Wednesday, September 28, 2016

USA in the summer. New York, Niagara falls, Portland

 New York City 
Ever since the move to Amsterdam traveling has become easier comparing to Moscow and Cyprus and NYC was on mind already for a while so when the opportunity to go came I jumped right on it. It was my 5th time in the city and probably the first time I was really a "tourist" not just a visitor. We stayed in East village which is probably together with West village my favorite part of town and hot the sites. The process involved lots of walking which was great way to feel the energy of the city. I might sound like a cliche but I don't mind : I love love New York City! Just like I love Paris and Cape Town and Hong Kong and Tokyo, I think is just a general big city crush. I love the spirit, the bustle, the constant feeling that you are in the middle of where it's really happening. Probably that's one of the reasons I really love Amsterdam too, although on a much smaller scale, but that's a city where things do happen and history is created.
But back to NYC. In total of 4 days pretty much all of Manhattan was covered except didn't hit a single museum, but I guess something for next time. It was heartwarming to take the ferry to Staten island being surrounded by so much impressive beauty right on the water. To be perfectly honest I don't really think New York is a pretty town. Most of the buildings down in my favorite neighborhoods are dingy looking and in desperate need of renovation, the streets are often covered with trash and there are too many homeless people, something I am not used to anymore. It's only when you get to the business area you see that overwhelming massive buildings with impressive entrance and huge amount of security guards, just to remind you that you are in the land of the free.
That and Times Square. Where the consumerism is reaching a whole different level.

One of the best things about visiting NYC is the food. From the teleportation-to-China style lunch places in China town where you pay next to nothing for a dim-sum out of this world up to the fancy urban cafes or a random Ethiopian restaurant next door, or just a cool donut/latte place - it's all food to remember. I got the chance to visit twice the Mogardor in East Village and I was In love with it. It's the kind of place where people queue before opening hours to have a spot for breakfast and it's highly advisable to reserve well in advance for dinner. This tiny little Moroccan restaurant changed my view on chicken. I swear can eat that Chicken Tangine with Charmoulla sauce every day, you could say it was just a chicken stew with green spicy sauce, but then - divine. NYC was a good way to catch up with some old friends and randomly even met a lady I know on the street which resulted to a nice morning coffee. Strangely enough it really felt homey to be back in town and I know I will be back soon. In fact already booked my next trip.

Random facts:
- ladies in NYC are super skinny. Big city, tough competition on the dating market, very much like Moscow. I don't think it's the working out, just not eating- American men don't know how to dress. I think it's the fact that everything they wear seems too big, and the white socks really kill it for me- super refreshing to get back to free ice-water and free refills, not so nice back to 20% minimum tip culture- buying a sandwich from the supermarket deli is the same as sitting down and eating it in a nice cafe, the same 11 USD, better sit down and enjoy it- I have forgotten what it is to pay 10$ for a glass of wine and when you add tip. Versus 3 EUR in Amsterdam and no tip.- shopping is addictive and NYC is the place where that addiction can reach extreme levels. Just visit the Burlington Coat factory at Union square and hit the girls dresses department. Terrible retail experience but what nice finds... My credit card saw no mercy.

A small travel tip there. If you visit NYC you should try AIRBNB. It makes sense everywhere but particularly in a city like NYC. Makes you feel so much more at home staying in a private apartment, you get more space for less money and other "extras" such a big fridge to store fruit, drinks, wine etc. It's just so much nicer. I have always stayed in hotels before and now regret it. Also I am not really the kind of person that likes to socialize with other travelers, I much rather meet locals or get a sense how they live and possibly learn from it.

Niagara Falls

Niagara falls, Ontario CA
 We decided to take a side trip to the Niagara falls and 7,5 hours later ended up in Ontario, CA in the lovely but super touristic town by the falls.
The views were stunning and the whole feel of it being smitten by the power and beauty of nature a very special feeling

Glorious nature beauty, truly amazing to see and feel a bit small and insignificant comparing. 
A random story. Remember how I mentioned that I am not big fan of socializing with other travelers. Well my abilities to adapt were tested when we booked a stay in a lovely little Bed and breakfast called a " A night to remember". It was certainly very charming though in bad need of renovation, and the wifi speed was certainly something to remember, I had worse only in Congo DRC. But the breakfast next morning was ... wow. Basically the owner of the place prepared and served it and we were sited on a long table with several retirement aged couples from the states and Canada and one super funny lady with banana allergy of which she " Learned it the haaaard way" by her own account. I felt a mix emotions similar to being invited to the future in-laws for the first time. 
Portland, OR 
3 years of my life spent in that lovely city and still felt very familiar. A week there in July brought back lots of good memories, the mountains, the outdoors, the snowboarding, the wineries, the road trips, and about all, the friends. It's where my kids were born, where I joined my first running race, where I started writing, where I started to love hiking, and where I learned to snowboard and took my first surfing lesson, it's where my favorite red wine is coming from, where I met one of my BFF and where I had my baby shower surrounded by good friends. Great memories kept flooding my head, but so did things I now have that I could never have there. 

