Soccer Road Trippin’ Through the South

It’s hotter than Hades here in D.C. so it seems like the perfect time to hop in the car and drive many, many hours to even hotter locations, primarily in the South.

Sally and Burt
“Oh, I’m sorry, am I inhibiting your driving? It’s just that this is a couples road trip and what could be more magical and romantic than that?”

But we do it for the love of soccer.

That’s right, my travel-partner-for-life XFE and I are going on a road trip to see our favorite English Premier League team, the Tottenham Hotspurs, play two games in the United States as part of the International Champions Cup. Eight European teams, including the Hotspurs, who you may remember came in second in the Premier League this past May, will be playing at stadiums across the U.S. July 19-30th.

Tottenham Traveling Squad

We’ve got tickets to see Tottenham play Paris Saint-Germain in Orlando and Manchester City in Nashville. And instead of trying to see Tottenham is pay Roma in New Jersey in the middle of the week, we decided to skip it and swing through New Orleans instead (we’ve got some history with ol’New Orleans).

So today, we’re in the car for approximately 8.5 hours heading to a quick overnight stop in Charleston to say “howdy” to the fine folks of “Southern Charm.” (Well, maybe not so much. Although, we are going to try to have drinks at the Gin Joint, which was featured on the show.)

Gin Joint on Southern Charm
Cameran = matchmaking fail.

While we’ve travelled quite a bit, we’ve never actually been on a road trip, per se. I mean, we’ve rented a car and slowly meander our way across northern Italy, but that was only 270 miles. SFE dodged Irish sheep for about 300 miles when we drove the Ring of Kerry and explored the Dingle Peninsula back in 2009. And we once got held up on a highway in Peru on our way from Lima to Paracas by a fishermen’s protest, turning a trip that was only supposed to be 3.5 hours into a multi-hour nailbiter. We’ve even traversed northern Spain (twice!) to get our soccer (and kebab) fix.

Poe at soccer

But we’ve never done such a heavy driving trip. We’ll be covering approximately 2,853 miles in a total estimated time of 42 hours and 18 minutes. Which is a lot of beef jerky and “Despacito” on the radio. Here’s hoping we don’t kill each other.

Couples road trip

In the meantime, here are some past posts explaining our love of the Hotspurs.

 

 

 

 

 

How to Have an Amazing Birthday

My 45th birthday was a couple of months ago, so I’ve had some time to really think about this.

  1.  Be born. Done, easy, check.
  2. (OK, this one is going to take a while.) Find a life partner as fabulous as XFE. Took me about, ummmm, 34 years and a couple of failed attempts.
  3. Agree to let this fabulous, XFE-like life partner plan your birthday trip every single year.
  4. Show up and go along.
  5. Drink champagne (thoughtfully purchased by said life partner) in a plunge pool at your private beachside villa in Sri Lanka while watching the sea turtles ride the waves (*stuff that actually happened).

birthday champagn

So we went to Sri Lanka in March. And the Maldives. Yes. The Maldives. Yeah. It was awesome. It’s the MALDIVES. Of course it was awesome.

But first, Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a very interesting place. It wasn’t really on my radar. I knew that it was close to India (geographically) and I’ve never really had much desire to go to India, so yeah. Sri Lanka wasn’t on my bucket list.

The only people I know of from Sri Lanka are M.I.A. (“Paper Planes,” y’all. That song is my jam.) and Pettifleur on “Real Housewives of Melbourne.” And as far as I can tell, both of those ladies are crazy hotheads who bring all the drama.

I also knew—vaguely—that there had been a recent civil war there and I knew that one of the warring factions were known as the Tamil Tigers. But that’s it. I mean, it’s not like this stuff is covered on the news very much. If I hadn’t read an article about that “Paper Planes” song back in the day, I wouldn’t have even known the name Tamil Tigers, let alone details about the civil war.

So, I did what any good history nerd would do. I read a book–“Elephant Complex” by John Gimlette. A very good book which I can’t recommend highly enough, even if you aren’t planning to go to Sri Lanka. It’s just good, good stories.

