Fairy Tale Germany is not a Fairy Tale

So you may be familiar with those Viking River Cruise commercials, with swooping drone views of a gorgeous river surrounded by foliage, pretty towns, and castles on nearby peaks? Well, I can confirm that they didn’t fake that footage. It’s real, and it’s the “Rhine Gorge” / aka Upper Middle Rhine Valley in Germany. This picturesque area runs from Koblenz in the north to Bingen in the south, and is less than an hour from Frankfurt.

Soon after exiting the highway onto winding B9, also known as “Mainzerstrasse” in many of the German towns along the west side of the Rhine, we began to see the half-timbered buildings so prevalent in fairy tales. Our first stop was for lunch in Bacharach.

Lunch was delicious – we were the only ones in the restaurant, as it was a rainy day and not many tourists were wandering the streets of Bacharach. We didn’t mind, the staff was attentive without smothering us.

Next, we made our way to the smaller town of Oberwesel, about 20 minutes further up the B9, to our lodging for two nights: Castle Hotel Schoenburg. https://www.hotel-schoenburg.com/en/ This was a small splurge, with dinner included in our stay both nights. I’ve never stayed in a castle, and when over the summer I was sadly reminded that our days on Earth are limited, I reacted by booking one. It’s time.

This was really a WOW experience.

“I’m on my way, driving at 90 down old country lanes” – Ed Sheeran

The Castle Hotel Schoenburg doesn’t have a street address. Directions are, in essence… Drive to Oberwesel, look up, follow the road. Not good for an uptight planner like me, but we made it.

We stayed in room 20, which, like many of the hotel’s rooms, boasted river views and a small balcony.

View from Room 20
Room 20

The hotel’s public areas certainly felt authentic, even though only the original castle was burned down in 1689 and the castle was not recreated until the 19th century.

Our hotel booking included a sumptuous, 4 course tasting menu style dinner. Dishes over the 2 nights included beef carpaccio, venison pate, wild boar, lobster soup, and Black Forest cake. Very rich and very delicious.

With 2 nights in Oberwesel, we were able to spend the full day in between exploring the river on a KD Rhine hop on, hop off day cruise.

Our northbound transportation:

The day started dark and gloomy, but as we headed north by boat, we found the sun!

Scenes like this one floated by…

We passed the Lorelei, a steep rocky outcropping that has inspired its own fairy tale: the beautiful Lore Lay, betrayed by her sweetheart, is accused of bewitching men and causing their death. Rather than sentence her to death, the bishop consigns her to a nunnery. On the way thereto, accompanied by three knights, she comes to the Lorelei rock. She asks permission to climb it and view the Rhine once again. She does so and thinking that she sees her love in the Rhine, falls to her death; the rock still retained an echo of her name afterwards. (courtesy – Wikipedia). Cool story, bro!

We chose to debark in Boppard, a beautiful riverside town, about an hour from Oberwesel by water. We were in luck: the town’s annual 4-day Wine Festival was starting that very day, so the town was buzzing with local vintners and festival attendees. We wandered and shopped, and eventually settled into a table in the main town square, embarking on a beloved European activity: drinking and people watching.

Husband says Prost!
A live band!
St Severus Church looms over the wine festival tents

As the day turned to evening, the wine festival began to fill up. We ended up talking to a lovely family with two young daughters, who hailed from Colorado, for quite awhile. I admired their bravery in traveling to Europe with young children – most of my trips as the parent of young kids involved Disney or a beach. As it turned out, I had actually taken a photo of their daughter, earlier in the afternoon, as she danced and sniffed flowers in the town square. Hopefully if they read this, they don’t think I was stalking them!

It’s ALWAYS good to stop and smell the flowers.

The wine festival was just getting started, but we took a train back to Oberwesel . The river runs north, so the southbound boat trip would have been lengthy – we couldn’t miss our second castle dinner! We look forward to returning to the area and particularly Boppard, which was charming but not overrun with tourists.

A fairy tale, indeed.

Just waiting for Rapunzel….

Driving the German Autobahn: Where are the potholes?

Hooray!  Husband and I have arrived in Frankfurt, Germany at the start of a new 12 day trip that will take us to several destinations:  the Rhine Valley region,  a short stop on the Romantic Road,  Munich for Oktoberfest, a daytrip to Salzburg, Austria, and the Alsace region of France.  We rented a car for the entire trip.

We rented through a US company called Gemut.com, which specializes in  European and particularly German vehicle rentals for US citizens.  I liked the idea of having a US 1-800 number to call in an emergency, with the promise of an English speaker on the other end of the line.  Plus,  the price was good –  really good. Gamut books German rentals through a consolidator called Auto Europe, for a car rental with Europcar. The price was 10-20% less than booking directly to either of those websites.  I also priced out Sixt and Hertz,  two other big providers.  Gemut was also very responsive when I had questions prior to the trip. 

Side Note: I’m a Hertz Gold Club member through ownership of a Marriott Vacation Club property, and their prices are just never, ever competitive.  Why is that?

We found the Europcar desk and because we had arrived early,  the car I had reserved, a 4 door sedan with automatic transmission in the Premium category (BMW, Mercedes, or Audi) wasn’t available yet.  I’m not sure I believe that one would have suddenly become available in the next 45 minutes, but whatever.  The major difference in what we got was that it was not a sedan, but a station wagon.  Maybe not as “sexy” from an American point of view, but as the Europcar agent noted,  Germans looooove their station wagons.  This proved true –  there aren’t many SUVs on the roads here, but a plethora of high-end wagons.  My guess is they are more aerodynamic than a behemoth SUV. Also, the agent waived the usual charge for a second authorized driver –  we knew we both wanted to drive here. So,  no harm no foul.  5 doors instead of 4. All good.  I neglected to take a good photo of our actual car, but here is the general idea (credit bmw.com):

I declined the CDW insurance,  after reading and rereading the terms and benefits of my Sapphire card –  we were clearly covered as primary insurance,  this saved us hundreds of dollars.  Always read the fine print though :  there are exclusions,  such as not having the primary cardholder as the renter, super high-end exotic cars,  and tires and windshields. In contrast to experiences I’ve had renting cars in the US, the German Europcar agent did not press us to buy any insurance.

We spent a good 15 minutes in the rental car garage, figuring out the car’s menu, setting up bluetooth, and getting the navigation, etc. to work in English rather than German:

Eventually we got it set up and entered our first destination,  tiny Oberwesel on the Rhine River, about an hour from the airport. I don’t like to plan a long drive after a sleep-deprived overnight flight,  so I always try to keep the first destination within an hour. 

The car ended up having a “pop-up display”,  visible to the driver only, displaying the vehucle’s speed, speed limits, and navigational information including directions onto the lower windshield.  This ended up being very useful.  We drove over 1800 kilometers on this trip – about 800 miles – and experienced road closures,  border crossings, lots of construction, small cities with narrow cobblestone streets, and widely varying speed limits. 

I was impressed with the car’s technology. In addition to the pop up display,  parking sensors, and lane deviation/ correction capability, we were frequently rerouted around traffic,  and the car seemed to know where every speed limit change occurred.  On the highway,  speed limit changes were numerous and frequent, and it wouldn’t have been easy for the driver to notice every sign.  This car not only  displayed the limit,  but on both the dashboard and the pop up window,  our speed would display as red if we were over the limit, white if under it.   

