Nayara Springs – Rainforests, volcanos, and luxury: oh my!

Switching gears on our 10th Anniversary Costa Rica trip, Husband I left the sunny, dry  Peninsula Papagayo in Guanacaste and made our way to the rainforest and the small  town of La Fortuna, Costa Rica.  The drive took us a little over 3 hours, and was, shall we say, a bit adventurous;  we may have made a wrong turn, but followed our trusty Google Maps.  Somehow we ended up on a mostly unpaved road,  essentially offroading over a mountain.  We were lucky to have a 4 wheel drive vehicle –  at one point it felt like we were climbing at a 90 degree angle!

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See where the blue line exits Rt 142 and appears to cut across?  That’s the rough portion of the road. Thanks Google for making things…. interesting!

This friendly fellow greeted us at our lunch stop as we approached the Lake Arenal area:

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And by the way … excellent fried chicken to be had here!

As we made our way around Lake Arenal, we enjoyed incredible views of the Arenal Volcano, from across the lake:

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Those are clouds, not an eruption

Arenal is classified as an active volcano, with its last major eruption in 1968, but most recent in 2010. The volcano is surrounded by a mountainous rainforest full of wildlife and beauty. And it was here that we found our incredible resort, Nayara Springs, which was The. Best. Resort. I’ve. EVER. Visited. Period.

As is proudly displayed on its website, Nayara Springs has won a number of luxury travel awards. Since this was an anniversary trip, and we had used points at our other Costa Rican destination, the Andaz, we chose to splurge on this spot and Oh! was it worth it.  (Husband says:  Banker Chick is really good at finding excuses to book luxury).  Rooms –  which aren’t typical hotel rooms, but villas –  1,500 freakin’ sq. ft. villas – average about $900 / night. Because we booked more than six months in advance, we got a special rate of 4 nights for the price of 3.  Still far from cheap, but again … this place was worth every penny. And I will note,  they don’t nickel and dime you –  there is no resort fee, and the resort includes a free in room mini bar (non-alcoholic),  free breakfast, free laundry, and free international phone calls.

A few photos of our amazing villa:

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A romantic Anniversary greeting awaited us
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Seating area with fresh fruit and champagne
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Netting around the bed was unnecessary, there were no bugs in the room
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sliding glass doors to private balcony with infinity pool
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Infinity pool, surrounded by lush vegetation
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The bathroom was easily 500 sq. ft.  In this photo, indoor shower and outdoor shower
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Another view of outside shower.  I couldn’t get enough of this bathroom!
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View across the bathroom. Did I tell you I couldn’t get enough?
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Hammock on patio just waiting for me…
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Ahhhh – pura vida!

Not only the villas, but the entire resort was maintained to perfection. Dense foliage surrounded well lit, hilly pathways:

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Since the resort is on the side of a mountain,  some of the terrain could be steep.  Fortunately, the resort offered golf cart transportation if needed.  We were glad to take the cart one night,  because our driver spotted this colorful little guy:

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Only in Costa Rica:  the red-eyed tree frog
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The path outside our villa in the evening

There are several restaurants on the property,  which also offers evening entertainment.  Because of the dark, mountainous terrain,  it’s probably advisable to stay on property in the evening unless you are very comfortable with that kind of driving.  We enjoyed meals at Mis Amores, a Latin bistro where breakfast is served, Asia Luna, a fusion restaurant, Nostalgia wine & tapas bar, and our favorite: Amor Loco, a sumptuous fine food restaurant with purple velvet seating –  quite a contrast to the surrounding rainforest!

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That is a serious fruit plate – breakfast at Mis Amores

 

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Our waiter at Amor Loco preparing some kind of flaming drink
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Evening entertainment at Nayara Springs
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Returning to our villa,  well lit steps show just how secluded we were

Finally,    I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the  spa at Nayara Springs.  Yes, I know,  we went to the spa at Andaz … but Nayara was offering some kind of discount on their massages so we ended up going not once, but twice,  squeezing in a second treatment on our last day.  The spa at Nayara is open air,  so rather than piped in nature sounds, what you hear is an actual rainforest!  Try the chocolate scrub –  wonderful.

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spa entrance at Nayara Springs

The resort was so beautiful, we spent most of our four days there enjoying its delights.  However, we did manage to get off the property during the day a few times.  I pre-booked a pass at Eco Termales Hot Springs.  I don’t have any photos of this experience, because once arriving all electronics were stored safely in a locker.  But we did enjoy the multiple thermal, sulfuric pools.  The resort was clean,  not at all crowded, and peaceful.

