Friday, August 19, 2011

Turkish Delight

After spending the whole summer traveling down under and then Asia, I had to go somewhere unexpected the next summer. Unfortunately, Rick had just started a new job, and all of my friends were busy, so no one was up for a trip. I started to dream about where I could go, and I found myself browsing through the Intrepid web site, since they travel to alot of great places, and joining a tour would allow me to get away. On a whim I booked a trip to Turkey, and informed my family and friends. One of Rick's friends was stationed in Turkey for awhile when he was in the military, and he thought I was nuts to go to a Muslim country, alone. The day before I left there was an attack on foreign tourists just outside of Ephesus, and everyone in the minibus died. It was claimed by a Kurdish separatist group.

Istanbul had been placed in my mind when I was just a kid playing Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? I arrived in Istanbul a couple of days before the tour began so I could explore the city a bit. It was really exciting, as it turned out that my hotel was a block away from Hagya Sophia and the Blue Mosque, two of the most famous sights in the city. The first morning I was awoken at 5 a.m. with the call to prayer, a sound that became familiar and comforting as the days went by.

On day three, I met up with the group. I was one of two Americans. My roommate was from Melbourne, and we became fast friends as our adventures unfolded. There were twelve of us, including our guide. Our group got along really well, and we enjoyed getting to know one another.

The itinerary was filled with one beautiful place after another, as we followed the Mediterranean coast most of the time, until the last few days. Ephesus was really neat, and I learned that wealthy Romans had running water, toilets with plumbing, air conditioning, and heating. The main road even had built in air conditioning and heating. Very impressive! We spent a few days on a private boat sailing along the Mediterranean. We were excited to escape a rooster getting us up at dawn, something we were all lamenting. Low and behold, the bays where we docked always had a resident rooster for us. It was charming as we sailed over ancient sunken cities and explored Lycian tombs on a seemingly remote island. We even enjoyed Magnum bars from an ice cream boat that sailed by!

One morning we were told to pack our swimming suits for the day, as we were going to hike down to a beach. We hiked through an abandoned Greek town at the top of a mountain, and it was crazy to imagine a vibrant group of people once lived in the empty ruins. The Greeks and Turks went to war with one another over territory over several hundred years. After World War I, in an attempt to fix the historical ethnic conflicts, there was a population exchange between the two countries. In 1923, all Greek villages in Turkey were abandoned. It was a beautiful hike along the edge of the Mediterranean, and to top it off, we hiked down to Oludinez, a really popular beach town.

My favorite place became Goreme, a town in the fairy chimney area of Cappadoccia. While I spent my evenings visiting carpet stores and drinking endless amounts of apple tea, days were spent hiking the valley floor, exploring the underground cities of the ancient Hittites, and checking out Byzantine churches carved into the hillsides. The area was a major battle site during the crusades, and due to the endless amounts of places to hide, the Byzantine Church was able to survive and thrive despite so many attacks. I did end up buying a flying carpet, and it is one of my most treasured items.

When the trip was over, a few of us still had a few days left to spend in Istanbul, so we stuck with each other. Again, the Kurdish separatists threatened tourists, and there was a warning to stay away from the bridge that connects the Asian side of the city to the European side. Due to the warning, we decided to go to an island about an hour from the city center, but still part of Istanbul. It was a really cool place, as no cars were allowed, so horse drawn buggies were the transportation of choice. We wandered around and ended up at a monastery at the top of the island mountain, with views of the city and sea. By the end of the day, an explosion had happened in a restaurant on the bridge. There were injuries but no casualties.

I miss Turkey, its lovely people, and delicious food. I hope to return some day soon. Most of all, I miss the rhythm that a group of twelve people can make in such a short amount of time when truly enjoying a journey.

All pictures were taken on my trip. 1) Scene outside of a mosque 2) Turkish tea on the Bosphorus Sea, Istanbul 3) Ephesus 4) Mediterranean Sea 5) Cappadoccia 6) Blue Mosque, Istanbul 7) Asian side of Istanbul

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Exploring the Land of the North

Today Norway is unfortunately in the headlines due to a horrible attack. The reality is it is one of the safest places in the world! My mom struggled with Rheumatoid Arthritis for twenty five years. Unfortunately, she passed away from the disease in 2007 a week after Rick and I were engaged. I already loved Norway, but her death instilled a desire to journey back to her homeland to reconnect with my roots. Her older brother still lives in Bergen, so we were also looking forward to seeing him.

We decided to rent a car to get around, as it would give us the most freedom to see the country. Cars are pretty expensive to rent there, and after watching the price for a few months, I went ahead and made a reservation through Auto Europe. It's cheaper to pick up the car in the city, so we planned on spending a couple of days at the beginning and end of our trip in Oslo. Knowing we were going to move every few days, we couldn't stay in apartment rentals as most have a 3-4 night minimum. As such, I had fun searching for unique accommodations in this book, since I wasn't having much luck searching online: The Norway Bed and Breakfast Book.

