told me) I had a great afternoon's outing.

(Note:  After last fall's Athen's Metro pickpocket experience, I enter any big city train with arms firmly wrapped around my bag and ready for battle. I noticed on this subway, women with large bags wide open -- one woman had her wallet sticking out of the top -- and no one seemed to pay any attention to them - except me; I was flabbergasted. Maybe there is something to their 'safe form of travel' claim? Still made me nervous seeing all those open bags).

The Washington Monument from the Metro entrance on The Mall
I love DC. Emerging from the depths of the Metro tunnel (and it is a deep one) on to The Mall, I was again reminded of why: 

The U.S. Capitol

My afternoon was filled with the sights and sounds along The Mall. It cost me nothing more than my Metro fare.  And speaking of fare, we ate some of the best culinary fare I've had in a long time. Guaranteed to make your mouth water, watch for my next post.

This carousel has operated on The Mall since 1967

Monday, September 20, 2010

Summer Post Scripts

Seattle as seen from Elliott Bay

I took this photo of the Seattle skyline in September a few years ago as we crossed Elliott Bay en route to Bainbridge Island.  I can assure you, this September looks nothing like it. 

Sunshine has been scarce all year and now both the the leaves and rain are falling; evidence that summer's teaser  is over and autumn approaches. We just read  that El Nino is promising a wetter-and-colder-than-before winter.  All the more reason to start planning future travels.

But first, a post script to summer:

* I'm pleased to report that unlike Godot, our missing British Airline miles arrived in our Alaska Air accounts shortly after I wrote about them (such timing, huh?). Bottom line:  if the miles don't appear, let the airline know and don't give up on getting your credits. It's a good reminder of how important your loyalty is to the airlines.
* Bill Kitson, the British crime mystery writer whom we met while he and his wife, Val, were the small village of Loutro,Crete last spring, has a fourth book heading to the printing press and scheduled for a not-to-distant release.  If you missed his guest post about Harrogate, England on this blog go back and check it out. You'll be tempted to visit.

* Our 'armchair travels' during the lazy days of summer included a trip around-the-world with Seth Stevenson, as chronicled in his book,Grounded.  And after Stevenson's references to Phileas Fogg's journey prompted us to go find the book; we enjoyed Fogg's journey in Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne.  First published in 1873, the story not only provides a great travel yarn, but also a wonderful window into the world back then.

* Our long drawn out cruise-related contemplations that have entertained us all summer long, can sometimes backfire. One of our cruise stops is in a country that requires a visa if you aren't on one of the ship's official tours (we couldn't make up our minds on which of those to take) and now find the reasonably priced tour (about $60-70 per person) is wait-listed.  Next tour is in the hundreds of dollars per person - if we don't clear the wait-list we may see that country from the deck of the ship. 

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Olympia: an Overlooked Travel Treasure

Sometimes we are slow to discover the travel treasures we have within a couple hours' drive from home.  Such was the case with Washington's capital city, Olympia.

Olympia, State Capitol in Background
It was a friend's wedding reception that drew us to this city on the banks of Budd Bay at the southern end of Puget Sound. And it was the clear-headed approach of 'don't drink and drive' that kept us there for an overnight stay.  As a result  we've added another travel treasure to our list.

Olympia, a city of 40,000+, swells when our Legislature is in session but shrinks to a delightful small-town size after the sine die gavel cracks.  It was so small town, in fact, that our search for a place near our motel to have a glass of wine at 9:30 p.m. on a Saturday night was futile. Olympia goes to bed early.

Our quick trip didn't give us enough time to explore all that Olympia has to offer:  there are guided tours of the Capital Campus, and other guided tours of the town and campus offered by Oly WAlks; there's the Olympic Flight Museum, the State Capital Museum and the Hands-on Children's Museum.
Old State Capitol Building
We did have time to take a late afternoon stroll through the downtown and sip coffee at Batdorf and Bronson, 516 Capital Way, coffee purveyors since 1986.  We paused to admire the Old State Capitol, 600 Washington St.  This stately 1892 building - now home to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction's offices - was our state capitol from 1903 - 1927 while our current state capitol was being built.