We also arranged a day tour through the resort:  a private horseback riding and hanging bridges trek at  Mistico Park in La Fortuna. Note that this tour is not featured on Nayara Springs’ website –  be sure to ask the concierge about your choices. We were able to book just a a couple of days in advance. We paid $73 per person including transportation to and from the park.

If you want to be truly immersed in the treetops of the rainforest, and aren’t too afraid of heights, a hanging bridge trek is a great way to learn more about the flora and fauna of the area. There is a fair bit of hiking on uneven paths on this tour, and some up and downhill walking,  so be prepared to be active (and to sweat) and wear good trekking shoes.

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View into the rainforest canopy
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Hanging on a bridge

Our horses, Tequila and Indio, were amazingly well trained and stable on steep and narrow pathways.  Once again we enjoyed the services of a fantastic local guide, Francisco.  Francisco hailed from Nicaragua, and has 17 – seventeen!  brothers and sisters.  With so many siblings, he needed to support himself at a young age and migrated to Costa Rica, finding a home near Arenal where he became an excellent horseman.   We felt extremely safe with him and these horses.

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du du du du du DU du – TEQUILA!

 

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hey there, Indio!

During our tour we saw wild pigs,  a sloth, and a toucan in the wild. Francisco also pointed out an amazing Sleeping Plant (the dormilona),  also known as a Touch Me Not, that folds in upon itself when touched, to protect itself against predators and harsh weather.

Low clouds made the first part of our journey very foggy,  obscuring the views – the photo below actually looks over a hill, toward Lake Arenal and the volcano (just trust me):

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Francisco in the Fog

But, within less than 30 minutes,  the clouds partially cleared.  Francisco was kind enough to take us back to the scenic hilltop for more photos:

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Arenal volcano, partially obscured by clouds, in the background

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We hated to leave Nayara and the rainforest.  I admit, although I knew the resort was going to be very nice based on the reviews and awards, I was surprised –  I thought it would be too buggy and humid for me to really enjoy.  But the amenities, people, and natural beauty far outweighed any negatives. We will be back!

We flew home from San Jose airport, about a 2 1/2 hour drive from the Arenal area but a bit less adventurous,  mostly via highway.  We have incredible memories of Costa Rica. Pura Vida!

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Pura Vida says it all in Costa Rica

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eco-friendly Costa Rica: Tico Tours Private Palo Verde Tour Review

First, a little thought on day tours. While I enjoy being an independent traveler and exploring at my own pace,  there is something to be said for a guided day tour, particularly when visiting a place to which you’ve never traveled.  There are two basic types of day tours –  group tours,  which take place on a bus or minibus and can include anywhere from 8 – 50 people,  and private tours which are, you guessed it, private and catered only to your group.  The latter can be a more expensive option, although if your group is more than 4 people,  not necessarily on a per person basis.  Group tours certainly have their place:  less pricy,  typically including all of the well researched highlights of a region, meeting fellow travelers, well trained guides with a microphone or headset. Reviews abound.   They are simply … predictable.  Private tours, on the other hand,  offer the traveler the ability to design a “bespoke” day (I hate that word, btw,  followed closely by “curated”) –  seeing and doing exactly what you want to do.  Stop to take a picture of that cute cow. Stop for water or the toilet.  Grab lunch when you’re hungry, or skip it entirely.  But of course, that flexibility comes at a cost –  not only a financial one, but the risk of a little less predictability. The quality and knowledge of the guide makes a huge difference here.

With that said,  Husband and I were very pleased we chose to take a private tour, arranged by Tico Tours Guanacaste (which offers both types of tours),  called the Palo Verde tour.  If you click on the “rates” section of the tour page,  you will see the choice between group or private touring. This tour included a visit to its namesake National Park,  Palo Verde,  full of local wildlife,  a boat ride down the Tempisque river, cultural stops and information, and lunch at a hacienda once owned by a former President of Costa Rica.

And so,  we’re off!

Our guide, Mario, actually majored in becoming a tour guide.  His knowledge was evident as he told us a little about Costa Rica’s history:  first, a reminder that the Americas weren’t discovered by Christopher Columbus, but by the Chinese, as evident on maps made well before 1492.  Then, the interesting note that unlike much of Central and South America,  Costa Rica was not initially populated by the Spanish.  Why?  Because there wasn’t any gold.

