Saturday, November 21, 2015

Alhambra Day Trip

We woke up docked in Almeria, Spain. We'd been in this region before but it is large and we were hundreds of miles away from our last destination.

The big draws here are Granada and the famed Alhambra. Both could easily be trips on their own but we only had about 8 hours in port. We decided in advance to book a private group tour of the Alhambra, which would include private transportation, with Top Day Tours.

It was a long 2 1/2 hour drive to Granada from the port for our small group of ten. This drive was made longer and really uncomfortable because the "door open" alarm went off the entire time. Everyone, including the driver and the tour guide, was about ready to go bat-shit crazy but there was nothing to be done.

We drove past very interesting hills with houses built into the sides of them, house/rock caves if you will. It was hard to get a picture since we were on the highway but we noticed they were the very typical housing choice of the area. The heat out here in the summer is intense so this keeps the people cool. And insulated from hearing the non-stop door alarm...

We finally made it to Granada, our heads ringing from the audio abuse, and had a quick walk around. We went into the lovely cathedral, walked to one of the pretty town squares, and then explored the Alcaicera, a Moroccan style market of crafts, clothing, spices, etc.

We then drove up to the Alhambra and met our private guide who led us into the most beautiful gardens and grounds I have ever seen. We spent hours touring the palace, staring wide-eyed at the incredible detail given to its design.

There is nothing I could write to convey the true beauty that is the Alhambra so you will just need to get yourself there. There's even a parador on the grounds that you can stay in!

They only sell a certain number of tickets a day so unless you book a private tour you will need to buy your timed ticked well in advance, I think it's like months.

To make up for the insanity inducing noise of the van alarm, our tour company both got us a replacement van and treated us to a very nice lunch before heading back to the port. There was wine, two types of gazpacho, salads, grilled chicken, and ice cream. A very nice gesture!

After another long drive back (but a quiet one this time) we got cleaned up, enjoyed happy hour, and then joined the crew and passengers for a big BBQ out on the upper deck while we sailed off towards Cartagena!

Photos here

Monday, November 16, 2015

Malaga, Spain

First off it is Mal-a-ga. We spent a lot of time figuring out how to pronounce it so... Mal-a-ga! And it's lovely.

Jenn & Matt set out on their own while we boarded a bus for an excursion to the tiny hill town of Mijas. Wow, this little place, even riddled with tour groups, is a charmer!

Our guide walked about 20 of us around the town, pointing out the fantastic views of the neighboring hills and the sea, the donkeys which have been used as taxis for years, and the independent shops and restaurants that created the town's economy.

We entered into the small yet beautiful cathedral, and saw the tiny bullring from the outside before heading to a wine shop for a tasting and some education on the area's wine.

Since we had some time on our own after we wandered around just taking in the charm of this little villa! Then we found a nice cafe with only locals inside, for a bocadillo and a beer.

When the bus took us back to Mal-a-ga we opted to have the driver drop us in the center of town. After strolling around for a bit we stopped at La Espanola for a fantastic tapas lunch which included a dish of hardboiled eggs tossed in house-made mayonnaise as well as a cone containing a mix of delicious fried seafood, both specialties of the area.

We met Jenn and Matt back on board and exchanged stories of the day on the deck out in the sun.

That night after our wine tasting session and stateroom happy hour we did a Bridge visit before heading to dinner.

Photos here. Next up Granada, and the Alhambra.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Cadiz, Spain

When we docked in Cadiz everyone had a choice to go on a full day drive and excursion to Seville or a shorter excursion to Jerez for some sherry tasting. Since we had done both the previous year we elected to stay and explore the pretty old city of Cadiz.

Upon disembarking we found a tourist map which showed us four optional walking tours of the town. You hardly needed a map however as the streets were painted with various colored lines which you just followed depending on which type of things you were interested in exploring. This is so brilliant, I think every city should do this!

After our lovely walking tour (with a tad bit of rain) we stopped into the fantastic cathedral right in the old town center. The risers outside were still in place from the big Easter Sunday Mass the day before. And inside there was an incredible and huge silver alter as well as an impressive crypt.

We had lunch in what looked to be quite a touristy outdoor cafe but when I saw some elderly local looking diners eating things I had never seen I just asked the waiter to bring the same. We ended up with these really interesting little pan fried "pancakes" which had tiny shrimp in them. Awesome.

