Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Costa Rica (Arenal, Monteverde, San Jose)

This December we were looking for a destination which wasn't a long flight away and gave us some time to relax, basically didn't offer much places to see. At the same time, we wanted to enjoy some adventurous activities as well. So, we chose Costa Rica. Here is our brief itinerary:
Day 0: Arrive in San Jose --> Transfer to La Fortuna
Day 1: Rafting --> Hot Springs
Day 2: Horse Riding --> Hike
Day 3: Transfer to Monteverde
Day 4: Ziplining --> Touring around
Day 5: Jungle hike --> Transfer to San Jose
Day 6: Day tour of San Jose --> Fly out

Where to go in Costa Rica?

Costa Rica is mostly known for its beaches, rainforests and volcanoes. While picking our destinations, my focus was to pick places which had good rafting and ziplining options and beaches were a strict no from Sumit. So, when I researched, I could see that popular picks were Arenal volcano(La Fortuna town), Monteverde cloudforest, Manuel Antonio and Guanacaste for its beaches and Tortuguero national park for its canals. Since we didn't want to do much hopping around, we chose La Fortuna and Monteverde.
Overall, I would add more activities to my itinerary. I felt I had a lot of free time than I would have liked. I would have also chosen to go to Guanacaste or Manuel Antonio instead of spending a day in San Jose. Arenal and Monteverde are fun and beautiful and green though. 

Where to fly?

San Jose (SJO): It is a popular airport with many connections to offer and flies in to the capital so we got our tickets for here.
Liberia (LIR): This airport is closer to the Guanacaste and Monteverde area and is more popular for the tourists. But we did not find good tickets to this place and hence decided to transfer by road from San Jose.

Our itinerary:

Day 0:

Arenal Volcano - La Fortuna
We arrived at the San Jose airport around 10 am and had booked our private transfer to La Fortuna. So, we went straight from the airport to La Fortuna. It took around 3 hours for us to get there. We were staying at San Bosco Inn and it was a very good choice. They had a very spacious property right next to the downtown. rooms for decent enough with a patio to enjoy the short lived rainstorms.
The downtown itself is very small and you can walk around the entire area in about 30-40 minutes. We ate at Nanku restaurant. The typical Costa Rican dish includes rice and beans and is called tipica. Good for vegetarians like us, it reminded us of rajma chawal, though without the Indian "tadka", but was filling enough.

Day 1:

Today was the rafting day. It was my first time and as I am terrified of being in water, I think I hardly smiled that morning. Our tour was booked by Wave Expeditions and this was the best thing we did on this tour. I highly highly recommend it for anyone travelling to this place.
We were picked from our hotel and were driven to the banks of Sarapiqui river which was about 90 minutes away. There was a stop in between in a town which is famous for iguanas and oh boy, we saw so many iguanas that I doubt I'd ever see in one place ever again. Our guide had given us instructions on what to and what not to do. Listening to the instruction on what to do when you fall off the raft did scare the hell out of me, but well, I had to get it off my bucket list. 
Bar by the pool - Tabacon Hot Springs
We were then split in to groups of 6 and given instructions once again by our guide on the raft. Five of us were newbies and Sumit was the most experienced one with this being his second time. I was lucky and did not fall off the raft. A few people from other rafts did and it looked scary to see people floating away with the river, but they were all rescued and were alive, which was pacifying!
There was a much needed lunch at the end of our two and half hour workout which tasted delicious. Then we were dropped off at our hotel after another 90 minute bus ride.
In the evening, we headed to Tabacon Hot Springs. Simply beautiful and a very relaxing spa. there were many different spring pools and we kept hopping from one to the other. we got towel and a locker on our entrance. Spent around 90 minutes in there and then we were ready for our dinner. Not many options for the veggies in that buffet, but we were able to stuff ourselves with some rice, beans, nachos, guacamole and some fruits. After a long adventurous day, we were ready to head back to our hotel around 10 pm to crash for the night. 

Day 2:

With Chocolate
Mmm.. Veggie sushi rolls!
We had horse riding and hiking on our itinerary this day. We got to the La Fortuna waterfall park around 8 am. Here we walked up to the stable and were given a horse each for a group of about 20 people. The name of my horse was "Chocolate". Initially I was a bit scared that I would fall off from the horse, but then ten minutes later, I was quite comfortable and enjoyed the horse ride. It was fun when the horse tried to gallop a bit. Once we reached the trail head of the waterfall hike. We got off the horses and started hiking downhill. Some steps initially and then some more hike to get to the waterfall. It was a pretty sight and the water was cold, but it was raining. So, I wasn't too happy about the rains. All drenched, I didn't even feel like getting in the water. Other tourists were happily swimming though. After a bit, we hiked back uphill and then horse ride back to the stable, with a an obligatory stop at the native village (arggh!!- precisely why I hate these tour organizers). Anyhow, it was fun experience. Hike was pretty good, strenuous though. I'd recommend it for the hiker sorts.
We had the rest of the day to ourselves and we spent some time watching a movie at our hotel and some time walking around the town. It was sushi evening for us. We found an excellent restaurant to satisfy our veggie sushi cravings, Kappa Sushi.

