Leave a comment

The Challenge and the Plan

A few months back Amanda gave me this year’s vacation challenge and it took some doing but we’ve got a destination. If you remember we skipped our vacation in February, due to our move to Pittsburgh, so we are ready to go and find some sun this September.

Amanda has asked for years, ever since our first trip to the Virgin Islands, if we could visit the Baths, a series of grottoes along the surf on the British Virgin Island of Virgin Gorda.  The problem of a trip to the Virgin Gorda is the difficulty getting there. You either have to fly there (very expensive) or take a ferry there (moderately expensive), and syncing the ferry schedule with your arrival and departure time is definitely a challenge. So, unlike most trip planning where you book a flight and plan around it, in this case you have to start with and plan around the ferry. The challenge is finding the perfect flight that lands early enough, not too early, but just right; a Goldie Locks flight time, so to speak.

I consulted the ferry schedule and found that it leaves Saint Thomas, USVI for Virgin Gorda at 4 pm on Saturdays and leaves Virgin Gorda, BVI at 8:30 am to Saint Thomas. I had to use this as my guide for searching flights. I found 5 ferry companies and one taxi service in a general search, but not all of them go “out of the way” to Virgin Gorda on the days we’re traveling. The ferry only went to and from Virgin Gorda once a day, so we didn’t have a lot of room for error.  We settled on a round trip ticket ($70) using Speedy’s  Ferry Service.


I set to searching and searching for a specific flight that didn’t waste my time and wasn’t exorbitantly expensive just because we had to stick to a certain schedule. I prefer to use three search engines for most of my research for flights: Kayak, Hipmunk and  Orbitz.  Kayak is great for the wide net it casts, Hipmunk does great with its agony index (it rates the flights by layover, time, length, etc.) and Orbitz, just for a baseline. I eventfully found a flight that was direct to Saint Thomas, but we had to fly out of Dulles. We decided we’d just leave Pittsburgh a day early and spend the night with parents instead of making a 6+ hour drive and then a 4 hour flight.

So with all that in place we were able to go about looking for a room. The island isn’t that big or that populated so we knew inventory would be tight. We decided on a rental cottage, instead of a B&B or a hotel, simply because the cost was significantly better with hotels ranging from $250 to $1,000 plus a night. It’s also closer to where we wanted to be and we’ll be there six nights for a little more than $900.

Yes, yes — you get what you pay for, and that might be particularly true at a place that offers to set up a portable AC unit for an extra cost. We’re willing to rough it, but we don’t think we’ll need to.

The total price is about $2,000 for this tropical vacation. We can’t wait to tell you how it goes and share all of the details, including who we flew, where we stayed and what we saw.

To be continued!

Leave a comment

One Last Beach Weekend

The summer is winding down on the east coast of the U.S. and many are thinking about one last dash to the beach. A spot popular to many in Maryland and Pennsylvania is Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.  But the seaside community is more than just sand and surf.

The Junction & Breakwater Trail located between the towns of Lewes and Rehoboth is one of the smooth-level trails made from converted abandoned railroad tracks.  A ride or walk along the trail carries you along the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal and the rural landscapes and wetlands.

If the biking and hiking has worked up a thirst the Nassau Valley Vineyards is there to quench it.  The vineyard boasts of being Delaware’s first and only award-winning winery. Nassau Valley Vineyards grows, presses, ferments and bottles on the farm creating four different varietals.  The vineyard is open year-round Monday through Saturday 11am – 5 pm and noon to 5 on Sunday.  You can take free self-guided tour and have a tasting when you’re done for just $5.

So, now that you have had a lovely wine tasting, let’s wash that down with some beer.  The Purple Parrot Grill is a restaurant and bar with half off drinks during happy hour (3-6 pm) if you order at the bar Monday-Friday.  But the beer isn’t the only attraction. If you want to belt out your favorite hits by Journey they have Karaoke every Friday and Saturday starting at 9pm. Just when the weekend couldn’t get any better Tara Austin and the Birdcage Bad Girls Drag Show is every Sunday at 10pm.