Here’s the deal (in a very simplistic nutshell): The Tamil Tigers were (are?) a group of separatists who wanted to (still do?) carve out part of Sri Lanka as a separate, independent state–a homeland for ethnic Tamils, who are mostly Hindu, to protect them from discrimination in the hands of the ethnic Sinhalese majority, which is mainly Buddhist. The war started in 1983 and (technically) ended in 2009. It was, as modern, ethnic wars go, horrible. A conservative estimate is that around 100,000 people died.

Make no mistake, the Tamil Tigers were/are basically terrorists. They used suicide bombers and targeted internationals for maximum impact/headlines. But the discrimination and hate perpetuated upon the Tamils that brought them to that state was also really, really bad. And, of course, we have the British to blame (Kidding. Sort of. The seeds of the war were tied to colonialism and favoritism of one caste over the other.) As usual, nobody’s a saint and there are no winners when it comes to civil war.

So that’s some recent, not-so-cheerful history for you. Bet you didn’t see that coming from the headline, amiright? Tomorrow, I’ll talk a bit more about the country’s current conditions, why you should go, and how we decided to go there.

Sri Lanka temple
Nope, I do not think it’s possible to have too many unflattering pictures of yourself goofing off outside a temple in Sri Lanka.

Where to Safari? Tanzania or South Africa

It’s the question that everyone asks when they hear about our recent African safari.

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No, not I packed for essentially three weeks of travel (although, that would be my first question and the answer is: not that much). It’s not even whether we ever got bored of seeing many of the same animals day after day (answer: nope, not at all).

The question is: which African safari destination did we like better? Tanzania or South Africa?

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The answer is a bit complicated. Actually, it’s not that complicated for me. It’s just that it’s a different answer than my travel-companion-for-life, XFE, and it always feels a tiny bit awkward when we don’t necessarily agree. Especially as he is the one who does most of the travel planning. It makes me feel like I’m being slightly ungrateful of all his hard work or something.

Anyway, XFE liked the Serengeti (Tanzania) slightly better. I preferred Sabi Sands (South Africa). Which is just fine. I don’t think either destination is going to pack up their tents and call it a day based on our meager little preferences. And guess what? Neither of them suck. Like, at all. So don’t worry. No bad decisions here.

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Safari in Tanzania or South Africa? They both beat a handful of poop.

Look, the Serengeti is beautiful. Vast grass plains that go on forever and ever. Little purple and white “tissue” flowers signaling the approaching of spring. Rocky outcroppings that allow animals to hide in plain sight. Completely empty savannas with just a single tree providing shade for a couple of leopard brothers. The viewing is plentiful and easy.

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And, as far as sheer numbers of animals, you cannot beat the Serengeti. You don’t just see one lion, you see a whole pride of them, scattered out in a dry river bank, nursing their babies and snoozing and washing themselves and just generally being cats. The Serengeti has the Great Migration, and herds and herds of wildebeest participating in a truly awe-inspiring, bucket-list experience. We saw plenty of everything, especially the Big 5. (But between the two destinations, we saw the Big 7 – that’s the Big 5 plus cheetah and African wild dog).

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A whole bunch of hippos in the Serengeti.

We also saw plenty of death, which bummed me out and contributed to my personal preference for Sabi Sands.

But actually, for me, it comes down to the focus on conservation, which varies greatly between the Serengeti (a vast, open public park) and Sabi Sands (a private reserve set in the midst of a public park).

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A couple of young Sabi Sands lions, approximately 18 mos old. They had been part of the Ottawa pride. They’re mother had been killed by a hyena (!), but they were adopted and raised by the rest of the pride. Our guide Stefan knew all of this.

In Sabi Sands, the drivers and guides know the animals—they know who their parents were, they’ve given them names, they have whole identity kits on each of them and they have spent years acclimating the animals to their human sounds. They approach new or unknown animals very cautiously and respectfully, so as not to scare them.

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Making friends with a new group of skittish rhinos in Sabi Sands.

