July 11 2015

Finishing My Fredericton Trip Report and Pondering the Wisdom of Off-Season Travel

Posts from this trip:

 

For many, travel decisions are mainly driven by the destination. People decide where they want to go, then book flights and lodging accordingly.

That’s a perfectly reasonable approach, but it doesn’t work as well for me. Because my travel list is long. Basically, I want to go (almost) everywhere.

When “everywhere” is your preferred destination, specific locations are somewhat irrelevant.

Combine that with my other favorite sport – deal hunting – and much of my travel decisions are driven by economics. Where can I go cost-efficiently at this time? (To clarify, “cost-efficient” and “cheap” are not synonymous.)

With this strategy, I’ve had some fantastic travel experiences for nearly-negligible costs.

I jetted off to Amsterdam on a whim, staying in one of the finest hotels in the world, for a total cash cost of about $200 (flights, hotels, and sightseeing included).

I took a 12-day, luxury tour of Egypt for a fraction of the typical price.

Recently I stayed at – to name a few – the very nice Delta Fredericton for $25/night, the 4.5-star InterContinental San Francisco for under $50/night, and the new Staybridge Suites Birmingham (in England, not Alabama) for about $32/night.

 

But bargains occasionally entail compromise

For example, an award flight might not be available on my preferred date.  So I have to adjust my schedule.

Or – to the point of this post – I end up visiting a place during the off-season. Like the arid desert that is Egypt in the peak of summer.

Or Fredericton, the capital of New Brunswick, in the middle of winter.

My week-long Fredericton trip was almost entirely economics-based, with a total cash cost of about $100 – flights and hotels included. (I don’t typically count meals and ground transportation since I incur those regardless of whether I’m traveling.)

  • The flights were free. I didn’t even spend frequent flyer miles because I added Fredericton as a stopover en route to Birmingham, England. (On a round-trip international award ticket, United allows one free stopover.) I probably paid incremental airline fees and taxes, but I don’t have the breakdown for the Fredericton portion so let’s just say $25.
  • One night at an airport hotel for an overnight layover was $56.
  • One night at the Delta Fredericton Hotel was $25.
  • A week at the Crowne Plaza Fredericton cost $0 in cash. A PointBreaks hotel at the time, it cost 4,500 IHG points/night (the 5,000 PointBreaks rate minus a 10% rebate from my IHG credit card). I have a six-figure IHG point balance – earned through reimbursed business travel or other low-cost means – so this stay hardly made a dent.

In the on-season, my hotel costs would have been much higher as I doubt the Crowne Plaza would have been offered on PointBreaks.

 

So what’s Fredericton like in the off-season?

In a word: cold.

For those unfamiliar with Fredericton’s location, it is in eastern Canada, above the US state of Maine. So it’s basically like going to Maine in January. Except colder.

This was Fredericton’s town square when I visited:

Officers Square
Officers Square in Fredericton. Cold, eh?

Ideal for ice skating – if that’s what you’re there for.

Alas, I didn’t bring my skates. And everything else there is to do outdoors was severely constrained by weather.

Not that I had a bad time. In fact, it was a nice – if not optimal – trip.

I toured the Beaverbrook Art Gallery when it was otherwise devoid of visitors. While paying the entrance fee, the cashier made small talk and I mentioned I was visiting from California.

A few of the rooms were closed for renovation so he charged me half price, then left me to roam the exhibits. The collection was okay. For a small gallery in a remote-ish part of the world, you can’t expect The Louvre.

As I was about to leave, a staff member approached and said, “They told me you’re visiting from California. I’m sorry some of the rooms are closed to the public but if you like I can take you to see them.”  While I didn’t think much of the collection at that point, I did not want to refuse the gracious offer so I accepted.

Turns out, the non-public rooms held all the gems. There were some stunning paintings and tapestries. This person not only escorted me through them, but took time to explain many of the pieces and the general history of the museum, including how some of its treasured pieces were acquired.

It’s unlikely I would’ve been offered this very detailed tour of the museum’s restricted areas during peak season.

Beaverbrook Art Gallery Sculpture
On the grounds of Beaverbrook Art Gallery

The museum has several famous works, including three Salvador Dali pieces and one by Lucian Freud (grandson of Sigmund). Of course, with my impeccable timing, all were on tour at the time.

So, as with everything else in life, off-season travel has its pros and cons.

 

Is off-season travel worth it?

On the balance, I’d say yes – in moderation.

At the extremes, it’s not worth it if you can’t at all enjoy the destination’s intrinsic appeal. To point out the obvious:

  • You can’t snow ski in summer when there’s no snow.
  • You can’t go sailing in winter when the water is frozen.
  • I wouldn’t try to hike the Inca Trail, which requires long days of trekking and several nights of camping, during rainy season.

Conversely, other destinations are only mildly inconvenient in the off season. In those cases, I’m willing to go if the cost-benefit analysis is favorable.

