Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Sydney & New Zealand

Petting a kangaroo at the Taronga Zoo
This post is long overdue, but I am determined to get it out there with some pictures (if even just the highlights) before the new baby comes this winter because then I doubt I will be travelling or blogging very much at all.  Maybe I will switch the content of my travel blog to cover staycation highlights instead of big trips… we shall see!  For now, I will just focus on trying to remember as many details as possible from my trip down under back in April.  This trip was not originally planned for this year, but after a few conversations and some deep thinking, it all came together pretty quickly.  Australia has always been on my list of milestone destinations, rather than just a run-of-the-mill vacation, because of the cost, distance, and amount of time required to plan everything out.  A few of my friends studied abroad there back in college, and I feel like I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

View across Sydney Harbour
Our flight left Boston on Saturday afternoon and did not arrive in Sydney until Monday morning.  Since we had a full day ahead of us, we decided to go ahead and splurge on business class seats. This was the best decision ever because I was able to sleep for most of the flight and did not feel gross or angry, even after traveling for 24 hours!   Our original plan was to take a taxi from the airport to our hotel, Novotel on Darling Harbour.  Unfortunately, we landed on Monday morning at the same time as all the business people trying to get to their various jobs.  The line for the taxi was incredibly long and we decided to go with plan B and take public transportation.  It was easier than I expected to navigate the train system, but ended up costing about the same amount of money as a taxi, and was slightly less comfortable.    Upon check-in at the hotel, we were told that our room wasn’t ready yet and was given the option to pay to upgrade to a suite that was ready at that time.   I really wanted a shower, so I decided to pay for the upgrade.   Sadly, this “upgrade” ended up being a room on the floor where the flight attendants all stayed.  It was dirty, outdated, and there was construction immediately outside our window.  We promptly walked back to desk and decided that was not the room for us and that we would wait for our original room.

Inside the Opera House
Knowing that we were only in Sydney a few days, we decided to explore the city while waiting for our room.  Darling Harbour is an interesting area of Sydney.  It is a bit far from most of the sight-seeing, but has a lot of quirks of its own.  There are a lot of restaurants and bars nearby, but they all seemed to cater to tourists and have inflated prices.  We walked up to Town Hall Square for a 10:30 AM walking tour of the city with “Free Sydney Sights Walking Tour”.  There were over 50 people waiting for a tour, and even with multiple tour guides, it was hard to hear everything that was said.  I’m glad we did a walking tour to help us get our bearings on the city, but if I were to do it again, I would book with a different company to ensure a smaller group.  My favorite part was walking through the tunnels and shopping malls underground in the Queen Victoria building.  I would most definitely got lost down there on my own!   The tour lasted a few hours and ended at the Passenger terminal in Circular Quay, where we had our first look at the Sydney Harbour and Opera House!   At this point, it finally set in that we weren’t in the US any longer.   My original plan had us getting lunch nearby and then going back to the room before exploring some options (and maybe a ghost tour) in The Rocks neighborhood for the afternoon.  After realizing how far away our hotel actually was, we quickly altered the plan.  We walked for a bit before deciding on lunch on the roofdeck at the Glenmore Hotel.  While eating, it started to rain.  We were covered, but that made the idea of walking around outside for the next few hours in the rain less appealing.  We decided to walk over to the Opera House after lunch to inquire about a tour and/or tickets to a performance over the next few days.  Swan lake was playing, and though I was unable to get tickets in advance, I was hoping there might be last minute tickets available.  Luck was not with me so we did not see the show; however we did get tickets to an architecture tour leaving within the hour.  The tour was wonderful!  It was very cool to learn about the buildings and take pictures during the day – I doubt we would have been able to see as much if we only went for the evening show.  After our tour, we made our way back to the hotel to shower and relax after the busy day.  The room we ended up in was very nice, and still a suite even though we did not have to pay for the upgrade due to the confusion earlier.