Mt Hood
Oregon is a great place to come back to and I would do so with pleasure. I am sure it's possible to build a really good life here, just not for me or us. I have learned to appreciate what I have at the moment so much and I don't see the need to move. I have the best job ever, it doesn't even feel like job since it has always been my hobby. I am close to my family, my kids go to one of the best schools in Netherlands, we live in a drop dead gorgeous place right down town and I love my neighborhoods bars and restaurants, and the Amsterdam crowd, and our morning runs along the Amstel river, and the canals, I love how Paris is 5 h drive away and in a matter of one year the kids have been in Milan, Paris, Toulouse, Andorra, Cyprus, Belgium, Germany, skiing in Bulgaria, Rome, Romania. And when the weather goes really bad, which it surely does, then we jump in the plane and 4 hours later we are in our gorgeous apartment in Cyprus where the sun always shines.
I do miss my friends, but that only means that I need to visit more often.
In conclusion, it has been wonderful as always to visit the USA this summer. I am a big fan and regardless of current political events, that country will always have a special place in my heart. I once wrote my bucket list that I want to visit every year, and so far so good :) 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

In Heaven, Cape town and around

I have often thought about a place that has it all: the sunny weather, the good food, where you can paraglide, hike and surf, drink good wine, sail, hire help without breaking the bank, live cheaply. A place where English is widely spoken and there is cultural and city life. Well, I found it. South Africa, especially Cape Town area is all of that and more. It's heaven.
I had the chance to visit heaven when the weather was grey and miserable in the Netherlands which made me appreciate it even more.
And what is not to like. I random order
The Wine, ah the wine. 
Visiting a winery in South Africa especially the Stellenbosch area is like opening the gates to continues lasting pleasure. Even right outside of Cape town in Constatia, I have had unbelievably good experience. Probably visited around 7-8 wineries but Nederburg winery in particularly took my breath away. I can't get enough of the liquid happiness of their Motorcycle marvel red, a blend mixed in a godly manner. In Morgenhof estate I had damn amazing lunch, set in a rustic quiet farm yard,
Constatia Glen wine tasting and cheese was one to remember. For a wine-lover like me, I have found myself.

Basically one of the best, most picturesque place I have ever flown was from Lion's head above the city of Cape Town. I was scared shitless from the predominantly turbulent flight but maybe even because of that I just thought I have seen pure beauty from above and my heart will forever stay in this moment just a bit. One day, on my death bed if I am senile at all, I will be looking back to that moment and think to myself, man I lived, I really did. And I landed by the Bungalow which is my number one favorite sunset watching restaurant spot ever since.
Soaring in Paradise beach was awesome too, Wilderness that is. I just have to return and fly more in South Africa, it has been decided.

When we talk about it, Dining, is a whole different chapter, especially for a culinary experiences starved Amsterdammer I have become. First of all, pretty much everywhere I have been the food was outstanding. Too many good experiences to share but let me just mention two: Hout Bay Market for a weekend lunch is coming to mind as a must. And then for fine dining Tintswalo Atlantic was just a jaw dropper with it's perfect location in a secluded premises, right above the sea and impeccable service.

Bungee Jumping
I know myself quite a bit and I am quick to convince myself in the most impossible things and do them. Things that have ranged from intimidating, frightened me or terrifying me. And it was all ok, until this. I have never sweated out something so much before. I thought skydiving all by myself was scary. Wait until you walk on that bridge all tight up like a lamb about to be slathered. But I am not a quitter, I did it. I jumped.
And then it was the triumph. That rush that's incomparable. The feeling alone that's worth living for.

Road trips
Garden Route is one of the most scenic rides in the world. Enough said. It was nice to be at the most Southern point too, ever since geography lessons I thought that place must bring Good Hope

Knysna sailing is worth the trip to Africa all by itself. Pictures couldn't tell this story at all. It's like the Amalfi coast only wilder and less commercial.

There are many life stories that have been inspiring to read and know and many lessons to be learned from heroes, but if we must elect 10, my vote is for Mr Mandela, who changed the course of history with his tenacity to fight for what's right. A true worldly inspirational hero.
The sun setting in the sea is always a magnificent spectacle, but even more so at Chapman's Peak.

