Saturday, August 27, 2011
After 2 long flights made slightly less painful by Frontier Air's complimentary chocolate chip cookies, Nathan and I were greeted in Fairbanks by a sunshower complete with a vibrant double rainbow and my good college friend, Danielle, and her sleddog, Mohawk. Cookies, rainbows and dogs - this trip was off to a good start! Since it was late even by Alaska time, we tucked in early that night. Danielle graciously hosted us at her cabin and we were thus awoken to this incredible view:
And this extremely cuddly sleddog:
The next two days we spent exploring all that Fairbanks had to offer including the requisite visit to the Ice Museum and meeting the ambassador sleddog puppies before checking out the botanical gardens and Large Animal Research Center. We coincidentally ate at 2 restaurants featured on the Food Network's Diners, Drive-in's and Dives show on our first day - a fact that made me feel equally "in-the-know" and lame. But both establishments, The Cookie Jar and Silver Gulch Brewing, were delicious and homey.
On Saturday morning we embarked on the 8-hour drive down to Valdez along one of Alaska's 3 major highways. I use the term "highway" loosely as it's merely a two-lane road. We drove past more pine trees and mountains than I thought I'd see in a lifetime. (Seriously, I think my new expression of a large amount of something will be "more than all the trees in Alaska!") Looking out over the forests here gives you the same sense of infinity as seeing the ocean meet the horizon from a coast.
The name "Valdez" usually conjures images of huge tankers and sad, oil-covered ducks (or if you're like me and pronouncing it incorrectly, you think of a kind man named Juan and his trusty donkey). Today it's a small fishing town (yes, they fish these waters) and is still home to the last stop on the massive Alaskan pipeline and therefore many tankers and the fill station. But if I hadn't known the town's history beforehand I would never have been able to tell that remnants still exist and the cleanup is ever ongoing. The captain of our wildlife cruise told us the full story of how the spill happened and the cleanup efforts still happening today but we didn't see any of it firsthand.
We spent our first full day kayaking on Valdez Glacier, floating along opaque grey waters, in and out of bright blue caves melted into the huge chunks of ice. The rest of the afternoon/evening was spent thawing our thoroughly chilled bodies at the local bar.
Our 9-hour wildlife cruise the next day was a relaxing break from our active previous day and from being up all night watching for bears and plotting my counterattack methods. We were treated to sightings of sea otters, seals, a humpback whale, puffins, sea lions, bald eagles and a couple enormous glaciers. Danielle and I engaged in a race to see who could consume the most free hot beverages onboard and threw in the towel around 5 or so (and at least an equal number of trips to the "head").
After heading back to the campsite, we decided to practice our bear attack plan at the shooting range nearby. Danielle and Nathan were fearless and shot with zeal while I cowered near the car, needing to be coaxed to get within 50 feet of the gun. After I'd gotten used to the idea and the mindnumbing sound of the thing, I fired off a few rounds, during which I apparently looked like I was the one staring down the barrel:
After a few nights of camping and warding off demonic animals in the night, we were off to Anchorage. There we dedicated our night to finding the best beer Alaska had to offer and boy, did we! We stopped at both Midnight Sun Brewing Company and Moose's Tooth Pub and Pizzeria. They both offered really unique beers that were pretty freakin' tasty. We stayed a single night in Anchorage in a very nice hotel, showered and rested our weary bodies and headed on to Denali National Park.
As cursed as 70% of the other visitors to Denali Park, we were unable to see Mount McKinley (called Denali locally) due to weather conditions but we did get to ride an old school bus through some treacherous mountain passes for several hours! We got up close and personal with a Mama Bear and her baby and stalked a wolf down the road for a good half hour. We got to see some caribou and dall sheep as well but could've used a telescope to get a proper view of them.
Equipped with numerous podcasts needing to be listened to, we began the journey back North to Fairbanks. Remarkably Nathan and I weren't ready to leave the pavement yet and left the next day for Chena Hot Springs Resort. It's a lovely little place with a picturesque lodge restaurant, its own Ice Museum, lots of activities and of course some stinky, sulfury hot springs to soothe your bones. If you're looking for summer camp for adults, this is your place. After a good soak and a short hike the next morning, we headed back into town only to leave again on an overnight canoe trip! Danielle's friend motored us upriver and dropped us off on a sandbar where we spent the night. It rained alllll night and all through our paddle the next day but the scenery was beautiful and the freeze dried food packets weren't half bad! We took a much needed trip back to Silver Gulch to load up on nachos, burgers and beers before we were destined to head back to the lower 48.