If drinking and drag isn’t your idea of a great evening the Clear Space Theater Company brings the best of Broadway to the beach with musicals like Oliver and The Full Monty. The theater is celebrating its 10th year in its mission to “educate and inspire audiences, artists and students to explore and participate in the performing arts through high-quality experiences.”

If you really want to slow it down the Indian River Life Saving Station Museum at Delaware Seashore State Park is as about as sedate as it gets. The life saving station, built in 1876, was used by the United States Life-Saving Service, a precursor to the U.S. Coast Guard.  The museum is filled with information on shipwrecks, history and life along the windswept coast around the turn of the century.

If you’re looking to take advantage of the last days of summer without wanting to risk a last-minute sunburn, Rehoboth Beach has plenty of alternatives.

I also want to thank my amazing Aunt Cynthia (part-time resident of Rehoboth) for her help with this post.

Leave a comment

Kayaking the Allegheny

Ever since the weather warmed to a reasonable temperature here in our new hometown of Pittsburgh, I’ve been watching clusters of bright yellow kayaks slip up and down the shoreline of the Allegheny River. I’ve never been in a kayak, but it looked like fun and I’m a big fan of anything on or around the water.

Last weekend we finally had a chance to see the city from the water (versus our apartment’s view a few stories up), and it did not disappoint.

Zeke’s sister was visiting for the weekend, and since she and Zeke both have experience working for a river rafting company I felt like I was in good hands for my first kayaking experience.

We walked down to PNC Park and hung a left toward the river to reach Venture Outdoors‘ location on the North Shore. We had to wait a few minutes for a few people in solo kayaks to return, and then we were ready to get on the river. We paddled upstream first (a good idea because you can wear yourself out and then ride the current back downstream), passing under the Three Sisters bridges and waving hello to our apartment.

Andi and Zeke were both very patient with me. I struggled with the concept of turning (intentionally at least), running into their kayaks on a regular basis. They were kind enough to reword and repeat their clear instructions until it sunk into my head.

We had a great time down on the river, paddling at a leisurely pace and enjoying the mild temperatures, light breeze and a new perspective on our new home.

Venture Outdoors offers memberships (which gives you a discount on their many activities in the area). I’m ready to make the investment and make kayaking a habit!


1 Comment

A Night at the Theater with King Arthur (and a rabbit with sharp, pointy teeth)



The phrase “who knew?” is said a lot these days in the Changuris household, especially in reference to our new home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The “who knew?” of this post has to do with the theater scene and that there are six theaters in the Cultural District as venues for the symphony, opera, theater troupes, and Broadway-caliber musicals.  The theater we visited this weekend is the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts, which originally opened as the Stanley Theater in 1928 at a cost of $3 million.

The Stanley, named after Stanley Warner, was the home for Warner Brothers first-run films in Pittsburgh.  You could buy your ticket for 25¢ before noon and 65¢ for regular admission.  The Colonial Revival structure seats 2,800 and was the perfect example of a classic movie palace.  Between 1977 and 1987 the Stanley hosted The Grateful Dead, Bob Marley (his final performance before his death in ‘81), Kansas and Prince. A $43 million renovation to bring back the original grandeur was completed in 1987 and it was rechristened the Benedum Canter for the Performing Arts. The grand marquee and its bright lights are the first hint you are going somewhere special. You walk in and feel like you are in the Guilded Age with the original crystal chandeliers hanging above and 1,500 feet of polished brass railing snaking its way up and down the grand staircases, most of which is original to 1928.  We of course put on our Sunday best considering that a building this nice demands its patrons share the same air of sophistication.  The irony here is the play we went to see has a distinct lack of sophistication. Though the musical focuses on the noble quest of Arthur and his knights of Camelot as they seek the Holy Grail, we learn early on that this Camelot is actually a very silly place.

The foyer of the Benedum.

The foyer of the Benedum.

There are, according to Andi (who counted), exactly 100 octagon inserts in the ceiling of the auditorium.










The legendary British comedy troupe Monty Python’s take on the Arthurian legend is center stage in this adaptation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail called Spamalot, by Eric Idle and John Du Prez.  You will travel across the whole of medieval Britain facing much peril, such as the Knights Who Say Ni, a GREAT AND POWERFUL SORCERER named Tim, and Killer Rabbits (run away!) as they search for the Grail (to be found in a most unlikely place).

