Thursday, 27 December 2012

Eric's Uninformed Travel Tips: Germany Edition

Guten tag!  In July we were visited by the Moulands and were all whisked away to the land of beer and bratwurst...and beer...Did I already mention the beer?  (PS, there was a lot of beer)

Locations visited in July, 2012: Munich and the Bavarian countryside, Germany


Dates of trip: July, 19th-23rd, 2012
How did we get there: Flight, about 1.5 hrs from Paris to Munich with Luftansa, good airline although not a lot of frills.  Cost was about 150 Euros return.  We also took a bus tour of Bavaria for about 70 Euro/person.
Where did we stay:  We stayed at the Derag Livinghotel Max Emanuel which was about 100 Euros/night.  The rooms were basic but clean, and the staff was friendly (A mixture of friendly and efficient that I have found is uniquely German).  I would say however, that the location was a bit farther from the city center than I would have liked.  Ideally, I would have preferred to be on the western side of the river.

On our first day in Munich we did some exploring in the old town and I must say I was impressed.  I learned through my explorations that about 90% of Munich was actually rebuilt after the wars as it was pretty heavily bombed.  However, I can say that either they did a really good job rebuilding in the old style, or there are still quite a few old style buildings standing in the downtown core.  The churches in particular were spectacular.  To this day I rank the interiors of the German churches to be the most impressive.

Theatinerkirche...spectacular church...not so spectacular name...
Being what could be referred to as a "fan of all things beer", I was looking forward to visiting the home of Octoberfest...granted we were there in July not October...But as I have learned, even if we were there in October, we still would have missed it.  Octoberfest is actually in September...write that down you drunks!  The good news is that even though there was no festival guiding them, the people of Munich have a thing for beer halls all year round!

The unfortunate side of this is that on our first full day in the city we decided to visit the most famous of these beer halls (Hofbrauhaus, for those of you who are wondering) at about 3pm...This would have been a great pit stop, however, as I have already mentioned, I am somewhat of a beer connoisseur...and so...I may have drank a few too many...It also should be pointed out that when beer is served in 1L servings, "a few too many" can have dangerous consequences.  So, 4 beer later I found myself being poured into bed at about 9pm...with a serious case of the spins...It was like university all over again.

The next day we were off for an early departure for our bus tour of Bavaria...always good with a hangover...But I would tough it out and see the sites, although maybe not as sprightly as I normally would have.  This turned out to (narrowly) be my favorite part of this trip as the castles we visited were truly two of the most impressive I have seen in all of Europe.  The first of the two castles was Linderhof, which turned out to be simply a "small hunting lodge"...or at least that's what it was if you were the king of Bavaria I guess.  Though it was small, the interior of this castle is the most impressive I have seen period.  There was goldwork, glasswork, porcelainwork, even ivorywork and every manor of painting, drapery and statue...really spectacular to see.


 The next castle was Neuschwanstein, which I have wanted to see in person ever since we bought a Lonely Planet Europe guide with a picture of it on the cover.  For a frame of reference, think of Sleeping Beauty's castle from Disney as apparently its design was based on Neuschwanstein.  Set on top of a hill in the mountains, this castle was truly built to be impressive looking, and it really was.  Although, I must say that when you are up close or even in the castle you don't get the same stunning view...You need to see the castle from the bridge a 20 minute hike away to truly get "the shot".  Once this visit was over we returned to Munich and unfortunately, my hungover got the best of me and I retired early to sleep it off.


 The final day was spent like the first, exploring the sights of Munich.  As I already said, there are some very nice churches and old buildings, however, the real gems in Munich are, and will always be the beer halls...I recommend visiting them, but pacing yourself...

So what were my top 5:

1.   Hofbrauhaus, for beer, music and salty food, it can't be beat.  Be prepared to share your table though as communal seating is how these beer halls work.
2.  Standing on the bridge across from Neuschwanstein castle.
3.  Standing in the room of mirrors at Linderhof castle...really cool.
4.  Watching the clock tower show at Neues Rathaus in the central square...It's like a giant coucou clock!
 5.  Seeing beer steins be used for a practical purpose and not just for decoration.


Dangerous...
Munich and Bavaria:

Affordability: 7/10 (3/10 during Octoberfest) hotels aren't too bad as long as you stay out of the central downtown area...I've looked into them around Octoberfest though and it's scary...
Entertainment: 9/10, there's plenty to do if you book trips to the countryside, and if you like to drink...If you are not a drinker, you will feel out of place here though.
Ease of Travel:  8/10, not a long flight, but a flight nonetheless.
Overall:  10/10 if you are a beer fan, otherwise I would say 8/10.

Well, we're making progress now...Next up, Switzerland.

Eric's Uninformed Travel Tips: Canada Edition

Another article you say!?!  A Canadian travel article you say?!?  Poppycock I say!

Teehee...Poppycock...
In the effort of continuing our monthly march through the countries, I have to include Canada in the list.  However, I am going to change up the method a bit on this one...I will mention a few travel highlights in Canada, but all in all, this article is going to be more about the rewards/punishments of traveling home from abroad.