We made a quick trip to the town mercado, which was small and sadly closing, for some Iberico jamon and then into the grocery store for some Iberico jamon flavored Pringles. There would be a serious taste test that night!

The sun was out so we stopped for an al fresco drink before returning to the ship and meeting up with Matt and Jen to hear about their day in Jerez.

Photos here. Next stop Malaga, Spain.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Windstar WindSurf at Sea

The last time I went on a cruise it had been on this same ship, we sailed from Rome to Nice and our friends Lauren and Paul were traveling with us. This time we sailed from Lisbon to Barcelona with Jennifer and Matt, although Lauren and Paul were scheduled to come they sadly had to cancel at the last minute. We were all very excited for the cruise but it was bittersweet also.

The ship was just how I remembered it. Roomy staterooms (for a ship) and wonderful decks with lots of seating to enjoy the views. And of course 5 masts which unfurled huge white canvas sails. We had the sails up over 90% of our sailing time which was fantastic as they can cut the engines and it is super peaceful.

Our first day on ship was also our only at sea day. Unfortunately it was cold and rainy so there was no sunbathing to be had. But it was nice to have breakfast in bed, get a chance to unpack, and just hang out reading.

The ship hosted a trivia contest, which we came in 2nd on (giraffes have purple tongues...). While playing we had a little bird visitor, the crew said it sailed with them often. I'm sure he got a much better deal than I did! Matt also entered the poker tournament that the casino held.

This cruise was specifically a Spanish wine cruise so each afternoon they held a tasting with about 8 different wines. Those wines were then available at dinner and throughout the next day until the next wine tasting. It took us a while to figure this out since we missed the tasting when they were docked in Lisbon. If you kept to these wines they were included in the price we paid. None of the wines were that exciting but we attended the tastings daily and found a white and a red that we liked ok. Also the tastings were fantastic for people watching; imagine folks who drink just a glass or two a week now having 8 glasses before dinner!

After the daily tasting we got cleaned up for dinner and continued the tradition from the first cruise with a nightly happy hour in one of the rooms. Gin, vermouth, and whiskey brought on board as well as an apero of snacks purchased from each port or delivered from room service.

There was a special dinner that night with wine pairings matched to courses which was quite good. And unlike the first night of the last cruise I was conscious to enjoy it!

We ended our leisurely day in the casino playing blackjack. Although our ship would pass through the Strait of Gerbralter at around 3am, no one stayed up to watch as the captain had said we'd be pretty far from land without much to see.

Next port, Cadiz Spain. Photos here.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

48 Hours Lisbon. Day Two

With only 2 full days in Lisbon we set out to do a lot, but it didn't feel rushed or hectic. After packing, checking out, and breakfast in the hotel we went shopping at the Conserveira de Lisboa. We had tried to go twice before but as we were there the weekend of Easter it (and many other stores) were closed. But on this day the adorable shop selling tins of all sorts of fish, which ha been in business since 1930, was open! As we could tell from the line around the block! No worries, it moved fast and soon we were loading up on an assortment of fantastic treats to take home. All personally labeled by this elderly woman who had her own desk in the corner.

We then hopped on the tram which took us out to the Belem area where we would spend the day.

First up the National Coach Museum. Now this might sound a bit hokey but we all loved it! A whole history of the country's use of carriages in a spectacular hall. The detail work, style, and progression of comfort were really interesting. And beautiful. If you are out in Belem I highly recommend a visit!

Time for lunch!! We found a recommendation, from Rick Steves of all sites, online for Os Jeronimos. The description said something like "it looks like shit but it is fantastic". We went into the divey looking restaurant, got seats at the counter, and had an absolutely stand out lunch! Fresh grilled fish, clams, a saucy rice dish with sausage, and some real characters who owned the place!

An easy walk from lunch took us to the Monument of the Discoveries which has two profile sides featuring 33 famous explorers. You can walk up to the top of this impressive stone tower for more amazing views (we even caught a glimpse of the five masts on our Windstar ship in the distance!).
The square below has a stunning map of the world all done in tile. It's cool from ground level but from above it is just gorgeous.

