Esther on the Move Traveling the World. One Country at a Time... Wed, 06 Apr 2016 20:59:31 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Adventures at Alnwick Castle Wed, 06 Apr 2016 20:59:26 +0000 Funny thing about visiting this castle located in England, was that we did so on a trip to Scotland!  It’s located in Northumberland, about 85 miles from Edinburgh versus just under 320 from London. ...

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Funny thing about visiting this castle located in England, was that we did so on a trip to Scotland!  It’s located in Northumberland, about 85 miles from Edinburgh versus just under 320 from London.  If you’re in either city however, a very beautiful train trip will get you to Alnmouth Station, just 4 miles from the castle, from which a taxi or bus can be taken the rest of the way.  It’s a great stop if you happen to be traveling from one city to the other.



The wonderful and unique thing about Alnwick Castle, is that it’s not just some old ruin or museum you can visit.  It’s actually a private residence that the Percy family allows the public to visit for seven months of the year.  It’s a very rare experience!

The 12th Duke of Northumberland is the current owner and resident of Alnwick Castle with his wife, the 12th Duchess of Northumberland, and their four children.  Can you imagine spending your childhood growing up in a castle?  I’m not talking about a house that looks like a castle – I mean a real, honest to goodness, 700 year old castle!


As you approach Alnwick Castle, there is a long walk up to the main gate, which gives you a striking and very distinctive view of the castle and the surrounding estate.  It’s so distinctive in fact, that it is immediately recognizable.  While my husband and I were watching (alright, the hubby was only half-watching) an episode of Downton Abbey, it was unmistakable that the estate they were visiting was Alnwick Castle.  It’s funny how your husband can swear he’s not watching something, but then suddenly pop in with a “I know that place – we’ve been there!”  Ok dear, you’re not watching (yeah right!)….  He used to do the same thing with Greys Anatomy, yet he somehow knew every character’s name.

Anywho…Alnwick Castle has been in a couple of episodes of Downton Abbey, the first two Harry Potter films, Elizabeth, and Robin Hood, as well as many other television appearances throughout the years.  The entire list is published on their website at


While open to the public, the castle hosts many events and activities that visitors can partake of during their visit.  There is “broom riding” for the kids, complete with Harry Potter Hogwarts capes and hats.  If you fancy a go at medieval weaponry, you can try your skill at archery, or merely watch a demonstration.


The entrance gate

Inside the castle, visitors are welcome to tour several opulent state rooms with exquisite artwork and antiques.  We found the library/study particularly interesting, if a bit unsettling, with books from floor to ceiling.  It’s an odd feeling touring around someone’s residence while they’re not there, seeing family photos on the tables, as if they’d just stepped out for a moment – there was a feeling of being somewhere you’re not supposed to be – perhaps this added to the whole experience.  But if you’re at all into books, viewing the library alone makes the visit to Alnwick Castle completely worthwhile.


In addition to the state rooms, there are several museums to peruse, some medieval weaponry to view, and a coach house, as well as the grounds which are immaculate and expansive.  Our visit took place at the beginning of May, so we were able to catch the end blooms of a hillside of daffodils as well as the beginning of some cherry tree blooms.   With grass in every shade of green, it was brilliantly beautiful.


All in all, Alnwick Castle is a one of a kind castle experience that we found absolutely delightful.  Plus, it’s always fun to recognize places you’ve been in the movies or on television.  And once you’ve visited Alnwick, you won’t soon forget it….

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Riding the Rails with the Refugees Mon, 21 Mar 2016 19:33:15 +0000 There are some experiences in our lives that are both unexpected and tremendously overwhelming, in a way that is simultaneously awe-inspiring and devastating. This was our train ride from Budapest to Vienna. After an...

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The Chain Bridge in Budapest, Hungary

There are some experiences in our lives that are both unexpected and tremendously overwhelming, in a way that is simultaneously awe-inspiring and devastating. This was our train ride from Budapest to Vienna.

After an interesting visit in Budapest, Hungary – a story for another day – the plan was for my husband and I to hop on a train to Vienna, Austria. As we watched the news the night before our departure though, we saw Budapest’s main train station completely mobbed with refugees – to the point where it looked as if it would be extremely difficult to maneuver through the station with our luggage.

I had the brilliant idea (as I often do!) that we should take a taxi to one of the train stations on the outskirts of Budapest and get a train there.


We can handle this...

