Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Day 2 in Penang: Head for the Hills

My second day in Penang was to be my chill day.  There would be no temples, no museums, no fighting with maps in busy cities.  I just wanted to go out to Penang Hill, 6 kilometers outside of town and enjoy some fresh air, a nice view and maybe a hike or two.

I grabbed my camera and knitting supplies and boarded the bus that dropped me off at the bottom of the hill.  There is a funicular that takes you the rest of the way but since it was a weekend, the line for tickets was long.  No problem, though, a Pitbull-loving dj (as in Dale!, not as in Heel, boy!) was there to keep us entertained.  The crowd was mainly families out to enjoy the day.

We moved quickly and soon were whisked to the top of the hill.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Day 1 in Penang: Street Art & Khongis

Good vegetarian food, cheap beer, extensive street art, exciting architecture, cool museums, laid back venomous snakes and cheeky non-venomous monkeys.  These are a few of my favorite things.  At least, I think that is how the song goes.  Or better yet, that is a rundown of a few of the things I loved about the kick-ass island of Penang.

As I have mentioned before, I purposely did very little research prior to this trip.  Therefore, it came as the most welcome of surprises when, after an 8 hour bus ride, I checked into my hostel and was handed both a city map and a street art map. There was enough street art to warrant its own map!  This was looking promising.

My hostel, the excellent Magpie Residence, was about a fifteen minute walk from the heart of Georgetown (or a free bus ride away) so the first evening I only explored a bit of the outskirts of town.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Me Like-a Malacca, Malaysia

Malacca, Malaysia is a lot of things. It is a state in the southern part of the country. It is a UNESCO world heritage site known as the 'Historic City' and celebrated for its well-preserved architecture. It is a former prime trading post that exchanged hands between the Portuguese, Dutch and British. It is the source of one of the more bizarre origin stories I've ever heard. It is sometimes spelled Melaka, don't ask me why. It is home to a large population of Baba Nyonya, or Peranakan Chinese, partly as a result of a 15th century Chinese Emperor's daughter who was married off to a Malay Sultan. She brought along with her 500 attendants, who themselves ended up marrying Malays and Indian traders, creating a hybrid culture also referred to as the Straits Chinese. It is an artsy town with a rich abundance of small galleries and antique shops. It is almost certainly the set of a Quentin Tarantino film. I can not find any publications to substantiate this, even Wikipedia is notably silent on the topic, but I know what I saw.

Take the principal means of tourist transportation. Located primarily around Dutch Square, you will find a battalion of brightly decorated tricycles.  They are more than simple conveyances, they are mini-mobile works of art with a couple of dominant themes that repeat themselves in all this garish accoutrements.  These motifs are (in no particular order):  Hello Kitty, Frozen and some blue cat-like thing that I have never heard of.  Most are equipped with speakers and have made some demonic pact that requires them, regardless of decor, to play "Let It Go" on an endless loop. I never personally witnessed any of them involved in a slow-motion drive by shooting, but you know how Quentin is. He likes to spring these things on the viewer when you least expect them.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Country #99: My Malaysia

After two long days of flying, I landed in Malaysia, my last double digit country. I'd arrived late in the evening and didn't make it to the hostel until after midnight so my initial enthusiasm was mixed in with a healthy dose of jet lag. I was in that phase of exhaustion where you don't want to do a damned thing but you can't really sleep either, so I grabbed a beer from the front desk and went up to the rooftop patio. From the comfort of a swing chair, I looked out at what could possibly be a Petronas Tower. It wasn't the two side-by-side sleek cylindrical structures that I expected but with a bit of squinting and a touch of imagination, it was not unreasonable to believe that this was a side view of the iconic landmark. Or a hallucination. At this point, I wasn't ruling anything out.