While Costa Rica’s abundant farmland produces cantaloupe, pineapple, palm oil, bananas, coffee, watermelon, and citrus fruits, an important crop is sugar cane.  Did you know that sugar cane can be used to make a wide variety of products, including molasses, fuel, and paper?  We didn’t! We stopped to watch migrants from Nicaragua harvest the sugar cane by hand, using machetes.  Apologies for the distance of the photo, but I didn’t want to get that close…

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Workers harvesting sugar cane in Guanacaste, Costa Rica

The Nicaraguan workers toiling under the hot sun are paid by the square meter harvested,  and as a result they move surprisingly fast given the heat. Mario explained that the majority of the workers are migrants, because the native Costa Ricans are financially well off and don’t need to do this type of hard labor.  He credits the excellent public education,  government provided healthcare, and the tourism industry for giving Costa Rica such a strong economy for the area.  The 9.16% income tax covers not only healthcare, but retirement pensions,  for residents of Costa Rica.  No wonder that many foreigners, especially Americans, are making Costa Rica home.

Our next stop was a visit along the Tempisque river, where oxen assist in dredging the riverbed for dirt and sand that will be used in making concrete:

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A fascinating, old world process…

Concrete is an essential product in Costa Rica, where most homes are built of concrete –  wood is too quickly rotted by termites here. Mario explained that using oxen to mine the cement base is more environmentally friendly,  maintains tradition, and keeps the profit in the pocket of local families rather than large corporations.

On our way to the hacienda lunch, Mario had a quiz for us.  He picked what appeared to be a fruit off a tree, and asked us what we thought it was:

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What is it?

A pepper? No.

A tomato of some sort?  No.

A sweet fruit like a mango or papaya? No.

We didn’t guess correctly until we were offered a number of clues:  It starts with a C. It’s sold at almost any grocery. It contains protein. It often comes in a can.  Finally….. it’s a nut.  What?  That “fruit” above is the casing for one, single cashew nut!   And by the way,  the rind has a nasty taste.  Amazing –  Every day I realize how much I don’t know,  and even more so when I travel.

Our next stop was a hacienda where we were led, along with other Tico Tours guests, on a cultural experience led by Ramon and Juanita,  a couple dressed in traditional clothing who run this small tourist attraction.  First, we watched the traditional process of extracting sugar cane, using oxen:

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yoked oxen walk in a circle, grinding pulp into sugar cane using a long pole

Ramon and Juanita also treated us to “puntalita”,  little corn-based snacks,  and taught me how to make a tortilla in preparation for a delicious, authentic lunch.

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Time to make the tortillas!
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I was a little intimidated by the hot, hot pan used to cook the tortillas

After lunch, we continued our journey,  deeper in to Palo Verde National Park,  where we embarked on our jungle river cruise.  Thanks to Mario’s eagle eyes,  on the way we were treated to a very special sight in the adjacent wetlands: the Jabiru.  Less than 100 of these stork-like birds remain in the wild in Costa Rica. Wow!

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A jabiru in Guanacaste, Costa Rica

Mario made note that Costa Rica has a very environmentally conscious wetlands law:  wetlands are not taxed,  and if kept wild,  owners actually receive a stipend from the government.

We embarked on a small boat for our eco-tour of the river, where our captain helped us spot various wildlife:

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Blue Heron
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Basilisk,  aka “Jesus Christ Lizard”, because they can walk on water
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Hello monkey!
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Crocodile on the move

On this highly informative tour,  we learned is that despite growing wealth through tourism and real estate development, Costa Ricans desire to preserve the many natural wonders that surround them. Moreover, Costa Ricans have a sense that their country is special.  And we agree!

Guanacaste, Costa Rica: bringing the heat – and the chill

For our 10th Anniversary,  Husband and I treated ourselves to a first class trip to Costa Rica.  Our first stop in this beautiful and friendly country was dry, sunny Peninsula Papagayo.

We flew directly from Newark to Liberia,  the smaller of Costa Rica’s two major international airports,  located in the country’s dry northwest.    While I usually use points for flights,  we were able to secure first class seats on United for the 5 hour flight,  for under $500 each,  by flying on a Wednesday.   Note that for this trip we chose an “open jaw” route,  flying into Liberia and home from San Jose,  Costa Rica’s capital.  I often search for this type of route,  which allows flexibility in finding the cheapest/ lowest point flight choices,  and also allows for movement within the trip without backtracking.