Things you see on German highways, part 1

I was also impressed with German highways – the “Autobahn” in general.  Here, an important side note/ question:  am I the only American who thought there was ONE Autobahn? If so,  feel free to laugh at me.  “The German Autobahn” turns out to be any major highway starting with “A”.    And many, many miles of these “A” roads indeed have speed limits,  especially through construction zones and congested city areas. But –  then you see a speed limit with a line through it,  usually in a wide open, rural area –  and there it is – the limitless Autobahn of lore. *tingle*

Things you see on German highways, Part 2

We did experience a fair amount of traffic,  especially around Munich (Oktoberfest brings in 6,000,000+ visitors so this was hardly surprising)  and often there were brief slowdowns caused by construction.  It seems as though every 10-20 miles,  lanes were closed.  Bridges, tunnels, open stretches.  Germany is spending heavily on road infrastructure.  The result, over our 800-plus-mile journey ?  NO potholes.  And NO accidents.  The highways are correctly graded,  with minimal intersections and wide exit and entrance lanes.  We dealt with a lot of rain, but no ponding of water on the road. These roads are well maintained. 

Things you see on German highways, Part 3

So, want to hear about our little bit of adventure in the limitless Autobahn?
Both Husband and I kind of like to drive fast. We are from New Jersey, after all. But,  we also consider ourselves to be safe drivers,  never tailgating ,  minimizing lane changes, and keeping with the flow of traffic.   We’re just unlikely to be driving in the right lane,  content behind a tractor trailer. 

When we hit the limitless areas,  we typically enjoyed driving along with most of the other left lane vehicles at 150-170 kilometers per hour ( in the 80-90 mph range). It was rare, however that we could go much faster than this –  due to rain, wet roads, and congestion, we hesitated to really test out the BMW’s potential.  But , over the course of the trip,  each of us got the golden opportunity we were looking for –  a wide,  3 lane road ,  dry conditions, no cars in front of us, and a straightaway with long forward views.  When we got that chance …. yep, we punched the gas pedal. 

It should be noted that drivers in Germany are much more vigilant about the ‘keep right, pass left” laws that also exist in the States, but are rarely followed, at least where I live.  Trucks are almost never seen out of the right lane.  And when in the left lane,  if a driver sees a faster approaching car in the review mirror,  they move to the right.  How refreshing !!  

Our  top speeds were only maintained for a few seconds each, and then we returned to the safer, slightly slower speeds.  

Wheeeeee!

The display in kph added to the rush we experienced –  seeing “200” on the gauge.  Yikes!  Husband won the top speed award, hitting 219 kph (136mph!). We were both more than thrilled by the experience. 

One final note for those who might be considering driving in Germany, but traveling across country borders. In either Switzerland or Austria, a vignette (toll sticker) is required, and must be purchased either before entering the country, or immediately thereafter in the case of Austria / at the border in the case of Switzerland.

Austrian vignette on top; Swiss vignette on bottom

Vignettes are available at most gas stations and convenience stores near the border. The Austrian sticker cost about $10 for a 10-day pass; the Swiss sticker was only available for the year, and cost about $40. It will be a lucky day for any future drivers who rent the same car and want to drive into Switzerland in 2019, I guess… We were glad we purchased our vignette before crossing the Swiss border, because there was a long line for cars waiting to purchase their stickers.

Our German/Austrian/Swiss/French driving experience was, at times, all of the following:

  • Enlightening
  • Exhilarating
  • Rainy
  • Scenic
  • Fun
  • Exhausting?
It’s a good thing Husband trusts my driving…

Singapore Air Business Class: Expectations = Sky High

Hi friends!  It’s been awhile since I’ve posted – life intervenes! – and I have so many things to share with you.  In addition to our spring 2019 trip to Costa Rica,  Husband and I recently  returned from Germany and France,  achieving  a lifelong goal of attending  Oktoberfest!  I’ve also spent time with Oldest in Chicago and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware and with family and friends at our new home in nearby Lewes. Delaware. We managed to squeezed in a work-related extended trip to San Diego as well.

In the interest of getting back into the writing habit as quickly as possible,  I’m going to start with our most recent trip to Europe first, before sharing highlights from prior trips such as Costa Rica (she says hopefully). 

This post will detail our departure experience on Singapore Airlines flight # SQ25 from JFK to Frankfurt, Germany in Business Class. 

Although JFK is not our most convenient airport, often the best value-for-points flights to Europe originate there.  As I’ve noted previously,  I really REALLY prefer a lie-flat seat on an overnight flight.     For me, actual sleep is important, and  I’m saving a whole day of vacation by landing with at least some semblance of my consciousness intact on that first morning.    So,  we bit the bullet, paid the $100+ Uber fare, and headed across Manhattan at rush hour to catch the 8:55pm flight. By the way, the late time of this flight is what I usually look for when traveling to Europe – the later the flight, the more chance I’ll be tired enough to sleep shortly after takeoff.

My very first trip over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge!


It may seem odd to have a flight on Singapore Airlines that has neither an origin nor destination anywhere near Singapore.  It turns out,  this is a rather unique itinerary known as a “Fifth Freedom” route, allowing Singapore to pick up and drop off passengers on what is essentially a stopover in JFK. You can read more about Fifth Freedom flights here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/geoffwhitmore/2018/05/30/what-you-need-to-know-about-fifth-freedom-flights/#2270a7b63c85

I booked the flight using Chase Sapphire Reserve points, transferred to Singapore’s KrisFlyer program.  Singapore has a vaunted reputation for service,  and it’s easy to get excited about their beautiful suites when you click around on their website.  So much space!  So comfortable!  See, here’s the thing –  the suites are only available for First Class, not Business Class.  They would have cost a sizeable amount of additional points. So, nice,  but no.  More trips > one trip , amirite? 

So what DO you get in Business Class? Pre-flight lounge access. A short but wide, angled flatbed capable seat. Free alcoholic drinks.  Professional, courteous service. Dinner, and/or breakfast, and/or the right to be left alone and skip dining in favor of sleep (I chose the latter, Husband chose dinner only). 

We arrived well before the flight, and our tickets granted access to the King David lounge at JFK.  I was surprised,  because my research told me that the typical lounge for this flight is Swiss Airlines’ lounge, as part of the Global Alliance.  However,  the Swiss Lounge was under construction.  The King David Lounge, sponsored by El Al,  appears to seat about 85-100 people, and every seat was taken. People were sitting on the floor and window ledge.  The majority of the passengers were headed to Israel, so when that earlier flight boarded, the lounge felt much less crowded.  I’m fairly certain that the food was  Kosher, although I didn’t actually see any signage to this effect. The well-stocked buffet included mostly cold foods, such as lox and bagels,  tuna  and egg salads, and a Greek-style salad.  The wine was a very tasty red blend from Israel.  We were lucky to find an outlet to charge our devices – I would estimate there was one for every 10 or so passengers in the lounge.  I didn’t take photos in the lounge.  Lounge grade:  B-, due to being overcrowded initially with little hot food available.  

Now let’s get to the plane. Singapore flies a two-decker A 380 on this route. The Business Class seats are all on the upper deck; unlike the 747s of old, you don’t climb stairs on the plane, you simply embark on the upper level. The boxy style of the seats reminded me of the Commodore 64 computers that adorned my college computer lab.

Someone at Singapore Air really likes beige.

As to the seat itself:  I don’t claim to be the world’s most experienced overseas flatbed seat traveler,  but I’ve been on Aer Lingus, United, Virgin, and Lufthansa.   Singapore’s bed was easily the worst.   Husband and I were in middle seats (both aisles, the configuration is 1 – 2 – 1) so we could be next to each other;  seats next to the windows were singles.  They appeared to have the same dimensions as our center seats.  The seats are wide,  but the space available to lie flat is made for people 5’6” or less. 