Daylight and a long night's sleep proved me right.  It was official.  I was in Kuala Lumpur staring at 1/2 of the world's former tallest building. I wanted to immediately run over there for a closer look but having arrived without my usual rigorously planned agenda, I opted to have the lady at the front desk plan out my day for me.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Incheon my way to Malaysia

Last February, I was in the Montreal's Pierre Elliot Trudeau Int'l airport waiting for my flight. Apparently, all the Quebecois citizens in possession of a passport were sitting alongside me. It was the start of spring break and every single flight was oversold. The gate agents had morphed into auctioneers, offering ever-increasing amounts for anyone willing to give up their seat. Since I had nowhere to be in a hurry, when the game began for my flight, I jumped in early, with the caveat that my compensation not be locked into the current amount. I would play along as long as I got whatever the highest amount was. So I sat back, willing everyone to stay put, as he called $500, $600, $700... He finally got a taker at $1300. That is $1300 US Dollars to be used towards any Delta flight just for agreeing to go on a later flight!

I have gotten vouchers in the past and the trickiest part, believe it or not, is using them before they expire. Sounds silly but they are good for only one year from the date of issuance and it is all too easy to throw them in a drawer and forget about them until it is too late. Knowing this, I used my extra time at the airport to start researching places I'd like to go. New Zealand was too much. Easter Island was a no go. A r/t ticket to Malaysia during my vacation in December: $1313.

Monday, October 26, 2015

15 hours in Athens (take that NYT!)

How much can you see with only 15 hours in Athens? A lot, apparently, if you are lucky enough to catch the excellent Free Walking Tour.  We almost were not so fortunate.  We landed at 10am and had to wait over an hour for the shuttle that would take us to our airport hotel, resulting in a mad sprint for the local bus into town in hopes of joining the noon tour.  Say what you will about the Greek economy but I can vouch that their public transportation is on point.

The two people who sprinted up to the group standing around Syntagma Square at 11:58am?  That was us. We barely made it.  Had we not, we we would have been hosed since our plan B was "to walk around and look at old stuff".  Plan A was definitely more edifying.  Led by our cheery guide, Maria, we were soon underway.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Chania

It's October. The summer has passed way too quickly and I am absolutely not ready to either put away my flip flops or dig out the cold weather clothes. I could stay put in Miami and enjoy our perpetual summer but staying put anywhere is not really my style. It was time to hope for warm weather destinations and at least prolong the illusion of summer.

The travel gods listened to my pleas (or maybe it was the weather gods..whoever it was is getting an extra candle).  I was presented with a chance to spend four days in Chania, Greece.  Best of all, not only was I avoiding the cold, I was doing so with great timing.  Do you know the only thing better than summer in Crete?  It is the "not-summer" in Crete.  Had we been there a couple of months earlier, the island would have been over run with European tourists.  Now in the off-season, we still got the spectacular weather but without all those pesky sunworshippers to get between us and the choice tables at the seaside spots.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

When the Party Sails Into Town

Every five years, the city of Amsterdam hosts a massive maritime party, with tall masted ships from all over world docking behind Central Station for a crazed rowdy party. The event is called Sail Amsterdam and it lures over three million people into a city whose population covers around 800,000. In short, it is mayhem and a wonderful time to be in the city.

The whole thing lasts five days, which is a good thing because had it been a full week, I may have died.  It is both a FOMO sufferers grandest dream and worst nightmare.  There are dozens of events crammed into every day, into every hour so to even begin scratching the surface you need to put in 18 hour days and be willing to hustle.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Day 4: Marseille and Chateau d'If


My last day in Marseille. Time to squeeze in all the things I had been meaning to do but had put off in order to explore the rest of Provence.

I had booked a late flight so I had enough time to finally do the self-guided walking tour that I had picked up on day one. In theory, this should have been easy enough, since the city had been thoughtful enough to draw color-coded lines on the sidewalks to match the tour route. For the most part, this worked like a charm.  The problem was that the particular tour I had must not have the only version available and certain intersections had multi-colored lines vectoring off in each and every different direction. I was never fully able to ascertain which color I was supposed to be following.  By default, I ended up doing my own hybrid version of multiple tours.  As a result, I got a great overview of the old part of town.


