Showing posts with label luxury for less. Show all posts
Showing posts with label luxury for less. Show all posts

Thursday, February 27, 2020

A Taste of Class - First Class, that is!


I sipped my first glass of champagne at about 6 a.m. London time.  It wasn't my last that January morning either. I don't often sip bubbles so it was a real treat - even more so because I was indulging in one of the complimentary pleasures of the British Airways First Class Lounge at Heathrow Airport.

Bubbles at the entry of First Class Lounge Heathrow

Several months ago when planning our winter sojourn to the United States, we had thrown common sense to the wind and decided to burn a pile of our accumulated frequent flier airline miles. We used our stash of Alaska Airlines miles for round-trip First Class travel between  Athens, Greece and Seattle, Washington.

Regular readers know that The Scout is usually in pursuit of the best deal for the least amount of money or airline miles, but we had a change of heart on this one.

With all due credit to our inhouse deal finder, his research paid off on this trip as well.  He found that for 20,000 airline miles more per person we could fly First Class (140,000 miles)* instead of Business Class (120,000)*.

We had the miles, so why not use them? we asked ourselves.  Why not experience the posh side of travel this time?

A 747 flies the transatlantic routes

Because the aircraft flown between Athens and London was smaller than the wide-bodied ones used on transatlantic flights, we flew Business Class on those segments. We had large comfortable seats in the front section of the plane and were served complimentary beverages and a hot meal on our afternoon flight. (British Air now requires payment for food and beverage service in coach on this route.)


Checkin and security entrance

It was the next morning that we finally entered the world of first class travel. It began at check in when we were directed to a glitzy private area where check in and security screenings were handled as a part of the route to the First Class lounge, dining room and terrace.

I was like a kid in a candy shop or Alice as she tumbled into Wonderland! I left The Scout sitting in a leather wing chair sipping a pre-breakfast cappuccino while I unabashedly scurried about taking photos of this opulent area.   Who knew such a comfy, cushy world existed at airports? (I've been in Business Class lounges before but this was beyond that, so very beyond that!)

While this was likely a one-time shot for us, obviously there is a world in which first class is quite routine. As we were eating breakfast, a well-dressed man passed our table and as he did called out a greeting to the hostess, using her first name. Then added, "I will have my usual. I will be over in my chair." as he headed to the seating area. Incredible!

First class seat British Air



Seat becomes a bed with the turn of a button
Once inside the plane, the small cabin to the front of the plane was as posh as I had imagined it being.  The seats were small private seating/sleeping areas that opened from the aisle. A viewing screen, an individual closet, desk/table area and a seat that with the twist of a button became 180-degree flat bed.  A sleeping pad and coverlet were provided as were slippers and 'sleeping attire'.

A Mimosa while waiting for take-off

We perused the menu and sipped - yes, another bubbly while awaiting take off. When the flight attendant took our orders The Scout asked when the meal would be served. Her reply, "Any time you would like it Mr. Smith."  Yes, just like Alice must have felt in Wonderland!

Men and women received gender-appropriate gift bags containing lotions, lip moisturizer, socks, ear plugs, toothbrushes and paste and a number of other pamper yourself items.

Never has the near 10-hour flight between London and Seattle gone as quickly as this one did.

I followed our journey on my television scree


First Class Part Two


Now our return journey wasn't quite as posh and we can thank the US-based carrier Alaska Airlines, a code-share partner with British Air for tainting an otherwise delightful introduction to First Class travel.


Alaska Air Premium Economy - snack bar and water 

When traveling on award-travel you are not always able to get the flight you want as seats are often scarce. We were unable to get first class seats on the direct BA flight from Seattle to London so flew Alaska Airlines to Boston and then British from Boston to London.  Alaska also has Business Class seats, for which we were waitlisted. . .but never cleared the wait list so a six-hour segment of our return trip was spent in Alaska's economy seats. We paid an additional $99 per person to be seated in Premium Economy a few rows at the front of the coach class section.

Because we were waitlisted we were not allowed to use the Alaska Lounge at SeaTac even though our first class tickets were code-share tickets with the airline.  It was admittedly a 'first world problem' but irritating to think of turning over all those miles and ending up in economy, however. . .


