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International TravelThings You Should KnowWining/Dining

SANTORINI, GREECE — Last stop for a milestone birthday

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Thank you to the Greek weather Gods for allowing us to arrive in Santorini to glorious sunshine.  Beautiful blue skies against the white abodes literally built into steep hillsides provide gorgeous contrasts.

Every room has it’s own terrace.
Dining area at the resort.

Our last resort for this trip was in the town of Oia (pronounced “e-a”), about 40 minutes from the ferry in Fira.  Naturally the resort — Mystique — is steep as well, just like pretty much everything else on the island.  The view of the caldera is quite stunning.  “Caldera” refers to the vast opening from the long-ago volcano eruption which formed Santorini itself along with several much smaller islands.  One could sit facing the water and do nothing else.  Of course, navigating up and down the steps required to get anywhere provides added incentive to stay put.  And there’s no “ADA” provisions; it’s simply climb or else.

Our resort with another right above it.
50 steps so far; about a million to go. No handrails.

We did walk into the town to browse around and have lunch at Mezzo Cafe.  It was like the U.N. there with very close tables that lent to conversation.  French folks (from Lyon) to the left and a group of Aussies to the right provided a wonderful opportunity to chat and hear respective impressions of the landscape and life in general.  Our French neighbors immediately asked if I was ok sitting next to their dog.  My response:  “As long as he doesn’t smoke,” which is hardly guaranteed in these parts of the world — especially sitting at an outdoor cafe.  We lucked out on all counts and had a thoroughly terrific time.

Mezzo Cafe
Go-to lunch: Chicken sovlaki with tzatziki, pita and “chips”

Much like our arrival in Santorini (described in the previous post), we experienced a similar “your driver was delayed” challenge upon leaving for a particularly ideal spot to view the sunset.  In this part of Greece, sunsets are like a religious experience.  But they must be well-timed.  We were booked at Ovac, a beautiful spot we were told was best for viewing.  We had a pre-arranged pick-up at 6:15 for a 6:30 arrival at the restaurant, giving us a solid 30 minutes until the sun fully set.  And then it’s 6:20, 6:25.  Tick tock.  Two hotel courtesy cars were waiting, but both had other commitments.

Mind you, I am not walking back down to get to the main office, because I’ll have to walk back up!  Three phone calls later (from a borrowed cell), one of the cars finally took us (ours was still “delayed”), driving at breakneck speed around the curves and we arrived with enough time to get our photos, but not nearly as relaxing as we had hoped.  We did have a delicious dinner and were glad for the experience.

Amazing salad at Ovac.
That view. That sunset.

I’m now convinced not much runs on time in Greece.  In fairness to our two other stays, both had excellent staff and great service (King George Athens and Bill & Coo Mykonos).  But Santorini had some issues to say the least.  Is it Greece in general?  Hmmm.  The country is not exactly stellar in many aspects.  Maybe with this exquisite location, the expectations are lower.  Good question to ponder.

The final day of our stay in Greece was spent at the resort — reading, spa and a wine tasting in their cellar — really a cave of sorts.  Greek grapes are interesting; they are grown without any water other than rain, humidity and/or mist from the sea.  The volcanic earth retains the moisture.  We tasted four local varietals:  sparkling, white, red and a dessert wine, accompanied by various cheeses, fruit, nuts, etc.  It was a lovely experience followed by a small dinner.

Wine tasting a deux.

Fortunately we were back in the room before the anticipated rains came for we would have not been able to negotiate either the steps or steep slope to our room.  It positively gushed water — and it supposedly only rains 20 days per year on the island.  Timing is everything.

Moderate rain flowing past our room.
The deluge a bit later.

For the journey home, American/British Air booked us via our miles from Athens to an overnight at Heathrow then nonstop to LAX.  I’ve complained before about really disliking BA’s biz class (Club World) configuration of front/back seating and having to climb over the aisle seat from the window seat.  However, we were on a brand new plane and it was really “quite lovely” as the Brits would say.  Next year that seat configuration goes away, and everyone will be facing front.  Hopefully staggered.  Better yet, single seating next to the window.  That is the best!

My cubby for 11+ hours. Plenty of room.
That privacy screen was up after the photo!
U.S. TravelWining/Dining

THANK YOU VIRGIN AIRLINES FOR THIS TRIP!

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What does that mean?  Virgin Airlines did everything in their power to destroy our return flight last September from Boston & Providence.  After much back and forth, a $500 credit was offered for future travel.  When I attempted to use the credit for a January trip to Houston, I found out that any travel associated with the credit had to go through Seattle — you guessed it.  Off to the PNW before the credit goes bye-bye.

