No France For You!

The next port of call on our trans-Atlantic was Le Havre, France; or so we thought.  We had been excited to go see the beaches of Normandy.  We even watched a documentary a week before the cruise in anticipation!  Unfortunately, the port workers in France had other designs.  They were on strike, as were the pilot boat operators, and so we could not dock there.  Instead, we went to Dover, England – home of the famous White Cliffs of Dover.

119 The White Cliffs of Dover

The White Cliffs of Dover

120 I can see why they're famous

I can see why they’re famous

Dover turned out to be a charming little town.  After spending a few hours in the library using their WiFi, I dragged Stephanie off for that most important of British traditions: fish and chips.  The way to find the best food anywhere you go is to ask the locals, so we did, and we were pointed to a little take-away joint that apparently wins awards for its fish and chips.  This was one of those food experiences where I was tempted to go back for more despite being full – simply because it tasted amazing.

We tooled around the town exploring shops and parks and admiring the quaint architecture and how the streets all seem to curve in that oh-so-British way.  We walked up a huge hill to Dover Castle, but at more than £20 person just to get in, we decided that our photos and memories of Blarney Castle would serve us just fine.

There was only one logical thing to do. It was time to hike up the White Cliffs and check out the views.  We had seen the cliffs before on our crossing of the English Channel from London to Paris, but this time we could get up close and personal. It was only about a half hour by foot from the center of town to the visitor’s center up on the cliffs.  As the land dropped away behind us, the views just got better and better.  The cliffs themselves are white because they are made largely of calcium carbonate (aka chalk).  Considering how soft and soluble chalk is, it’s amazing that the cliffs have stood for so long.  They reminded me of The Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride.

Next stop was Bruges in Belgium.  We spent about five days here before and completely loved it.  We were still in touch with our couch surfing hosts, so we had arranged to meet them. Unfortunately a communications snafu led to delayed transportation.  Once we realized we had to make the short run into Bruges on our own, the shuttle was sold out.  We took a different shuttle to the town of Blankenberge, only to find that we had *just* missed the train to Bruges, and the next one was in an hour.  That was fine with us!  We explored Blankenberge a bit, and checked out the seaside promenade.

By the time we got from the port in Zeebrugge to Bruges itself, we only had about two hours to spend there, so we had to be efficient.  This is Belgium, and in terms of edibles, it’s known for four things: chocolate, waffles, beer and French fries.  Guess which one was most important to Stephanie.  We wasted no time at all in heading to local chocolate shops.  Stephanie’s favorite of all the Belgian chocolates is Leonidas, where she hand selected a whole pile of assorted truffles to sample.  My favorite is Neuhaus – more expensive, but seriously yummy.

Elliott's favorite Belgian chocolate

Elliott’s favorite Belgian chocolate

As a result of our quick turnaround, our friend Pascal wasn’t able to make it, but Yannick met up with us, and took us through more of Belgium’s culinary delights.  We went to Chez Vincent’s, for what Yannick said were the best fries in Belgium.  Remember what we said about trusting the locals when it comes to food?  Well, the line out the door backed up Yannick’s claim, and we were not disappointed.  French fries were actually invented in Belgium, and I believe they truly are the best in the world.  They have a double frying technique that renders them crispy on the outside, yet soft on the inside.  By the way, the trivia buff in me wants you to know that the word “French” refers to the way the potatoes are sliced, and not the country of origin.

Elliott, Yannick and the best frites in Bruges

Elliott, Yannick and the best frites in Bruges

Lastly, we stopped for a Belgian waffle. Again, it was amazing.

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Finally – a Belgian waffle

Suddenly, it was time to go.  Yannick, sweetheart that she is, walked with us (and her bike) back to the train station, and waited with us on the platform until we pulled away.

Back in Blankenberge, we stocked up on Belgium chocolate to bring home with us.  The Belgians take their chcocolate VERY seriously.  As a result, the stuff in the supermarkets is held to the same high standards as the artisan chocolate houses.  We took it easy, and only bought about €30 worth to take home.  With our case of chocolate in hand, we felt our quick return trip to Belgium was a complete success!