I didn’t mind Egypt in the summer. While it was hot, most of what I wanted to do didn’t require extended outdoor exposure or high physical exertion.

I was driven to the Pyramids and other sites in air-conditioned vehicles; I only had to get out and walk around a little once there, and that was tolerable with good sunscreen and proper hydration.

The remainder of the trip was spent gorging myself on gourmet food while sailing the Nile on an air-conditioned luxury boat. Do-able.

Sunboat
Outdoor dining patio on Nile River cruise boat

Wishing you, as always, safe travels.

 

January 27 2015

Birmingham, England: My Day in Pictures

You don’t visit England for the weather, especially in January.

Yesterday it was 45°F in Birmingham. A California girl, I would normally consider that freezing cold. But on this occasion, being fresh off the boat plane from New Brunswick, anything above 20 felt lovely (if not downright warm).

Rain and snow are anticipated later this week, so I took this window of opportunity to have a stroll through town.

Enjoy some pictures from the 10-minute walk between Brindleyplace (next to Birmingham’s canals) and Cathedral Square (near the business district).

P.S. I hope everyone in the path of the nor’easter is safe and warm.

Brindleyplace
Brindleyplace
A waterbus on the canal
A waterbus on the canal

Bridge

Library & Rep
Birmingham Repertory Theatre (left), The Library of Birmingham (right)
Hall of Memory Exterior
Hall of Memory, a war memorial
Hall of Memory Interior
Hall of Memory (interior)
Victoria Sq
Victoria Square
Street
Street
Food Truck
Food truck
Urban Outfitters
Urban Outfitters
Trocadero
Pub
Shopping
Shopping!
Birmingham Cathedral Interior
Birmingham Cathedral

 

January 20 2015

Visiting Buenos Aires: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Posts from this trip:

It took me forever to start writing this wrap-up post about my trip to Buenos Aires because I didn’t know where to start (or end).

After a two-month stay, there’s a lot to say. But I’m certain nobody wants to read that much material. So I will try to stick to the highlights, knowing much will necessarily be omitted.

Recoleta
Recoleta, the neighborhood I stayed in

 

The good

THE STEAK

I am not a foodie at all. I’ll pretty much eat anything non-poisonous (and have probably consumed a few potentially-poisonous things too). So I rarely even remember the food of a place, let alone write about it after leaving.

Since I’m not a big beef eater, I made the mistake of not even trying the steak until several weeks into my trip. Once I did, I was hooked and ate steak almost every day the rest of the trip. Probably exceeded my remaining lifetime beef quota, but oh well.

South America in general seems to have good steak – to this day I still think the absolute best steak I’ve ever eaten is from a decade ago at a parilla in a small town in Chile almost 500 miles south of Santiago. But something about Argentina’s beef justifies its reputation of having the thickest, juiciest steaks anywhere.

An honorable mention in the food category is the pastries. There were confiterias (pastry shops) seemingly on every street and it was impossible to resist popping in for a pastry when walking by. They’re so inexpensive too – about 5 pesos (50 cents, more or less). I probably gave myself diabetes eating so much sugar every day.

THE PEOPLE

There are good people everywhere and there are bad people everywhere. While I did meet a few snobs, on the whole porteños (Buenos Aires residents) were some of the most polite people ever encountered in my travels.

This is how they wait at a bus stop:

Bus stop

Neatly lined up in order of arrival. No barging into another’s personal space. No frantic every-man-for-himself dash to grab a seat first.

Even street protesters are polite. One day, while walking home minding my own business, I encountered a small demonstration.

Now, I am very risk-averse when it comes to safety. If I’m walking around in a foreign country (or any country, at that) and there is a street protest, I get the bloody hell out of the way ASAP.

But this one didn’t look threatening so…I stood around and watched.

And saw well-mannered protestors who looked like they might as well have been marching in a holiday parade…

Protest

…and calm-looking riot-geared police who, as far as I could tell, never had to lift a finger to control the crowd:

Riot police

Even vendors, who I normally assume (rightly or wrongly) are constantly out to rip off tourists, were lovely to deal with. I never had to haggle – their prices were more than fair to begin with – and never felt taken advantage of. In fact a few times I think I (unintentionally) ripped them off and they were too polite to say anything.

THE HISTORY

Among my favorite sites were Recoleta Cemetery and La Casa Rosada. I wrote separate posts on each so I won’t bore you writing about them again here, but another favorite was El Ateneo, a gorgeous bookstore.

Ateneo 1
El Ateneo Bookstore

Physical books are a dying medium, but I was still tempted to sit down and just read something there.

The store is housed in a former 1,000-seat theater. Much of the ornate theater architecture remains intact – the balcony boxes are still there, and the stage is now the bookstore café.

I took probably a hundred pictures in the bookstore alone.

Ateneo 2

THE TANGO

It is far more enthralling in person than anything you will ever see on TV. Trust me on this, and if you visit Buenos Aires make it a point to watch the tango performed live. Options range from expensive dinner shows to milongas to street performances at the San Telmo Fair.