From there, I was able to book almost all of our accommodations. We had almost four weeks to tour around. My aunt has a farm in Nesbyen, where she grew up, so we started off our trip by heading across Norway, on our way to Bergen. We stayed at a charming Nesbyen B & B that was in an old farmhouse. Our room was fun, as it was like we were sleeping in the attic, with charming Scandinavian decor. The breakfast was scrumptious with several different types of breads, jams, and meat, along with some sardines, of course. We ate in the oldest part of the house, a room decorated with furniture that had been passed down through the family, original to the farmhouse. It was lovely.

I booked all of our accommodations ahead of time for peace of mind, as some of them were more isolated and popular. In Alesund, it was incredibly expensive to stay the night, so we ended up staying in a dorm room that was rented out for the summer for about $150 a night, which was the cheapest I could find. It was okay, and we had to pay extra to rent sheets. The location was great, though. One night we stayed on top of a fjord, renting a cabin-like accommodation across the street from a stave church. It was enchanting, and I relished the farm made jar of jam I brought home.
We spent our one year anniversary in a hotel sitting on the edge of Geiranger Fjord. In the late evening we sipped wine as we watched the sun disappear behind the cliffs from our window. It was very romantic. One of the most charming finds was a B & B in Larvik, a town on the coast just south of the town where my mom was born, Sandefjord. It was called Elle Villa, and we really enjoyed the vintage decor, warmth of the host, and delightful breakfasts that varied from day to day. We loved it so much we extended our stay. Surprisingly, there was a delicious Indian restaurant just down the way that was charming as well.

All photos were taken on my trip. 1) Nesbyen farmhouse 2) Nesbyen farmhouse breakfast room 3) Alesund 4) Gol Stave Church, Hallingdal 5) Geiranger Fjord
Elle Villa:

Monday, August 15, 2011

Traveling with Tours

When I was nineteen I spent six weeks studying in Norway for the summer. It was empowering to jump on an airplane by myself, get to a hotel, spend a day wandering through a foreign city, and then getting started with the official program. I had visited Norway with my parents when I was twelve, my mom taking us around her home country and introducing us to our family abroad. I fell in love with the country, and I still consider it my home away from home. At the end of our study program they offered a tour of the country, so we toured around for two weeks, getting a better feel for other parts of the beautiful countryside. I have no idea what tour company we traveled through, but I discovered it was a good way to see things quickly and effectively, when given a limited amount of time. In addition, it offered a home stay when we were in Kristiansand, a town in the South, which was really interesting. I stayed with a family for a couple of days and jumped into their lives. Traveling solo would not allow for this type of experience.

Right after college I backpacked around Europe for seven weeks with friends. We did the whole trip without having any reservations ahead of time except for our Eurail passes. It was a great trip, and I left feeling like I could go anywhere on a whim, and I could discover things spontaneously. However, when I convinced a colleague to go to England for a month, she had never traveled outside of the U.S., so she was uncomfortable flying by the seat of her pants. To ease her fears, we booked a tour for the first two weeks and then rented a car for the second two weeks. We met a lot of cool people on our tour, saw a whirlwind of England, Scotland, and Wales, and were sad to leave. Our two weeks in the car proved to be a really fun time as well, but I again saw the benefit of traveling through a tour.

My trip to England inspired me to go back, so the following summer I spent six weeks doing graduate work at Oxford. After I finished, I flew to Spain and took a week long tour, seeing a few highlights. Since I was alone, the tour offered me an instant group of friends and social opportunities that I otherwise might have struggled to have. Again, when it came to traveling through New Zealand, Australia, and Thailand, my friend Jodi and I thought it was a good idea to take tours since we had a limited amount of time and wanted to see a vast amount of each country. The other benefit are the many activities that these tours offered, so we could spare the time and worry of finding them on our own. We had a tremendous time in each country, and each tour company offered positives and negatives.

I took two tours through Contiki (Great Britain and Spain), two tours through Connections (New Zealand and Australia), and the tour through Thailand through Intrepid. I booked all of them through STA Travel. Contiki and Connections were very similar. They tended to have a younger crowd (Contiki has an age restriction of 18-35) and both offer a huge menu of activities as you go, so it is easy to add expenses to your trip. You are responsible for some meals, but each trip discloses how many meals are included. What is unknown is how much each activity will cost. The trip itinerary will disclose options, but many have an additional fee. The nice thing about all three is that there is independence once you arrive in a city. If you don't want to go with the group, you are free to go wherever you want. Contiki and Connections tend to be large, with about 30-40 people, enough to fill a coach bus. Intrepid has a limit of twelve people, which is why it has become my favorite tour company. All of the tours were English speaking tours. Most people on the Contiki and Connections tours tended to be from Australia and the United States, with a few Europeans. Intrepid is an Australian company, so we were the only Americans on the Thai tour. There were a few people from England, a Kiwi, and Australians. The great thing about Intrepid is that they take a lot of local transportation, and stay in locally owned hotels. Contiki and Connections tended to stay in large hotels, and we had our own private bus. I don't regret any of the tours I took, and I highly recommend them for people that want to experience fast paced travel.

