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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.

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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.

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A Revolutionary 4th

The 4th of July, (a big holiday for us Americans), was on Friday and had me thinking about a trip down a revolutionary road of American history. So, let’s start off by journeying 22 miles outside of Boston, MA to Minute Man National Park, the home of the first battles of the American Revolution against British rule. The site encompasses areas around the towns of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts and the roads that connect them.

A visitor center run by the National Park Service gives you an overview of the events of April 19th 1775 when the colonial militia went toe-to-toe with the professional army of the British Empire. I would recommend getting a guided tour from one of the park rangers, they are free and a great way to hit the sights you might miss on your own. The programs are at scheduled times and each last about 20 minutes. You can also take a ride on the Battle Road Trail, which attempts to interpret the story from the perspective of residents in the area. Imagine having a front row seat as militias used hit-and-run tactics to thin out the British troops as they marched along the road from Boston.

The next stop is the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, PA. It’s a federally chartered non-partisan center for education about the United States constitution and civics. I visited the center a few years ago and was impressed by the interactive approach of each exhibit. The multimedia platforms encouraged you to test your knowledge of US history and law. You also have the chance to stand at the podium and read the presidential oath of office from a teleprompter.

The Kimmel Theater has a 17-minute 360-degree video and live action production called “We The People…” that shouldn’t be missed. I chose to watch that first to get me in the mood for the rest of the museum. Visitors can even sign in on the museum’s register, which is treated like an addendum to the US Constitution, so you’re “signing” the constitution along with Jefferson and Hancock. The admission price is $14.50 for adults and is well worth every penny.

While you’re in Philly you might as well see one of the most treasured buildings in the United States, Independence Hall, the birthplace of both the Declaration of Independence (signed on July 4th 1776) and the US Constitution (later in 1787). The Georgian-designed brick building was built between 1732 and 1756 as the Pennsylvania state house. The building was “loaned” out to the second Continental Congress in 1775, and became the de facto capital of the rebel colonies.

The rooms are simple and not loaded with the interactive exhibits of the Constitution Center, but it is a place you can stand in quiet reverence as you look at the room where some of greatest Americans in history once stood. The admission to the hall is free, but timed tickets are required from March to December.

The last stop on our tour is the Yorktown Victory Center near Williamsburg, Virginia. The American Revolution had lasted 7 years when in 1781, British General Lord Cornwallis, after being under siege in Yorktown, surrendered to General George Washington, effectively ending British rule of the American colonies south of Canada. You can visit colonial encampments, multiple indoor exhibits, and a working 1780s farm with interpretation by living historians.

You might find it prudent to get the Four-Site Value Ticket ($34.50 for adults) that includes historic Jamestown, the Jamestown settlement, Yorktown battlefield and the Yorktown victory center. It’s a nice way to see the beginning of colonial rule (Jamestown), the first permanent English settlement in north America, and then the place where colonial rule ended (Yorktown).

Whether you are into history of not, an American or not, we hope you had a happy 4th and enjoyed the fireworks.

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Get Your Fix: Connecting with Your Caffeine

We may have mentioned it before, but Amanda and I do love our coffee – and not just any murky cup. We prefer a quality brew, some might even go so far as to call us coffee snobs.  So, as snobs we know that a good cup comes from a good bean from a great estate, selected and roasted with care.  We also know if you’re that interested in coffee in the coffee in your cup, you might want to see the process from plant to roast.

Last year we had the chance to take a tour of a coffee plantation in Tanzania near Ngorogoro Crater.  The Ngorongoro Farm House is a wonderful place to stay on any safari and is situated on a fully functional farm complete, with coffee groves. I was fascinated as we walked through row after row of coffee plants, making me feel like we were in a hedge maze made of the shiny leaves and the small red and green berries. The guide explained the history of coffee in the region and about the practice of cultivation of the valuable plants.  A key perk of the farm house is that the coffee is free.  You can walk into the roasting room anytime and find a couple of pots brewed and waiting for you to take out onto the veranda and live out your Victorian Africa fantasy.

 

Amanda in her element -- the coffee fields at the Ngorongoro Farm House.

Amanda in her element — the coffee fields at the Ngorongoro Farm House.

Kona Coffee, cultivated on the Big Island of Hawaii, is famous for its smooth and mellow taste and being one of the most expensive bags of beans in the world.  The folks at the award-winning Mountain Thunder estate say they will “teach you about coffee from bean to cup,” offering both free and VIP tours of the estate. The family-owned and run farm takes pride in their sustainable cultivation methods and their organic certification. The Kona Coffee tours have CEO and Founder Trent A. Bateman (or his staff) take you through the process from dry-milling, sizing, sorting on the gravity table, color sorting and roasting, all the way to bagging before letting you enjoy a free cup of Kona — and maybe a visit from one of their “absolutely adorable” cats Pumpkin, Bo and Herman.

