The countdown is on...

Getting super excited about our trip!  Less than two weeks away.  Yesterday I was able to grab some toiletries and packing items.  Still need to grab a few last minute clothes, which will be done this weekend.  And decide what to wear on the plane!  We'll be flying out in the early evening, then when we arrive it'll be early morning in Berlin so we'll have the whole day ahead of us.  So choosing plane attire will also bleed into our first day in Berlin.  So I need to choose appropriately. :)

The photo here is of Prague - one of the stops on our tour.  I have no idea if Prague really looks like this, but I assume we'll see something sort of like this at one point at least!

16 more days! Counting down to our Berlin to Budapest Contiki tour!

16 more days!  THIS month!  The days are going crazy fast and there's still lots to do!  I've got a few more last-minute clothing items and toiletries to pick up.  I still need to grab some jet lag pills for the plane (they are amazing!), and double-check my travel adapters (I haven't used them in ages so I need to make sure they cover everything).  I may pick up another travel adapter just in case.  With two girls traveling together, you can never have enough outlets!

My shoes and day bag arrived last week - very exciting!  I also need to pick up some remaining Euros aaaaand, figure out how we're getting to the airport. :) 

The trip is getting close... ! :D

The crucial stuff: shoes and a day bag for trekking around Europe!

I've stressed about this.  A LOT.  It's important to find the perfect day bag and shoe for Europe.  Here is the advertisement of requirements needed to fill such a role:
Must be...
  • Comfortable (huge deal breaker here)
  • Not look ugly
  • Match almost everything I'm going to wear
  • Not give me blisters (refer to point 1, above...)

  • Fit my huge Nikon 1 camera with both lenses
  • Hold a sweater if I decide I'm not cold
  • Be able to fit all the crap I buy that I don't want to lug around
  • Zip closed at the top
  • Work as a cross-body bag (for bike tours, etc.)

As you can see, this is a big deal.  Those are big lists!  Added to the fact that I don't care for cross-body bags on me, this made it a tough challenge.  Last night I determinedly marched into the mall with the single thought in mind that: I'm not leaving here without a day bag or shoes.  Tonight's the night!

And voila, I found the two items above at Aldo!  (Which incidentally is the same store I vowed never to buy shoes from again... but I'm desperate.  And they're cute...).   The shoes are super comfy!  And look cute on!  The day bag is amazing because the bottom expands for more room if needed, and the top flap can stand up to hold even more of my crap if I need to really shove it full!  And I can convert the strap into a shoulder strap or cross-body on the fly.  It's amazing.  Oh, and has lots of pockets - the cup holders of day bags!

Aldo store lady was very very nice and patient and offered to order my size shoes and new day bag online and ship to my house for free.  So I'm eagerly awaiting their arrival.

Countdown to our Contiki is 21 days!  Exactly 3 weeks!  Aaaaanndd... I still have stuff left to buy. :P  But, I'm getting very close to being ready!

Getting ready for our Contiki's ...

The tickets are in! We depart in 22 days for our Contiki trips! Berlin to Budapest, then the London Explorer!

The planning and prep has been crazy but we're just about ready! I've picked up some Czech Krona currency for Prague, Hungarian Forint for Budapest, and Pounds Sterling for London! Once I get some Euros we'll be all good on the money side. 

I have a new Samsonite suitcase on spinners (so much better than my old broken one) and almost all the clothes I need. Just need to hunt down some shoes and a day bag! :P

Contiki planning! Berlin to Budapest, here we come!

I'm doing it, I'm going on another Contiki!  (...before I'm too old!).  Yes, that's right.  To do a Contiki you need to be between the ages of 18-35.  My sister and I have talked about this for a few years now.  The summer when she turns 18 and just before I turn 36, we're doing a Contiki together.  My last hoorah (how sad is that).  And the summer of 2014 happens to be the date!  So our planning is in full swing.