British Air first-class lounge Boston
It was a smooth flight and we arrived in Boston nearly an hour early, which gave us a near four hour layover there.  Plenty of time to enjoy its luxurious British Air first-class lounge - another bit of bubbles and a pleasant experience.


Claim tickets need numbers on them


Alaska Air had been unable to ticket us all the way back so it was while checking in at British Air that we discovered the Alaska ticket agent had issued us baggage claim tickets for our two checked bags without any claim numbers printed on them.  The sharp BA agent caught the error and hand-wrote the numbers on our claim stubs.

That proved to be a good thing because our bags were left in Boston.  A fact we learned in Athens. And there, the first thing the lost bag clerk asked for were the baggage claim numbers

The First Class Story Ends at the Village Service Station


The bags did arrive in Athens on a later flight.  However, we live four hour's drive from the Athens airport in the rural Peloponnese.  We got a call the next day saying the bags would be sent by courier to the Athens bus station and put on a bus bound for Kalamata. There they would be put on a passenger bus bound for the villages to the south of the city. At 2 p.m. the bus would leave our bags at the village service station.


2 p.m. the village service station and there were our bags!

We have three service stations and they didn't know which one it would be. "Ask around the village and someone will know," we were told.  We did just that and at 2:15 the bus pulled into Taki's service station, the bags were unloaded and our adventure into the world of first class travel officially came to an end.

Our first-class travel comes to an end 

If You Want to Book First Class

Appetizers and bubbles

Now before you go rushing off to book yourself in First Class using award tickets let me caution that these were not 'free tickets'.  In addition to the 140,000 reward miles per person we also had to pay $637 per person of which $499 was the 'carrier imposed surcharge' and $138 were taxes and user fees (split between Greece, United Kingdom and the United States). And a booking fee of $25.

That said, it compared favorably with the fare had we simply purchased the tickets as they are about $4,500 per person.

Note the small print when booking award seats whether Business or First Class as sometimes it is a mixed cabin ticket meaning one segment might be in the elite class but other segments will be in the economy section - despite the number of miles you have turned in.

That is it for this week! Thanks for being with us again and we look forward to being back next week with some more tales from The Stone House on the Hill. Until then, safe travels to you and yours~

Linking this week with:


Through My Lens
Our World Tuesday
Wordless Wednesday



Thursday, August 20, 2015

A Stay in Myanmar’s Grand Old Strand Hotel

“Dear Mr. Smith,

. . .You share our Guest Register with the likes of George Orwell, Sir Peter Ustinov, Somerset Maugham, David Rockefeller, Sir Noel Coward, Rudyard Kipling and HRH Kin Taufa’ahau Tupou IV of Tonga (in 1936), who have all stayed at The Strand.

Enjoy your ‘Burmese Days’ and the magical experience that is Myanmar and its wonderfully friendly people.”

That excerpt from the welcome letter from The General Manager was to set the tone for an extraordinary stay at The Strand Hotel, Yangon, Myanmar.

Stepping into the lobby – admittedly small in stature and d├ęcor when compared to today’s 5-star behemoths – with its marble floors, rattan furniture and lofty ceiling felt as if we were stepping back more than a century in time into the British Colonial Far East.

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Lobby of The Strand - Yangon, Myanmar
For three days and two nights we’d get a taste of the genteel grandeur of British-influenced early 1900’s in the still developing Rangoon, Burma, as it was then called. Today it is Yangon, Myanmar, one of the ports of call of our Oceania cruise that took us from Bangkok, Thailand to Istanbul, Turkey last spring.

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The Strand, Rangon, Myanmar, left, Raffles Hotel, Singapore, right

Because the cruise line allowed for on-shore stays, we’d planned to stay in this historic haven since booking our cruise. This neo-classic charmer was built in 1901 by John Darwood, and was later acquired by four Armenian brothers – the Sarkies – as part of their early 20th Century luxury hotel collection that included The Strand, the Eastern & Oriental in Penang and the Raffles Hotel in Singapore.