Husband settles into the Business Class seat.

It’s not every day that my vertical challenges are an advantage, but today was that day.  The seats are in a pod style format ,  with a footwell in the seat in front – but angled toward the middle of the plane.  The “bed” is created by folding down the back of the seat toward the footwell –  you have to get out of the seat for it to become a bed.  I prefer the seats that simply recline all the way to a flat position –  it’s just easier.   A flight attendant is ready to assist, but I didn’t want to wait for that – I had taken my sleep aid and was ready to go down as soon as the plane was in the air –  so I struggled a bit but eventually figured it out by watching like-minded passengers set up their beds.

The bigger issue was the length of the bed. I am almost 5’3 and I just barely fit.  Taller people, including Husband, had really no choice but to lay in a fetal position – and due to the angled footwell,  they had to stay on one side.  I don’t know about you, but I usually move at least once or twice in a 6 hour period – middle age creeping in, after all.   I knew what to expect from reading other reviews, but I was still surprised by the discomfort.   In addition,  when upright (even when somewhat reclined) ,  my short legs barely reached the footwell –  because the seat doesn’t shift forward,  there’s nothing supporting your legs if your feet don’t  reach.  

stretching so my toes reach the footwell – not so comfortable


Husband reports that his filet mignon dinner was tasty enough, and he enjoyed a few cocktails as well.  He doesn’t need as much sleep as I do,  luckily,  because he didn’t get much. 

Also, the bed was very hard. And it would have been nice had the center console lifted up –  we both would have benefited from more space that way and could have better utilized the angles. Plus, a little snuggly time. Overall seat grade:  C+.  Only because flat was technically possible. 

The flight and service were timely, well-coordinated, and smooth,  we actually arrived in Frankfurt a full hour ahead of schedule –  a mixed blessing when jet lag looms.  Flight grade was an A.

Overall:  lest I sound like a whiner or unappreciative, there was absolutely nothing wrong with the Singapore Business Class experience.  It was good. I’ve certainly suffered through more uncomfortable flights (and more uncomfortable situations, but that’s a story for another day….).  We arrived, early, in one piece and with a little sleep to boot. Germany, here we come!

Irish beauty and wisdom in Doolin and the Cliffs of Moher

Finally I’m back to wrap up my summer 2018 Scotland/Ireland trip with Oldest. Apologies for the delay!

After a wonderful three nights in Killarney, we set off on another driving adventure. After a little difficulty rescuing our car from a garage (it wouldn’t accept my Euro note, I had to go back to the hotel to exchange), we headed toward Doolin via the Shannon Ferry (https://www.shannonferries.com). It’s a more direct “as the crow flies” route than driving around the mouth of the Shannon, through Limerick City, and also makes for a p’sretty journey up the Clare coast. The Ferry runs every half hour in both directions during the busier summer months, but we managed to drive up just in time to see one pulling away. The wait was not unpleasant, however, as we enjoyed watching other families stretch their legs along the Shannon as our cars queued.

Shortly after exiting the ferry, we stopped over in the little beach town of Lahinch, where we enjoyed an ice cream and a walk along the beach:

From Lahinch, the winding road into the tiny town of Doolin provided some beautiful views, including this one of Doonagore Castle, with Doolin down below it to the right in the photo:

Our one night stay in Doolin was a return to the friendliest B & B’s at which I have ever had the pleasure to rest. Daly’s House B&B (http://www.dalys-doolin.com) only boasts a handful of rooms, but they are sweet, cozy, with updated bathrooms, and impeccably clean. We were greeted by Susan, who truly seems overjoyed to meet and chat with each and every guest. The first time I stayed here, Husband and I had endured several windblown, rainy days and a treacherous drive through an Atlantic storm to arrive here; Susan’s sunny smile and hot tea made all our crankiness disappear.

This time, with much brighter weather, we were treated to “happy hour” on Susan’s flower-filled patio, with other guests and her tiny dog Ted – short for Teddy Bear, which is exactly what he looked like.

After a brief rest at Susan’s, we decided to enjoy the beautiful day by exploring the little town of Doolin by foot. There are probably less than 25 buildings in the town proper, so this shouldn’t take long.

As we walked further out of town, the land became increasingly bucolic. We met a donkey, and some cows. I had decided not to take my phone on the walk – vacation is all about disconnecting, right? However, this proved to be a serious mistake.

As we wandered, I came across a beautiful scene. On a hill upabove us, stood a mother horse and her foal. With a cloud-streaked sky behind them, they appeared to be “kissing” nose to nose. I gasped at the beautiful scenery, reached for my phone to take a photo and…. @@#$!*!$# UGH! What was I thinking? I watched the scene for just a few more seconds, wanting to soak in the image, and then … you guessed it…. sprinted (as best a middle aged banker can sprint) back to Susan’s for my phone, and then back again to the hill with the horses.

You can probably guess how this story ends: by the time I returned, the horses had moved out of position. The foal was lying down. Mom was still on the hill, but at a different angle:

Sigh. I’m glad I was able to capture this photo, at least. Time for a multiple choice quiz: What was the wisdom gained from this experience?

A: Never leave your phone/camera behind

B: Enjoy the moment, because it will pass quickly

C: Appreciate something, like the photo above, even when it isn’t “perfect”

D: All of the above

Go to Ireland to find the answer 😉

We enjoyed the rest of the evening at O’Connor’s pub, where we dined on traditional fish and chips and enjoyed a trad session in a bar full of Americans:

The next morning, we woke early to the sound of birds tweeting, cattle lowing, chickens clucking, and horses neighing to herald another beautiful day. After a delicious breakfast at Susan’s, we headed out for our day’s activity: The Doolin Cliff Walk with Pat Sweeney.

Meeting outside of O’Connor’s pub, Pat leads a group of explorers from Doolin town south and rambling up, up, up along the coastal cliffs to the towering, 700-foot Cliffs of Moher. http://www.doolincliffwalk.com . Pat’s website doesn’t specifically state the distance walked, but the walk does indeed take about 3 hours. I’d guess the distance at about 5 miles.

Pat himself, a local 4th generation farmer, developed the trail, which winds along the rising cliffs through adjoining farmer’s lands, as a way to boost the local economy. Doolin is the closest town to the Cliffs, which are probably the most famous stopping point along Ireland’s “Wild Atlantic Way”, and Pat recognized that higlighting this fact would bring more tourists -and euro – to the town. Over the course of 10 years, he convinced 36 farmers – 36 stubborn Irish farmers – to allow a trail to be built along the western edge of their lands.

In building the trail, Pat heeded his mother’s advice, which is sage for anyone, but especially salespeople:

Take no as a maybe!

(Pat Sweeney’s mom)

He was almost 100% successful … but there are a few, particularly intractable holdouts, which results in some fence climbing heroics for Pat’s hikers. Hence, Pat has dubbed his tour the “ADVENTURE TOUR! to the Cliffs of Moher”. I must capitalize ADVENTURE TOUR! because that is how Pat says it. The description is apt. Here are a few photos from our ADVENTURE TOUR!


looking back North toward Doolin, with Irish Flag in the foreground
Getting closer to the top…

Pat grew up along these cliffs, and told tales of jumping off of the shorter ones, playing in the wild, wavy Atlantic ocean and tide pools as a boy with his brothers. Hence, he is extremely surefooted, and did not hesitate to test the cliff edges:

At one particularly treacherous point, where a farmer refused access, the trekkers on our cliff walk were required to step over a steep crag, with the cliffs plunging over 400 feet below. One of our group had an unfortunate fear of heights (oops!) , so for him this truly was an ADVENTURE TOUR! But as Pat liked to remind us “I haven’t lost one yet! Hee Hee Hee!” His high-pitched laugh – incongruous for a big, burly farmer – really kept us all laughing despite the heart-thumping nature of the journey.

