Monday, January 11, 2010

Philadelphia Trip Report

Two weeks after returning from our weekend in Andorra, NoVA Travelers launched a trip closer to home - Philadelphia. The city is steeped in American history and it's always a pleasure for me to introduce it to members who have never visited before.

 
 

We piled into our carpool caravan and headed for Philly on an early Saturday morning. Our first stop was the lovely Hotel Palomar - a historic architectural gem in downtown Philly that has been converted to a Kimpton luxury boutique hotel . I enjoy Kimpton properties because they treat guests so well- complimentary coffee and teas in the morning (and I usually negotiate free breakfast for my group) and a wine reception every afternoon.

 
 

Once we'd completed check-in we set off for the historic downtown area to visit Reading Terminal Market. The market has been in continuous operation since the late 1800s and features more than 80 merchants and vendors including Pennsylvania Dutch farmers who come to sell their fresh baked goods. Everyone in the group was given the time to shop, explore and eat inside the market. Several of us ate at the legendary DeNic's, sampling their pulled pork and greens sandwiches. I'd never had one of these before and let me tell you that they are delicious (even better than the traditional Philly cheese steak in my humble opinion).

 
 

After the market stop, our group visited Elfreth's Alley which is the oldest continuously occupied street in America. The alley is lined with beautiful historic homes that each have a contributing tale to tell of American History.

 
 

For dinner following the alley tour the group descended on Modo Mio. This is fabulous Italian restaurant that is often overlooked as it's anchored in a neighborhood that is in the midst of urban gentrification. The owners had the foresight to set up shop before the transformation to gentle middle class neighborhood is complete while real estate prices are still affordable. In any case, the food is exquisite and I highly recommend you make a reservation for dinner should you find yourself in Philly.

 
 

Day two of our tour began Sunday morning with a comprehensive walking tour of the downtown historical district. We hit all the major points of interest including Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, First and Second Banks of the USA, the Betsy Ross house and City Tavern where we stopped for hot spiced apple cider. Danielle (our group's assistant organizer) and I provided the historical information on each stop for the members as we progressed on the tour.

 
 

You can't visit Philly without treating yourself to an authentic cheese steak sandwich so the group made a pit stop at Campo's for lunch before we continued with our walking tour late into the afternoon.

 
 

It was a weekend of history, great food, and new friendships forged between the members who attended.

 
 

You can read member reviews of this trip here: http://www.meetup.com/NoVA-Travelers/calendar/11635555/

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Andorra Trip Report (BooDoo 2009)

 
 

This weekend I've been delighted to carve out the time required to complete the remaining trip reports for 2009. I find it valuable to chronicle our excursions with the written word and pictures to give them the respect of permanency. I hope also that my record of events have been useful to you either as a guide in planning your itineraries for the destinations I've referenced, a general encouragement to step out in adventurous faith and see the world , or at the very least as entertaining fodder to pass the time consumed by reading the entries.

 
 

I've mentioned flyertalk.com in previous trip reports. This is an online community of mileage runners like myself (folks with a hobby of calculating the lowest cents per mile [CPM] route on their chosen airline carrier and flying for the reward of attaining elite status). Infuse extroverts with a liberal dose of thrifty ingenuity and a penchant for flying around the world and you get a group that loves to attend parties on the other side of the world on a regular basis. We call them "do"s. In October over Halloween weekend once such party was held in Andorra (the tiny country between Spain and France) in the city called Andorra La Vella.

 
 

I hadn't made up my mind to attend this party until early summer 2009 when Iberia published a mistake fare ($230 round trip total after taxes) to Barcelona from DC. Of course I took that as a sign that I was meant to participate. I passed the details onto NoVA travelers and sought a partner for my jet setting party itinerary. I was fortunate to have someone as sweet as Louise step up to join me.

 
 

We flew out from DC on a Thursday, changed planes in Madrid and arrived into Barcelona just as the sun rose and lit up the sky.

 
 

We took the regional bus (stops right at the airport) all the way to Andorra La Vella that afternoon, passing over the Spanish countryside along the way. I was surprised as to how much this region of Spain resembles New Mexico. In fact when we changed planes in Madrid the view also reminded me very much of the southwestern landscape.

 
 

Once in Andorra we checked into our home away from home for the weekend: Andorra Park Hotel.