We then rushed over to the Tower of Belem but sadly did not make the last entry. Next time.
One thing we noticed all over Lisbon (and later in southern Spain) were beggars with tiny Chihuahuas trained to hold the coin bucket. Cute and sad.
We were suppose to board our ship by 10:00pm so we grabbed the tram back to town, had another round of gintonics at Taberna Moderna (while watching some absolutely wacky couple doing some kind of hide-and-seek performance art. We think.), and then headed to the very popular Cervejaria Ramirez. The line was already crazy long at 7pm so a taxi driver took us to a random place (his cousin probably owned it) which ended up being very good.

A quick stop to pick up our bags and we headed to our ship at the port. It seemed really quiet. Like deserted. We actually had to walk with our bags all the way down the pier to our ship as no one was working. Weird.

Turned out we were suppose to be on board by 5:30pm or something and that we were the last ones to arrive and they were waiting on us to pull up anchor and leave! LOL!!

I have to say that I absolutely loved Lisbon. There is so much to do and see, or you can do nothing at all except take in the views, wander up and down staircases, drink gintonics, and eat amazing seafood. And the pretty tile, don't even get me started on the tile! I hope to get back!

But we had a whole other adventure waiting for us, and we were excited to set sail!
All Lisbon photos here.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

48 Hours Lisbon. Day One

Before boarding our Windstar ship for a cruise of the south of Spain last spring, we spent 2 fantastic nights in Lisbon, Portugal, the departure spot for our ship.

We flew in with our friends Matt & Jen via Amsterdam, giving us all just enough time in Schiphol to check out the museum, buy some duty free gin, Gouda, stroopwaffle, as well as have breakfast of sushi & champers. Just your typical layover...

It was our first time to Portugal, our first time to Lisbon, and Matt's first time in Europe! We found the city to be beautiful, interesting, and filled with exceptionally friendly people.

We arrived in Lisbon, bought the Lisboa Card and paid 2Euro for a bus into the city, which just happened to drop us off right at our hotel, the Avenida Palace.

Gorgeous right? And a perfect location to stay at, centrally located and easy to get verywhere.

The weather was lovely so we set out to do a little exploring, window shopping, sit outside with beers and snacks, and stretch our legs after a day spent flying.

Lisbon is almost as enthusiastic as southern Spain when it comes to gin and gintonics. We found a great place called Taberna Moderna which had a fabulous menu of gins - some known to us and many not - with recommended tonic choices - some known to us and many not - and created beautiful fishbowl-sized gintonics which we sipped outside enjoying the lovely evening. We'd return to this bar again in our short two 1/2 days here.
Just a few doors down we had a casual dinner of simply grilled seafood and fish at O Cofre. Nightcaps back at our fantastic hotel bar completed our evening.

Well rested and ready to see Lisbon we headed out after breakfast (included with our room rate) and grabbed the 28 Trolly which goes all around town, including up to the Castell Sao Jorge. The trolly is *the* way to get around Lisbon and with the Lisboa Card it is free.

We got off before the castle and walked around the Alfama area, views from the hillside were spectacular! Then we headed into the castle and explored the grounds, walking on the walls, and enjoyed more amazing views of the city.

We explored the area a bit more after leaving the castle, looking for someplace for lunch that wasn't overly touristy but finally decided to leave and walk to the nearby Graça area. We stopped at a random restaurant and had an excellent lunch of octopus salad and grilled fish.
Back on the trolly we headed to the Sé cathedral, then on to the gorgeous square on the waterfront, the Praça do Comercio. A quick stop to enjoy a glass of port and finally to the Santa Justa Lift. As Lisbon is so hilly there is an elevator that was originally built to help residents get from the lower area of the Baixa up to the Upper and Largo do Carmo. I think some still use it but it's mostly a tourist attraction now.

Up at the top we walked around the posh Chiado area and then down a steep set of stairs towards our hotel. The views were so pretty we just had to stop of a glass of wine on the terrace of the aptly named Panoramico O Sol and enjoy.

That night we had an absolutely fantastic dinner at the 1 starred Michelin restaurant Bel Canto (its now received its 2nd!).

~Wave breaking, bivalves, coastal prawn, "seawater" and seaweed "sand"
~Smoked mackerel belly, marinated vegetable puré and confetti
~The garden of goose that laid the golden eggs, egg, crunchy bread and mushrooms
~Red mullet, "Lisbon's sidewalk stones" and a liver sauce
~Milk-fed lamb twice cooked with a pea and "fairnheira" stew

I highly recommend having dinner here if you find yourself in Lisbon!