All of the pictures were taken on my tours.
1) Jodi and I riding a camel in the outback, Australia. I envisioned myself riding a camel in the glorious outback. Instead, I had to ride with Jodi, wear a helmet, with our camels tied together going extremely slow in a big circle. It was still fun, but not quite the romantic vision I had hoped for!
2) Sunrise at Uluru. A beautiful sight, but there were several coach buses parked and I remember fighting for a good spot with a view.
3) Group shot at the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona. Our tour guide looked exactly like Antonio Banderas, which was fun.
4) Jodi and I in a Thai Buddhist Temple near Chiang Mai. Loved Thailand!

Friday, August 12, 2011


After Fiji, I had experienced travel in a new way, so I started to rethink how to book accommodations. Looking into apartment rentals, I stumbled upon Vacations Rentals By Owner,, and started dreaming about a week in Paris. After e-mailing Rick several options, I started to research flights as well, and found that they were pretty affordable during my Spring Break. My favorite flight search engine is kayak,, and so I started to look at different dates and prices and e-mailing dream scenarios. It was pretty easy to convince Rick to go to Paris, as he had never been. I had a brief Paris rendezvous during the World Cup, and longed to go back.

The apartment I found seemed too good to be true--a studio a block from the Eiffel Tower and subway. It seemed so charming in the pictures, and averaged $75 a night, which was a steel for the neighborhood. I was a little skeptical until we arrived, but it all worked out brilliantly! Our host didn't speak a word of English, but we understood everything through pantomime and demonstrations. Here's our view of the courtyard:

My addiction to dream vacations becoming a reality became a pattern...I would plan vacations while working through sometimes tough moments with teenagers, and Rick would encourage us to make it happen. Our week in Paris was glorious--we walked everywhere, and occasionally took the subway. We tried to speak French everywhere, even though we both know very little, so people treated us rather well.

Rick and I love going to museums--me being a history buff and art lover--so we bought a Paris Pass, which gave us admission to tons of sights and a week on the metro for a huge discount. Most cities have them--I've used them in London, New York, and Oslo--and they're a great way to see alot of sights in a few days. You do need to figure out if you have time to dedicate to seeing so many things, so it really depends on how much you want to do for your particular destination. If you're not in the mood for a fast paced visit, then it's not a good way to spend your time, as you feel obligated to get your money's worth. It was an amazing week, and I look forward to visiting the beautiful city of lights once again.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Sucked In

With the promise of a $50 gift card to the Cheesecake Factory, I attended my first timeshare presentation. A naive 24 year old, I bought into the scheme that would make me travel at least once a year and the promise of a free week in a resort I would never visit due to an expiration date.

I finally broke down and used a week after two years of paying dues. A friend and I decided to go to New Zealand and Australia for the summer, and while we were already going so far, we decided to add Fiji and Thailand, too. After searching around for flights, we found that an around the world ticket with four stops got us the cheapest fare. A timeshare resort at Fiji convinced us to add that as a destination, and so Fiji was my first timeshare experience.

I have never traveled the same. Having a kitchen, living room, and bedroom transformed my idea of options. Until then I was used to staying in hostels and the cheapest hotel I could book. Now I realized that once I considered the price of food and split all that with a friend, apartment stays might be the way to go. A new era of travel opened up to me.

We had an absolutely amazing time in each place!

Pictures above: 1) Denauru, Fiji--view from the room at my timeshare. 2) Great Barrier Reef, Australia, 3) South Island, New Zealand, 4) Fox Glacier, New Zealand

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Stuck on You

After my first year of teaching I embarked on my first solo trip. 23, I put myself up in a B & B for my first night in D.C., in the neighborhood of Adams Morgan since the hostel I booked for the rest of the week had no openings. Used to backpacking, I trekked about a mile from the closest metro stop. Not sure about what to do once I got to my room, I got on the payphone and called a college friend that grew up in Arlington and moved back home. Everyone didn't have a cell phone makes me wonder why I turn the car around if I realize I left the house without it.

Immediately my friend, Rick, jumped and picked me up. I remember catching up at a local IHOP, so glad to connect with someone I knew. The rest of the week we hung out everyday, Rick tagging along as I visited the various Smithsonian museums and art galleries around town. He expanded my sights, and took me to Great Falls and other Virginia haunts. It was an adventurous week, and I felt so good to go across country on my own.

At the end of the week I met up with an organized program for high school students that lasted another week. I had a great time, but I couldn't get my friend out of my mind. It was a really amazing week, and I really connected with my friend. From then on, I couldn't get Rick off my mind as a potential man in my life, but he had a girlfriend.

I made sure to head to DC every summer after that, and so for four years Rick and I hung out and toured around as friends, but the fourth time he was unattached. He grabbed my hand for the first time, and hasn't stopped since.