 
 

Louise and I familiarized ourselves with the small town using a local map and then plotted our walking route to the restaurant chosen for the first night's dinner party at 8pm: Panama Café. The party organizers had promised an abundant array of authentic Catalan cuisine and they did not disappoint. Whereas the Italians have bruschetta their Spanish counterparts enjoy pa amb tomàquet (toasted bread rubbed with garlic and red ripe juicy tomato then drizzled with olive oil). Fantastic on its own, topped with smoked meats (such as Jamon Iberico Guijuelo- the finest ham thinly sliced) and cheeses or tuna ventresca (tuna with roasted red peppers), it is elevated to the divine. I have been trying to recreate tuna ventresca since returning from Andorra and have yet to be successful. I don't think it's possible to get the specific preparation of tuna required for the recipe. While we ate and drank we mingled with the crowd (more than 50 but less than 100 I believe) of attendees who had come from all over the world for the event. It was nice to see some familiar faces such as Bob and Franny (older couple from NYC that I'd met at a happy hour event in DC earlier in the year) and also to meet so many new people that would soon turn into friends. Louise seemed to have a great time as well and I think her interest in mileage running was peaked with the event. It was such a fantastic feeling to be part of this vibrant group and my only regret of the evening is that I left my camera in the hotel room and have no pictures to document my memories of the celebration.

 
 

We left the excitement of the party behind before it really began to wind down and headed back to our hotel for a good night's rest to ensure we'd have the energy for the next day's busy schedule. We had signed up for the Pyrenees hiking and lunch event and were looking forward to it.

 
 

Our second day in Andorra began with a fantastic spread of Catalan cooking laid out before us in the breakfast room. I really wanted an egg white omelet but my Spanish is poor as I confessed to you in previous reports and in addition Catalan (the language of Andorra) is not quite the same as Spanish anyway. I made do with the various meats and cheese and breads and was quite satisfied.

 
 

We gathered with the group to pop into a large van for our trip up into the Pyrenees mountains (for which the famous dog breed have been named). The winding road up the hills took us past beautiful mountain scenes and we snapped many pictures along the way.

 
 

While others in the group broke off for a mountain bike tour or archery games, the first order of business for Louise and I once we arrived at the top of the mountain was a nature hike through the Pyrenees wilderness. Our guide spoke Catalan and French and the assistant guide spoke Catalan and English (somewhat). Since more of the group spoke French than anything else, by request he gave the tour directly in French as well as Catalan (which would then be translated by the asst guide into broken English). The man was obsessed with animal scat. He stopped at intervals that boarded on the ridiculous to point out the droppings of this mountain animal or that one. He also taught us how to spot the differences between edible and poisonous mushrooms growing in the area, showed us where Franco guided his army and setup his bunkers, and taught us about the various trees growing on the Pyrenees mountainside. Overall an excellent hike.

 
 

 
 

 After our hike we thanked our guide and reassembled with the rest of the Boo Do participants that had chosen to come on the Pyrenees excursion. There was some wine drinking at the café and Louise went down the snow tubing trail (that is converted to a summer tubing trail the rest of the year) in lieu of the alpine coaster that we were supposed to ride were it not out of order. The highlight of this short rest period for me was spotting a Pyrenees dog. A Pyrenees playing in the Pyrenees! How perfect is that?

 
 

 Lunch was halfway down the mountain in the Naturlandia restaurant. It was a simple meal of rolled pork with vegetables and a wine I actually found pleasing (I don't normally prefer wine). For reference, the wine was Castillo Irache Tempranillo. I especially enjoy how the Andorrans serve their red wine cold.

 
 

Once we finished lunch it was back in the van for the trip down the mountain to the valley that is Andorra La Vella.

 
 

The rest of the afternoon Louise and I toured Andorra La Vella on foot, shopping, laughing and getting to know each other better. The town is a shopping mecca for Europe as there is no tax and everything is usually priced at least 50% lower than can be found elsewhere. Meanwhile for Americans suffering under the dollar's weakness in comparison to the Euro, the fantastic bargains only served to bring the price down after conversion to the range of pricing normally found in the States.

 
 

Our dinner party with the BooDo crowd on Saturday night was billed as the big event so Louise and I primped and prepped and did our best to look presentable. The event was held at a bar and restaurant called Buda Espai Andorra. It was also described as serving classic Catalan cuisine. Appetizers along with sangria were rolled out promptly as the event began in the bar at 10pm. Normally I'd having trouble waiting until 10pm to eat dinner but given the time difference between Andorra and the USA it seemed just about right to my stomach. The bar was pretty cool in that it had a glass floor with a manmade river underneath, but the sangria was too dry.

