St. Petersburg, Day 2

We booked a private tour with Tailored Tours of St. Petersburg and it was just the two of us, our guide, and the driver. We could have booked a less-expensive group tour with the same company but we wanted the freedom to design our own itinerary and adjust on the fly. Our guide was very efficient in getting us through the various sites on the first day and was more than competent in providing information and interesting perspectives. It was on the second day that she proved herself to be worth her weight in gold.

First up, the Hermitage, aka the Winter Palace. We had early entrance tickets but then it seemed like half of tourists did too. When we arrived, the line was half a block long and about 3-4 people abreast. Our guide whipped out her phone and made a couple of calls. A person showed up with tickets and we were whisked in ahead of the line. Nice!

 

The actual throne used by the Emperors and Empresses of Russia
The actual throne used by the Emperors and Empresses of Russia

The Hermitage was overly crowded and the small passage ways between the galleries did not hep help with the flow of bodies. Our guide, however, knew how to maneuver through the crowds and as long as we followed in her wake we were able to get through the galleries pretty quickly. No waiting 15-20 minutes to see the Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Rembrandt masterpieces for us. She whisked us to the front, did her explanation, and allowed us to have a close up look, and then we were off to the next piece or art. Very glad to have visit the Hermitage, it is truly an impressive building and collection, and forever grateful to our guide for making is an enjoyable experience.

 

 

IMG_20170816_122508370She then again took us to a cute place for lunch where I had the traditional blini (pancake) and beef stroganoff (we saw the Stroganoff Palace where this dish was invented). The bathroom reflected the whimsy of the restaurant.

Our tour ended in the Fortress of Peter and Paul with a visit to the Cathedral where many members of the Romanov imperial family were buried. If you had a very critical mother who did not want you to ascend to the throne and who basically had your father killed so that she could take over the throne, what would be your ultimate revenge? For Tsar Paul, it was to exhume his father’s remains and bury it next to his mother.

Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral where Paul is buried with his parents, Catherine the Great and Peter III
Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral where Paul is buried with his parents, Catherine the Great and Peter III

 

Rosie revisits her hippie days with Harvey
Rosie revisits her hippie days with Harvey

 

 

 

The Fortress sits on Hare Island. So it made natural sense that there would be bronze statutes of hares placed throughout the Fortress. Here is Rosie with her new friend, Harvey.

 

 

 

As we sailed away from St. Petersburg, I can definitely say that it a magnificent city worthy of any bucket list.

St. Petersburg, Day 1

When I visit a city, I generally do not try to cram in too much and would spend a fair amount of time in one or two places a day. That approach went out the window in St. Petersburg because I don’t know if I’d ever come back. So, we booked a whirlwind tour that gave us the highlights of the city and would make my friend Maria proud.

As we left the cruise port on the way to Peterhof, all we saw were these cinder brick monstrosity of apartment buildings obviously from the Soviet era. All I could think of was where were the imperial grandeur and magnificent architecture that I was expecting from the seat of Tsars of Russia. I need not worry – Peterhof more than answered the mail.

Peter the Great’s summer palace is known for its fountains and I will cover that later but first is the palace itself. Since we could not fit a visit to Catherine’s Palace, we decided to tour the interior of Peterhof. The Russian royal family and nobles know how to do over-the-top opulence including seemingly gilding every available surface with gold without being garish. We were not allowed to take pictures of the interior of Peterhof, so here is a picture of the exterior of the part of Peterhof built for Empress Elizabeth.

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And the fountains were a sight to behold.

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And then we were off to lunch as this cute and kitschy café with our guide. The interior was decorated in what you would imagine a Russian country cottage would look like in a fairytale. The food was tasty and reasonably priced. The café attracted tourists and locals alike. How do I know? As we were leaving, we passed by two police officers having lunch.

After lunch, we were off to Yusupov Palace. This is one of the great palaces of the very rich Russian aristocratic family that had ties to the royal family. Its place in history was solidified when the last Prince Yusupov and his co-conspirators killed Rasputin in the basement of the palace. Our guide had an interesting take on Rasputin. While he is generally portrayed as this sinister person who exploited the Empress Alexandria’s understandable concern for her son, our guide saw him as a courageous and unselfish peasant who was trying to save the Romanov house because he was the only one who could treat the lone heir to the throne. In any case, as we were viewing the room of the first attempt to kill Rasputin, we ran into Rosie’s friend with whom we were meeting for dinner later that day.