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Our Belgian candy haul

Blarney…Tastes Like Chicken

After sailing across the Atlantic, and spending nine glorious days at sea, we finally reached the Emerald Isle.  Okay, I’m jumping ahead a bit.  Let me back up…

We had this amazing Royal Caribbean cruise booked that sailed out of Copenhagen and covered seven Baltic countries.  (Look for details in future posts.) While Stephanie was diligently researching the best airfare, I happened to discover that the sailing right before ours was a transatlantic crossing.  What better way to arrive in Copenhagen than having spent 16 days already at sea?  Finally, Stephanie cracked under my relentless hinting and we booked our first ever back-to-back sailing.

The transatlantic leg began with six days in a row at sea.  Now, for those of you who have never cruised before, you should know that sea days can be even better than port days.  There are so many activities, shows, and of course, opportunities to eat.  We always tell people “If you’re bored on a cruise ship, it’s because you’re trying to be bored on a cruise ship.”  We spent our time relaxing by the pool, reading magazines, cross stitching, ballroom dancing, winning trivia contests, going to the gym, making friends, watching movies in the ship’s cinema, playing miniature golf, climbing the rock wall, and of course, eating.  As you devoted followers of this blog know, we usually travel pretty hard, so having a week of forced relaxation was heaven.

We did actually call in another port before Cork, Ireland, but if I had started with Ponta Delgada in the Azores, the opening for this post wouldn’t have had the same “gotcha” factor.  In truth, we had been to Ponta Delgada before when we were traveling around the world in 2012.  The Azores are beautiful islands belonging to Portugal, and located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  The only reason Ponta Delgada was less notable this time is simply that it rained all day, and so we didn’t do much on shore.  Stephanie and I did manage to wander around the town for a bit, and of course, we found the obligatory free Wi-Fi so we could catch up on the important goings-on at home.  In the end, however, we were glad we didn’t have big elaborate plans for the day.  We tried some local hot chocolate to stay warm, and looked in the local stores to see what types of treats and candies they had.

Ponta Delgada was just as we remembered it with interesting patterns in the sidewalks made out of black basalt and white limestone.  No two are alike.

Another two days at sea saw us to the port of Cobh, Ireland.  Cobh (pronounced “cove”) is just a quick 25-minute train ride away from downtown Cork, which in turn is only a 25-minute bus ride from famed Blarney Castle – home of the famed Blarney Stone.

The castle itself is exactly how one pictures an old castle: equal parts ominous and charming.  We climbed the narrow, spiral stairs to the top where we hung upside down over a 40 foot drop and planted our lips where thousands of other people planted theirs before.  It’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s one of those bucket list things, so we did it anyway.  See….

The grounds of Blarney Castle are huge and varied.  Our first stop was the poison garden where they grow toxic plants including hemlock, belladonna, and nightshade.  Stephanie was delighted to find that Harry Potter favorites mandrake and wolfsbane are actually real, live plants and not just made up for the series.  The garden even had cannabis.  I never thought of marijuana as poisonous, per se, but just in case, it was safe in a cage where no one could accidentally lay their hands on such a toxic danger.

The Poison Garden

The Poison Garden

We strolled through glades and glens, saw waterfalls and caves, and even found a swing for Stephanie to play on.  There is a rock staircase called the wishing steps where if you walk up and down it backwards with your eyes closed, the Blarney Witch is said to grant your wish.  (Stay tuned for confirmation.)  We also strolled through the Pinetum which I’m sure is pronounced “pine-ee-tum,” but we had fun calling it the “pine-tum.”