170Fabulous! We get to the station and there’s hardly anyone around. We buy our tickets with no problem, and peacefully eat our breakfast on a bench in the shade of a tree overlooking the city while we waited for our train to arrive. Ahhh…I’m so glad we decided to do things this way!  We;ll have the whole day to explore Vienna!

Wrong!!! Do you remember all those refugees at the main station in Budapest? Yah…me to. Well, guess why they were at the train station? To take the train of course! And guess where they boarded the train? The main station!

So picture this: we’re waiting on the platform as the train arrives. The doors open to a solid wall of people.

To this day, I have no idea how my husband got us on that train. We were two people and two giant suitcases, with 2 regular sized backpacks. But he’s a big man, looks intimidating I suppose, and he just busted his way through that wall of people and got us a space – not seats, mind you – but a space. I was on the second step, with my suitcase just above me in the vestibule area, and he was in the vestibule area next to his suitcase. It was as close to insanity as I’ve ever come.

The smell of body odor immediately smacked me harder than a woman in a tele novella. My initial reaction would have been to pull a face or cover my nose, but I somehow found the strength to refrain. I was packed into a train car like pigs going to slaughter with a bunch of people fleeing for their lives with no access to showers, beds, and their life savings stuffed in shoes, bras, and other secret hiding places.

To our right was a family with two older teenage boys, a younger tweenage girl and two little boys, probably around five and seven if I had to guess. The little ones had eyes as big as saucers, so I smiled at them, trying to set them at ease a little. We were the out-of-place strangers on the train after all.

Gradually, they began smiling back and working their way closer to me on the stairs. One eventually even sat next to me for a while until his mother made him come back, worried he was bothering me. The mother passed around a bottle of water and a small bag of nuts that the whole family shared. It was hard to hold back the tears as I watched them share such a small amount of food and drink, and I couldn’t help worry about how much money they had to get by on and if they had family to take care of them once they got to where they were going.  It made me understand how extremely grave things were in their homeland to brave conditions like this.

To our left was a young couple with the cutest little toddler with them. After a peaceful nap in her mama’s arms, she demonstrated that she was just learning to walk and very curious. So trusting, a simple smile was all it took to get her holding onto my pants and smiling up at me. Her soft curls were as springy as her legs as she stood and bounced up and down, peeking between our suitcases at the family on the other side of us. If they weren’t sitting on the dirty floor of a train, they could have been a normal family anywhere, not a family trying to escape the horrors in their homeland of Syria.

And so our trip went, until we reached Hegyeshalom, the last station before the Austrian border. That’s where our train stopped…for hours.

It wasn’t just that the train stopped – for hours – that wasn’t the problem. The issue, was that it was 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the train was packed wall to wall with people, and there was no announcement about why we were stopped or for how long it would be before we continued on our way. With a train packed full of people who have already been through so much, many of whom did not speak English or Hungarian, this unscheduled detainment was terrifying.

After about an hour of delay, my husband got off the train to see what he could find out. He found a policeman (of which there were several on the platform), who could only tell him there were too many people on the train and there would be another train coming shortly. The man to my left worked up the courage to use his broken English to ask me why we stopped. I told him too many people and another train was coming, but I’m not sure how much of that he was able to understand.

The policeman was right! About 20 minutes later another train pulled into the station on the track next to ours! Hooray!!!!

Wrong!!! It was just as full as our train! So guess what happened? That train also was not allowed to pass the border into Austria. So there we sat, two very full trains, filled to the brim with mostly refugees, most of whom had entered the EU through Greece, and yet the Hungarian government would not allow them to pass over the border into Austria on their way to the countries like Germany, who were publicly stating “Come here, we will take you!”

I looked around me and I saw fear. I saw sadness, struggle, and exhaustion. But I saw hope and determination. I saw families and people looking for safety, forced out of their homes, and trying to protect their children. I wanted to give them all the money I had on me and tell them to come live with me. I saw love.

This, however, is not what my husband saw. While we waited for a third, empty train to come to the station, my husband stepped out onto the platform several times. He saw young, single men. He saw anger. He saw potential terrorists congregating. He saw the potential for danger.

After a total of three to four hours, the third, empty train finally arrived. We hopped on and they allowed us over the border and into Austria. We reached Vienna much later than intended, but reach it, we did. And thank goodness! They closed the borders to trains the next day.