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Serenaded at checkin; we sipped watermelon juice with another couple from the ship
‘Genteel’ became the operative word for this stay. Doormen greeted us and the reception staff ushered us to cushioned rattan couches and served us fresh watermelon juice while we listened to live music and another staff member completed the paperwork for our stay. No long lines or impersonal registration counters here.

A Brief Hotel History

From its beginning this three story hotel, “was regarded as ‘the finest hostelry east of Suez’ and Murray’s Handbook for Travelers in India, Burma and Ceylon, 1911 edition, says the hotel was patronized by ‘royalty, nobility and distinguished personages’,” according to Philippe Delaloye, the current General Manager.

However, during the intervening decades, the British Colonial period ended and Burma became an independent country (1948). The once-luxurious hotel served as a home for Japanese soldiers during Japan’s occupation in World War II and then fell into a state of disrepair in the 1960’s. A Burmese businessman purchased it in 1988 and commissioned its extensive renovation. There were no new towers, fitness clubs or pools added; it was simply restored to its once-luxurious self. And a few modern conveniences like free wi-fi and  flat screen televisions have been added.

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Fresh blooms and toiletries in our bathroom
It reopened in 1993 as a 31-room, all-suite, 5-star hotel and is currently the only hotel in Myanmar to be part of the prestigious Leading Hotels of the World.

We were shown our second-floor suite by the butler assigned to our floor.  A butler (or two) are assigned to each floor 24/7 and simply await a call from guests ~ they open your door for you when you return to your room, push elevator buttons, and lock up your suite when you leave.




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The Butler's station was manned 24/7 on each of the hotels floors
Double doors led from our suite's entry hall into an oversized bathroom with separate shower, tub and toilet area. At the end of the hallway we entered an enormous bedroom with king-sized bed. A separate sitting area with sofa, chair and coffee table was the perfect place for afternoon coffee and cookies – served . . . by the butler, of course!

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Suite 102 The Strand, Yangon, Myanmar where treats were left each night by the butler
My favorite spot in the room was the large desk where I could imagine literary giants of yesteryear penning novels that would transcend the decades and continue to tantalize readers like us with tales of the British Colonial period.

Dining at The Strand


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Dining was a delight at The Strand from breakfast to dinner
Several of you – who read the earlier post on drinking water served from communal cups attached to water tanks along the streets – asked about the food.  We didn’t try street food and ate one (very good) meal at a British pub a few blocks from the hotel. The majority of our meals were eaten at the hotel. Breakfast was included in the price of the room. The menu offerings included items like fresh banana pancakes and fruit for breakfast.

The hotel’s specialties included Onn-Not-Khao Sive, a chicken in light coconut gravy with egg noodles, crispy noodles, boiled egg, shallot and lime (pictured lower left) and the Strand Mohinga, a signature dish, a lemon-grass and ginger infused fish soup, not pictured. We tried them both - they were excellent!

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Enjoying the genteel life at The Strand, Yangon, Myanmar
Our time at this hotel, named for its address 92 Strand Road, was far too short.  We vowed we’d have to return. With any luck we will one day. 

That’s it for our visit to Myanmar. We returned to the ship and that evening set sail for our next port of call, Cochin, India. We’d have three ‘sea days’ while crossing the Bay of Bengal, the largest bay in the world before finally setting foot in India.  Was the hassle we had with getting an India visa worth it? We’ll let you know in our next post!  Happy travels to you and yours until we meet again~

Linking up this week with:
Travel Photo Thursday – Budget Traveler’s Sandbox 
Our World Tuesday
Travel Inspiration – Reflections En Route
Mosaic Monday – Lavender Cottage Gardening
Mersad's Through My Lens
Photo Friday - Pierced Wonderings
Wordless Wednesday

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

A Room with a View. . .Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River

Bangkok – that sprawling capital city of Thailand – is bisected by the Chao Phraya river – a major waterway teeming with river boat buses, cross river ferries, tour boats, dinner cruise boats, long tail boats and river barges. While the city itself didn’t wrap us under its spell as it did a few decades ago, the river didn’t disappoint.