Day 3:

Transparent butterflies!
Today was our transfer day. Time to pack our bags and head to Monteverde. We got to the Arenal Lake by bus. Then it was an hour long boat ride. Very beautiful views on our way. Just that I was freaked out about the boat capsizing. After an hour long ride, it was an hour long drive to our lodge close to the cloudforest. As soon as you enter the Monteverde area, roads disappear. There are no roads and all rides are super bumpy. Monteverde is also a little colder compared to Arenal area, but less rainy. After we got to our hotel, we headed out for some lunch and sightseeing.
Hello cockroach!
After filling our tummies with tipica(Costa Rican typical dish of rice and beans), we walked around the small town. Headed to a butterfly garden. They have guided 45 minute tours. Our guide was really enthusiastic about telling us everything about the insects and butterflies and this visit was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed touching the butterflies and cockroaches. Then, we headed to the frog pond, which was a sheer disappointment compares to the butterfly garden. A dull and boring guide and tiny frogs trapped in a glass cage. Trust me, California Academy of Sciences has a better exhibit! After we headed out, we went to the downtown for some dinner. We dined at the TreeHouse restaurant and it was a very lively and fun place to be in the evening. Lovely ambiance and live music. That was our day 3 in Costa Rica.
That's the way a frog moves!

Day 4:

It was time for ziplining today! Early morning we headed to the Selvatura park. Got our gear on, and paid some extra cash to choose the superman ziplining(I highly highly recommend this!). I was initially scared for the first zipline, so much so, that I braked using my glove accidentally and was hanging in the middle. Luckily, better sense prevailed and I let go off my brakes and was able to continue my zipline without having to be rescued by our guide to my embarrasment. After the first zipline, other 12 were a piece of cake and super duper fun. There was a tarzan swing in the end, which I chickened out of, but looked like fun! And I super glad we chose the super man swing in the end. It was the longest zipline and your harness hangs you like a superman from the rope. So, you get beautiful views and its an awesome superman-ish feeling! :) Must must choose this option. I don't have our picture, but this is what it looks like.
After spending almost the entire day here, we headed for our hotel and after a brief nap, headed to their small downtown area for dinner. We ate at restaurant exactly opposite the Tree House. Good food again. And it was time for some rest after a long adventurous day! We were staying at the Cala Lodge in Monteverde. Nice clean wooden cabins. No heaters, but well insulated though.

Day 5:

Hiking time!
We were scheduled for some jungle walk today. We spent a couple of hours hiking in the Monteverde cloud forest with a guide. This was the most disappointing activity. We spotted a few birds, squirrels and monkeys. But, it wasn't much adventurous. I think we were used to the adrenaline rush by rafting and ziplining by now :) But, only a couple of hours and we were back to our lodge for a quick pack our bags and grab a bite before heading to San Jose. We had a private transfer by Interbus. It was a 10 seater van and having no roads in that hilly area made me nauseous. So I sat in the front. It was a beautiful ride, just that all the nausea made it terrible for me.
Once in San Jose, we checked into our Santo Tomas hotel in the downtown area. Beautiful boutique style hotel. Reminded me of Hotel Transylvania. Headed out for dinner and got back in time to watch a  movie.

Day 6:

Those are all business cards from around the world
I hate myself for signing up for a day tour. And I also hate myself for choosing Irazu volcano over Poas volcano. So, don't do any of these unless you want to regret later. I should have stuck to my instincts of DIY trip and headed to Poas volcano. The tour took us to Irazu, but it was cloudy, so we didn't see much, except that I could tell that there is a crater here, right in front of me, but I can't see it. Then, there was a short visit to a church followed by a visit to a botanical garden. Total waste of time. I could have flown in a day earlier and gotten over my jet lag to get ready for my New Year party. But well, lesson learnt for future.
After we got back, it was time to find some Indian food. We researched and headed to Taj which was close to the airport area. Food was decent enough and quiet authentic. After stuffing ourselves and taking a couple of samosas to go for our long long flight, we headed back to the hotel. We took a short nap and packed our bags for the long flight home.

How to get around?

Cabs are your best bet. Monteverde and Arenal, cabs are cheap, but they are a bit expensive in San Jose. I had extensively read online that one shouldn't be driving in Costa Rica. But after my trip I met a friend, who recommended that we should've driven. So, next time I think I will most likely drive. Having driven in India, it won't be tough I think.

What could have we done better?

  1. Book early: We made our booking about 5 weeks in advance and it seems we were late as most of the hotels were not available. Given it was a peak season, book early.
  2. Spend lesser time: I felt we could have added more activities or visited more regions in the given amount of time.
  3. Done tours ourselves: Should have definitely not done the San Jose day tour. Rafting and Ziplining were freaking awesome and are a must do. Even horse riding and hiking. Should have added hiking to the Arenal volcano. But the observatory was closed and we ditched it.
  4. Nicaragua: A short day trip from Arenal and Monteverde is totally do-able.
  5. Tour Company: made our bookings via Anywhere Costa Rica which was super convenient and if you are looking for travel agents to plan your itinerary, I would recommend them.
  6. Laundry: You would need to dry your shoes if you plan on doing rafting one day and hiking the next day. There are many laundry services in Arenal and they helped us with drying our shoes, since I had carried only one pair of closed-toe sport shoes. So, you might want to carry an extra pair.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Canada (Vancouver)

This was one of those tag along trips for me. Sumit was in Vancouver for a conference and I decided to join him for a few days after his conference ended. We had 4 days in all and they were more than enough for us to fall in love with the Canadian people and Canada itself. 