Tango
Tango dancers at San Telmo’s street fair

THE AFFORDABILITY

Finance-minded readers know the US dollar is currently very strong. For those with dollar-denominated assets, that’s a great travel benefit with regard to lots of destinations.

For those traveling to Argentina, an additional “quirk” makes things even more favorable.

Argentina’s economy is not stellar. Indeed, a few months ago the government committed a much-publicized debt default.

Additionally, the government heavily restricts citizens’ ability to exchange currency (to discourage capital from leaving the country).

The government also sets “official” exchange rates for the Argentine peso (to artificially prop up its value).

Nevertheless, high inflation caused the peso to devalue rapidly. As a result, Argentines covet US dollars and euro (perceiving both to be more stable for storing wealth) and are willing to pay well above the official exchange rate for them.

This appetite for dollars and euro gave rise to a black-market exchange rate. Argentines call it the “blue rate.”

At this writing, the official exchange rate is about 8.6 pesos to one USD. The blue rate is about 13.5 to 1. (At times the gap has been even wider.)

In an already-affordable country, things get even more affordable when you can basically buy the local currency at a significant discount. But that requires knowing how to get the blue rate (more on that next).

 

The bad

THE MONEY ISSUE

To take advantage of the blue rate, you must carry a lot of USD or euro into Argentina. Bringing cash is key because credit, debit, and ATM transactions only process at the official rate.

Traveling with a lot of cash is not only inconvenient but potentially unsafe.

Then there’s the matter of converting that money to Argentine pesos once you arrive.

Many people use underground exchange businesses that give the blue rate. Although very widely used, they’re technically illegal. Hence, there is (1) some inherent sketchiness, (2) the moderate risk of getting counterfeit bills, (3) the exceedingly-small risk the business gets raided (in, say, a government crackdown) while you’re there, and (4) the opaque process of finding a reliable exchange business in the first place because, since they are illegal, they don’t advertise (hint: troll the TripAdvisor forums).

Alternatively, other travelers use a service like Xoom to obtain pesos at a favorable rate. With Xoom you can electronically send US dollars (from your bank account or credit card) to a recipient (who can be yourself). The recipient receives the funds in Argentine pesos.

Although Xoom’s exchange rate (11.8 pesos to a dollar at the time I write this) is inferior to the blue rate, it is significantly superior to the official rate.

I opted to use Xoom because (1) it’s not illegal, and (2) I didn’t want to carry two full months’ worth of cash on me while traveling; I preferred the option to electronically transfer smaller amounts to myself over time as needed. But Xoom turned out to have its own complications, and in the end I did not feel entirely safe with this method either.

To retrieve your pesos, you have to visit a Xoom pickup location in Argentina. Unlike the clandestine exchange businesses, Xoom’s locations are public information – their addresses easily found on the company’s website. So when you visit one, people assume you’ll walk out with a lot of cash (even if you’re actually carrying only a little cash – or no cash at all, for that matter).

Which makes you a sitting duck for any pickpockets and muggers who might stake out the place.

To be fair, I never got mugged or pickpocketed leaving a Xoom location. But I always felt uneasy about it. (Tip: location-wise, the office on Libertad is one of the least sketchy in Buenos Aires proper.)

Ultimately, it’s probably unfair to characterize the currency issue as a negative per se. It is just the downside to obtaining a very favorable exchange rate. One can simply choose to forgo the better rate and use credit cards and ATM withdrawals instead.

Like most things in life, it comes down to a subjective risk-reward analysis.

 

The ugly

And finally, the ugly. That would be me.

My trip home entailed a 28-hour travel day with three flight segments – all in coach, with the longest segment lasting 10 hours. In between, both layovers were not only long but also in airports where I did not have lounge access.

Since I cannot sleep in coach, I felt quite wretched by the end.

Don’t cry for me. I know I’m not entitled to sympathy for being able to travel the world, let alone do it for almost free. (I used miles for the flights and only paid $87 out of pocket for taxes).

But, to be sure, it was ugly.

So after this trip I resolved to step up my miles-earning game because I hope to never, ever have to do another travel day like that in coach again.

Life is too short, I am too old, and miles are too easy to earn!

December 2 2014

La Casa Rosada: Argentina’s Executive Mansion

Posts from this trip:

The first time I walked by The White House, I didn’t even realize it. If you’ve been there, you know the mansion is pretty close to the sidewalk.

I mean, it was right there – and I didn’t notice.

I’m proud to be an American, but I must say our executive mansion is…modest. Had the friend I was walking with – a Washington, DC local – not casually pointed it out (“oh by the way, that was The White House”) I would’ve missed it entirely.

Granted, I had not intended to see the house that day and, since I was with a local, did not pay attention to where I was walking. And it was a different “era;” security around the house was more subtle then.