Locations visited in June, 2012: NS, NB and PEI, Canada


Dates of trip: June 14th-July 4th, 2012
How did we get there: Flight (Duh): Paris - Montreal - Moncton on the way there, and Moncton - Toronto - Paris on the way back.  As a note, if you are entering Canada through Europe, go through Montreal over Toronto if possible...less traffic and customs are MUCH more lenient.  Also, flight prices for this trip usually vary from 700 - 1200 dollars depending on the season.
Where did we stay: We started off our trip by attending a friends wedding and stayed at the Pictou Lodge Beach Resort for about $150/night.  Later in the trip we also went to PEI for Canada Day and stayed at rental cabins on the island...I don't remember the name of the company (in my defense I didn't do the booking) but there are plenty of companies to choose from, so take a look...either way, it was on the south shore close to the bridge.  Oh, and for the rest of the trip we stayed with our families of course.

Pretty...
  As I said, I won't focus on the actual travel in this article but I will mention a few things and still do my top 5/ratings at the end.  So here we go!

Pictou: We were really only here for a wedding so it was a bit of a hurried visit to Pictou, however, I must say that the resort was really beautiful and I would highly recommend it for a weekend getaway.  Beyond a weekend it may start to wear, as if you are like me, you will want to be closer to Halifax.

PEI: I actually had not been to PEI since I was a child, so it was like a new province for me.  I must say, it didn't fail to impress...Sand, sun, golf, friendly people...it is really a great location for a Canada Day getaway.  If, like me, you have kind of forgotten this little island exists, I recommend you remember and get out there, it really is a gem.

Now, onto the focus...a few thoughts on traveling home for a rest (you see what I did there?  Slick...)

For almost 7 years now, I have been traveling home to visit family from at least a 5 hour flight away, and I would like to think that it has enlightened me a bit...it hasn't, but denial is a hell of a drug...that and heroin.  Anyway, in that time, I have gathered what I believe to be an adequate sample size to make some hypotheses on the pluses and minuses of traveling home...So lets explore shall we.

Pluses: 
1. Seeing your family: pretty self explanatory really.  Let's just say that absence really does make the heart grow fonder...I have truly found that real relationships between people grow stronger when they are separated geographically.  When you only see people once a year, you focus on the positives, and I think this makes the relationships ultimately stronger.

Kayaking...the tie that binds...
2.  English break:  I cannot stress how necessary this is when living in a foreign, non-English speaking country...you just get worn out after a while...

3. Culture break:  Same as above, but I should also point out that even when we lived in Calgary we found the cultural differences enough that it was nice to get back to the East Coast way of life for a break.

4. Keeping in touch with friends:  It's always good to see friends, but it is harder and harder to do as the years go by.  Permit me to sound like my grandparents for a moment, I think we all rely on technology too much now a days, and put less effort into actually seeing and talking to friends.  When we go home we try to always dedicate at least a day to friends, but even that seems like it is not enough at times.

Minuses:
1.  There is never enough time:  As I eluded to in the last of the pluses, there is simply never enough time to do everything you want to...Is that definitely a bad thing...not sure...but I always feel like I am missing out on things.

2. Traveling between families:  This is a big one for Juls and I as her family live in Quispamsis, NB and mine live in Chester, NS...This means that every trip home we have at least a 5-6 hour drive to look forward to...It also means that we have to very clearly plan the sections of our trip and decide which family to visit at which time (this is a bitch at Christmas).

3. TRYING TO SEE EVERYONE:  Impossible, exhausting, frustrating and disappointing...this is the worst part of traveling home...Everyone wants you to visit them and you want to visit everyone but it is simply not possible...

4. Not getting to travel:  This is another big one...If you only have a limited amount of vacation time (not a problem in France, but a big one in Canada) and you spend it all visiting home, you never get to travel anywhere else.  This is always the part of visiting home that pains me as when we are planning trips home we are always making the decision not to go to other places we would love to visit.

In the end you could say that the pluses and minuses even out, but as evidenced by the number of flights we have taken to the Maritimes in the last 7 years, obviously family wins out.

The things you do for family...
 So, as promised, here are my top 5 from our trip in Canada...
1.  This is an obvious one...Visiting family
2.  Seeing old friends at the wedding...worth it every time.
3.  Driving South Shore Nova Scotia...I grew up there and I still enjoy this drive every time.
4.  Canada Day on the beach in PEI
5.  Golfing in PEI...great courses...I am a horrible golfer...but great courses...

The Maritimes (NS, NB, PEI):

Affordability: 9/10, gotta love the affordability of a depressed economy/workforce...also, staying with family/friends helps.
Entertainment: 7/10, you have to look a bit harder and travel a bit farther to get it, but the Maritimes do have everything available.
Ease of Travel: 5/10, unfortunately, like in my post on Norway, there is no short way to get around the Maritimes...there is a long and beautiful way though if you have the patience and time.
Overall: 10/10, do you really think I am going to give my home less that a 10/10?

Home sweet Home...
 Up next, Germany!
 