When did we go?

We were in Vancouver from 14th -19th August and the weather was amazing. Very very pleasant, absolutely perfect. We didn't have to pick the dates, we had to stick with the conference days, and it turned out to be pretty decent choice of dates, weather wise.
However, in case you are planning to visit Whistler as well, you may prefer going sometime earlier in the summer as they have some gondolas operational only from May-July. 

Where did we stay?

We wanted to stay in the downtown area and found an excellent B&B option through airbnb. Beautiful apartment with an excellent view. The owner was a professional travel blogger and gave us some great tips on what to and what not to do in the city. We stayed close to the intersection of Seymour Street and Davie Street. We were within walking distance of major downtown streets and close to public transport as well. So, all in all, worked out well for us :)

How did we get around?

Public transport is perfect to get around the city. Even to get to Granville Island or the Grouse Mountain, public transport works out perfect. But we rented a car to get to Whistler and since we had an extra day, we drove to Harrison Lake and Bridal Veil falls too.

What did we do?

I landed on Thursday evening, right after Sumit got done with his last session at the conference. We had full four days until we flew out on Tuesday morning. On the whole, we spent time in Vancouver downtown, Grouse Mountain, Capillano Bridge and a day in Whistler.

DAY 1: Stanley Park, Robson Street, Gastown

Our tandem bike
We had an early start to the day and were planning to spend half a day biking around the Stanley park and the Vancouver waterfront. Our host recommended Reckless Bike Store, walking distance from our place. They had a tandem bike, which is a must for us, since I do not know how to ride a bike (yes, embarrassing, I know, but let us get past this now, okay!). So we got our bike route maps, which were super helpful when we got lost (like we always do on a bike), and we were biking! Our approximate bike route.

Totem poles
Stanley Park has so much to see that you can spend an entire day here, but we weren't really interested in museums or aquariums. Hence, we biked along the seawall and stopped at Totempoles for some photo ops, also at the light house, and some very very scenic views. It was a whole lot of fun just biking around the park, with so much activity going on around you. We stopped at the Teahouse for a quick bite.
Once we exited the park, we headed to the waterfront area, near Canada Place and then in search for a dedicated biking route, ended up somewhere close to the Rogers Arena. Then Google maps and biking maps helped us get back to the biking store. After we were done, it was time for some rest! Oh btw, we did try some veggie hot dogs at those mobile stalls that are in abundance in Vancouver and they were quite bad.
The steam clock - Gastown
After a short nap, we headed to the Robson street for the evening. What a lively place to be. Reminded me of 3rd street promenade in LA. Our Indian palette was craving for some spicy food and we ended up going to Salaam Bombay. Average. I expected Vancouver to have some better desi food options. Later, we headed to the waterfront for a stroll near the convention center and then to the Gastown for night. Another lively neighborhood to hang out. Must must hang around this area. Super lively and fun. Stopped by the steam clock to see what the fuss is all about and then headed back home. 

DAY 2: Grouse Mountain, Capilano Bridge, Granville Island

Grouse Mountain
Early start as usual. I wonder why on vacations I promptly get up at 7 or 8, while on regular weekdays, I am usually asleep till 9 30! Anyhow, we took the subway to the Convention Center. From here we took the SeaBus(ferry ride) to the Lonsdale Quay. From here we took the bus to the Grouse Mountain. We reached by 10 am. 
Once here, you would need to buy your passes for the skyride to take you at the first level. Here you have a nice restaurant; a couple of bears in a confined area, which you can spot if you are lucky; a lumberjack show, which I highly recommend and is super funny. There is also a show with the birds and stuff. But it was so foggy, that we could barely see the lumberjack show from 10 feet away. So, we were very disappointed. It was just a bad day. The weather in Vancouver was pretty bright and sunny, but the Grouse Mountain was covered in fog. I am sure it makes for a very scenic place to walk around, but fog makes it look all white.
Then we took our passes for a chairlift to the next level. The ride was fun, even though it was more foggy here than at the previous level, mostly because of height. People were ziplining here, but we decided to give it a miss. It was so foggy, I am not sure if it would have been fun. There is a windmill here and you can take a ride to the top of the windmill for a 360 degree view. But, we skipped it due to the fog. Tip: You can buy passes for all three rides all together at the base ticket counter too.
Capilano Bridge
Around 2 pm, we took the bus to Capilano Bridge, which is on your way back to Vancouver from the Grouse Mountain. We were there in about 30 minutes or so. Got our tickets and the map. I love places which have maps to offer. It gives me a chance to come up with another mini plan. But first, we got some excellent falafals from the snack shops there. This is a very fun place to be. Walking on that bridge is freaking scary, especially when you get to the middle and the damn bridge is swinging. The tree top walks on the other side are fun too. There were some birds on display and my favorite was the owl. Such a beauty. Loved observing the bird so up,
close and personal. After spending some fun hours here, we got back on the bus to the downtown. Here we changed our bus to take us to the Granville Island. It is small little tourist attraction in itself.
Public market - Granville Island
We walked around the small little island and ended up at the Public Market. Here we literally pounced on the coconut water and some yummy chocolate desserts. Then, we couldn't stop ourselves from buying mangoes which looked so fresh. After we were done with our groceries (rolling eyes), we walked around for a little while. I hear the Granville Pub has some excellent beers to offer. From here, we took an aquabus back to the Davie Street, closest to our apartment. Small, round, multicolored ferries they are, that go from the Granville Island to different parts of the downtown. Super cute!
And then, Sumit had some sushi craving. Yes, veggies sushi. So we quickly googled for some sushi options close by and voila, we found one close to our apartment. Kaide sushi bar. Excellent sushi. Best veggie sushi I have had till now. Plus, I will never forget the chef who was talking to me holding a butcher's knife in his hand. An image that will always be ingrained in my head. 