 
 

 After a few rounds of drinks and conversation the group moved to the dining room for dinner around 11pm. This was advertised to be another unforgettable dining experience and that it was. Our first serving consisted of more Pà amb tomàquet with a variety of cured meats and cheese, chicken croquettes, Gambes a l'allet (typical Catalan casserole of prawns, garlic and more garlic), Crostini de xistorra amb formatge de cabra (xistorra is the best sausage in the world, on toast with goat cheese), Tartaleta de sobrassada amb mel (kind of like sausage, with honey) and a garden salad. All that food and it was only the first course!

 
 

We met some of the most fascinating people sitting around us. A man from California who runs a private jet company (and best of all he invited us for dinner in Cali this spring along with our husbands/friends), a teacher from Germany, two brothers from Bulgaria who ate more than any two men I've ever seen, and many other interesting personalities. By the time the second course was rolled out near 12:30am we were well into the wine and the celebratory spirit of the party. The second serving included Parillada Catalana de carn amb guarniciò, bou, churrasco, botifarra, botifarra negra, xai, conill (a mixed grill of Catalan meats including beef steak, pork ribs, sausage, blood sausage, lamb, and rabbit) along with bread. So many different kinds of meat! I realized we had been eating meat and cheese for breakfast lunch and dinner for two days straight. Low carb can be great for maintaining weight but my palate was starting to yearn for some pasta or vegetables.

 
 

The dessert course was a lovely pudding made from rice if I remember correctly . By the time we finished the treat it had to be approaching 2am. Yet the party continued with everyone as bright and bushy eyed as when we'd walked in hours before.

 
 

We had a bit more wine, a bit more conversation and then Louise and I headed back to our hotel. We pinched ourselves on the way home and reveled in the invitation from the jet company owner to come out to California on his jet for dinner. We giggled over how our friends at home had probably attended the standard Halloween parties with cheesy decorations and silly party games while we ate Catalan cuisine and received private jet invitations. I admit this now not out of a sense of boasting but to give you insight into our absolutely giddy state of mind that night. We felt as if we were on top of the world. I'm not sure whether it was the wine or the excitement of the whole situation, but we were definitely flying on a personal high.

 
 

Day three of our trip began just as the day before - with breakfast at the hotel. This time my friend Andrew (a native Argentinean and therefore fluent in Spanish) translated my omlet order for me. The main event for this day was a relaxing visit to the Caldea spa downtown. The place is spectacular and not like any spa you've ever seen before. We are talking a multi-story adult water playground with themed pools such as Roman ruins, smaller hot tubs above the main thermo pool shaped as if they were soup bowls, a lazy river and special treatment rooms. We had all afternoon at the spa plus a signature massage and it was just what we needed to wrap up the BooDo experience. Could have done without the couples having sex in the pools however. ...

 
 

Louise and I left the spa in the early evening (reluctantly!) and headed for the bus station to catch our ride back to Barcelona where we planned to sightsee for the evening as our last hurrah on the trip. The ride was uneventful aside from the sunset that painted the sky with delicate strokes of purple and orange.

 
 

 Getting off the bus a little after 10pm, we meandered our way to our hotel, checked in, and then set off for dinner and sightseeing along the famed Las Ramblas. (Think of it as the Champs Elysees of Barcelona). It was a lot to take in over such a quick stroll especially since we were pressed for time wanting to return to the hotel and get some sleep. We walked to the end of Las Ramblas where it meets the Port of Barcelona and then turned and backtracked our way to the hotel . It's definitely on my to-do list to return to Barcelona to spend a weekend focused on the sights of the city.

 
 

The next morning we took a cab to the airport and made the return journey home to the States and our ordinary lives.

 
 

BooDo is held every two years at differing locations within a couple hours of Barcelona and I know I will sign up as soon as the details are announced. If you're interested in being my guest, just drop me an email. I'm also reviewing the other flyertalk Dos scheduled for 2010 to see if any can match the spectacle that was BooDo 2009.

  

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Costa Rica Trip Report Sept 2009

Without a doubt, one of the most memorable aspects of the NoVA Travelers Costa Rica Trip was the level of vulnerability of the organizer. Having just returned recently from a more-adventurous-than-originally-planned trip in Switzerland, I found myself racing to pack my carry-on bag for the Costa Rica excursion .Financially I was in a bind in that I had no cash nor debit/credit cards of my own (only my husband's credit card which I was borrowing to take with me since mine had been stolen a few days before in Switzerland and who knew if I could get by using his cards when they had his name on them). Also I realized I would not be authorized to drive the rental car we had reserved in advance from the Hertz in San Jose, Costa Rica. Add to the mix a current of underlying generalized anxiety over the theft and a jet lag and it wasn't pretty. Still, I'm the organizer and I have a responsibility to my group so I marched onward. Penny (a member accompanying me on the trip) volunteered to fill in as the rental car driver which put the problem of my stolen license aside.