Thursday, August 13, 2015

Day 3: In the land of fountains, Cezanne and calissons


With the hopes of seeing fields of purple now dashed and having followed in Van Gogh's footsteps as far as I could, day three brought new challenges. What to do?  I had heard of Aix-en-Provence.  I knew Cezanne was from there.  I was now privy to the zone tickets allowing you to traverse southern France for next to nothing.  I could almost pronounce Aix.  The decision was made.

Had I done a bit more research and found out just how proud they were of their fountains, I might have rethought this.  I would have known that the principal thoroughfare is a shopping street with ornamental spouts gurgling every couple of blocks. Not in a Bellagio, choreographed along with lights, pretty manner...no, just regular fountains. Some were made of stone, others were mossy blobs kind of dribbling away...none of them particularly remarkable but there they were, the pride of the town.


Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Day 2: Doing the Van Go-Go

It was day 2 in Marseille and the word around the hostel was that the lavender fields were no more. It was towards the end of the season and some fields had already been plucked of their little purple bounty. I could not find anything online to confirm or deny this and the hostel staff was exceptionally useless so I figured I would head in the general direction of the fields and investigate.

I was planning on going that way anyways. After at least a dozen visits to Amsterdam's Van Gogh museum, I wanted to go to Arles and see the city that (along with a healthy dose of absinthe) inspired such frenzied creativity.  If I could pair the visit with a ride out to the scenery found on every single Provence postcard, that much the better.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Day 1: Kicking off Plan B in Marseille

My plan at the beginning of the summer was simple enough. I would be based out of Amsterdam for two months, therfore I'd have the opportunity to knock off two more countries from my dwindling European list. July, I would hit Lithuania (#98) and August, I would spend some time in Barcelona and use it as a base to get to Andorra (#99).

As you may have noticed from my last post, the first part of this plan went off quite well. I loved Lithuania and the very cool people I met there. The problem arose when I began to research things to do in Andorra. Had it been winter, I could have watched people skiing (note: Cubans raised in tropical climates are not genetically engineered to put planks on their feet and careen headlong down snowy surfaces. To paraphrase Lucille Bluth: I don't understand this and I will not respond it. But I will hang out in a lodge like nobody's business). But this was August and all I could find were suggestions for duty free shops. I envisioned Guam (aka Asia's duty free mall and gun range) all over again. Not even for my 99th country was I willing to subject myself to this.

I needed a Plan B. The few European countries I haven't been to were all too expensive or time consuming to get to. I looked towards cities I had not been to. At some point, Marseille popped into my head. I envisioned beautiful beaches, lavender fields and mouth-watering cuisine. The flights were both short and cheap. Marseille, it was.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Settle down you FOMO suffering ADD chipmunk...or how I ended up inTrakai

Before landing in Vilnius, I was going highlighter happy on the discount Lithuania book I had managed to find in a second hand book store. After seeing every single thing in the capital city, I was going to visit a hill with roughly a bajillion crosses on it in the north. I was going to hit up a communist theme park in the south. I was going to take a selfie in the geographic center of Europe. Since all this running around might be a bit tiring, a spa town was definitely in order.

Trying to figure out how to do all this in only three days was proving a bit challenging but I was undaunted.  I would ask the locals, who were sure to know a shortcut or two.  To this end, I presented Lina, the owner of Vilnius' coolest hostel, with my wish list.  She briefly got the "Oh no, not one of these.." looks that I am pretty familiar with but gamely continued.  "You will go to Trakai" she said. Sure, if it's worth a visit, I'll add it to my list.  "No, you will only go to Trakai. You do not have enough time for all these other places."  But, the crosses...  "You would have to spend your entire holiday on buses. You will go to Trakai." The commie park?  "Trakai!"