Wine tasting at the Hope Estate
We had an early wake-up call the next morning because we were headed out to the Hunter Valley for a wine tour with Zephyr Tours.  We got an uber to our pickup point at the Menzies Hotel.  The van was on time and we did not have any issues with checking-in for our tour.   There were several other pickups in the city before heading north to the Hunter Valley.  I was a little worried about booking this tour because their pictures online were all of groups of very young adults who seemed to be having too good of a time.  Thankfully, our group ended up being a fair mix of all ages and no one was obnoxious – at least, not while sober at 8 am.  J  Our tour “guide” did not talk much on the way assuming everyone wanted to sleep, and made it very clear he did not know much about wine and was more of an escort-only, but that we could ask all our questions at the vineyards and they would be answered.   We stopped at a gas station to go to the restroom and get coffee on the way.  Once we arrived in the Hunter Valley, we stopped at 3 vineyards:  Leogate, the Hope Estate, and a very small local vineyard with the tasting room in the garage.    We all had lunch at the Hope Estate and based on which package you purchased, you either ate pizza downstairs, or had a meal upstairs.  I chose, what I thought to be an elaborate 3 course meal.  In reality, it was the exact same food as the 2 course meal option with an additional, very small, salad.  If anyone is considering this company, I think it may be fine for the casual wine drinker, but not anyone trying to build upon existing knowledge of wine.  I think I am spoiled having taken multiple formal classes and having some excellent tours in Napa.  This was my mistake, and I can own up to that!  One of my highlights of the day was seeing a big family of kangaroos roaming wild in the vineyards!  I tried to get close for a picture, but they are quick and jumped right over the fences when they heard me coming!   We did not get back to the city until late that night and picked up a quick dinner on the walk back to the hotel.

The giraffes have the best view!
The only concrete plan for the next day was an afternoon tea cruise on the Sydney harbor at 2:30 PM.  After watching climbers on the Harbour Bridge from the roofdeck on the Glenmore hotel our first day, my husband was sufficiently convinced that he would NOT be doing the bridge climb experience.  Climbing to the top of the pylon lookout was also crossed off the list.  We settled on going to the zoo that morning instead and caught a ferry from Circular Quay for a quick trip across the harbour.  The zoo was gorgeous and the views from the gondola ride overlooked the Sydney skyline perfectly!  Unfortunately, the timing for the behind the scenes tours would not work for us, but we were able to grab an early spot to spend a few minutes up close to a Koala for a private photo op!   We also managed to time our jaunt in the kangaroo walk-about to be in time with the tour so that we could sneak in to pet a kangaroo and take a quick picture there as well.  It was very soft with fur like a rabbit.  I definitely recommend going to the zoo, it was a great way to spend the morning.  After our ride back over the harbour on the ferry, we found our departure point with Captain Cook for afternoon tea.

You can also book a harbour cruise without tea on the same ship, but you are standing at the top of the boat, rather than being seated inside the dining room.  I loved having space to spread out and enjoy my meal while watching the sights go by.  An added bonus was that the boat went from Circular Quay to Darling Harbour.  I did not know this in advance, but you could actually get off in Darling Harbour, or ride it back to the original departure location.  This worked out nicely for us because we got off in Darling Harbour and had time to do some shopping near our hotel for souvenirs!

After packing up our suitcases, we headed back out later that night to try some of the local delicacy, kangaroo, for dinner!  The meat was good, very similar to steak… more importantly, I can now say that I pet a kangaroo and ate a kangaroo in the same day (but not the same kangaroo, thankfully).

We were headed to Auckland this afternoon, so we only had a few hours in the morning to pick up some last minute items in the city before going to the airport.  The flight was longer than I expected (though it seemed to fly by after the long haul from the US) and there was a time zone change.  We went back and forth over renting a car or taking a taxi, but since we had at least a few day trips planned for the next few days, we decided to rent a car.  I’m glad we did this because the airport was pretty far from the city, especially when you don’t arrive until late at night.  By the time we got our car and got the hotel, Rendezvous Auckland, it was after 1 AM.  Fortunately we didn’t have an early morning planned for the next day… I was starting to feel a bit exhausted at this point!

A view of Auckland from Mount Eden Summit
After sleeping in a bit, we decided to nix the walking tour this morning and explore on our own.  We made our way down to the wharf and back through the city to the Sky Tower for lunch.  I was surprised by the number of homeless people in the city, it was very noticeable and somewhat off-putting as a tourist.  We decided on getting lunch and a view of the city at the same time by eating at the Orbit brasserie, a dining room that spins 360 degrees per hour.   We were lucky to get a table by the window since we didn’t have a reservation.  It was definitely worth the experience and a great start to being in a new city, plus the food was delicious and we saw someone fly by our table as they descended from the Sky Jump on the platform above the restaurant!

That afternoon we took a bus out to Eden Garden at Mount Eden Summit.  While the gardens themselves were beautiful, I cannot recommend coming here to visit via public transportation.  We wasted a lot of time getting from Auckland to the gardens and then only had about 30 minutes or so to walk around and look at the flowers.  Even if we had better transportation, I'm not sure this is a good place as a single destination.  If you were stopping here on the way to something else, that may a better use of your time.  We had dinner near our hotel that evening.