I've done two other Contiki's before: London & Paris extended, and the European Magic Tour.  This time we've decided to do Berlin to Budapest.  This has been on my bucket list for-ever!  I'm so excited my youngest sister is going to do it with me.  Contiki's are amazing, and I'm excited to show her this whole new world of travel.

As for planning, we're booked and the flights are booked as of yesterday.  A lot of prep work has gone into this, including two years of saving Aeroplan points so that I can get my flight free through Air Canada (well, 'free' turned out to be a relative word... I guess 'discount' would be more aptly appropriate).

Rewind 6 months ago, and I had a constant nagging craving to revisit London again.  Any time in London is never enough.  And Europe is a long flight.  So we decided to tack on a few days in London on our way home from the Contiki.  And it just so happens that Contiki offers its own London-based excursion with hotel and a few options, as a self-guided package (no tour guide).  Which is fine because I know my way around.  So on our way back from our Contiki we'll also be doing a London Contiki!  This is really going to be an amazing trip!

Right now I'm looking into Berlin info, getting from the airport to the hotel, what to do on our free days in Berlin.  I'm completely lost.  And looking at all those German labels makes my eyes gloss over.  I can't read them let alone pronounce them!  But I've always wanted to go to Berlin, so I need to figure this out, or spend my time asking a lot of German people for English directions. :)

I'll post more info on my planning as I go along.  If you have any good Berlin suggestions or words of wisdom, please leave some comments!

Cruise Ship Dreaming

My morning looks like this: 

As I was cleaning up the pile of mail accumulating on the kitchen counter this morning, I automatically threw everything else aside in favor of scouring through the Holland America snapshots of a grandeur vacation that have made their way to my home. *sigh*

With chai tea in hand, I'm pretty sure an hour or more was swallowed up with browsing the various itineraries and taking in all the majestic photos. I've come to the realization that I've never seen a bad picture of Norway (or anything less than totally inviting). My next cruise destination is definitely Northern Europe. I'm totally captivated by any colorful photos of Russian cathedral hats. 

I want to go!

Looking at itineraries for the Prisendam, Holland America's baby ship, I noticed their tour includes many ports of call in a small 14 day window. Some people like to cruise to enjoy the ship and relax. I'm the opposite. I want to see as much as possible and visit as many places as possible in my travel time. I'm thinking the Prisendam might be worth looking more into. (Don't get me wrong, I love the larger ships too. Nieuw Amsterdam is my fav!)

Overall Northern Europe is high on my cruise list. And top of my mind today. Now I just need to find someone to travel along with me. Hmm...

Hanging like Beyonce and Jay-Z in Cuba

As far as I know, there is still a travel embargo in place for US visits to Cuba. Although there seems to be a lot of news around Beyonce and Jay-Z's spontaneous anniversary trip to Havana, Cuba with their moms recently. It got me thinking: 'Hey, I was just there too'. Although, my traveling to Cuba isn't as exciting as Beyonce and Jay-Z, for obvious reasons. The white house denies issuing any special travel Visa's to them. Sooo, how did they get in? I'm guessing they didn't stow away. But in the wake of all this discussion, it has inspired me to share some pics from my recent travels to Havana.

Have you been wondering what it would be like if you were to travel to Havana, like Beyonce and Jay-Z? I'm not quite Beyonce, but allow me to paint a general picture of what you would see...

Quite possibly the most synonymous symbol of Cuba, you can't visit and not take in a local cigar shop. Smoking is everywhere like a national past time. Our tour guide suggested Cohiba as the best brand to purchase, followed by San Cristobal. We took in a quick stop at the Romeo & Julieta cigar shop where it was like a mad house for 20 solid minutes while everyone fought to purchase their cigars. That was a fun experience!