The guides in Sabi Sands also coordinate over the radio so that there aren’t too many vehicles converging on an animal at once—a vehicle will drive up, spend a few minutes viewing the animal and then back out. And they only drive off the established trails when they’re chasing a Big 5 animal.

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Sleepy cheetah in the Serengeti

The Serengeti is a bit more casual, much more Wild West, if you will. And the guides there are a lot more focused on making sure you (the paying and tipping customer) get your NatGeo-worthy photo, rather than the comfort of the animals. For example, when we rolled up on some sleeping lions one day, our guide began clapping his hands to get the lion to wake up and look up, so we could get a better picture. We assured him that that was not at all necessary and to just let the lion be.

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Believe me: there was more than just the one other vehicle.

In addition, there are a lot more vehicles around in the Serengeti, including all sorts of private guides from outside the park. So there’s no coordination amongst them. The day we finally found black rhinos still makes me cringe, as about half a dozen (at least) trucks encircled the two rhinos. Even though most everyone kept their distance (to some extent), I still felt like we were pinning them in and they really had nowhere to go (they were trying to retreat back into the bush and trees along the river bank behind the trucks–including ours).

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Serengeti family. No names, but lots of babies.

The guides in the Serengeti also do not know the names or lineage of the animals, and in fact, when I asked about the name of our first lion sighting, I got a bit of a strange look. And they definitely drive off the trails quite a bit, in pursuit of any animal. And I do mean pursuit. A couple of times it felt (to my sensitive soul, at least) like we were chasing animals, which I did not like.

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Mom coming to the rescue of a couple of young cheetah brothers we went offroading to see in the Serengeti.

There are a few other things: I much preferred the guides in Sabi Sands. They were knowledgeable and excited every day. Both locations are a little difficult to get to, but Tanzania was definitely more difficult. I also liked the safari style of Sabi Sands–morning game drive, break in the afternoon, evening game drive. There were no nighttime game drives in Tanzania, so it was an all-day safari drive. Although, eating breakfast and lunch out in the wild in the Serengeti was amazing in its own right.

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Leopard climbing up the tree for the snack he’d saved (upper left, hanging). He had a name, I think it was Dayone? Definitely not Scotia. She was a female.

But for me, it ultimately comes down to the entirely different focus—animals first or clients first. Neither is wrong, but I definitely preferred one approach over the other.

Plus, Sabi Sands = honey badgers!

The Basics on Planning an African Safari, aka: Should You Use a Travel Agent?

Let me start by saying: there’s nothing basic about planning a safari trip to Africa. I mean, come on! It’s beyond exciting! It’s the trip of a lifetime! We’re talking bucket list stuff! You gallop headlong into it with visions of the “Lion King” and “Out of Africa” dancing off in the distance. You start buying khaki and olive colored clothes, because, obviously, you’re going to want to fit in and look the part. You envision bush lunches with zebras relaxing nearby and sundowners at watering holes with rhinos and all the glamorous aspects of a safari vacation.

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It’s all sundowners and friendly rhinos in South Africa.

And you should have all those safari expectations because guess what? They’re all going to come true. But first, my little dreamer friend, you’ve got some serious planning to do.

When we first began to plan XFE’s 40th birthday trip to Africa, we knew we wanted to go back to South Africa, and Sabi Sands in particular. There were several reasons: we had a great time when we were last there in 2014, we loved Savanna Lodge, we liked the fact that it was a private reserve and therefore, less busy.

But we also knew we wanted to try somewhere else, which led to tons of research and double guessing ourselves. Should we go to Kenya? Maybe we combine Kenya and Tanzania. What about Namibia? I’ve read/heard good things about Zambia—should we go there?

After we finally narrowed in on wanting to see the Great Migration and spending a few days on the end of our trip on a beach somewhere, we were really torn between two places: Kenya and Tanzania. They both had a lot to offer but I think it ultimately came down to two considerations: price and crowds. Kenya was much more expensive based on our initial research and Kenya was, we’d heard, a lot, LOT more crowded.

(Above: giraffe in South Africa and giraffe in Tanzania. Or do I have that backwards?)