Washington State Capitol and campus
En route to the reception we made a stop at The Oyster House, 320 4th Ave. W., the oldest - they say -seafood restaurant in the State of Washington. It's on the shores of Puget Sound next to Percival Landing with public docking available.  Our breakfast at Cicada Restaurant700 4th Ave. E., is a reason unto itself for returning to Olympia. 

One of the many Farmer's Market flower vendors
Olympia's Farmers Market, 700 N. Capitol Way, has got to be one of the best in the Pacific Northwest, to our way of thinking.  Following a stop there on Sunday morning, we were back in Kirkland less than an hour and a half later.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Cheap Meals + Deals = Vegas Wins

Treasure Island on the Vegas Strip
We generally avoid Las Vegas on weekends or holidays because of the high room rates.

But with tourism still taking a hit there, we got a room at the recently-renovated  Treasure Island  (TI) for under $100 a night. (Wynn Resort, across the street was more than $300 a night).

Money-saving Deals:
We used 2-for-1 brewskie/drink coupons at their tropically-themed Kahunaville Bar and Restaurant., The parade of fellow guests to the bar provided the free entertainment.

Opting out of TI's resort fee ($20 a day for Internet access and gym admittance) and passing on in-room Internet at $14.99 for 24-hours ($7.99 for two continuous hours); we walked across the pedestrian bridge to Starbucks for coffee and  free Internet. 

(Note: the Starbucks in the TI doesn't accept coffee cards and doesn't have Internet access.  Coffee Presse, just inside the Palazzo shops, also offers free wi-fi.)

While surfing the Net at Starbucks, (using our own Netbook) we found Monday and Tuesday night rates had dropped to 'reasonable' at The Palazzo (across the street) so we booked ourselves there for $139 a night using Expedia. Upon check in we received a sheet of discount coupons that included 2-for-1 drinks, discounts at several restaurants and  $25 in free slot machine play at their casino for each of us. Using the coupons: we sipped Prosecco at the Double Helix bar, dined at Dos Caminos and played the penny slot machines - all of which, we may not have done without the coupons. Another win for them and for us.

The Palazzo
We got the best airfare on Alaska Air by flying Friday and Wed. Check the airline's rate calendar and if you can, adjust your travel to the best fare travel days.

Ah, the bottled water as mentioned before: street vendors, sell  for a buck a bottle - same size inside can cost from $2.49 - $3.19.

Free Shows:
While entertainers headline and productions dazzle on many of the casino/hotel stages, we have discovered a number of free shows are incredibly entertaining as well.

Treasure Island has a great free pirate show on the street side of the resort several times each evening. Check the posted show times and then come early to get a good spot for sidewalk viewing. (We used another 2-for-1 coupon and sipped a glass of wine, watching the show from the TI's balcony bar).

We watched the Piazza mime finish his show and then were serenaded by costumed strolling minstrels who entertained with Italian tunes while we made the most of Happy Hour drinks and dining at the bar in Canaletto Restorante Veneto along the Grand Canal in the Venetian (connecting the Venetian to the Palazzo).

Their Happy Hour offers a good selection of cheap eats and drinks for $7 each before 6 p.m. We sipped our wine, ate thin crust pizza and a plate of calamari and enjoyed the free entertainment on our last night in town.
Pirate ship 'burns' during TI free show

Friday, September 10, 2010

Las Vegas 'Football Fest'

Labor Day Weekend.
We wanted sun.
We wanted football.
We went to Vegas.
We got both. 

The sun.
Temperatures were hovering in the low 100's when we arrived Friday afternoon and continued so through Sunday. It was so hot that we paced our sightseeing to match those wily vendors who fill wheeled suitcases or ice chests with ice-cold bottled water, then set up shop at regular intervals along The Strip selling them for a buck a bottle. . .they make money and we save money (the same bottle sells for $3.59 at the airport).