Rock Close Waterfall

Rock Close Waterfall

Back in Cork, we discovered Dealz.  Dealz is to Ireland what Poundland is to England or a dollar store in the U.S.   Now, having British parents, I know a thing or two about candy from the U.K., and Dealz had great prices on two of my all-time favorites: Fry’s Turkish Delight, and jelly babies.  I know I went into detail about jelly babies once before on this blog, but they’re worth mentioning again.  So much better than jelly beans!  I may have gone a wee bit crazy stocking up on British candy. (A note to the jelly baby purists:  I looked for Bassetts, but couldn’t find them anywhere.  Crilly’s taste exactly the same.)

The UK candy stash

The UK candy stash!

What we saw of Cork was nice, but between the trek to Blarney Castle and the candy, we didn’t really get to see the town itself.  So, as with many places we’ve been on our travels, we resolved to come back again someday.

Attack of the Sea Urchin

Stephanie kind of minimized the events of my devastating sea urchin attack, but here’s what really happened…

We were SCUBA diving off La Digue in the Seychelles, and we were about 90 feet down. I was so enthralled looking at the reef that I failed to notice a giant, man-eating, killer sea urchin sneaking up on me. This thing had to be at least three feet across!!!

giant sea urchin.jpg

Giant, Killer Sea Urchin

Stephanie tried to signal me, but it was too late. Suddenly, the sea urchin grabbed me in its tentacles, and started jabbing me with its venomous spines – at least 60 or 70 puncture wounds!! Meanwhile, Stephanie was having none of this. She unsheathed her diving knife, and saved my life by killing the sea urchin.

It was too late to fend off the worst of the attack, however. The venom was affecting my central nervous system, and I was beginning to black out. Thinking quickly, Stephanie fashioned a makeshift tourniquet out of her bikini top to prevent the venom from completing its fatal work. It was then that she brought me slowly to the surface making sure I didn’t get the bends. Once on land, she hoisted me up in a fireman’s hold and carried me the 19 miles to the hospital.

The clinic turned out to be in some guy’s garage, so I was grateful that I didn’t actually need surgery. Instead, they prescribed fresh lemon juice to break up the spines still stuck in me. As much as I wanted to take the lemon juice orally in the form of a cooling (possibly alcoholic) beverage, it was to be applied topically.  I spent the next two weeks in traction recuperating while Stephanie tried to get me on “Good Morning, America.”  (Note: They weren’t interested.)

All in all, it was a lucky break for all involved except for Stephanie’s bikini top which was never seen again. 😦

bikini top

Barbecue Country

We had celebrated Stephanie’s birthday bash in two out of three planned cities, but I swear this last one was just as much, if not more, for me.  But, we’ll get back to that in a bit.

Music City, USA!  Aka… Nashville, TN.  Sounds perfect for me right?  But…what if I’m not a Country Music fan? It was clearly time to broaden my horizons.  Stephanie started me off with a trial by fire – a night in the Opryland hotel.

Wow, this place is huge. With just over 30 million rooms, it’s one of the largest hotels in the country. (Okay, 2888 rooms.)   It’s so big that the outdoor spaces are actually indoors, as the view from our balcony will show.

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After dropping our stuff, we went exploring.  There’s a canal in the central promenade area where you can actually take an indoor boat tour.  So we did.  Then we browsed around the shops.  If I was a country music fan, I would have been in heaven.

Stephanie had stayed in the Opryland Hotel eons before she met me, and she wanted to recreate the experience for me.  That experience included a Dancing Waters show.  We arrived at the right time, but after 30 minutes of waiting around, it was clear the waters would not be dancing.  There was no announcement, no apologetic hotel employee, nothing.  This wasn’t even the only incident like this.  Earlier in the afternoon we had decided to check out some of the live music happening all around the hotel.  Not being country fans, there was exactly one band we wanted to see.  We headed over to the restaurant on the schedule to find that it was closed – again with nothing to let us poor, hapless guests know.

Now, we aren’t the types to complain about things, but the lack of dancing-water-light show was a real disappointment to Stephanie, so we headed to the front desk, and found a manager.  She was very apologetic.  Even better than that, she refunded our parking fees, our gondola ride (18 bucks), and even my Moon Pie.  Extra Bonus: Despite what the manager had told us, subsequent Dancing Waters shows went off without a hitch, and we were still able to enjoy the experience!  The day was saved.

