Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Hawaii: Malasada Mondays and Other Tropical Tales

For the last month our weeks have started on a sweet note: Malasada Mondays ~ a lyrical combination that has brought smiles to our faces and – big sigh – added a few pounds to our weight.

Malasadas, a favorite treat in Hawaii, were introduced here in the late 1800’s by Portuguese laborers from Madeira and the Azores who came to work in the plantations.

Think donut holes – great BIG donut holes. Some served with a sugar coating and others sliced open and filled with melt-in-your-mouth custard.

The temptations were great
DSCF1618 We’ve been lucky this year as our Hawaiian home at KoOlina has begun hosting one of the many Farmer’s Markets that take place throughout this island chain.

Although teeny in comparison to most, our market brings one Honolulu baker who serves up loaves of Hawaiian sweet bread and rolls filled with tropical flavors like coconut and pineapple. (He doesn’t have a retail outlet, but similar treats can be found at Leonard’s in Honolulu)

One of our favorite things about this one-time-kingdom-now-state in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is the diversity of people here and the customs and foods they’ve brought to this tropical paradise.

They came in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s as laborers to work in pineapple, taro, and sugar cane fields and related industries, from islands in the South Pacific, China, Korea, Japan, and Europe. Thanks to them bringing their foods and flavors from home, today’s Hawaii offers food lovers a feast of diverse culinary cuisine.

Hot and spicy - Korean vegetables

An editor of mine, many years ago asked, “Can you get American food there?” (Yes, he was serious. And yes, you can. Col. Sanders is serving up buckets of fried chicken while Quarter Pounders are being grilled under the Golden arches and Big Box pizza joints are making home deliveries.) But why would anyone come here to eat that food when there’s so many other 'Ono grinds' (good food)  just waiting to be sampled?

PicMonkey Collage
Waipahu Saturday morning farmer's market - O-'ahu
SPAM, I am

Some foods though just call out ‘Hawaiian’ in our minds. For instance, SPAM. That canned meat product is so popular here they have an annual SPAM Jam Festival!

IMG_20150124_105645_777 More SPAM®, according to one of the conference sponsors, is consumed per person in Hawaii than any other state in the United States, which makes it somewhat appropriate for their signature food festival, which in 2015 takes place May 2.

SPAM® stands for ‘spiced ham’; a product introduced in 1937 by the mainland  Hormel Foods Corporation.  The food cube inside the can is a mix of ham and pork shoulder and now comes in low-salt, spicy and original (simply salty) versions. It is believed to have been introduced by the service men stationed here during WWII.

Its popularity continues to grow. There seem to be new variations available each year! Costco, the big box U.S. chain store, sells it here by the case.

Two key statistics in the SPAM Jam news release caught my eye:
* nearly seven million cans of SPAM® are eaten every year in Hawaii.)

* in the decade since it began, the Waikiki SPAM® JAM, has become one of the most popular festivals in Hawaii. More than 20,000 attend the annual event.

Shave Ice

My Hawaiian friends are offended if I compare a Hawaiian ‘shave ice’ to what we mainlanders call a ‘snow cone’. The premise is the same for both, shaved ice that is flavored with syrups of various flavors.  Apparently – it is the way the ice is shaved that can make this treat a true Hawaiian melt-in-your-mouth (pun intended!) version or a lumpy mainland version.  And a trip to the island of O’ahu isn’t complete without going to the North Shore for a stop at Matsumoto’s for shave ice.  Lines often wind into the street from the shave ice counter in this 1950’s wood-frame grocery store that now sells only shave ice, tee-shirts and souvenirs.

PicMonkey Collage
Matsumoto Shave Ice - an island favorite
Food Trucks:

And one can’t make a trip to the North Shore and not be tempted by the eateries that line the two-lane road through Haleiwa (a once-laid-back-surfer-town now teeming with tourists) While these photos were taken in Haleiwa, you’ll find food trucks tucked away in the most unexpected places around the island:

PicMonkey Collage
North Shore O'ahu Food Trucks
When you travel do you stick to foods that you ‘know’ or do you ‘go local’? Tell us in the comments below or shoot us an email.  Thanks for the time you spent with us today ~ hope to see you again soon!  "Malamapono a hue hou" ~ Take care until we meet again!

