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England Bound: The Visit

I mentioned back in January we were getting ready to run off to warmer weather near the end of February, and we did find warmer weather.  The post just before we left was all about the arctic temperatures gripping western Pennsylvania, so, finding weather in the 40s was a major improvement.  We hoped for a little sunshine, but that might have been a tall order for Dorset on southwest coast of England. The warm welcome we received was more than enough to thaw our bones and shake off the drizzle.

Paul and Kate Wiscombe are proprietors of the Anchor Inn in Seatown, a tiny village at end of a long one-lane road flanked by hedgerows along the Dorset coast. (They’re also our friends; Zeke met Kate and her sister, Anna, on his first trip to Greece many moons ago.) The inn and its associated pub – founded in 1790 — lay right along the water in a small valley created by two of the large, craggy cliffs that dominate the shoreline.

I have known Kate for almost 20 years now. We’ve managed to stay in touch, first by writing letters and then by email, but only managed to meet in person twice in those intervening years. That’s why this trip was so important; we both realized it had been way too long since we sat down across a table and shared stories about our lives. I doubt you’re too interested at hearing stories about children and families you don’t know, so we’ll focus on the best Inn we’ve ever encountered.

The Anchor Inn Seatown is a bed and breakfast and pub with classic whitewashed walls and a thatched roof, sitting right on the beach with the waves of the Atlantic crashing to shore a stone’s throw away. From the outside it’s everything you’d expect of a quintessential English, seaside structure.

A wide shot from the bluff across from the inn on a rather windy day.

A wide shot from the bluff across from the inn on a rather windy day.

You enter the pub/check-in desk off the large stone patio. The bartender was expecting us and showed us up to our room. I had seen pictures of the rooms, and don’t know what I was expecting, but was absolutely blown away by what we saw.

The spacious room (called Thorncombe) was filled with light and looks as though it popped right out of a designer’s catalogue.  A leather love seat, a table made from a rusted trunk, a very large bed and the repurposed wooden end tables all added to the effect of being someplace special.

And then there was the bathroom. When I think of bathrooms in England, I think tiny, cold and dark (this impression is based off my first experiences in the country). But this time I found what may be my dream bathroom. The large room included twin sinks, mirrors that looked like repurposed portholes, a huge shower, and — in a separate section — a large claw-footed soaker tub. I want this bathroom when I grow up.

The other rooms in the inn were decorated with equal elegance, to add to its romantic atmosphere. Our breakfast was served in a small room of the pub, decorated with photos and knickknacks sharing the history of the community. You could order a full English breakfast (if you felt up to the delicious challenge!), or stick with simpler fare, like cereal or toast. We never felt hurried to get in and out, and used that time to plan our day and figure out which way to go exploring.

I’m sure I will say this several times in the next few posts, but the inn, regardless of the fact that we’re friends with the owners, was one of the most romantic places we’ve ever been.

I look forward to telling you more about the pub, the food, the things that went right and the things that went wrong — and how we rolled with all of it to make our trip a wonderful little escape.

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Its so cold…

We’ve all heard the set up and the different punch lines, “It’s so cold…” but the last couple of weeks here in Western Pennsylvania have been cold with a capital “C”.

It’s so cold the Allegheny River froze…photo (62)

It’s so cold we went to a hockey game to warm up.

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It’s so cold we wear thermal underwear just to take the trash out.photo (64)

It’s so cold we thought this was balmy.

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But it’s not cold enough to keep a man from his grill.

photo (63)We have a trip coming up so you’ll be getting some great narratives and tips in our upcoming posts. Until then, safe travels!

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Four Great Travel Apps

Ain’t technology grand? Let these four travel apps help you enjoy your next trip a little more fully.

Flight AwareFlight Aware – The folks at flight aware have done a great job at making it easy to stalk a loved one as they fly through the skies. You simply need to go the website and put in the airline and flight number to get a peek at where they are in their travels. I find this is especially handy for figuring out when to leave for the airport for pickup duties. I also know we use it a lot in the news business to get a handle on how many flights are delayed and canceled (yeah, I’m looking at you, Boston Logan). You can download the app on your smart device or go to the Flight Aware website.