Mountain Thunder is also available for weddings and private group tours, the VIP tour also includes a nature walk, looking at a lava tube and an introduction to their 350-pound pet pig named Ezzy. You can also have a lesson in roasting with a private lesson to help you live out your Roastmaster dreams.

If a trip to Hawaii for a coffee tour in paradise isn’t in the cards, stay a little closer to home. The Britt Coffee Tour in Costa Rica will take you from farm to roasting to sipping.

Wherever your morning cup happens to originate, or how close you’ve come to the beans that made it happen, we raise our mugs to you! Cheers!

 

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Berlin, MD: America’s Coolest Small Town

What happens when the coolest aunt and uncle visit America’s Coolest Small Town? They report back to their niece and nephew-in-law for No Kids, Will Travel!

Budget Travel named Berlin, Maryland America’s Coolest Small Town in their 9th annual contest — earning more than 28% of the online votes cast in a field of 15 finalists. In the words of the Budget Travel editorial staff:

Like the beautiful backdrops in the films Tuck Everlasting and The Runaway Bride? Thank Berlin, where both movies were shot. Ready for a getaway that includes Maryland’s awesome Ocean City beach and boardwalk and gorgeous Assateague Island? They’re just a few miles from Berlin’s downtown (a National Register Historic District), which plays host to fun events all year long, from the regular farmers market to one-of-a-kind bashes like the Berlin Fiddlers Convention, New Year’s fireworks, Victorian Christmas (complete with horse-drawn carriages), and even bathtub races! Whether you’re a beach lover, hiker, kayaker, bird watcher, or history aficionado, put Berlin on your list of small-town must-sees (in fact, put it at the top of your list—we just did!).

Amanda’s aunt and uncle live a short drive away from Berlin and decided to visit (and add their cool to the area, however briefly) on their way to Chincoteague (famous for its cool wild pony population).

If you’re planning to visit Berlin, allow us to suggest these upcoming 2014 festivities:

  • July 18th – Bathtub Races
  • August 2nd – Berlin Peach Festival
  • September 5th – Shakespeare on Main Street

After a stop to soak up the officially cool small-town Americana in Berlin, our aunt and uncle pushed on to Chincoteague to play with the ponies.

You can peek in on the ponies any time using Chincoteague’s Pony Web Cam.

If you’re familiar with Chincoteague and its ponies it’s probably thanks to Marguerite Henry’s award-winning children’s book Misty of Chincoteague, which she wrote in 1947 while staying at Miss Molly’s Inn on Chincoteague Island. The book was the basis for the 1961 movie, Misty.

One more travel tip from our aunt and uncle (and one that could come in handy wherever you’re traveling):

A good travel reminder for those 62 and over is they can get a life time pass to U.S. National Parks for $10.00. The regular fee for a one-week pass at Chincoteague and Assateague is $15.00.

You can pick up your Golden Age Pass in person at the park of your choice (they’re not sold online); read up about the deal here.

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Summer Reading List

The summer is upon us at least on the east coast of north America and with that comes time to sit by the pool or the on the beach and read. Yup, read. I’m not one for cooking myself in the sun’s rays without a purpose. I get fidgety real fast. So, I read. I let my mind travel, and though it may be redundant, my favorite books to read on vacation are travel books. So, here are some books that have piqued my interest and only god knows if there will be time to read them.

The title alone of the first book made me read the jacket and check out its Goodreads rating (4 of 5 stars) What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman. The memoir about an unattached, younger woman and the many vacation-oriented trysts she has as a solo traveler. She calls herself “Kristin-Adjacent” on vacation, a person who plays things a little looser while she’s away. I know we’ve all thought about it, being that other me, so here is a story about someone who’s gone and done it.

Have you ever wondered what it was like to travel in the glory days of the Jet Age? William Stadiem looks as the world of Pan American in the 60s in Jet Set: The People, the Planes, the Glamour, and the Sex in Aviation’s Glory Years. The style, the sophistication, the glamour and tawdry tales of elite travelers like Grace Kelley, Elvis, Paul Newman, Hugh Hefner and Marilyn Monroe come to life with the words of the Vanity Fair contributor. Stadiem also takes some time to remind us that the 707 jet changed the world of commercial aviation, opening the skies to not only the Jet Set but also to the common man.

French Ghosts, Russian Nights, and American Outlaws: Souvenirs of a Professional Vagabond by Susan Sapno is a classic travel narritave that takes you on a trip around the world from the author’s perspective. She recounts tales of trips to Java, the Artic Circle and the Badlands of the American west. These free spirit tales make all of us wish we had the gumption to be a risk-taking travel writer.