For dinner we went to the Jack Daniels restaurant on site.  We don’t usually post pictures of food, but this was fan-freakin’-tastic Southern cooking.  More importantly, Jack Daniels would factor heavily in to the future of our Nashville visit.  So feast your eyes on our feast (feastly). Man, I’m getting hungry.

One night was enough in the oh-so-points-expensive Opryland, so for the rest of our visit, we returned to our roots and went couch surfing.  Our host, Steve, was great, and pointed us to all sorts of things to see and do in Nashville.  He lived walking-distance from Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack – the original pioneer of Nashville Hot Chicken. What is hot chicken?  It’s basically friend chicken that’s been doused in hot sauce before its fried.  It was totally worth the 45 minute wait!

Some of the other Nashville highlights we enjoyed were the hip Five-Points district, where we had had some most delicious $5 slices of pizza, and Centennial Park.  Built in 1897 for Tennessee’s Centennial Exposition, the park contains a full-size replica of the Parthenon.  Inside is an art museum and a display of items from the Expo.  There’s also a nice lake to wander around, and fun swinging chairs that Stephanie loved.  We swung a LOT over our time in Nashville.

Remember when I said this part of our trip was perfect for meee?  After a few days in Nashville, the whole reason for our trip there was about to unfold.  We had timed our trip to coincide with the Annual Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue.  We took a beautiful drive through rural Tennessee to Lynchburg – about 1.5 hours from Nashville.  Before getting our grill on, we toured the Jack Daniel’s distillery.  Now Stephanie and I aren’t big drinkers, and we never drink straight spirits, so it was even funnier that I had insisted on taking the version of the tour that included a flight of five different types of JD to sample.

The tour was really interesting.  Every drop of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey is produced right there in Lynchburg.  Things we saw included making charcoal from sugar maple wood for “mellowing,”  the original natural spring that still provides all the water for the distilling process, and the famous oak barrels that are used for aging.

After touring the facility, we got to sample the product.  They gave us tiny cups with maybe a quarter shot in each one.  After finishing all the ones Stephanie didn’t like, I had a total of about a shot and a half.  This was enough to get my head pleasantly spinning.  (Did I mention what a lightweight I am?)  We did find that we liked the Tennessee Honey, so we set off to the requisite gift shop to buy some.  Ironically, Moore County where Lynchburg is located is a “dry” county, meaning that alcohol cannot legally be sold.  Somehow, Jack Daniel’s is allowed to sell you the bottle, so if some of their product happens to be inside it, well, that’s just fine with the authorities.

Good thing the Barbecue was just down the street, as I was in no shape to drive.  (Just Kidding.)  We learned that in order to blend in with the crowd in rural Tennessee, your clothing must fall into one of the following categories: Harley Davidson, mossy oak camouflage, or Alabama Crimson Tide.  All kidding aside, the barbecue was a lot of fun, and had been on my hit list for almost 20 years.  In order for a barbecue team to be invited to compete, they must win a state championship of at least 25 competitors.  This is an extremely prestigious event that featured over 100 grilling teams from all over the world.

At the Barbecue, we met up with Stephanie’s Aunt & Uncle.  Gail and Bob live in Huntsville, AL, which is about as close to Lynchburg as Nashville.    Even better, Stephanie’s Aunt Gail knew someone on one of the barbecue teams.  We went over to say hi after the judging was over, and were treated to some of the best Gol-Durned brisket I’ve ever had.  We found out later that their team came in 8th place.  Not too shabby!

Back in Nashville, I couldn’t escape it any longer.  It was time to go listen to some country music.  We headed to downtown Nashville and the Honky Tonk Highway.