We finished our very full, and very fun day with nightcaps at our hotel bar as we had another full day tomorrow!

All Lisbon photos here.

Monday, October 19, 2015

A Cabin in the Woods of Lapland

After hanging out with Santa in his 'hood for the day we headed back to the train station, retrieved our luggage, and caught the bus to Äkäslompolo, in Lapland Finland. It was a 2 1/2 drive north in the dark (even though it was only 3pm if I remember). We had the bus drop us off at the tiny airport and from there grabbed a cab which took us the rest of the way to the village itself. It was a dark and very foggy drive through the ski resorts. Some of the big pine trees flanking the road were beautifully lit up, creating a nice series of tree lampposts if you will.

As we entered the village our taxi had to slow down because reindeer were walking in the middle of the road in front of our car. We all started to "ooh" and "ahh" while our driver shrugged and proclaimed "ah, Lapland!"

We found our rental, the Aurora Cabin, and could not have been more charmed. A small log cabin, in a little subdivision, right on the edge of the forest. We had both a front porch, complete with plastic toboggans, as well as a back porch that looked out to the woods. Inside the upstairs had a big loft and bathroom, while downstairs had two bedrooms flanking the kitchen and living room. The living room had a sweet little fireplace and the cabin was stocked with small round, birch logs which smelled great when we burned them. And the bathroom had a sauna which seated 4!

The next morning Forest and I headed to the store to stock up for the upcoming five days. We realized as we saw others walking to the main area of town that people used their toboggans to transport their groceries. We hadn't brought ours but passed a sledding area with some semi-busted up ones that looked abandoned so we borrowed a couple.

We absolutely loved our cabin in the woods! We spent the days going on walks, playing in the snow, reading by the fire, sweating in our sauna, and playing games. Total relaxation.

Of course we had a very busy New Years Eve!

We booked a few other excursions as well. On our first full day, after our friends Matthieu and Violaine arrived, we went night snowshoeing through the national forest with a private guide. We all had hoped to see the Northern Lights but it was cloudy (our entire time in Lapland) and actively snowing that night. It was still a great hike though, about 2 1/2 hours total in really deep snow! We had a rest stop halfway at a little shelter that hikers use. There is a fire pit as well as kettles and pans that people are allowed to use, and expected to clean and leave for the next. Our guide made us coffee (which we spiked) and served us pulla, which are traditional Finnish sweet rolls. 

Another day we arranged for a trip out to a Husky Farm which was a big highlight for us all. Again each couple was given their own sled and dog team to drive. We headed 5k to the Ice Village and Hotel through lovely scenery- with dogs barking their heads off!!
We took about an hour and explored the Ice Hotel, including its chapel and bar (which sadly wasn't open yet). Then warmed up with some salmon soup before getting back to our dog team and heading home.

On our last day in the village we rented a traditional wood heated sauna in a private cabin that sat on the frozen lake.

For 60 Euro we had it to ourselves for an hour. The main room had a fireplace, a picnic table to eat and drink at, and hooks for our clothes. Once you stripped down (to swimsuits in our case) you could enter the huge and HOT sauna. This thing was heated to 194F. There was a hose that came in directly from the lake and filled a large barrel which you could douse yourself with to cool off a bit.

Or you could jump in the lake, which some did. I did not.

You just can't get more Finnish than all of that!

We had some tasty meals in Äkäslompolo also. There was a pizza place in town that served really interesting pies with ingredients like salmon, smoked reindeer, and bear. We went more than once over 5 days as the pizza was really good. And yes, I did try bear pizza!

One night we went to dinner at Poro Restaurant which was located pretty much directly behind our cabin and across a field. The building boasted Santa's Workshop upstairs and a chance to meet him, which we all did. As we went to leave for the dining room we were all informed that we owed 6 Euro each for the visit. Naughty Santa.

Although the service was quite slow our dinners were all very good downstairs. The menu was heavy on reindeer and the decor inside resembled a traditional lodge of sorts.
We also had dinner at the casual pub style place call Julli's  which was fun and and easy to walk to. For our last dinner in town we went to Rouhe which we took a cab to and from as it was a bit farther. Food, atmosphere, and service here were all excellent!

And a lot of time we just cooked in our little cabin in the woods.

Photos from Akaslompolo here