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Venice: Leave Your Rolling Luggage at Home

If you’re planning a visit to Venice, choose your luggage carefully. The city council is said to be considering a ban on rolling luggage, at least for tourists. While residents would still be allowed to use bags with wheels, tourists could be fined $620. The rationale? Rolling luggage is noisy on the city’s labyrinth of cobblestone walkways.

But before you chalk this up as a ridiculous rule, mutter something about Italians and change your travel plans, consider this: rolling a bag through Venice is a pain. You’ll be much happier with a backpack or duffel bag.

We know this from experience.

On my (Amanda’s) first trip abroad, I packed the bag I owned at the time — a roller. Zeke and I were on our first trip together, 10 days in Italy. We arrived in Venice after 30 hours of (budget-friendly, but inconvenient) travel, and that’s when I learned rolling luggage and the Venetian streetscape don’t mix well.

Aside from the cobblestones (not conducive to a smooth wheeling experience) and narrow, serpentine streets and alleys, Venice is chock full of bridges spanning its famous canals. Most of those bridges feature at least a few stairs (more wheel trouble). On top of that, most hotels are not equipped with elevators, so you’ll be toting your bag up at least a flight or two of stairs. Save yourself the awkwardness (and perhaps a fine if the ban is enacted) and bring a backpack!

Look, Ma! No Wheels!

Ten days worth of clothes still doesn't weigh as much as my camera gear.

No wheels, Africa style.

After that first trip to Italy, I invested in a backpack. More recently, we used duffel bags (above) for our safari.  I still use my rolling luggage for business trips (car/airport/taxi/hotel is easy on wheels), but if I’m traveling abroad I’m more likely to use my pack. We’ve been to Greece twice and on our African safari without wheels, and agree each of those trips would have been significantly more difficult if we had to roll everywhere.

 

 

 

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Remembering Normandy

The past week held Veterans Day here in the US and Remembrance Day in the British Commonwealth, which inspired me to focus on that legendary battlefield from the second world war, Normandy, France.

The first place to visit, even if you aren’t a battlefield buff, is the coastline of D-Day beaches: Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah Beaches.  I recommend watching “Saving Private Ryan” or “The Longest Day” before visiting if you aren’t a history buff, to give you some context. Walk to where the surf meets the sand and look across the beach toward the mountainous sand dunes; try to imagine running from surf to dune as bullets rain down on you and your friends. Then imagine only about half of you make it off the beach.

D-Day, courtesy: Library of Congress

D-Day, courtesy: Library of Congress

The beaches aren’t the only places to search for history, there are several museums along the 50-mile stretch of beach: Airborne Museum, Centre Juno Beach (dedicated to Canadian Troops),  and The American Cemetery and Visitor Center overlooking Omaha Beach. The American Cemetery is the eternal resting place of 9,387 servicemen killed in action in the land they fought to liberate.

The D-Day invasion was code-named Operation Overlord and Overlord Tours is a highly recommended tour company that will take you from beach to beach with a skilled tour guide. D Day Historian tours is another company with a high Trip Advisor rating, offering private tours. They also focus on the roles women played in the invasion.

The coastline has a history dating back far longer than the last 100 years, of course, and is filled with other sights that will astound you. Mont Saint-Michel Abbey is considered to be one of the most picturesque sights in all the world. The abbey, first constructed in the year 1144, sits on a small part-time island just off the coast.  I say part-time because at low tide it’s surrounded by sand and at high tide it’s surrounded by water. The 1960’s romantic comedy Romanoff and Juliet points this out by reminding visitors that the airport is only open when the tide is low.  The island is also the setting for the esoteric film Mindwalk, where three people walk around the city discussing “meaning of life” stuff. You can pay to tour the abbey, which most guidebooks do recommend, for $12.

The final place we’ll suggest is Claude Monet’s house and garden. I am a sucker for impressionism and Monet was the best.  You can walk in his garden, the inspiration for many of his paintings (including the famous Water Lilies), from April through November for $11.  The great artist lived in this house in Giverny for 43 years and the Claude Monet Foundation has painstakingly preserved the master’s home, considering the inspiration for his paintings was as important as the paintings themselves.

The places mentioned here are just a smattering of the history and scenery you can find in the north-west of France.  I suggest taking a peek at the Normandy official website for more ideas.

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Dolphin Discovery

Ages ago, my family took a summer vacation to the Caribbean. We enjoyed a week of sun, sand, and the absolutely gorgeous water that’s kept me (and now Zeke) returning to the area as often as possible. On the same trip, my sister and I asked my parents if we could try swimming with dolphins. They agreed, and we were in for an experience I’ll never forget.

