Sunday, July 20, 2014

Backyard Bucket List: Banff Gondola and Upper Hot Springs

It's that time of year again - the time of year where we pack up our vehicle to the brim with suitcases, tennis rackets, good food, water sprinklers, board games, and beach toys, and head off on a beautiful drive through the Rocky Mountains of Canada to enjoy a week's stay in Invermere, British Columbia. This is our seventh year renting a cabin in the valley with my husband's family, and our first year doing so with a baby in tow.  (The car, incidentally, seemed MUCH fuller this time around!)

Banff Gondola, Sanson Peak, things to do in Alberta
My family on our first holiday together - here's to many more in the future!

Making the five and a half hour journey through the mountains seemed like a bit of a stretch with a six-month-old, so my husband and I decided to split the trip into two days and sojourn in Banff for an evening.  This way, our little one would have some time to enjoy her freedom from the car seat, and we'd have a chance to do a little 'backyard' tourism.

Our first night ever in a hotel with the baby was a great success (she really enjoyed swimming in the hot tub), and we woke the next morning bright and early, ready to have a fun day out and about in Banff.

Our first stop was to the Banff Upper Hot Springs, located about five minutes from downtown Banff up the side of Sulphur Mountain.  Avy-Bear loves a good swim, and we thought it might be a nice way to start the day for her.  The hot springs are super easy to get to, with clearly marked signage and a big, open parking lot.  We grabbed our bags, locked up, and headed inside.  There weren't very many people there - it was 9:06 a.m. and the hot springs opened at 9:00 a.m.  It is recommended that during the holiday seasons people arrive early if they don't want to be sitting in a crowded pool.  At 9:00 a.m. we were maybe sharing the pool with about 20 others.

things to do in Alberta, natural hot springs Alberta, Banff tourism
The Banff Upper Hot Springs at 9:00 a.m. - all ours!

The pool is a balmy 40 degrees Celsius, making it a nice, hot soak. You are only recommended to stay submerged for 10 minutes at the most, due to the temperature.  We popped in and out of the water much more frequently, considering we had a wee baby with us. The view around the hot springs is gorgeous, and although the springs themselves are very developed and commercialized, you do feel like you are soaking in the middle of nature.  On one side of the springs, there is a deck with a balcony that overlooks the Rocky Mountain range, and it is very calming and peaceful to sit there while you cool down from the steaming waters.

Rocky Mountains Alberta, things to do in Alberta, Banff tourism
Cooling off on the hot springs deck during a quick sun shower.

We only stayed for about an hour before deciding to leave.  The cost to soak in the pool is $7.30 for adults, and $6.30 for youths and seniors.  Avy was free, as are all kids 3 and under.  Since the price is quite reasonable, leaving after an hour didn't seem like a waste.

On our way out, we found a little 'pool' built into the side of the trail leading to the parking lot - you could dip your feet in and the temperature was just as warm as the commercialized pool.  Unfortunately, it is not big enough to swim in, but it sure felt nice on the feet!

things to do in Alberta, Banff Upper Hot Springs, outdoor hot spring
Enjoying a dip in the 'natural' hot spring at Banff, just off the main path.

After a quick breakfast and a stroll around the extremely busy downtown, we headed to the Banff Gondola.  This tourist attraction is quite popular, so it is suggested that you book tickets in advance (although I did see some people buying their tickets right there - whether they had to wait 2 hours to ride to the top is unknown to me). Tickets were $35.95 per adult, and $16.95 for children 6 to 15.  Avy, again, was free.

Our tickets were for noon, so we had a twenty minute wait before we were to line up to board our gondola. The line-up seemed really long, but it moved quite quickly and efficiently.  The gondolas are small - they hold four people and you must sit during your ascent to the top of the mountain.  Two attendants slow the gondola enough for you to hop on, and then send you on your merry little way.  Thus, the line moves at a snappy pace.  My husband had our daughter strapped to his chest, and the attendants were generous and let us board the gondola alone, without another couple.

Excited to be going up the Banff Gondola!

We had fun on the way up - the view is amazing, the mountain incline sharp. We watched hikers winding their way up the steep slope, and waved to people going down the gondolas across from us. Avy enjoyed the smooth ride and watched the scenery with great interest.

going up the Banff gondola, things to do in Alberta, Rocky Mountains Alberta
The view from the Banff Gondola, going up Sulphur Mountain.

It had been raining that morning while we were soaking in the hot springs, and the mountain range in the distance had been hazy with clouds and the remnants of a few major forest fires around B.C.  However, during our ride up the side of Sulphur Mountain, the skies cleared and we were able to see all the way down the valley.

Banff gondola, Rocky Mountains Alberta, things to do in Alberta
The view of Banff and the Rocky Mountains from the top of Sanson Peak.

The ride up the gondola lasts about ten minutes.  Once at the top, there are gift shops, a restaurant, and a snack shop.  You can stick around the gondola station and view the vista from the observation deck, or you can partake in a 20 minute hike to the summit of Sanson Peak.  We chose the latter.

Sanson Peak hike, Banff Gondoloa, things to do in Alberta
Starting our hike to Sanson Peak.  The wooden trail made it very enjoyable.

The hike was fantastic, and I highly recommend that if you take the time to go to the top of Sulphur Mountain, then you best better do the hike to the weather observation station at Sanson Peak.  A well-built, smooth wooden boardwalk acts as a trail to the peak, made of 28 switchbacks allowing you to climb to the summit with ease.  There are about 10 look-out points along the way, offering stunning views and photo opportunities.  A word of warning: there are a lot of stairs, going both up and down both ways, and the trek to Sanson Peak is NOT wheelchair or stroller friendly.  Unfortunately.

