Sunday, August 29, 2010

A List of Some Old Favorites

Some of our favorites from our honeymoon trip--over 11 years ago, so I'd love to hear from anyone who has been to these spots more recently or knows if they still exist, your suggestions and thoughts...


  • Belgo restaurant (great Belgian food and extensive beer list)
  • "Double decker" hop on, hop off buses (of course these still exist, and while they might be cheesy, we've done some form of "hop on, hop off" in many cities around the world for orientation and transportation between major spots)
  • The Beatles "Magical Mystery Tour"--if you're a Beatles fan-great walking tour
  • Sofra-Turkish restaurant
  • London theatre-there's so much to choose from, and both of my trips to London have included one or more shows
  • High tea-I'm sure there are better (and cheaper) places to go than Harrod's, but I felt like I got the London experience


  • Walking the streets, checking out the pubs, coffee shops and the red light district
  • Canal tours (once again...the hop on, hop off choice)
  • Anne Frank house (a really moving experience for someone who read her diary over and over again as a young girl)-the lines get really long so there can be a huge wait
  • Joordan neighborhood (the area around Anne Frank's house)
  • Indonesian food-I didn't write down the name of the place we tried, but it was our first time having Indonesian, which is quite popular in Amsterdam. Watch out for the spiciness!
  • Gommel-a tiny, hole in the wall beer bar (I found on the Internet before the trip) with a huge selection of beer, especially from Belgium

(in between--taking the overnight train w/private accommodations--great way to maximize your time, comfortable and efficient)


  • The town of Kusfstein-absolutely picturesque and with the great train system, easy access to towns throughout Austria and Germany. We were lucky to have a travel agent who had lived in the area, and made this great suggestion for visiting Oktoberfest without staying in the crowds of Munich.
  • Taking the train to Innsbruck-beautiful countryside and a great town to visit
  • Apple Strudel, crepes or any other pastry, plus Espresso!
  • Hotel Alpenrose in Kufstein-the best innkeeper-he managed to be everywhere and help with translating the menu, giving advice, and making you comfortable all at once. Don't miss the gourmet restaurant in the hotel. Our room looked out on the mountains and the view of grazing livestock from the coziest bed ever.

I can't give too many recommendations in Munich, because we really only spent a little time there, mainly at Oktoberfest. I would recommend you consider going to Oktoberfest with a group and reserving a table inside. We had bad weather most of the time, and learned that the tables are generally reserved so it's hard to get a spot inside. We were lucky to get a couple seats at a large table one evening and found it easy to get past the language barrier when it came to raising a mug. We were really lucky that my husband works for an international company, who happened to have a table for the Munich office and we found them one night. They were so hospitable and we had great fun spending time together, passing around the giant pretzels, sharing chicken and of course toasting with our giant mugs of beer. A great company outing!

Reminiscing Over Travel Journals

I recently found a travel journal I kept on our honeymoon trip (to London, Amsterdam, Austria and Germany) over 11 years ago. I've had fun reading through it and enjoying the memories it brings back. I'm determined to start keeping notes on all of our trips again.

It's great to look back on the places we visited, my descriptions and observations and remember all that we did on the trip. It was like a mini excursion reading through it. A bit of a history lesson at times, too, especially when you realize how technology and globalization has changed things, for good and bad.

Here's a line that really made me laugh, from one evening out at the local bar in Kufstein, Austria:

"One guy was drinking this mix of vodka and Red Bull (some type of soda(?) they have-they called it an energy drink). They called it fire water and he drank quite a bit of it through a tubing system they had set up." Yes, this was prior to the Red Bull invasion of America and its hard to imagine now that I didn't know what an energy drink was. I haven't seen anyone using the tubing mechanism here (it was basically like IV tubing) but now I'm going to have to start calling this combo firewater again. At the same bar, we met a "funny guy from Holland who loved American shows such as Jerry Springer"--I can't imagine the ideas some people must have of life in the U.S.