We secured a rental car through Vamos,  a local company.  The rental car experience felt very local … we were shuttled to a small office that could have (and probably did) double as someone’s home.  There was a short wait for the car, a 4 wheel drive Dihatsu –  which helped us acclimate to “Costa Rica time” –  and then we were off to the beautiful Andaz Costa Rica Resort at Peninsula Papagayo.

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Andaz Resort Lobby

Shout out to an article on The Points Guy,  a very helpful and friendly website for those who want to maximize the use of credit card points,  for making me aware of an excellent deal using Hyatt Points via my Chase Sapphire Reserve card.  For only 15,000 points per night,  we booked our room at the Andaz,  a beautiful resort situated on a steep hillside overlooking Culebra Bay on the Gulf of Papagayo.   A tremendous bargain, as the rooms typically go for up to $700 per night.

The points deal was supposed to offer us only a “Forest View”,  but we were very pleased with the view we had, which included Culebra bay.  Bright morning sunlight awoke us each morning, but the sunrise was worth the early waking time.

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Morning View from our covered balcony
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Our room at the Andaz
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A complementary Anniversary treat in our room at the Andaz

A few things to know about Papagayo,  if you plan to go:

  • It is close to Libera airport – less than an hour by car
  • It is extremely hot and sunny in March, and really,  for most of the year.  See this link: Annual Average Weather for Peninsula Papagayo.
  • If you’re afraid of monkeys,  staying there may be difficult;  they are everywhere in the trees and even visited us by the pool once or twice.  We were warned not to leave anything on the open balcony of our room, because the monkeys can be a little grabby…
  • The peninsula is developed as a luxury destination;  while there is dry forest wilderness surrounding each resort,  there are also luxuriously landscaped grounds and golf courses.  Other nearby resorts include the Four Seasons, Secrets, and the Kasaiiya Papagayo Luxury Wilderness Retreat .  In fact, the entire peninsula is gated and available only to guests or visitors to these resorts. We went through two sets of gates to get to the Andaz.
  • Because of the gated, resort nature of the area,  there is no town or city to wander to find restaurants, bars, and nightlife.  Therefore,  it’s likely that you will end up dining at your hotel most evenings for dinner.  Quiet relaxation is the order of the day.

We enjoyed each of the Andaz’ 3 main restaurants, Chao Pescao, a small plates venue; Rio Bhongo, which was the only restaurant serving breakfast; and Ostra,  the resort’s special occasion, seafood specialty restaurant which served us the most amazing ceviche I’ve ever had.  Because we had noted our anniversary on the reservation, we were treated to a bottle of champagne and special treat with our meal at Ostra:

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A Sweet anniversary

We also pampered ourselves with spa treatments,  a specialty at many of the resorts in this area. Pricey but worthwhile.  The spa includes its own small, shaded outdoor pool,  where Husband and I were the only occupants for several hours.

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Shaded spa pool at Andaz

When we visited the resort’s main pool one afternoon, we were treated to a visit from a family of Capuchin monkeys.  They seemed quite comfortable posing for the camera and entertaining the resort’s guests.

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this little guy scared the bejeezus out of a lady sitting nearby
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well hello there little fella!

Despite the heat, relaxation, and excellent dining, we did manage to leave the resort a few times.  We booked two private day tours with  Tico Tours, a local company.   The first was their “Palo Verde” tour. This tour was so informative and interesting,  I wrote a separate post about it!  Click here for my review of Tico Tours’ Palo Verde tour. Highly recommend. The other tour was an ATV tour of the vistas and beaches, found here on Tico’s website:  Tico Dune Buggy Tour We enjoyed this tour too –  plan to get dirty though!

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Following the leader
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Husband modeling the buff and goggles that protected our faces from the dirt.  Also looking ready to drive the Dune Buggy!

The Dune Buggy tour included a stop at an excellent beach bar/restaurant called Aquasport in the tiny enclave of Playa Hermosa. This is the kind of place I could spend many, many hours …  couldn’t you?

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Another day,  we chose to drive ourselves around the Guanacaste area,  discovering the small beach town of Playa Coco.  The vibe in Playa Coco was truly unique;  extremely casual,  full of extremely suntanned surfers, locals, and a number of Americans,  many of whom have relocated to Costa Rica permanently, or “snowbird” there during the winter.  Each bar and venue we stopped at (and we stopped at several!) felt like Cheers –  it seemed that everyone knew one another’s name.

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Coconutz Sport Bar,  Playa Coco

We even found an “Irish” pub in Playa Coco –  a necessary stop, because it was St. Patrick’s Day!