Monday, July 27, 2015

Country #98: Lithuania. Getting closer.

98 countries!! I am now two countries away from hitting triple digits! What began as a game with a friend has become, if not exactly an obsession, at least an active quest. And what do I get for my efforts? In theory, I could join the Travelers' Century Club, made up of members who have all been to 100+ "countries" but they are way too liberal with their classifications and time requirements. A fuel stop in Puerto Rico counts as a visit to a new country in their eyes. Amateurs.

There is, of course, bragging rights but after a while, introducing myself as "Hi, I'm Berti and I have been to 100 countries" might get kind of tiresome.  Not to mention the murmurs of "Dude, don't even make eye contact with that girl.  Yeah, the one carrying around the atlas.  Trust me on this.."

As I close in on my goal, I am realizing what the real prize of all this is.  It is the motivation that it has given me to visit places that I might not have otherwise considered.  A perfect example of this was my recent city to Lithuania's capital city.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Suddenly Sedona


Sometimes all it takes is one person doing something nice to change the whole trajectory of your day. All you need is one kind-hearted gate agent (admittedly a creature as rare and mystical as a rainbow-pooping unicorn) to take the time to take you off your STL-LAX-PHX routing, which gets you into Phoenix at nearly 3pm and put you on the direct flight, getting you to your hotel before breakfast closes at 10am. Suddenly, what would have been a wasted day becomes rife with possibility.

This was the scenario that played out earlier this week. The discussion about doing a short trip to Sedona the following day quickly morphed into an overnight in Sedona with a side trip to Jerome. Within 20 minutes of the idea being floated around, a hotel room was booked, a groupon for a jeep tour had been purchased and a rental car awaited us.  It came together so easily that it was clearly meant to be.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Things I just learned about Savannah, GA

1. They were recently named the most haunted city in the US. I do not know who actually has the authority to make this call or why Salem, Mass. was recently stripped of the title, but a look around at all the companies offering haunted tours makes it clear that ghosts are big business.

It is such a draw that during our excellent free walking tour, our guide, Chris, told us about one of his guests asking where she could purchase ghost hunting equipment.   The fact that he could not easily answer this question tells me that there are not enough entrepreneurs in Savannah.  I would think you could attach a whistle to a flashlight, maybe add an antenna...and voila, you've got yourself the paranormal starter kit.  Add a helmet and you're a deluxe demon detector.

I asked Chris what the city planned to do to stay competitive in this field.  You know Salem is spooking it up trying to get their crown back.  If the people of Savannah have a plan, they're not talking.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Terceira: the island hopping continues

Another day.  Another island.  From the balmy breezes of the Caribbean to the "is it ever going to stop raining?" of the mid-Atlantic. Goodbye sunscreen, hello umbrella.  Adios, Mojitos. Bom dia, caipirinhas.

What I'm trying to say is that this was a pretty dramatic island hop..an island long jump, really. I had just gotten off a tropical southern Caribbean cruise and was now flying to Terceira. Located in the Azores, a remote Portuguese archipelago, miles and miles from anything,  this was certain to provide an interesting contrast to everything I'd just seen.

For starters, when I looked up the 5 day forecast, every single day showed an angry rain cloud. I appealed to the 10 day forecast and got double the pissy cumuli.  This was going to be a wet one.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

St. Thomas: the Final Chapter

Back when I began this blog in 2007, one of my first ever posts was about St. Thomas.  More specifically, it was about how badly St. Thomas sucked because of all those annoying cruise ship passengers.  Now, eight year later,  I was one of them, although as the only ship in town on this particular day, I prefer to think we were more of a benign nuisance.

First time around, I was able to escape the circus by taking a ferry over to St. John's but with limited time, this was no longer an option.  This was also our last port of call so if there was ever a time to adopt the "if you can't beat 'em..." philosophy, this was it.