Now that we knew where we wanted to go, the real work began. There is no doubt that planning a safari trip to Africa is totally overwhelming. There are just so many options—hundreds of lodges and camps in every imaginable price range located on dozens of different national parks, which then have different reserves within them. Then there’s all the different visa and inoculation requirements, the limited or convoluted transportation/transfer options, the time of year and weather considerations.

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For example, perhaps you want to know if you will you be sharing your plane with some local fruit?

Honestly, planning a trip to Africa almost requires the use of a travel agent. They’re experts, they can work with your budget (if you have a set budget in mind) and they usually work closely with certain lodges. Plus, they can sometimes get you a discount.

After finding out that Savanna Lodge was already fully booked a year out, the folks at Savanna suggested we reach out to Shereen at Pride Lodges to find another Sabi Sands lodge. Shereen was great. She is hands down an expert on Sabi Sands and South Africa and was even helpful in guiding us a bit on the Tanzania part.

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Notice that live animals and plants (like the fruit we flew with above) are merely restricted while obscene materials and pornography are completely prohibited.

I will say: we don’t typically use a travel agent. We actually like doing research and reading reviews and finding places that we think will suit us. Travel agents, while they tend to work with certain lodges (and that’s great and all) often aren’t up to date on some of the deals the lodges might be offering, such as “stay three nights, get a fourth free” or “book with us and we’ll add in a couple of nights at our partner lodge.”

Plus, agents tend to not be so great at breaking things out and explaining the pricing. They just hand you this very large number, so you don’t really see where your money is going or have the ability to shop around a bit to see if there are other options. For example, when we reached out to a travel agent affiliated with a line of luxury lodges we ended up NOT staying at, she quoted us an exorbitant amount that didn’t include the lodge’s current web deal but did include a crazy price for the regional flights. When XFE asked her about the flight legs then went and priced them out on his own, it became clear that the quote was way off.

(Above: South African white rhinos on the left, Tanzanian black rhinos on the right)

This particular agent had also included an overnight (really, a six-hour stay) at a very nice and expensive coffee plantation (gourmet meal included) when really all we needed was a place to shower and flop until our early morning flight. I’m sure the place was lovely during the day (we would be arriving at around midnight) and the gourmet meal was delicious (the kitchen would not be open when we arrived), but it really wasn’t necessary when all we needed was the African equivalent of the Holiday Inn.

But, I can absolutely see how and why people end up using a travel agent in Africa. Doing all that legwork on something that involves quite a bit of money and logistics is exhausting and stressful. And Shereen at Pride Lodges is great.

I’ll also say: it’s Africa. It’s unpredictable. Things happen. Flights get delayed, or you didn’t leave yourself enough time to transfer between flights (no exaggeration: give yourself 3-4 hours at the airport.) For example, we had a flight on a regional carrier who had upgraded their computer system in June and no longer had any record of the flight we purchased in February. Luckily, we had a printed out copy of our February confirmation and record number. But what followed was at least an hour of standing around while the desk agent tried to sort it all out over the phone. And that was AFTER we’d already waited 45 minutes in the check-in line to begin with (note: there is no premier access or first class line at most of these regional carriers).

(Above: South African elephant mama and baby on left. Tanzanian elephant mama and baby on right)

That’s just one example of an instance where a travel agent might come in handy. Think of them as your insurance policy or personal advocate. If something goes wrong (and, it’s Africa, so it will) they can try to help fix it or figure out another option.

Later this week, I’ll start reviewing some of the lodges we stayed at and I’ll answer the question we get asked the most: which did we like better? Tanzania or South Africa?

What I Learned About Africa the First Time Around (and Why We’re Going Back)

I uttered what I think might go down in history as the most bougie phrase ever known to mankind last week.

“Weeeeell, last time we were in Africa, we stayed at…..”

I said it not once, but TWICE while catching up with friends, both of whom probably immediately regretted asking me what big exciting trip we had coming up.

My manpanion/life-partner XFE and I have become known as “those people” in our own individual circles—the couple who are always planning their next big trip. Finagling airline partnerships and air miles to upgrade to first class and work in the longest possible layovers on a multi-stop ticket, cashing in hotel points and free resort nights to stay in ridiculously luxurious rooms, relentlessly researching destinations and options and meticulously planning where we’re going to spend our time and money.