Dinner view, Bellingham waterfront.

 

Not that one needs a good reason to visit the area, but we had a few besides the aforementioned credit.  First up, a long overdue visit with LA friends who relocated to Bellingham a number of years ago.  Then there’s my niece and her family — in particular my 3-year-old great niece.  Did we need to pick a weekend where the Dodgers just happened to be playing the Mariners?  Not really, but why not?  It’s always fun to visit stadiums, and our friends are serious fan(atics)s as well.

Bellingham transplants Marion & Ed, a friend of the hubby for 45 years.

Upon the recommendation of our Bellingham buddies, we reserved two nights at The Willows Inn on nearby Lummi Island, a quaint establishment with just eight accommodations.  From their website:  “Lummi Island is located in the archipelago that includes the San Juan Islands and the Gulf Islands in the Salish Sea, the waters off the coasts of the Pacific Northwest and southwest Canada.”  I didn’t fully appreciate what we were in for, except I knew we were going to splurge on their prix-fixe dinner.

Outdoor grill at The Willows Inn prepping dinner courses
Tempting lobby treats!
Love this outdoor table!

Chef/proprietor Blaine Wetzel is a disciple of Rene Redzepi of the world-renown restaurant Noma in Copenhagen.  The style of cooking and use of ingredients is based on whatever local products are available, heavily skewed to all types of seafood and every vegetable known (and some new ones) including plants, herbs and edible flowers.  Many were grilled outside and finished inside.  Our “snacks” began on the patio with a series of small bites and progressed inside for many more courses.  We finished back on the patio for a series of desserts mainly using local fruits.  It was a world-class meal in every sense.

You had me at bbq’d mussels
“Herb Tostada” — completely edible!
Braised local cabbage with charred edges. Outstanding.
The only bread offering (amazing) — with a buttery crab dip.

After dinner we went into the kitchen along with many other guests where we met the chef himself.  Our friends generously bought me his book so I wanted to get it signed.  Little did I know that head chef  Wetzel actually delivered (incognito) one of our courses!  Talk about everyone being hand’s on.  We loved hearing more background about the restaurant and having an aperitif before retiring to our room upstairs.

The only issue with the Inn’s location is the ferry that runs back and forth to the mainland — which ferry is the only access to the Inn.  The line can be oppressive, especially in the summer months.  After waiting about 30 minutes to get a morning ferry to the mainland, we called an audible, went back to the Inn and gathered our belongings and checked out.  The idea of spending up to 3 hours of this short trip waiting for the ferry just didn’t make sense so I booked modest accommodations for the night on the mainland and off we went for a spectacular day of sightseeing in Bellingham and the surrounding areas.

Ugh. Endless line for the ferry.

As a longtime suffering gardener — meaning my efforts and my yield are seriously out of balance — seeing blackberries growing literally like weeds everywhere is just a killer.  And then we went to pick blueberries.  Does anyone not love blueberries? (Mr. H, don’t answer that).  There are simply not enough adjectives to describe the abundance of berries in the area, both at Boxx Berry Farm and at a private home in Lynwood.  Literally grab a container and proceed.  The best method for picking proved to be imitating how one milks a cow (which I have never done but used my imagination).

Blueberries!
Three of us picked these.
Packed up for transporting home

We loved going to Safeco Field for two Dodger games.  The ratio of Dodger blue gear to either Mariners or other teams is at least 50/50 if not more.  Spending time with friends/fans was terrific fun.  Once more, the distinct differences between stadium food offerings in other parks compared to Dodger Stadium makes one wonder why our organization doesn’t do a better job!

Fun at Safeco Field
Dodger pitcher Rich Hill warming up pre-game.

We had a blast spending time with family and enjoying a splendid meal at Purple Cafe in the heart of downtown.  Delicious food, conversation and time well spent all adds up to a most enjoyable journey up north.

Pasta with local corn and tomatoes
Peach gallette with a side of salted caramels.
The fam: Niece Jenna, hubby Thomas and 3-1/2-yr-old gorgeous Doron
Snippets from the Road

WHAT AIRLINES FREEBIES DO YOU TAKE?

AA pajamas

A recent Wall Street Journal column identified how airlines continue to up their game in order to entice premium passengers, many of whom still pay full fare, with freebies (i.e., swag).   Items might include duvet covers, branded shot glasses, playing cards and pajamas.  Suffice to say, they dislike the increased cost to do so.