DAY 3: Bridal Veil Falls, Harrison Lake

Bridal Veil Falls
Harrison Lake
We had initially planned to go to Victoria Island this day, but figured it may be too hectic and given that Vancouver is such a fun place to be, we thought we will return some other time just for Victoria Island. Anyhoo, we had the car rented for this day. So after we picked up our car from the airport, we drove east towards the falls. Spotted a Gurudwara in middle of vast green fields. Felt like I was back in Punjab. Well driving was a lot of fun. We took a diversion because of a traffic accident and figured we were driving parallel to the US-Canada border at a distance of few meters. (yes, meters, not yards. I am an Indian and I was in Canada). Bad day to not have kept your passports with you! But luckily we were back on the freeway and at the Falls in a couple of hours.
A short hike to the beautiful falls. Very green, dense and lush forests. After some photos, we stopped at a burger place for lunch and then headed to the Harrison Lake. Huge, beautiful lake, surrounded by mountains on all sides. We had read about Harrison hot springs, where you could take a dip in the natural hot springs, but on reaching, figured they were still 45 minutes to an hour away from the lake. We didn't want to drive anymore, so decided to skip it. Just relaxed in the sun for an hour before driving back to Vancouver. We took a different route this time. We drove via BC-7 which was very pretty compared to BC-1.

On our drive back, we thought about exploring the Punjabi market that everyone talks about so much. It is just a bunch of streets which have quite a bit of Indian shops. The fun part is, all the shops have their names displayed in English and Punjabi. It was a good place to drive by and made for some good photo ops. We had dinner at some Indian place nearby and then decided to go visit the Richmond Night market, which had been highly recommended by our host. It was like one of those make shift bazaars we have in India. But definitely a good place for any foodie. We got in the queue for the famous Rotato and finally got ours after some wait. It lived up to its reputation. It was only when I got back to the US, I was told we have something similar at Santa Cruz Boardwalk too! But well, it was fun. Lemonade was good too and this is where I bought my Superman socks! After our long day, we got home and crashed, for it was supposed to be an even longer day tomorrow. But before we snored away to glory, it was time to have some mango milkshake. The mangoes from Granville island turned out to be very sweet and the shake was the best thing to end such a long day. 

DAY 4: Whistler

Blackcomb mountain
We left really early, around 7 on this day. Drove straight to Whistler. Some great views on our drive. Absolutely beautiful landscapes. Once we got to the village, we got our passes for the chairlifts and for the peak to peak gondola. We took the chairlift up to the black comb mountain. had lunch at the restaurant here. The chairlift further up to the seventh heaven was closed. Then took the peak to peak gondola to the Whistler mountain. The views are just so beautiful. You get such amazing views of the valley, it is out of the world.

Whistler mountain

Once we reached Whistler mountain, we took the chairlift up to another peak. Amazing views and a bit chilly. Once we got down, we hiked around a bit at Whistler mountain. Took some photos and some best views I have ever seen from a mountain top. Then, we finally took the ride from the Whistler mountain down to the Olympic village. This reminded me of the Squaw valley at Tahoe. The village is huge and has plenty of options to eat, drink and relax. We ate at the Tandoori Grill. Good food. There are so many activities to do here, it is totally worth spending a few days. What I found interesting and amusing was that every instruction here was written in four languages, two of them were English and Punjabi! How awesome is that :)
Brandy Wine falls
We went up the Blackcomb Mountain, then took peak-to-peak gondola to Whistler and got down from Whistler. This was recommended by our host and worked out well for us. Firtsly, because the views were good and secondly, the village at the base of Whistler was good place to relax, eat and spend some time at. And you would want to do that towards the end of your visit I think.
On our drive back we stopped at many places. Some were great Vista points. I especially remember Shannon Falls and Brandy Wine Falls. We missed Porteau Cove. Stopped at the HorseShoe bay for a quick cup of coffee. Then drove back home to pack up and take the early morning flight next day. 

What more could we have done?

Victoria Island: It takes a lot of effort to get here. You need to spend around 3 hours on the ferry each way. Then public transport on the island itself isn't that great, so getting around is tough. We realized it wasn't worth a day trip and probably it is a better idea to spend a few days here, rather than just a day. Plus, you can get to Victoria island directly from Seattle.
Rockies: They make for a week long trip from Vancouver I think, or at least 3-4 days with all the driving involved. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Belgium (Bruges, Brussels)

Since we were flying out of Brussels, we had no choice but to end our trip here and we were left with only 2 days! We decided to pick Bruges and Belgium for our visit. I had thought we can spend a couple of hours in Ghent on our way back from Bruges, but we just couldn't leave that town. Bruges takes the crown for being my favorite city from now on!

