Day 1: Costa Rica, part II

After taking a 6:30 a.m. flight, we arrived in Liberia, Costa Rica, at 11:30 a.m. You gotta love a country where the immigration people ask you for the address of where you are staying and you say, “No sé, In Playa Flamingo next to the Super Massai,” and he says, “Good enough. That’s an address here.”

IMG-8071
Guiselle, Karl, Steven, Me

The first thing we did after getting through that grueling interrogation was hit the bathroom to change into shorts. Bye bye jeans for nine days! Customs was just as tough. The luggage went through the x-ray machine in 10 seconds and next thing we knew we were at the Budget rental car.

By 1:30 p.m., we were with Karl and Guiselle in Playa Flamingo, Guanacaste, and then we were walking on Playa Potrero. We had a delicious dinner at home, talked until we couldn’t stay awake and ended the day happy and exhausted.

We are a day behind. Stay tuned for Sunday’s adventure …

Obsessed with Lodgings in Italy

Image result for italian villa

I don’t know why I get this way, but now that I know we are going to Italy, I am obsessed with finding just the right places to stay at just the right prices. I know. We have five months! Maybe I am a little crazy when it comes to travel, especially with my niece or nephew, but I want to make sure everything is perfect, I don’t break the bank, and we don’t miss out on a great place to stay because I was disorganized.

As I have mentioned, I prefer Airbnb because we can get two bedrooms (teens need their privacy and alone time), a lounging space, and a kitchen for about the same price I would pay for a single hotel room.

Here’s how I search:

  1. Just as in buying real estate, I go for location, location, location. The first thing I do is research neighborhoods. I am not that picky since every area as something to offer and it will all be exciting and new to me. I prefer to be a bit off the beaten track in a neighborhood where real people live. That’s another benefit of Airbnb. It does mean that it takes a little longer to get to the top tourist sites, but that is a trade I gladly make.
  2. Price. To trick myself into not getting big eyes, I put this filter on immediately. I don’t want to know what I can have for $300 a night, because I am not going to be able to have it. Make sure you look at the total and not the per night price. People set all kinds of cleaning and service fees that can make one place look cheaper up front, but really be more expensive.
  3. Amenities. We need WiFi. Sorry, but this is the modern world, we don’t speak the language, and we are leaving loved ones home. Plus, how would I post the blog? We also want a well-equipped kitchen. I don’t need to eat three meals a day in restaurants. Sometimes you just want to bring a sandwich with you. Then, I think about specifics. I want air conditioning in case of an Italian heat wave. Convenience of public transport is also key since I am almost certain I will not rent a car no matter how enticing driving the narrow, winding roads of Italy seems. Check the list of amenities! I saw one where a visitor said the oven wasn’t working. The owner replied that he should have checked the listing more carefully because the oven was not included in the price although it was pictured. What? Also, make sure the price includes linens and towels, unless you are bringing your own.
  4. Reviews. Yes I read them, using Steven’s rules. Throw out the gushiest and the worst and see what’s left. There’s always one complainer, but if many people mention that the bed was lumpy, it probably is.
  5. Check the specifics. What are the check-in and check-out times? Are they flexible if you have flights that don’t coincide? What is the
  6. Agonize, search a dozen times, make a decision and forget about all the other places you looked at. Let’s face it: We’re going to have a great time whether we stay a few blocks to the east or west, or even 20 minutes by bus. Everything is an adventure when I travel.

 

Planning for Alaska

We continue to plan and book our Alaska travel.  A quick recap for those of you who have forgotten.

boatMy mother, brother, sister and myself, along with our respective wives/husband, are going to Alaska this summer. We are cruising from Vancouver to Whittier and then heading to Denali National Park. My sister, her husband and my mother are taking the cruise line’s three-day Denali tour.