Overall, Alaska was a great place to spend 10 adventure-filled days trying things we never thought we'd do. From shooting guns to camping next to bears and eating elk burgers, it didn't fail in the "novel and life-threatening" department. The state is very spread out and roads are not what you expect from other states so take extra precautions if you plan to drive to several different places. Having a local plan our trip and show us the ropes was absolutely invaluable - the guidebook tended to stick to the beaten path, probably for insurance reasons! And an in-house sleddog was certainly a nice perk :)
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
That being said, our week in Ireland was wonderful. It was relaxing and fun and Nathan picked a really great mix of places for us to visit. We did a good amount of driving (or I should say Nathan did) but got to see a varied mix of spots and get a good overall impression of the country. After Mullaghmore, we headed on to Doolin which is a tiny town known for its live traditional music scene. Now, you might be picturing Austin, Texas with a drop more whiskey or Nashville, Tennesee covered in tartan plaid but Doolin actually has a whopping 3 bars that offer live Irish music. And that makes it the live music capital of the country. Seriously. I hate to say it, but we were slightly disappointed in the music scene in Ireland as a whole. We kept expecting to walk in to bagpipes or fiddles or traditional dancing but the majority of the time we actually found lone guys with guitars...and drum machines...singing The Monkees. Guys with guitars would've been fine but the drum machines were unbearable. And The Monkees? Really? Is that really what American tourists are aching for? Well, if they were all my Mom then yes, they would be but come on, Ireland! At least Doolin was free of these two plagues but the music was still less than stellar. Nathan and I may be spoiled seeing that his Mom plays fiddle, both he and his Dad play guitar and we see incredible live music in the States all the time but I still expected a bit more from the Irish music scene.
From Doolin we took the ferry out to the farthest and largest of the three Aran Islands, Inishmore. It was absolutely my favorite stop in Ireland - filled with the requisite cows, sheep and horses but like a little time capsule of what Irish life must have been like centuries ago. Yes, it has bicycles, ice cream shops, a few cars and a small airport but the whole mood there is just about enjoying time and taking in the gorgeous scenery that envelopes every single inch of the place. After spending a full day exploring the island on bikes, we hopped on the afternoon ferry back to the mainland and drove onwards to Athlone, a city in the Midlands region. When telling a Dublin couple about the last stop on our trip they asked, "Athlone? Can you cancel?" I guess its reputation isn't great but we found it to be a fun, funky little town, or at least the Left Bank section where we stayed was. It had lots of little restaurants and shops and the oldest pub in the British Isles, founded in 900 AD! Our B&B there was quite "eclectic" with a maze of old, dark, wooden stairs and some sort of taxidermied animal bearing its teeth in the lobby but it was a nice change of pace from the more traditional and proper ones we'd been staying in all week.
The next morning we awoke at the absolute crack of dawn and made our way to Dublin airport. I got the next flight I could to London, had some nasty struggles with payphones, ticketing agents and airport internet kiosks and somehow found myself in Newark, New Jersey in the wee hours of Sunday morning. Since then, I've found that lots of people have been dying to ask me the same questions over and over which I know is just a means of making smalltalk but efficiency obsessor that I am, I figured I'd do some FAQ's so that I can answer everyone's questions upfront and then when I see you in person you can skip right ahead to, "What directions did the toilets flush?" or some equally pressing tidbit. So here we go! (Note that I'll be playing the role of interviewer and interviewee in tonight's production but if you have any other questions you'd like answered and you think others might enjoy, leave them in the comments or on my Facebook page!)
FAQ's - Finally Answered Questions
What was your favorite place that you visited?
What? No, you can't name 3. Okay, fine.
My first favorite was the town of Corniglia in Cinque Terre, Italy. I remember being there and thinking, this is it, this will be my favorite place of the whole trip, but I also really enjoyed the little medieval town of St. Paul de Provence and the Aran Island of Inishmore. There's a definite theme that unites the three: very small, rural, historic villages overflowing with their own unique character. Each one was unlike any other place in the world. Oh also, I really liked my trip out to Eastern Serbia because the towns were so unlike what I expected and really beautiful and peaceful. So those 4. I'll stop now.
What was your favorite food that you tried? Follow-up question, are you going to be a meat eater now for good?! Pretty please?!