Linking up this week:
Travel Photo Thursday – Budget Traveler’s Sandbox 
Travel Inspiration – Reflections En Route 
Mosaic Monday – Lavender Cottage Gardening
Travel Photo Monday - Travel Photo Discovery

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Winter in Greece ~ Baby, it’s cold outside. . .sometimes!

So . . . you didn’t think it got cold in Greece, did you?

I’d planned to take you on a tropical tour of Hawaii today but your questions and responses to our last post like, “So what is winter like in Greece?” and “Snow – in Greece!?!” made me think we needed to show you a bit more of our Greek winter wonderland before heading to tropical beaches.

So here you go – the real story of winter in December and January and illustrated with photos not often seen in those tourist brochures. 

PicMonkey Collage
Taygetos Mountains from The Mani
 Snow in Greece? you asked. The Mani, that ‘middle finger’ of the Peloponnese peninsula is blessed with beaches and mountains.  The mountains, part of the Taygetos Range, (named after the nymph Tayget, daughter of Atlas), have snow-covered peaks that soar to heights of 7,887 feet or 2,407 meters. They are snow-covered from late fall to late spring/early summer.

We are on that 'middle finger'
You can tell from this map that those mountains form the backbone of this peninsula. They are laced with trails that draw hikers to them in the spring and fall (summer is too hot for much hiking here except in the early morning and early evening hours). For those who’ve asked: sorry, no ski resorts.

What’s the weather like? you asked. The weather during our stay was a Jekyll and Hyde experience. While one day we’d wake to sunshine and warmth, other days the wind – a forceful and cold wind – howled and shrieked down the hillsides and over the valley. One storm hit with such intensity, that the fishing boats were taken out of the small protected harbor at Agios Dimetrios so that the crashing waves wouldn’t smash them against the cement walls meant to protect them.

Fishing port - Ag. Dimitrios
 So powerful were the waves that they crashed over the waterfront road in the nearby tourist-town of Stoupa, leaving a trail of beach sand in their wake.

Stoupa's beach is lined with summer sun-bathers - in July and August
One day we sat ‘trapped’ (that means not crazy enough to get out until the storm subsided) in our car at the grocery store parking lot while hail pounded our car and everything else in sight. Yes, I entertained myself taking photos of it.

Not a good thing, I might add, for the Kalamata olive harvest that was underway.

It gets cold in Greece?, you asked. The temperatures dropped at night to freezing and once or twice a bit below freezing. It was – of course! - during that cold spell that we ran out of fuel for the furnace and had to rely on that fireplace!

We’d just ordered – and stacked -- a load of firewood so we kept the fireplace burning 24/7 until our new oil supply was delivered!  You’ll note in the photo below I am wearing a blue fleece jacket.

PicMonkey Collage
Stacking the firewood - great exercise!
 We each bought fleece ‘work jackets’ on one of our shopping trips to Kalamata. The Scout paid 10-euro and mine was 12-euro. The plan was to wear them when working in the yard.  Turns out it was sooo cold and they were sooo warm that we wore them all the time (I did consider wearing mine to bed on a couple of occasions, if the truth were to be told!)

PicMonkey Collage
Fleece coats saved the day
Even on the sunniest of days while enjoying our afternoon coffee and “Time with Tom” (one of our two visiting cats) – we wore our fleece.Next year we will take serious winter clothes along.

Stoupa - sunset from Steki Cafe
Is it nice there in the winter? you asked. And the answer, is “Yes!” We had days of glorious sunshine and sunsets beautiful enough to give you chills (if the temperatures didn’t). Often times we sat in sidewalk cafes (enveloped in those fleece jackets, of course) sipping wine and watching the sunsets, like the one above as seen from the village of Stoupa.