We were initially signed up for an island tour with a well regarded guide that promised an informative drive around the island with stops at both scenic and historical sites.  Due to an snafu with our guy's PA equipment, we now found ourselves with the other island guide, the one known as the "party guide".  His tours are less "back in the early 18th century..." and more "Who let the dogs out?"

Monday, May 11, 2015

St Martin: Naked Beach or Airplane Beach

Our fourth stop, St. Martin, presented a question that I can only assume most people are not faced with on a regular basis.  Did we want to go to the naked beach or to the airplane beach? 

Undoubtedly, there are other things to do on this half French, half Dutch island but with no tour guide, very little research and a rental car, those were the only real options available to us.

We had maps, brochures, phone apps all within our disposal but try as we might, there were no museums, forts, historical sights or even largest balls of twine-type exhibits for us to visit.  Not even trying to crib from the ship's own excursions booklet was of any help.

In hopes of stumbling onto something, we played around with the car's pre-programmed GPS with its long list of other beaches we could choose from.  We picked one at random, pulled in and saw that it was indeed a beach. Sand, water: check.  One empty restaurant with a bored looking waitress: check.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Country #97: Antiguo en Antigua

Antigua: One half of the Caribbean island nation Antigua and Barbuda. Known as Waladii by the native population. Gained its independence from the British in 1981. Vacation home to Oprah Winfrey, Richard Branson and Eric Clapton (who has both a massive home and a rehab facility on site). Home to an alleged 365 beaches, a number that just happens to coincide with the marketing slogan "A beach for every day of the year". Pronounced An-tee-ga. But most importantly: my 97th country.

Antiguo:  (Spanish) Ancient.  Archaic. Antiquated. Prehistoric.  Elderly.  Old as dirt.

What's happens when you celebrate a good friend's 50th birthday there?  You have an Antiguo en Antigua.  This was the theme for our third port of call.


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Country #96: St. Lucia

Reasons this cruise had to be done (in no particular order):

*I found a great deal on Travelzoo.  We each paid $700 for a 7 day cruise including unlimited drinks, a $75 on board credit, taxes and gratuities!

*Initially, there were six of us going and everyone was able to get the time off.  On top of that, the dates coincided with my friend's husband's 50th birthday and this seemed like a very suitable place for a party.

*Two new countries!!!  Well, not exactly new. One has been independent since 1979 and the other since 1981, but they were new to me and both would put me that much closer to 100. This was huge.

On our fourth day, this third reason came into play.


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sailing solo with Turtles.


Yesterday morning, I got off of a one week Southern Caribbean cruise on the Celebrity Summit. By myself. This was not the original plan. I was supposed to be on the ship celebrating a one year anniversary with a man I loved very much. Unfortunately, two weeks before we set sail, he decided that he did not feel the same way and announced that he would not be joining me on this or any of our other scheduled (and paid for) vacations. Why he could not hang in there one more month and at least enjoy the gourmet food and chill ports of call is both beyond me and a topic for another type of blog.

The only reason I am deviating from the norm and discussing my personal life here is because throughout this and the next couple of posts, I will be addressing the surreal experience that is cruising single. As a newbie cruiser, I had no notion of how couple-y an environment a cruise ship truly is.  I had been on one cruise, with a boyfriend, but the median age on that ship had been Jurassic and there were many widows and widowers. This one drew more of a mixed crowd but I am convinced that Noah's Ark itself had more creatures traveling stag than the Celebrity Summit did.  I suspect that the original ship's flag was just going to be a picture of two people doing it, but some prude in marketing suggested "Why not just put an X instead and let people figure it out?"

Monday, April 13, 2015

Cebu'ing it, Cebu'ing, Cebu'ing it well....

Two weeks ago, plans were put into place to visit Manila, Philippines. We would be flying over via Seoul and staying there for a couple of days. Of course, I had a couple of things to do already in the advanced planning stages. Unfortunately, someone else had designs on the Philippines during the same time frame,  Super Typhoon Maysak.  Not sure what was so super about it but it continued its' westerly crawl at an uncomfortable rate of speed.  There were questions as to whether we would cancel our trip or merely delay it.