I got hungry reading all my descriptions of meals, especially the desserts in Austria. Now I'm craving pastries, ice cream and espresso. If I get back to visit these spots, I have my own little guidebook of restaurants and favorite dishes (and it would be curious to see which spots still exist). And, there's some self-awareness in realizing I've always had a "thing" for outdoor/local markets, checking out the local food customs and getting a crepe anywhere I can! Food and people watching--definitely two of my priorities in life.

As I often find with travel, reminiscing about some of the misadventures brings some of the biggest laughs. After a day exploring Innsbruck, we got on the wrong bus in Kufstein and ended up at the end of the line--at the bus depot with the non-English speaking driver. Thankfully, we carried the business card from the hotel and between our couple words of German and the driver's wife's broken English, we managed to explain our situation. They actually gave us a ride back to the hotel on their way (though my guess is that it was out of their way) home. One of our more memorable moments!

I'm going to go through and make a list of some of our favorite spots on the trip. I would love to hear from anyone who has been to them or has other suggestions or feedback from trips to the same cities...

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Regents Seven Seas Cruise: Our Special Treat Vacation

It was somewhat surprising that we landed on the idea of a cruise for our anniversary trip last year. We'd only been on one other cruise--the long weekend Carnival cruise to the Bahamas. This choice could not have been more different. Truthfully, my faithful reading of the St. Pete Times travel section is what led us down this path. They had a great article about some of the luxury vacation deals available, and reading about Regents and their Baltic Seas cruise, I got pretty excited. We were having trouble coordinating everything, as we wanted some time on our own in addition to the cruise, so we enlisted the help of our AAA travel agent. We quickly got it narrowed down to a 7 day Regents cruise of the Baltic with time before and after on our own, in Stockholm and Copenhagen.

The trip was a wonderful experience in so many ways, but more on our ports later. I have to share the Regents experience...if you haven't experienced it and are ever looking for a real treat, look no further. I remember my husband's exact words as we prepared to board, "Well now, we'll see what $X gets you, and if it's really worth it". By the next evening, I remember him commenting on all he had seen so far as answer to that question. The first thing you notice on Regents is the service and the lack of crowds. The ships are fairly sizable, yet carrying significantly less passengers so it never feels crowded. All cabins are suites and the cruise is all inclusive (food and drink, plus at this time they were including all excursions as well).

Stepping in to our cabin was a pleasant surprise after our stay in a Stockholm hotel with efficient (tiny) Swedish style rooms. We were in the lowest cabin class, which was a balcony suite, larger than most hotel rooms. The bathroom was well appointed, with a full soaking tub, separate shower, double sinks and as much room as our entire Carnival cabin. The next delight was a walk in closet! The room had a curtained off sitting area, with a couch, two chairs and a small table which converted each morning for room service breakfast. A small balcony provided a spot to sit and enjoy the scenery. Our room attendant greeted us, gave us a tour of our suite and then fulfilled our requests for our small mini fridge (again, all included). It was stocked with soda, juice and mixers and she found out our preferences for what we'd want most, as well as our choice of two bottles of liquor or wine for in room. Off to a great start!

Service was impeccable from the beginning. All the servers and bartenders seemed familiar from the first day, and were pretty consistent in calling you by name and recalling your cocktail choices. Every question or request was answered with ease, and the service felt attentive yet unobtrusive.

The dining is flexible on Regents, so no seating times or need to dine with strangers (though we'd had fun doing so on our other cruise), but there are 2 specialty restaurants that require reservations. We made these right away, so we had good options and planned around our ports of call. The french restaurant required formal dress, though I think Regents has moved away from even this now. Otherwise, Country Club Casual was the evening attire, though I think they've renamed this also, to more accurately reflect button down shirts preferred (i.e. no golf shirts at this "country club"). I like to see people dressed up and enjoy it myself, so I don't mind that aspect of cruising. It adds something to the experience.

Which leads me to the passengers. Not only were the crowds minimal, they were nice to be around. We were surprised by how many families were on board, and then again more surprised by how well the children could handle sitting down to a nice dinner or going on a tour. Obviously, these were children initiated to travel and dining out. The three year olds on this ship were more well behaved than just about everybody on our Carnival cruise (known as the party cruise apparently). The only difficulty with this well-travelled crowd was that we had no chance at the daily trivia quiz.