This stretch of Lower Broadway is one country bar after another, and the bands there all work for tips, so there are no cover charges.  You’re free to wander in and out of different venues soaking up as much of Music City as you like.  Now, I feel about as at home in a country bar as I did in the principal’s office in elementary school, but I have to say, I had a really good time.  We saw some fun acts, and I found myself getting into it and wanting to stay longer than either of us thought we would.  We even came across a horn band comprised of kids called Pelican 212, featuring mini Blues Brothers as the front men who were R-O-C-K-I-N’ the street.  My favorite, though, was the last act we saw: a country/rockabilly crossover featuring a stand-up bass player.

VIDEO: Countrified G’nR
VIDEO: Pelican 212
VIDEO: Truck Drivin’ Man – Rockabilly Style

One day to go, so we went to Monell’s for lunch.  This place is similar to Mrs. Wilkes’ Boarding House in Savannah.  You are seated with whomever enters the restaurant at the same time as you, and you enjoy family-style dining as plate after plate of amazing Southern cooking is passed around the table.

After consuming my body weight in killer food, we worked it off at Shelby Bottoms park where we went for a long walk and a short nap before renting bikes and taking in the scenery.

Our last night in Nashville, and we couldn’t leave without seeing some more live music.  Our couch surfing host, Steve, is in about 30 bands (Okay, 6), and his glam band, Lipstick, was playing that night.  Before we got to see him play, though, we had to suffer through the God-Awful opening act.  Remember in back in high school the stoner/metal head guys who thought it would be cool to form a band?  Well this was them.  The first thing they did was proclaim that they played “HEAVY F–KIN’ METAL!”  Seriously, these guys were a caricature.  Here’s a pic to sum it all up:

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HEAVY F–KIN’ METAL!

Lipstick was pretty good, though.  It’s always fun to watch a band and go “Hey I know that guy on the bass!”  It was a good thing we were there, too.  One of the people they depended on to open their set was AWOL, so I got to fill in as mad-scientist dog, Dr. Woofenstein.

VIDEO: The awful metal band (spoiler alert: sucky cliche enclosed)
VIDEO: ME as Dr. Woofenstein
VIDEO: Lipstick

I *knew* I loved barbecue.  I had never even heard of the Opryland Hotel.  And I was pretty sure I hated country music.  But in the end, the 3rd city in Stephanie’s Birthday Tour turned out to be a huge hit!

Alohomora, Hogwarts

Warning: If you’re not a Harry Potter nerd, some of this entry will not feel as magical to you (see what I did there?) as it might otherwise.   But you should read it anyway.

We had been to Universal Studios, Orlando several years ago soon after they opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWoHP), and we were amazed with how it felt like stepping into the movies.  Now, if you can believe it, it’s even better!  Universal has two parks in Orlando: the classic Universal Studios, and Islands of Adventure.  The “original” Harry Potter section is in Islands of Adventure, and recreates the village of Hogsmeade.  Now they’ve added Diagon Alley to Universal Studios, and if you have the multi-park pass, you can ride the Hogwarts Express (train) between the two.

But before we get to how bloody brilliant the whole WWoHP is, let’s introduce the other recurring characters in this week’s episode.  If you’ve been following our travels, you met my brother Erik when we went to Dubai together last year.  This time he joined us in Orlando with his girlfriend, Ryan, who may be an even bigger Harry Potter geek than me.

Okay, so Orlando.  Universal Studios is much smaller than Disney World, and so it’s possible to stay offsite, and walk to the front gate in about 20 minutes.  Even better, our offsite hotel was on a local, Orlando bus route from the airport.  So instead of $40 each to take a shuttle, two bucks on the bus took us right there. Yay budget travel!

Erik and Ryan wouldn’t be joining us for a couple of days, but we weren’t about to wait.  We woke up early and headed straight for Islands of Adventure.  You’re supposed to be able to get inside an hour early if you’re staying on site, and we found they don’t check tickets very thoroughly (if at all).  Just act like you belong, and they’ll wave you in with a theme-park-y smile.

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That’s why we’re here!