To be clear, I am not complaining about our White House. I think it’s stately, if small. More importantly, it’s funded by me and my fellow taxpayers. I am thrifty and I like my tax dollars spent in the same manner.

Unlike our White House, Argentina’s executive mansion is not easily missed.

First, it’s (very) pink. In name – La Casa Rosada, which translates to The Pink House – and in appearance.

1 CasaRosada fr PdM
La Casa Rosada, seen from Plaza de Mayo

Second, it’s enormous. While I could not find exact measurements, I am sure it easily dwarfs the White House’s 55,000 square feet.

The building is the focal point of Plaza de Mayo, itself a large square in central Buenos Aires.

Although La Casa Rosada is the seat of Argentina’s executive branch of government, the President does not live there. (She resides at another mansion in a suburb of Buenos Aires).

3 WhiteRoom

Nonetheless, I was surprised by how much public access is available. While you must be on a tour to see most of the interior, the tour itself is publicly available and requires no prior arrangements. You just show up and get in line.

Most surprising is that these tours take visitors into the President’s actual office.

They put away the “sensitive” stuff before the public traipses through – for example, telephones were covered (no seeing who President Kirchner has on speed dial!) – but it is still quite interesting just to be allowed in.

Understandably, the guards watch you like a hawk during that part of the tour. You cannot meander; they line you up in single file and hustle you through in quick procession. Lingering is (politely) admonished and photos are strictly prohibited.

Another highlight of the tour is walking onto the balcony. This balcony is the setting of many important moments in Argentine history; the very spot from which its Presidents have announced wars.

But it is probably most famous as the spot from where Argentines were addressed by their beloved Evita (or sung to by Madonna, if you prefer).

2 BalconyToPdm
On the balcony looking out to Plaza de Mayo

 

Tips and logistics

Public tours of the interior are only available on weekends and holidays. Tours are free, well organized, and last about an hour (not including time spent queuing for a ticket and then waiting for your ticket to be called).

4 TourWaitRoom
Visitors awaiting tours

If you would like an English-speaking guide you should specifically request one (and might have to wait longer for one). I had heard and read that most tours are bilingual so it didn’t occur to me to ask. They just placed me with the next available guide – who spoke no English.

The fact that I spoke only Spanish to the person assigning tours probably didn’t help make my preference for English obvious either. Doh!

In the end it was do-able as I understand Spanish, but it’s not my first (or second) language so the experience was not optimal. The guide was very nice and offered to speak slowly, but my processing skills were sometimes even slower. Plus there were like 30 other people in the tour group so I didn’t want to be the moron holding things up asking the guide to repeat himself all the time.

Even still, I enjoyed the tour and would recommend a visit to La Casa Rosada if you find yourself in Buenos Aires on a weekend.

5 InteriorCtyd
Interior courtyard of La Casa Rosada

 

October 27 2014

Reno: Brief Thoughts and Hotel Review of Harrah’s

I seldom talk about my domestic travel, but last month I spent a few days in Reno and found it so unremarkable that, ironically, I thought it was worth a few words. Just in case anyone is on the fence about visiting.

And while I’m at it I figured I’d review the hotel I stayed at too.

Please note this post is only about downtown Reno. My thoughts do not apply to surrounding areas (such as Lake Tahoe) or even areas within Reno but outside the downtown core (such as the Peppermill Resort’s location).

Thoughts about the city

My only prior first-hand experience of Reno was transiting its airport on the way to and from ski trips to Lake Tahoe, never spending any meaningful time in Reno itself. From that narrow perspective I assumed Reno would have a Tahoe “feel” and draw a similar crowd. In reality, not so much.

(To be fair, this stay was in September, skiing’s off season.)

Reno calls itself “the biggest little city in the world.”

Reno Arch
Reno Arch

I’d say “little” is the more fitting adjective of the two.

Downtown Reno is literally three blocks long (from 2nd Street to 5th Street) by one street wide (North Sierra Street) – in practice if not in legal terms.

If you keep within that bubble, the area has some appeal. A few of the casinos are pretty nice (though there are no mega-properties as in Las Vegas). And if you’re the type who gambles for entertainment – rather than with designs on actually winning – you can place relatively smaller bets, meaning it takes longer to lose the same amount of money and therefore you can be entertained for a greater length of time.

Inside the Eldorado Resort Casino
Inside the Eldorado Resort Casino

Wander outside the bubble – even by just a block or two – and the ambience changes entirely, ranging from deserted to dodgy.

Deserted yet less than a block from North Sierra Street
Deserted yet less than a block from North Sierra Street

Although I did not feel particularly unsafe downtown, I would not have liked walking around alone at night (while don’t hesitate to do so, for example, almost anywhere in Manhattan or on the Las Vegas strip).

Unless you’re into gambling (in which case I think Las Vegas holds more allure – and is cheaper to fly into with LAS being a larger airport), I simply don’t see the appeal of visiting Reno other than passing through for a day or two enroute to or from Lake Tahoe. If even then.