Needless to say, my husband and I experienced riding the rails with the refugees very differently. My husband, always vigilant and “on guard” while traveling, especially in a foreign country, and especially when I’m with him, was experiencing a threatening situation. And if not one that was immediately threatening, one he could understand to have the potential to become threatening in the future. I, on the other hand, often oblivious, always curious, and more apt to see the virtuous motives in others and connect emotionally, experienced this time with the refugees as enlightening, moving, heart-rending, and entirely emotional.

This trip was in early September of 2015, and even with such events since then, like the terror attacks in Paris in November of 2015, I still believe that those people were on that train for a better life, not to ruin the lives of others. Of course, I suppose it only takes one bad apple to ruin the bushel, but I’d like to believe my bushel was a kind, loving bushel.


P.S.  You’ll have to forgive my lack of photographs with this post.  They certainly would have made my experience more real to the reader, but I didn’t in any way want to make the people on the train, who had been through so much, feel any more uncomfortable than they already were.  I also wanted to spend my time enveloped in the experience.  You’ll have to use your imagination on this one!

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The Fairytale Castles of Germany Fri, 18 Mar 2016 15:38:35 +0000 Have you ever wished you could visit a fairytale castle without going to a place that starts with the word ‘Disney’?  Ever wanted to feel like fairytale are truly real? Or walk in the...

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Have you ever wished you could visit a fairytale castle without going to a place that starts with the word ‘Disney’?  Ever wanted to feel like fairytale are truly real? Or walk in the footsteps of princes and princesses in a real fairytale castle?

Wait no longer my friends!  There is such a place, and it is in a magical land, called Germany.

The hubby and I actually wound up in Germany by accident.  It wasn’t on either of our lists of places we wanted to go, but I had to go for work at the time, so we decided he would fly in after my work was completed, meet me in Munich for the 200th Anniversary of Oktoberfest – a story for another day – and we’d spend 10 days making a giant “C” shape driving around Germany from Munich to Berlin.  It was the best travel ‘accident’ we’ve had yet!

On our third day, we made it about 60 miles southwest of Munich, just outside the small town of Füssen, to the fairytale castles of the ‘Dream King,’ Ludwig II.

Germany October 2010 322

Schloss Hohenschwangau

Germany October 2010 377Nestled in the Ammergebirge mountains of the Alps, the smaller of the two castles, Hohenschwangau, was built by Crown Prince Maximilian between 1832 and 1836 to replace the ruins of a Medieval castle, Schwanstein Castle.  Hohenschwangau, the cozy castle, as I like to call it (tongue in cheek, mind you), is a sprawling peachy colored castle with nearly all the makings of a magical fairytale castle  Four turrets mark the corners of the main keep of the castle, with several other spired towers on other parts of the building within the complex.

This castle was used regularly by the Wittelsbach family (aka the Royal Family of Europe – seriously, if you don’t know much about them, they’re worth looking into) as a summer residence.  In fact, it is where Ludwig II was introduced to composer Richard Wagner, leading to a lifelong friendship.  Since he spent much of his childhood at Hohenschwangau, his bedroom ceiling was painted as the night sky, and when he got older, he could see the progress of the construction of his newer castle from this same bedroom window.

Germany October 2010 359

Besides the Fountain at Schloss Hohenschangau

Germany October 2010 359Hohenschwangau has a beautiful garden with a wonderful fountain, and overlooks this particularly lovely part of Germany countryside.  Although Hohenschwangau is amazing and magical in and of itself, it is important, I think, to see this piece of fairytale history first, as I do believe one would find it quite underwhelming if seen after it’s sister castle, the ultimate fairytale castle, Neuschwanstein.

Germany October 2010 399

Approaching Schloss Neuschwanstein

Approaching Schloss NeuschwansteinIn 1869, Ludwig II began construction on his dream castle, Neuschwanstein, laying the  cornerstones atop a crag in the mountains overlooking Swan Lake and the castle of his childhood, Hohenschwangau.  In an ideally picturesque setting, the grand palace sits with pointed towers seeming to reach higher than the distant mountain tops, flags waving in the breeze, greenery growing up to surround the pure whiteness of the castle that could surely only come from the folds of a fairytale book.