Another family photo from one of the lookout points along the trail.

At the top of Sanson Peak, it was super windy. Avy stopped to have half a bottle, but we had to cap it and turn around, leaving the peak behind us and finding a sheltered bench so she could finish her lunch.  If you go to the peak, pack yourself a hoodie or windbreaker to protect yourself from the elements at the top.  After all, you are standing on top of a mountain!

Rocky Mountain trees, Rocky Mountain valley, Banff Gondola, Sulphur Mountain
A view of a Rocky Mountain valley, covered in trees.  It is still hazy from all the forest fires.

It is estimated that visitors spend an average of 2 hours at the top of Sulphur Mountain.  We were up there for about an hour and twenty minutes, and were ready to head back down.  (We didn't explore the gondola station very long, so I can easily see people spending two hours in total up at the top.)  On the way down, the attendants take a photo of you sitting inside the gondola, and then try to sell you a copy at the bottom. We didn't fall for that.  It was expensive, and besides, we were seated with two strangers and I had no desire to pay good money for a photo with two unsmiling, unknown people.


We continued our journey to Invermere after the gondola, which was a good thing for Avy, who was in desperate need of a nap.  However, it was a great way to spend a day in Banff.  How lucky are we to live so close to such a beautiful location?

Monday, July 7, 2014

Backyard Bucket List: Alberta's Devonian Botanical Gardens

This summer, my goal is to explore as much of the beautiful province of Alberta as I can with a six-month-old baby.  My little Peanut is a great traveler in the car, and loves to people-watch and explore new surroundings, so I am hopeful that I can get out and about as much as possible.

Trying to get in some summer fun checking off our 'backyard bucket list' in Alberta!

Our first 'mother-daughter' adventure took place at the Devonian Botanical Gardens just outside the town of Devon, Alberta (about half an hour south of Edmonton).  It was a smokin' hot summer day, my husband was away at a conference in Banff, and Avy Bear and I were looking for something relaxing to do.  The drive wasn't too far for us, and the weather for the day made an afternoon out seem promising.

It is pretty easy to find the gardens.  There are signs posted throughout the town of Devon, and it is a basic drive 6 minutes along the highway, skirting Devon, until you enter Parkland County and see the giant entrance sign.  For all you GPS lovers, type in 51227 Alberta 60, Parkland County.

The gates open at 10 a.m. each morning and stay open until around 5 p.m. (hours vary depending on the season, so check out their website before you plan your stay).  It is $13.50 (plus GST) for an adult to visit, $3.00 for kids 7-12, and $5.00 for teenagers.  Seniors and students can get special discounts with valid ID.  I thought it was decently priced seeing that you can stay as long as you like, and the gardens are extremely beautiful.

Enjoying a beautiful summer day at the Devonian Botanical Gardens outside of Edmonton.

Here's the breakdown of the Devonian Botanical Gardens: Under the guidance of the University of Alberta, the gardens were established in 1959.  It mainly acts as a tourist attraction, but due to its affiliation with the university, there are lots of ecology and conservation projects and experiments done by students there, too.  The gardens sprawl over 80 acres, and also include another 110 acres of protected natural areas.  Within these 80 acres are sectioned, themed gardens.

The themed gardens include the:
  • Kurimoto Japanese Gardens
  • Native People's Gardens
  • Patrick Seymour Alpine Garden
  • Plants of Alberta Garden
  • Herb Garden (which includes a children's sensory garden where kids can taste, touch and smell certain plants)
  • Peony Collection
  • Primula Dell
  • Greenhouses
Avy and I did not have the chance to explore it all, and we unfortunately discovered that not all areas are stroller (and therefore wheelchair) accessible.  We missed the Peony Collection altogether, and could not access Primula Dell as you had to walk across the grass and it was just too bumpy for the little one.  The Patrick Seymour Alpine Garden, which is shaped like a bowl, could be viewed from above when pushing a stroller, but the pathways down into the bottom were made of stepping stone stairs, or took you down a steep grassy incline.  So we skipped that area too.

There is a natural wetlands area as well, with two pathways leading to a beautiful lookout point - one pathway is cedar chipped and slightly difficult to navigate with a stroller (and I'd assume a wheelchair) but it is much better than the natural one that is riddled with tree roots and deep ruts. Avy and I started on that path and had to turn back.

Stuck on the natural wetlands pathway - we had to turn around.

Our favorite area was the Kurimoto Japanese Gardens - it is elegant, peaceful, and of course, beautiful.  There is a large lake (large for a botanical garden, that is) in the center, with wooden bridges spanning the narrower parts.  Waterfalls send bubbling water down into the lake.  A pagoda with a gong stands on a hill overlooking the lake, and several covered sitting areas dot the shoreline.  Koi fish swim in the peaceful waters.

Picnics are allowed in the gardens, and all the staff asks is that you clean up after yourself and not loiter on the grass for too long to prevent damage.  Avy and I enjoyed a brief picnic and diaper change, tidied up, and continued on our way, and the staff merely stopped by to say hello and coo over how happy the baby seemed.  There is also a place where you can buy food, in case you forget your picnic, and the prices seemed reasonable.

The gorgeous Kurimoto Japanese Gardens at the Devonian Botanical Gardens.