They're stray, they're mangy, and they're everywhere. It's mostly indicative of all of Cuba in general. I have a soft spot in my heart for dogs and the ones in Cuba are no exception. If I lived there I would be poor from spending all my money on dog food. They're all tame and keep to themselves for the most part. Just as we commonly see birds flying by, there are dogs running around Cuba. They love to chill at the all-inclusive resorts too. Guests take good care of them after a return trip from the nightly buffet. By the end of the trip, you too will find it an odd sight to see a dog on a leash, if you do.

Incredible Architecture
Cuba, and Havana specifically, has a mix of rich history and diverse influence which equates to some incredible architecture. It is bittersweet to see in its current state though because a lot of it is run down. Although I understand they are working on restorations, including the National Capital Building which was under construction when we were there.

Probably one of the coolest things we saw on our visit. The hotel where Ernest Hemingway lived! It's beautiful. If you venture into the hotel lobby, in the back there is an entire corner area dedicated to Hemingway and his time there. Continuing along the back wall, you can see an old-fashioned elevator lift in all its glory!

In Havana, there are a lot of children who beg for money. They're persistent. And you feel terrible for them. A Cuban convertible peso is worth multiple times that of their local currency. They're working to help their family. But they seem to be accompanied by an adult nearby. Whether this is their parent or someone they work for, I'm not sure. It's really sad to see. Cuba is a very poor country.

In lieu of giving money, we brought gifts from home for our housekeeper and the people who worked at our resort. Our tour guide mentioned that a lot of the jobs that the locals have isn't enough to pay the bills, so they work two full-time jobs. And having a job on the resort is a big opportunity, but it's hard to get in and you have to speak good English.

We found the people of Cuba extremely nice. The beaches were beautiful! It is a poor country though, so you have to understand that before you expect a 4-star resort to be what you would expect. I have found though that those who have traveled to Cuba before absolutely love it, and return again and again.

Food Aboard the Noordam

What's a cruise without the food? Ahh, the mountainous, tasty, delicious supply of unending food! On this cruise I made a point to take lots of photos of the different foods we tried. You don't really think about the food when you're eating it but after the cruise, you play the 'remember the one thing we ate...' game. So lots of photos help to remember that one thing.

The photo above is of my sister, Nicole, and myself in the main dining room on the final evening. This is a must for anyone aboard. Not to spoil the surprise, but the kitchen and dining room staff have a special event planned that takes place around dessert time, and this time we made sure we were there because it's a lot of fun.

On this cruise, as with anytime I travel, I try to be a bit adventurous. I will try any new food once before I decide whether I'd eat it again or not. There's not much I won't try. Well, that was until this cruise. I think I found my limit! My first adventure food: Quail!

The description sounded divine with visions of spinach and feta stuffed quail. I think I was thinking 'cornish hen'. Then these little legs arrived on my plate. Oh, my. Ohhhh, my my my. Not to discredit the kitchen staff because it was prepared and arranged nicely. I think I almost fainted when my dinner plate came though! I took a deep breathe and talked myself into making it through this meal. After all, I'm the one who ordered the quail.

Quickly I was scanning my head trying to think of what a quail looks like...before it ended up on my plate. We didn't have wi-fi purchased on board so I couldn't indulge in my natural reflex to hit up Google images. Pigeon? Is that what quails looked like? Oh my gosh. I made a mental note to hit the library after dinner once things had digested to check up on this. So I dove in, quickly, and ate the quail. The stuffing was delicious. The quail? Well, it was dark meat. Not bad. But it was quail. In conclusion I can say I ate the quail, although it won't be my first order next time. I can cross that off my bucket list. (It still makes me queasy just looking at this photo...)

Now to move on to more appetizing options...

My sister Nicole, was smarter than I was. She ate steak. Just about every night that we dined in the main dining room. Smart girl. Her's was amazing!

I had an incredible appetizer on the last 'International' evening of spring rolls. Ooo, I would soooo order this again!
The spring rolls were really light and the dipping sauce had a nice amount of kick to it. Delicious!