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We’re all a little Irish on St. Patrick’s Day!

Our stay in Guanacaste was an excellent introduction to northwestern Costa Rica. What we were soon to learn, however, is that it’s the diversity of Costa Rica’s experiences that make it such a fantastic destination.  There is just so much more to uncover –  and while Guanacaste is a very friendly,  relatively developed, and not particularly remote beach area,  its scenery and experiences are far less dramatic than much of the country has to offer.  Click here to read about our next Costa Rican stop,  which included The. Best. Resort. I’ve. EVER. Visited.

Oktoberfest: Planning Tips for Partying with the World

In a world that often seems divided,  whether by country, politics, religion, or otherwise, Munich’s Oktoberfest stands in stark contrast. Every year,  millions of patrons from around the world descend on the 16-day annual festival,  which has run since 1810 when it originated in celebration of the marriage of King Louis I (then crown prince of Bavaria)  to Princess Therese.   Today, the festival celebrates Bavarian culture including food,  dress, music, and of course, BEER! 

 

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Inside the Paulaner tent

A few fun statistics from Oktoberfest 2019 (courtesy of https://www.oktoberfesttours.travel/2019/10/10/oktoberfest-2019-beer-consumption/) 

  • 6.3 million patrons consumed 7.3 million liters of beer
  • Attendees hailed from at least 55 nations
  • Lost and Found items included 660 wallets,  420 mobile phones, and a set of dentures (oops!)  

A lot of early planning went into making our visit a success.  Here are a few tips and a review of our experience:

LODGING: Because Oktoberfest attracts so many visitors,  central Munich lodging must be booked well in advance or we would have ended up staying well outside the city.   I had booked the Platzl Hotel (https://www.platzl.de/en/) way back in January,  to ensure we would have a comfortable room in a great location walkable to the Fest. It wasn’t cheap, but the rooms were comfortable, very near Marienplatz in Munich’s Old Town and the famous Hofbraeuhaus,  and I thought it would be a reasonably close walk to the festival grounds. It was,  but just barely –  more on that below.

LOCATION AND TRANSPORTATION: Here’s a tip from my experience:   When figuring out the distance to Oktoberfest from your lodging, note that a simple Google Map routing to Thereisenweise,  the name of the park where Oktoberfest is held, will not necessarily tell you how far you are from the grounds:  Add at least 1/2 a mile.  Due to security, there are only a couple of entrances to the actual festival.  It’s easy enough to follow the crowd toward the grounds (I promise, you won’t miss it!), but once you reach the perimeter you may have to walk quite a ways,  sometimes away from the grounds through crowd barrier chutes,  to enter the park.   While our hotel was only 1.4 miles (as “the crow flies”),  we walked over 2 miles in addition to a lot of walking within the festival.   On our first day, when we also walked to Bavarian Outfitters (see below),  I clocked over 11 miles on my Apple watch!  After our second evening outing, we caved and got a cab for our tired feet.

CLOTHING: I also pre-reserved rented Trachten (his & hers traditional Bavarian clothing) from Bavarian Outfitters.   The pickup location for the clothing was on the southern edge of Old Town, and reminded me of the pop-up Halloween costume stores that seem to multiply each year at home.  It was an undecorated, rented space with racks and racks of clothing.  I also later realized that there are many similar stores around Munich during the Fest;  pre-reserving probably wasn’t necessary as we were just guessing at sizes anyway, and ended up taking something different than we had reserved.  The results,  however were worth every penny!   Whether you reserve ahead or not,  do rent or buy the clothing, you won’t be sorry!

 

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Husband and I in our Trachten

ATTEND WITH FRIENDS: Another key to the fun was meeting up with friends in Munich.  Oktoberfest is definitely a “more the merrier” type of place, and it seemed the majority of attendees were part of a larger group.  One couple joined us for our entire stay in Munich,  and we also joined forces with family friends to reserve a whole table at the Marstall tent our first night in town. 

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BEER TENT RESERVATIONS: Regarding tent table reservations:  it’s a little crazy.   Many tables are not available to the public;  think of it like season tickets for a popular sports team  – they only go to people who already have a reservation from prior years. Forget about making a reservation on Friday or Saturday, unless you choose to use a service that charges you extra.   And you can’t reserve just a few spots, you need to reserve and pay for the whole table which is 8 – 12 people.  While the tents don’t actually charge for the reservation itself,  you do need to prepay a minimum spend on the food and drink;  in our case for Marstall it was about $50/per person.   In our case,  I was able to snag a Sunday night reservation thanks to alerts from Weisnkini,  which I highly recommend subscribing to if you plan to attend Oktoberfest. I received emails regularly when table reservations became available, and we reserved literally the last table in the Marstall tent for that evening.