My brother, sister-in-law, Sue and I were talking about doing a three-day remote camping wolftrip, but we were dissuaded from that by my cousin who has been to Alaska many times. She advised that we might have three days of bad weather so flying in and out may not be available and, even if it is, we might be spend three days soaking wet and cold.  I tapped out and we looked for alternatives. She let us know that there were a couple of lodges about 100 miles into the actual park that might be good places to stay.

We opted for the Kantishna Roadhouse for three nights. It looks amazing and we are very exciting. Once we had our Denali destination, we began to look at the logistics. We have two options to get to Kantishna. We could fly or take the train. Flying has the benefit of being much faster, but often the weather grounds the plane. Even the charter company said it is risky to assume that they will get out on any given day. Not a big deal if you are camping, but given that we have a three-night reservation, it doesn’t seem like a good idea to risk it.

busGetting to the Roadhouse via train is more complicated, but more reliable. The Roadhouse runs a bus from the Denali train station to the Roadhouse that takes six hours.  It leaves from the Denali train station at 1:30 p.m.; however, the train from Anchorage arrives in Denali 3:40 p.m. so in order to get the bus, we need to stay one night in the town of Denali.  Making it even more complicated, the train leaves from Anchorage at about 8:20 a.m., but we disembark the cruise ship in Whittier at 8 a.m. This leaves us figuring out how to get from Whittier to Anchorage (estimated travel time 90  minutes) in under 20 minutes. I guess that won’t work. We checked on a couple of other options (get off earlier and taking the cruise line’s chartered train), neither of which are going to work. That means we are also spending a night in Anchorage. (Any suggestions on things to do/see would be much appreciated).

arctic circleAfter our three day jaunt in the park, we are going to Fairbanks. The Roadhouse bus takes us back to Denali, where we can grab the Alaska Railway’s train (which leaves late enough that we do not have stay overnight in Denali again). Sue and I are planning to take a trip from Fairbanks to the Arctic Circle.  It is a 15-17 hour bus trip that appears to make a few stops along the way, then reaches the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) Arctic Circle sign. We will get off the bus, take a photo and then turn back. I am not sure there is even a gift shop! I know 15 hours on a bus in order to take photo and get a certificate that we have walked north of the Arctic Circle, on the edge of foolishness.  Sue and I are absolutely in; my brother and his wife may apply reason and logic and drop out.

Lots still to plan, be we are making progress.

 

 

Travels with My Niece

A few years ago, for her bat mitzvah, I took my niece to Paris. She picked the spot and I am lucky enough to have friends who live there, so we had a homey Parisian extravaganza. Now, with high school graduation just around the corner (wow, that was fast!) we are planning our next trip. Once she got into the college of her choice (!), she was able to pin down a spot: Italy. So right after graduation in May, off we go.

I have only been to northern Italy and that was in a different life, so I am figuring it is a hit-the-hot-spots tour. We already have plane tickets to Rome and back. I have learned from Steven, so I have a spreadsheet with three different itineraries to show my niece. They are basically Rome, Florence, Venice, and sometimes Sorrento/Capri. I am leaning toward a long day trip to Venice from a base in Florence, but Aunt Susie will do whatever her niece prefers.

File:Trevi Fountain, Rome, Italy 2 - May 2007.jpg
Yes to the Trevi Fountain. When in Rome, be total tourists!

When I travel with my niece or nephew (and mostly with Steven, too), I prefer an AirBnB because we can each have our own space and stock up on snacks or breakfast. I get that Americans are spoiled, but I am trying to avoid the places that have a sofa bed as a second bed. I don’t want to sleep on that, and I’m not going to ask anyone else to either. I will write another post on how I go about choosing AirBnBs, but for now: no sofa beds!

Maybe I am weird, but Rome has never been at the top of my list. Now that I know I am going, I am excited. Plus, I grew up in New York, so crowded, loud, frenetic, a little grimy (this was New York before it was invaded by Disney) mixed into my culture don’t bother me. In fact, I like it that way. It’s homey. All suggestions on what we can’t miss are welcome.