 
 

We left on our flight that afternoon once I finished work, arriving into San Jose a little after nine in the evening. First crisis appeared to be that the rental car agency- a franchise and not corporate Hertz location- seemed very surprised to see us as they were closing up shop and heading home for the day despite the fact we had a confirmed reservation for 9:30pm. They ran us through the typical motions of a car rental pickup. I had planned for the group to drive to our hotel in San Jose as it's not safe to take the PanAm Highway leading into the rainforest at night. Partly because one might encounter locals sleeping in the road and partly because of other hazards such as washed out portions of highway that can't be seen before it's too late, etc.

 
 

Although I had done a lot of research on CR to prep for the trip, somehow I overlooked a very important detail: there are no street signs in Costa Rica typically. There are not even zip codes! People provide addresses like so : "we are the house next to the big tree on the 3rd street after you round the first bend…". Not the best addressing system for a late night drive into an unfamiliar town. And of course did I mention that none of our attendees (incl me) spoke much Spanish? Yes, I am sure you can see where this is going - we quickly got lost. Making it into San Jose was not overly complicated as we followed the directions from Hertz which entailed taking the major highway "that-a-way". Once into the thick of downtown however we were at a loss in orientation entirely. Our method to get to the hotel consisted of stopping every so often to ask a local in broken Spanish which way to our hotel. Since we couldn't understand their response, we simply waited for them to point and then drove our car in the direction of their pointing until we came across another pedestrian. Once we got sidetracked on a road that led away from town but when we saw the sign advertising the km distance to Mexico we had sense enough to turn around and go the other direction. Finally, FINALLY we saw a hotel that was an American brand and in desperation did the most impolite thing one could do in the circumstance- asked the front desk clerk for the directions to our hotel- one of his competitors. That was embarrassing. As it turned out we were just a few blocks from our hotel- we had to make a turn at a big tree in the road, then a few lefts, then past the hookers (don't panic over my hotel choice- seems the hookers are smart enough to visit the nicer parts of town where the American men stay on business and avoid the seedy areas as much as we'd want to).

 
 

Having arrived at out final destination for the night (a very lovely hotel) we checked in and walked upstairs to our room to crash. I can't speak for the other trip participants but I was exhausted. My brain was confused- the day before I was in Switzerland and now I was in Costa Rica. Of course being in Denver the weekend before that and Boston, Maine and NYC the prior weekends my head was all topsy turvy. Had I finally reached a point where I needed a vacation from vacationing?

 
 

In the morning I woke to sights and sounds of sunny urban Central America and felt better. Still dragging a bit but overall ready to face the day and what lay ahead. After enjoying a delicious breakfast at the hotel we paid a local cab driver $5 to lead us back to the highway as once we got there I'd be able to use the directions provided by our rainforest hotel to carry us the rest of the way.

 
 

In a small way I was grateful for the upside of my lost license - I had a free pass to get out of the driving conditions in rural Costa Rica which can only be described as you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me-what-are-you-crazy. Penny was a brave trooper as she had to watch for obstacles that bordered on comedic: vehicles (incl giant buses) approaching from the opposite direction in our lane as they were passing cars around narrow curves, people walking 3 or 4 abreast in the road, sections of road slippery and/or washed out due to the rain, the rain itself obscuring our view out the window, and a few morethings that scared us at the time but are now too distant in the past to remember clearly. Adventure indeed! To me the best part was that Penny was swearing at the other drivers in English, depriving them of the ability to truly understand her angst in their mother tongue.

 
 

We made it to the Tree Houses Hotel by early afternoon and met up with the property managers who we found to be very welcoming. They are Americans who loved visiting the Tree Houses hotel so much that when the owner offered them the job of managing the property they jumped at the chance. Our little treehouse was amazing! Monkeys perched in the nearby trees, all sorts of birds and other small wildlife frittering about and the most beautiful rainforest flowers. Right about the time we unpacked the car and climbed (well how else did you expect to get into a treehouse?) up the zig-zag staircase to our room the rain began to fall harder. We made a group decision to vegetate in the cabin (which was laid out to include a small bedroom, a bathroom on one side, a shower on the other and a ladder leading up to the loft with another bed upstairs) until the rain stopped. It was the first true moment of deep relaxation I'd experienced since before the theft in Switzerland. We read, we slept, we passed away the afternoon in the rainforest listening to the falling rain, birds and monkeys. It was a peaceful afternoon and I was grateful for it.