The adventure was not for the faint of heart or those who just don’t get it (like Amanda), so my sister and sometime guest blogger Andi was my date. The seats were in the upper balcony but the view wasn’t bad. We didn’t even have anyone in front of us, having chosen to get seats behind the railing.  I’ve found that stage productions make a great attempt to ensure even the cheap seats are great seats. We laughed from almost beginning to end. The new music blended with the old numbers and fit perfectly into the story.  The best part of this production was that it didn’t take itself too seriously, constantly breaking the fourth wall and it not seeming forced. We had a blast.

The experience has me ready to see what else the city’s theater scene has to offer in productions and, if the grandeur of the Benedum is any indication, the history and architecture, too.

Leave a comment

Coping with Travel Troubles

Whether you’re setting off for the adventure of a lifetime or hitting the highway for a quick trip, there’s always a chance things won’t go quite as planned.

In the course of our travels we’ve come up against everything from flight delays and lost luggage to bus and ferry schedules that are treated more like suggestions and missed connections with (pre-paid) excursions. What we’ve learned is that travel troubles will happen and, generally, they’re only as awful as you’ll allow them to be.

Flight delays, missing ferries and missed connections may be frustrating in the moment, but it’s best to take a deep breath — however challenging that may be — and put things in perspective. Stepping up to the counter and berating the staff may feel like a great way to vent, but no amount of abuse will make the plane ready faster, the ferry materialize, or compensate for the way you misread the train schedule.

So, deep breath … and relax.

Easy for me to say, right?

I had to take my own advice just last weekend.

I’ve been trying to celebrate my birthday (which is in June) with my family for nearly an entire month now. First I had bronchitis and couldn’t make the trip from our new home base in Pittsburgh back to Maryland, so we  rescheduled for last weekend.

I got up Saturday morning, got ready for the day, put a few things in a bag and bid our cat farewell for the weekend. I got out to the car, pulled out of the parking spot and made it about 50 feet before I realized something wasn’t right. I pulled into another parking space and hopped out to find one completely flat tire.

To make a long story short, Jason with AAA came to my rescue and diagnosed the problem: somehow my tire had been cut on the inside wall — probably something kicked up on the road last time I drove. It couldn’t be repaired, so he quickly put my spare tire on the car.

My little Bean (Fiat 500) with it's little zeppole (donut).

My little Bean (Fiat 500) with it’s little zeppole (donut).

I wasn’t going to make the trip down the Pennsylvania Turnpike on that donut, so I started calling around to look for a new tire. An hour later I was convinced I was never going to get to celebrate my birthday with my family. Apparently my tires are very unique and no one in a 30-mile radius had one in stock. I even called the local Fiat dealership — but I couldn’t get them to answer the phone (#sadtrombone).

Was I frustrated? You bet. Upset? Sure. Disappointed, bummed? Yep. But I didn’t let those crappy feelings consume me. I did what I could, made arrangements to get a tire when one will be available, and called my parents to break the news.

Yes, I let myself have a pout and a nap that afternoon — a mini pity party, if you will. Then I took stock of the time I had left in the weekend and started checking things off of my to-do list (the list I wasn’t going to touch since I was going to be away).

We’ll all encounter less-than-perfect moments in life and in travel. In my experience, I’ve found letting off a little steam (appropriately and without blaming any staff who may be associated with the issue by virtue of their employment) and then doing whatever I can to make the best of things is the most effective way to proceed.


What about you? What travel troubles have you encountered? Did you take it well? Badly? What coping strategies worked or didn’t?

Leave a comment

Nafplion: First Capital of Modern Greece

Two hours south of the crowded capital of Athens, Greece on the Peloponnesian Peninsula is the first capital of modern Greece, Nafplion. The hamlet and its surrounding enclaves has a population of only around 33,000 people compared to the 650,000+ of hot and busy Athens. The beautiful old harbor town is cooled by the gentle winds off the water, giving you an ideal place to spend an afternoon or whole vacation.