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Eric's Uninformed Travel Tips: Norway Edition

Well, I have decided to extend the 1 day that the French are given to celebrate Christmas...ridiculous I know...They could at least include Boxing Day...Anyway, because I took some extra time, I find myself with the ability to once again beguile you all with another tale of travel...And failing that...Look a pony!!!

The meat is a little gamey, but it tastes like Skittles and dreams
 Now that that's over with, on to the 2nd of our May 2012 trips, the land of my namesake...Norway!

Locations visited in May, 2012 (2nd half): Oslo and Flam, Norway

Dates of trip: May, 25-28th, 2012
How did we get there: Flight, about 2.5hrs to Oslo on Norwegian Air @ 150€/person return.  That got us into Oslo and then the train from Oslo to Flam was about 5hrs and about 300€/person return...Although I must point out that the train was part of the experience and was well worth it...more on that later.
Where did we stay:  In Oslo we stayed at the Rica Travel Hotel, which was located right off the main street of Oslo (Karl Johans Gate) and so, was close to the palace and also the central station.  We found that, all in all, it put us right in the mix to experience the city, and that the hotel itself was clean and quite nice...for a budget travel hotel.  

In Flam we stayed at the Flam Marina and it was absolutely spectacular!  We had gigantic rooms...actually our room was for 3 but we didn't realize it when booking so we had several beds to choose from...The real selling point however was the balcony overlooking the fjord, that, and the fact that the sun never fully set at night, made for some spectacular vistas over the waters of the fjord.

Spectacular...and this is at 3am
 Let me just start off my recap by saying, I have always wanted to visit the Scandinavian countries and Norway has always been on the top of my list.  So, for me, this was a trip I had been looking forward to for a long time.  I also had a very specific idea of what I wanted to see on this trip, and to be perfectly honest, it wasn't Oslo.  No knock against Oslo, it's an okay city...it's clean, the people are friendly, and the bars are good...but I don't think that's the reason anyone, myself included, goes to Norway.  I wanted to see the country, and mostly I wanted to see the fjords...and that is how I set about planning this trip.

Luckily, I happen to have a director at work who is Norwegian, so I leaned on her a bit to give me some ideas.  In the end, she recommended I focus on the Sognefjord, and that the best areas to do that were either at Flam or Bergen (or both).  As we were severely limited in time (Hello...3 days!), I chose Flam...Half because it was the closest of the 2 to Oslo, and half because it was a small village whereas Bergen is a city.

So, in the end our whirlwhind trip to the land of Vikings looked like this:

Day 1: Arrive in Oslo late after evening flight.
Day 2: Leave early for train...arrive in Flam in late afternoon.  Take in the sights/get the heck onto the fjord!
Day 3: Repeat day 2 then leave in late afternoon for same train trip in reverse.
Day 4: Explore Oslo then depart in evening for return flight to Paris.

I can honestly say that this may have been ambitious planning on my part, however, to this day I cannot think of anything I would have left out to make the trip less hectic...For the sake of this blog not being 25 pages though...I will leave things out...I think I am actually going to give you a day by day highlight reel instead.

Day 1: What kind of highlights can you really say about rushing to the airport after work and arriving at your hotel at midnight...I guess the only thing of note here is to say that if you are flying into Oslo, be aware of the distance from the airport to the hotel!  The airport is seriously the farthest from the city it services of any airport I have ever been through (and that's a large list)...To get from the airport to the city you have 3 options: Shuttle, tram or taxi.  We took the shuttle both ways though in hindsight the tram was probably faster...however, don't take a cab!  Especially if, like me, you are bad at doing money conversions in your head.  To simplify a bit, it was about 850 Kroners to our hotel from the airport (had we gone this route) and at a 7/1 exchange rate that is about 120ish Euros!

Day 2: This day saw us jumping on a train to Myrdal and then a connecting train to Flam.  I must point out that these are not just any trains, in fact, the one between Myrdal and Flam is considered to be one of the nicest train rides in the world...and it doesn't disappoint!  For me, the most impressive parts of these train journeys was simply the change in environment as we traveled.  Within the 5 hours, we went from lakes and oceans (not unlike in NS), to rugged snow covered highlands (not unlike AB) to the lush green fantasyland that is the bottom of the fjords (not unlike a nature enthusiasts wet dream).  The one downside I would note about this is that, not unlike every other cool thing in Europe, the train from Mrydal to Flam was absolutely jam packed...and this kind of lessened the impact of the ride for us...although we lucked out on the way back up. 

Just a bit full...yeah...
Finally, when we did arrive in Flam we were greeted with a beautiful clear sunny day and the most amazing vistas I have ever seen.  I took hundreds of photos to try and capture it, but honestly, the fjords, more than anything I have photographed this year, cannot be captured in an image.  When I close my eyes I can still picture the cliffs rising 360 degrees around me all the way to the sky and 100s of waterfalls flowing down over them from the glacial melt...it literally gives me chills.