 

 

While amenity kits continue to be provided — with things like socks, eyeshades and toothpaste — and are easy for passengers to take, apparently some fliers are walking off with bedrolls as well.

On a recent flight from London-LAX, I had the pleasure of flying First Class and cannot personally imagine walking off with something akin to a sleeping bag (shown below).  Wowza.  A small throw blanket possibly.

 

Pillows & Blankets from AA First Class

 

Maybe the pajamas (typically not in “my” color).

 

I would keep these!

 

The question is:  What would you take with you??

International TravelThings You Should Know

TRAVELING TO EASTERN EUROPE AND RUSSIA (PART 1)

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It’s post-Tax-Season, 2018, which means just one thing for me and the hubby: And we’re off! Both of us are frequently asked where we are going next. Per the map below, our itinerary is Eastern Europe and Russia.  The route is counter-clockwise: fly to Helsinki; ferry to Tallin (Estonia); drive to Riga (Latvia), Klaipeda and Vilnius (Lithuania); train to Minsk (Belarus); fly to Moscow and finally train to St. Petersburg (Russia).

Eastern Europe/Russia Trip Route

Once we get to Tallinn, traveling to the various stops is easy; each one no more than a couple of hours from the other. With a rental car, the travel is flexible and the time-line is our own. The flight from Minsk-Moscow is only 90 minutes. Therefore the longest journey within these three weeks is the train ride from Moscow to St. Petersburg (less than four hours via high speed train). This trip is your basic “planes, trains and automobiles plus a ferry” with a great deal of travel to experience.

Similar to the beginning of our trip last year in India, we are delighted to welcome a traveling companion.  This time it is longtime friend, Julie Shuer!  Beverly-Hills based Julie is flying to Helsinki from Tel Aviv (her second home) to join us for about a week, or through our stay in Vilnius.

As I have done in the past, the trip will be covered in a series of consecutive (numbered) posts. There’s always a lot to write about from my POV; hence, look forward to hearing both the good plus any unforced errors (always possible) along the way.

I can report I had terrific communications with various hotels from home before we left. Items like transportation awaiting us upon arrival (particularly important in Moscow & St. P); advance bookings for must-not-miss restaurants, museums and the Bolshoi Ballet(!); and a Lithuanian guide who will escort us to the Bialosky family roots in two small towns along the way to Vilnius and at that stop — all confirmed.

I love hearing about your experiences too. Let me know which of these destinations you’ve been to. A great many of you have been on a Baltic sea cruise, including the the typical stops in Helsinki, St. P, Tallin and Klaipeda. I consulted cruise line itineraries for our route — why reinvent the wheel, if you know what I mean.

Happy to say we arrived at the beautiful Hotel Kamp in Helsinki.  Not without the usual drama .. right up to the day prior to departure and the Russian Visas (long story still unfolding) and then there was the transfer in Paris.  Suffice it to say,  I was THE LAST PERSON to make the Finnair flight, and would have missed it altogether without the coordination and good graces of the hubby, pilot and head purser.  How does one’s carry-on get scanned with flying colors for the first three checkpoints, only to then have all my meticulous packing/organizing summarily dismantled and everything taken out and “reorganized” as I’m minutes from missing the flight?  The words “don’t take no for an answer” were never more fitting.

“No, you can’t get on the plane” said the first check-in person which a supervisor ultimately overruled; “no, your wife is not going to make it” said the gate person which the pilot and purser overruled (no, the hubby was NOT leaving without me).   That stop in Paris was a 90-minute cardio workout if ever there was one…

 
First flight above (to Paris); second flight below (to Helsinki).
Booked with AA miles.
I love checking out different airlines.
Will we fly them again? (ATN not likely; Finnair – Yes!)
Finally, look who made it all the way to Helsinki …  My duck!  I use her as my rating system (4 ducks = nirvana).  Let’s see where else she pops up.  The hotel was nice to provide a companion, but I think one traveling duck is enough.  And mine’s cuter.
International Travel