Our next big trip is a bit different. It’s XFE’s 40th birthday and there was only really one place he wanted to spend it, regardless of airline miles (we were able to use plenty of those), hotel points (nope, none of those being used this trip) or cost (yikes)—on safari in Africa.

This is not our first time in Africa. We actually went to South Africa for my birthday in March 2014, which is why I was able to say something as bougie as, “Well, the last time we were in Africa, we stayed at….”

elephant bud

Of course, with our next trip to Africa only three weeks away, I’ve been thinking a lot about that last trip.

South Africa was never really on my travel bucket list. As I’ve said before, I’m pretty risk adverse, and well, Africa seemed a bit risky, a bit unstable.

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Speaking of risk, I do not recommend ingesting the priced-to-move ostrich bitong, unless you want other parts of your body to also move. (Not mine: I learned my lesson about cured meats from the Great Northern Italian Food Poisoning of 2011. XFE, however…..)

Sure, I’m a huge animal lover and intellectually, at least, I’d like to see animals in the wild, but again, being risk adverse, I always worry something bad might happen. I have a huge amount of respect for animals in the wild and would not want to do anything that might set them off. And who the hell knows what might set them off? I have a lunatic house cat who meows at walls, corners and sometimes electrical sockets. No idea why.

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He is asleep, right? Like, really asleep, yes?

Plus, a lot of those animals in the wild look pretty dang skinny. I’ve been poor. I know what hunger feels like and when you’re hungry, you might just be willing to eat anything, including some stupid tourist distracted by their camera.

But it turns out, there was a whole lot I didn’t know about South Africa (shocker, I know).

Like, how much I would love beautiful, bustling, exciting Cape Town.

Cape Town collage

I also had no idea Cape Town had such a crazy good food scene. Like, really, really good.

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The Old Biscuit Mill where we had a couple of great meals.

Including probably my favorite meal ever at Test Kitchen. No big deal, just the best restaurant in Africa. No, seriously. Other, fancier people have said so, too. They even made broccoli super cool and delicious. BROCCOLI, people.

Test Kitchen collage

I didn’t know about South Africa’s amazing wine country (we only made it to Stellenbosch, but there’s also Franschhoek, Constantia Valley and Helderberg, among others).

Stellenbosch Collage

So much amazing wine.

SA Wine Collage

And so many really gorgeous hotels, especially our villa at the Clouds Estate.

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I didn’t know I’d be allowed to pet a cheetah (check that one off the life list).

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That’s my pudgy little pale hand on an actual young cheetah. Right there. I died.

I didn’t know about Sabi Sands, a 65,000 hectare private reserve bordering Kruger National Park. It’s very unique in that it’s privately owned by individual land owners/families.

Sabi Sands Collage

I didn’t know South Africa had places like the 5-star Savanna Lodge, where we stayed back in 2014.

Savanna Lodge Collage

I suspected–but didn’t know–that Africa had so many wonderful people like the staff at Savanna Lodge. We were treated like treasured family members (including a little post-game drive champagne party on the morning of my birthday).

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Or like our ranger Patrick and his nice gun-toting tracker friends who pointed out all the cool, dangerous animals and would protect you from said animals if necessary.

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The biggest revelation was the animals themselves, who aren’t really interested in eating stupid tourists at all when there are plenty of other, more tasty, less noisy food options available.

bored animal Collage

And actually would just really appreciate it if humans would leave them to their whole Circle of Life business.

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In fact, they’d probably also appreciate it if humans would stop killing them into extinction.

Rhinos Collage
The African rhino (on the right) was our most elusive animal to find, mostly because they’ve been poached into near extinction. And we all know about elephant poaching.

So, we’re going back to South Africa. Sadly, we’re skipping Cape Town and Stellenbosch. And we weren’t able to book Savanna Lodge, despite planning this trip a year out (there is, understandably, quite the demand for their nine luxurious tent-suites).