File:Ponte di Sant'Agostin (Venice).jpg
Venice: See it before it sinks

Florence is one of Steven’s favorite cities, so seeing it without him is a little sad, but I am sure that if we went back, there’d be plenty more to see and do. My niece has her heart set on Venice, a place I would skip, but once again, Aunt Susie will do whatever her niece desires. I think we will both enjoy Sorrento and a ferry ride to Capri. I would like to go to Pompei, and while it’s not the top of my niece’s list, I’m sure she will endure.

Oh yes, we might do a little shopping and partaking of the local cuisine.

 

Working in the Sunshine

I woke up today to see snow on the ground; true, was only a light dusting, but I am reminded once again, that I live in Chicago in the winter (my feeling are summed up by this song). On the bright side, tomorrow will be mid-40s and more importantly, I have started the countdown to our first trip of the year.

Our trip to Costa Rica starts on February 1, so at this time I have 28 days to get through—really 27 because it is already evening here and we leave very early in the morning on the 1st.  I am counting the days. As Sue mentioned, she will be learning to Scuba dive, sitting on the beach, taking day trips who knows where and living the Pure Vida while  hitting the cerveza. (I am really hoping to have some work. Honest!)

I will be working.

I am in no way complaining. I will sitting (hopefully outside) at Karl’s place in shorts, a T-shirt and wearing sun screen—not bad for February. However, since I will be working, I am beginning to worry about being connected and all the things I will need to lug down there in order to be able to work.

my laptop
My new laptop

Let’s start with my laptop, of course. I will need power, micro and USB-C cables for various peripherals, and a long Cat-5 Ethernet cable in case the WiFi isn’t so good. I am also thinking I might bring along a WiFi repeater that I have stored in the junk box downstairs. We don’t use it at home, and if the WiFi isn’t so good, perhaps I will set it up somewhere to get a boost (so I can sit outside of course). In the next week or so, I will have a look at Playa Flamingo to see if there is a coffee shop that says it has WiFi, so that if the coverage isn’t good at Karl’s, I can head there and get connected. Then me being me, I will need backups for pretty much of everything—just in case.

Brick phone
Only the latest cell phone for me!

I will need a working mobile phone.  Like most people these days, I live on my phone. (He is worse than the Millennials and Gen Z.) My company does not have a phone system; we all work on our cell phones and have a soft number assigned for work.  I hope we have decent phone coverage there, but if we don’t it works fine on WiFi (see the discussion above about the WiFi extender).  I will contact my provider and arrange for an international call package. I get a half gig of high speed data per day on the plan for $10, so unless I need to use the phone as I hot spot, that won’t be an issue.

 

All in I am really excited for the trip. This post has taken me 30 minutes to write, which means I am 30 minutes closer to the warm sunny weather. In my head, I see this:

me working

But I do worry about it being this…

me not working

Maybe I need an extra backup plan….

Costa Rica, Coming Right Up!

We are incredibly lucky,  because we have so many trips coming up that it is difficult to focus on just one. In a later post, we will get into the twists and turns of planning our Alaska family vacation and I will begin to illuminate you on my trip with my soon-to-be-high-school-graduate niece to … Italy. So stay tuned. I know you won’t want to miss all the excitement.

Not bad, huh?

But for now, it’s less than a month from our first trip: Costa Rica, here we come again. Our incredibly hospitable friends Karl and Guiselle are graciously allowing us to stay with them again. Now they live in Playa Flamingo, so the sites will be different. It is the hottest area of the country,  but it’s also the beach, so I’m sure we will be fine. Steven will definitely be “working,” (no, really, he will) – seriously I will be working, we are going to Costa Rica to get away from the miserable Chicago weather – and I hope to have a paying project or two myself. So far, we have only had a dusting of snow followed by days warm enough to melt it all. Yay! But we know that cannot last, so we are grateful to be thinking of the tropics.