Does coffee&Baileys count as a food? No? Hmm, okay, I'll go with pretty much all the desserts in Italy: gelato, frozen yogurt, cannoli, tiramisu, etc. I also really came to love the tradition of tea in England and Ireland. I've always been a tea drinker but NEVER with cream or sugar and usually I like a little kick of fruit or flowery essence but the Breakfast tea in the UK was perfect as is.
As far as eating meat, I am for now but will probably meander back towards the vegetarian side with an occasional dabble in bacon. Meat tends to be one of those things that sounds amazing (Coconut fried chicken with spicy mango dipping sauce? Yes, please!) but then never lives up to my expectations and leaves me feeling icky. At least with vegetables I still feel like a good person after my meal. (Just kidding, I'm actually not a vegetarian for "moral" reasons but it's a nice jab to pull out sometimes.)
What's it like staying in hostels? Are there bedbugs, weird people and/or hot water?
Hostels are fantastic. Seriously. Every single one I stayed at was as clean as any mid-range hotel and the staff was incredibly accommodating. The atmosphere definitely reminded me of being in summer camp or living in a dorm at college but less screaming and more meaningful conversation. 98% of the other guests are people in their 20's who are down-to-Earth, self-sufficient and love to travel. What more could you ask for? Seriously, if I could live in a hostel I think I might. It was one of the only places where I've ever felt like I'd found kindred spirits, where people weren't in the least surprised that I'd quit my job to travel (heck, they probably did the same) and shared similar interests like hiking, being a weirdo who takes photos of food and sitting around drinking wine while recounting stories of the 2% of crazies who stay at hostels. The one time I "treated" myself to a hotel in Bologna was weird and pretty lonely. I met some really awesome people at hostels and will keep in touch with many of them.
What's it like traveling alone as a female in her 20's? Any bad experiences?
Being a naturally overly cautious person, I took more precautions than the normal person might. I didn't go out by myself after dark, I stayed in touristy areas and I often asked staff members for safety recommendations. I'm a pretty modest dresser by nature and even though I didn't necessarily dress like those fashionable Europeans, I had loads of people come up and ask me for directions in the local language so I must not have looked too out of place! I attribute that to my naturally occuring "angry and on a mission" look which people think only natives, brimming with locally induced scorn, sport around town. Little do they know that all New Yorkers, in or out of their habitat, have it too! The one time I had an experience where I felt a twinge of danger, I took a winding, roundabout route back to the hostel, befriended someone and ventured back out with them.
I ran into a few other travelers who experienced safety problems and both were traveling in pairs; two guys who were pickpocketed in Barcelona and two girls who had a purse stolen in Florence. Traveling alone almost seemed to be safer because I never let my guard down and I was suspicious of pretty much everyone. Okay, so I have trust issues, but I survived without experiencing any real problems. At the same time, I was exhausted from constantly being on the lookout. There was probably some middle ground in there but I never found it.
Any lessons you'd like to share?
My first lesson would be book it all in advance (except the trains, I think that whole Eurail pass thing is a crock) but be flexible. That means, plan on doing, say, 2 days in Brussels but change your plans if you're bored after 20 minutes. Last minute changes are pretty doable and can be more exciting and refreshing than sticking to your original plan.
That being said, my second lesson would be: Know yourself. Do you like museums? Or maybe you prefer sitting in a cafe and observing present day life. Do you make the best of less-than-ideal situations like boredom? Or maybe you have mini-meltdowns. Your family, friends, fellow travelers and everyone and anyone who can will give you advice about where to go, what to see, what to eat and how to take photos ("If you don't do the holding the Leaning Tower of Pisa thing, I'm never talking to you again!") Take them all with a grain of salt. Though your grandmother lives and breathes by Marc Chagall, perhaps visiting his grave in a tiny Provencal village you can only reach by public bus isn't the best way to spend your only day in France. If it's her dying wish, that's another story.
Oh yeah, what are you doing for a job now? Loll about the house and be a professional bane on society?
I'll get some sort of employment...eventually. Nathan and I head to Alaska to visit my good friend, Danielle, on August 10th and when I get back on the 21st the job search kicks into high gear! Yep. High gear. Or any gear. I told myself I could have the summer off from working and I'm pretty sure summer technically goes 'til what? Like November or something? That being said, if you'd like to employ me, let me know!