We’re really excited to be staying five nights at Leopard Hills, another 5-star lodge in Sabi Sands.

Then we’re going on to another six nights of safari, this time in Tanzania, including stays in a glass-fronted tent suite at Lemala Kuria Hills and a bushtop tent at Serengeti Bushtops. We’ll finish up with four nights at the Manta Resort on Pemba Island, including a night in their underwater room. Yes, I said underwater room. The room is underwater.

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It’s really an once-in-a-lifetime trip. But, for the second time.

Cambodia Better Bring It

Ugh. I’ve been slacking on the blogging. I know. The thing is, I had to run all over town to find shorts. In February. In D.C. where the high temps this month have regularly hovered around “freezing your leg hairs off.”

(Also, I’ve had a lot of big deadlines to hit in the past couple of weeks. But let’s just blame the shorts, shall we?)

But we’re leaving this week for our annual Poe Super Birthday Extravaganza Trip to Far Flung Destinations–and this one is going to be a doozy.

This tradition began in 2008, when XFE was in Rome for work right before my birthday. We cashed in some miles and I met him and some of his co-workers over there, and had a merry old time eating lots of pasta, going to lots of museums and drinking lots of wine. And, of course, going to a soccer game (a tradition now whenever we travel to Europe).

The next year, XFE and his co-workers were in Japan, again, right around my birthday. In fact, I spent my actual birthday on the flight coming home. We did not see a soccer game but we did go to the opening day of a sumo wrestling match in Osaka. And ate lots of sushi, including sushi for breakfast after visiting the Tokyo Fish Market.

Tokyo Fish Market
That’s a lot of frozen sushi, which actually sounds quite gross.
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I don’t know, how do you sumo??

Every year, XFE has outdone himself, planning a bigger and better birthday trip. For my 40th, it was Australia. Two years ago, it was Peru. Last year, South Africa where I stroked a cheetah (YES, a cheetah!) and ate lamb’s brain at one of the world’s best restaurants.

South Africa Safari
Yep, just chilling with an elephant. No biggie.
South Africa cheetah preserve
That’s a cheetah, with my pudgy paw all up on it.

This year, it’s Cambodia (with stopovers in Singapore and Hong Kong). I know, right? I would not argue with anyone who says that I’m spoiled. I would lose that argument every damn time.

Oh, pardon me, I meant to say, the Kingdom of Cambodia. That is, apparently, the official name. Pretty bitchin’.

I am beyond excited. But I will say, it’s hella hot and humid in those places right now. So, I needed a couple of pairs of shorts, particularly since we’ll be visiting the very dusty, very hot, Angkor Wat. I want to make sure I have as much exposed pasty-white skin as possible to attract all of the mosquitoes in the area, and keep them away from my beloved trip planner, XFE. Love = sweating + risking yellow fever.

I don’t really know what to expect from this trip. I always like to say that we actually get to take a trip three times: once during all the excitement and anticipation of the planning stage. The second when we’re actually there, soaking it all in. And the third when I get to come back and write about it all. In fact, those amazing birthday trips (along with the non-birthday timed trips we tend to take as well) is what led to the creation of this blog. I wanted to document and remember all the amazing places we’ve been together. Even Peru, where my intestines tried to escape my body repeatedly.

Me at Machu Picchu
You can’t tell, but this not-so-young lady is wondering where the nearest bathroom is.

But because of the fluctuating nature of freelancing, I haven’t really gotten to take that first part of the trip. A lot of the planning has been carried out by XFE. He’s the one who found a spa for us to go get massages our first day in Siem Reap. He’s the one who found and arranged a fun-sounding food tour in Hong Kong called the Won-Ton-A-Thon.

We’ve actually put off a lot of the planning specifics, figuring we’ll use our 20-hour flight on this ridiculousness (YASSS to miles travel!) to figure out more details. Between stuffing our gobs with caviar and bossing our butler around, of course.

How on earth can they be gazing into each other’s eyes when there’s so many other things to see on this airplane??