I waited to take this photo until I had successfully navigated the most adventurous part of the ADVENTURE TOUR!
love the graphic

Eventually, we arrived at the Cliffs of Moher Visitors’ Center , where we enjoyed a snack and toilet break. Then Pat took us even further, to the less-visited southern vantage point, looking back goward the Cliffs:

The Cliff Walk was yet another highlight of our trip. While unfortunately not recommended for the faint hearted, disabled, or those with a fear of heights, the walk is certainly accessible for anyone with a moderate level of fitness. And Pat’s stories, told in his lilting Irish brogue and puncutated by his “hee hee hee” high pitched laughter, made it easy to forget I was climbing 700 feet from sea level to the Cliffs (until the next day, when my legs reminded me!).

Doolin was by far the most rural destination of this trip, and I found peace and wisdom in the broad skies, rocky cliffs, pastoral scenes, and welcoming, “living in the moment” personalities of Susan Daly and Pat Sweeney.

Costa Rica Preview (because I can’t wait to tell you about this trip!)

I know I know – I haven’t even finished writing about my Scotland and Ireland trip from last summer. Sorry, I got distracted but I promise I will finish, with great information about tiny Doolin, near the Cliffs of Moher, and Galway, my favorite Irish city. As Ferris would say, life moves pretty fast sometimes, and sending Youngest off to college, preparing for a move, and purchasing a vacation home (more on that in a separate post!) have gotten in the way of my blogging.

However, Husband and I just returned from a 10- day trip to Costa Rica, celebrate our 10th Anniversary, and it surpassed all my expectations despite months of preparation. So, I need to tell you a little bit about it, with full, detailed blog posts to come!

Here are a few highlights:

  • First Class tickets (an Anniversary treat) on United, using points
  • 5 nights at the Andaz Costa Rica Resort at Peninsula Papagayo, also using points; https://www.hyatt.com/en-US/hotel/costarica/andaz-costa-rica-resort-at-peninsula-papagayo/
  • 4 nights at the Nayara Springs hotel in the Arenal area, using plain old dollars and worth every penny: http://www.nayarasprings.com
  • A plethora of flora and fauna seen in the wild, including capuchin monkeys, sloths, a pack of rat-like coati, crocodile, the endangered Jabiru, and an adorable red-eyed frog
  • Sunny, hot, beach days and cool, humid rainforest nights
  • Horseback riding with some very cool Nicaraguan guides
  • Warm, friendly people whose vibe I need to figure out how to adopt

The Andaz completely exceeded my expectations, with our World of Hyatt program points reservation earning us the most basic “forest view” room. Here is our so-called forest view:

“Forest” View at Peninsula Papagayo

Also, a tip: if you ever go to the Andaz, and are celebrating something, make sure to mention it. We were served no less than 3 free bottles of champagne during our 5-night stay!

I had the highest possible expectations for the award-winning Nayara Springs, and they too were exceeded. The resort’s lush, green vegetation managed the delicate balance between wildly untamed and perfectly presented.

One of our animal friends joined us for drinks at the Andaz pool:

And “Pura Vida” was had by all:


The Ring of Kerry: sometimes those “Best of” lists have it right

Any search of “things to do in Ireland” will undoubtedly include a tour of the famous Ring of Kerry.  It’s often cited as one of Ireland’s top sights to see: #6 on this list,  2nd on this one,  and at the top of Frommer’s “best scenic drives in Ireland”.  What is the ring?  It’s a driving route around the Iveragh peninsula, hugging the Atlantic coast closely and circling through the towns of Killarney and Kenmare, as well as Killarney National Park.

screen shot 2019-01-13 at 10.11.30 am

It’s also offers breathtaking scenery including the ocean, mountains, cliffs, lakes, waterfalls, fields, domesticated animals, and wildlife.  And although I’d been to Killarney before, I had never driven the full Ring around the peninsula,  only the bit near town and the Killarney National Park.  Here is a preview of a few of my photos from the area:

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See? breathtaking!

So you know I’m a planner,  but my plans usually leave a bit of flexibility. I was planning to drive the 111-mile Ring myself;  many tourists do it every day, and although there are  harrowing stories involving oncoming buses,  I figured my approximately 20,000,000 hours of commuting time spent on Rt 287 in New Jersey leaves me well prepared for just about anything.  I even made a map with scenic pit stops and approximate drive times. But, as the day approached, and as I spent as a passenger on the “wrong” side in Scotland, I realized that if I drove myself,  I would not be able to fully enjoy the scenery.  So when Dave, our Corporate Transfer driver from Dublin, offered us contact information for his friend Aidan at Killarney Chauffeur,  I took him up on it.  We booked a day with Aidan and never looked back.

Aidan arrived around 9 am in a beautiful BMW 5 series, which was a nice upgrade from the rattletrap I had been driving. The day started out a bit overcast, but the gloom added to Kerry’s atmostphere (and we eventually found the sun once again). After a brief stop at the Aghadoe viewpoint just outside of Killarney, we drove through the tiny town of Killorglin.

In the center of Killorglin is the statue of a goat,  named King Puck.  Aidan explained that the goat had warned residents of the approach of Cromwell’s army, earning himself such a royal title. There is an annual “Puck Fair” in his honor as well. A very accomplished goat!

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King Puck!

Just beyone Killorglin, we stoped at a roadside display of crafts that Aidan recommended, and once again came upon the sight of a dog… sitting on a donkey.  I guess this is a thing in County Kerry?

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Dogs + donkeys.  Why?

Next, we stopped by the beach in Rossbeigh,  which looks across to the Dingle Peninsula.  Somehow I’m still surprised to see beaches in Ireland.

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checking out a portion of Rossbeigh beach

Aidan offered us an educational tidbit here and there, including a brief explanation of common town name origins around Ireland:

Kill = church

Bally = Town of

There are a number of ancient ring forts around Kerry,  and we had told Aidan we were interested to see one.  He took us  to Cahergall Stone Fort, which we were able to climb and take a few fun photos:

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I’m the King of the World!

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Please don’t fall

Just outside the fort, I took one of my favorite photos of this trip.  This home is so peaceful looking,  I think I could live here, very happily:

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Serenity Now

Valentia Island was our next stop,  offering dramatic, steep cliffs and views back to the larger island.  Aidan took us by the Valentia slate quarry, bored deep into a mountain:qjs+mnnfqvyncme8hvdmua

You may or  may not have noticed in the photo above, but Mary watches over it all:

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Beyond the quarry, we stretched our legs by hiking up to Bray Head on Valentia:

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Skellig Michael, filming site for Luke Skywalker’s home in “The Last Jedi”, in the far distance

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Looking across toward Portmagee

After a stop in Portmagee at The Moorings for a very pleasant lunch, we arrived at the Kerry Cliffs.  By now, Aidan had figured out that we like taking photos on cliffs.  We worked off our lunch hiking to the top, which was only about 2/3 mile from the parking lot, but fairly steep. Also, the sun came out while we were at lunch!