JetLag Genie- I think this app could only have been invented by a business traveler. The app lets you program your destination and then your normal sleeping habits, and it comes up with a series of alarms to change your routine to make it a little easier to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when you get to your destination. The app is available in the iTunes store for $2.99.

FourSquare- I know this one has been around a long time but Amanda still uses it when she’s somewhere new.  She finds it the easiest way to find a place to eat, get coffee, or shop. I think one of the best features of this app is being able to look at the comments about the places you’re about to visit. The ratings are helpful, but the tips are the best, like try the café mocha, it tastes like real coffee and not hot chocolate.

Wifi Finder- I think this app is genius, especially for those of us who need our smart phones when we travel internationally, but who don’t travel abroad often enough to warrant an international plan. I think this is the best way to help feed your addiction to Instagram posting, or just telling your folks that you’re okay. The app will lead you to paid or free wifi like a divining rod to water. The best thing is you can download the maps before you leave so you have access to them offline (’cause if you had to go online to get them it’d kind of defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it?).

I hope this quick list helps make your travels a little bit easier.

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Romantic Places in My Mind

The 14th of February is coming up fast and it has me reminiscing about some of the more romantic places we’ve visited. So, here they are in no particular order.

Gorgeous Ios, Greece

Gorgeous Ios, Greece

I remember one of my first times visiting Greece and the island of Ios, where the great poet Homer is buried. I climbed up the rocky hill across from the main town to watch the sun set into the Aegean Sea.  I remember standing so close to her and simply smiling thinking how lucky I was for a girl as beautiful as that to be interested in me.  I look back and know it wasn’t love, not the kind of all-consuming love that happened when I met Amanda, but it was sweet, it was young, both of us just finishing up college and standing at the starting line of the rest of our lives. We both had just started exploring the world and had never been to that place before and were wrapped up in the beauty and possibility of a relationship. We are still friends and I occasionally think about what might have been.  I’ve even taken Amanda up that hill to the monastery to watch the sunset, and as perfect as that was, it still wasn’t like the first time.

I have mentioned Florence, Italy no less than 12 times on this blog, and if you’ve been reading, you know why.  The city is special to Amanda and me; it was the home of the rebirth of our lives as the two of us as individuals formed into a couple. We both would say right away that Florence is a romantic city, a city where the skyline is mainly preserved in its renaissance splendor. You should make the trip to see the city from afar by going up to the Piazzale Michelangelo and seeing city as a whole; its river, bridges, red-roofed homes, and the great Cathedral of Santa Maria del Forie (the Duomo).  We make it a point to get our picture taken every couple of years in the piazza, and those pictures remind us of how we are connected to the city.

One of our sleeping quarters in Tanzania

Our sleeping quarters in Tanzania

Tanzania was one of the most romantic locations we’ve ever visited. I’m not sure why, but staying in a tent (one furnished with desks, sink and a full bathroom, of course) is somehow ingrained in us as a romantic ideal.  I don’t know why the idea of mosquito netting, in all its functional glory, is so romantic. I really think there is something about laying in bed at night as the sounds of the wild slip through the thin canvas, cuddling up with the one you love is so amazing. The memories you make with the primal world will keep you warm even on the coldest nights.

The gorgeous Caribbean off the coast of  Playa del Carmen.

The gorgeous Caribbean off the coast of Playa del Carmen.

Amanda here. Zeke asked me to add a romantic spot to the list, and I’ve selected any and all of the Caribbean islands we’ve visited. I love – LOVE – waking up when we feel like it, heading to a white-sand beach, enjoying the water and then reading until I feel the urge to snooze. A beach nap is one of my favorite naps. Okay, that doesn’t sound romantic, but I’m also a big fan of warm, beachy destinations because it means I spend the whole trip with my husband. No work, no gym classes, no routine — just time with this delightful person I married.

We can be anywhere in the world, really, it’s the restful time together that spells romance to me.