Then I realized — when I was working in an office and not very happy with my work environment, I would spend a lot of my free time daydreaming and researching our upcoming trips. Now that I’m my own boss, I seem to be a bit more focused and productive. Hence, no daydreaming and a lack of blog posts, as well.

Which makes this trip kind of exciting. I haven’t ruminated it to death. I’ll be seeing everything with fresh eyes. Sure, we might miss some neighborhood or hot restaurant that we would have known about if I’d just spent more time on TripAdvisor, but I’m looking forward to just being blown away by the strangeness and the newness and the overall foreignness.

I haven’t even really thought out my packing list. Which is why, while the rest of the greater Washington D.C. area was out chipping ice off their sidewalks on Sunday, I was running around a mall trying to find sweltering-weather appropriate gear.

And, while I’m typing this, I’m supposed to be packing. XFE has been packed since Saturday.

Guess I better get to it.

Croatia: Sometimes Getting There is Half the Fun*

(*OK, maybe not half. Maybe more like, a third of the fun. Or even a smaller fraction. If I were good at math, I’d be able to tell you what a smaller fraction would be. But I’m not. Back to the blogging.)

First, let me clarify: it does not take 20 hours to get to Croatia. Unless. Unless you are travelling using your United Airlines miles, which automatically puts you at a direct-flight disadvantage, particularly if you’re going overseas.

And, if you want to go on a specific airline because they have a new product, like, for example, they’ve upgraded their business class (like Austrian Airlines just did) or, you already know and like the existing product (like Lufthansa first class).

Let’s review — the options are: get to Croatia relatively quickly (7.5 hours to London, 2 hours to Dubrovnik), but crushed back in coach, OR take the long way in first class and eat mountains of caviar and sample wines and champagne from around the world for hours on end while wearing Lufthansa-provided pajamas. That you get to KEEP. Caviar on first class Lufthansa flight to Croatia

We went with the second option. And today, Lufthansa is low on their monthly caviar supply.

Croatia has long been on my bucket list of places to visit. I heard about it pretty much the same way everyone else did – on the news because of the Balkan Wars and the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Later on, when I lived in London in 1997, I remember British people telling me about how beautiful Croatia was before the war and how it had been such a popular vacation destination. They talked about all the beautiful coastline, and how it was like Italy but cheaper (that’s still true, by the way).

And, it just sounded so exotic and different. I certainly didn’t know anyone who’d been there (other than the nostalgic British people I came across). I just kept reading about it on travel lists.

Then suddenly, we were going to Croatia. The right deal at the right time just came along.

croatia - map

After my embarrassment over my ignorance of Peru’s recent political upheavals (“wait, is there a Peruvian version of ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians?’ No? Oh, well then I’m not really invested”), I decided to actually read a bit about Croatia’s history.

I read two books: one bodice ripper “Croatia: A Nation Forged in War.” Let me tell you, it was a laugh a minute. It was a very dense book, but it definitely covered everything. And what I learned is Croatia has been a country that’s been kinda screwed. It had been occupied by the Greeks, the Romans, the Venetians, the Austrians, the Hungarians, and even the French before being consolidated into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, which was then invaded by Germany during World War II.

That’s another thing – I also learned about Croatia’s own ethnic cleansing and genocide against Jews, Serbs and gypsies during World War II. I was totally unaware of the Ustashe before I read this book.

The other book was called “They Would Never Hurt a Fly: War Criminals on Trial in The Hague,” by Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulic. This cheerful tome was actually a much easier, if grim, read. I whipped through it pretty quickly, although the subject matter was chilling.

Well-prepared, I luxuriated in Lufthansa first class, finally tearing myself away from the caviar just in time to get my first glimpses of Croatia’s more than one thousand islands (no, seriously, there are over 1,000 islands). They were little dollops of greenery edged in tan and turquoise dropped into the cerulean blue Adriatic waters.

Yep, it was that inspiring and poetic. And romantic.

heart shaped Croatian island

We eventually waddled off the plane in Dubrovnik and picked up our rental car. This was actually done outside the airport at these portable buildings like they used to have at school, which gave the whole thing a slight air of delinquency. I kept looking around to see if any scholastic authorities were about to pounce and ask me what I was doing hanging outside the portable classrooms.