We also really enjoyed the greenhouses, particularly the tropical butterfly greenhouse. Massive butterflies soared through air, conglomerating on certain bushes, and even landing on my shirt!  None landed on Avy, although I had my camera waiting just in case.  The air was hot and humid, so for those of you who get uncomfortable easily, prepare yourself mentally before entering.  It is worth a stay inside the greenhouse - there are lots of colorful, exotic flowers and of course, lots of butterflies to discover!  The other greenhouses include an arid desert climate, and a temperate climate.

The tropical butterfly greenhouse at the Devonian Botanical Gardens.

Something I know Avy will enjoy in the future was the honeysuckle maze.  It was in need of a trim at the time of our visit, and I got pretty scratched up pushing the stroller through the pathways, but I could see it being grand once tidied up.  There were several end-of-year field trips attending the gardens while Avy and I were there, and the maze was riddled with happy children running in circles, shouting out to one another, and generally having a great time getting lost.  In the center of the maze was some sort of abstract metal art installation that the kids were climbing, trying to map their escape from the maze.

Getting scratched up and lost (but having fun) in the honeysuckle maze.

The pathways are made of a variety of mediums - pavement, cedar wood chips, and dirt were the most common.  They wind all throughout the gardens, leading you past the different sections.  As we strolled through the Plants of Alberta, we passed a second lake and watched several school groups participating in pond-dipping activities and scavenger hunts.  It seemed like a fun place for a school field trip.

For any gardeners out there, if you see something you like in the gardens, obviously you can't pick it or harvest seeds from it.  However, there are greenhouses on the premises that sell plants and seeds for you to try at home. (When I checked the prices seemed a bit expensive but what do you expect?)  Another no-no at the Devonian Botanical Gardens - don't bring your pets.  I can easily guess that having pets peeing on the plants is frowned upon.

Don't pick anything at the Gardens - but you can always buy what you need at their store!

Something I'd like to try that I discovered on the website are the Thursday night "Date Nights".  The facility opens late for registered couples and allows them to participate in a variety of fun couples' activities.  The ones I saw on the website include beer tastings, rumba dance lessons, taiko drumming workshops, and live music.  If it wasn't such a long drive for my hubby and I, I'd beg him to go to one (the taiko drumming sounds like a ton of fun)!

There you have it - a fun Alberta bucket list activity for either yourself, your family, or you and your significant other.  It is affordable, entertaining, and also gets you out and moving.  I highly recommend it!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Moments with Strangers: The Beauty of Travel

The day was hot and muggy.  My husband of about four hours and I were tired from a long day of getting ready, getting photographed, getting married, and getting away from it all via a hilarious ziplining adventure through the jungle in our wedding clothes.  We were exhausted from a day where every moment had been scheduled and accounted for, but we weren't ready to go back to our lodgings just yet.

We had gotten married in Costa Rica, and it had been beautiful.  It had also been as stress-free as any wedding ever could be.  But we still needed to unwind.

destination wedding, beach wedding photos
Joey and I enjoying our fun wedding day.

Hoping to discover some hidden oasis, we drove straight past the turn-off to the house where we were staying, and kept on cruising down the road.  What we were looking for, I'm not sure.  Some sort of tucked away waterfall, with rainbows beaming through the crystalline mist, and a mermaid serving smooth strawberry daiquiris?  I don't know.  What we DID find was a small, ramshackle Tiko restaurant perched on the left side of the highway, open to the elements except for the large, palm-leafed roof.  A creaking sign advertising Imperial proved to be too tempting for us, and we pulled Snowball (our affectionately named white Jeep) to the side of the road and disembarked.

We were still in our wedding clothes, having come directly from the ziplining establishment.  Joey`s outfit consisted of khaki pants and a white pin-striped summer shirt, so he looked relatively normal. I, however, was still decked out in my white wedding gown; granted, I had shorts and a tank top underneath from our jungle canopy adventure, but still.  It didn't seem right to saunter into a Costa Rican restaurant, now acting more as a pub, in a wrinkled, shredded, dirty wedding gown.  (The ziplining adventure had not treated the dress very well, but when was I ever going to wear it again?!)

grass hut restaurant, Costa Rica buildings
This is not the same restaurant, but it looked very similar (just not as big!)

Unperturbed, I told Joey not to lock the doors yet, and then proceeded to wriggle out of my dress on the side of the road, in clear view of the Tiko restaurant.  There weren't many patrons inside, but those that were stared curiously as they watched a sweaty white girl shed her clothes in plain view. (Like I said, I had other clothes on underneath, so it wasn't that exciting of a show.)  After unceremoniously balling up what was left of my gown and chucking it in the backseat, we headed into the building.

It was very small, run by a family who lived in the back of the restaurant - the eating area was like a giant domed patio jutting off the front of their home.  It was late: there were only a few loyal customers inside drinking beer, and our waitress (the only visible person working there) must have been the grandmother of the family.  She spoke not a shred of English.

Joey and I ordered an Imperial each, and then my hubby noticed that across the parking lot, a couple of the family members were struggling to move a bulky refrigerator off the bed of a truck and inside their house.  They were trying to recruit a young, skinny girl of about 10 to help them.

"I'll go help," he told me, not wanting to witness the little girl get crushed by a 300-pound appliance. Off he trotted, and I watched with newlywed pride as he introduced himself and rolled up his sleeves jovially.

The old woman returned with our beers, and seeing me sitting alone, looked around for my husband.

"Marido?" she asked, and I, unable to understand, shook my head helplessly.  As I was mentally attempting to translate using my limited knowledge of Spanish, the woman noticed Joey moving the fridge and smiled.  She plunked down beside me at the table, and grabbed my hand.  I was just a little surprised.