Nicole ordered an amazing apple-cranberry brie phyllo appetizer too:

And I tried Baked Alaska for the first time:
And who can resist chocolate cake - YUM:
I would also recommend the Flourless Chocolate Cake. I've had it on both cruises, and made it at home a few times and it's amazing! The Lido has great food too. I spent a lot of time at the ice cream station where I would break up fresh chocolate chip cookies into my ice cream and mix them together. This was a sometimes-twice daily occurrence! Also, outside on the Lido the little grill in the corner made amazing turkey burgers with sweet potato fries. There's never a short supply of satisfying food options aboard!

11-Day Southern Caribbean Cruise Aboard the ms Noordam

It seems I couldn't be kept away from my second Holland America cruise for too long, as we recently just returned from an amazing 11-day vacation aboard the ms Noordam in the Southern Caribbean! Here, I'm pictured with our ship docked in St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. Our ports of call included St. Maarten, St. Lucia, Barbados, Dominica, Martinique, St. Thomas and the amazing Holland America private island of Half Moon Cay.

Going on this cruise only solidified why I choose Holland America to sail with. The staff is incredibly friendly and so efficient and helpful. The food is amazing and the ports of call offered great optional shore excursions with a varied collection of activities to see and do.

I'll post some more photos soon, but I need to keep packing because we're off to Cuba next week! Another first!

The wonderful world of Walt Disney - Day 2: Magic Kingdom

Let me tell you right now, no matter how old you are or how old you may think you've gotten, once you step foot on the Disney grounds all of that melts away. Being at Disney immediately transports you back to your childhood and all those wonderful memories of your favourite Disney characters and the experience of the magical. You become 5 years old again. I can see why people like this place! After being at Disney for a solid four days the best way I can describe it is that Disney isn't a theme park, it's an experience. Every inch of Disney is well maintained and completely considered and thought of as to how it fits into the environment around it. Incredible.

Going to Disney I had two things on my to do list: get as many autographs as possible and meet Mary Poppins. For the autographs I realize I'm older and this is for kids, but I saw this as my chance to catch up on my childhood and no matter how embarrassing it would be, I decided to be brave and stand in the line ups and get the autographs. I was determined. As for Mary Poppins, she is the extreme ultimate Disney character for me. When I was a kid, that was the movie I watched over-and-over-and-over again. I loooooved Mary Poppins. This one was number one on my list, hands down. I was so afraid we'd miss her that we prebooked a Disney breakfast for later in the week because it mentioned she could be there. For our first day though, we had prepaid for the Disney fireworks dessert buffet on the Tomorrowland terrace. I hear this one fills up quick and has to be prepaid so we literally booked months in advance of coming.

That morning we got up really early and grabbed breakfast and the shuttle to Magic Kingdom. When we first got there we had to take a water ferry across the river at Disney to get to the park. When you enter the park you're on a remake of main street USA in the 40's or 50's I'd say. There's a city hall for guest services. I'd suggest stopping by here if it's your first visit or if you're celebrating an event because they will give you a button! :) There's an old style theatre front and a bunch of quaint looking shops. Lots of shops. (I love shopping)! Walking down a bit further there's a roundabout area then Cinderella's castle sits behind the roundabout. Sort of like Buckingham Palace does! We pretty much leisurely made our way through the park because we got there when it opened at 9:00am and our fireworks dessert buffet wasn't scheduled until 9:10pm that night.

When we first got in the park we seen snow white right away. I tried to get in her lineup but it was closed. So we kept walking and I seen Donald duck. I got in his line and he signed my autograph book and made a "call me" motion and blew me a kiss when I was walking away! My first autograph, and potential celeb date! We walked around the castle a bit more and seen the fairy godmother from Cinderella so I got in her lineup. She asked who my favorite character was and I said "you of course...and Cinderella". She goes "have you had a chance to meet her yet dear.....she'll be at the blah blah blah at 10 o'clock.". Pretty funny stuff. The actors stay so much in character; they are amazing at what they do.