There is somewhat of a hike from the parking lot up to Hohenschwangau….there is a vigorous hike from there to Neuschwanstein.  Since the tickets for Neuschwanstein are for timed entrances, we bought our tickets for a bit later, saw Hohenschwangau, then had a bit of a snack and a drink by Hohenschwangau.  Every area of Germany specializes in a certain beer, so just go with it and order ‘a beer.’  It’s exciting and you’ll always get something refreshing and delicious!  Then and only then, did we make the hike up to Neuschwanstein.

You can take a carriage ride or a bus ride up to the castle – but don’t!  Unless of course you have to… You don’t want to miss the Marienbrücke, a wonderful footbridge with one of the best views from which to see the castle.  You can also immerse yourself in the alps with the sounds of nature all around you on this little (300 foot high) bridge.  Don’t worry Dad – I didn’t lean over too far!

Germany October 2010 398

Bavarian Countryside

Germany October 2010 398Germany October 2010 398Once you actually make it up to the castle (and it is a hike), you will be whisked away to a fairytale world of rooms painted with fantasy scenes from Wagner’s operas, gold and silver everywhere, a unique throne room, and views of the outside that will make you absolutely fall in love with the magical land of Germany.


P.S.  There are 2 other palaces Ludwig built while determinedly emptying his empire’s coffers: Linderhof & Herrenchiemsee (the “Bavarian Versailles”).  These, while not necessarily straight out of a fairytale, are certainly worth a look as well if you have the time and are into that sort of thing…

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Grand Cayman…Save the Mangoes!!! Tue, 10 Mar 2015 19:12:32 +0000 I’m kidding of course – about the mangoes!  As far as I know, there are no mangoes on the island of Grand Cayman. However they do have unique and beautiful mangroves, filled to the brim...

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I’m kidding of course – about the mangoes!  As far as I know, there are no mangoes on the island of Grand Cayman. However they do have unique and beautiful mangroves, filled to the brim with a rainbow of sponges, sea horses, jellyfish in a plethora of colors,  and barracuda (along with other non-attack fish).  And the mangroves do, by the way need saving.

I’ll get back to the mangroves in a bit though.  First, some general information about Grand Cayman:

Part of the Greater Antilles group of islands, Grand Cayman is the largest of the 3 Cayman Islands, (the other 2 being Little Cayman and Cayman Brac), and is tucked just south of Cuba in the Caribbean Sea.  If you enjoy a good snorkel or love diving, this is an excellent place to vacation.  Although the price of dining out can be a little on the high side, the water tours are so reasonably priced, that for us, it more than made up for the extra cost of our meals.

We had quite a great time in Grand Cayman, but the trip was not without its…well let’s call them…disappointments.  We flew out of Newark airport, only because we could get a direct flight for a much better rate than flying out of either of the other New York based airports.  I highly recommend always checking flights from Newark if you’re in the New York area – we saved over $600 when we flew to Hawaii!  Just as with JFK and Laguardia, Newark also has many off site parking facilities that offer reasonable rates and excellent service.  My favorite is The Parking Spot; quick, easy, and I can almost always find some sort of coupon or discount online.

We hired a taxi to take us from the airport to our resort, for which we had traded one of our timeshares. Our “resort” was a little out of the way, but we had known it would be, and sometimes prefer to stay just outside the area of main action. We were staying at a place near Welch Point, on the opposites side of the part of the island from Seven Mile Beach.  But as we approached our accommodations, my poor husband knew he was in for some complaining.  I was wondering if I could consider actually staying at this place.

First off, let me just preface this by saying I am by no means a princess.  I can certainly rough it with the best of them, and in fact, through my childhood, that’s what we did.  My family liked to camp, therefore, we camped.  So, I am no stranger to life without amenities.  That being said, now that I am an adult and can make the decisions about my vacations, I prefer to stay in nicer places – places where the fear of bedbugs won’t haunt my dreams.

Our timeshares greatly help us fulfill this requirement on many of our vacations, since they both have high trading power and we rely on the trading company’s ratings for each resort to guide us in our choices.  This was the first time they let us down.  The resort we stayed in was no where near a 4 or 5 star resort.  It was no gold crown.

I won’t bore you by going into too much detail here, but as we pulled up to the resort, the first view we saw were the dumpsters, and it didn’t improve much after that.

On the positive side, it was right on the water and there was a curious flock of chickens and a rooster that came visiting our patio everyday, which we found quite enjoyable.

Once we rented ourselves a car (which is very economical to do on Grand Cayman – I think we paid roughly $150 for the week), things seemed to turn around, as we spent a very minimal amount of time at our “resort”.