Her tanned fingers reached for the shining ring on my ring finger and spun it softly.  "Marido," she repeated, tapping the ring and then pointing with her other hand to Joey.  I understood.

wedding ring photo, Costa Rica wedding
If not for those rings, I wouldn't have had my conversation with the wonderful woman

"Husband!" I said brightly, realizing this wonderful lady was giving me an impromptu Spanish lesson.  She nodded, and then pointed to me.

"Esposa."

"Wife," I translated, and she nodded again.  (I still to this day do not know if she was nodding because she could understand my English translations, or if she was just nodding to make me feel intelligent.)

"Nosotros... uh... got married... hoy," I stuttered, trying to explain that Joey and I had just tied the knot today.

"Casado," the woman filled in, meaning 'married' in Spanish. Unfortunately, casado only meant one thing to me at the time, and that was a delicious Costa Rican dish that I often ordered at restaurants.  I instantly became confused.

"No, gracias.  No hambre." I tried to explain to her that I wasn't hungry, at the same time massacring her language. (For your information, it is 'no tengo hambre' but apparently I didn't like to use verbs.)  The lady, realizing my mistake, chuckled pleasantly.  She pointed to Joey, then to me and back again, and held my hand and squeezed it. "Casado," she repeated pointedly.  It took me a second, and then the light bulb came on.

Joey and Marti, casado on the beach!

"Ahhh, casado! Married! Si, casado! Mi marido," I said proudly, indicating Joey who was now returning to the eating area.  The old woman chuckled again, and got up.  She smiled at Joey and returned to the kitchen area in the back just as smoothly as she'd arrived.  It was like I had been visited by a mysterious Spanish-teaching angel.

Joey was tired from moving the fridge, and happy for the cool beer.  I taught him the three new words I had learned from the woman as we drank our beverages.  He was interested, but didn't seem to find the words quite as enchanting as I had.  He preferred to tell me about the family-run business, as he'd learned all about it from the sons who owned the new fridge.

Maybe it wasn't the words themselves that were so enchanting.  Maybe it was that unexpected shared moment with a kind stranger that was.  Our world, and the people in it, can be so beautiful.

Friday, June 13, 2014

How to be a Horrible Hotel Guest (Or: The Lesson I Learned in Loch Ness)

Allow me to set the scene:  It is the summer of 2012.  A rental car pulls up to a beautiful, large log cabin, surrounded by pines and a thin sheet of fog that drifts off the cooling waters of Loch Ness.  The 'parking lot' of this bed and breakfast cabin is a large rectangle, cut into the front lawn, covered in a layer of sweet-smelling wood chips. A tired couple emerges from the vehicle, stiff from a long drive from Stirling and a little stressed after getting lost along the banks of Loch Ness, with its twisting roads and wooded avenues.

road to Loch Ness, winding road Scotland
The twisting, winding, narrow road to Loch Ness in Scotland.

They drag their heavy suitcases (because they don't know how to pack light) into the cabin's main entrance, and ring the little bell resting on the front desk.  A young girl emerges from a back room, and smiles in welcome.  The couple hands over their reservation confirmation, made online through a booking website.

"That will be 73 pounds," the girl says with a pleasant Scottish lilt.

"Wait, wait," the woman traveler says, holding up a hand.  "We already paid online... that's the right price, but we already paid."  She keeps her voice polite, sure that the girl has just misread the information on the screen.

The young girl frowns.  "I have your reservation right here, but it says you haven't paid in full yet."

"No, I did," the wife insists.  "I booked online and the website took my credit card payment at the time of booking.  I've seen the charge on my credit card statement already, since I booked so long ago." The woman's tone is not rude, but firm and full of conviction. In fact, she's got a chart in her travel documents listing the trip's costs thus far, and this evening's accommodations are on it, listed as fully paid. She's ready to whip it out, not that it will prove anything to the desk clerk, who is unsure of what to do.

The young girl's smile wavers as she clicks on the computer a bit more.  "One moment," she smiles thinly, and disappears back into the posterior room.

The husband turns to his wife, and mutters, "Are you sure? I doubt their records would be wrong."  He hates conflict, and he can see that this encounter might escalate into something uncomfortable.

"There was a charge on my credit card - I saw it! It was for this place.  We've paid - the website took the payment up front, online," the wife insists.  She has a bad feeling in her gut, like perhaps the booking website wasn't legitimate.  Just thinking about being the victim of a scam already has her blood starting to boil!

When the back door opens once more, a short, slightly round older woman with grey hair emerges.  "Hello, I'm Ethel, the owner," she nods, without a smile.  (The name has been changed, since I can't actually remember what she said her name was).  The couple nods back, also not smiling.  "What is the problem here?"

waters of Loch Ness, gloomy day at Loch Ness
A gloomy day on Loch Ness, Scotland - almost as gloomy as my story!

"We booked our room online, and the website took payment for the room already, but your system is saying we haven't paid yet," the wife explains, perhaps a bit shortly.  She is tired, sore, and now leery that either the website has stolen money from her card, or that this bed and breakfast establishment has no idea how to work a computer.

Once again, when Ethel checks, she confirms that the room was reserved, but not paid for.  She is as warm as a snowman on a frosty day.

"Well, what was the charge on my credit card?" the wife bursts out in frustration. At this point, Ethel is standing with her arms crossed, chin jutting out defensively, but offers no explanation.  She just wants these people to pay or, preferably, leave. The wife is certain someone is trying to steal from her: either the booking website or the lady standing in front of her.  The two women seem to be at an impasse.  Thank goodness for cool-headed husbands.