 

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A Dinner Fit for Jackie O

Christos Mediterranean Grille doesn’t look like much from the outside, sandwiched between Alihan’s Mediterranean Cuisine and Café Milano in the 100 block of 6th street in downtown Pittsburgh, but it packs a lot of character and charm into its menu and the 400 square-foot dining room.

Christos in downtown PittsburghYou might first think that the restaurant is a bit cluttered, as a lot of the big chains are, with this and that pinned to the wall for decoration, but upon further inspection you can see each item must have a special meaning and story for owner Christos Melacrinos, a Greek from the old country wearing the pride of his well-lived life on his sleeve.

The tables are small and seem to be rearranged to fit the seating needs of the moment. Only the smallest of gaps are left between your party and the one sitting next to you, in some ways providing the same communal experience you get at a big Greek family dinner.

The house red and warm pita started our meal at Christos

The house red and warm pita started our meal at Christos

The menu is filled with the staples of Greek dining: lamb, grape leaves, pastitsio, cheese pie, spinach pie and baklava. The wine is even served in a small cylindrical glass, just like in the tavernas along the beaches of Greece. We, of course, didn’t get the chance to sample the whole menu, but the large plate of cheese pie and the chicken kebab served with rice and string beans were excellent.

If you take a good look at the walls you will see photographs covering at least a hundred years of family history, some taken in Greece, others taken in portrait studios or at school. The glass-faced wooden hutch in the center of the room if filled with other knickknacks of family and Grecian past.

None of these items get the prominent placement of a collection of items dedicated to the memory of Jacquelyn Kennedy Onassis. A Jackie O doll and the Life Magazine covering her wedding to Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis are front and center. Why the fascination (beyond the fact that Jackie married a Greek man)? As a younger man, Christos was the personal chef of the former first lady and her second husband. He lived and worked aboard Christine, the Onassis’ super yacht (it was formerly a Canadian Coast Guard Cutter, but that’s another story).

This Pittsburgh Magazine clipping proclaims the Jackie O the best celebrity-inspired dessert.

This Pittsburgh Magazine clipping proclaims the Jackie O the best celebrity-inspired dessert.

When you’re finished with your dinner (all entrees under $14) Christos will come to your table and ask if you want dessert. You can hardly say ‘no’ as he explains with great pride the confection he created for the former first lady, and if you don’t believe him he’ll show you the clipping from Pittsburgh Magazine about the dessert. The Jackie O is a vanilla cake topped with Greek honey syrup, custard, whipped cream and a dusting of cinnamon — all for $3. The generous slice of cake is so light it might float off the plate, and it tastes wonderful.

I like eating at places like Christos. I like going into a place with a story, a place where you can’t escape the pride an owner has for his business, a place where you know everything will be done to the best of the ability of the staff because cutting corners isn’t in their repertoire.

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Traveling Periodical-ly

I know this blog must be your very first read when it comes to travel information, but who do you read when you’re not reading us? If you don’t have a go-to source, we can offer these suggestions.

Afar Magazine is the bohemian magazine in the travel market. It serves to inspire those who travel the world seeking to connect with its people, experience their cultures, and understand their perspectives (sound familiar?).

We have piles and piles of these!

We have piles and piles of these!

Travel + Leisure is the magazine for dreams. The destinations are often exotic and the accommodations are always top-notch. The magazine reviews the best-of-the-best in hotels and restaurants in each issue. I know the places and class level of travel are out of most budgets, but it’s fun to dream.

I was one of the first subscribers to Budget Travel when it made its debut. The pages of BT have changed a lot over the years, but it still provides some of the best information in the business. It’s the ultimate resource for the world’s savviest travelers. The current tips and tools come from some of the best travel writers and readers like you.

If you like sailing, boats, pictures of exotic locales, or adventure Cruising World is a great periodical for your collection. The magazine is perfect as a gift for the sailor in your life, supplying cruising advice and skills to help him or her navigate and sail safely in coastal waters, on lakes, or across oceans.