After, we headed over to the merry go round ride. When we were on our horses mom caught the tail end of Mary Poppins going around a corner! Holy crap! In a very discreet rush we bailed off the ride and went to see if we could find her. I turned the corner in a flurry and there she was! She was signing autographs and I was able to get in her line - I couldn't believe my luck! For the kids in front of us she was asking them "do you know what you want to be when you grow up? You don't?!! Well do you like dogs?" and she would carry on the conversation from there. When they were getting in line for their picture with her she said "now all stand up straight, don't slouch. Spit spot". Just like Mary Poppins! When I got up to her I said you're my favorite Disney character and this is my first time here. Then all of a sudden this peter pan character comes up to her and starts asking if she's seen someone. The boy who flies or something.
And then he was like "well maybe you can get your sidewalk drawing friend to draw a map of never never land and then perhaps we can find him". Then Mary Poppins told him "if you see him please tell him I'm expecting him for tea later". So funny! I'm sure I stood there with my mouth open the whole time looking dumbfounded. Then she apologized and turned around to me and said "I'm sorry dear, you were saying...". Then I told her again what I had said and she replied "well then I guess you're well versed on the subject of me" and I said yes and she said "well good. That's my favorite subject too". Hilarious! Then she said "what's your favorite thing about me" and I said because you're practically perfect in every way (I have no idea where that answer came from but I was impressed I came up with it on the spot especially considering how distracted I was at the moment). And she said "well then you've quite turned out well yourself I see". It was so funny. Then she wished me a good day at the park. Mom got this picture of me talking to her and I look like I'm six and in awe of her. It's pretty funny. This totally made my day!

Then we set off for the rest of the park although I was pretty distracted at this point because of my amazing Mary Poppins encounter. We ate lunch at Pinocchio's something Haus. We wandered through frontier land and saw the Country Bears performance. One of the bears looked and sounded like Carroll Baker and another sounded like Kitty Wells. We went on the scary White ride which was like a roller coaster car that drove us through a fun house basically. Although I hear that's no longer there. We rode Aladdin's magic carpets in Fantasyland which was fun. The entire day was completely magical and felt like I was writing a new chapter in my childhood.

At the end of the day I remembered we had missed the it's a small world ride so we went on that. That was extremely 70's and looked like something Walt Disney himself had made. It was cute and extremely nostalgic. After I came home I researched that ride a bit. It has quite a history, originally built for the first Walt Disney Land in California and one of the most popular rides because of what it represents. Apparently Walt Disney didn't live to see the opening of Walt Disney World in Florida, he passed while it was being built. Which is a shame but his essence and thumbprint is all over in every detail. Quite a visionary.

Randomly throughout the day they have street parades and shoot fireworks off at the castle. There's always something happening. We caught a bit of both of those. Before going to our dessert party we wandered back to the front of the park quite exhausted. We desperately wanted to sit down in air conditioning so we thought we'd catch a show at the Disney theatre. Sitting down to watch a show is the best way to cool off and have a rest. We went in the princesses line and it ended up being a meet and greet with the princesses! In air conditioning! We met Cinderella, Aurora the sleeping beauty, and Belle! Now that we understood what this was (I don't think a lot of people realized the characters were in there) we went back out and came in the Mickey line. We met Mickey and Minnie mouse! The two characters you most want to meet at Disney. And the two hardest to see!

Finally it was time for our dessert party. There were probably 30-40 people in line. We had an awesome table at the front of the terrace in Tomorrowland. I filled my plate with desserts and we had juice and coffee. We watched the electric parade before the show started. They did a light show on the castle that showed a hundred different art treatments. All of them were cool - I really loved that part. Then they did these amazing fireworks over the castle. They kept getting bigger and bigger. They did one that looked like a shooting star while playing "When You Wish Upon a Star" and it was so bright. We were so exhausted but it was so worth it to wait for the fireworks! Pretty awesome day. But Mary Poppins was definitely the highlight.