"We can check your credit card statement when we get back to Canada," the husband whispers into his wife's ear.  "If they did charge us, we can call them and file a complaint.  Let's just pay for the room and go relax."

Scotland bridge, old stone bridge Scotland
On the road to Loch Ness, before things got stressful-ish.

The wife nods, although she still isn't pleased.  The husband turns to gather the bags, and the wife smiles stiffly at the owner.  "We'll put the room on my card.  I'll check with my credit card company later," she says, implying that she still thinks something fishy is going on.

The transaction is awkward, to say the least.  Ethel wishes the guests a lovely stay, although it is clear from the look on her face that she'd prefer to turn them out and have them sleep in their tiny rental car.  She doesn't even give them the spiel that she usually presents to her guests about dining areas and times, and any other amenities the bed and breakfast provides.  She shuffles out from behind the desk and silently leads them to their room, speaking only to point out a sitting area with a TV in case they want to rest a bit before dinner.  The couple is silent, too: the husband embarrassed, the wife still mulling over why she has had to pay twice for the same room.

In the room, the couple unpacks and freshens up. The room is homey and comfortable, with a soft double bed and a worn but cozy tartan armchair in the corner.  They admire the beautiful view of Loch Ness from above, then realize they are hungry.  Not knowing the area at all, they have to return to the front desk to ask about nearby restaurants.

Loch Ness from above, Scotland Loch Ness
The beautiful view of Loch Ness from the bed and breakfast room window.

"Well, there's a diner down the road, but it closes by 7 p.m.," Ethel ponders.  "Otherwise, you'll have to drive for quite a ways."

The couple looks dismayed, since it is 8 p.m. and there seems to be no way to get sustenance.  "How far of a drive?" the wife queries, once again not looking happy. (Ethel probably thought that the sour shrew standing in front of her didn't even have the facial muscles to smile!)  And when she says how far, the wife frowns even more. She's already grumpy about the whole payment debacle, and now she's hungry, and she's one of the those people who get nasty when her blood sugar is too low.

"Well, we have some snacks from the car.  Why don't we just eat that?" the husband tries valiantly to keep things positive.  The wife sighs, and Ethel looks extremely hurt.

"The dining room here is open until 9 p.m." she says, and the couple looks surprised.  They thought this was a bed and breakfast, meaning only breakfast was served.

"That would be great!" the husband says cheerily. "We didn't know you had dinner here!  Otherwise we would have done that straight away."  Ethel still doesn't smile - it is obvious she thinks the couple is a pair of yuppees who are too good for anything.

The husband maintains his smile, but the wife scowls back. "She shouldn't act like we didn't want her food just because we didn't know she even had food in the first place!" the wife thinks.  "I bet she poisons our food, too."

*****

Ah, mis-communication is a wonderful thing... this is a true story, as close to word-for-word as I could make it.  Naturally, I am the nasty shrew-like woman with the credit card fetish, and my husband Joey the patient and smart one. (Please don't tell him I said that - I'll never hear the end of it!)  Our trip to Scotland was a dream adventure, to say the least: Loch Ness, Edinburgh, Stirling, Glasgow, and the list goes on.  This experience was the only negative blip, and it was entirely my fault.  Our stay at the bed and breakfast ended up being very pleasant, and our room had one amazing view of Loch Ness.  The owner did not poison our food, either.  In fact, she was one of the best cooks I've ever encountered.  Her butter chicken was superb! If you want to know the name of the place, just email me and I'll send you the details.

My husband - oh, how he keeps me sane!

Here's how this all went down and ended up.

I booked the bed and breakfast through a website called "Booking.com".  The website searches hotels for you, and comes up with lists based on location, price, ratings, etc.  It is a simple and easy website to navigate, and I really liked using it.

However... the website is set up so that you enter all your credit card information right there online. It advertises that there are no booking fees, and says that the hotel will charge your credit card once you confirm your booking.  The website sends you a confirmation email.  After I received the confirmation email, I noticed a charge from the hotel on my statement.  I thought it was a done deal and that we were paid in full.

Obviously, I did not look close enough.  The hotel charged me a reservation fee - not the total cost of the stay.  When you book online, for any newbies out there like I was, read the fine print and see if the hotel you are booking with has reservation fees or not, as not all do. I felt like a total dolt when I saw on my credit card statement, after we got home from our trip, that I'd only been charged a tiny amount and not the full amount like I'd been arguing.  (Although, to be fair, the owner could have explained the reservation fee dealio with me, and I also feel that Booking.com could have been clearer about it during the booking process.  But the onus is on me, ultimately, to read the fine print.)

A stupid mistake on my part, which made me look like a stuck-up harpy, but one I will never make again!  And hopefully with this story in mind and my advice, a mistake that you, dear reader, will never have to make in the first place.  Good luck and happy booking!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Dining at "Papa Rex" in Rome: Dinner with Flair

Sometimes in life it's good to have a little 'cheese'.  No, not mozzeralla - I'm talking about tacky, wacky, and even a bit cliched type cheesy.  What's travel without a little 'over-the-top' now and then?

When my husband and I visited Rome, we were there for three days with a tour group. On our last evening in Rome, our group was invited to an evening meal at a restaurant called "Papa Rex", which offered amazing food and, even better, dining entertainment.  After eating a delicious multi-course meal, we were surprised by a man, fully dressed in gladiator regalia, leaping into the center of our tables.