Harrah’s Reno Hotel and Casino

I stayed at Harrah’s. Compared to (the small universe of) other hotel-casino properties in Reno, I’d say the hotel is probably mid-range.

Most sources rate it 3.5 stars, and I think that’s accurate to slightly generous.

The complimentary airport shuttle was great – it arrived early, departed at the exact posted time, and had complimentary bottled water on hand.

Check in was efficient and cordial but not super friendly.

The location

The location is good, with the property’s main entrance next to the Reno Arch (pictured above). Again, downtown Reno is only three blocks long by one block wide, and Harrah’s sits at the southern end of that stretch.

The room

The room was spacious with plenty of space for two queen beds, a sitting area and coffee table, mini-fridge, dresser, and desk.

Main

Main 2

Things were somewhat clean, but not at all spotless. For example, the linens had numerous small tears and a few stains. Not enough to call housekeeping for replacements, but enough that I feel it should be mentioned in a review.

Two other glaring cleanliness issues were that the shower curtain smelled moldy/sweaty and the tub was dicey-looking enough that I wore flip flops while showering.

Bathroom

Speaking of housekeeping, there were envelopes [plural] in the room for tips. I know tip envelopes are controversial; Marriott recently introduced them – to much criticism. But I usually don’t mind finding a [singular] tip envelope in the room. I tip housekeeping anyway and a dedicated envelope eliminates ambiguity. (Otherwise, housekeepers sometimes don’t take the tip I leave, probably unsure whether it’s a tip or money I just happen to have in the room.)

But two envelopes was tacky; the equivalent of holding your hand out.

Tip envelope #1: on desk
Tip envelope #1: on desk
Tip envelope #2: strategically propping open the safe deposit box (you know, where people place their money)
Tip envelope #2: strategically propping open the safe deposit box (you know, so you can’t miss it when putting away your money)

On the other hand, the HVAC system was great. It was cold the day I arrived so I cranked up the heat and the room got toasty quickly.

If you need to get work done from the room, power outlets are scarce. There were two under the desk (though one had a lamp plugged into it), two on a wall (though one had the mini-fridge plugged into it, as seen below), and two in the bathroom. Remaining outlets were either behind heavy furniture I didn’t want to move or otherwise not reasonably reachable.

Mini-fridge
Mini-fridge

Internet came with a fee, even for a Total Rewards member (although I’m just a base-level member; elites might get complimentary Internet). In-room Internet was $10.95/day, but there is a Starbucks inside the hotel if you just need minimal Internet.

The amenities

After forgetting to take pictures of the amenities on three hotel reviews in a row, I was determined not to screw up this time.

I made a deliberate effort to get pictures of the gym and pool.

And, in my always-impeccable timing, I got there after both were closed.

So this is all I have of the gym and pool 🙁

Gym & Pool Hrs

But I did manage to snap pictures of the lobby/casino and hallway. (Yay me!!!)

Lobby & Casino

Hallway

Trip cost

Since I booked it for next-to-nothing, my stay at Harrah’s was a very good deal. Using a Travelocity offer, I paid $88 for three nights ($82 for room and tax, $6 in city fees). Unlike most of its competitors, the hotel did not assess a resort fee.

Deducting the $20 food and beverage credit I received, my net cost was $23/night.

For flights, I used British Airways (whose distance-based award chart is great for short flights) miles to book award flights on American Airlines for 4,500 miles each way. Cash outlay was a combined $8 for taxes/fees on the flights.

Link to hotel website.

 

August 1 2014

The Amalfi Coast

One of my favorite places in California is the oceanfront city of Monterey. Set on a rugged peninsula with a rocky coast, the town is memorialized in several John Steinbeck novels including Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row. If you ever find yourself near the Northern California coast, please don’t miss the scenic 17-Mile Drive.

With that cognitive anchor, I expected a Monterey-esque setting when visiting the Amalfi Coast in Italy.

With all due respect to Monterey, the southern Italian coast is far more splendid.

The towns are charming, the coastline is captivating, and the cliffs are dramatic. Adding to the drama are lush canyons, steep ravines, and a photogenic cathedral.

Amalfi Cathedral
Amalfi Cathedral

Even the towns’ names are alluring (at least to this non-Italian speaker who has no idea what they mean): Sorrento, Salerno, Positano, Ravello, Tramonti, Minori, Scala, Cetara…

Looking at the private homes, many of which I presume have been passed down in families through generations, I daydreamed about being a resident rather than a visitor. And I’m a city girl – it takes a lot to get me dreaming about life in a sleepy coastal town!

Beyond that, I don’t know what more to write about Amalfi because its beauty is fully appreciated only in person. So before leaving you to enjoy the scenery, I have just a few logistical tips and thoughts.

Amalfi Coast - ravine

Despite my summer visit, it was overcast and even rainy at times. In person things do not look gloomy as some of these pictures might suggest. Also, many photos were by necessity taken from a moving car (don’t worry, I wasn’t driving) as it is inconvenient – and often infeasible – to stop and get out along the narrow cliffside road.