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Skellig Michael, closer now, in the distance.

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On our way to put those calories back on at the Skellig Chocolate Factory, I spotted an abandoned cottage that I tried photographing from several angles.  I thought the sky, clouds, and shadows seemed almost surreal.   I do need to photoshop out the antennae, but I love these photos.  You tell me which is best:

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We completed our trip around the Ring with stops in Caherdaniel:

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Mary is very popular in Ireland

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Somehow, we will pass that car, and no one will fall off a cliff

The bright little town of Sneem:

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Just the cheeriest looking pub ever

And a few views across Killarney National Park:

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An overlook known as Ladies’ View, where Queen Victoria’s laides-in-waiting visited in 1861

Now, 111 miles may not sound like a lot –  here in America,  barring traffic,  it’s an easy 2 hour drive. But attempting the ROK in anything under 6 hours is a foolhardy endeavor,  due to a combination of low speeds; windy, narrow roads; and the absolute compulsion to photograph nearly everything in sight. My iphone says I took 133 photos on our trip around the ring –  and it wasn’t enough.  Guess I need to go back!!

 

Dingle All the Way

From our base in Killarney, Oldest and I next headed to one of my favorite spots in Ireland:  the Dingle Peninsula.  While it’s definitely worthwhile to spend more time here by staying in Dingle Town, about 1/2 way out the peninsula, it would have been too many overnight destinations for us on this trip. The drive from Killarney was a surprisingly easy and uncomplicated day trip.

Just past Inch Beach on the R 561 (“R” roads are very  narrow,  twisty, and “interesting!”, only to be surpassed in treachery by “L” roads),  we had to slow down for this lovely lady and her baby, who can barely be seen behind mama:

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Farmers mark their sheep with different shades of paint

Since my primary goal was to show Oldest the Slea Head Drive, at the peninsula’s tip,  we set our Google Maps directions straight for Dingle town, where one of the first sights we came upon was …. a dog … sitting on top of a donkey. Hey, why not?

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We wandered around the busy town for a bit,  enjoyed an early lunch, and downed a pint of Crean’s, the local beer.  Crean’s is named after Tom Crean, an Antarctic explorer who hailed from the Dingle Peninsula.

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Heading to the Beer Garden at Danno’s

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Glad it wasn’t Monday, but this sign is cute!

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Only one, though,  because I was back to driving –  and now the roads became quite narrow.  While it’s possible for two cars to pass,  it’s not necessarily advisable:

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Oldest took this one from the passenger side.

Slea Head marks the end of the peninsula, and, like many points on the west coast, the locals will tell you when looking east “The next stop is America!”.   We continued to benefit from nice weather, so we were fairly active in our exploration of the peninsula,  first walking from the parking area down to Slea Head Beach, at sea level:

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View of Slea Head Beach, from above. The “arrow” in the sand must be pointing to buried treasure.  Right?

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This sign did not stop the swimmers

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Then we hiked back up,  and further up, to Dunmore Head promontory. Nearby signs told us that some filming for Star Wars took place here, although it is not the more famous Skellig Michael island,which is off the coast to our south.

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Walking up to the Head required climbing over an old stone fence,  which didn’t work out so well for yours truly,  who lost her balance and skinned my knees in a pretty gruesome way (I’ll spare you the yucky photo).   It was still worthwhile, though, just for these photos, looking back at the peninsula.  It was my 3rd trip to this spot, and each time I want to lie down and never leave these soft, rolling, green hills.  Although I imagine I might feel differently in, say, December.

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Oldest with one of the two “Devils Horns” at Dunmore Head

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Beautiful, even when seen with bloody knees

In three trips to Ireland, I have managed to make it to the Slea Head drive on the Dingle peninsula every time.  It is truly one of the most peaceful places I have ever visited, and I truly enjoyed sharing it with Oldest.  I have no doubt I will return again.

Top o’ the Morning from Killarney!

Time traveling back to Summer 2018, I’m with Oldest in Ireland.  After pretending to be part of a medieval adventure with Game of Thrones Tours,  it was time for some real,  2018-style adventure:  driving in Ireland.   That’s right, I’m getting behind the wheel, on the “wrong” side of the road.

First up:  I heeded the advice of the Tripadvisor forums, and rented the smallest car possible. I think a well-fed horse might have been bigger.

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I hired Corporate Transfers to take us from our Dublin lodging to the Hertz Dublin City Centre South location on Circular road;  their Transfer & Pilot Service includes a driver who we would follow out of Dublin city onto the main highways.   I have had the pleasure of meeting Corporate Transfers’ proprietor, Fintan Murray, on previous Ireland visits.

The Hertz location was packed and although we had a reservation, we waited in line for a good hour, while Dave from Corporate Transfers waited very patiently outside.  If you rent a car in Ireland, be prepared for long waits: many people do not do their research and do not understand the insurance options for driving in Ireland (hint: buy it all), which lengthens the process.  Finally,  off we went toward Killarney,  following Dave around busy city streets (eek!) until we reached the M7, a major, divided highway where I felt very comfortable driving. If it’s your first time driving on the left,  I highly recommend this service, as navigating tight one-way city streets is unlikely to be an easy baptism.

The drive from Dublin to Killarney takes a little over 3 hours.  The drive was surprisingly uneventful, and we were thrilled to find a tiny parking spot, to fit our tiny car, right in front of our hotel, the International Hotel Killarney.  This was our biggest lodging splurge of the trip;  I figured that after 9 days of traveling, we were due for a full service hotel experience.  The hotel is well-located in the center of town, and we found the beds to be extremely comfortable.

 

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Killarney’s High Street. It think that dude is checking me out ;)!

After checking in, we began to make our way into Killarney’s afternoon/night life.  It was the weekend of the annual Ring of Kerry charity bike race,  so Killarney, as the largest town on the Ring, was full of very fit revelers.   We spent most of the evening in and out of O’Connor’s and Tatler Jack’s –  the, uh, fuzzy/crooked nature of these photos hopefully assures my readers that I was having a GOOD time.

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Tiny car trying to drive through the alley outside O’Connor’s.  Those guys don’t look like they’re getting out of the way, do they?

 

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Fun, mixed-age crowd (who might have had a few drinks?) at Tatler Jack’s

Killarney is an excellent base for touring beautiful southwestern Ireland:  the Ring of Kerry, the Dingle Peninsula, and other beautiful landscapes.  While not a large city,  there are plenty of lodging and dining options from hostels and pubs to upscale resorts and 5 star dining.  And look:  other Cubs fans visit here too!  Hi Dave & Alex! Go Cubs!

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Planning a trip to Costa Rica: A very wordy explanation of how (and why) I plan trips

Are you interested in hearing more about how I plan my trips?  If so,  read on, and I’ll describe the next major trip I am taking with Dearest Husband.  I’ll let you know when and how I initially researched each trip,  what and when has been booked, and what my next steps will be to complete my trip planning process.  By the end,  you will be certain that my blog name should be CrazyBankerChickTravels.net.   If not, cheers and Happy New Year, you just got 30 minutes back!   I’ll be back to writing about actual travel experiences shortly.