The Venetian influence on the architecture is predominant with many brown and tan stone three- and four-story buildings with gabled roofs and terra cotta shingles. A special charm will overwhelm your senses as you walk down the narrow streets between houses with wrought-iron balconies overflowing with hanging baskets of flowers.

A note from Zeke's journal on his first visit to Nafplion in 1998.

A note from Zeke’s journal on his first visit to Nafplion in 1998.

The main square, Syntagma Square, is much smaller than its Athenian counterpart and makes you think you’re in the middle of an Italian piazza. The cafes along its borders beckon you to take a seat and have a coffee in the afternoon. When evening comes you may find yourself along the promenade to enjoy a drink or gelato and watch the people stroll along the water front.

When you look up in Nafplion you inevitably see the Palamidi Fortress, originally a Byzantine construction, it was eventually occupied by Venetians and Ottomans. I suggest taking a taxi or finding a ride to the fortress and taking in the stunning views of the town and the sea beyond. The other fortress in the neighborhood is the Boutzi Fortress, built in 1471, that sits in the harbor and is now home to a summer concert series you can reach by boat.

Three beaches (you’re in Greece so you must want to go to the beach) are within a short drive via bus or car, all less than seven miles away. Tolo Beach, Nea Kios and Kandia Beach all offer crystal clear water and soft sand. Tolo is the most developed, with restaurants and beach club amenities, the other two are less developed but still offer places to eat, stay and play.

I consider Nafplion as one of the best values for your dollar when visiting Greece. You get the sun and the sand without the island mark-up. The hotels in and out of town are bargains; you can easily find rooms for under $100 a night. I stayed at the hotel Leto years ago and a quick check on Trip Advisor shows they’re still getting great reviews.

I really think Nafplion is a great home base for exploring a lot of ancient sites like Mycenae (the home of Agamemnon of Homer’s Iliad 30 minutes away), Sparta (the home the famous 300 1.5 hours away), Mystra (the last refuge of the Byzantine Emperors 1.5 hours away), and Ancient Olympia (the site of the original Olympic Games — though it’s 3.5 hours away by car, you might want to spend the night there).

The elegance and grace of the city is the perfect place to return to after a day hiking through ancient ruins in the hot sun. The Peloponnese is full of history and wonderful places — off the tourist routes — and since it’s basically an island itself, there are hundreds of miles of coast to explore.

Leave a comment

A Sad Piece of News

The first time we traveled to the Virgin Islands several years ago we found ourselves at the quirky and absolutely charming hotel at the edge of Charlotte Amelie in the community of Frenchtown. The moderately priced Inn at Villa Olga didn’t sit on a beach or have white-glove service, but had personality in spades.

I still remember the friendly greeting we got even after getting in late. Jill, the manager, was manning the front desk and called us by name, offering a cheery smile to two weary travelers. We were shown to our room and promptly collapsed after a long day. I remember waking up and being absolutely stunned; it wasn’t the room that was shocking, it was the view.

Villa Olga View

Palm trees and blue water from the stairway at Villa Olga.

The view, hidden by the darkness when we arrived, took our breath away. It was the kind of view you imagine when you think of a tropical getaway: the water, the palm tree, the sea plane flying past our window as it was coming in for a landing. We may not have been close to a beach but we were right on the water.

This year when we were planning our fall escape we of course decided that we should take a quick trip back to St. Thomas and stay at the Villa Olga. We went to the website only to see this:

Villa Olga Announcement
We were both truly saddened to see this so we did a little investigating. I contacted them and got a quick response.

“We had some severe water damage in a storm this past fall, and since we would not have it ready for season we decided not to reopen. As of now with the cost of electricity etc. and large resorts discounting their rates, becoming our competition we will keep it closed.

“I am glad to hear that you enjoyed your stays there in the past.”

The Villa Olga was a wonderful place to stay and we never – not for one moment – wished for the amenities we could have found at the larger hotels. We will continue to patronize, seek out, and tell everyone about the smaller, quirkier hotels in the hopes of spreading the word and keeping as many of them as business as long as we can.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 128 other followers