The first thing we did was find a grocery store.  This way we could eat breakfast in our room, rather than spending $50 on a barely edible breakfast at the hotel restaurant.  Then we headed out to find ourselves a decent beach!

Our Favorite Beach

Our Favorite Beach

And boy did we find one…or rather several.  The first one we went to however, did turn out to be our favorite.  It was quiet, beautiful, and there was a great little outdoor restaurant, called Alfresco’s,  right off the parking area that we enjoyed a great lunch at several times (nice wooden deck, and gorgeous breeze).  The beach is called Cemetery Beach, and is located right on West Bay Road just north of Seven Mile Beach by a mile or two.  Just as things start to thin out and become less crowded, there’s a pull-off to park and walk a short ways to a pristine beach, with crystal clear Aqua water.  It was divine. Apparently there are great dive sites just off this beach as well.  There were divers out every day we went there.

View from Alfresco's Restaurant

View from Alfresco’s Restaurant

If you continue north on West Bay Road a little further, you can turn right onto Town Hall Road. And this road will take you straight to Hell!

Welcome to Hell Grand Cayman Style

Welcome to Hell
Grand Cayman Style

Just kidding…sort of.  It will take you to Hell Road, which takes you to Hell.  No one will ever say the Caymanians don’t have a sense of humor.  There is actually a place called Hell, and except for the cute bantam chickens, you might think you’ve actually been transported to the real Hades.  Great areas of black limestone formations emerge from the Earth like scorched hands and daggers.  It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before, that’s for certain.

Limestone Formations in Hell, Grand Cayman

Limestone Formations in Hell, Grand Cayman

Blue Iguana

Blue Iguana

Pretty much on the opposite side of the island, you won’t want to miss the Blue Iguanas at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park.  Blue Iguanas are only found on the island of Grand Cayman, and they have an incredible program there to protect and reintroduce them to the wild.  The guided tour is only given once a day (& not at all on Sundays) at 11am, and is well worth the price of admission, which also includes the botanical gardens.  You’ll want to go on a sunny day, as the heat brings out the stunning blue color.  Since there was only one other person on our tour, we had a very personalized experience with these blue dragons.  We were amazed at the level of affection they showed, running when their keeper called, stretching their necks for a nice pet, shutting their eyes in pure satisfaction.  I half expected them to start purring!

Loving Iguana

Loving Iguana

This one came running when she heard her care taker near by.

This one came running when she heard her care taker near by.

Be sure to take a trip to George Town during your trip to Grand Cayman.  It’s an historic little capital city with many sites to see, places to eat, art, and craft fairs galore for all your souvenir needs. You’ll want to pay attention to how many cruise ships are docked though, and go when there’s only a couple.  You need enough in port to make the town busy, but 6 cruise ships in port could really wreck your day.  Your hotel should be able to provide you with the cruise ship schedule.

Speaking of hotels, I would be remiss not to mention the Grand Cayman Beach Suites, if only for the restaurant, Hemingways.  We ate at this divine restaurant three times during our stay on Grand Cayman.  And every single time we walked through the neat, clean, nicely lit pool area of the hotel, I wished (sometimes to myself, more often aloud) that we were staying at this fine resort, instead of our sorry excuse for…well, I won’t beat a dead horse.  If we find ourselves back on Grand Cayman anytime in the near future, we will be staying at the Grand Cayman Beach Suites.


Now. For all you water lovers.  There is so much to do on Grand Cayman, or rather, around Grand Cayman, in the water.  It is definitely a top dive place in the Caribbean.  But if you’re not that adventurous, never fear – there’s plenty for you to do too!  We love to snorkel.  If you think you might be taking multiple trips where you may find yourself snorkeling, I highly recommend investing in your own snorkel gear.  You can get a set with fins, a mask, snorkel and carrying bag for well under $100.  We bought ours on after our first snorkeling trip, where we were told to grab a mask and snorkel out of a huge barrel of water and return it to the same barrel when we were finished (along with 20 other people).  Not that I’m a germ-a-phobe, but it did give me the heebie-jeebies.  You have to remember that there is the possibility that these small island nations do not have the same quality and health risk standards and restrictions we have in the U.S.  That being said, I’m sure they all take precautions to ensure safe use of their equipment. I’d just prefer to use my own.

Anyways, snorkeling in Grand Cayman is incredible – and cheap!!  Most tours are around $40-50, which includes the equipment if you need it.  Two of our tours were very memorable and I highly recommend both.