Even if I am working, I will be pursuing scuba certification in the mornings with Rocket Frog Divers. We may have mentioned that Steven is certified and that I gave it a shot in Hawaii, but this time I think the water will be plenty warm and I will be doing the full course including classwork and pool work. I am determined to get it done, seasickness be damned. We haven’t planned much beyond that, but who cares. We may do a cave tour, we may see some sea turtles, we may walk on the beach and enjoy the sun. We will definitely be relaxing with friends. Maybe I will even be brace enough to try out my very limited Spanish.

Steven will have his own challenge. While I am used to spending vacations through the kindness of friends, he is more of a hotel guy. We’ll see how long he lasts sharing a space with three other humans (and some cats) Cats!!! No one said anything about Cats!. If it weren’t for all the other trips we have coming up (and friends, family, and dog), I would probably rip up my return ticket. I guess, we’ll see how the rest of this year goes before we make that drastic move. In the meantime, sun, sand, surf, and a cerveza are on the horizon.

Midwinter Break All Set

If you are a loyal reader (and thank you if you are), you will know that we were struggling to decide where to go the first week in March. Well, we decided, but it’s nowhere warm. Maybe a little warmer than Chicago (but that’s not hard), but not a bask-in-the-sunshine trip. That’s OK. Costa Rica and Houston will both be significantly warmer than Chicago, where as I write this, it is 20 degrees. But at least I saw the sun.

For our fabulous mid-winter break (yes, I know it will be March, but that’s barely halfway through winter here), we will spend the first half of the week in New York. Can’t go wrong there. Then we are headed to Boston. Steven can work in both places and I can work, too, (I hope I have work), see friends, family, and feel like I’m home again.

Somehow, it doesn’t matter if it’s warm in New York. We don’t have any specific plans, aside from pizza. We don’t really need them. If Uncle David (also known as Unky) is around, we will have dinner with him. Otherwise, we will wander, shoot photos, eat, and maybe take in a play or some music. Who cares? It’s New York.Moakley_Courthouse_and_Boston_Harborwalk_02.JPG

In Boston, we will stay with Steven’s brother, Phil, and sister-in-law, Naomi. Family hospitality. They don’t have a choice! Plus, I hope to see some friends of mine from college.

In case you were wondering, yes, I do realize that I am effin’ lucky. I love to travel, and we have four trips planned before the end of summer. That doesn’t even include my niece’s graduation trip. She is as of yet undecided about where she wants to go, but is thinking somewhere in Western Europe. Stay tuned.

 

I Figure We Can See All of Alaska in 10 Days….

denali picture

I know that I have not been writing very much recently.  I have been distracted by work and somewhat depressed by the thought of spending another winter in Chicago.

One part of my trip to Florida to surprise my mother that I did not mention was that during the time down there she announced that she wanted to take us (my brother, sister and myself) and our respective spouses on an Alaskan cruise this summer.

Princess-AKWe have spent the last few weeks trying to get agreement on which cruise would work for the seven of us. Imagine the hunger games for cruises…Shouting on phone calls, imaginary use of swear words, minor fistfights, a smallish stabbing and the usual hysteria–all of which was just between Sue and me ;-). (Hey, I thought that was private!) We decided on a seven-day northbound cruise on Princess lines out of Vancouver.

denali-mapOnce the cruise was decided, everyone expressed an interest in going to Denali National Park. We figure three days in a wilderness larger than the state of Massachusetts should give us just enough time to know that we have not spent enough time there.

We began by looking at three options.  First, go with the cruise line and stay in their lodge.  That got a hard no from Sue and me. Second, go to a private hotel/lodge/cabins most of which are along the outside edge of the park.  Third, do a  multi-day camping and hiking tour. (The tour company flies you in to a remote lake, drops you off and provides the camping equipment, food and a guide).

Sue and I were keen on the third option, and my brother, Phil, and his wife, Naomi, were in for that, too. My sister, Judie, her husband, Mario, and my mother are planning on staying at the Princess Lodge.