Walking through the vineyards
The next morning, we got up early to catch the 9 AM ferry to Waiheke Island.   After disembarking from the ferry, we met up with our tour group, Ananda Tours, and piled into a van for another full day of wine tasting.  This trip was so much better than the one in Sydney.  It was well organized, the tour guide was informative and enthusiastic, and the wine was delicious, including the Kokoro Merlot/Cab blend from Te Motu.  I have two bottles of that wine sitting in my wine fridge waiting for the perfect reason to drink.

We paid for our lunch separately, but the tour company was able to make the reservation for us at Mudbrick.  I wish we would have planned that stopped a little better because we were rushed to do both the wine tasting and have lunch.  After a full-day of drinking wine and sight-seeing, we decided to eat dinner at one of the restaurants with outdoor seating near the Sky hotel.

The next morning we jumped in our rental car for an early start out to Matamata to visit Hobbiton.  I had a minor freakout moment on the way there because I was having trouble buying tickets online and thought we weren't going to be able to get on a tour when we arrived.  Fortunately, we were about to walk right in and buy tickets for the next tour.  I am typically more of a planner, but it was exhausting planning for so many days in advance, especially when we weren't sure if we wanted to get a rental car in Auckland or not.  The tour started in a bus that drove across the street onto a farm.  I don't think it is really necessary to bus tourists across the street, but I guess because it is a working farm, they don't want anyone leaving open the gates and letting sheep out - and there were a LOT of sheep.  We walked off of the bus and into Hobbiton!  Our tour guide took us around the hobbit holes and explained that they were all different sizes to film different points of view in the movies.  We were able to walk in some of them, even though they were not decorated on the inside.  


After a quick snack at the cafe, we continued on our way to Waitomo Caves. Our next destination was another 1.5 hours away, so we tried to make up some time that we lost by sleeping in a bit.  There were a lot of signs in Waitomo advertising for glow worm cave tours and I was a litle overwhelmed by which one we should do.  After stopping in the tourist office, we decided to go with the 3 hour tour offered by Spellbound on private grounds.  After a short van ride, we spent the first part of the tour in a cave with a river running through it.  We jumped in a raft, turned off all of our lights, and waiting for the glow worms (maggots) to to start their light show.  There were thousands scattered around the ceiling and walls making it look like stars.  It was incredible!

The second part of our tour was exploring rock formations in a much larger, drive cave.  There was a small section with glow worms near the top, but no where near as awesome as in the first cave.  I did like that we could walk around in this cave and see some old bones from where animals died.

This was expensive, but definitely worth it.  We didn't see the "main cave" that most of the tourists visit because we were ready for our long drive back to the hotel and a full next day.

At this point, we diverted from my original itinerary.  I hadn't planned for how exhausting the previous day's driving would be and there was no way we were going to head back south and drive even further to Rotorua today.  If I could plan this again, I would definitely stay overnight in Rotorua and just drive there from Matamata so that we could be fresh and ready the next morning.  Sadly, we missed out of the spa and Maori culture experience because of this.  Instead, we decided to drive to the north of Auckland and visit another beautiful vineyard.

The next day we headed back to Sydney and checked into our hotel on Coogee beach to do the beach walk to Bondi Beach.  It was a relaxing last day in Sydney and a great way to pack and prepare for our trip back home.


Our flight back to the US left in the morning on our last day in Sydney, so we watched the sunrise over the ocean before grabbing an Uber from the hotel pretty early and said farewell to the Land Down Under.  It was another long flight back (this time in coach since I could recover in the comfort of my own home), but we did gain back the day we lost on the way over.  Time zones are a very cool thing!

A Summer Weekend in Newport, RI

Rosecliff Mansion
Summer weekends in New England typically mean sitting in traffic for hours on end with the rest of the people coming out of hibernation for a few hours in the sun on the Cape.  After being cooped up for far too long, everyone is desperate to put their toes in the sand and drink a cocktail or two overlooking the beach.  Another favorite place to visit, at least in my opinion, is Newport, RI.  Newport is home to a beautiful ocean views, gilded-era mansions, and of course, the Pro Tennis Hall of Fame.