PicMonkey Collage
Scenes from a shopping trip
Some days the sun coming through the car’s windows required us to turn on the air conditioning as we traveled between the villages and Kalamata town. These photos were taken on a return trip from a shopping day in Kalamata.
We met quite a few northern Europeans who had rented places – or who own vacation homes -- in and near the villages of Stoupa, Kardamyli, or Ag. Nikolaos and head this way for their winter getaways much like those Canadian and the U.S. winter  ‘snow birds’ head south to Mexico, Florida and Arizona.  (This area is an inexpensive off-season getaway destination.)

I am writing this post in Hawaii where the temperatures are in the low 80’s so I checked the weather back in the Mani the day I started writing this, Feb. 13 – it was 4:33 a.m. in Kardamyli and was still a bit chilly there.

Next post – I promise – we will head out to take a look at our current warm-sand neighborhood on the shores of Hawaii.  Thanks to all of you for the time you spent with us today.  Will see you soon, we hope. And until then, safe travels to you and yours!

We are linking up with some great bloggers this week – if you get a chance, drop by these sites as well:
Travel Photo Thursday – Budget Traveler’s Sandbox 
Travel Inspiration – Reflections En Route 
Mosaic Monday – Lavender Cottage Gardening

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Greece ~ Come along. Visit our ‘hood’

Our criteria for a Greek home was quite simple.
We wanted a stone house with a water view and a garden or olive grove.
We ultimately got them all.

Our Stone House on the Hill in Greece
What we hadn’t given that much thought was: the neighborhood. Who would live next door? Would there even be a ‘next door’? Would we be in a village? If not, how far away would a village be? We hadn’t focused on those questions because we simply didn’t think of them, so focused were we on 'the house'.

As you know from my recent posts about our recently-purchased Stone House on the Hill, our criteria for the house was met and exceeded. As for the neighborhood – we couldn’t have picked better had we given it any thought.

Come along. . . let me introduce you to our Greek ‘hood. . .

We are furthest right in this photo - hidden by the tree

Our house is the one on the far-right, tucked away behind our big tree at the end of the grove. We have a British couple (part-timers, like us) immediately to our left. Next to them, full-timers Christina and Dimetrios, the Greek couple who built the five homes at the top of the photo. The third house from us is owned by another couple from Britain who live here full-time (when they are not traveling, that is).

We have yet to meet our neighbors in the homes to the far left and below us. Although our Cat Who Came for Christmas, AKA  “Princess” is said to live in that house down below when the owner is home.

PicMonkey Collage
The road that links two villages
Our row of stone houses is at the edge of a century-old olive grove. To reach them, one follows a narrow, paved road that connects the villages of Ag. Dimitrio below us to Platsa, about three kilometers above us.

You’ve probably guessed, we have very little traffic on this tiny road – and when a car or bike passes, it generates waves, nods of the head or a call of greeting. We are walking distance – via a smaller rutted dirt road through an olive grove – to the port of Ag. Dimitrios and just a bit further is the part-sand, part-rock beach.

The beach is a walk away

Many of you who have traveled in Italy’s Tuscany region will notice the striking similarities between this countryside and that one, particularly the Mediterranean Cypress trees that dot the landscape. (What is nice about here is we get all that Tuscan-type beauty for far-less-the-cost!)

The countryside rivals Tuscany in beauty - but the price is better here!

DSCF2998This driveway, just around the corner and above us, leads down to one of the many charming stone homes tucked away amid the olive groves – we have yet to meet that neighbor.
So many ‘new’ people and places just footsteps away waiting to be discovered just like. . .

. . .the villages! So picturesque, they often times don’t seem real. The one in the photo below is Kotroni, (the cluster of buildings at the top of the photo) as seen from just above our home. We drove there once and it, like so many villages, has such narrow roadways that you park your car outside the village and enter it on foot.We’ve yet to do that exploration, but we will!