Our delicious meal menu from Papa Rex

What ensued was a dramatic, funny, and well-choreographed battle between two gladiators, while uniformed Roman soldiers stood nearby and gave orders.  Our group laughed, gasped, and applauded - the battle was quite entertaining.  It turns out the actors were promoting a 'gladiator school' that you can attend for a full or half day while visiting Rome. We never got to go, as it was our last night, but for anyone traveling to Rome with children it would probably be worth checking out!

gladiators in Italy, gladiator school Rome
The gladiators preparing to fight

After the gladiator fight, we settled in for some tasty dessert, but were interrupted by another surprise: a love triangle acted out in front of us, but sung in opera!  It was more of a love duet, except that at one point, I got pulled into it!  I had innocently walked over to compare photos of the gladiators with another member of our travel group, and was trying to return as sneakily as I could to my spot at the table, when the two singers pulled me in.  It was embarrassing, but I endured it!

opera in Italy, opera in Rome
Getting trapped in some sort of operatic love triangle

I have compiled a little video of the shots we took - my 'video camera' was the cheap one on my old-school digital camera, so the quality is not the greatest, but it will give you an idea of what fun we had at the "Papa Rex" restaurant!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Washington D.C. Monument Tour

Some cities are known for fantastic food, some for the exciting night life, some for their sports teams and events.  Some cities, however, are dripping in history and are known for the one billion monuments sprinkled throughout various neighborhoods, making the city a fascinating place to explore.  Washington, D.C. is such a place.

The Washington Monument mirrored in the Reflecting Pool

There are a few ways you can feast your eyes on the various monuments throughout town: several are all within walking distance from one another, and so a walking tour is easily accomplished.  You can hire a cab to take you to the rest.  You can also hop on a city bus and find your own way to each monument. There are two bus systems: the DC Circulator buses run every 5 to 10 minutes and cost $1 per ride; these buses stay in the National Mall area and are great for seeing some of the most popular monuments.  To see some of the more distant sights, you can purchase a ticket for the Metrobus, which can cost between $1.25 and $3.10.  You can also ride the Metrorail to some of the more remote sights (we did that to see the Arlington Cemetery).

If, however, you are worried about navigating the city on your own, getting lost, or just want to have someone take you to all the sights without you having to worry about the hassle, you can purchase a ticket for a city monuments tour - I did that for an evening tour of the monuments, which I highly recommend.  The monuments look amazing at night: Washington D.C. sure knows how to light something for dramatic effect!

The Lincoln Memorial all aglow in the evening.

We bought the "Monuments at Moonlight" tour package, which is $39.00 USD (and $29.00 USD for a child, but we had no children with us). There are little tour kiosks and buildings all over the downtown area of D.C., or you can purchase passes online.  The tour lasted 2 1/2 hours, and took us all over the city to see the most popular stops (some that I hadn't seen when I was touring the monuments on my own).  It was nice to be in a big group with a fun guide on an evening tour - I don't know details about Washington D.C.'s crime rate but I felt a little safer out at night with the tour group.

So without further ado, here are some of the key monuments that you should visit when staying in the lovely city of Washington D.C.

The Washington Monument

This structure is so important to Washington D.C. that it is named "The Monument". It is in the center of the green space known as the National Mall. You can go to the tippy top of the monument on the elevator (which as of lately has been shutting down, leaving visitors stranded at the top) or walk the 897 stairs up (and then back down again).  We did not go to the top, although if I returned to Washington D.C. I think I would definitely give it a go... on the elevator! Tickets are free, but you have to reserve them in advance, which can be tricky.  See the monument website for more details.

To help you understand the scale of the Washington Monument

Lincoln Memorial

This monument is located on the end of the National Mall, opposite the Capitol Building.  It was built to honor the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.  The monument is free to visit, and it is really fun to pack a snack and eat it while sitting on the steps leading up to the monument - they offer a great view of the National Mall, including the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument.

The Lincoln Memorial - don't expect to find the steps empty!

The giant statue of Abe Lincoln is impressive, and you'll enjoy reading the inscriptions from the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inagural Address that are etched into the interior walls of the structure.

Statue of Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial

The Reflecting Pool

If you've seen the movie Forrest Gump then you'll definitely recognize this beautiful and peaceful monument. This is the water feature that Forrest's precious Jenny runs through in order to leap into Forrest's arms.  Seen best at twilight, with the sunset aptly reflecting off the water, this is one of my favorite Washington D.C. sights.  The pool separates the Washington Monument from the Lincoln Memorial, and is over a third of a mile long.  It has recently undergone some extensive repairs to spruce it up, which is good: when I visited it was disappointingly scummy, low on water, with obvious cracks to the cement and facade.  Lots of ducks enjoyed, it however, and the little baby chicks seemed to make up for the pool's shabby state.  I am sure it is much nicer now that D.C. has decided to fix it up!

Enjoying the peaceful but slightly scummy Reflecting Pool

Jefferson Memorial

In keeping with the "democracy is America's foundation, and democracy was invented in Athens, so we'll be building the monuments with a distinctly Greek theme" design of most of Washington D.C.'s historical structures, the Jefferson Memorial is built with the Parthenon as inspiration. Thomas Jefferson was America's third president, and inside the columned dome you'll find a gigantic statue of said leader.  Like pretty much all of the monuments in D.C., it is free to stroll the memorial and its grounds.

Standing outside the statue of Jefferson

It stands on the edge of the Tidal Basin, a beautiful body of water, and there are lovely pathways and gardens all around the memorial where you can enjoy a nice walk or picnic when you are done marveling at the massive statue of Jefferson.  This monument is NOT located in the National Mall, so you'll have to find a way to transport yourself there, using one of the methods I listed above.