Whale Watching
Boston Skyline in the background
When my cousin told me earlier this year that she would be attending a wedding in Newport this summer, I told her and her friends to come up for the weekend and we could spend a few days exploring this ocean-front city and seeing the sights.  They came up on Friday and we spent the evening in Boston with a flight of beer at Harpoon Brewery followed by a dinner at Legal Seafoods in the Seaport district.   Saturday morning we booked a whale watching tour through the New England aquarium.  The weather was a bit off, resulting in choppy seas, but no one in our group threw-up and we saw a pod of 5 whales!

That afternoon we drove down to Newport to check in to our hotel and have a late dinner at the Conservatory in the Vanderbilt Grace.  We sat outside in the back courtyard and had  lovely meal.  By the time we were done eating, it was pretty late.

The next morning the girls sat by the pool at the hotel while I made my way to the Rosecliff mansion to get my annual pass and explore the grounds.  The Rosecliff was a beautiful mansion overlooking the water.  The rooms were decorated very lavishly and the audio tour went through the various owners and how the decor changes throughout the ages.  As the US was preparing for the war, the luxuries of the 20s and 30s were frowned upon.  The homes were donated to the Preservation Society of Newport and have been available for tours and private events.

Later that afternoon, I dropped my cousin off at the wedding and we went to have cocktails on The Lawn at Castle Hill Inn.  We considered having dinner as well, but there was a wait and the menu/price did not seem exceptionally appealing in comparison to sitting in Adirondack chairs on the lawn and watching the sunset over the ocean.  In addition to the beautiful view, many people had packed their own picnics and were listening to music while watching the boats sail by.

We headed into town that evening for a seafood dinner at a pub and some shopping.  Later that night, we picked up my cousin from the wedding and went back to the hotel.  Our last day in Newport started with a morning mimosa sail on the bay aboard the Adirondack II.  The weather was much nicer than our whale watching tour a few days prior and there were more than enough mimosas to go around.  I highly recommend doing this activity if you have some free time in Newport.

Our last planned activity in the town was to tour The Breakers mansion.  The Breakers is one of the most grandiose homes that can be toured.  There were a lot of rooms to view and a very long guided audio tour.  I don't really like audio tours because if you go with friends, you can't really talk to each other.  I also don't like how everyone congregates in one spot to view a particular painting or piece of furniture.  I understand how a lot of museums save money by not having real tour guides, but I am not in favor of this method of touring.  That being said, the mansion really was beautiful and the grounds had an amazing view!  I would love to go back this winter when they are all decorated for Christmas!


The Breakers




Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Summer in Saskatchewan

Who goes to Saskatchewan you may ask?  Well, in this case, me.  My brother and sister-in-law moved to Regina last year and I was due to a trip over the Memorial Day long weekend.

After a layover in Minneapolis, the flight landed at the Regina airport Friday afternoon.  A ride around the city left me surprisingly impressed.  In my head, I assumed the middle of nowhere Canada meant a small town with nothing around.  Turns out, Regina is a city with lots of buildings, restaurants, shopping centers, etc.  It reminded me of a typical mid-west city in the US.  Sprawled out and absolutely mandatory that you have a car. 

Outside the Royal Saskatchewan Museum 
My top priority for this trip was visiting with my family, my second top priority was shopping at Roots.  After that, food and culture.  I ended up visiting Roots twice that weekend and definitely ate some poutine.  Saturday we visited the Royal Saskatchewan Museum.  The building was beautiful, but the inside did not blow me away.  At the time we were visiting, the special exhibit was called "Snakes Alive.  It featured several snakes of Saskatchewan and was an interesting, albeit small exhibit.  The rest of the building was mostly dioramas highlighting the landscape and animals in Canada.  To be honest, it was underwhelming.  

The next day we had brunch at Willow on the Wascana. It was delicious and the view over the lake was nice on the slightly-chilly day.  After brunch, we went to the RCMP Heritage Centre.  Shortly after we arrived, a driving tour was ready to leave, so we jumped on the trolly and went along for the ride.  We drove around the Depot and learned about the academy and steps involved in training.  We made a pit-stop at the chapel to admire the stained glass.  I definitely recommend the driving tour since it put everything into perspective and there were plenty of opportunities to ask questions.  After the tour, we spent some time in the museum going through each exhibit.  The virtual reality experience was pretty neat and I also really enjoyed the training movie.  The whole place was very nicely organized. 

The Chapel at the RCMP Heritage Centre

Our last night in Regina was spent getting food and drinks nearby and enjoying the good company of family.



Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Easter Weekend in Dallas


Me at the Arboretum
Google Flights has become my go-to online tool to determine where to spend some of my long weekends this year.   A few weeks back, I started searching for the cheapest direct flight out of Boston.  A couple clicks later, I was planning an itinerary for Easter weekend in Dallas.  After socializing my plans, my Mom spoke with her friend who lives in Dallas, and we turned a group of two into four!

We arrived at the DFW airport Friday morning around 10:00 AM.  The place was really quiet and it took a while for us to find where to go to get the rental car.  Once we picked up our car, we headed directly to the Dallas World Aquarium.  There was a bit of a line, but it was mostly congested on the inside.  I was blown away by the number of exotic birds and monkeys they have!  It should really be renamed to a zoo or aviary in addition to aquarium.  Looking back on it, the animals may have outnumbered the fish!  After we got through the initial part where the crowd was congregated, it was much easier to move through the place and see the different exhibits.  The penguins outside were cute (but we have many more Penguins at the NEAQ, yea!) and it made me smile to see a sloth since I just came back from Costa Rica.  They even have an art gallery.  After a few hours there, we walked back outside to see the GIANT line waiting to get inside.  I am so glad we got there relatively early.  I would not have waited in that line.

After the aquarium, we went for lunch at a "Modern Texas" restaurant called Stampede 66.  I loved the decorations and we had great service.  I ordered a Passion-Chile Margarita and the Hell's Eggs appetizer to start.  My frozen margarita was good... the only problem was that it was served with a metal straw and every time I tried to drink from it, my lips would stick to the metal.  I'm not sure how anyone else could do it! After a good laugh, I eventually gave in and asked for a plastic one.   The appetizer was a delicious take on deviled eggs and my entree, the chicken verde tacos, were served with a plate of toppings that I could pile on top.  All in all, it was a delicious, but slightly pricey, lunch.  I don't normally blog about the food when I go visit places, so you can tell I was impressed.

After lunch we went to the 6th Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza to learn about JFK's assassination.   We had to buy timed entry tickets for an hour after we arrived, so we sat around outside and soaked in the sun until we could go in.  I've been to a couple of exhibits like this in the past; a few that stand out to me are the MLK Jr one in Memphis and the Norman Rockwell museum in the Berkshires.  I like to learn about history, but I can't seem to get into looking at photos on a wall and listening to an audio guide the whole time.  After about 45 minutes, I lose interest.  A lot of other people seemed very intrigued however, so don't let my opinion sway you.

That evening we met up with the rest of the group and socialized for the remainder of the evening.  After a late breakfast Saturday afternoon at a nearby diner, we went to the Arboretum for the Dallas Blooms exhibit.  There were so many people there, we were taken to a nearby parking garage to park.  The Arboretum was beautiful!  The gardens were full of blooming flowers and people were having picnics on the grass while listening to live music.  It was hard to decide which gardens to take pictures of because they were all so nice.  After walking around for a bit, we enjoyed a glass of Champagne at the terrace restaurant and just soaked it all in.  I'm very glad we got to see this.

Saturday night we drove up to Oklahoma to go to the Winstar Casino.  I learned some interesting things about gambling laws in that state, including that they can't have dice or roulette balls and that I had to pay an ante for each round of each game I played (the second one might just be specific to that casino, not sure).  I didn't enjoy those laws and after a few hours of spending money, we went back to Dallas.  Sunday was pretty casual since we had to fly out that afternoon.  We spent an hour or so at a local park to see some Easter festivities before going back to the airport.

Dallas was an interesting city.  It was a lot more spread out than I expected and I didn't get too much of a charm factor (like how San Antonio was very cute and charming).  The people were very nice and welcoming, but I'm not sure that I would go out of my way to go back anytime soon.

Such pretty gardens!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

4 Chicas in Costa Rica

First night at Xandari
I'd been looking forward to this trip all winter and now that it is over, I don't even want to write about it, I just want to go back!  It is very difficult to go from 90 degrees to 40 and be happy about it.   On the plus side, I no longer have to bathe in deet.  After 10 days of re-applying, it's bound to be well integrated into my blood stream by now.

I typically like to split out my posts for long trips different ways; for this one I thought it would be good to break it out by location since each place was so unique and memorable.