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
I could list my many excuses for not updating the blog recently but I'll skip the whining and get to the travel. I spent 4 nights in the city of Marseille - a place that many people warned me against visiting because of its "criminal activity." I never really learned the specific activities they meant but I found the city to be very warm and accessible if somewhat dirty. The hostel was located in the Old Port area which is filled with tons of restaurants and shops and nearly 3,500 boats ranging in size from tiny fishing vessels to replica pirate ships. I asked the hostel staff for safety recommendations and they just advised to avoid the Old Town area after dark. I followed the advice (actually I pretty much never went out on my own after dark anyway) and didn't have any problems.
I took a daytrip with two hostelmates out to the Calanques which are rocky, cliffside coves into the Mediterranean Sea. They were absolutely beautiful and incredibly peaceful even with nearby crazy dudes jumping off the cliffs into the waters some 20 feet below. I also took a less than successful daytrip by train out to the towns of Aix-en-Provence and Manosque. I had asked the hostel reception desk for "small typical Provencal towns - sunflowers, lavender, all that jazz" but neither town really delivered. It was also my first (!) day of bad weather on the entire trip so that definitely put a damper on things. Luckily the train ride provided some nice views of fields and mountains but somehow I still came back feeling like I'd wasted a day.
Bastille Day in France turned out to be very reminiscent of our 4th of July - parades, fireworks and all things red, white and blue. Less barbecuing though. And then, finally, the day had come to head on to Ireland! I had been counting down the days for what seemed like forever and was very excited to see Nathan after more than a month apart. I flew out Friday night and spent the wee morning hours in Gatwick airport - an experience which was interesting to say the least. I quickly learned that airports in the middle of the night are not unlike refugee camps. People are sleeping, or attempting to do so, anywhere and everywhere - floors, chairs or the much coveted benches -and eating any morsel of food they can get their hands on. I got 2 painful hours of sleep there before catching my 6 AM flight to Dublin. Why did I pick these flight times? I haven't a clue.
Despite the lost luggage, Dublin was great and the plethora of bars and old buildings reminded me a lot of being in college. We took a tour at the very modern Guinness factory and had a lovely tapas dinner. The next day we drove up to Belfast in Northern Ireland. There's no sign letting you know you've crossed the border but there are subtle changes. The speed limits are suddenly in miles per hour instead of kilometers and the warnings just sound more British. ("Give way" instead of "Yield"). I should add that driving in Dublin and Belfast as an American is absolutely terrifying - the driver sits on the right, drives on the left, shifts with their lefthand and OH YEAH they don't label any of their freaking roads! It's like someone has tied your legs together and is yelling RUN! but you're not sure which direction they mean.
Somehow we made it up into the slightly less terrifying country roads, stopped at the mindbending Giant's Causeway and Carrickarede ropebridge and made it all the way over to Mullaghmore, a tiny, tiny fishing village in County Sligo in western Ireland. The sheep and cows most definitely outnumber the human population here and it's perfect. We took an absolutely beautiful 2 hour horseback ride along the beach and through dunes and cattle fields this afternoon. Nathan, a second time rider, most definitely earned himself a Guinness or ten for putting up with the plodding Big Ted, his trusty though unmotivated steed. I, an experienced rider in my youth but a nonexistent one as of late, was overjoyed to be back in the saddle. I nearly teared up just putting the helmet on. The guide let me canter along the beach and walk into the surf and I'm pretty sure you couldn't have slapped the smile off my face if you tried. I delayed washing my hands afterwards for as long as possible to keep the smell of horses lingering.
So now you're all caught up and I have just 1 week left of my trip! We're in Ireland, heading down to Doolin, the Aran Islands and Athlone, until Saturday and then I have a few spare days until I fly out of London on the 27th. I predict my next update will be filled with sheep, neon green hills and Guinness aka more of the same.
Monday, July 11, 2011
Monaco was exactly how you'd expect it to be - over-the-top luxurious, like Donald Trump is your bellboy and Jay Leno is your chauffeur kind of luxurious. The famous casino was very ornate, dripping in gold chandeliers, and I couldn't shake the feeling that at any moment I'd be discovered and promptly escorted out. I took the bus there which takes about an hour but is worth it because it follows the coastal cliffs the entire way and gives you a peak at each little coastal town. Unfortunately the bus back was packed and I couldn't get a seat but at least I didn't have to sit on the floor.