Amalfi Coast - rainy
Rain

The ~50 km drive from Sorrento to Salerno is a great way to see the coast (the most scenic section is the middle 2/3 of that stretch). However, I would not recommend driving yourself. The road is narrow, twisting, and occasionally steep. Some spots are downright scary. You really have to pay attention to your driving – which means you miss the scenery. So just hire a driver and consider it a cheap life insurance policy.

Amalfi Coast - road
Not the best picture, but the only one I have of the road

You can also take a group tour or public bus. If you do, be sure to secure a seat on the “correct” side of the vehicle (the side closest to the water). Which side that is depends on the direction of travel, but it is well worth the effort to find out in advance. Allow the less savvy travelers do didn’t do their homework to get stuck on the wrong side and miss out greatly. 🙂

Amalfi coast - lunch spot
View from our lunch spot
Amalfi Coast - coastline
Coastline
Amalfi Coast - canyon
Canyon
Amalfi Coast - pulley
Instead of lugging beach gear down the steep cliffside, locals use this pulley to lower it

 

 

July 17 2014

The Nile is More Than Just a River

The Nile is the world’s longest river, flowing for approximately 4,200 miles and serving as a water source to eleven countries.

By both measurements, it easily beats the Amazon (~3,900 miles, 7 countries), the Yangtze (~3,800 miles, one country – albeit a massive one), and the Mississippi (~3,800 miles, 2 countries).

To ancient Egypt it was more than just a river; it was a primary source of sustenance. Although bordered by several large bodies of water – the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Suez, and the Gulf of Aqaba – Egypt is mostly arid desert. (Hint: avoid visiting at the peak of summer.)

The Nile creates a fertile green valley amid that great expanse of desert. Without it, one wonders if ancient Egypt could have risen to its heights. Egypt’s position was based on agricultural wealth, which in turn was attributed to the river.

In my infinite wisdom, I did visit at the peak of summer. But the 115-degree weather was survivable, and the highlight of my 12-day trip was sailing the Nile for four nights aboard the Sanctuary Sun Boat IV.

Sun Boat IV Outdoor Dining Room
Outdoor dining room on the Sun Boat IV

The boat itself was very nice – of the 200 or so that regularly cruise the Nile, Sanctuary’s four boats are among the most luxurious. But the sights along the way were spectacular. Indeed, while seeing the Pyramids was the motivation behind the trip, these sights further south left a greater impression.

That structures built in 2,000 BC (meaning they are 4,000 years old!) are still standing at all is impressive. That some are nearly unblemished is astounding. You can still see not only intricately carved designs, but even the colors of some painted surfaces.

Sailing from Luxor to Aswan, here are some of the sights along the way.

Luxor

The Temple of Karnak – an enormous complex of halls, temples, and other structures built over a span of almost 2,000 years – is located on the east bank of the Nile near Luxor.

A series of ram-headed sphinxes lines the approach to the temple complex:

Ram-headed sphinxes at the Temple of Karnak
Ram-headed sphinxes at the Temple of Karnak

Perhaps Karnak’s best-known feature, the Great Hypostyle Hall:

The Great Hypostyle Hall of Karnak
The Great Hypostyle Hall of Karnak

Also on the east bank is the Temple of Luxor:

The Temple of Luxor at dusk
The Temple of Luxor at dusk

Several statues of Ramses II (AKA Ramses the Great) at the Temple of Luxor are well-preserved, offering a detailed look at the pharaoh’s features:

Ramses the Great at the Temple of Luxor
Ramses the Great

On the west bank lies the Necropolis of Thebes, where many of Egypt’s pharaohs (including Tutankhamun, AKA King Tut) were buried in the Valley of the Kings. There’s not much to see above ground:

The Necropolis of Thebes
Valley of the Kings

The action is in the tombs below, though unfortunately the semi-dark environment doesn’t photograph easily.

Inside the tombs of the Necropolis of Thebes
Wall carvings inside a tomb

Near the Valley of the Kings is the funerary temple of Queen Hatshepsut, Egypt’s first female pharaoh:

The Temple of Hatshepsut
The Temple of Hatshepsut

These are the Colossi of Memnon, two enormous statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III designed to guard the entrance of his funerary temple (though little remains of the temple itself):

The Colossi of Memnon
The Colossi of Memnon

Dendera

The very well-preserved Temple of Hathor, goddess of love and joy, is near the small town of Dendera:

Inside the Temple of Hathor in  Dendera
Inside the Temple of Hathor

The ceiling was being cleaned at the time. In this picture, one side has been cleaned and the other hasn’t:

Ceiling of the Temple of Hathor in Dendera
Half-cleaned ceiling in the Temple of Hathor

Kom Ombo

The Greco-Roman temple at Kom Ombo is a double temple – it is one building containing two temples, each with its own entrance and chapel. One is dedicated to Sobek, the crocodile god; the other to Horus, the falcon god (and one of several sun gods).