Day 1: San Jose

I flew into the SJO airport on the first day around 2 pm and met up with the three other girls (Bianca, Kellie, and Cynthia) coming in on a separate flight from Pittsburgh. Fortunately, everyone got their bags and we managed to find our shuttle to the Holiday Inn Express.  There may have been one "Taken" close call, but we quickly halted the situation.  Our hotel was only a few minutes down the road.  Since we weren't sure about potential delays, we didn't plan any activities for the day we arrived.  

Windy photo shoot at the lookout point
Unfortunately staying so close to the airport meant we’d be in a fairly long cab ride no matter where we went.  For lunch, we decided to walk next door to the Rosti Pollo.  This reminded me a lot of a TGIFridays.  We all order our first traditional-style meals of the trip and feasted on chicken fajitas with rice, beans, plantains and guac as sides.  Everything went down pretty easily, especially when paired with a local Imperial beer.  After lunch we all laid in the sun for a while by the hotel pool and organized our bags for the next few days.  That evening we took a 25 minute cab ride to the Xandari hotel for drinks and tres leches cake on their deck overlooking the San Jose lights.  Everything was delicious and with only a minor hiccup trying to get home (it took forever to find a cab and when we did it was quite the adventurous drive), we ended our first day with all our limbs intact.


Day 2 – 3:  Monteverde

Hummingbird garden
The next morning, a mini-van came to pick us up for our private transportation to Monteverde.  It was a bit of a drive, but our driver was very nice and we stopped along the way at a beautiful lookout point where the wind was whipping around us making a very memorable photo op.  We climbed some serious altitude along the many windy and unpaved roads.  When we arrived at the Monteverde Villa Lodge, the host checked us in and showed up to a very cute room with 3 beds and a big table that was perfect for drinking wine and playing games.  He asked us all to come down for a welcome coffee before we walked into town to explore the shops and grab some snacks at the grocery store. One of the first things we noticed about Monteverde was how rainy and windy it was.  We were later told that a cold front was moving in, but it was drastically different from San Jose!  Each night we were convinced a hurricane was coming because of the noise outside our windows.  The upside to the weather was that we didn't have to worry about sunburn or bugs on this leg of our journey!

After we got settled in, our transportation arrived right on time to take us to the Don Juan coffee tour.  The tour was advertised as a coffee, chocolate, and sugar cane tour, but it was definitely more coffee.  We arrived at a small farm-like location and we taught all about how and where coffee grows.  We even had a chance to pick some fresh coffee berries off of the trees and suck on them.  From there, we were given a small demonstration on how they used to manually separate the shells from the seeds and leave them out of dry.  This is a demonstration only, we didn't actually tour a coffee plant.  At the end we were able to try some coffee from different roasts and look over the property with our cups in hand.  The sugar cane part was about 15 minutes as the guide showed us how to squeeze the cane into liquid.  He did make us a delicious lemonade to try with the juice.  Lastly, the chocolate part was about 20 minutes or so since the cacao doesn't grow in that part of Monteverde.  He grinded up some cacao and made us a little chocolate cup to try.  That was very good!  Because the put the chocolate and sugar cane parts in between learning about the coffee, it seemed to flow together nicely.  All in all, it was a cute little tour, but nothing over the top.  That night we ate in town at one of the many delicious restaurants.

Ziplining in Selvatura Park
The next morning we were picked up and taken for a nature walk in the cloud forest reserve.  The bad weather had scared away a lot of the mammals, so we mostly saw birds.  Some of the cool ones included a turkey vulture and a Resplendent quetzal. We also spent a little time at the end of the walk in a cute hummingbird garden to see some of the small birds up close.  After our time in the reserve, it was time to go ziplining at Selvatura Adventure Park.  I've been ziplining before and didn't think it would be a big deal, but the rain added an interesting element to it.  You couldn't even see to the end of some of our longer lines because of the cloud coverage.  We really were in the cloud forest!  We all picked the superman option at the last zipline, which meant that we carried a little extra weight in our backpack the whole time, but it was worth it. I was also really impressed with their safety measures there.  We were always hooked to a wire, even when we were on the high platforms, and all of the lines had stoppers to prevent you from barreling into the end.  The night we went to dinner at a restaurant built into the side of a tree and drank wine / played games while the wind howled around our room.  It was a good way to end our time in Monteverde.