But no, my only companions were a bunch of mildly Mediterranean dudes smoking cigarettes and dealing with other clueless tourists, primarily very young people from England and Japan.

After securing our Volkswagon, we were off, driving about 35 minutes of twisty hillside roads from the airport to our hotel in Dubrovnik, the pearl of the Adriatic.

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you all about that hotel. It’s worthy of its’ own post.

Sleeping on first class Lufthansa flight to CroatiaThat’s not a picture of our hotel, by the way. That’s me, bedding down in first class.

Spain Does Not Suck

Hola chicas (y, un solo chico, possiblimente)! Como estamos? I’m great! And back from a fabulous vacation in Northern Spain.

Toons wants to go

Petunia really wanted to go. She’s Calico, which is kinda close to Catalonian, so she thinks she should go to Spain. In the photo above, she is sitting on my travel binder.

Oh, do you not know about the travel binder? This is a binder with all the emails exchanged with hotels and all the reservations and hotel and restaurant information we might need. Also, multiple maps for getting from point a to point b. Yes, it’s a bit anal. But it has come in handy. For example, the scuba outfitter in Australia had waived our guide fees because they had to move us to a different boat. Of course, the people actually on the boat had no record of this. So, out came the travel binder with all the emails. Done.

We had no problems whatsoever in Spain and we did not need the travel binder. And, since we had GPS, everything went smoothly.

Guggenheim. Bilbao.
Guggenheim. Bilbao.

The whole trip was pretty perfect. Even the weather cooperated. I had looked up the weather report for the week (and included it in the itinerary in the travel binder – my anal-abilities really do have no limits). The reports said it was supposed to be rainy and kinda cold every day. Highs only in the mid-50s, supposedly. The only time it rained was the first couple of days in Bilbao. Other than that, perfect weather.

Some highlights:

Discovering two new (to me) clothing stores called Cortefiel and Sfera. I picked up a few cute things at each of them. Shopping was how XFE kept me from falling down asleep on my first jet-lagged evening in Bilbao.

Pintxos. Holy tiny deliciousness. These are little bite-sized appetizers, like little open sandwiches and yummy little fried balls of awesomeness. And these things are just laying out at all the bars and you just help yourself. They’re these little works of art. So, so inventive. We pretty much ate them everyday, the entire trip. The very best, in our estimation, were at a place in San Sebastian called La Cuchara de San Telmo. We ate there twice our last day and it was unbelievable.

Pintxos in Bilbao, Spain
Our first night in Bilbao and the first of many, many pintxos.

Two Michelin-star dinners, including a very, very odd one at Miramon Arbelaitz in San Sebastian. It was in a very industrial type area (sorta like Reston), so they do a pretty brisk lunch business. We found the restaurant and went in for our 9 pm reservation. The place was entirely empty. And it stayed that way through our entire tasting dinner. They basically opened the restaurant for us. It was fantastic food at a really good value, but so, so awkward. I just kept wondering why they didn’t just tell us they weren’t taking bookings for that night.

Marques de Riscal with Elciego
At Marques de Riscal with Elciego in the background.

I’ll have some more posts in the coming days, including a description of some of the wine tours in Rioja, the hotels we luxuriated in, and probably some more pintxos.

Packing for an 18-Day Vacation: Doomsday Preppers

Have y’all seen this new NatGeo show, Doomsday Preppers? It’s about these crazy people who are preparing for the end of the world as we know it by stockpiling food and other products, sharpening their survival skills and basically, polishing their guns.

Doomsday preppers

That’s basically how my travel-buddy-for-life XFE and I prepare for a trip.

We are not the kind of people that show up at a hotel and realize that we don’t have a corkscrew and a collapsible cooler. Yes, those are actual items on our packing list, a list that, by the way, is quite exhaustive and thorough. We’re very, very prepared. Outfits are tried on, arguments are had, tears flow and eventually, a suitcase (or three per person) is packed.

Continue reading Packing for an 18-Day Vacation: Doomsday Preppers