We spent the rest of the day really just exploring the town and surrounding area.  I rented a bike and did some hiking, while Juls and our 3rd traveler, Andrea walked around the town.  Later at night we went to a local viking beer hall (AEgir...Don't ask me how it's pronounced) for some viking ales in what still ranks as one of the coolest bars I have ever been in.

Day 3:  This day saw us finally get out on the fjord...and I mean the water.  We took a fjord safari jetboat tour that crisscrossed the fjord for about 20kms.  It was incredible and Julia still claims it as one of...if not her favorite travel experience of this year.  I can't really sum this one up except to say that it's magical...If I was Norwegian, I would never leave the fjords.

Let's go fjordin' now, everybody's learnin' how...
After the ride was done we then decided to rent some bikes and go for a spin around the fjord on land.  Again the vistas are really the impressive part here, and I am running out of adjectives to describe them, so I won't...I'll just say, biking is fun...stay in shape kids.  Once this was done, we were pretty much done in Flam and had to catch our 5 hr train back to Oslo.  On y va!

Day 4:  Our final day saw us exploring Oslo finally.  I hate to downplay this part of the trip because Oslo is a very pretty city, with lots to offer.  But after you have been jet-boating on a fjord, cities just don't sparkle the same...Needless to say, we did hit the highlights in our 2/3s of a day there and honestly, I think that was enough.  I would say my own personal highlight was the Viking Ship Museum where we saw the 3 oldest viking ships in existence...the history nerd in me rejoices!


Finally, after the exploring was done, we hopped on the plane to return to Paris...another successful trip in the books.

So...top 5?
1.  Freaky singing girl show at the gigantic waterfall halfway down on the train to Flam...you have my attention Norway...go on.
2.  Sitting on a bear pelt, drinking beer on a bench carved from wood with dragon heads on either end, and a gigantic fire pit in the middle of the beer hall...If that doesn't make you feel like some pillaging, nothing will!
3.  Jet boat on the fjord...nuff said.
4.  Beer on the patio overlooking the waters of the fjord at 3am while there is still some light out.
5.  That first moment when you are at the bottom of the fjord and look around at the absolute majesty surrounding you.

Flam (and the fjords):

Affordability: 5/10, Norway is NOT cheap
Entertainment: 10/10 if you like nature, otherwise 3/10 (what are you doing there?)
Ease of Travel: 7/10, there may be no quick or easy way in, but there is a slow and beautiful way, if you have the patience.
Overall: 10/10, this is a must do for anyone who is a nature lover...absolutely, without an ounce of doubt...must do.


Oslo:
 
Affordability: 5/10, allow me to reiterate, Norway is NOT cheap
Entertainment: 9/10, as with any big city, Norway has plenty to do and see.  Although, it may have a bit less than some of the larger European centers.
Ease of Travel: 9/10, surprisingly easy and cheap to fly to Oslo from Paris.
Overall: 6/10, as an entry point into your fjord adventures it is great, but I can't imagine going to Norway to visit Oslo alone...

One final shot...

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Eric’s Uninformed Travel Tips: Barcelona Edition

Ahoy hoy rabid blog enthusiasts...I am still alive, and will attempt one last time to convince you that I will be recommitted to this blog...It's a bold faced lie, but hey...here we are.

So to continue my elongated voyage through our travels of 2012, we come to May...the month where we traveled to not just one, but two different countries...Spain and Norway.  I will start by covering the southern voyage to the dusty, slightly greasy city of Barcelona, Spain.

Locations visited in May, 2012 (the first half anyway): Barcelona and Montserrat, Spain

Oh those crazy kids...
Dates of trip: May, 4-7, 2012
How did we get there: Flight, about 2hrs to Barcelona on the Air France @ 250€/person return.  Train is probably possibe but bank on a full day of travel.
Where did we stay:  We stayed in the Hotel Fira Palace located close to Placa d'Espanya.  The hotel was not cheap (about 150 Euros per night), but was very nice.  The only downside I would say about this hotel would be that it is not centrally located.  Being close to placa d'Espanya, it has access to certain parts of the charm of Barcelona, but you can count on a 45min-1hr walk to get to locales like Las Ramblas or the waterfront.  This means that you are unfortunately a little out of stumbling range if you have a night out on Barcelona's ramblin' street.

I should also note that this trip was the consolation prize for Julia having to give up her "3 continents in 3 weeks" challenge because of a couple of nasty oil spills in the North Sea and Nigeria (those are two different locations for those of you who are geographically challenged).  So, congrats, we win a trip to Spain to bask in the Catalonian sun...woot woot!


We landed on Barcelona simply because it seemed cheaper than Madrid, and because we heard that the beaches are nice...the interesting thing that I found when we did arrive was that neither of these things were true.  Barcelona was not cheap...it wasn't super expensive either, but Madrid is definately cheaper.  And the beaches are nice...but they would be nicer if I was interested in purchasing any of the massive amounts of hard drugs that were constantly pushed on me for the hour that we were there...seriously...I think I was approached to buy coke 25 times in 1 hour...I felt like I was in an episode of Miami Vice.