Day 4 – 6: Arenal

Eyelash Pit Viper
The transport from Monteverde to Arenal including a bus ride, a boat ride, and another van ride to the next hotel.  It didn’t seem very long though because the boat ride broke up the trip and added a little bit a tour-like feel to what would otherwise be pretty boring.  The hotel, La Pradera, looked very nice from the outside.  They had a pool, a fleet of ATVs on the front lawn, and a beautiful open air restaurant.  Unfortunately, all that niceness stopped outside our little cabin.  Inside were a lot of dark shaded corners (barely any light, natural or artificial), lots of bugs, and random animals scampering on our roof in the middle of the night.  Fortunately, we had dreams of Tulemar (the last resort we were going to stay at) to pull us through those two long nights.

After we all soaked ourselves in 98% DEET, we were picked up for a Arenal Volcano National Park Nature Walk.  The lingering rain made us think that it would be another low-light of the trip, but it mostly cleared up and we were able to hike to a nice vantage point to see both the volcano and the lake.  We also saw an eyelash pit viper that made me think twice about looking up in the trees when walking through the forest.  We were then transported to the Baldi Hot Springs for the second half of the evening.  It was pretty quiet there and while the place was huge, it did not have the “natural hot spring” feel.  It was mostly built up with different pools and bars.  I think because we were think mid-week, some of the bars were not attended.  We also had a dinner buffet which was somewhat average in comparison to some of the other good food we had on the trip.  I had a good time here, but I'm not sure that I would go out of my way to go back.

Baldi Hot Springs / dance club atmosphere
The next morning, we had breakfast at the restaurant before our pickup for the Lost Canyon Adventures Canyoneering.  In my opinion, this was the highlight of our trip and an absolute must-do!  Over the next few hours we walked through a river, repelled down waterfalls, did some free-falling, and laughed over and over again.  We ended with a yummy buffet lunch, a round of Imperials, and memorable pictures.

That evening we explored La Fortuna a bit then packed up again for our last transport.   As part of our transfer on the last day in Arenal, we opted to do some white water rafting on the Rio Balsa before driving to Manuel Antonio that evening.  Because we were the only ones not going back to La Fortuna, we had our own bus and driver who stayed with our bags.  We were picked up at 9 AM and drove approximately 40 minutes to the launch site.  We ended up having to wait a little for the dam to release because the water wasn’t high enough for the rafts.  After about 20 minutes, we were all suited about and given a brief, but thorough, instruction on how to man our raft.  The four of us were in a single raft with a guide.

Me rappelling down a waterfall... no big deal


Days 7 – 10: Manuel Antonio

Rafting on the Rio Balsa
The last leg of our trip was in Manuel Antonio.  We arrived at Tulemar using another private transport from Arenal.  Along our way we stopped at the Tarcoles River to see a very large family of crocodiles hanging out by the side of a river, just under the overpass built for traffic.  Some research done after our trip lead me to this wonderful article about how a man fell over the railing on this bridge and was eaten by the crocodiles.  At least it wasn’t an American Tourist, they (we?) are notoriously dumb sometimes…  The resort was tucked away on the cliffs overlooking the ocean.  Our bungalow could not have been more perfect, but since we arrived late at night, we didn’t really know it yet.  Our concierge, Chris, met us to check in and gave us a quick tour.  He helped us make a dinner reservation for later that night at the restaurant on site and set us up with a Sloth Walk the next morning.

One of the many sloths we saw on our walk
Taking Chris’s recommendation for breakfast the next day, we walked down the street to Café Milagro for some amazing lattes (Vanilla Chilla was my fav) and a very filling breakfast.  The café became a morning staple for the rest of the trip but the downtown area was not within walking distance, so we ended up spending most of the time at the pool or beach.  After breakfast, we met our tour guides (more like ecologists) at the reception area for our Sloth Walk.  Two other resort guests also joined us.  As we walked through the property, we learned how to find the sloths hiding in the trees as well as monkeys and several birds.  The guides told us all about the Sloth Institute –Costa Rica and how Tulemar is partnering with them.  After a few hours, we ended down by the beach.  It was a great way to see and learn about sloths, but not our best sloth encounter of the trip (stay tuned…).  We returned to our rooms to change into our swim gear and spent the rest of the day out in the sun.  That evening we had dinner at Kapi Kapi.  The Asian fusion restaurant was recommended on Trip Advisor.  The décor was cute, and while it wasn’t bad food, it definitely wasn’t the best.  It was very muggy inside and It was also very expensive, even for me coming from Boston.