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Outside the Marstall tent

 

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View from the very last available table at Marstall

Google Translate was invaluable with the reservations.  While most of the tents have an English page,  the reservation confirmation and “terms and conditions” are all in German –  yikes!  Here’s my confirmation:

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WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE A TENT RESERVATION:  It would be unlikely (and expensive) to get a reservation for more than one night at the Fest.  If you plan to attend more than once, as we did,  just be prepared to go with the flow.  You won’t get a beer if you aren’t seated. Here are the best options without a reservation:

  • Go during the daytime – before 4pm
  • Avoid weekends, especially weekend evenings
  • Look for seating in the outdoor biergartens adjacent to each tent
  • Go in small groups or be prepared to split up –  there is a much better chance to squeeze into a table with 2 or 4 people than with 8 or 10
  • Be patient;  a little seat-hawking can be worth while –  when you see a group with mostly empty beer glasses, just bide your time nearby as they may be preparing to move on.  There’s still plenty of excellent people-watching activity until you get your beer!
  • Pop into a tent near the end of the night;  within an hour or so of closing,  tents start to empty and you will be able to enter and find a spot at a table
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    Biergarten fun

 

YOUTUBE THE SONG, “EIN PROZIT”.  So you don’t think they are saying “I’m frozen, I’m frozen…” like I did.   #misheardlyrics

DRINK RESPONSIBLY:  Or not.  It’s up to you.  You will be in good company if you choose to overindulge –  the medics are kept busy at Oktoberfest! But the beers are large –  not only do you want to minimize bathroom trips,  (especially for the ladies –  lines and ewwww), but you want to be able to make it home in one piece. On our walk back to the hotel, we saw a group gathered around one of their fallen compatriots –  just completely passed out on the curb.  The police were summoned,  determine he was still breathing, and moved on –  this is just not an emergency in Munich at Oktoberfest.  Another fellow was passed out inside an ATM lobby. Here are a couple of fellow partiers who didn’t quite finish the night:

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MAKE FRIENDS FROM AROUND THE WORLD:  We met people from France, Canada, Australia, Germany, the UK, and Dubai in addition to other Americans.  Whether sharing your table, or at adjacent tables, or on the dance floor,  find your inner extrovert and enjoy meeting people from all over the world!

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Our new friend, “Dubai Guy” was traveling alone.  Ready to head home in his G6

If you’re lucky,  your friend will enjoy enough beer to buy a chicken hat (press a button, and the legs move to the “chicken dance” song),  which will help you make friends!

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A 6’4″ American wearing a chicken hat is a sure hit at Oktoberfest…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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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How I became a travel addict

When it comes to travel,  I’m something of a late bloomer. As a child growing up outside of Chicago, I always looked forward to taking trips with my parents, and was lucky enough to visit Disney World and Hawaii before the age of 18.  Torch Lake, MI was a regular destination, as was Door County, WI.   Even a train ride to the big city was an adventure I loved!

After college, I relocated to New Jersey to get married and start a family at the age of 25.  Due to a lack of both funds and time,  my own first trips were short and sweet.  A road trip to Myrtle Beach.  Visiting family in Florida and Virginia. With a full time job and a growing family,  for many years there was little time for anything but a weekend at the Jersey Shore.

I enjoyed planning a few family trips –  a surprise trip to Disney World for my children,  a cruise, and a rented condo in Bethany Beach, DE.  I researched, budgeted, and booked everything.  Somehow, my husband was never quite happy with my choices.

After a 2007 divorce I should have seen coming (but didn’t),  I decided that the best way to regroup would be to take my two sons, then 12 and 7,  on a trip to Sweet Home Chicago.    With no husband to second guess me,  I felt that peculiar mix of discomfort and excitement that sparked my travel addiction.

So off we went, the “three musketeers” as we began calling ourselves.   We stayed in hotels, navigated mass transit, visited friends, and toured museums, skyscrapers, and ballparks.  I introduced the boys to all my hometown favorites:  deep dish pizza,  the “El”, Michigan Avenue, and the Cubs!

When I got home,  it quickly became apparent that there was only one thing to do:  begin planning my next adventure.  And the next, and the next…