The pictures and storytelling in the pages of National Geographic and National Geographic Traveler may be the best in the whole world.  I, like many, used to collect National Geographic in the world before the internet (leading to many sagging bookshelves). I now have the magazine on the computer and my shelves are saved. Its sister publication, National Geographic Traveler, features the same trademark photography but focuses on what you need to know to get out and visit those places you used to only read about in the gold-bordered pages.

Backpacker exists to help readers explore the boundless wonders the natural world has to offer. Backpacker Magazine includes advice on the best gear, trails, training and great hikes near and far. I grew up hiking and backpacking (my parents’ property backs up to the Appalachian Trail) and the gear and advice that’s offered in its pages is great for the novice and experienced hiker and camper.

Traveling may be what I’d like to do full-time, but while I’m still forced to live in reality I’ll turn to these sources for inspiration between trips.

Did I miss one of your favorite magazines? Tell me about it!

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A Wow Moment

I was going back through our archives and realized there was one adventure that we haven’t talked about much: my adventure to Egypt.  When my little sister was even littler, she was fascinated with history and Egypt in particular. I — being her wonderful big brother — made her a promise, if she was still interested in Egypt when she graduated high school we would go. So, 10 years later, we were walking in the land of the pharaohs. We went with a small organized tour group of about 10 people from all over the world.

We saw dozens of amazing historical sites all over the Nile valley. Though it is almost cliche, one of the sites that still astounds me today is the Pyramids of Giza and our trip inside the largest of them all, the Great Pyramid (also known as Khufu’s pyramid). You can see the massive stone structure from miles away across the Nile as you hop on the crowded highways of Cairo. The Giza plateau sits 62 feet above sea level and the Great Pyramid rises 455 feet above that, letting it dominate the landscape. I’m not going to get into the theories of how and why these massive geometric tombs were built; I’ll simply focus on my own experience.

The best time to arrive at the complex is as early as you can manage it. The pyramids have been a major tourist attraction for about 5,000 years now. We arrived just as the park opened, exited the minibus on a large, dusty dirt parking lot and were hurried to the entrance of the tomb. We were told we could take pictures and look around outside later.

(L-R) Zachary (brother), Andi (Sister),Zeke (me)

(L-R) Zachary (brother), Andi (sister) and Zeke

We entered the tomb through a 3 ½ foot wide, 4 foot tall shaft, which descended at a 30 degree angle. If you’re over 4 feet tall you need to duck and keep your balance by holding onto one of the rope hand rails running along the smooth stone walls. The uncomfortable walk seems like it goes on forever, and just when it begins to feel intensely claustrophobic the passage opens up into what is known as the King’s Chamber. The room is roughly 35 feet by 17 feet and has a flat stone ceiling rising 19 feet overhead. The walls were covered with graffiti (where names have been carved into the undecorated walls), much of it hundreds of years old, made by grave robbers and early European explorers. The room still felt large as our whole tour group examined the walls and posed for pictures in front of the massive stone sarcophagus. The broken and undecorated sarcophagus is actually larger than any of the entrances to the room and must have been placed inside as the pyramid was being built.

The wow moment for me was not as much for the amazing age of the structure, or the miracle of its construction, but the weight of the situation. The estimated weight of the building is 5.9 million tons. There was at least 2/3 of that over my head. The structure had been solid and unmoving for 5,000 years, placed together with such precision that the space between the stones, some weighing 80 tons, was only 1/50th of an inch. I know it’s a simple idea, but to me it was mind-blowing a feeling that even with all my words, I have trouble articulating.

We were in the chamber for around 15 minutes, just us, our little group, before heading back out the same way we came in. If we were not alone the 3 ½ foot wide shaft would have been open to two-way traffic.  I shudder to think of the claustrophobic feeling of a crowd of people coming in as we came out. We were given plenty of time to take the pictures we were promised (when we bought our photo permit as we entered the park).

The experience is one that my sister, my brother and I go back to again and again as one of our most amazing adventures. It’s an experience we all recommend to everyone.

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