BRITISH AIRWAYS: LOOKING FOR A POSITIVE SPIN

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Lest this be obvious, the goal of this blog is to be both informational and, at the same time, upbeat.  Life is too short to be relentlessly “doom-and-gloom,” and plenty of others provide the news of the day with all of life’s inherent challenges.
The next somewhat obvious point is what a privilege it is to travel the globe.  The hubby and I try very hard to remember that point.  We go when we choose, where we choose, and enjoy it to the fullest.
All that said, I can’t stand British Airways!  Why take on the “gateway to Europe?” (Not sure if that’s an actual reference or I made it up.)  Oh, let me count the ways:  ridiculous taxes for flying through Heathrow, ridiculous charges to pre-book seats, and that front/back seat configuration!  Ugh.
The seating configuration at left requires being a bit of a contortionist
if one is in the window seat and needs to get up.
Think about this:  you’re flying solo on an overnight flight.  There’s no way to cleanly step over the person in the aisle seat if it’s fully extended.  Who thought this was a good idea?
When it comes to utilizing my accumulated OneWorld miles (acquired mostly through AA Citi Mastercard, but also transferred through Starwood), I prefer online searches.  When all else fails, I’ll engage AAdvantage customer service.  Online booking seems to rarely list flights with partner airlines where Europe is concerned; it’s all about the BA flights unless one calls the airline directly.  Persistence can payoff — case in point is our April flights to Helsinki with AA miles:  first to Paris via Air Tahiti Nui, then to Helsinki via Finnair — I’m very proud of that one!
The most recent travail was finding an acceptable way to return from Athens this October.  I damn-near burnt out my computer with endless searches.  Not willing to spend 135K miles PER PERSON/ONE-WAY(!) to get home, I finally opted for 57.5K each to fly business class from Athens-Heathrow with an overnight, and then Heathrow-LAX the next morning.  A reasonable amount of miles but $773 in taxes!!  FYI, taxes for most similar flights on AA are less than $50 — even to Hong Kong.

After several unsuccessful calls to AAdvantage, requesting (but not finding) any other OneWorld partners to get us home — nothing through Barcelona, Madrid, Paris or even Doha(!) — I capitulated and secured the seats for the Heathrow route.  When it came time to finalize the transaction, the lovely AA person asked for my credit card to charge me the sum of $853.  Wait; what?  Why the higher total?  “That is for the service fee ($40 per person) charged for engaging a live person instead of booking online.” Hold the phone! Your website told me I could NOT complete the transaction online; I had to contact AAdvantage to finalize. So you’re forcing me to contact you directly, and then charging me for that privilege??!! “Let me speak to your supervisor.”  Pause ….  “Mrs. Bialosky, your corrected total is $773.”  Why, thank you kindly.
The final coup de grâce?? Seat selection is unavailable until 24 hours before departure, unless you pay up.  I could have lived with taking our chances for the relatively-shorter flight from Athens to London, but opted to pre-reserve anyway.  Anything other than pre-reserving for the 11+ hours from London to LAX was unthinkable.  Cost for two pre-reserved seats for two flights:  $340.  And now you know why BA makes it so very hard to find a positive spin …  On the upside, Heathrow has great food and shopping.  So there’s that.
International TravelThings I Love

REMEMBER WHEN??

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Early 2018 was the perfect time to clean up old files (cue: New Year’s Resolution #3).  Upon doing so, I soon I discovered all my records from our first big trip in this century:  Italy – Spring 2001.
What it took then versus how I plan now might as well be from a different universe.  And yet some things never change … like my obsession with whatever shopping might be available!  Italy was still on the lire way back then (oh, the days), and everything was at least 40% less than in the US.  I found catalog tear-out sheets in my folder which I brought on the trip so I could compare the cost of items I wanted to find when I got to Rome or Milan.
The iconic Via Condotti with the Spanish Steps in the background.
The reality: we arrived in Rome, had lunch, checked into the hotel, the hubby took a nap and I went out and bought five handbags.  That was the end of my “alone time” for the remaining three weeks.  But, oh, how much fun I had!
How about the above for a fun walk down memory lane.  That is a copy of the VCR “taping schedule” for the three weeks we were gone. There was no On-Demand or DVR in those days, so if you didn’t get the recording you were out of luck.  I think there was a performance bonus offered as well … of course, I’m sure son Sam (age 12 at that time) was in charge so we likely got all the shows.
Other fun memories:  printed, multiple-part airline tickets that arrived in the mail!  I loved looking at all those codes and wondering what they meant.  But when I think back to things like seat assignments and how neurotic I have become about where I sit (www.seatguru.com is one of my very favorite websites), it’s hard to imagine going in “blind.”  Well, we didn’t know what we didn’t know; right?
 
we all lament the trials and tribulations of travel today.  When you are having an “experience,” I suggest you (and I!) remember when … and appreciate how streamlined and easy the process has become.