Beyond that historical event, the palace itself rivaled any royal residence in Europe. Beyond the usual decoration and furniture made of precious and semi-precious stone and jewels and awesome architectural feature, how about this for a home theater.

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We then did a walking tour that included St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. They are as magnificent as the pictures in travel guides suggest.

 

We did so much walking that day that our Fitbit told us that we took 20,000+ steps that day. But we were not done, we still had the Faberge museum and dinner left. We were so tired that all we really focused on were the imperial eggs and did not really appreciate the rest of the museum which had a fabulous collection of porcelain art. Rosie ran into her friend again at this museum. I was too oblivious to notice but was happy to see them again at dinner at Palkin.

Rosie’s friend is a foodie and chose Palkin because of its long 200+ year history and its reputation of serving fine Russian cuisine. Since I was likely to have dinner only once in Russia, I went with the 9-course tasting menu. It was yummy and worth every penny.

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Sea Fortress

I had never visited Helsinki before and we were in port for the day only. Rather than try see as many sights in such as short amount of time, we decided to visit one or two interesting places and spend the day there. We went to the Suomenlinna island fortress because ruins were interesting, especially since they let you walk among the old structures and ramparts, and it looked like a great place to hang out on a beautiful summer day. Built during the 18th century and re-fortified during the 19th, it was part of the defense of three countries – Finland, Sweden, and Russia. It no longer functions as a fortress, though many of the original buildings and ramparts remain, and is a world heritage site. The fortress spreads across 6 islands and we explored most of them, so we can claim to have visited 5 islands during this visit. Here are some sights from the fortress.

One of the remaining ramparts
One of the remaining ramparts
One of the windows overlooking the beach. May have been a lookout or an opening for a cannon.
One of the windows overlooking the beach. May have been a lookout or an opening for a cannon.
A house that a Hobbit could live in
A house that a Hobbit could live in.
Picnic by the water's edge
Picnic by the water’s edge

 

After a 4 mile walk under perfect hiking weather, we stopped by the Viapori Café to pick up our picnic basket and blanket. We found a nice spot by the water to enjoy a delicious lunch prepared by the café. Word of warning for those who may want to order the picnic lunch from the café – the minimum order for 2 people can easily fill up 4. The ducks and birds politely waited nearby for us to finish before scooping our crumbs. It was a wonderful way to spend the day and Rosie did not want to leave. I was so exhausted by the time I got back that I took a 3-hour nap and missed the sail away.

 

 

Yummy Swedish Meatballs

The Viking Homeland cruise started in Stockholm. I visited the city several years ago and loved the architecture and feel of it. Because of the jet lag and having already seen most of the tourist sites, I ended up not doing much in Stockholm. Memories of the amazing Swedish meatballs from my prior trip drove us to have dinner at Kvarnen (and the fact that it was a 15 minute walk from the ship) and again it was delicious. The sail away gave us a perspective of Stockholm and Sweden that I did not see before.  The city is an archipelago and we passed many small islands and interesting structures as the ship headed to Finland.

Bye beautiful Stockholm
Bye beautiful Stockholm
Cool sculpture/fountain
Cool sculpture/fountain
One of several small lighthouses on islands that dotted the route out of Stockholm
One of several small lighthouses on islands that dotted the route out of Stockholm

The Layover

Before I could fly to Stockholm, I had a long layover in Frankfurt. How to fill the time? Take a bath and a nap since I really did not sleep on the flight over. My niece and nephew will have a couple of new rubber duckies to add to their collection.   IMG_0079

After a light lunch I was driven in Porsche to the plane because it was not parked at a gate. We were going all over the tarmac and at one point I was convinced that the driver was either lost or was trying to figure out where the plane was parked. When we finally made it to the place, we had to wait a few minutes in the car because it was still refueling. Turns out that I was the first passenger to board. This plane had the slim-line seats. Not comfortable at all! I would hate to be in these seats for more than a couple of hours. Continue reading The Layover

Finally, my vacation is here!