Timing

The seeds of my 2019 travel plans were planted well before 2018.  For several years,  I have maintained a list of most-wanted destinations, on a spreadsheet that also includes whether I see the destination as best with a group,  with kids,  with  husband, and what months/seasons would be best to visit  (generally:  I prefer the “shoulder seasons” unless a destination is really weather dependent).  However, I also need to factor in our kids’ schedules;  for example,  this summer we will be sending one off to college, but we won’t know the dates for several months when she decides which school to attend.  Hence,  the entire month of August is off the list for major trip planning in 2019.  Other key dates such as graduations, weddings, Husband’s trade shows, etc.,  can also be a factor in choosing travel dates.

flat lay photography of calendar

 

Since I’m still tied to an office,  I also need to plan out my time away from work –  unfortunately, I haven’t figured out how to travel as much as I want and still have my banking career.   Generally,  I allocate between 13-17 annual vacation days to up to two major trips.    There are typically a few long-weekend,  1-2 day trips as well,  but these are handled a lot more spontaneously.

When I Book Flights and Lodging

Since I’m a confessed “obsessive travel planner”,  my significant trips are generally booked, at least on a skeletal basis (required flights, maybe a hotel or two),  9-12 months in advance.   I then utilize the intervening time to plan an actual itinerary.

So right about now you are probably saying  “OMG Banker Chick  you must be kidding me!  I don’t know what I want to do or if I’ll be available that far in advance!  So many things can happen!” While this is true,  I’ll attempt to make my case in a Q&A format:

Q: Why should I start booking so early?

A: Three reasons:

  • In my experience, the best opportunities to book a long-haul flight, hopefully using points,  is just after a flight becomes available.  On most airlines,  seats are released  11-12 months before travel.  I only pay actual $ for an overseas flight if it’s an exceptional bargain (which is tough to do at the last minute, for a popular destination, in a nice weather season).
  • While it’s unusual for hotels to fill up that far in advance, for certain destinations and timeframes,  choices become limited as the date approaches.  I like choices,  so knowing my dates early means I can research and choose from literally any lodging.
  • I’ve found that committing to the dates early makes it more likely that I’ll actually travel. It is far too easy to talk about a trip,  discover that the price is prohibitive or the best hotels booked, and say “eh, maybe next year”.

Q: But what if something changes and I can’t make the trip?

A: Yep, this is a risk.  There are two ways to manage this risk:

  • Carefully read the terms & conditions of all travel bookings. In most cases,  points-based flights can be changed or cancelled with very minimal change fees. The airlines don’t mind getting that free seat back to sell.  Similarly,  most hotels do not require upfront payment, or if they do,  may offer free cancellation up until a certain date closer to travel.
  • Buy trip insurance.  While certain travel uncertainties, such as trip delays and lost luggage, are covered by a good travel credit card, full trip insurance packages such as those offered by Insure My Trip also cover cancellation of a trip due to illness of the traveler or a primary family member, and medical costs while traveling.   Many policies also offer a “cancel for any reason” or “cancel for work reasons” rider,  for an extra cost.  Per the bullet point above,  carefully read the terms & conditions.

Costa Rica, March 2019

Costa Rica has been on my “most wanted” list for years.  It’s billed as safe, friendly,  and most of all, beautiful with a diverse landscape that is dramatically different to my own.  So,  why now?

This one came down to timing.  Husband and I will celebrate our 10th Anniversary in March, 2019, and want to spend this special day in a special destination.   March can be chilly in most of the Northern hemisphere,  and anticipating time spent in a sunny climate is the best antidote to a chilly East Coast winter. We also considered Aruba (where we own a timeshare), but decided we would rather explore a new locale;  Hawaii,  where we spent our honeymoon in 2009; and Australia,  but decided that this year, we didn’t want to dedicate the full 2 -3 weeks really needed to justify the long flight and expense.

Step 1: Initial planning and Research for Costa Rica

Once I’ve identified a likely destination candidate, it’s on to my bookmarks menu.  As I research trips or come across interesting travel sites pertaining to my “most wanted” list,  I make sure to bookmark interesting sites under a detailed “Travel” menu, by country.  Once I decide to book a trip,  the destination gets its own top billing on the bookmark menu until the trip has taken place (then, the bookmarks return to the general “travel” category).

For Costa Rica,  two travel/blog sites stood out:   Pura Vida, eh? and Two Weeks in Costa Rica,   written by avid travelers who have permanently relocated from North America to Costa Rica.

Step 2: Determining what we want to see, possible overnight destinations, and booking flights

Utilizing these sites and others, the next step was to determine exactly where in Costa Rica we might want to go.  Quickly recognizing that the country’s climate and topography is extremely diverse, and that we would be comfortable driving our own rental car, I realized that we would want to stay in more than one overnight destination. Whenever this is the case,  and when there is more than one major international airport,  I look into the possibility of an “open-jaw” flight:

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Sample open jaw flight

Open jaw means flying into one airport, and out of another.  Although there is a cost of transportation between the two airports (in this case,  a one way car rental fee),  I like the possibilities and time savings of not having to backtrack.

At this point,  I spend a lot of time with my favorite mapping tools.  I look at the various destinations mentioned in the travel sites I’ve previously saved,  as well as Tripadvisor, Fodor’s, and other general travel sites.  I Google images of various towns and cities to see if they look like they match what I’m looking for.   I print a map and mark potential destinations,  to get a sense of their proximity to the various airports.

Since booking the flights usually comes first,  I determined that an open-jaw itinerary utilizing two  Costa Rica’s major airports, Liberia,  and  San Jose,  which are about 3 – 4 hours apart by drive time,  could work.   Then,  I research the best flight options. Into A, and out of B?  Into B, and out of A?  on what dates?  Can I cover a weekend?  Two weekends? In this case, we wanted to enjoy Costa Rica on the actual date of our anniversary,  so I worked around that.  I was able to secure First Class seats from our local airport, Newark,  to Liberia,  returning form San Jose to Newark. We are paying for the flight down,  with a very reasonable mid-3 figure fare,  and utilizing points for the return. Happy with the overall travel cost and getting some First Class pampering for our big anniversary, I booked these flights in early June 2018.

Step 2 1/2: Buy Trip Insurance.  If I’ve paid for flights,  presumably utilizing a nonrefundable fare,  now is the time to buy the trip insurance. If all flights are booked using points,  this can wait until I’ve made a significant cash payment for some element of the trip, for example, an AirBnB stay.

Step 3: Finalizing overnight destinations and # of nights in each place

OK, phew.  Flights are booked.  Now,  I take another look at my potential destinations.  What is there to do in each place? How far is it from each airport, and how far are the destinations from one another?

My definite preference is a minimum of 3 nights in a given location,  with the small exception of an airport hotel sleepover prior to an early flight. 3 nights give you two full days where no travel is required, to fully explore a destination.  Of course,  more can be better,  but I start with 3. I also prefer to keep travel time between overnight destinations to about 1/2 day. This gives time for a leisurely pace.

In Costa Rica, I realized that while we will never be able to enjoy the whole country in the 10 days we have allotted to the trip,  we should be able to spend time in two of Costa Rica’s most reknowned climates:  the Pacific coastal beaches,  and the Arenal Volcano/ rainforest region in the northern central part of the country. My goal on a first trip is to sample some of the more popular locales first.  Who knows when we will return? Highlights and generally highlights for a reason.   Maybe that’s not too adventurous of me, but I also want to make sure that I’m spending my hard earned money, and 10 precious travel days, in a worthwhile manner.

Once I’ve centered on my overnight destination(s), I begin researching hotels or other lodging options.  To choose a hotel,  my primary sources of information  are direct hotel websites and TripAdvisor.