The next two books were chosen because of women in my life. First, The Lost Girls: Three Friends. Four Continents. One Unconventional Detour Around the World, is one of those quit-your-job-and-run-away-to-see-the-world kind of adventures. The kind of story that makes you think, “gee, I wish I could quit my job in my 20s and travel the world with my friends.” The authors Jen, Holly and Amanda are all share the first names of three of the Changuris women, hence my interest. I also suggest that you look up the full name or click on the link and not “The Lost Girls” which is a completely different kind of story.

The final one is for the princess of punctuation: my dear, sweet, nerd wife Amanda. It’s The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time. I know Amanda will admit it openly that she has some issues with poor grammar; the irony is she married someone who is awful at it. [Yes, dear reader, it's Amanda's job to make these posts understandable.] She has found herself tempted at times to correct errors on chalk board signs in front of businesses. I guess this story is what would happen if her compulsion was left — shall we say — unchecked.

I hope this list gives you a good idea for some great summer reading material. If none of these are your cup of tea, allow me to suggest my own book, The Ornament: A Novel of Love, Friendship and Television News. I’m told it’s a great beach read!

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Catching a Train to Chicago

I love our apartment in Pittsburgh. I love the proximity to downtown, I love the view of the skyline, I love the distance to PNC Park, I love being able to watch the boaters on the Allegheny, I even love the sound of the trains rolling by from parts unknown across the nearby bridge and into the city.  The sound is constant though, a low rumble that has become white noise in effect to me, but watching the trains roll by inspired me to plan out a weekend trip from Pittsburgh (PGH) to Chicago.

I have been to Chicago once for a wedding, years ago in the age before the internet. Back in the day when we booked our rooms out of a telephone book (and had no idea that we booked a hotel in the south side and not the best part of town). We drove from Maryland and had never been. But, we survived and now with the age of the internet we can see the location and pictures of the hotels we book before we go. Ah, what an exciting age we live in.  I digress, so here are the details of my plan for a weekend trip in Chi-town in August to see the O’s play the Cubs at what might be the greatest ballpark ever, Wrigley Field.

Wrigley Field | Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

I would book an overnight train from Pittsburgh to Chicago leaving on Friday the 5th of August leaving at 11:59 am and arriving at 8:45 am on Saturday. The trip would take 9h 46min and we could travel two ways, the first option is an Upper Level Reserved Coach Class Seat offering wide seats and power outlets for the ride for $344 round trip for two.  The second option (and the one that is the most romantic and relaxing) is the Superliner Roomette a private room with two bunks, seats, climate control, outlets and bottled water for $598 Round Trip for two.  I think the roomette is the best deal. Think of it this way: if you had were flying 9 hours you’d kill for a bed and some private space. This is like that, but you don’t have to pay $2,600 plus per person for it.

So now that we’ve made our way overnight from Pittsburgh to Chicago and arrived rested we have some time to explore and see the sights.

You have time to take a stroll through Millennium Park, a 24 acre park filled with art and nature in the middle of downtown. You could visit Navy Pier along the lake, filled with shops and restaurants and the 15-story Ferris wheel, the same one they climb for a view of the city in the dystopian romance book and movie Divergent.  You might want to hit The Magnificent Mile for your breakfast, the dozen blocks hosts 56 hotels and 124 restaurants.

We’ll rest our sore feet (from our morning sightseeing) at the ballpark. Orioles vs Cubs starts at 1:20 pm  and is only a taxi or a 30-40 minute ride on the Chicago Red line away. We will already have our tickets – we can buy them for anywhere between $20-100.  I’ve been to Wrigley before and suggest paying a little extra to sit so you are facing the outfield; the skyline behind the low outfield wall is one of the best parts of the experience. If you’re visiting on a non-game day you can still take a tour of the park, visiting the press box, bleachers, visitors club house, cubs club house, visitors and Cubs’ dugout as well as the field. You’ll learn all about the history of the 100 year old venue.  The tickets are around $25 and the tour lasts for about 75-90 minutes.  You can take a tour on game day but it’s limited due to the team use of the facilities.

The game done, take a trip back to the downtown area and check in at your hotel. Grab a nap (or just rest) to refresh yourself before going to dinner.

I picked three hotels all within a 20 minute walk of Chicago’s Union Station. I was also willing to spend a little more because we would only be staying one night, so each of the hotels are 3-4 star and considered luxury.  The rooms are, of course, beautiful as well as the lounges.  I think the Club Quarters has the best of the gilded age extravagance and detail that makes you at least feel rich.

The Club Quarters $152

Palmer House Hilton $169

Fairmont Chicago for $212

For dinner you can visit one of the restaurants you saw earlier on The Magnificent Mile or take a short cab ride to Chicago’s Greektown, the home of some of the best Greek restaurants in the United States.

You can then retire in your well-appointed room and rest up for a morning in bed and an afternoon of sightseeing before boarding the overnight train home. I know that times and prices do create many variables and they may not be the same for you, but if we get the idea in your head to take a train trip then our job is done.

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