Village of Kotroni

The views from the ‘hood are sweeping and stretch from out over the Gulf of Messinia to the Taygetos Mountains. The photo below is taken from just above our house:

The Mani Greece
The ‘hood was full of tiny roadside wonders as well on this early January Saturday stroll:
PicMonkey Collage
January blooms
We are eager to return this spring and see the profusion of color that the spring wildflowers offer. Yet, these hardy blooms were amazing. It was winter. The surrounding hills were covered with snow!

Don't you love the mountain that looms above our home?
View from our deck
It is definitely a contrast to our current ‘home base’ in Hawaii with its sandy beaches and 80-degree temperatures - where we are enjoying our ‘interval life’, that I told you about earlier this week. We’ll take you on a tour of this tropical neighborhood in our next post so hope you’ll join us here again soon. 

We’ve noticed we have some new subscriber/friends and followers: Welcome! We look forward to getting to know you ~ so hope you will join in the conversation by commenting or emailing.

And to all of  you, we just read that 7.4 new travel blogs appear every second – makes us even more grateful for the time you spend with us!!

Speaking of friends, I need to thank our friend Maria Korma who lives in the village of Stoupa, Greece for keeping us updated on activities there via her Facebook page. She gave me permission to use two of her photos in this post!

This week’s link ups are with:

Travel Photo Thursday – Budget Traveler’s Sandbox 
Travel Inspiration – Reflections En Route 
Mosaic Monday – Lavender Cottage Gardening

Sunday, February 8, 2015

10 Days and nearly 10,000 miles later. . .

Our Stone House on the Hill - Greece
We covered furniture, packed up clothing, shuttered the windows, locked the doors and said goodbye to our Greek Stone House on the Hill for a few months.

Then we hopped a plane and traveled nearly 8,000 miles, back to our Pacific Northwest home where we emptied and repacked our suitcases. Ten days and another 2,000 air miles later, we arrived in Hawaii – our ‘other’ getaway home for the next five weeks of winter.

Lagoon at KoOlina, O'ahu, Hawaii

Yes, that’s the way life goes for us these days. . .travel is our lifestyle. . .and home is more a state-of-mind than a place in the world. I am reminded of the old cliche’ “Home is where the Heart is. . .” In our case, “home is where the suitcase is. . .”

Hale Kona - Marriott Beach Club - KoOlina from Hale Moana where we are

We’ve gone from residing in our the small stone house in an olive grove on a Greek hillside to our current place of residence, in one of three high-rise condominium buildings overlooking a Hawaiian beach. Here instead of being the sole owners, we are among 28,000 people who own a piece of this rock. We are back at our Marriott Vacation Club (interval ownership by the week) at KoOlina on the island of O’ahu.

Those of you who’ve followed our blog, know that we love this carefree interval life. We’ve gradually built up our weeks and now can stay here as long as six weeks each year or we can use portions of our time here and trade for other places in the world.

Sunset at KoOlina
As tempting as it is just to stay here, we’ve already tapped into our 2016 stash and traded a week here for a week in Bangkok, Thailand which will give us a chance to visit that city prior to hopping our cruise ship to Istanbul, Turkey later this spring.

Hibiscus blooms cover the KoOlina landscape

Speaking of cruises: Remember that Amazon River cruise we had planned to take over the Christmas holidays? We’d booked it and were ready to go until in late November the cruise line offered us a deal we couldn’t pass up – we traded that cruise for the one we will be taking from Bangkok. Turns out that once again the travel gods were looking out for us because. . .

We were set to sail from Miami for the Amazon River on Dec. 17th aboard Oceania’s Insignia ship. It turns out that the (newly refurbished just last spring) ship caught fire on Dec.15th as it was completing a cruise and returning to Miami.  While the fire was contained in the engine room and no passengers injured, sadly, three people were killed.  The ship, at last report, is still in dry dock awaiting repairs.  So, we wouldn’t have sailed to the Amazon River even if we hadn’t switched course. . .