Truth be told, I had a lot of fun on both our cruise experiences. The Regents trip was a real treat, but I don't like limiting myself to one type of trip, or always having everything be so perfect. But, I have to say we had no doubts that those seven days of perfection were well worth it.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

It Only Took a Few Hours to Fall in Love

Sometimes it is surprising the places that capture you. My favorite places have little in common...sometimes I am enthralled by people watching and the culture in a large city, other favorites are inspired by a beautiful setting or the charm of a small town.

One of those surprising places for me was Visby on Gotland in Sweden--a port on our cruise, one which we knew little about and had few expectations. We were captivated by Sweden and the entire archipelago for its beauty. Gotland is like the summery paradise of the country. It really was a storybook place...made all the more so as the land of Pippi Longstocking, a favorite character of mine in youth. The walled, medieval city has beautiful church buildings and a quaint feel that made me feel at home even as a tourist. Even though groups were coming ashore from the ship, the town didn't feel overrun with passengers. I guess not being able to dock in a large port, rather having to tether in, helped with this. It was a very easy town to navigate and much more pleasant to explore on one's own than on a group tour. As we walked around the walled city and throughout the streets, I pictured myself living in many of the cottages along the way.

We were visiting on a crisp, summer day and the sky was pure blue to match the sea. However, even picturing the harsh winter weather, all I could think of was reading by the fire in one of the cottages. It was one of those places that maintains a sense of being away from it all, even as it has the modern conveniences of elsewhere. I believe that is often characteristic of islands. There is a special quality about islands--at once visited and loved by tourists but still special and isolated by the nature of their separateness.

Visby is one of those places a cruise ship exposes you to, that you might have never discovered otherwise. Visby teased us during the short day ashore, begging us to come back for more some day. A few hours was simply not enough. My husband and I both added Visby to our weather listings on our phones, frequently referring back during the cold winter--perpetuating the fantasy of the cozy fireplace scene. This place was definitely a surprise--and has probably stuck with me more than any other place I have been to for such a short time. We hope to make it back for a longer visit one day to get to know more of this place and hopefully continue to grow more fond of it...

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Memories of the True Baseball Trip

We have done quite a few independent trips to various baseball stadiums, and usually organize them on our own. However, for the Cal Ripken Hall of Fame induction, our research led us to believe in the value of group planning. With huge crowds expected, we were finding it hard to book a room and work out all the details. We were lucky to encounter Sports Travel and Tours on the internet. They put together all kinds of sports themed trips, though their specialty is baseball. Each summer they organize numerous baseball group tours.

Our trip itinerary started in Baltimore, with a visit to the Babe Ruth birthplace and museum--a small place with a big piece of baseball history (especially for two people who grew up near Baltimore and had never been there). The tour company does a good job welcoming everyone as well, with a little reception and kickoff for the trip. We then proceeded to a game at Camden Yards. Of course, this wasn't new for us, but Camden Yards is a must-see stadium. One of the first stadiums built in the now popular style of integrating stadiums in to the fabric and style of the city. It feels old and new all at once. It remains one of my favorite ball parks, though it is often empty nowadays as the Orioles aren't the team to see.

Our next stop was Philly. The Sports Tours incorporate some sightseeing, and so the bus made a stop to visit some of the historic sights. Like any organized group tour via bus, there is not a lot of freedom and you hit the highlights only. Unlike other tours, the main focus here is the baseball. The bus was very comfortable and not full, so each of us had room to stretch out and the ride was comfortable. Our leader was a teacher, and you definitely did not want to be late for "class". His rule was "on time is late". This created some anxiety for me as I pictured oversleeping and being made to sit at the back of the bus. However, our fearless leader was really great--you need that kind of discipline to make things run smoothly and he was enjoyable to talk to and really loved what he was doing (and why not?). The group was more diverse than you might imagine. Our group included: a set of grandparents with a young grandson, several couples of all ages, a father and daughter, a small group of guy friends, and 4 older lady friends as well as some parents and older children.

