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!