Jefferson Memorial exterior - so pretty!

World War II Memorial

This circular plaza is located on the eastern side of the Reflecting Pool, between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. It is a large plaza with a central fountain (sooo nice in the summer, but don't try to swim in it!) surrounded by 56 pillars and a pair of arches.  The pillars each represent a U.S. state or territory related to the U.S. who aided in the triumph of the Allies during World War II.  The arches are inscribed with the terms "Atlantic" and "Pacific".  The memorial is beautiful at night, as each pillar and both arches are lit up brilliantly, with the Washington Monument peeping through the gap in the pillars.

The World War II Memorial in the early evening - a nice place to relax.

Many have criticized the location of the memorial, saying that it interferes with the view of the Washington Monument from the Lincoln Memorial, but I thought the design was great - the Monument is featured centrally, with the World War II Memorial framing it on either side.  You'll have to visit it yourself to decide - other than strolling through the plaza, there really isn't too much to do at this location, but it sure is pretty.

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Out of all the 'memorials' and 'monuments' in Washington D.C., I found this landmark to be the most sobering and thought-provoking.  Located just off the National Mall, and accessed through a lovely stroll in the Constitution Gardens - which are worth a visit alone - the Vietnam Veterans Memorial can be found in three parts.

The Three Soldiers statue depicts three soldiers, all with different ethnicities in an effort to represent the diversity of the U.S. army, standing in tribute to their fallen comrades.  The Vietnam Women's Memorial shows three uniformed females tending to a fallen soldier.  They represent the women who served during Vietnam, mainly as nurses.  These are both spectacular sculptures, full of meaning.

But they don't hold a candle to the Memorial Wall, at least not for me. The Memorial Wall is a harsh reminder of the damages in war - etched plainly for all to see in black and white.  The Memorial Wall is made of two large, 250-feet long black gabbro slabs (I always thought the stone was black granite, but nope, it is gabbro).  The slabs are triangular shaped, so that they begin at only 8 inches high but meet in the middle at 10 feet high.  They don't stand out like the walls of a fence - instead, they are sunk into the ground so that they are surrounded by earth.  The grabbo is polished to a high shine, which makes it tricky to take photos of the walls, as they act a lot like mirrors.

A portion of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

But that's not what is impressive.  Etched into the stone are the names of the men and women that were killed in action, or listed as missing in action during the Vietnam War.  There are a whopping 58, 272 names in total - a reminder of the horrific loss we suffer when we go to war. (And yes, I realize war serves an ultimate purpose to retain peace, but I'm not interested in a philosophical debate about the validity of war.  Seeing all those names is slightly stunning - and those are only Americans.  It boggles the mind to think about the loss of Vietnamese lives, or the lives of other nationalities involved in the war.  Just crazy...)

So many names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall...

Not all the names mean the person died - a few people who were listed as missing in action have actually resurfaced.  However, those circumstances are indeed rare, and it doesn't take more than one look to realize how devastating the Vietnam War was.

Franklin Roosevelt Memorial

The Franklin Roosevelt Memorial is less of a memorial and more of a museum gallery in a park.  Rather than visiting a single statue and reading a placard about its history and significance, the Franklin Roosevelt Memorial allows viewers to stroll around its 7 1/2 acres, enjoying sculptures, fountains, gardens, and snippets of speeches engraved in stone.  You are virtually walking through time, as the memorial spans 12 years of Roosevelt-related U.S. history.

Statue of Franklin Roosevelt at the FDR Memorial

If I found the Reflecting Pool peaceful, and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial sobering, then I found the Franklin Roosevelt Memorial inspiring.  If a memorial can be graceful, then that is what the FDR Memorial is.  Birds flock to it.  Waterfalls bubble and splash, shining out tiny rainbows.  Messages of peace, hope, and the end of war appear around corners.  You can even visit a statue of Teddy and kiss him on the cheek in thanks for all the good he did for the country of America!

Enjoying the cool spray of the waterfalls at the FDR Memorial

Iwo Jima Memorial

The Iwo Jima Memorial is perhaps the furthest away from the National Mall, so you'll really need to find additional transport in order to see this gem.  Also called the Marine Corps War Memorial, this memorial is a sculpture depicting the six soldiers who raised a U.S. flag during World War II during the Battle of Iwo Jima.  It is dedicated to all the U.S. Marine Corps who have died while defending their nation.

The iconic Iwo Jima Memorial

I don't know a lot about the Battle of Iwo Jima - I was only able to recognize the memorial because I'd seen the image on the DVD case of "Flags of our Fathers".  So that's something I'll have to research one day, unless anyone can leave a synopsis in the comments section below and school me now! All I know is that the memorial is very iconic and worth the view, even if you get caught in the rain while exploring it, as I did!

Navy Memorial

My travel companions and I didn't even realize we were visiting this memorial until we were standing right smack in the center of it.  The circular plaza memorial is located right in the downtown area of D.C., on Pennsylvania Avenue NW between 7th St. NW and 9th St. NW.  It is fairly nondescript compared to some of the more popular memorials in Washington D.C., but once you find yourself there, it is pretty interesting.   There are some really nice fountains, and a statue entitled The Lone Sailor which overlooks a map engraved into the floor of the plaza.  The map is called The Granite Sea and accurately depicts the world's oceans.