My sister and I signed up for the dolphin encounter at the Blue Lagoon Island dolphin sanctuary on Nassau. We hopped in the water as part of a group of about 10 people. The two dolphins were full of personality, swimming up to people in the group and interacting with us even without being prompted by the friendly trainers. The dolphins seemed genuinely thrilled to play with us; one even swam right up to me and splashed water in my face (unprompted).

In turn, each person in the group got to touch, kiss and play with these playful, intelligent creatures. After we were well acquainted, we each got to experience the foot push. I swam out into the middle of the lagoon and floated on my stomach. The dolphins swam up behind me and each put a nose on one of my feet, pushing me through (and up out of) the water with incredible power and speed.

As you might have gathered by now, I loved every moment.

This trip was long before I met Zeke, but I’ve always thought he’d love the experience. This year, on our anniversary trip to the British Virgin Islands, we took a day trip to Tortola and visited Dolphin Discovery. It was just as excellent as I had hoped!

We were fortunate to visit the center on a very slow day. We had four young dolphins and four trainers working (and playing) with just the two of us! The dolphins, Romeo, Juliet, Angela and Watson, were still learning their cues and behaviors, which only made the experience more fun in my book.

Juliet gives Zeke a sweet kiss during our visit to Dolphin Discovery on Tortola.

Juliet gives Zeke a sweet kiss during our visit to Dolphin Discovery on Tortola.

Romeo, in particular, was eager to perform. It took the two of us a few tries to get the belly ride just right. For that trick, I swam out into the water and put one arm out by my side. Romeo swam up behind me, upside-down, I grabbed on to his fins as he swam by, and he towed me — belly-to-belly — back to the edge of the natural pool. He was so excited to show off this skill that he’d often swim up behind me without being signaled to do it (I heard “where’s Romeo?” a good bit during our swim!). Since these dolphins are being trained using positive reinforcement, I was asked to resist the urge to hop on and take the ride unless the trainer had given the signal.

We touched, kissed, danced with and received belly rides from each of the dolphins. For young Angela, it was her first interaction with humans who weren’t trainers. She was fantastic, and seemed to have almost as much fun as we had.

Once we had played with all of the young dolphins, we moved to another enclosure where two adult dolphins — Hippo and Ayala — showed us a good time. Zeke and I each got to grab on to a boogie board and be pushed through the water (sounds familiar, doesn’t it?) by these much stronger dolphins. We also got to try to belly ride on their much larger bellies.

I had an amazing day, but sharing it with Zeke made it even more delightful. I caught myself standing back, watching him interact with our new friends, and couldn’t help but smile. We had made this adventure an anniversary gift to each other, and it was a hit for both of us.

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King of Fruit

I had my 20th high school reunion last month and had a lot of fun, the best part was we didn’t just sit around as Springsteen suggested and talk about “Glory Days,” we caught up on what each of us have been doing the last 20 years. I have to say one of the most interesting stories came from my friend Tiffany Butrum, who after getting a degree from University of Maryland in French and International Business, got a job, got bored, and chucked it all to go teach English in Shenzhen, Guangdong, China. She’s been there since 2012 and occasionally blogs about her experiences. Tiffany has generously given us access to her archives to broaden our reach at No Kids to include the occasional tidbit about China and South East Asia. So, here we go…

Well, I’ve been living in China for two years now, a venture that will end in two weeks, and I had yet to try the oh-so-pungent King of Fruit: Durian. I’ll admit, I was being a chicken about it. Last week, while at morning tea, some Chinese friends convinced me to try a durian pastry. It was odd, but not disgusting. I felt very proud of myself. But then my friend told me that the durian in the pastry had been mixed with sugar, flour, and other fruit and that fresh durian was much different. I felt obligated to try it before I leave for the States.

For those of you unfamiliar with durian, here is a little bit of info:

Durian at a supermarket“Widely known and revered in southeast Asia as the “king of fruits”, the durian is distinctive for its large size, unique odour, and formidable thorn-covered husk. The fruit can grow as large as 30 centimetres (12 in) long and 15 centimetres (6 in) in diameter, and it typically weighs one to three kilograms (2 to 7 lb). Its shape ranges from oblong to round, the colour of its husk green to brown, and its flesh pale yellow to red, depending on the species.

The edible flesh emits a distinctive odour, strong and penetrating even when the husk is intact. Some people regard the durian as fragrant; others find the aroma overpowering and offensive. The smell evokes reactions from deep appreciation to intense disgust and has been described variously as almonds, rotten onions, turpentine and gym socks. The odour has led to the fruit’s banishment from certain hotels and public transportation in southeast Asia.