Here is our brief itinerary:

Day 0: Arrive late night in Brussels
Day 1: Day trip to Bruges. Evening in Brussels
Day 2: Half a day in Brussels. Fly out

We flew out of Brussels airport (BRU). Brussels airlines had really good connections to the US. Getting to airport is also very convenient from the city. Public transport is really well connected. In Belgium, we stayed at the Queen Anne hotel in Brussels and there was nothing wrong with the hotel itself, but the heat and humidity without an air conditioner made us a bit miserable. And it seems, air conditioners are not really common here. 


The most photographed spot
Walking around
We bought a round trip ticket to Bruges from Brussels. We reached Bruges in about an hour or so. We got off the station and picked up a map from the tourist information center. As we started walking towards the town center, we couldn't believe that a town could be so pretty. Cobbled streets, very beautiful European architecture and no crowds. As we walked through the town towards the Grote Markt, we took many many pictures. Everything was just so pretty, right out of a book. I remember saying this to Sumit, "This town is so pretty, look at the streets. Only if there were horse carriages around" And there they were, I could here tuk tuk of the horse shoes! The old town area is itself very small. We walked around for an hour or so, through narrow alleys, in the market. Stopped at one of the burger joints for lunch. Almost 30-40% were chocolate/ice cream shops. Any way, we walked around and got to the most photographed spot in Bruges. Then walked towards the old palace crossing the small bridges. We didn't want to visit any museums or any palaces, we just wanted to walk around the city.

Tuk Tuk
We landed in the Grote Markt square after roaming around. We were thinking whether to do a boat ride or a horse carriage ride and of course we picked the latter. It lasted about 30-40 minutes and our umm, driver?! took us through those small streets lined up by the shops, towards the Begijnhof Convent. Here we got down and strolled for about five minutes in the gardens and lakes with beautiful swans. By the time we got back to the Grote Markt, where we had initially started, the map of the old town was embossed in my memory :D It is such a small town!
Madonna of Bruges
We could have gone to the Hospital of St. John's and a few other churches, but we picked the The Basilica of the Holy Blood for Michelangelo's sculpture and a vial here, which is supposed to contain the blood of Jesus Christ! Well, next pick would have been the St.John's hospital and the chocolate museum. But, we ditched it and decided to shop around. After shopping, we went to a Godiva's store for my Belgian chocolate shake. Initially we had planned to spend half a day here and half a day in Ghent, but we were so mesmerized by Bruges, that we decided to spend the entire day here and head out to Brussels in the evening.
After we got back from our vacation, we watched the movie In Bruges and totally understood why would anyone want to visit this place one more time before they die. The movie is excellent by the way. And I am sure by now you know I am totally in awe of this place.
More: Climb the top of Belfry tower. Visit St. John's hospital, Chocolate Museum and the brewery. Definitely spend at least a couple of days in this pretty town. Here is where you can get all the information.


Manneken Pis
We didn't have much time here. But from whatever time we had on our hands, we walked around the city to see the Manneken Pis. I was looking for it somewhere high up, where as it was tiny tiny statue at a street corner with a flock of tourists taking pictures. From here, we walked towards the Grand Place. Since it was evening and all the buildings had lit up, it was a perfect place to just sit down and take in all the beauty. The square is surrounded by very old buildings of different styles and the square is very lively with singers, musicians, sketch artists and street hawkers. 
Excellent views while walking around
From here we walked toward Mumtaz, an Indian-Pakistani restaurant. It wasn't that great, but the walk gave us some really nice views. We then took a metro back to our hotel. 
Since this was the end of our trip, we decided to just relax, eat and ditch visiting the typical touristy places.
More: We ditched going to the Atomium Park and the Mini Europe which were next on our list, for a few hours of extra sleep. 

What more?

We were short on time in Belgium, but from what I know Antwerp and Ghent are towns which are tourist worthy in their own right.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Netherlands (Amsterdam, Utrecht, Delft, The Hague)

After Italy, Amsterdam was the only other place that was always on our list. And the reason we booked our tickets from Brussels was only because we wanted to go to Amsterdam. It did live up to the hype and it is a unique town in itself. We also visited a few other towns close by while driving to Rotterdam to board our train to Brussels.

Here is our brief itinerary:

Day 1: Arrive in Amsterdan around noon. Sightseeing rest of the day.
Day 2: Bike around Amsterdam.
Day 3: Drive to Zaane-Schans --> Utrecht --> The Hague --> Delft --> Rotterdam. Train to Brussels.

Getting in: 

Climbing bunk beds
We took an overnight train from the Prague main station to Amsterdam Central. It was a 15-16 hour journey in a private cabin for two. We had our own personal washbasin and two bunk beds. Very very comfortable and I just relived all my childhood memories of train travels with my parents. Only things I missed were the cutlets and chai. They did serve us boxed breakfasts in the morning, but well cutlets win over croissants any day. Our route from Prague to Amsterdam was through Germany and it had many lakeside tracks and some German city train station stops. It was a whole lot of fun and I highly recommend doing an overnight train trip in Europe :) 

This might help:

  • Rick Steve's city walk and red light district walk are helpful. Since I was bored of listening to him by this time, I usually read the script before I left and marked the route on the map.
  • Bike. Bike. Bike. Amsterdam is a biker's paradise. This is the best and the quickest way to see this beautiful biker friendly city.
  • Google maps to the rescue for public transportation yet again.
  • We got a 48- hour pass to use the public transport. Super convenient and economical.
  • We had to wait to get our tickets to the Van Gogh museum and hence skipped the Rijksmuseum as well. Get your tickets in advance, especially for the Anne Frank Haus.