A note on TripAdvisor:

While I utilize its “Traveler Rankings” as a general guide,  I do not believe that a hotel rated #2  of 20 is infinitely better than one rated, say, #9 of 20.   It’s probably a better choice than the ones rated 19 and 20,  so to save time I generally only dig deeply into the top 40-50% of ranked hotels for my desired destination, and within that group,  the ones that fit  my budget.    I look at price,  overall star rating,  and then I do the real dirty work:  I read traveler reviews.  The most important thing here is not to let any single review make your decision.    Here are the types of reviews I make sure to read:

  • Most recent –  here I quickly look at the most recent 15-20 reviews.  If more than a couple are less than 3 star,  that may be a bad sign. But not necessarily.
  • Worst reviews –  those with 1 and 2 stars.  How recent are they?  What are the actual complaints?
    • are they extremely subjective? (i.e. the food stinks, the beds are too hard)
    • is it clear that the traveler had reasonable expectations ? In this category are those complaining that their Costa Rica resort was “too hilly” and it was hard to walk around.  Um,  did you look at a map/ photos?
    • typically at least 30% of these are related to booking issues:  “they didn’t have my reservation”.  Unless this is a frequent complaint,  I tend to believe that in the age of computers,  resorts that are otherwise well-reviewed do not just “lose” a reservation.
    • Another 30% or so are typically dedicated to a service rant regarding a particular individual.  I usually disregard these, unless it’s a frequent or recently repetitive complaint.  But if it was that frequent,  the hotel wouldn’t have an overall 4 star rating.
  • Reviews from the season I intend to travel – for obvious reasons
  • “Average” reviews:  those with 3 stars.  I find that these reviews usually include a lot of good information and “pros and cons”,  and are generally not written by someone with an axe to grind.   Your con, might be my pro  (ie, “it was too quiet, and there was nothing happenning at night”  or “too many children”).

I will comment here that I’m less of a TripAdvisor fan now that it seems to be more focused on being a travel booking engine than a traveler review site.  So,  I also read reviews on Booking.com and Hotels.com for good measure. Hey, it’s still better than relying on the hotel website’s own reviews.

Step 4: Exploring destination options and booking activities that require booking.

Now:  I know where I’m staying and for how many nights.  By this point, I’ve also created a running, stream-of-consciousness set of notes on the overnight locations, including activities specific to the hotel.   These might look something like this:

Guanacaste – Papagayo

beaches, small towns  dry & dusty in March

river or national park, wildlife

waterfall or white wtaer rafting a possibility

one small casino in Tamarindo 1 hr drive from Papagayo

shuttle to Four Seasons or sunset catamaran

mixology class

Arenal – La Fortuna –

Mud baths, volcano hike, hanging bridges, hot springs **bring bug spray**

spa, cooking class on site?

zip lining available but bumpy car ride

coffee and chocolate plantations

There’s a lot more –  my notes pages for a 10 day trip are typicallly  4- 5 full Word Doc pages of this rambling, and at the end I include general tips and a packing list.

Again,  for this I utilize TripAdvisor,  focusing primarily on the now VERY HARD TO FIND (are you listening, TA)?  destination forums.  Again,  comments on the forums are taken with a grain of salt,  but it becomes clear pretty quickly who the real destination experts are.

A key at this point:  do any of the activities we really want to do,  require prebooking?

You may not believe me,  but although I’m an obsessive planner, I would rather NOT prebook every activity down to the last minute.   Instead,  I prefer to prebook only activities that meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • can’t miss,
  • unavailable without a reservation, or
  • will have to wait in a 3 hour line

For example,  the Sistine Chapel during Easter week.   Otherwise,  I create a set of options that we can review each day and decide what to do based on the weather,  our energy level, or what someone at the bar told us about the previous evening.

Step 5: (optional) Create itinerary balance view calendar

For long trips,  I think it’s important to ensure that the itinerary includes a balance of busy days,  travel days, and rest / optional days.  As I already noted,  I like to spend several days in a location,  rather than traveling day after day after day,  with a trip that ends up being no more than the view of a car or train window.  I have found the best way to visualize the “busyness balance” of a trip.

A snapshot of an early itinerary balance view calendar from my recent Scotland-Ireland trip (I ended up changing this a bit,  but you get the idea):

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As you might imagine, the color codes have a meaning:  Green = unplanned free time or very minimal time requirements, explore options;  Red = booked;  Blue = travel.

I did not feel the need to create a balance view calendar for Costa Rica, as there will be a plenty of downtime on this trip,  on purpose.   It’s more important for a sightseeing-heavy itinerary.

Step 6:  Create Detailed Itinerary

This is my piece-de-resistance, and the result of all this effort.  For each trip, I create a word document (actually, I’ve been using Pages lately),  day by day,  including every booking:  flights, hotels, reservation #s, contact info, website links, and pictures.

I’m currently finalizing this for my March trip,  and my goal is to have it completed 1 month before travel.

The average document is about 10 pages long, and can be longer depending on the trip length and number of destinations.  I use large font and lots of photos, so this isn’t as much as it seems.  But it allows us to take a quick look, and visually see our days and options.  I also include a list of restaurants in each location, from reviews on TripAdvisor, Yelp, and TA forum mentions.  I don’t always stick to these restaurants,  as I love to stumble upon a place,  but sometimes it’s nice to just say “I’m feeling like pizza” and not have to go to far to find a decent one.

These itineraries function as my own personal guidebook for my trip.  They are uploaded to icloud and downloaded to my iPad so they can be visible even if I’m offline.

Since this detailed personal itinerary document maybe be hard to picture,  I’ve added a link here to the first 5 pages of my Scotland & Ireland 2018 itinerary –  I hope you’ll get the idea!  Scotland Ireland 2018 itinerary

Step 7: Upload Itinerary and reservation confirmations / emails to icloud.

We’re almost there!!!   This is where the excitement starts to really build,  and the trip is close.  During the last few weeks prior to the trip, I will create .pdf documents of all confirmation emails, and related documents.  These go in specific folders in my icloud drive labeled Flights, Lodging, Car Rentals, Trip Insurance,  etc.    If possible,  I carry no paper –  occasionally, though, a reservation will specify that I need a printed copy.

Step 8, which may overlap with steps above:  start planning the next trip.  

This is  arguably the most important step of all.  Step 8 should be started preferably before the prior trip,  so there is ALWAYS something to look forward to, even on the last day of an amazing trip.   In this case:  Prost! to Oktoberfest in Munich,    September 2019!

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about my process, and maybe picked up a tip or two.  Maybe you completely disagree with my process, and prefer to just wing it:  if so, more power to you!  There’s room for every travel style –  I just like mine best 🙂 .

 

 

Slothing Around: Western Caribbean Ports

Our Getaway cruise included four stops in the Western Caribbean:  Roatan, Honduras; Harvest Caye, Belize; Costa Maya, Mexico, and Cozumel, Mexico.

First,  a comment on cruise line shore excursions vs. private excursions run by locals. Many cruisers  naturally gravitate toward the cruise line-sponsored excursions.  There is nothing wrong with these options. Not only do they boast easy-to-understand names like “Beach Break” , “Dolphin Encounter”, and “Extreme Adventure Tour”,  they guide cruisers toward appropriate activity levels (not soooooo fit?  Maybe the Superman zipline isn’t for you).  They typically accommodate any size travel group.  You can easily pay for the excursion using your onboard account. It’s easy to find our tour guide on the pier when leaving the ship. They also,  importantly, promise that you will not miss the ship.  All Aboard is generally about 30 minutes before sailing – if your excursion provider miscalculates, or there is unexpected traffic,  you could miss the ship if not on a cruise line excursion.