Even though I only went once, it only raised the appetite for more, World class spots
Other reasons to visit the country come to mind too, Hiking, Wildlife, Nightlife, Quirky cosy little hotels, How cheap everything is, world class hospitality, friendly curious inviting society. It's just Heaven, that's it.
My plan is like this. 20 more years max and I am going to move to cyprus permanently but spend winter in Cape town. That's it, decided. :) For any detailed tips, shoot me an email.
And ok, the down sides.
There are not many really. It's a bit iffy with the wifi in many places, although easy and nice to get a local sim and lots of MB for next to nothing. And ok, not all areas are safe, but also never really felt unsafe. We went to several places that were considered a dodgy areas and it was really not much different than same areas in any other big city. Common sense brings you far.
Now that I am thinking about it, I should pay another visit.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

To Alaska with no luggage

It has been a childhood dream of mine to visit Alaska and recently an opportunity came for a free ticket to Portland, OR on air miles so I thought I head off and check it out.  I researched a few options but cruise seemed the easiest and fastest way to see a lot, so I opted for that. The little that I knew about cruising....

My flight involved a stop over in New York for a night and that was hardly a punishment despite the fact that I arrived in the city sweaty, sticky and with no luggage (!). They misplaced my carry-on suitcase at Amsterdam airport so I basically was heading to Alaska with only the cloths on my back, my laptop, phone and camera.
New York... I am in love with big cities and this is one of the most happening exciting ones of all. So was my might there, however short. I really liked being back in the USA. Ever since we moved out of the States I have been going every year and every time I go I sense this familiar feeling that I belong. I like how people chat you up on the street, how everyone smiles with their big white teeth, how big things are, how much energy there is and cheerful consumerism. USA is great, and New York is epitome of that greatness. You got the point, I am so cliché, I just love New York :)

Next day, tired, little hungover and still with nothing but my sweaty cloths from the night before (I arrived too late to shop) I headed back to JFK to fly via Portland and Seattle to Anchorage. At the airport I purchased from a gift shop: a tank top with NYPD logo and a t-shirt saying "property of New York", so long to good taste. Luckily I had a lounge access and could take a shower and change into my newly acquired "fashionable" attire. And so ridiculously dressed I started making a plan how to attack my problem of not having even a jacket.

In Portland I headed straight to Columbia store at the airpot and bought entire hiking gear for only 250 bucks. My knowledge of of PDX made me take the Max, light train, and head two stops away to Target. In literally 20 min there I got a lot: basic underwear, shoes, 2 skirts, 4 t-shirts, a dress, a coat to match all, 150$ total, gotta love the USA. And of to Anchorage.

That entire episode with the lost luggage made me realize several things:
1) you can get all you need in total of 2 hours visiting couple of stores so the amount of time I have spent to buy the items in my lost bag which I estimated is about 20-25 hours is absolutely waste of time
2) you can buy all you need in about the quarter of the price simply by asking yourself do I really need this or just because of lack of time to buy it
3) you can fit a week of luggage in a small sports bag and there will even be space left
4) we are too attached to material stuff, favorite t-shirt, sweater, jeans. At the end these are all things. Should not matter if you lose the, Crying over it is a waste of time.


The cruise ship name is Norwegian Sun, part of the Norwegian cruise line. As it was my first experience I could not compare it with anything. Food options were pretty good, only the intense hikes during the day kept me from getting some brand new good american body fat.

The Trip
As a child I was fascinated by the Klondike Gold Rush and I read everything I could find about it. I have spent months dreaming about the beauty of the Last Frontier, about the cold, short sunny summers, frost-biting winters, it's rugged coast line, bears and glaciers, dog-sledding, tiny wooden towns. I never stopped thinking of Alaska as this dream world coming from my childhood and in a way I thought it was all imaginary. But it was actually all true.
One just need to look at this and say no word more. I was lucky to have seen many beautiful things in my life but this one certainly ranks in the top of the top of the list:
Hubbard glacier seen from Norwegian Sun, September 2015

Valerie Glacier, September 2015

Alaska was more I have expected it to be. There was more to see, and whatever it was there was was far prettier than I thought. It helped a lot that the weather was great at least at the start of the trip.
The moment I could have embarked straight to the nature trails the moment I could and what I saw there was just repletion of the same story line, no, it's not a dream, Alaska is really That pretty.

I was looking for a history book to buy in pretty much every town we stopped but all the ones I found seemed to me too dry so I ended up with this, a historical research of prostitution during the Gold Rush era. Since most women in Alaska were actually involved with some sort of prostitution and most men sooner or later were customers it actually was a very good book to learn how society worked. Was good way to learn and pass time also.
One significant down side on that trip was the fact that the majority of alaska cruise goers are well into retirement age. That fact and also the fact that every night you are forced to spend on the boat as we did not stay overnight anywhere just made me feel a bit like in prison and I don't think I will repeat the cruising experience. What I like the most about traveling is the unknown, the discovery all by yourself. There is really no sense of adventure or discovery when you dine surrounded by the same gray-haired ladies and gents night after night. But hey, everything is a learning experience I certainty was well rested when arriving in Vancouver to spend 2 glorious days with one of my besties.