Day 1

We reached Amsterdam Central station at around 9:30 in the morning. We took our 48 hour day passes and took the tram to our hotel. Our hotel was conveniently located very close to the central station. We realized we wouldn't be able to check in until 3 pm or so, so we freshened up and decided to visit the Van Gogh Museum. Since we hadn't made any advance reservation, we waited for about 30-40 minutes in the queue to get our tickets. But this was one of the better museums I have been to. Very interesting and beautiful paintings. I was amused as to how this guy was obsessed with making his own portraits! Anyhow, once we were done, we headed back to our hotel for a quick nap to energize ourselves for the evening.
Around 6 we left our hotel and took a tram to the central station. From here we just walked till the dam square and spent some time in the beautiful weather looking at people and all the hustle bustle. Then we took a tram to an Indian restaurant, Taj Mahal. After we were done, we took a tram back to the Dam square and decided to visit the Red Light district. I followed the script of the Rick Steve's tour and we stopped at the shop with the famous brownies. It was very crowded though and looking at all the display models was becoming cumbersome while jostling with the people all around you. It took us about a couple of hours to walk the entire area and once we were done, we headed back to our hotel.

Day 2

Tandem biking
We wanted to do the village bike tour, but unfortunately they did not have any tandem bikes. As I am bike challenged, we had no option but to find out a company which offered tandem bikes or tandem bike tours. So, finally, we rented a tandem bike from Rent-a-bike. We got our bike map and decided to bike the city. This was the first time I was tandem-biking and seeing the city on bike. It is so much fun that I would definitely do it all over again. In no time, we were near the Rijksmuseum with the famous "I amsterdam" sign and stopped to take pictures. We skipped visiting the museum as it would have taken a lot of time to get the tickets and visit the museum and biking was so much more fun. From here we biked to the Anne Frank Haus and the Jordan neighborhood. After seeing the long queue at the Anne Frank Haus, we thought we'd come back late in the evening as it is open till 9 pm. So, we biked back to the Dam Square and had lunch at Koh-I-Noor.  
Dam square
From here, we just biked south and figured we were almost out of the main city area as the streets had become wider and there were more cars than bikes! We also saw a couple of bridges open up to let the ships pass. I was excited to have seen that as I was seeing fridge magnets for those all over the city. Next, we were in the Rembrantdplien area where we stopped for pictures. Then we reached the flower market and back to the Dam square on our bikes. Mind you, we got lost and re lost on our bike rides. But it was all the more fun as we were going to totally unexplored areas. 
Boat cruise in the evening
Then we returned our bikes and walked to the Dam square and to the Anne Frank Haus. This place deserves a visit by one and all. It makes you realize what the family went through and it was all real. I still haven't watched the movie, or read the book, but it is on my list now. Getting inside the house took about 45-50 minutes as the queue was very very long, but once inside, it takes another 45 minutes or so. Once done, we walked around and reached the main station and got tickets for a boat ride around the city. Not as much fun as I had thought, but some views were great and got us some nice pictures. 
Bascule Bridge
After the boat ride, we went to a Thai restaurant, Bird Thai and had excellent Thai food. With our tummies full, we decided to catch a live show in the Red Light district. Online suggestions didn't help much and it seemed Casa Rosso was the only choice pretty much. It was exorbitantly expensive, but then you wouldn't wanna miss this when in Amsterdam. So, we got our tickets and the show wasn't fun or titillating or enjoyable. We walked out after 10-15 minutes and headed to our hotel to call it a day and get recharged for the next day. 
Amsterdam was a  lot of fun, but typically touristy.

Day 3

Zaanse Schans Windmills


Forty minutes north of Amsterdam is a small neighborhood of Zaanse Schans. The windmills here make a picture perfect view of Holland for you. Only constraint was that the parking was free was first hour and then you were charged for 24 hours irrespective of how long you stayed. So we made a quick trip to this place and didn't get inside the working windmill. They are old and historic windmills that you wouldn't wanna miss. 


Bell Tower
Utrecht is a small university town about an hour south of Amsterdam. We found street parking just outside the city center and took a bus to the city center. Here we walked in quite neighborhood full of small shops. We ended up at the Dom Church and the tower. By now we had been to so many towers, that we gave this one a miss and decided to have lunch at one of the small restaurants close by. Live music in the street made the atmosphere all the more lively. We ate at Taj Indian restaurant and the food was good. We enjoyed sitting outside in a true European style. Then we walked back to the main bus station and took a bus back to our parking spot. There is one main canal in the city and the bus route was along the canal. It was fun to see people kayaking and tubing in the canal. 


Our next city stop was The Hague. So we parked on the street and decided to explore the city on foot. This was another hour from Utrecht.We walked towards the main square or The Plein, as it is called. The roads were lined up with shops and boutiques and we spent some time shopping here! The square had a statue in the middle and was surrounded by some historic buildings with great architecture. Then we walked around this historic area taking pictures and landed in the Chinatown. From here, we walked toward our car and stopped at mall to shop again. This was one of the bigger cities after Amsterdam that we had stopped at. I am sure there is much more to see, but we had to just get to Brussels that night! 