Palazzo Pool
By Labor Day the temperature dropped to the high 90's making it possible to toast ourselves at poolside and not suffer heat stroke. 

We watched football!  
Labor Day weekend marked the kickoff of the college football season.  While we love going to away games, we learned in January (when we 'went' to several Bowl Games) in Las Vegas that this town is a one-stop shop for watching many games. Even better, there's no charge for watching them in one of the many 'Sports Book's as they call the special areas dedicated to sports viewing (and betting, for those so inclined) found in larger casinos.

We spent time Saturday morning scouting out the best 'book' for our viewing needs:  comfy chairs and plenty of screens. The one we selected was at the Venetian where not only was our team, the UW Huskies, on Big screen television; but  LSU's game was on a BIGGER screen, and smaller screens gave us front-row seats to games played by San Jose State, Washington State's Coug's and four other teams. So many games, so much fun. 

The football fest continued on Labor Day when BSC contenders' the  Boise State Broncos took on Virginia Tech. We returned to the cushy chairs at the Venetian to watch the game on  the really BIG screen and 11 other screens of various sizes.  The nail-biter had fans of both teams cheering loudly as the lead bouncing back and forth. 

The Broncos completed a game winning touchdown in the final moments that put them three points ahead.

The point spread (that's the number that helps you determine who to bet on if you are in to that sport) during the weekend had varied between -2.50 and -1.50 meaning the Broncos had to win by those 3 points for those who had bet on them to win money.  It was an emotion-filled ending in that sports book - high fives and shouting and clapping was as good as being in the stadium.

We kicked off the football season and darkened our suntan a bit - time to head home.  
  Wisconsin fans were in town for UNLV game

Monday, September 6, 2010

Cruising Countdown and Other Contemplations

There's just something about cruising . . .for us, the excitement begins long before the blast of the ship's horn signals our departure.

We ponder where our cabin will be, what we will do at each new port of call, how few clothes we can pack and still be socially acceptible and about new friends we will make.  This trip even promises a chance to reconnect with our Florida friends whom we met on an earlier cruise - on this same ship, the Westerdam,as a matter of fact. 

Our countdown to cruising has begun. . .

And, no, we still don't know what we are doing or where we are going during our two after-cruise weeks. Although, author Seth Stevenson has unleashed a whole new set of travel bugs upon us in his book,"Grounded - A Down to Earth Journey Around the World" (Riverhead Books Publisher, 2010) in which he writes about the trip he and his girlfriend made circumnavigating the globe without ever setting foot on an airplane.  They traveled by freighter, container ship, bus, bike, train and car on the journey that took six months to complete.

Stevenson is the writer and his girlfriend an attorney.   Hmmm. . . with a gender flip, it's the same mix as in this household. (They are probably a couple decades younger than we are, but travel bugs don't discriminate by age).

"We could do that!" we say, with a tinge of speculation.

"We should do a trip like that before we get too old to do it," our reasoning continues.

Maybe we could  test out their travel style in our two yet-to-be-determined weeks:

One option:  If we caught a ferry from Piraeus to Italy (Ancona, Bari, or Venice) after our cruise ship returned from the Black Sea, we could take a train to Rome and depart there on a repositioning cruise that would take us to Fort Lauderdale. . .it's still a bit on the pricey side for our 'find-a-deal' budget. 

Or we could:  take a ferry from Civittavechia (the port city for Rome) and head to Spain. There's another repositioning cruise that leaves from Barcelona - good price, interesting routing. . .hmmmm.

Either option would give us more time on the sea ~

The more practical (probably the more economical) version:  Simply fly (sorry, Seth - we will have to be 'grounded' some other time) to Barcelona from Athens. Cheaper and quicker but doesn't kindle the 'romance of travel'.  From a practical standpoint we'd have more time for exploring Greece or Spain.

Or we could remain on course:  pondering where we want to go for a couple weeks after the Black Sea cruise. . .maybe just hop the first ferry out after we leave the ship. . .

Contemplation. . . this really is the fun part. . .no joke!


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