Sunset over Messinian Gulf from Stoupa, Greece 

In our next post I’ll take you back to our place in Greece for a quick tour of the neighborhood and take you to some of our favorite places to eat and drink in the neighboring villages.  Then we’ll head back to Hawaii for a tour of this tropical paradise. I’ve also got some packing tips and want to talk about the business of Business Class flying in future posts so hope you’ll come back soon because we’ve got a lot of ground to cover!

Mahalo, Thanks, for the time you spent with us today! Safe travels to you and yours~ and E Komo Mai, Welcome, to our new followers this week, so glad to have you with us!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Stone House on the Hill ~ Welcome!

DSCF1377While we were in Greece we speculated on who might actually visit us there in the future. We’ve begun honing that list now that we are back in the States based on some of the responses we’ve had to our Stone House on the Hill.

Some wrinkle their noses, not quite sure what would draw us there – let alone, bring them to visit. Others furrow their brows, they still aren’t quite sure where ‘there’ is.

Yet, others brighten at the news. They tell us of their Greek travel memories or of their dreams to visit the country.

Some haven’t remarked at all. We are definitely getting a feel from the varied responses, for who may - one day - be walking across our bright red ‘Welcome’ mat!

One friend, who’s owned a second home in a sunny climate for a few years, remarked, “You don’t really want people to visit, do you?” She’s had some, shall I say, less-than-pleasant experiences.

At about the same time, an American blogger buddy of mine, Karen McCann, who with her husband lives most of the year in Seville, Spain, wrote a post entitled, 7 Habits of a Considerate Houseguest (she’s had a few and some who weren’t).

On the flip side, we've had two friends tell us that if they come, to provide them a list of needed items, and they'll pack an extra suitcase for us.

For now, we have the welcome mat out. The area is just too darn nice not to share with others!

The Questions

So many who are pondering the possibilities of a visit have asked us logistics and cost questions about getting to The Mani in the Greek Peloponnese where our home is located, that I thought today I’d answer some of them.


Where do you fly to? What is your routing?

We fly to Athens, about a  4.5 hour-drive from our home in Greece. We fly out of Sea-Tac Airport near Seattle, Washington in the US Pacific Northwest. We shop around and choose the routing by 1) cheapest price, 2) with least amount of layovers and plane changes. The trip from Seattle  – with those layovers and plane changes – usually takes in the neighborhood of 20+ hours. The good news it is usually an over-night flight and you can sleep most of your way to Europe. And with the time zone changes, you arrive in Europe in early to mid-morning the next day.
Two routing examples: In spring 2014 The Scout nabbed us a ‘steal of a deal’ with a round-trip via Istanbul, Turkey for $608, round-trip, per-person. We flew Lufthansa Airlines from Seattle, with a plane change in Germany. After spending the night (hotel points) at the Courtyard by Marriott, in Istanbul, we caught the morning commuter flight  (Aegean and Olympic Airlines both have them) to Athens the next morning. Those flights of less than two-hours were about $180 round trip. And this routing allowed us a stay in amazing Istanbul on our return. We plan to do that on future trips, no matter which European ‘hub’ we fly in to: Amsterdam, London, Frankfurt, Paris, Istanbul  – are all possibilities depending on the airline.

This last December we adjusted our travel to avoid the horrendous ‘holiday hike’ that hits in the middle of the month.  We used Alaska Airline frequent flyer miles to get us to Chicago and then flew Delta round-trip from there to Athens for a bit more than $800 round trip. It was a reasonable price considering we were hovering at 'holiday season'. We changed planes in Paris, then flew to Athens, rented a car and set out for The Mani.
Flights on European low-cost carriers to the city of Kalamata, just over an hour’s drive from our house, originate in any number of European cities. Flying into Kalamata would certainly simplify getting there, in terms of times and price.

We found an Easy Jet flight in June from Kalamata to Vienna for just over $100US, for example.  We aren’t sure how useful those flights will be as our time at the house will likely be in the early spring and late fall – after those seasonal flights have quit operating. They’ve extended the season this year and everyone is hopeful they keep extending it. Who knows? Might be year-round one day!