Our awesome balcony overlooking the water!
The next morning we had a scheduled kayak tour of Damas Island with Rancho Los Tucanes.   Two of the four girls stayed behind, but Kellie and I powered on for another morning of adventure!  Our drive through the city included a few other hotel pickups and a little bit of education about Quepos.  We also drove by a grove of trees used to supply palm oil.  Once we got to the dock, we all boarded our kayaks and started our path down the river.  Our guides told us about the mangroves we were rowing through and took us down a few water passages that come and go as the tide changes.  We passed a cashew tree, several different color herons, some bats doing a little dance on the underside of a tree, and a whole swarm of monkeys (like 50 of them!).  As we floated under the capuchins, we were warned that they sometimes jump onto the kayaks because they are curious.  Fortunately, none were that interested in us!  I would not have wanted to topple over and swim in that silt infused water… ugh.

Kayaking trip
The trip ended with a delicious lunch buffet.  It was a nice relaxing way to see some of the fauna.  After we returned, we went back to the pool and then later to the private beach to watch the sunset. While we were relaxing on the lounge chairs, we overheard a bunch of people excitedly screaming about a sloth.  Since we went on the sloth walk the day before, we were all a bit slow to get our cameras and walk over, but when we did we saw a sloth crawling down a tree on the beach!  He was coming down to poop! One of the more interesting facts we learned on our walk was how once a week the sloth comes down the tree to go to the bathroom – what a rare sighting!

We started our last full day at Tulemar with an in-room spa service of mud wraps and massages followed by more time in the sun.  That evening we packed up and went to Z Gastro Bar in Quepos for a final dinner.  The food was delicious there and we took advantage of their free shuttle service to and from our resort.  The next morning we were picked up bright and early and taken back to San Jose to the airport.  Our driver was very sweet and took us to this giant souvenir shop so we could pick up some last minute items outside of the city.  The rest of the trip ran smoothly.

I had a wonderful time in CR and would definitely go back.  I probably would pick a different hotel in Arenal, but other than that, I highly recommend every activity as well as Desafio as a tour company. The transportation was always spot-on and we were never uncomfortable with our driver or in our buses/vans.

Pura Vida!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Updates

I'm sitting here counting down the days, no hours, until I board the plane for Costa Rica!  I always feel like I really need to get away in February because of our cold New England weather and the after-holiday depression.  A little bit of sunshine and adrenaline will go a long way until my next adventure.

Speaking of adventures, I have a few more already lined up for this year.  In March, I will be headed down to Dallas to visit with some family and see the Dallas Blooms festival at the Arboretum.  That will only be a long weekend away, but only a few weeks later I will be going Down Under!  12 days in Australia (and possibly New Zealand).  I need to start planning this itinerary ASAP!  If anyone has any tips, please let me know.  

After that, I will be spending two weekends away for weddings: one in Orlando and one is Long Island.  I'll probably also make another family trip at some point.

I am definitely looking forward to this year! 

Friday, February 5, 2016

A Ski Day in NH

The Mountain View Grand Resort
There are so many options for skiing in New England that it is hard to choose where to stay.  You may remember from old posts that I am not so good at downhill skiing, and only recently took up cross country skiing instead.  Last year, my ski trip up to the White Mountains was cancelled because of a massive storm and rescheduled for May.  This year we barely got snow in January, so it was an easy drip up to Whitefield, NH to stay at the Mountain View Grand Resort.

We arrived around noon on Sunday afternoon.  There were not a lot of signs a long the way, but it wasn't difficult to find the hotel.  It is a large beautiful yellow resort sitting atop a hill with a windmill looming in the sky overhead.  The parking lot had plenty of space, but unfortunately our room was not ready yet.  We pulled on our ski pants and walked out to the pro shop to pickup our rental gear and hit the trails.  The rental was $16/adult and we were out on our skis in no time.  Unfortunately, there wasn't too much snow, but we still were able to enjoy ourselves as we navigated through the woods.  The trails were well marked and by the time we were done for the day, our room was ready.

The lobby was nice, but not as grand at the Omni Mt. Washington.  On the other hand, our room here was beautiful and much nicer than the Omni.  We had a beautiful corner room with awesome views of the mountains.  We walked around the property a bit before ending up in the 1865 Wine Cellar for a wine tasting.  Our selections were a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and a Chianti Classico.  The wine cellar was very romantic; we came back later that night for dinner.

The next morning, we woke up early and went out to the farm for a "Meet the Farmer" talk.  The farmers took us through the barn and let the kids pick some eggs and pet the goats.  I also pet some goats because I couldn't resist.  After the talk, we had a delicious buffet breakfast before heading back home. It was a nice little day up in the White Mountains, but I'm still undecided on which resort I like more!