After much planning, I am finally embarking on my vacation on Viking’s Homeland Cruise. First, I have to get to Stockholm to board the Viking Star. My flight is on a Boeing 747-8i, a fairly new plane that is the longest commercial jet by a few inches. I have a special place in my heart for the 747. My first overseas flight alone was in a 747. Back then, there was a smoking section and while I asked for a non-smoking seat I had no idea about planes and seating arrangements. Needless to say, my non-smoking seat was one row ahead of the smoking section. I think it was from that experience that I became obsessive about my seat assignment.

Lufthansa 747-81
Lufthansa 747-81

But back to my flight to Frankfurt. I snagged seat 1K and I was told that it’s the front-most seat and that I will be arriving into Germany before anybody else, LOL! Since I was sitting by the curvature of the nose, I had amazing views from both sides of the plane as we were taking off. The engine noise sounds quite distant. It’s the guy next to me snoring that’s keeping me up. Makes me kinda wish for engine noise to drown him out.

The flight was a smooth and uneventful and the flight attendants were super nice and helpful. I hope this good start bodes well for the rest of my vacation. Up next, embarkation in Stockholm.

Adventures in Airbnb

I tried Airbnb for the first time to book a place to stay for our two days in St. Maarten before our cruise. I wanted to book a whole condo/house, not just a room, and the app made the process fairly simple. Like most service businesses, there are traps for the unwary and I fell into a few with this booking. My first choice did not have availability, so I went to the second one. There were two reviews for the townhouse that were fairly good and I went ahead and booked it because we were leaving the next day. What I did not realize was that the owner also rented just rooms in the townhouse through Airbnb and if I had seen the reviews for the room rental, I would definitely have not rented the house. I had assumed that since I was renting the whole house, it would be more like a vacation rental but the owner kept his own clothes, personal possessions, and food in the house and there were no paper products like toilet paper. Also, the reviews for the room rental made clear that cleanliness was not a priority for the owner even though the cost of the rental included a cleaning fee. We found dirty glasses with ashes and some unidentifiable stuff in the sink, the sheets were stained, and I’m not sure when the last time the floors were cleaned. The house is up a very steep hill that was an 8 story hike. We had several taxi drivers refuse to drive us up the hill. The one thing going for the rental was the wonderful views of Simpson Bay from the townhouse’s rooftop deck.

Sweeping view of Simpson Bay.
Sweeping view of Simpson Bay.

Based on this experience, I’m not sure that I would use Airbnb again. The lack of real oversight and control makes the process a bit of a crap shoot. For the prices some of these places were charging including the one I booked, there are other avenues to book nice places with some assurances of what you are getting.

Unexpected trip to the Caribbean

My friend and I had planned a trip to Central America that included a cruise through the Panama Canal and up the western coast of Costa Rica.  I was really looking forward to this vacation because I’ve never been to Central America and I really needed a nice break.  Unfortunately, the cruise ship ran aground a week before we were supposed to leave and the company canceled our cruise.  We found this out two days before we were supposed to leave for Panama.  Needless to say, it was a mad scramble to cancel our flights and hotel and to rebook another itinerary.  I thought about trying a land trip to Panama and Costa Rica but it was too hard to make the necessary travel arrangements in one day.  We decided instead to take up the cruise company’s offer to rebook on another cruise in the Caribbean leaving at the same time as our original cruise.

The cruise ship will be leaving out of Phillipsburg, St. Maarten and we flew to the island a couple of days early to explore it more fully than when I was here a couple of years ago.  Now I have 2 days to see more of St. Maarten.

Pappardelle w/lamb chunks
Pappardelle w/lamb chunks

We had to take a really early morning flight and knew that we were in no shape to participate fully in the NYE celebrations. We had an early dinner at IZI, an Italian restaurant in Simpson Bay. The food was wonderful especially the homemade pasta. The chef got in the NYE spirit by adding his own embellishment to each dish. Excellent way to end 2015.