My cousin Robin has been to Alaska a number of times, so after doing some research on the camping companies, we gave her a call to see what she thought.  She gave us a forceful caution on the camping trip.  As she said, it could be perfect, but it could also be the trip from hell. Twenty-four hours of rain a day, everything gets wet, the hiking sucks because it is cold and wet. You can’t get warm for four days, etc.  She suggested that we look at one of the lodges that are within the park and, while they are expensive, they do always give you a warm dry bed to sleep in. We have not yet made a decision….but are leaning towards listening to the wisdom of someone who has done it before – I know, unusual for us.

Stay tuned campers for updates.

Life Messes With My Vacation Plans

20191114_115647
Early November to May weather in Chicago. No, really, it snowed on Halloween and last April.

I already mentioned that we are passing on our latest dream vacation: Southeast Asia. Instead, we have decided to jet off somewhere warm the first weeks of February, March, and April. I know what you are thinking: Isn’t it warm in April. NO! April is the beginning of the last third of winter here in Chicagoland. That week, we are planning a trip to Houston to see family and then on to Mechanicsburg, PA, for Passover seder with the other side of the family.

Did you ever notice that places you don’t consider tourist destinations are expensive to fly to? Four hundred dollars to fly to Harrisburg, PA?!?!?!?!? Four-fifty to get to El Paso!?!?!? And I don’t get to check a bag and I have to sit in the back of the tiny plane? Yuck. I really want to go to Big Bend, but we may end up folding it into a roadtrip.

OK, that leads me to the toughest decision. I really want to go to Big Bend, but I really don’t want to spend $450 a person flying to El Paso. I think that’s off the table, but then where to? Somewhere warm, but not expensive. San Diego? Tucson? We need a place with reliable, fast WiFi so Steven can “work.” We’re still pondering that one. Steven has to work during the week, so we want to go somewhere that I will have things to do, unless I manage to find some work. Anyone looking for freelance writing or editing? I’m your woman!

We did get the February trip solidified. We are headed back to Costa Rica courtesy of our friends Karl and Guiselle, who have moved to Playa Flamingo from Arenal.  Can’t go wrong with sun, surf, and friends. I don’t know if it will work out, but I may have to try scuba again. Plus, I have been Duolingoing for a while, so maybe I will even be able to speak to someone in Spanish. This time, I want to see turtles.

I am excited to go to Houston, not because I like Houston, but it’s been more than a year since I have seen my brother, sis-in-law, niece, and nephew. Way too long. It’s more fun to spoil them in person and it will almost be our niece’s birthday. Crazy aunt and uncle fun time!

 

Slumber Party

 

I love traveling with my husband, but sometimes I need something different. Travel with my women friends feeds a different aspect of my soul. Friday, I drove to Sawyer, Michigan, where three of my friends and I spent a night drinking wine, talking, and creating soul collages. As much as I love Steven, I don’t think he would spend a day losing track of time as he hunted through magazines for the perfect picture to complete his collage (So right on so many levels). In fact, I got the quizzical look I expected when I told him what we had done.

20191109_145315There wasn’t really anything to do: no WiFi, no TV (horrors of horrors! No TV or Internet! – I am so happy I wasn’t invited), no real town to go to. It was fabulous! We were surrounded by woods, apple trees, and quiet. I am blessed with amazing friends around whom I feel both supported and loved. I feel like I can be my true self around them. In fact, I am at an age where if I can’t be my true self around someone, I don’t bother, but these are women I feel at peace around.

As you already know, when I travel, I want to be on the go: doing, seeing, exploring. I didn’t understand the power of stillness. I’m not saying I want to do this every weekend, or even once a month, but the restorative nature of it was amazing. Plus, I got to pretend I can create artwork without words.

20191109_110112
Soul-collage table

We are lucky that one of us has generous friends who lent us their beautiful home. While I don’t want to own a second home, I now understand the appeal.

Update: We have decided to put off our grand adventure to Southeast Asia for a year. We are in the midst of too much uncertainty and upheaval. I am sad, but I am also sure we will not give up on it.