The durian, native to Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia, has been known to the Western world for about 600 years. The 19th-century British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace famously described its flesh as “a rich custard highly flavoured with almonds”. The flesh can be consumed at various stages of ripeness, and it is used to flavour a wide variety of savoury and sweet edibles in Southeast Asian cuisines. The seeds can also be eaten when cooked.”

“Penetrating” is a very good word to describe the smell. Two days ago I bought a package containing two sections of durian. Soon after placing the package in my refrigerator my entire apartment smelled like the fruit. When I was a kid and my friend’s parents would eat durian in their house I would have to go outside. The smell was so strong that it would trigger my gag reflex. But since I smell it every time I enter a supermarket here it no longer has that effect on me. For me, durian smells like a mixture of liquid amoxicillin (the pink stuff I had to drink as a child when I was sick), rotting vegetation, and sweaty armpit. One nagging question that always burns in my brain is who was the first person hungry enough to try this thing??

The texture is quite interesting for a fruit. It’s like egg custard with the fibrous pulp of a pumpkin added in. There is a thin skin around the puddingish part, but I’m afraid I can’t describe the seed as I didn’t get that far.

The taste is very difficult to describe because it was such a multisensory experience. I scooped up some of the soft custardy fruit onto my finger, held my nose, and gingerly swiped the fruit onto my tongue. Amazingly, with my nose held firmly shut, I could still smell it from inside my mouth. Its odour somehow hit the soft pallet of my mouth and traveled up and out my nose. I know that sounds weird, but that’s exactly what it was like. And it tasted very sweet; it was like sweetened pink stuff mixed with sweetened rotting vegetation and sweetened sweaty armpit. My jaw hurt with the urge to hurl, but I soldiered on. I took another swipe. It was still gross. I took another swipe. Nope. Still disgusting. One more swipe and I was convinced. Durian is so NOT the ‘King of Fruit’.

I immediately bagged it up, took it out, and then lysoled my apartment. Yet, after two carrots, a cucumber, a dozen cherry tomatoes, some cheese, a glass of milk, and three glasses of water, I could still taste the durian! It’s as if the taste has permeated my body just as the smell had permeated my apartment.

But now I can say I tried it. And again I ask: Who was the first starving schmoe who said “Hey, I can eat this!”?

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Spending a Day at the Baths

A treasure of the Virgin Islands was created millions of years ago with heat and pressure when magma pushed its way up through the Earth’s crust and just didn’t make it all the way to the surface. Instead, the molten rock cooled, creating massive granite blocks. A millenia of erosion shifted away the softer rocks and allowed the wind and sea to weather the boulders to create the massive rounded shapes we see piled along the northern coast of Virgin Gorda today. The unique geological formations make this area, known as The Baths, one of the most visited spots in all of the British Virgin Islands.

Sunlight filters in through the boulders that make up The Baths.

Sunlight filters in through the boulders that make up The Baths.

The park, covering 7 acres, is a must-see and definitely a highlight of any trip. You can spend your day relaxing on the soft sand or climbing over boulders (with the help of pre-anchored ropes) and through the caves. We found one of the best uses of this geological gift was to find shelter from the tropical sun without giving up our time at the beach.

Enjoy the sun, warm water and shade in The Baths.

Enjoy the sun, warm water and shade in The Baths.

I know what you’re thinking, you’re thinking of finding a quiet little grotto for some skinny dipping with your honey. Well, I hate to burst your bubble, but tourists flock to these caves. I think the longest we went without running into another couple or family was 10 minutes, and we visited during the off-season.

If you’re coming by sea to visit The Baths and your captain wants to drop you off at Spring Bay, beware. Your captain may be trying to avoid paying the entrance fee for the national park (fair enough), but you’ll need to be prepared to swim your way to The Baths in about 10 feet of water. No matter what your captain tells you, there is no walking path from Spring Bay to The Baths.
(Yes, we had to break this news to several groups of travelers during our stay.)

You will find a Poor Man’s Bar & Grill with facilities just off the beach in the shade of some trees. There’s also a restaurant at the top of The Baths (called Top of the Baths); it’s a great place for a bite to eat, a beer and a view of the Caribbean and Tortola in the distance. Bring your swimsuit, they have a fresh-water pool next to the bar for their patrons.

You can visit two other beaches if you’re up for swim from The Baths. If you swim about 200 yards to the south you can visit Spring Bay, a far more relaxing and lest tourist-filled beach, or continue swimming north to go to Devils Bay, for even more seclusion.

The cost of visiting The Baths National Park is $3 per person.