Hogsmeade was just as we remembered it; covered with permanent snow, and filled with magic.  The biggest attraction there is called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and your journey takes place inside Hogwarts castle.  The line is often over 75 minutes long.  We walked right on.  Five times!  It is seriously an awesome ride.

Then we decided that maybe we should check out some other stuff in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  One of my favorite rides is the Harry Potter Dragon Challenge, where two suspended roller coasters (“inverted” to coaster aficionados) twist and wind through each other. This used to be called Dueling Dragons before this section of the park was transformed into the WWoHP.  Unfortunately, however, they have discontinued the best part: The two trains used to be weighed before dispatch, and were started at different times so they hit a pair of outside loops at the same moment.  It made you feel like you were going to collide until in the last minute, you spun up and over with your feet seemingly inches from the riders of the other train.  Even though there was never any real danger OR any accidents, the officials decided that if a shoe flew off someone’s foot at the wrong moment, it would be bad. For them. In a litigious sort of way.

The ride is still a blast, and there is so much to see and do in Hogsmeade that there’s no point crying over spilled pumpkin juice.  We visited Ollivander’s and watched a wand choose a wizard (read: kid selected out of the crowd). We wandered through Honeyduke’s sweet shop and tried not to buy everything.  Did I mention the Hogwart’s Forbidden Journey ride is one of the most amazing theme park attractions we’ve ever been on? (Five times in a row?!)

We visited many other lands in Islands of Adventure that day too.  We took Stephanie to Seuss Landing where we acted like kids, and shamelessly rode the Caro-Suess-el on strange Dr. Seuss characters.  We went to Marvel Comics Land, and rode Stephanie’s favorite coaster – The Incredible Hulk.  And we went on soaking water rides to cool off from the heat of the day.

The next day it rained.  Actually, it poured. It hammered.  It was like a Biblical, 40-days-and-40-nights style storm was on us.  So we decided to take a day off from the parks.  It was a difficult decision to make on Day 2 of our trip, but it was just as well because Stephanie had a plan to do something incredibly unlike her.  She wanted to watch all eight Harry Potter movies in the week we would be in Orlando.  We only had park passes for four days, but that’s still a tall undertaking.  (I’m pleased to report that we knocked out all eight of them in three days.)

Day three: the skies were clear, and we were ready.  Right about now, you may be asking yourself what about Erik and Ryan?  Where are they?  Well, this is the day that they met up with us.  If you thought Stephanie’s eight-movies-in-three-days plan was crazy, get a load of this:  Erik and Ryan were taking a 6:00 am flight from Philly, and were going to meet us in the parks by about 9:00.  Or so they told us.  We know all too well what travel is like, and headed off to Universal Studios to check out Diagon Alley.  We figured we’d catch up with them by noon or so.

If Hogsmeade was amazing, then Diagon Alley was Jaw-dropping, mind-blowingly incredible.  After entering from a non-descript street entrance, Diagon Alley unfolds in front of you looking exactly like the movie, complete with rakishly angled walls and glaring wizard colors. At the end of the street is Gringott’s – the wizarding bank, looking exactly like it does in the movies.  The dragon on top even breathes fire periodically. (We caught it on video.)  This building houses the only attraction in Diagon Alley – Escape From Gringott’s – a 4-D adventure/thrill ride that does not disappoint.

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Diagon Alley


We rode it a few times, but did not explore Diagon Alley in too much detail since Erik and Ryan were on their way.  Instead, we rode a few other Universal attractions, while we waited.  They obligingly gave us plenty of time by rolling up around 1:00pm.  But at last they were there, and the Harry Pottering could begin in earnest.

We checked out the Knight Bus, and chatted with Stan Shunpike (the conductor) and the shrunken head hanging from the rearview mirror. We browsed in Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes – the joke shop run by Ron Weasley’s older brothers Fred and George.  We had a seat on Sirius Black’s flying motorcycle, and found the entrance to Knockturn Alley – a dodgy place where you can find all kinds of Dark magic items at Borgin & Burkes.  We also had a butterbeer, and some of the best ice cream I’ve ever had at Florean Fortescue’s ice cream parlor.