Delft Old Town
A few minutes away from The Hague, this would be the last city on our list as we were running out of time. This is also a small town full of canals. Since it is much smaller and less popular, this place was truly fun because of less crowds. Since parking is limited and restricted only to parking lots, we took about 30 minutes just following the directions and getting to a parking lot. Anyhow, when we finally managed to park and get out, we had landed right in the middle of the city. We were in the pedestrian only market area close to the old church. We walked along the canals, explored some shops and took a lot of pictures. We had parked very close to the Old church, but it was closed I think and we couldn't get in. By the time we were done walking around, we got hungry! We ate at Pure Funky Burgers and I highly highly recommend this place. The best veggie burgers I have ever had. Do not miss them. We got back to our car from here and headed to our next city, Rotterdam.

Mini Amsterdam

Getting out:

We drove to the Rotterdam airport from Delft. Returned our car and took the bus to the central train station. We reached pretty late around 8 30 pm or so. There wasn't anytime to explore the city so we headed straight to the ticket counter. These were the only inter city tickets we hadn't bought and as Murphy says, if there is anything that can go wrong, it will. The ticket counter was taking horrendously long time to service the customers, so we decided to buy the ticket online and to our surprise the last train to Brussels was at 9 pm and it was already 8 50 or so. There was one train change at Roosendaal which gave us only 3 minutes, but we were hopeful of using our running skills and making the connections. Anyhow, we bought the tickets and ran towards the platform. The screen showed next train to Roosendaal from platform number 6 and we got on to the train. While on the train we realized that this train would never make it to Roosendaal on time, in fact it would take 30 more minutes. Confused we asked the staff and they told us there were two trains to Roosendaal. A quick transfer plane on platform 7 and a slow transfer plane on platform 6. We didn't read the screen after platform 6 -Roosendaal. So, we were on the wrong train. This meant waiting till 5 am for the next train from Roosendaal to Brussels. 
So we got off at the train station and went the Best Western right outside the station. Here the receptionist suggested we take a cab to Brussels which would take less than two hours. We liked the idea and decided to take the cab and there we were, late, very late in fact and very very tired, but in Brussels, finally!


  • Volendam is a good area for a day trip. Here you can visit the cheese factory and the shoe factory. But we skipped it as we had to go south towards Rotterdam instead.
  • Rotterdam is a big city and is a good place to spend a day or so I felt, but we didn't and left for Belgium in the evening.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Czech Republic (Prague, Cesky Krumlov)

On our long Europe holiday which we were starting in Italy and were going to Austria next, we were thinking where to go after Austria. Our final destination was Brussels since we had to fly out of there and we wanted to go to Amsterdam as well, so we had to pick either Germany or Czech Republic. We dropped Germany as it needs more time and we decided to visit it later. So here we were, heading out from Austria and going to Czech.

Here is out brief itinerary:

Day 0: Train: Vienna --> Prague
Day 1: Day trip to Cesky Krumlov
Day 2: Sightseeing in Prague
Day 3: Full day in Prague. Overnight train: Prague --> Amsterdam

Czech Republic isn't as developed as other European countries, but is charming and beautiful. They have their own currency, Czech Koruna, but are under the Schengen visa agreement. This place has a somewhat Russian feel to it, well, I have never been to Russia, but I felt so.

This might be of some help:

  • Rick Steve's walk through old town is a pretty good guide to walk around.
  • Check the days on which certain castles, museums are closed. We luckily did so, else would have missed Cesky Krumlov.
  • Best Indian and Thai food on my Europe trip was in Prague.
  • Take a day pass for local transport. The old town is pretty much walk-able though.
  • Google Maps are an excellent resource for figuring out public transport connections.

Day 0

Old Town
We arrived late around midnight. We had booked our K&K Fenix hotel through hotwire and it was pretty good. It was right in the middle of Old Town and a very short distance from the main train station, Praha hlavní nádraží. On our way, we saw a 24-hour Indian grocery shop which we explored later ;) Anyway, we reached our hotel and I luckily looked up online for day tours to Cesky Krumlov and it turned out that the tours don't happen on Monday, so we had only the next day as an option. We quickly booked out tour. I usually never take tours and such and prefer DIY trips, but driving in Czech was not recommended and public transport wasn't very convenient either with a few train changes and long connections. So, we crashed for the night ready to explore Cesky Krumlov the next day. 

Day 1


Cesky Krumlov
That's the bell tower in the background
We booked a day tour with a local sightseeing company. We left at 9 am and it took us about three hours to get to Cesky Krumlov. It was a very cute little small town with a small castle. The whole town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We took the tour of the castle and it wasn't as great as any of the palaces in Vienna, but still good enough to deserve a visit. The town was very pretty. Situated on the banks of Vltava river, the architecture is amazing and there are small shops that line up the streets. We strolled around the town and listened to some excellent local singers performing on the streets. Some crepes looked delicious, but we had to skip those, sadly. There was a bell tower next to the castle and we climbed up the stairs to get a view of the city from the top. The red-roofed houses and shops, along with the winding Vltava river made for a great view. 
Some people indulged in kayaking and rafting in the Vltava river as well, but we were tied to the tour and couldn't. Overall, I just felt that this tiny town was very different than all the other cities and town we had visited so far and the street artists and singer here were far better than I had seen anywhere else. Also, the famous Budweiser beer comes from a small town called Cesky Budweis, or so it is believed. I saw a lot of people trying the local beer here.