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Bangkok's Chao Phraya River bisects the city

After our stay in the timeshare (Marriott’s Empire Place. . .Buyer Be Aware) we treated ourselves to three nights of over-the-top luxury at The Peninsula Hotel on the river. Once again, The Scout, had found us a great rate using Kayak.com even though our stay was during the city’s popular April celebration, Songkran, the Water Festival; a time the city swells with tourists.

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The Peninsula on the right from the terrace of the Mandarin Oriental
The Peninsula is located on the river’s Luxury Triangle as I’ve labeled it. The triangle’s other two points are anchored across the river by the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and The Shangri-La Hotel.

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Lobby of the modern Mandarin Oriental, left and historic Oriental lobby - now tea room - on right

“The room isn’t quite ready, sir,” we were told at the reception desk when we showed up in the late morning, “Please come have a seat.” We were lead to a couch and served complimentary coffee while we waited the 30 minutes it took to finish preparing the room.

The Room

It has been a long while since we’ve stayed anywhere nearly this luxurious, the kind of place you could gush over, so, let the gushing begin. . .

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Our room - Peninsula Hotel Bangkok

A small entry hall led past a closet/dressing area, directly across from a bathroom, a place large enough for a tub, walk-in shower, private toilet room, and two sinks with marble countertops. And then you entered ‘the room’ which seemed far more like a ‘suite’ to our way of thinking.

PicMonkey Collage
Our room with a view

All rooms in the hotel face the river, so our favorite spot – despite the inviting bed and couch -- were the two chairs we lined up at our window; our viewing platform, from where we watched the morning sunrise and the nighttime parade of lighted boats.

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Peninsula pampering - Bangkok, Thailand

And then there were the small touches:  an orchid in the ice bucket each time it was refreshed and the all-time first: we’d left the books we were reading on the bed and when we returned the bed had been made, the books returned to exactly where we’d left them but a Peninsula bookmark had been placed to the side of each! (Sorry Kindle users, you probably can’t relate.)

The Setting

Imagine a lush tropical garden – swaying trees, a profusion of blooms, winding pathways to pools and patios. Then imagine heat and humidity so intense it seems to suck your breath away, melting makeup and exploding hairdos. . .combine those and you’ve pretty much got the setting for the hotel.

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Melted makeup and exploding hair - in a stunning setting

The three-tiered pool was stunning, but again, it was difficult to spend much time lazing around it because of the April heat.

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Three-level pool overlooks the Chao Phraya - Bangkok Peninsula
 
On the River

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Free shuttles boats


One of the real treats was being on the Chao Phraya and that was easily accomplished by hopping on one of the hotel’s four shuttle boats – restored rice barges – that make daily round trips between three nearby piers. The other hotels ran similar free shuttles so you could bounce back and forth or from the nearby taxi pier catch a long tail passenger taxi and travel the river in either direction.

The Chao Phraya flows for 231 miles (372 kilometers) from Thailand’s central plains through Bangkok and into the Gulf of Thailand. As it turned out we had one more night, literally on the river, even after we left the hotel. Our ship was docked at a port on the Chao Phraya. After boarding we spent our first night on the river in the Nautica, we began our Magic Carpet ride through the Middle East.

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And so the 34-day cruise began

We set sail at 5 a.m. the next day, long before sunrise, en route to our first port of call, Singapore. And that’s when and where our next post begins. Thanks for being with us today and hope you’ll come back soon and bring some travel enthusiast friends with you!  Hello to our July subscribers!  See you soon and until then, Happy Travels!

We are linking up this week with:
Travel Photo Thursday – Budget Traveler’s Sandbox 
Our World Tuesday
Travel Inspiration – Reflections En Route
Mosaic Monday – Lavender Cottage Gardening

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Kauai: Luxury for Less, Part II

“You own here?” a fellow guest sitting next to us at the Marriott Waiohai Ocean Villas beach bar asked.

“No, we rented a week,” The Scout answered, adding, “I think we got a deal. . .two-bedroom, two bath unit for $109 a night.”

“You bet you did!,” he exclaimed, “I am paying $495 a night!”