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With Stan Shunpike at the Knight Bus

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Stephanie will love it here!

The next few days found us back in the parks, back in the rain (at times) and back in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. (Also watching more movies whenever we could fit them in!)

We went on several rides based on Universal movies including Men in Black, the Simpsons, and the very cheesy, yet irresistible E.T.  We even played in the world of Curious George.

We also went on the Mummy – an indoor roller coaster based on the movie starring Brendan Fraser.  Okay, I know I said the Dragon Challenge was my favorite ride at Universal, but THIS is really my favorite.  It’s got the right blend of campiness and thrills, and is too much fun not to ride over and over again.  (“Are you insane?!  Get out of here!  The Curse!  It’s real!!”)

As a dyed-in-the-wool Disney fan, I have to say that Universal Studios can really hold its own, and even excels over Disney in one important area: A four-day pass to Universal is cheaper than two days Disney World.  And before you could say “finite incantatum,” it seemed we were bidding Universal Studios (and Erik & Ryan) farewell, and went for one last good time in Orlando.

We originally met our friends Ben and Caitlin in Cuenca and got very close with them in the three months they lived there.  Now, having finished their South American travels, they live once again in Orlando.  We spent one night at their place catching up and enjoying each other’s company, and then it was time to return to Ecuador (with cricket flour protein bars as a souvenir from Ben).

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With Ben & Caitlin

Quickstop: Seattle…and our first Mileage Run

If Amtrak was going to drop us off in Seattle, we might as well spend a day or two, right?  We got back to our roots by couch surfing which we hadn’t done for a long time.  It felt really good to stay with a total stranger again.  If you’ve never tried it before, that probably sounds a little weird, but we like meeting new people and making new friends.  It’s also nice to be reminded that there are humans who are good to each other for no reason.

After getting to our couch surfing host and getting to know him, our first downtown stop had to be that classic Seattle institution – Cow Chip Cookies.  We sampled these cookies last time we were in Seattle, and couldn’t wait to come back for more.  They’re as delicious as they are pricey – a gooey, chocolatey splurge.

But this is a post about Seattle, not cookies, so let’s continue…

But this is a post about Seattle, not cookies, so let’s continue….Our host suggested we go to the top of the Columbia Tower, rather than the Space Needle.  We decided to go for it.  Once we got to the 40th floor though, we decided not to shell out the large ticket price.  There were huge windows everywhere, and glass doors in front of them, so we could see the city views from where we were!  After a covert snapshot or two, we returned to street-level and headed off to the Seattle Central Library Library.

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At least the brochure is free

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Looks impressive, even from the lobby

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Yup, that’s Seattle alright

The library is an architectural marvel, so we were excited to finally go inside.  My favorite feature was the “book spiral.”  Four of the upper floors have a continuous ramp that slowly spirals you through the Dewey Decimal System without ever having to take stairs or an elevator to another floor. We also loved the magazine archives which have issues from pretty much every magazine you’ve ever heard of (and a good deal of those you haven’t).  We had fun looking up birthday issues, and Stephani even found the very issue of Arizona Highways magazine that made her fall in love with  and almost move to Arizona many years ago (she’s moved on).

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Inside the library

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Looking down at the floor waaay below

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Stephanie’s birthday issue

Up next was the Seattle Underground Tour.  Here’s the short story: Seattle was originally built on marshy wetlands that had a tendency to flood.  After a devastating fire, the decision was made to rebuild Seattle a little higher (kind of like the underground tunnels in the Magic Kingdom) in order to avoid future flooding.  The original streets were shored up with concrete walls, and new streets were built overhead so that what was once the second floor of a building was now at street level.  This left a whole warren of underground tunnels which are full of all kinds of history – including the gravity-fed flush toilet which was new to Seattle, and invented by one Thomas Crapper.  (For real!)