The central plaza

We returned around 7 pm or so and headed straight to the Lal Qila Indian restaurant, walking distance from our hotel. Superb find. Five stars. We ordered dal makhni and naan, with salty lassi. After we were done, we wanted to reach our hotels asap to watch the FIFA world cup final. On our walk back, we saw a lot of sports bars and clubs with big screens and flooded with people. The atmosphere was very exciting. We reached our hotel and watched Germany lift the world cup in a truly deserving win. Prague looks beautiful at night, when all the buildings light up. Definitely worth a long walk.

Day 2


St. Vitus Cathedral
Our morning started with a 8 mile run along the Vltava river. It was  a great way to see the city. It got us out of the old town area and we were running along the river in a more residential area. The weather was perfect and it was a great way to see the city and to start your day. After our run, we lost our way back to the hotel and then after a few missed turns and asking around, we finally made it to our hotel just in time to stuff ourselves with some breakfast. 
Old Town Square
Now it was time to get ready and head towards the Prague castle. It is still the official residence and office of the Czech President. The queue for tickets was long, but we got tickets for 2 pm tour of the Vitus Cathedral. It may be worthwhile to get your tickets online beforehand.  Cathedral itself boasts of some great history and its Gothic architecture is very impressive. The cathedral was half built in Gothic style for many centuries and then the other half was finished in Baroque style. It is really beautiful inside. It is a working cathedral even though majority of the Czech population doesn't follow any religion. The Prague castle is huge and very majestic. We walked around the castle for a bit and took in some great views of the city from here. After spending about a couple of hours here, we took tram back to the old town. While hunting for lunch, we saw a Thai restaurant, Buddha Bar and decided to have lunch. Again, excellent Thai food. We ordered panang curry and basil fried rice.
Powder Tower
Astronomical Clock
It was around 5 pm and the weather was pleasant. We decided to take Rick Steve's walking tour of the old town. We walked around and saw the Astronomical clock, old town square, Powder Tower and other touristy stuff. The powder tower is one of the gates of the old city and it stands in striking contrast with all the other surrounding modern architecture. And it is called so because it was used to store gun powder. As far as astronomical clock goes, well, I couldn't figure out how it works, but it looked pretty complicated and all the tiny statues next to the dial have some significance, which I don't remember anymore.
The old town square was a perfect place to relax. You could see a lot of significant structures from here. We didn't step inside, but the Gothic Tyn Church is also quite popular. The square is centered around a very interesting statue of Jan Hus. From here we walked through narrow winding streets full of people and ended up at the Charles bridge. What beauty! It is a very old pedestrian only bridge. Close to the tower end of the bridge is the statue of Charles IV who was one of the great emperors of Czech and he was the founder of the famous Charles University. His statue is surrounded by four ladies symbolizing four subjects, arts, medicine, law and theology.
Making a wish with St. John

On the bridge, we went to the St. John's statue and made a wish, now I don't remember what it was., but a lot of people do so. There is a very interesting folktale associated with it. Look it up online. Then we decided to the climb the Charles tower and enjoy some views of the city. Also,don't miss the dancing building while you are walking around the city.
We got tickets for our evening boat ride on the Vltava river and decided to have dinner before that. So, we went straight to Lal Qila again and had sumptuous desi meal before taking a tram to the pier for our cruise.

Our cruise boat was really bad. Filled with spiders. So we had no choice but to stand outside on the deck and enjoy the views. The view were great , nevertheless. One thing I noticed in Prague was that there are spiders everywhere. All the statues, bridges, boats, castles had huge cobwebs. Anyhow, after taking some good pictures of the city at night, we headed back to our hotel to call it a day. Walking around the old town at night was fun too. Beautifully lit buildings, especially along the Vltava river, made for some great views.
Views from the cruise ship
The city of spiders

Day 3

Prague from the Petrin Tower
We had decided to visit Kutna Hora on this day. But we realized it might be too rushed, given we had to board the 6 pm train to Amsterdam and more importantly, we got lazy.
The mirror maze
We took a tram to the Petrin Tower. Google maps to the rescue again. It is like a mini Eiffel tower. You have to take funicular up to the base of the tower and that is included in your public transport day pass. We climbed up the tower for some amazing views of the city. We could see the old town as well as the castle and the monastery form here. Took some nice panoramic pictures and took a stroll in the gardens. Very well kept and all the tree shade was a relief from the hot and scorching sun. There was a mirror maze close by and it was nice but very small. Wasn't a maze either, just one passage. I would have been more excited had it been like Jantar Mantar and I would have had to find my way out of there. But I guess they wanted to keep things simple for kids.

We got back and for lunch we tried a new Indian restaurant, Bombay Express. Quick and good food. I don't remember what we ordered but it was nice. After this, we whiled away our time at a coffee shop and strolled in the streets of the old town. Very busy market full of people.
By evening, it was time to pack our bags and head out to the main station for our train to Amsterdam. It was an overnight journey and we had booked our private AC I cabin. It had a couple of bunk beds and a private wash basin. It was very comfortable and it was the highlight of our trip. Plus the washrooms were very neat and clean. Only thing was that till they turned on the air conditioners, it had become so stuffy and hot, that all the men in our bogie were shirtless. I am not complaining, lol.

What more?

  • We wanted to visit Kutna Hora on Day 3, but since we hadn't really planned it earlier, we ditched it.