  
 

We had a lovely dinner just down the road later that evening (it was a bit of a surprise in terms of what we ate since the menu was only in Spanish and the waiter did not speak much English so we had to wing it when ordering) and the made arrangements for a full day rainforest activity tour the next morning before we sunk into our bed for the night.

 
 

The next morning I was really gaining steam again, having refueled my energy tanks with the rest period the day before. We were up and in the car by 6am on the road to La Fortuna where the tour group pick up point could be found. We had signed up for the full day combo day tour offered by one of the local outfitters that would keep us occupied from 7:30am until just before midnight. We were blessed with a fantastic guide in his 20s who spoke English fluently and had a superb knowledge of the local natural attractions.

 
 

The first event on the tour agenda was a hike through the rainforest trails that included several river crossings over long suspension foot bridges (think Jurassic Park in the bird cage scene). While it was of course very humid and warm, it was not unbearably so. We saw all varieties of rainforest plants, a pit viper, leafcutter ants and other animals. The scenery was beautiful and also of course such a contrast to the cold snowy Swiss Alps. (I suspect the rapid temperature changes also confused my brain. I had done the same thing to my poor body last year when I went to Belize (tropical) then traveled to icy Quebec City (hovering near zero) very soon afterward. Probably the most unique thing we did in the rainforest was nibble on live termites for a snack. They're actually quite tasty- a bit peppery - and would be good on a salad in lieu of fresh ground pepper. I am dead serious.

 
 

 
 

Once we left the rainforest we were driven to the famously photographed waterfall outside La Fortuna. It was a hike that took us down, down, down, and then we were confronted with a beautiful sight as the water rushed over the falls. We were given time to swim at the base of the falls and relax before we began the rough climb back up to the parking lot. Once the entire group was ready we rode back to town for lunch at a nearby eatery. The food was good and I got to indulge in my central American culinary favorites such as plantains and stewed chicken.

 
 

After lunch a new guide took over and we packed into the van again for the rest of our adventure. We spent the afternoon hiking trails at the base of the Arenal Volcano and learning of its history of eruptions over the years. We were able to get within 2km of the volcano, stopping at the spot where a village was once buried under the lava flow.

  
 

By the time we got back down to the trailhead it was dusk and our guide took us a short distance in the van to an amazing viewpoint of the volcano erupting. It was absolutely breathtaking. I reflected in the moment how extraordinary it was that on this day the week prior I had been standing in the Swiss Alps and now I stood before a vibrant volcano in Central America. Life is good!

 
 

After all the hiking we'd subjected ourselves to during the day (worth every footstep!) it was spa time, Costa Rican style. We were escorted to Tabicon resort just outside La Fortuna and given ample time to explore the grounds and use the mineral pools before dinner. Because Arenal has so much heat and energy, it warms the rivers and other water sources in the valley naturally to a relaxing jacuzzi temperature. Enterprising capitalists have bought property on the water, built resorts, and guided the water into many different manmade pools surrounded by lush tropical landscaping and mood lighting. The particular resort we visited had more than 10 different river pools - some complete with waterfalls - to choose from. There was also one very large pool with a waterslide on one end and a swim up bar on the other. The hot water soaked away any remaining stress or tension in our bodies and we felt great. Fantastic even I dare say.

 
 

We used our tour vouchers for the dinner buffet at the resort (a rather mediocre offering that I can't recommend - if you go to the resort, enjoy the pools and then go elsewhere for dinner) and then our tour guide took the group back to the pick up point in La Fortuna. We said our goodbyes and headed back to the tree house.

 
 

The next morning we rose with the sun, packed up the rental car, ate breakfast with the hotel managers and set off for San Jose airport to return the car and catch our plane back to the States.

 
 

The small part of Costa Rica we experienced was truly memorable and I hope to return to explore more of the country's beaches and the other volcanoes situated within as well. I'm really grateful to be in a position to visit so many great places around the world each year as the organizer of the NoVA Travelers.

 
 

Full picture library is here on Facebook:

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=177298&id=603259739&l=4ea76d11ee