So what’s the downside?

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That’s right,  money.  Cruise line excursions generally cost anywhere from 30 – 100% more than those that can be found on land.

But money isn’t the only reason I generally choose private, local excursions.  The big one: you get a more private, local experience.  For example, our driver in Roatan took us by the house where he had grown up – and his 91 year old mother waved from her perch on the front porch.

Worried about missing the ship?  Choose one of the larger, trusted landside companies –  these are easy to research on  CruiseCritic.com’s ports of call boards,  or on TripAdvisor.  These companies wouldn’t stay in business long if their guests were missing their ships.  I’ve also found that the tour companies and various guides generally all know one another –  and they communicate about things like traffic.  Particularly in the Caribbean,  cruise passenger activity is a major economic boon.  Everyone is invested in you having a great time and no bad experiences.

Would I ever use a cruise line excursion?  Sure – particularly in a destination where few speak English, I would consider it,  because I’m nowhere near bilingual.

Anyway,  a review of our ports (well, 3 of the 4 anyway):

Coxen Hole, Roatan, Honduras

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View of Coxen Hole port from our balcony

We used Rony’s Tours to schedule a private driver for the day on a “Freestyle” tour,  selecting our own activities.  Rony’s website includes a number of group options,  which can be even less expensive,  but for $40pp we thought having our own driver was the best option.  Our driver, Cameron, was born and raised in Coxen Hole.  He had spent a number of years working on cruise ships, and also on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico,  but had returned to home to Roatan and now enjoys giving tours on a flexible schedule in his later years.

Our first stop was the Monkey and Sloth Hangout, which is as cool as it sounds.  The owner, Daniel Johnson, is a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, and all of the employees wore Steelers garb, which seemed odd in the steamy Caribbean but we went with it. We were arranged in groups with other guests, and quickly introduced to a two-toed sloth named Snow White:

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Sloths move as slowly as you think they do.  The caretakers did a good job of (slowly) carrying  and letting us hold the sloths –  when they settled into our chests, their long arms automatically tighted around our shoulders like a hug.  And they appear to be smiling and enjoying the experience, at least a little. They do have very long, sharp toes or toenails-  I think the way this place handled the animals was the right way, as we heard from  cruise passengers who went to different sloth encounters,  held them differently, and got scratches.

Next up were the Capuchin Monkeys.  We were warned to remove everything from our pockets, as well as all jewelry, hats, sunglasses, etc.,  as these guys are quite the little pickpockets.

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Monkey stare down

The monkeys liked to jump around their cage and onto guests’ heads –  they managed to scare one little girl in our group, although she was unharmed, she thought the monkey had bitten her ear.  If traveling with small children, remember that they are semi-wild animals, and can seem a little rougher than your pet puppy.

Next we visited the South Shore Zip Line Adventure Park for a suspension bridge eco tour.t7TYLejAT7eNoaTmHN7PSA

We crossed 8 different bridges,  which is harder than it looks as they are very bouncy.  Zipliners whizzed above our heads;  we had ziplined before and decided we didn’t need to repeat the experience.  Our guide spoke fast and walked fast, but we didn’t mind a little exercise at this point in our trip.  The trail is structured to go down the side of a mountain from point to point;  we were glad there was a truck waiting to drive us back up.   We learned a bit about the local flora and fauna, and saw some huge termite nests –   learning that these are literally “shithouses” (pardon my francais) –  termites live in nests built from their own dung.

So that, of course, made us hungry.  It was fairly late for lunch at this point, so we asked the driver to take us to nearby West Bay Beach, where we enjoyed french fries and the best kind of beer, a beaachfront beer:

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As the ship departed from Roatan, local musicians played lively Caribbean music as a sendoff:7%3wV78rRXyzQ6LwOVgQkg

 

Harvest Caye, Belize

Harvest Caye is one of Norwegian’s two private islands. Just off the cost of Belize,  the 75-acre eco-friendly resort was built at a cost of $50 million and includes swimming pools, beaches with loungers, water activities including standup paddle boards, kayaks, and pedal boats, a rope course, zip lines, shopping, restaurants, and bars.  Unlike most cruise line private islands,  food and beverage package drinks are NOT included for ship guests. All restaurants and bars are run by locals, to profit the local economy.

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Long-ish walk to the island; a tram is available

 

Visitors also have the option to take a ferry to the mainland, for additional adventures such as cave tubing, Mayan ruins, and private tours.

We chose to stay on the island for awhile;  it was a fairly cloudy, breezy day so we didn’t stay as long as we might have had the sun been shining.  The families in particular seemed to enjoy the large pool and pool area –  so much nicer than what you find on a ship,  with plenty of room for kids to frolic in the water.

Costa Maya, Mexico

Well, I said 3 out of 4;  this was our dud –  not due to any fault of the island, but due to the weather.  We awoke to stormy skies, but as we prepared to go onshore to visit Maya Chan Beach Resort, which we had read so many positive things about,  I checked my emails to find that the resort was offering optional refunds due to the weather.  Refusing to believe that our day could be ruined,  we made our way steadfastly down the gangway – and promptly got soaked from a torrential, windblown tropical downpour. We won’t melt!, I said.  But Husband convinced me that the prospect of a day at a beach resort in this weather was simply not too enticing.

Kudos to Maya Chan for a great business practice,  allowing guests to cancel when bad weather threatens – I’m sure that’s one reason they get such excellent reviews on both Cruise Critic and Tripadvisor.

We will try again, Maya Chan and Costa Maya!

The skies did clear in the afternoon, and Husband wandered off the ship for this nice photo:

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Cozumel, Mexico

Cozumel, an island off the Yucatan peninsula, is a tourst-friendly place.  Its southern shore is lined with  beach clubs,  roughly a 15-20 minute ride from the ships depending on where you are docked, and which beach club you choose.

Other shore excursion options here include a trip to the mainland to see famous Mayan ruins,  and swimming with dolphins –  an activity we had done with our 4 kids, about 7 years ago.

We chose to visit Mr. Sancho’s,  an all inclusive beach resort with food, drinks, pools, a waterpark, and beach loungers for $55 per person plus the cab ride on your own there and back.   We arrived fairly early, around 9:30 am.  Nothing says vacation quite like guacamole and a beer for breakfast!

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Our cab driver told us there were 7 (!) cruise ships docking in Cozumel that day, but Mr. Sancho’s never became overcrowded.  The cab driver and guards at the gate indicated that no one could enter without a prior reservation;  these are made online for a $5 pp refundable deposit. We were able to easily move from sunny seats to shady seats to a dining table without any trouble;  a friendly waiter brought us drinks and food from the menu wherever we sat, for a nice tip at day’s end.

The Cozumel port requires a long walk through a gauntlet of shops and services, including tour operators, jewelry stores, hair braiding, and Mexican crafts.

We resisted the temptation at most stores;  our only purchase was a definitely unlicensed, black market Mexican-style backpack bearing the Cubs logo for $15 (bargained down from $20).

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These bags were displayed all over the island, with every MLB/NFL/NBA/NHL team represented.  No doubt they’re made in China, but a fun reminder of our trip nonetheless.

Our Getaway cruise was just the getaway we needed.  Captain Roger Gustavsen ran a smoooooooth ship;  almost as smooth as his crooning at the Captian’s VIP party!  He entertained us with “Lady in Red” and “Wonderful Tonight” –  what a treat.   Here’s our sunset finale:

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