The Greco-Roman temple at Kom Ombo
The double temple at Kom Ombo

Aswan

Near the city of Aswan (famous for its dams), the Island of Agilkia houses the Temple of Philae.

Because its original location, the Island of Philae, is now submerged, the temple was moved to Agilkia and reconstructed stone by stone.

The temple itself is fine (it’s actually very nice, but honestly I was templed-out at this point); however, the setting on an island in the Nile was by far my favorite temple setting of the whole trip.

The Nile River seen from Agilkia Island
The Nile River seen from Agilkia Island
Coffee break inside the Temple of Philae
Coffee break at the Temple of Philae?

Logistics note

My entire 12-day trip was booked with tour operator Abercrombie & Kent, which has an excellent reputation in Egypt. (The reputation is deserved, in my opinion.) At the time, in 2012, tourism in Egypt was extremely low as a result of the Arab Spring and the company offered rates that probably only allowed it to break even – at best. (I have no inside information, I’m only speculating.)

While I have not seen rates so appealing since, I would say the rates on the company’s website as of this writing are still reasonable for what you get – a well-executed tour with a luxury operator.

As for safety, I can only offer my personal perspective which is that I never felt unsafe during my visit despite the political circumstances. (A&K provided armed guards who traveled with us, which I appreciated but considered an abundance of caution rather than a necessity.)

Perhaps the news coverage we receive in the United States is hyped, perhaps I just lucked out that nothing happened the days I was there, perhaps the tour operator did a good job of insulating its clients from the “real world,” and perhaps it’s other things that don’t occur to me. But I can definitely say I had a great visit and never once felt threatened.

Better yet, when you go while no one else is going you get the sights almost to yourself. I have heard that on an average day several hundred tour buses visit the Pyramids of Giza. I counted five the day I visited. Granted, I wasn’t there the entire day, but one can reasonably infer that the volume of tourism was greatly diminished.

And I was very pleased to have gotten a 5-star, professionally organized tour at a vastly reduced cost – probably less than half of what I could have arranged on my own for comparable accommodations (even with my deal-scrounging habits).

With that, let me leave you with some pictures of life along the Nile as seen while sailing.

Life along the Nile (1)

Life along the Nile (2)

Life along the Nile (3)

Life along the Nile (4)

July 12 2014

An Afternoon in Las Tacas, Chile

Las Tacas is a small resort town on the northern coast of Chile which I stumbled upon during a drive between Santiago and La Serena.

I had never heard of it, and even today as I Google its name relatively little comes up. There is no Wikipedia page and there are few English-language web pages (or even Chilean pages offering an English translation).

I am not sure if the place is obscure in general, or just obscure to foreign visitors. Perhaps the Chileans like having it to themselves?

Nonetheless, this town is super photogenic.

LasTacas pano

My photos were taken with a cheap camera and I present them un-retouched and unfiltered. All I did was crop them to fit the page.

There is a stunning white sand beach:

LasTacas white sand

The water is deep turquoise:

LasTacas turquoise water

The buildings, which I think of as a mix of Mediterranean and Southwestern architecture, are spotless:

LasTacas architecture

I doubt there is much in Las Tacas to occupy a long stay, and I can’t say it warrants a trip in and of itself. But if you find yourself driving along the coast of Chile, it is definitely worth a stop if for no other reason than to snap a few photos.

It would also make for an easy day trip from La Serena, which itself has good – but different and busier – beaches.

For me, it turned out to be a great place to have a nice meal with a fantastic view amid a long drive (Santiago and La Serena are about 480 km apart).

Some (local?) kids seemed to enjoy it too:

LasTacas kids in raft

July 1 2014

Hotel Review: Holiday Inn Express Amsterdam-Schiphol

Trip report index:

 

I had an early flight the next morning that required waking up at the butt crack of dawn. Since I didn’t fancy complicating the ordeal with a city-to-airport commute (and waking up even earlier to allow buffer time for mishaps) I stayed at an airport hotel my final night of this trip.

To me, airport hotels are mostly utilitarian – all I need is for them to be clean, safe, comfortable, and easily accessible to/from the airport.

By that standard, the Holiday Inn Express Amsterdam-Schiphol easily beat expectations and I would definitely consider this property again in the future.

The location

Google Maps says the hotel is 8.2 km from the airport, and that’s more or less how far it felt.

The surroundings looked semi-industrial, but I was told there are a few restaurants in walking distance. I didn’t venture out as I’d already had dinner in the city and just wanted to pass out early at that point.

HIE AMS view

The hotel operates a complimentary shuttle, which I used twice. The first time was on arrival – I took the train from the city to Schiphol Airport, then took the hotel shuttle from the airport to the property. It did take a while, but I cannot complain as the hotel says the shuttle comes every 30 minutes and that’s basically how long I waited. My timing was impeccable as always.