Sting Ray City.  You must go to Sting Ray City!  It is an experience that I will not forget any time soon. We went with Dexter’s Fantasea Tours, and they were fantastic. They had a nice laid-back vibe that made you truly feel like you were on vacation in the Caribbean.  The price was $40 per person, and worth every penny.

The tour boat takes you well off the coast to the middle of the North Sound, where an enormous shallow sandbar awaits.  You don your snorkel gear and head for the crowd, because it’s there, that you’ll find an unimaginable amount of sting rays gliding gracefully through and around the people.  It was such a magical experience – when I first got there I was absolutely mesmerized.  Little baby sting rays sliding silently beside their mothers.  Enormous old sting rays slugging along so slowly they seem to almost stand still. Young ones whizzing by, chasing each other in sport.

Then the captain of our boat threw out some food. I guess you could say in my trance-like state, that I was unprepared for the sudden frenzy of sting ray the feeding created.  All of a sudden, instead of what I felt was a nice manageable number of silky creatures, they were everywhere – we were overrun.

So a rational person would have probably calmly assessed the situation and either a.) realized that they were not in a dangerous situation, or b.) feeling uncomfortable, simply swam away from the concentrated area.  However, we’re talking about me right now.  So what do I do?  Seeing my brave husband (loving every second of this onslaught of rays I should note) snorkel by, I jumped his back…naturally.  After sinking under the weight of his unexpected & sudden barnacle, he stands, with me clinging to his back.  Of course you have to know my husband to understand what he did next.  Did he carry me to safety and soothe my fears? No.  Did he try to reason with me and soothe my fears so I could continue snorkeling?  No – he knows me way to well to waste his time with that nonsense.  No my husband asked what was wrong, shrugged, and slipped back into the water for more snorkeling, barnacle attached.

Eventually, after a good while of tandem snorkeling, the density of rays thinned out and I was able to continue snorkeling on my own again, leaving my husband parasite free.  I dare say we gave quite a few people a nice chuckle and a good story to take home.  Moral to the story?  Be prepared for a large number of rays to head your way when your boat captain brings out the food!  Regardless of how my story may sound, it was a fabulous experience.

Save the Mangoes!  er...Mangroves, I mean.

Save the Mangoes! er…Mangroves, I mean.

The other tour we took that was wonderful and worth noting, was our snorkeling in the mangroves with Sea Elements.  This is a great tour company that works very hard to promote awareness about the important ecosystem that is the mangroves.  You will see fascinating jellyfish, anemone and sponges in vivid colors, many different kinds of fish, and you may even be lucky enough to see a sea horse.  If you’re like us, you’ll see a lot of long, large silvery fish with black markings just seemingly hovering in the water.  Try to keep your distance from these – they’re barracudas – and don’t wear jewelry or watches or anything shiny  while snorkeling in the mangroves, as this attracts them (& not in a good way).

Our tour guide was knowledgeable and quite funny.  He joked that many people come on the tour to save the mangoes, mistaking the mangroves for mango trees.  We bought my husband a tee-shirt on the tour to support the effort, and every time he wears it, we can’t help shouting out “Save the Mangoes.”

Despite our disappointing accommodations, our trip to Grand Cayman was relaxing and delightful, with enough still to do there to warrant another trip in the future.

Until next time, may your journeys bring you great happiness and enlightenment!


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Rome In A Day… It Really Can Be Done! Thu, 26 Feb 2015 21:34:28 +0000 Whether you’ve had the good fortune to have been to the magnificent city of Rome before, or whether it’s your first trip to the Eternal City, you are in for a treat – even...

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Whether you’ve had the good fortune to have been to the magnificent city of Rome before, or whether it’s your first trip to the Eternal City, you are in for a treat – even if it’s just for a day!  We take every opportunity to extend a layover, add a weekend, or even go out of the way a little, just to spend some time in our favorite city.

The first time I went to Rome, we decided to add it as a layover on our way home from a trip to Malta (the island in the Mediterranean, not the small town in upstate New York folks!).  Since my husband had lived in Italy briefly as a child, he had been to Rome many times, but let’s just say it had been a few years, so he would not be of much assistance in the touring department.