2. Do you rent a car?

Yes. Major rental car companies (Hertz, Sixt, Avis, etc.) are represented at the rental car lot at the Athens Airport. It is a short walk to that lot from the arrivals terminal. Then a right turn out of the lot, a right turn and you are on the freeway – heading to The Mani. You will not end up in the middle of Athens in a traffic jam. (If you are seriously coming to visit, I have more detailed directions). 

The drive from Athens to Kalamata is on a modern freeway. It is a toll road, so plan on paying about 15-euros in tolls total along the way. Get some euros from the bank machines at the airport if you didn’t bring some with you. The amount of each toll is flashed on a screen as you approach the teller window and you must pay in cash - they do have change for bills.

PicMonkey Collage

DSCF0283Like in Italy, the Greek roadside comfort stations are worth stopping at because they are so incredibly nice. Bathrooms are clean, restaurants are amazingly large, and most have souvenirs for sale.

It is easy to pull off and on the freeway, unlike the Costa del Sol in Spain where you say a prayer and take your life in your hands with each entry. Here the exit and reentry ramps are long and easy to use.

DSCF0282Car rental prices vary, so it is best to shop around.  Figure 20 – 25 euros a day. (We have heard rentals can be had for as little as 11-euros a day but we haven't yet found that.)  Small cars here really are small. Two roll-aboard sized suitcases will stuff the backseat. Either pack light or book a larger car.  US citizens do not need an International Driver’s license. And yes, for those who’ve asked about ‘automatics’ they do rent them. I have pictured an automatic shift to the side. It requires shifting from first to second but it is done with the hand lever - no feet pedals for shifting.

A stop in Kalamata
DSCF0016The modern freeway ends at Kalamata , about three hours from Athens, and becomes a scenic, but curving two-lane road into The Mani.  For that reason – and the fact that we’ve been up for some 24-hours with cat-naps and airplane food keeping us alive – we have spent the night in Kalamata.  We’ve stayed at a waterfront hotel - Phaerae Palace -- that has one of the best European buffet breakfasts we’ve ever eaten included in the rate, for about $100  (depending on the season) a night in a room with balcony and view of the water. The breakfast is served in the rooftop restaurant (photo on the right).  Then we head out refreshed the next morning.

If you spend the night there, the town’s Archeological Museum in its historic district and the open air Municipal Market are worth visiting before setting out on the final leg of your journey.

DSCF1488The last leg of the journey takes about an hour and a half, especially if you get behind a large truck as we did when I took this photo.

That’s another reason to complete the journey in the morning’s daylight – when wide awake!

3.  Do you have to have a rental car? Couldn’t we take a bus?

You probably will want a car while you are in The Mani, but you could wait and rent one after you get out of Athens or Kalamata. There are rental car companies in Stoupa, the small village very near our home.


And yes, there are long distance buses that run to and from the villages and Athens -they connect in Kalamata.

In Athens there is an express bus (5-euros) will take you to and from the arrivals/departure terminal at the airport and the bus station where buses leave for Kalamata and other destinations.  We took the bus from Kalamata on our return home and it was a modern, Mercedes Benz, and the driver was great. This express bus from Kalamata took three hours and 15 minutes to reach Athens and the tickets were 22-euro per person. It would cost a bit more from the villages near our house.

PicMonkey Collage
4.  Does anyone there speak English?

Yes, nearly everyone we’ve encountered speaks English and on the occasion we are in a situation of no-English, they always find someone nearby who does speak the language and will help out. That’s not an excuse not to visit!

We’ll tell you about our neighborhood and the foods – the nearby cafes and tavernas and the markets – in a future post.  Thanks again for stopping by as always we appreciate the time you spend with us. Hope you'll recommend our blog to others you know ~ thanks to those who've done just that!

Linking up this week:
Travel Photo Thursday – Budget Traveler’s Sandbox  
Travel Inspiration – Reflections En Route  
Mosaic Monday – Lavender Cottage Gardening


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