The compass from the Navy Memorial plaza floor

There are, as always, way more monuments and memorials than we had time to visit.  For example, we didn't have the chance to see the Koren War Memorial, the Air Force Memorial, the Pentagon Memorial, or Theodore Roosevelt Memorial.  For the short amount of time that we were in Washington, I'm pretty impressed with what we did manage to see during the evenings and our two days where we weren't conferencing!

Taking a stroll to the Capitol Building in Washington D.C.

Other sights that you really shouldn't skip are the Whitehouse (I didn't get a tour but I stood outside of it, which I suppose qualifies), and the Capitol Building.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Foodie Bucket List: Costa Rican Cuisine

While I have no immediate travel plans, what with a four-month-old baby at home and my husband working hard to be the sole provider for his family, I will admit that I am secretly hoping we can swing a trip to Costa Rica this year.  My husband's father has a house down there, which is beautiful, and I feel like we are wasting it by not visiting (is that a good enough argument for my hubby, do you think?).

I love Costa Rica - of course I do; I got married down there!  I love the sunshine, the beaches, the vegetation, the wildlife, and naturally, the food.  Oh, you Costa Ricans know how to make some tasty grub.  For anyone who has never been to Costa Rica (or has and just misses the food), I would like to provide a quick list of my favorite Costa Rican "best dishes to try".  The list is a little short I admit, mainly because once I find a meal I love, I don't often deviate.  Maybe if we go down later this year, I can branch out and try a few more dishes.

Arroz con Pollo

My absolute, absolute favorite meal in Costa Rica is "arroz con pollo", which is simply "rice with chicken".  I would eat this for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day if I could.  Each establishment serves it a little differently, which is why I never seem to get sick of it. Basically, the meal is fried rice mixed with a pleasing blend of garlic, salt, pepper, oregano, cilantro, and cumin. Vegetables are chopped up and mixed in - celery, tomatoes, peas, carrots, corn, peppers, you name it.  Finally, chunks of juicy, marinated chicken are added in.  Like I said, no two places make the exact same arroz con pollo, so sometimes vegetables will be missing, sometimes vegetables I don't have listed here are present.  No matter the recipe, I've never met a dish of arroz con pollo I didn't like!

Yummy arroz con pollo.  Photo via.

Plantains 

A 'cousin' of the banana, plantains are popular in Costa Rica. They are firmer and starchier than dessert bananas and are not typically eaten raw.  You prepare a plantain by either boiling or frying it, much like a potato here in Canada or the US.  Once fried, they become mushier and little sweeter.  Costa Rican dishes don't usually get served with a lot of vegetables (a spoonful of coleslaw, a small amount of Russian salad, or a slice of tomato and piece of lettuce are about all I've had served on my plates) so plantains are a popular side dish to most meals.  I usually save the plantains until the end of my meal, then eat them in place of dessert.

Fried plantains are tasty and can double as dessert. Image via.

Casado

This is the meal most Ticos prefer to eat for lunch in Costa Rica (comida tipica).  The meal is made of rice cooked with finely chopped bell peppers and onions, fried plantains, beans cooked in a delicious gravy, and either a salad or some chopped vegetables.  You can then choose the type of meat you want with it: pork, chicken, fish, or steak.  I preferred the pork, as it is cut rather thin and then sauteed in an amazing blend of spices. The chicken was good too, but it was a thicker cut and didn't soak in the flavor as well as the pork.  In some of the more 'westernized' restaurants, your casado can come with French fries, but I never chose that option.  It just seemed wrong.

A typical lunchtime meal of casado.  Image via.

Gallo Pinto

If casado is eaten for breakfast by the locals, then gallo pinto is the go-to meal for breakfast.  The meal is based on a hearty helping of black beans mixed with rice, served with egg (either fried, scrambled or in omelet form) and, depending on the restaurant, your choice of fried plantain, toast, or a type of handmade bread which is similar to naan.  The beans are amazing - they are cooked in a type of gooey sauce (I know, it sounds gross and sometimes it even looks pretty gross) but the flavor of the sauce is like nothing you've eaten before. 

Gallo pinto - eat like a local and try this for breakfast!  Image via.


Sopa de Mariscos

This soup is great if you are seafood fan (and I am!).  Sopa de Mariscos is a brothy, tomato-based soup loaded with tasties like shrimp, squid, clams, mussels, chunks of fish, and chopped veggies.  Once again, no two restaurants or diners (diners are called 'sodas' down in Costa Rica) make the same sopa de mariscos, so try it more than once if you like it.  It is really good if you order some bread (pan) along with it to soak up the tasty broth.

Chunky sopa de mariscos - if you love seafood.  Image via.

Imperial Beer

Of course, no Costa Rican meal is complete with a cool brewsky.  My husband and I favor the brand "Imperial", although you can often find "Pilsen" and "Bavaria" which are other popular brands.  Most Tico restaurants have a large sign outside their establishment indicating whether they sell primarily Imperial or Pilsen (and then occasionally Bavaria).  Imperial is the 'national brand' of Costa Rica, it seems: you can buy Imperial T-shirts, towels, jackets, and I even found a cool pair of carved coconut earrings in the shape of the Imperial logo.  If you are not into beer, Costa Rican coffee is a delicious second choice - we always make sure we bring home a giant bag of "1850" coffee beans each time we visit Costa Rica.  It is the good stuff!

What are your favorite Costa Rican dishes?  I know there are a ton more that I haven't tried yet: olla de carne (meat stew), ceviche (pickled fish), tamales, chicharones, and much more.  Oh dear, now I'm really hungry... off to the fridge for me!