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Beach at Marriott Waiohai - Kauai
And so began our second week of Luxury-for-Less on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

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Our condo was the one far right top floor, with its deck nestled between two palm trees and overlooking this fabulous lagoon.

In Part I of our Kauai Luxury-for-Less series, I told you about our plush digs at the Westin and its steal-of-a-deal price in Princeville. This Marriott Vacation Club (these are also timeshare condos) is on the sunnier south side of the island at Poipu.

PicMonkey Collage
Top left clockwise: Living room, guest bedroom, guest bath, master and bath, kitchen
The two-bedroom, two-bath unit with fully furnished kitchen, a table to seat eight and full living room had been available for rent from an owner for $109 a night – the only additional cost was a $50 booking fee and nightly room tax which brought the price up to $116 a night.  Wi-fi, athletic facilities and pool use – all included; no extra charges.

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Our deck, and gardens between buildings
Admittedly, we had a garden view but with gardens like this, it wasn’t tough to sit on our deck (a table with seating for four and a lounge chair) and then walk the garden path to the beach.

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Sunset from the Marriott's Honu Beach Bar - Poipu, Kauai
If You Go:

Map picture

Kauai is the oldest of the Hawaiian islands and is considered the chain’s Garden Island (translated that means it does get rain, however, the showers came and went quickly during our two-week stay).

KauiSm2014 056A number of airlines fly directly from the U.S. west coast to its airport, Lihue.  Inter island flights connect in Honolulu (but they can add a couple hundred dollars more to the cost of the trip).

Another money-saving tip:  There are a number of U.S. ‘big box’ stores on the island, including Costco (where food and beverages prices were definitely less and the selection greater than at local markets.)

Finding The Deal:

The Scout booked this rental through ResortRentals.com which he found when searching the site, SellMyTimeshareNow.com

Our stay was the first week of September and a quick check for September rates for a 2-bedroom, 2-bath, island view at the Waiohai:

Marriott:  $412 a night
Expedia:  $412 a night
Our rate, $116 (including tax) compared most favorably!

As always, we thank you for the time you spent with us. Hope our tips come in handy on your future travels. If you’ve got some tips for ‘deals’ do let us know in the comments below or shoot us an email.  Hope to see you back again later this week~ when we'll take you to "Pigi Heaven"! Happy travels~

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Kauai: Luxury Travel for Less, Part I

The sky turned golden precisely at 5:55 a.m. then went gray and within 30 minutes was a brilliant blue background to the rising sun's antics of playing peek-a-boo through pink-tinted clouds and palm frond silhouettes.

That was how each day began during our first week in Kauai.

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Sunrise in Kauai from our room
We were at the Westin Ocean Resort Villas in Princeville on the island’s North Shore.  Princeville, with its high-end accommodations is nicknamed 'the Bel Air of the island', after California’s similarly ritzy city.

Kauai2014Aug 052From the deck on our studio condo we’d sip both morning coffee and evening wine – there was no better ocean view to be had in the complex than ours.

 We like luxury.

And we’ve surrounded ourselves in it on this trip.

What we like even better is when we find luxurious accommodations for less!

And that’s what The Scout does best. . .so let me show you what he found and how much it cost.

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Our home away from home - week one Kauai
The Westin Villas are ‘time shares’ or ‘interval ownership units’ where a week is purchased (either deeded land or points), maintenance fees are paid annually, and you’ve got your own – albeit, tiny – piece of Hawaii, in this case. (We own such property on the island of O’ahu and Arizona and for those new to the blog, check the links on the homepage for more about those).

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Westin Ocean Resort Villas - Princeville, Kauai
Often times owners can’t use their reserved time and choose to trade it for somewhere/sometime else or they rent the reserved time. A number of web sites are designed for just that and that’s where The Scout found this Westin unit for rent.

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Bathroom, kitchen and laundry off the entry hall
Our spacious unit had a large walk-in shower, jacuzzi tub for two with a shuttered wall that opened to the ocean view, an en suite washer and dryer and a kitchen that included garbage disposal, dishwasher, microwave/convection oven and was stocked with more dishes and pans than I planned to use! Once a week maid service brought new towels and sheets and a room tidy. And our bed was “Heavenly” the kind trademarked by Westin and used in all their hotel and vacation villa properties. For parents out there: the couch was a sleeper sofa - bedding provided.