In the end, we did neither.  Instead, we made a last minute re-route to Cebu, Philippines, which is in the southern part of the country and outside of the super trajectory.  Under the new itinerary, we would only have one full day there but from the last minute googling I did, it appeared that we were going to a beachy wonderland.  Added bonus, our hotel looked like it was only blocks from the water.  Grab the sunscreen, everybody, this should be good.

We arrived late at night so we would have to wait until sunrise to appreciate the crystalline blue waters that adorned the Cebu google images page.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Keep Houston Weird


Things I like:
1. The website RoadsideAmerica.com. The site come in particularly handy when visiting small towns with no obvious places of interest. When it comes to big cities, I generally don't think to even check. I mean sure, NYC must have some great quirky attractions but are you really going to pass up the MOMA in order to see George Washington's wooden tooth displayed in a bar?  Ok, bad example.  I would totally do that.

2.  Bizarro museums, random displays of folk art, unnaturally large balls of twine. If you build it, I will visit. (Note: I tried to stick to the original phrasing but "come" just did not sound right here)

3.  Taking unsuspecting people to visit any of the things listed in #2.

Things I don't like:
1.  Most of Texas.  I only say "most" because I am willing to give Austin and San Antonio a pass.  The rest of the state- phoeey.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Manatee Dreams

I don't remember the exact date I learned that it was possible to swim with manatees in the wild but I do recall my reaction to this bombshell.  It believe it went something along the lines of "I WANNA GO!!  I WANNA GO NOW!!! MANATEEEEES!!!"

At the time, it was summer, so while it is possible to swim with the full time residents of the Crystal River springs, it was not the best time for me to go.  There are fewer manatees, they tend to be in deeper, murkier water and I was living in Amsterdam.  All of these factors made me postpone this activity that was now in the top five of my must-do's, although to be fair, it was the third factor that held the most sway.

Then winter came about.  This is the time that hundreds of gentle sea cows wisely choose to pack up and get out of the cold waters of the the Gulf of Mexico.  These aquatic snowbirds flock to the spring fed King's Bay, which remains 72 degrees year round.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Plan B: King John's Castle

There's a saying about the best laid plans.  I could take a second and look up exactly how it goes, but I think I'll paraphrase it instead. Basically, it says don't count your chickens, your mice or your men, because they could all join together and royally screw up your plans.

Such an event transpired just this week, when I boasted- on this blog, no less- about my plans to go to Durty Nelly's, an old Irish pub in an old Irish town. It was all but a given that I would soon be strolling into a 400 year old bar and an old guy would be singing "Danny Boy", much to the delight of a dozen or so other old men.  I would be there,  nodding politely, straining to figure out what the garbled sounds- some would call them words- coming out of the bartender's mouth signified.

We landed in Shannon, Ireland, a little late, but still within peak pub hours.  We got off the plane and I began to head towards the usual hotel, the one right by the bus stop that would take me to Bunratty Castle, Nelly's more dignified neighbor.  No one followed.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Hanging High in Vancouver. Again.


Later this evening, I will be going to Shannon, Ireland. It will take me over 14 hours of overnight flying to get there. I will be exhausted. But I will reach into the reserve tank and find the energy to go to Durty Nelly's for at least one pint. Why? Because Durty Nelly's is a 15th century pub attached to a castle and is everything that I imagine an authentic (albeit touristy) Irish pub to be. It doesn't matter that I have been there before. It is one of those places that I will go to every time I have the chance.

And it is not alone. There are plenty of museums, squares, pubs, etc that I don't tire of visiting. Of course, there are others that take a bit more deliberation. How much did I enjoy it the first time? Am I going to get something new out of it? How easy is it to get to? How much does it cost? Am I enjoying the present company of those around me or would I rather ditch them?