All that aside, there were definately some major selling points of the lively capital of Catalonian culture.  To keep this post reletively simple...and to stop it from being rediculously long...I will try to focus on some of the areas I would highlight and why.

1. The first locale we went to when we arrived in Barcelona was one of the most impressive was the waterfront area.  This region was truly a treat, and in fact, about 30 minutes into actually wandering around Barcelona we found ourselves on a Catamaran ride on the Medeterranean that we found in this area.  Complete with a saxophonist and 1 Euro glasses of Sangria!  The other bonus of this area is you get the stereotypical Medeterranean feel here...palm trees, green water, overly tanned cougars with small dogs...To Do here: Catamaran cruise, sit by the water with a Sangria, buy cheap Spanish designer brands (Desigual at half price!  Encroyable!)

2. Las Ramblas: I honestly did not even know this existed before we started researching our trip...but man!  What a street!  As far as I could tell, pretty much everyone in Barcelona wound up on this street at one point in each of the 3 nights we were there.  I did notice that there were some definate tourist traps here, but if you stuck to the tapas rules you wouldn't be in each place long enough to notice...PS, the rule is that you only get 1 tapas per restaurant then move on. To Do here: Restaurant hop, check out the living statues and other street performers, people watch.

Just a Ramblin' Man
3. Placa d'Espanya: This area was next to our hotel and it actually turned out to be incredibly nice and led into the Montjuic area, which provides some of the best views of the city and also some great open green spaces to explore.  To Do here: Visit the musical fountain at night (It had an all Disney theme when we were there!  The circle of life in Spanish!), climb the mont to the Castell de Montjuic to watch the sunset and sip sangria, just take in the ambiance around the Placa at night when it comes alive.

4. The Gothic Quarter:  I found this region particularly interesting because Barcelona as a whole (and in comparison to other European cities) is not that old outside of this quarter.  So, when you enter this region you get that European old city feel that one generally expects in Europe...gotta get my history fix after all!  To Do here: Take the elevator to the top of Catedral de Barcelona, Check out the Santa Caterina market, wander down the countless little gothic streets.

5.  Sagrada Familia region:  OK, I don't actually know the name of the region, but seriously, visit the Sagrada Familia...It is just incredible and unique and can't be missed!

Not mentioned:  The beach...seriously, it was a bit disappointing how sketchy it was there and how many times I got approached for drugs...I wanted to like it more than I did...

Aside from cramming in as much as we could in Barcelona, we also took a day trip during our short time there.  To start I will just say that it was surprisingly easy to book/take and turned out to be my favorite part of the trip.

The town/region/mountain? that we visited was called Montserrat, and it is known mountains and the amazing monastery that is nestled on top of one of them.  To get there we took a train (basically a go train) then a cable car up the mountain from the town of Montserrat.

Honestly, the monastery itself was only mildly interesting, the thing that made the trip were the hiking trails that crossed every peak of mountain and circled every cliff face and rock outcropping...really amazing!  We decided to hike the longest trail which ended at the highest point on the mountain and it was definitely worth the blisters.  After a few hours of hiking we opened up to a rock with rickety stairs reaching on for hundreds of meters to a platform at the top...the view was amazing.  Also, for us Canadians who may be spoiled by our Rockies, I can honestly say that these mountains are completely different than anything I have seen in Canada, and that made the experience that much better.

So, there you have it...a great trip all in all, so now, what were my top 5?
1.  Spanish mountain climbing: This isn't your dads mountain climbing...unless your dad work silk shirts and drank sangria while climbing.
2.  Catamaran cruises on the Med: How did the sax player on this boat get his job?  Really, I hate my guidance councilor...
3.  Tapas tasting:  1 per restaurant and move on...its worth it.
4.  Hot Chocolate and Churro breakfast:  I almost had a heart attack when they told me this was traditional...And then I did have one after I finished eating it.
5.  Sagrada Familia:  Re-donk.

This is what happens when God goes on a bender...
Barcelona (and Montserrat):
Affordability: 5/10,Things are cheaper in Spain in general although a city is still a city
Entertainment: 10/10, it depends on your taste and on the season, but Barcelona is a big city and has plenty to offer
Ease of travel: 8/10, it's a flight...but not a long or expensive one
Overall: 9/10, Its not the traditional Spanish experience, for that go to Madrid, but it is fun, crazy, sexy and all kinds of other adjectives.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Eric’s Uninformed Travel Tips: England Edition

I would never claim to be a royalist…Or even one of those crazy plate-collecting royal family fans.  However, as a semi-educated student of history, I do have some respect for the link that Canada has with our polite, warm beer drinking Atlantic neighbors.  In fact, I would even go so far as to say I am glad we still support the monarchy, even if it is just because it distances us from being, “like America, just colder”.