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BBQs with a view
Food and drink prices were high at this end of the island, so we ate ‘at home’ often. BBQ’s were cleaned daily for use by residents. I tell you sipping wine and enjoying the view while cooking was one of the stay’s high points. . .and it was a better views than many of the restaurants.

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Beach at St. Regis Hotel - and its view: NaPali Coast
A real plus was  regular shuttle service to the nearby St. Regis Hotel where we could sunbathe on its beach or dine in its restaurants and bars (rooms at that luxury hotel began at $500+ a night).

So . . .What we paid:
This room is called a Premium Studio, 512 sq. ft. plus 44 sq. ft. balcony. 
Rate per night on the Westin site: $450;
on Expedia $399.
We paid: $150 per night, booking through the owner’s rental site. I’ve listed a few of them below.

If You Go:
The Scout did a quick Google search for ‘timeshare rentals’ and found a number of websites, including Redweek.com, Sellmytimesharenow.com, TUG (Timeshare Users Group)com.

Note: We didn’t expect to have an ocean view as it hadn’t been specified in the rental - it was luck of the draw. “Ocean views” -- should you book one -- can be tricky because some places consider even a peek-a-boo view of water as ocean view.  Do a bit of research and check floor plans.

Common Sense Note:  We rented from owners using two different web sites. We did not send full payment at the time of booking. We made a payment to hold the reservation but waited until confirmations were sent, in this case from The Westin, with our name on the rental and a confirmation number before we made the final payment. (We also called The Westin prior to arrival to make sure we did have a reservation.)

Next week I’ll “show and tell” the luxury for less we found on the island’s other side our second week. Hope you’ll come  check it out~ until then, Happy Travels. And thanks for your visit!

Linking to three incredible blogs:
Travel Photo Thursday – Budget Travelers Sandbox
Weekend Travel Inspirations – Reflections en Route
Mosaic Monday- Lavender Cottage Gardening

Sunday, March 30, 2014

From a Place Called the Peloponnese


I write today from Poulithra, a small coastal village in the Peloponnese. It is a rather enchanting sort of place; but then to our way of thinking many such Greek villages are just that.  We fell under this village's spell last year and returned Friday after spending our first night in another charming town, Astros, some 30 miles north of here.
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By now we’ve decided that marathon flight day/night/day of 24 hours plus, to get here was worth it, although at the time we weren’t sure.

Having picked up a rental car the size and the color of a ripe cherry, we’ve embarked on a road trip that will take us through both the history and hidden corners of this part of Greece.

Our route – still not cast in direction or dates - will take us back to old favorite places and yet lead us to new discoveries ~ the entrance to Hades, among them.

 We are well off the “American’ tourist track. It is a shame more of our fellow countrymen (and women) don’t venture into these postcard perfect areas that draw hordes of European travelers in the summer months. The tourist season in Greece kicks off with its Easter holiday week and continues through summer.


But  now the villages are blissfully quiet, streets are empty but for the locals who call out greetings to each other and the two American tourists who stroll in their midst.

The air is filled with bird song and the scent of orange blossoms. There’s still a nip in the early morning and evening air.  We stroll along narrow streets to tavernas to dine each evening – the sky a star-lit umbrella. We are still among the early eaters – dining at 8 or 9; Greek diners begin arriving after 9.

We’ve re-couped from the jet-lag that always packs a punch for  the first few days. We’ll be back on the road again come Monday. Hope you’ll come along with us. And this weekend, take some time to stop and smell the flowers ~ we are!






[Travel Tip: I wrote our last post in Istanbul where we spend the night en route to Greece.  That routing  saved us about $1,000 in airfare costs – thanks to a deal The Scout found on Kayak.com. We used a free night stay coupon at the Marriott Courtyard and the airfare to Athens was about $125 for the both of us. And we’ll spend a few days at the end of the trip visiting that fascinating city – a double win, to our way of thinking.]

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