Vence and St. Paul de Vence were probably my favorite spots so far in France. I elected to visit them at the advice of two older Norwegian women whom I dined with one night and who said they were much more peaceful and picturesque than the more popular town of Eze. And they were so right. They're both small medieval villages set high up on the mountains and made entirely of stone. Each one is like a maze of cobbled streets and buildings, of course covered in vines and flowers (like everywhere in Europe), and you descend into these little caves of boutiques and restaurants. St. Paul resembles an old fortress and if I had to pick just one place for a quiet weekend away this would be it. Even with the other tourists milling about, you can hear the constant din of cicadas and the bubbling of nearby fountains all day long.
I stopped in Cannes earlier today while on my way to Marseille, my next big stop. I had to keep my backpack with me so I only endured about an hour in the heat but that seemed to be all one would need there. I saw where the film festival takes place, the port packed with luxury yachts the old town section and an imprint of Angelina Jolie's hands. What more could you want?
I didn't elect to take the boat trip to St. Tropez because P Diddy isn't in town until next week and what's the point without him? No, actually, I just didn't have time and it's so hot here it feels like you're on the beach all the time. I'm already tanner than a pair of leather cuff sandals just from walking around outside all the time.
On the food front, I actually had a really delicious sandwich today...at the Cannes train station! It had super tangy goat cheese, garlicky roasted tomatoes and olive oil. Maybe I should dine at public transportation hubs more often.
In a totally unplanned coincidence, I'm going to be in France for Bastille Day! I'm excited to see what that entails!
Saturday, July 9, 2011
Monday, July 4, 2011
Cinque Terre is by far the worst place so far to not have my iPhone simply because it is so incredibly beautiful and I want to share it with everyone I know. Each of the 5 towns has its own character but they're all beautiful, old Italian villages built into the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. I'm staying in Corniglia which is the most picturesque, most romantic (says the girl traveling by herself) and quietest, despite it being located in the middle of the others. Things start to get quiet[er] here around 9:00 even on the weekends. You can hear the sounds of insects and the waves breaking hundreds of feet below all day long. The air smells so...fertile? I'm not quite sure how to describe it other than a mix of flowers, dirt and ocean. Every direction you look, whether out at the enormous, uninterrupted seaviews or up at the colorful stucco cottages and the bright green terraced mountains, you're reminded of a postcard. People here don't put their cameras away - they just snap continuously all day long.
Now I know what everyone's waiting for - the food! Isn't the food amazing?! Like you've never had before?? Honestly, the food is great but nothing has stood out as OMGIwanttoeatthisuntilIdieandtheneatsomemore. I've had the requisite pizza, pasta and gelato out the wazoo but nothing has wowed me as being superior to the Italian food I grew up with in New York (shout out to Mama Marino's lasagna!). Maybe I'm just spoiled? But every place here offers basically the same things - tomato sauce, pesto sauce, caprese salad- and they're all good. The only thing I really dream about eating again (and probably will in a few hours) was vanilla frozen yogurt topped with fresh lemon juice, honey and nuts. Doesn't sound too exciting, huh? It was delicious though and their frozen yogurt here actually has the tang of yogurt unlike the vanilla ice creamy stuff we get in the States.
What I really miss are vegetables! They sell tons of fresh, local veggies at the markets here but their menus are strangely lacking. And I can't exactly roast them on the hostel's radiator so the market doesn't do me much good. I think I had hoped Italy would open my eyes (culinarily speaking) and maybe convince me to get back on the meat-eating wagon for good but it hasn't really. Sorry, guys. That being said, I'm heading to Bologna tomorrow and it's supposed to be a food mecca. I sure hope so!
Ciao for now!
Saturday, July 2, 2011
I googled for answers on ways to repair her; I wandered the streets of Florence with tear-brimming eyes asking various electronic stores for help to no avail. She is positively dead. And I do not reach a city with an Apple store for another week. So until then, my blogposts are doomed to be exceptionally boring. I apologize and to make up for that fact, here are some random photos that survived the crash:
My first gelato in Florence! This was a combo of straciatella and hazelnut flavors.
Fake cats decoupaged to the walls of Academy Hostel in Florence. They scared me everytime I walked past them. Every. Single. Time.
Pasta vending machine at the hostel. Only in Italy.
Wine vending machine in hostel. See above.
The Pontevecchio bridge at sunset! This bridge is absolutely gorgeous. We watched a couple get engaged there just a few moments before.
So that's it! No more photos for [hopefully no longer than] a week. I sincerely apologize to my millions of dear readers out there. Let us pray that the French Apple store people can revive our long lost friend.