We are NOT this...
So, for me, I feel that any chance to visit the historical homeland (there are A TON of Atkinsons in England…seriously…A TON) is one that should never be passed up. 
Plus…and this is a big plus…it’s English, which means to me that I get to have a momentary break from the madness that is living everyday in a culture you don’t fully understand (PS. I am talking about French culture here).   Seriously, both Julia and I have commented that when we go to England we immediately notice that things are easier…and it’s not because things run more smoothly, it’s because they run the way we, as Anglo-Saxons, expect them to run.
So let’s get down to business…
Locations visited in April, 2012:  London, Didcot, Oxford and Stonehenge, England.
Dates of trip: April 6-9, 2012
How did we get there: Train/car, about 2hrs to London on the Eurostar @ 200€/person return… (Isn’t European travel grand?) Then 40mins to Didcot (This train was not cheap FYI…I’d say we spent about 60£ each to go and return to London).  Thanks to our friends living in Didcot, we then drove to both Oxford (about 30mins) and Stonehenge (about 1.5hrs).
Where did we stay:  In London we stayed at the Radisson Edwardian Berkshire on Oxford St. which I recommend for the chance to say the name of the hotel in a snooty English accent alone…it cost about 100£/night. It was a really nice hotel in a good part of town.  The only downside is that it’s a bit away from the major tourist destinations. The real fun was where we stayed with some friends in their quaint home in the beautiful town of Didcot…0£/night…can’t beat that price!
I am not going to talk much about our time in London:
1. Because it was very short (we arrived late the night of the 6th and left in the afternoon on the 7th for Didcot)
2. Because I went back to London at least 1 other time in 2012 (At time of posting).  I will list 3 of the 100s of reasons to go to London though:
1.     Shopping
2.     Pubs
3.     Shows (Plays/Concerts and Musicals,  not “Coronation Street”)
Plus, its got these guys
 There, that’s all you get till I post about London more extensively in the future…
We arrived in Didcot via British rail and were truly instantly hit by the rural “quaintness” of the whole place.  If you don’t pay attention to ever present traffic and the odd development here and there you can almost feel like you’ve gone back in time. 
Small streets are lined with red brick homes that are all a bit mossy and stained with age…and there’s almost always a view of some sheep field off in the distance…really, amazing to see. As I mentioned, we were staying with friends, and their home did not disappoint, it fit into this mold quite perfectly. 
While we were staying in Didcot, our major preoccupations were with preparing a North American style Thanksgiving dinner and sharing it with Sarah and Chris (the aforementioned friends) and Chris’s mother (a small town Newfie) and father (a retired RAF serviceman).  We did however get out and explore a bit…here are what I consider my 3 highlights.
1.  The Didcot Railway museum:  Really something!  It had several working antique trains that you could ride in and was a filming location for Sherlock Holmes 2.
2.  The adjacent village of East Hagbourne: Beautiful little village with thatched roof homes galore…Still no word on West Hagbourne…
3.  The Bear at Home: One of my favorite travel experiences to date…We are driving at night down a lonely road, completely in the dark…and then we come upon 1 solitary light over a doorway…we walk through and it’s just the coziest little pub in the world with great food and beer…amazing!
On April 8 we decided to take a road trip to visit the nearby city of Oxford.  Now in most cases, people would at this point say, “no, not that Oxford”, however in this case, yes, it was “that” Oxford.  We were both honestly blown away simply by the size and grandeur of the old colleges.  The most impressive one was definitely Christchurch, which, if you are a Harry Potter fan you will also recognize as the yard where Harry learns how to fly his broom in the first movie.
Other than that I would say that the real charm in Oxford is simply to be there and soak in all that history and knowledge…it really makes you feel like you are in a place that has played an important role in history.
I have an idea! wait...no...it's gone...
 Finally, on our last day in England we decided to take a trip to visit a place I have always wanted to see since my days of listening to Spinal Tap…Stonehenge.  It turned out to be an incredibly rainy day that day, which initially I thought would be a negative.  However, in hindsight, I think that it added to Stonehenge and the experience in general that the weather was, let’s just say…”moody”.  Every story I have ever heard about the place was that it’s stormy and cold and wet etc. etc. and honestly, as a traveler, you have to roll with the punches when the weather is bad…and we did. 
I really enjoyed myself…it’s literally a circle of rocks in a field in the middle of nowhere…but it’s definitely interesting to see. The only downside is that you have to book well ahead and get approval on the official website if you want to enter the actual ring. We had not planned anywhere near that far in advance, so we only got to do the outside loop…still, neat-o!  PS…bring a rain jacket…umbrellas don’t work…
My Favorite Things: I thought I would start this at the end of my trip blog posts.  In this section I will just name my 5 favorite parts of the trip I have just written about.
1.  Monster Munch: Have never seen these “crisps” outside England, but they are seriously addictive.
2.  Easter Dinner: Having a traditional Easter dinner (With a Turkey) is so North American…I loved it!
3.  Pubs: In particular, I will never forget going to “The Bear at Home”, lovely pub, great food; atmosphere was like something out of a novel.
4.  Wandering the streets in Oxford: I almost felt smarter just being there…you really get the sense that it oozes greatness.
5.  A visit to Stonehenge as it was meant to be:  Rainy, windy, cold…kind-of “end of the world,” “hellish” like weather.
London: (I’ve decided I’ll rank London in this post so I can be lazy on future posts…)
Affordability: 4/10, London is not cheap and that exchange rate is a bitch…
Entertainment: 15/10, seriously…I don’t know how long it would take you to run out of things to do there, but I would be happy to try and find out.
Ease of travel: 8/10, The Eurostar is fast and easy…unfortunately, it’s not cheap…
Overall: *10/10, I thought it would be unfair to go above 10 here…but honestly…If I was told I could only ever return to one place I have visited…this would be my choice.