That evening, we caught up with our friend, Josh.  We both used to work with him in Philly before he relocated to Seattle.  We spent the evening playing games and reliving old times.  And just like that, our time in Seattle was over.  All that was left now was a mileage run on our way home.

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What’s a mileage run? Well I’m glad you asked.  A mileage run is when you take a very cheap flight just to rack up the miles.  Usually this is done to achieve status with an airline.  This time, we had a different goal.  JetBlue was offering 75,000 points if you (a) had at least 50,000 points with Virgin Atlantic (the competition!), and (b) took any round trip flight with JetBlue. I have always wanted to take a mileage run flight before, but we never found one we could take that we deemed worthwhile.  Until now!

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We do too

Okay, stay with me… our ticket home from Seattle had a long layover in Oakland.  We used that time to take a 45 JetBlue minute flight to Long Beach, California and then another back to Oakland.  This cost us about 75 bucks, and earned us 75,000 JetBlue miles.  Each!  After that, it was just a matter of flying home to Philly and spending almost five whole days(!) trying to catch our breath before heading out on our next adventure.

Railroad Redux

That was fun, let’s do it again!

We had such a great time on our last overnight Amtrak trip that we couldn’t wait to do it again.  Again, we were taking one of Amtrak’s most scenic routes – the Coast Starlight from Los Angeles to Seattle.

Since we came directly from our return flight from Hawaii, we arrived at Union Station with several hours to go before our train.  We were just settling in for the wait when I decided to check at the Amtrak window to get our boarding passes printed out… just in case we needed them.  The Amtrak lady saw that we had sleeper accommodations booked, and said “Oh honey, you don’t need to be down here.  You’re first class.  There’s a lounge you can wait in.” Wow! First class. As a budget traveler, I must admit I liked how that sounded – mostly because lounges come with free Wi-Fi (for Stephanie) and food (for me).  We headed up to the lounge and relaxed with free Wi-Fi and food until it was time to board our train.

Our roomette was just as we remembered it, so we left our things there and went to check out the Parlour car.  Amtrak’s Coast Starlight is the only train in their system that features the Pacific Parlour Car.  It’s like the Sightseer Lounge Car, but for sleeper (read: First Class) passengers only. The Parlour features the same panoramic windows, but has more luxurious seating, unique food options, and Wi-Fi.  The car itself is a genuine railroad relic from the 50s, refurbished and styled in luxury. It wasn’t all wood-paneling-and-velvet, Victorian luxury, but there was enough brass and heavy drapery to let me pretend.  There’s even a small cinema on the lower level.

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A holdover from the golden age of Railroad travel

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The Pacific Parlour Car

We opted for lunch in the Parlour Car (Asian salad), and spent the morning enjoying the real reason we booked this journey – California’s gorgeous coastline.  The Coast Starlight hugs the Pacific coast from Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo, and is one of their most sought-after routes.

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The Asian Salad was giant and delicious!

 

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Say goodbye to Hollywood – see the sign?

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Looking the other way

After San Luis Obispo, we turned inland, and the views grew more mountainous while I turned my attention to more serious pursuits.

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A farm in the desert with mountains behind

That evening we watched a beautiful sunset before Stephanie surprised me by saying we should go watch a movie in the on-board cinema.  (The movie was The Martian, and it was made more enjoyable by the fact that we were watching it on a speeding train.)

That night, our roomette was already turned down for us and set up for bed.  Again we squeezed into a lower-bunk meant for one person, and let the soothing swaying of the train put us to sleep.  We woke up to a chilly morning in Klamath Falls, Oregon, just in time to stretch our legs.

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Even the train is smiling

As the train made its way north, we passed duck ponds, glacial lakes, and some rural Pacific-Northwest living before arriving in Seattle that evening.

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Which one should I drive?

We’ve pretty much used up our Amtrak points, so it doesn’t look like we’ll be doing this again in the near future, but I keep nagging Stephanie to start racking them up again.  Yes, train travel is slower and can even be more expensive than air travel, but there is something relaxing and romantic about it, and we’d love to do it again someday.