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The United States Sailboat Show

If it had ever been suggested to me that I’d be spending the day walking around the harbor in Annapolis, Maryland in my bare feet on a damp fall day in the beginning of October I’d think you were crazy.  Zeke's feetWell, you’re not.  I was in my bare feet and loving it.  The 45th United States Sailboat Show was last weekend in Annapolis and my sister, Andrea, and her fiancé, Matt, meet me for an afternoon of ogling.

The show is one of the largest boat shows in the world, specializing in every kind of ship under sail and the largest in-water boat show in the country.  The five-day event hosts boats of all sizes buy every major manufacturer. The harbor is a web of floating docks and boats letting you leisurely walk over the water from one side of the harbor to the other.

If you want to climb on board, kick off your shoes and explore above and below the decks of hundreds of boats. You’ll find small 15’ day sailors and 90’ luxurious yachts. I swear some the catamarans on display would qualify as a small cruise ship.

Andi, Matt and I spent the most of our time climbing around the boats of the Catalina section. I have found that Catalina owners, like Matt, feel like they are members of a club (much like Amanda and her Fiat). We checked out boats of similar layouts and varying sizes to get a sense of space for a possible upcoming joint purchase.  But, Matt and I aren’t exactly rich, so the brand new boats sitting in the harbor with base prices of $150,000 were little out of reach. I found out recently that we missed the section of harbor called Brokerage Cove where there were dozens of used boats for sale (Amanda thinks this was a good thing).  I guess it’s also an example of how big the show is, that you can miss a whole section of the harbor.

The boats themselves weren’t the only things to look at; scores of tents were set up with the latest electronics, accessories, clothing and nautical antiques. We even found a great booth that had jackets and bags made out of old sails. The afternoon was absolutely perfect, even with the cloudy skies and occasional rain.

If you’re planning to attend, I suggest parking at the Navy-Marine Corp Stadium and taking one of the dozen buses running free shuttle service to the show. The parking was $10.00 and, trust me, you won’t find an easier way to get in and out of downtown, where parking is hard on a normal day. A one-day Regular Admission ticket to the show was $18.00 a 2-day was $31.00.

The sailboat show wasn’t just a place to buy and look at boats, but a place to talk to the various owners and dealers to trade stories about sailing, sailing vacations, and lessons. I couldn’t believe that it took me 20 years to get to the show, but I’m sure that it’s on my list of places to go next year. Or, if I can’t wait, they have a smaller (but equally amazing) Annapolis Spring Boat Show.

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Why We’re Not Worried About Ebola

Courtesy: CDC

Courtesy: CDC

We’ve all heard the anchors and reporters on the news saying “starting this weekend airports are clamping down on passengers from West Africa” or “major changes to air travel in the U.S. to combat Ebola.” Statements like these conjure images of draconian methods being employed to anyone traveling by air, causing chaos at every airport in the country. Longer security lines, being turned away from a flight if you sneeze, taken to a stark white room for an intrusive physical exam, as if we are on guard for the Zombie apocalypse.

The hype couldn’t be further from reality.

I’m not claiming that Ebola isn’t one step from becoming a true international epidemic, because it is. But the media makes it sound like thousands of people a day cross our boarders with the intent of spreading a plague of biblical proportions.

Here’s the truth about the extra screenings:

150 passengers a day enter the U.S. from an Ebola-stricken country. They arrive through several different airports, mainly on the east coast.

350 million travelers enter the U.S. each year and only a fraction come from these affected countries. The extra screening will basically involve a temperature check and a questionnaire, so not too complicated.

Screeners at these select airports will be looking for travelers with fevers of 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If you have a fever of 101.5 you should only be traveling as far as your doctor’s office, even if you haven’t been exposed to anything more serious than a stomach bug.

If you’re flying through one of these five U.S. airports you may see some of these extra screenings:

  • Atlanta
  • Newark
  • JFK
  • Dulles
  • O’Hare

If your travel plans happen to include a stop in Liberia, Guinea, or Sierra Leone, the CDC has three words for you: don’t go there. Okay, they say “avoid nonessential travel” — same thing. If you’re heading for the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the CDC suggests taking enhanced precautions.

I’m not worried. The odds of getting infected are slim to none (unless you are one of the generous souls who become infected while caring for a diagnosed patient who is showing symptoms).

In spite of what the panicked reporter in front of the airport says, the CDC and No Kids are pretty sure you can safely jet off to Nassau without packing a hazmat suit.

That said, DO NOT, we repeat, DO NOT crack jokes about Ebola on a plane (or anywhere else, for that matter).

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