Didcot:
Affordability: 8/10, the £ is still the £, but rural anything tends to be cheaper.
Entertainment: 6/10, not a lot going on, but there is charm for days in this little town.
Ease of travel: 5/10, you’re going to want a car…
Overall: 6/10, I think our experience was unique because of the friends we had there, but still, the experience of rural England is a must do/see, just not necessarily in Didcot.

Oxford:
Affordability: 6.5/10, Things are a bit upscale here…but it is still a student town.
Entertainment: 7/10, I would say it is good for a weekend, but beyond that I think the snootyness of it may get to you.
Ease of travel: 6/10, would be a better ranking if it wasn’t for the cost of those trains…
Overall: 7/10, I loved the experience, but I think you really have to respect the historical and educational significance of the place to enjoy it…if you don’t care for that sort of thing you won’t miss out on much that you can’t find elsewhere.

Stonehenge:
Affordability: 8/10, still England, but not as much of a cash grab as I thought it would be.
Entertainment: 7/10, It will keep you entertained for 2 hours…no more.
Ease of travel: 4/10, If you don’t have a car, your other option is a bus tour…period.
Overall: *6/10, the star is because I think it is a must see destination…however, once you have seen it…that’s it.

Picture this + rain, wind and cold...oh, and sheep too
There you have it Kids!  Next month will be my first two entry month…1st up Spain…

Monday, 13 August 2012

Eric’s Uninformed Travel Tips: Netherlands Edition

I debated calling this one Netherlands Edition or Amsterdam Edition, and splitting this post into several smaller posts with Amsterdam, The Hague, and rural Netherlands, however laziness ultimately ruled the day (It always does!) and I decided to cram everything into one post.  It may not be as comprehensive, but dammit…I don’t care!  It’s summer and I am lazy…I will however point out right at the outset that these three locations are very different, and if you only go to one, don’t assume that you have seen Netherlands, it is worth going to these other locations as well.
Houses and Canals, a staple of dutch cities
 I should also point out that after research I have found that although 99% of the world’s English speaking population says “The Netherlands” it is actually just “Netherlands”.  In fact, according to the BBC, CIA Factbook, and US department of state (that’s right, I actually did research…http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18233844, Bam!), only two countries officially have “The” in their names…The Bahamas and The Ghana…while “The Netherlands” is officially, Kingdom of the Netherlands…whoda thunk it?  I should also point out that Netherlands is strictly the English name of the country as in Dutch it is Nederlands and in French it’s Pays-Bas…all of these meaning “Low country” in their respective tongues.  To add to this confusion, the city of The Hague (this one does officially have a “The”) is also different, as in Dutch it is Den Haag and in French it is La Haye.  I have decided I will use all these names interchanging throughout the article just to keep people on their toes…ha!

Locations visited in March, 2012:  Den Haag, Amsterdam, Zaanse Schans, Volendam, and Edam, Nederlands.
Dates of trip: March 10-13, 2012
How did we get there: Train, about 2hrs to Rotterdam then a change and 30mins to La Haye.  The Hague to Amsterdam was then 45mins by train, and then we took a bus tour to the small villages…the trains were about 300/person when you factor in all the smaller legs and the bus tour was about 35 Euro/person.
Where did we stay:  In The Hague we stayed at a Novotel in the center of town and it was about 100/night, but then in Amsterdam we stayed at an Ibis (which is a discount hotel), right over the train station for only about 85 Euro/night…In my experience, this is by far the cheapest hotel in Amsterdam that is not spelled with an “s” between the o and t, and in fact it was pretty nice, I would recommend it.

This trip was actually taken with my parents who were visiting us in Europe for the first time and it was their choice to do Pays-Bas.  Julia had to get back for work and so, she only joined us for the part in La Haye and returned afterward to Paris while my parents and I went on to Amsterdam.

Our first impressions of Den Haag were not that great, but we have learned in doing a lot of train travel that you should never judge a place based on what you see from the train as 90% of the time, the worst part of town is the part near the railway.  And the same rang true here; once we got into the center of town it was actually very nice.

La Haye was split into what I saw as 4 distinct parts:
1.      The downtown area (Old town, if you will), which is where a lot of the shopping, hotels (including ours), and restaurants are.
2.     The park areas:  which are where…well…the parks are.
3.     The residential/international area:  This was cool, if you are not aware, the Hague is the home of the world court…and so, pretty much every nation that has regular dealings with the world court (let’s just say the…not so nice nations) have consulates around there and they are all in this really nice part of town with canals and great streets…very nice digs these horrible 3rd world dictatorships have…very nice.
4.     The beach: Huge, huge beach…really impressive…it is also lined with casinos, restaurants, and amusement rides…really, I wish we were there when it was even remotely warm because it could have been very fun.