Gregg takes a break at a drinking fountain in the Forum

Gregg takes a break at a drinking fountain in the Forum

We were flying into Rome in the evening on a Friday, had all day Saturday in Rome, and then were flying out around noon on Sunday.  So we really only had Saturday to experience Rome.  If you’re planning to tour on your own, make sure you pick up a Streetwise Rome map.  We get them for any city that we travel to, as they’re laminated, usually have great subway maps, and are a good size.  I know you can get apps on your phone these days, but we’ve found they don’t always work the way you need them to.  For example, sometimes you need to see more of an area than you can see on your phone.  Or sometimes, even though when you downloaded them everything was in English, the actual map is in the language of the country you’re visiting – or English, when you really need it in both languages.  The Streetwise Maps can easily be purchased on for under $10.

As we wanted to get the most out of our day, we chose to hire a private tour guide to take us around, which I highly recommend if you are squeezed for time, or even if you’re not.  We used Through Eternity Tours, and I cannot say enough good things about our day, our tour, our tour-guide, and the company.

They have many tours to choose from in Rome, but also have tours in Florence, Pompeii, etc.  Taking a tour like this also allows you to skip the horrendously long lines at all the sites, like the Vatican, the Forum, the Colosseum, which goes a long way to help you maximize your time.  The tours can be pricey, but they are priced per tour, not per person, so the more people you have with you, the more economical they become.  Through Eternity also offers small group tours, but you cannot make adjustments to the itinerary and likely won’t get to see as much as you would on a private tour.

St. Peter's Square at Vatican City

St. Peter’s Square at Vatican City

We began our day at the Vatican.  No, we did not meet the Pope, but you can certainly go on a Wednesday if he’s in Rome to his mass.  Just go early so you can get a good seat up front.  We did a pretty in-depth walk-through of the Vatican Museum, the Sistine Chapel, & St. Peter’s Cathedral – where we even got a glimpse of a young bride and groom, newly married.

Newly Wed Couple leaving St. Peter's at Vatican City

Newly Wed Couple leaving St. Peter’s at Vatican City

The Sistine Chapel, although amazing, was a bit overwhelming.  They shove you in like cattle.  There’s absolutely no picture taking whatsoever – and there are guards all around, so don’t even try it!  And when your time is up, your time is up, and you and the rest of the herd is shuffled out, the doors banging closed behind you.  Although the Sistine Chapel is certainly an impressive work by Michelangelo, I felt much more awe and emotion seeing his La Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica.  It is a true shame that it has to be protected behind bullet proof glass, because it is just a masterpiece.  My husband had to drag me away – I could have stood there, absorbing it for hours.  How can someone capture so much emotion in a piece of rock?  It’s just crazy!

Michelangelo's La Pieta

Michelangelo’s La Pieta

Inside St. Peter's

Inside St. Peter’s

Then we stopped for lunch with our guide (who was so interesting and personable!) at a really great small place that he recommended.

The Coloseum in Rome

The Colosseum in Rome

After lunch, we hopped on the subway to the Colosseum, which we toured at our leisure, and then made our way up the Palatine Hill.  This is the center-most of the seven hills of Rome, and boasts the remnants of the palaces of the elite of Ancient Rome.  It is just south of the Forum, and has several plateaus from which beautiful view of the city can be seen.  If you close your eyes, you can imagine what it might have been like living in such luxury during the height of the great Roman Empire!

Palatine Hill

We even got to visit the home of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus Caesar, which they had just opened to the public, with only a few people allowed in at a time – it was such a treat!  The frescoes were some of the best preserved and most interesting I’ve ever seen anywhere.  If this is something that you’re interested in seeing, make sure you check the opening times, as it is often only open for a couple hours a day.

Frescos at the House of Augustus Caesar

Frescoes at the House of Augustus Caesar

We then wound our way down the Sacre Via, or Sacred Way (a road over 2000 years old) towards the Forum.  It’s truly awe inspiring to walk in the same footsteps as the ancient Romans on this incredible road.

Sacre Via - The Sacred Way

Sacre Via – The Sacred Way

After a detailed tour of this area, it was getting late and time to part with our guide.  He’d spent at least nine hours with us and although we were dog tired, he pointed us in the direction of the Pantheon, we said our goodbyes, and started on the walk to the Pantheon.  The Pantheon apparently has the largest brick dome ceiling in the world – it really is quite impressive.  It was originally built by Agrippa during the reign of Augustus, and then re-built a couple of times throughout the years.  But it stands as it does today thanks to Emperor Hadrian, who rebuilt it in all it’s current day glory around 126AD.