We saw an afternoon Phillies game. Nice stadium--good food and good crowd! Phillies fans are pretty die hard so the energy is always great. Our hotel was nearby (and the worst of the trip) so we left the game a little early (we were by now learning how we could get some flexibility and independence during the trip) and then took a cab in to the city for the evening. I would not have wanted to come to Philly and only seen the ballpark and the suburban hotel. We went in to South Street and enjoyed dinner and some nightlife--and were home early enough to catch the early morning bus.

Our next stop was NY. A great stadium tour at Yankee Stadium (just as the new park was being built...I'm glad we got to see the old park and all of the history). Love em, or hate em, the Yankee's history is amazing (and my travel partner was lucky not to get any trouble for wearing his "I LOVE NY, Its the Yankees I Hate" shirt, but had it been a game day I'm not so sure).

We did a city tour by bus, which was the worst part of the trip. We had debated getting off at lunch and exploring on our own and we made a big mistake not doing so. It is just no use seeing NY by bus. It's a city to go out and explore. The tour was slowed down by the usual NY traffic, so we got to our hotel just in time for the group to turn around and leave for a Mets game. No thanks! We settled in for a bit and then took the subway to the game (after clearing it with our group)--a much more enjoyable time and riding the subway with the locals made us feel like we were actually in the city instead of peering out from a bus window. I was brave enough to wear my "Real Women Don't Date Yankee Fans" shirt since we were with a different crowd, and it was a conversation starter with the Mets fans on the subway. We met a couple who named their daughter can guess why. Also got to see the Mets stadium before its last season...and it was definitely ready for replacement. Even though our time in NY was limited, we did a bit of walking that evening and stopped by the Russian Vodka Room--a great spot! They make great, homemade infused vodkas and authentic Russian food. As good as what we tasted in Russia this past year...

The Cal Ripken induction was by far the biggest memory of the trip. The Baseball Hall of Fame is an amazing place, whether a baseball fan or just intrigued by the history. Induction weekend is crazy in Cooperstown, but being with the travel group made it much better. We had time on our own, but were able to enter the hall as members/VIPS, avoiding a 2 hr. line. We did feel a bit like we were on the Tokyo subway inside, though. Cooperstown is a great little town and on induction weekend, you can visit with a number of Hall of Famers, get autographs and memorabilia throughout the streets. We just enjoyed taking it all in, and even ran in to some people we knew from Baltimore. The crowds were unbelievable. If you drove in, you most likely paid $20-50 to park on someone's lawn and walked a distance. Our group had chairs set up for us, and even passed around some cool rags because it was a scorcher. Some people purchased VIP seats and were right up front. The crowd probably stretched for 1/2 mile up the hill.

The induction ceremony was really inspiring. I've always admired Cal and became a bigger fan that day. He embodies what I think of when I think of baseball and a role model for the kids playing little league. He has continued to do a lot in the community and wants to share that love of baseball.

Tony Gwynn was also inducted and I got to learn more about him and come to admire him as well. There were many fans that traveled all the way across the country, including a mother and son in front of us who had down a whirlwind stadium tour all summer leading up to this. Wow! I was jealous! Though, I have enjoyed spreading our tour out more over the years--that might be a little too much baseball all at once for me. I like to be able to enjoy the cities as well as the stadiums.

I was impressed by Sports Travel and Tours. They did a great job organizing the trip and keeping things on track. Other than our hotel in Philly, all the accommodations were nice and we had good tickets and a very smooth trip. Its not something I would do all the time--we tend to prefer a little more flexibility and adventure, but it was nice to have someone organize everything for you. I would particularly recommend it for big events like the Induction. I know they also do World Series and Superbowl trips, which would probably be worthwhile as well.

We're down to only 8 stadiums left on our quest...and may have to go back after that and revisit some, such as the 2 NY stadiums, that have been rebuilt since. It's a great way to see the U.S., while taking in the American sport...