Just chillin' at the Lebanese embassy
In general, each part had its own charms; however, they were relatively separated, to the point where it was quite a hike (about 45min-1hr) to get from the downtown to the beach.  Once we figured out the transit system life was a bit easier, but this was limiting at first. 

Being that I am not a huge, beach or park person, I must admit that these parts were not the most interesting to me…although the amount of distractions (casinos, aquariums…other crazy stuff) at the beach could keep me entertained.  Also, in the downtown there were not the regular wealth of old buildings etc. that there are in most European cities…and so, I found that the part of town that most interested me, was the part centered around the world court…I had fun seeing the consulates homes and walking the canals…but ultimately, more than a few hours of this and I would be bored.

After two days we were ready to leave La Haye, so we caught the local train from Den Haag to Amsterdam…the trains ran every 20 minutes and were much like the Go Train in Toronto…the trip between the two cities was only about 45 minutes in total.  The system was really super easy to use and I highly recommend dutch train travel.

I am not going to go into every detail on Amsterdam, so instead I will go through some of my favorite experiences there in my two trips so far:

1.     Boat cruise on the canals: These are great, cheap, and leave constantly from just outside the train station…highly recommended.
2.     Anne Franck House:  The lineups can be long (we waited about 45mins) but the payoff is one of my favorite museums in Europe and a truly moving experience.  I honestly think people should have to see this…it is a part of history we should never forget, lest we repeat it.

Really moving
3.     Houseboat museum:  This tiny privately run museum is on Prinsengraacht St. (in a boat) and is still the only houseboat I have ever been in, and for that reason it’s a must-do…plus it was 2 Euros.
4.     Red Light District: What to say here…?  Hmmm….?  Well, let me just say this…you need to see it.  It is unique, fun, weird, a little gross, and at the same time infinitely entertaining…also, there are some great bars in this region if you are not interested in the weed and/or prostitutes.
5.     Shopping:  Holy crap the shopping…for my money, it’s better than Paris, but not as good as London.
6.     FEBO:  Greatest invention in fast food since the burrito.
7.     So very many more things:  Seriously…go there.

So, eventually we did have to venture forth into the world outside the cities and we decided to do this as part of a bus tour leaving from Amsterdam.  You can book the tours on any travel site, the one we did was called: “Windmills, Edam and Volendam”.  I will just say a few brief things about each of the three main stops.

Zaanse Schans: This is really just a historic recreation village outside of another town.  The main highlights were a wooden shoe maker, a cheese maker, and 3 of the last remaining working windmills.  It was a more museum-y experience, but worth it for the opportunity to see these 3 different industries up close.

Edam:  The sleepy town of Edam didn’t have much going on when we were there, and we only really did a quick walking tour to the center of town then left.  It was a beautiful place though, and what it lacked in any form of entertainment, it made up for in charm.

Volendam:  Finally, we visited the port town of Volendam.  This was my favorite stop for several reasons…1.  There were actually bars, restaurants, and other things to entertain me.  2. It reminded me of towns in the south of NS… 3. It was a great opportunity to see the famous dikes in action…really impressive.

Finally, when we returned from our bus tour we spent one final night in Amsterdam and then returned to the big smoke (that'd be Paris for those not following along).  Overall, a very good trip.

For the rankings, I am actually going to split these locations up into 3, Den Haag, Amsterdam, and rural Netherlands.

The Hague:
Affordability: 7/10 (it was March, keep that in mind)
Entertainment: 7/10 for a beach holiday, for everything else...5/10…seems like a great place to live…not the most interesting place to visit though.
Ease of travel: 7/10, there is no direct train, but once you get in Nederlands, the train system is amazing and pretty easy to use.
Overall: 6/10, In March the beach scene was not too great…perhaps if we had gone in summer this could have been a 7 or even an 8.

Amsterdam:
Affordability: 5/10, getting around and eating are not expensive…but hotels are ridiculous…
Entertainment: 10/10, there is really something for everyone in Amsterdam…it’s not just hookers, clubs, and pot…although it is that as well.
Ease of travel: 9/10 2.5hr direct train from Paris Gare du Nord.
Overall: 9/10, I only marked this down from a 10/10 because the party scene is not for everyone, and although there is a lot to keep you entertained outside of that scene, it is impossible to completely escape it.

Rural Pays-Bas:
Affordability: 8/10 I can’t say anything about lodging as we didn’t stay there, but as usual, once you get to the country things are cheaper.
Entertainment: 8/10 if you have wheels. 5/10 if you don’t…this is always the problem with travelling in the country.
Ease of travel: 4/10…you better have a car or be on a tour.
Overall: 8/10, you just don’t get to see the stereotypical Dutch things (windmills, tulips, dikes etc.) in the cities and so you need to get into the country.

Got wood?
And for the whole trip: 8/10, the weather was a bit iffy, and it was not a good time of year to visit The Hague, but other than that it was a really fun trip.