(If you’d rather go directly between the hotel and the city, without using the airport shuttle, there is a train stop about ten minutes from the hotel on foot. I didn’t check it out so I can’t comment on whether the walk is safe or pleasant, however.)

I took the shuttle again the next morning to the airport. The shuttle starts running at 5:45 AM (I’m not sure what time it stops at night) and I had a 7:30 flight so I felt I was cutting it close for an international flight, but it worked out fine.

I went downstairs at 5:35 to allow time to check out, and the driver was already waiting in the lobby. We left at 5:45 on the dot.

The room

It was clean and comfortable, which again is basically all I expect from a budget airport hotel.

HIE AMS beds

The interior had a modern but minimalist look.

HIE AMS desk

The shower was roomy.

HIE AMS Shower

The bathroom had no individual toiletries; just a liquid soap dispenser by the sink and a shampoo/bath gel dispenser in the shower.

HIE AMS sink

There was no closet per se; only an exposed bar with a few hangers. I liked that setup as it was easy to get to my stuff without needing to open and close a closet door.

HIE AMS closet

The service & amenities

The hotel restaurant only serves breakfast (included in the room rate). If you get hungry outside of breakfast hours, there is a small selection of drinks and snacks (including a few hot snacks) available for purchase in the lobby and from a vending machine. Also, as mentioned above, I was told there are a few restaurants in walking distance.

Since breakfast service doesn’t start until 6:30 and I had to leave earlier, during check-in I asked if there would at least be a few bagels I could grab in the morning. They said they would pack a breakfast bag for me instead.

When I showed up to check out in the morning, the agent automatically handed me the bag. I’ve had to-go breakfasts from all kinds of hotels – including 5-star properties where the bag itself was like embossed in gold or something – and none were as substantial in content as this.

There were two varieties of bread, a croissant, several types of cold cuts (individually sealed), cheese, jam, yogurt, and fresh fruit. I was a happy camper.

Summary

Solid choice for an airport-close, budget hotel.

Pros:

  • Clean and modern.
  • Great service – see my comment about breakfast. 🙂

Cons:

  • No on-site restaurant aside from breakfast service.

Cost:

  • I redeemed 20,000 IHG Rewards points for one night. Received a 10% rebate from my co-branded credit card for a net cost of 18,000 points.

Link to hotel website.

June 26 2014

The Ancient City of Pompeii

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, it single-handedly obliterated the once-thriving ancient Roman city of Pompeii.

But the meters-thick layer of volcanic ash and rock that buried the town served to preserve it in stunningly minute detail for some 1,500 years – until its initial (and mostly ignored) discovery in 1599 and more comprehensive rediscovery in 1748.

Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pompeii in its day boasted a 20,000-capacity amphitheater, a sporting arena, government and religious buildings, and commercial structures ranging from stores to restaurants to brothels.

PompeiViva sign

To be honest, I hadn’t expected much of this visit. Having seen lots of ruins – Greek, Roman, Mayan, Egyptian, Turkish, you name it – I was kind of “ruined out.” On the other hand, the upside of having low (or no) expectations is that there’s nowhere to go but up.

However, Pompeii turned out to be quite interesting in its own right.

Because it is so well preserved, a visit to Pompeii affords an almost-intact look into the Pax Romana period – not only the structural and urban planning features of its towns, but also the daily life, occupational pursuits, and artistic expression of its citizens.

Sights

The amphitheater, located near the site’s main entrance, once hosted gladiator fights:

Pompeii Amphitheatre

The streets are varied. Some, like the one below, are relatively straight and flat; others are rockier, narrower, and harder to navigate.

Pompeii street

My guide seemed to talk a lot about brothels, so I ended up with many photos of them. Here’s one:

Pompeii brothel

Likely a restaurant, given the oven:

Pompeii restaurant overn

Tips

As you might imagine for the ruins of an important city, the site is sprawling. To get the most out of your visit, I would read up beforehand on not only the site and its history but also the major structures. That way, once you get there you will know what to look for and navigate toward.

Pompeii next to last

Likewise, be sure to grab a map at the entrance (or bring one), otherwise the site will seem like a huge labyrinth of rocks that start to all look the same. The place is very conducive to getting lost.

Audio guides are also available at the main entrance and from some surrounding shops.

Wear good walking shoes – there is a lot of walking to do, much of it on uneven surfaces. (Flip flops would not be ideal.)

Pompeii last

Finally, while I did not have opportunity to see it, many advise that the Garden of the Fugitives is not to be missed. It contains plaster casts of several victims – in the position where they fell and died.

For this visit I pre-booked a tour with a guide and transportation. I’m not a big fan of tours (being too ADD to appreciate lengthy lectures on historical topics, no matter how skillful their delivery), but I was pressed for time before this trip so I did not follow my own advice and read up on the site beforehand or even research transportation options. I also didn’t have much time on the ground during the trip itself, so a tour saved all kinds of time and hassle. However, I am told the site is easily accessed by train from Naples.