Foodie List

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve posted and I decided to restart the blog to combine two of my joys in life – travel and good food. The Washington Post’s food critic, Tom Sietsema, recently posted his 10 best food cities in the U.S.  Click here for the article. I find that lists are generally of personal taste even by experts. While I agree with the cities on his list, I disagree with how he ranked them. New York is definite higher than #8, and should be ranked ahead of Chicago, New Orleans, and Houston. While I’m partial to Portland, Sietsema’s #1 city, I think New York has a better restaurant scene.

I was recently in New York to soak in the holiday displays and do some Christmas shopping. We went to Ippudo West Side to have some ramen. Delicious! The ramen noodles were homemade and the broth was very tasty.  They serve it with a soft poached egg which I think separates the good ramen from the excellent ones.  This visit to Ippudo illustrates why the diversity, quality, and quantity of the restaurants in New York make it at least one of the best 3 cities in the U.S. for foodies.

HALONG BAY BY BOAT; HANOI ON FOOT AND BY CYCLO

Howdy. This is RC here, back again for another guest blog on my excursion with MightyDin to Halong Bay and Hanoi. Forty years ago, as an American baby boomer, I never would have thought that one day I would visit what had been North Vietnam, a country at war with the United States. Well, for a day and a half, I did just that.

imageOur cruise ship pulled into the misty harbor of Halong Bay shortly after noon, gliding by massive hunks of limestone rising a hundred feet or so above the water at odd angles. Later, our tour guide related a tale of a dragon that had helped the people living around the bay to win an important battle. I’m not sure if the rock formations were the remnants of the dragon or were created by it, but either way, it’s easy to see why they might be seen as having a supernatural origin.

Soon we were back on the bay on a smaller tour boat, on our way to a most impressive limestone cave. But first our navigator had to squeeze our boat in between two others in order to dock. Then we joined a throng of people of many different nationalities in tramping through a most impressive underground world of stalactites and other fantastical formations.image That was followed by touring more of Halong Bay, including a small village of bright green and blue floating houses where fishermen and their families live on the water.

The next day, we got up very early to take a 3.5 hour ride to Hanoi where we visited the Temple of Literature and watched a performance by some traditional musicians and singers. imageNext, we crossed the street to get to the restaurant where we were to eat lunch. There is an art to crossing a street in a city in Vietnam. Whether you cross at a crosswalk, or jaywalk, the process is pretty much the same and nothing at all like crossing a street in the United States. A herd of motor scooters, bicycles, a few cars, large busses, pedicabs and who knows what other vehicles will be coming from all directions, barely missing each other and coming closer to pedestrians than is usually comfortable. Thank goodness that MightyDin knew what to do and had coached me in advance. You have to wait until there is a little bit of a gap. (If you wait until it’s all clear, you’ll be waiting until midnight!) Anyway, you start across and keep going in the same direction and at the same speed regardless of what is coming at you. Stopping suddenly and changing course are dangerous. It sounds crazy, but somehow it seems to work out. The key for me was not trying this on my own, but rather hanging on to the arm of someone I knew while crossing the street.

imageAfter visiting an ornate pagoda where people still worship in the traditional way, we tried another method of transportation – the cyclo. This is a small three-wheeled vehicle. You sit in the front and a man sitting on a bicyle-like seat behind you pedals. The cars, motor scooters, trucks, and pedestrians all flow around you. It was a wonderful way to see the old quarter of the city, going up and down streets and passing a vast array of shops: one might sell bamboo ladders, the next fine silks, then electronics, then lanterns, then small birds chirping in their cages. Men rode by on scooters peddling flowering plants, others had reams of computer paper tied to their motorcycles. We passed several people cooking food over small grills with customers sitting on low stools on the sidewalks. The cyclo pedaler took us fearlessly through all manner of intersections where all sorts of vehicles merged and emerged unscathed.

All too soon, it was time for the 3.5 hour bus trip back to Halong Bay. It takes that long mainly because the road is quite rough in numerous places, and turns into the main street of the small towns through which it passes. But eventually, we reached our destination, where we stopped off for some shopping at the Night Market. I was fortunate to be in the company of a couple of expert hagglers, including MightyDin. One can obtain clothing, textiles, pearls, jade, other jewelry, laquer-ware, carvings, sandals, and many other things for very little money.

What a remarkable country Vietnam is. I’m ever so pleased to have paid it a brief visit.