Approaching the Pantheon

Approaching the Pantheon

Inside the Pantheon

Inside the Pantheon

What a day! We had seen so much.  We both felt as though we had truly experienced Rome.  And when, on the plane ride home the next day, when my husband asked me what I had thought of Rome, I struggled to find the words, but eventually looked at him and said, “It just felt like….(and here we both filled in the last word together)…home.”  I knew our experience had been something beyond special.  We had had a magical day in the Eternal City.  But then, what isn’t magical about Rome?

Wine and Gelato breakfast before flight home.

Wine and Gelato breakfast before flight home.

Have a great experience in Rome or a great tip for seeing it in a day?  Please share in the comments!

If you’re in Rome, your travels are sure to be happy and enlightening, but if you’re traveling anywhere else, may you find the same there!


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The Monkeys of Japan and Arashiyama… Tue, 24 Feb 2015 15:36:20 +0000 There is only one species of monkey that inhabits Japan.  It is the Japanese macaque.  This adorable cream colored monkey has a nice thick furry coat to keep it warm through the winter, as...

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There is only one species of monkey that inhabits Japan.  It is the Japanese macaque.  This adorable cream colored monkey has a nice thick furry coat to keep it warm through the winter, as they live up in the mountains of Japan.  They also have red faces, that grow redder during mating season.  You may have heard of them as the ‘Snow Monkeys’.

In Nagano, you can visit them as they catch a reprieve from the bitter mountain cold in the hot onsen at Jigokudani Park.  We were intending to go there, and in fact, this was our entire reason for visiting Japan in winter.  But because of my stomach issues, we weren’t able to make the trip from Tokyo.

If you want to go though, there is a Shinkansen (bullet) train from Tokyo that will get you to Nagano in just 105 minutes – man I wish we had those here in the US!  Of course once you get to Nagano, it gets a bit trickier, so you may want to get some help at the Information Center located at the Nagano Train Station (they speak English).  You’ll need to take a bus (I believe the Shiga-Kogen line of the Nagaden Bus) from Nagano Station to Nagano Dentetsu Station.  Then from there you can either take a nice long walk or grab a taxi to the Jigokudani Parking area.  Then of course there’s the hike up the mountain to see the monkeys!

They have a live video feed you can see on line (  I shouldn’t have, but I looked at the feed the day we were supposed to go and the night before they had gotten about 3-4 feet of beautiful new powdery snow.  It was absolutely gorgeous and would have made for the most amazing photos.  Ah well, you say. Another time.

Live feed from Jigokudani Monkey Park

Don’t feel too bad for me.  Although I didn’t get to see the macaques in the onsen in Nagano, I still experienced the Japanese macaques first hand – albeit by complete accident.  If your time in Japan is limited, or you just don’t feel like trekking all the way out to Nagano, you can still see these adorable little primates if you are in the Kyoto area!

Since we were planning on going to Nagano to see the snow monkeys, when I asked my husband if he wanted to go to Arashiyama Monkey Park one morning during our stay in Kyoto, he of course said no (much to my disappointment, being the type of person who can’t get enough of any kind of animal anywhere – just wait till I write about Malta!).  So we made plans to do something more towards the center of the city, as the Arashiyama District is on the outskirts of the city, and hopped on what we thought was the right JR train.  And it would have been – had it not been the express train.  So when we finally got off the train and figured out where we were, darned if we weren’t at Arashiyama!



Luckily, I had a whole day planned for this area, including the Monkey Park, a nice boat ride up the river, the bamboo forest, and a temple.  So we adjusted our plans once again and just let the wind (or rather, train) take us where it may.


First things first, we headed straight for the Arashiyama Monkey Park.  Since the train station had giant maps of the whole area just outside, it was easy to figure out where to go.  Just find the river and follow it to the Togetsukyo bridge.  It was such an awe inspiring scene.  Here was this shimmering river, at the very foot of these low mountains covered in all shades of green, and a long bridge spanning the wide river.  It was amazing – everyone crossed in the same direction.  They crossed towards the mountain on the left, and away from the mountain on the right.  We only saw one couple going against the flow.  So orderly!

After you cross the bridge, you turn right, and the entrance to the monkey park is just up on the left.  We climbed the first set of stairs to a shrine and bought our tickets (550¥ each).  But while waiting for my husband to get the tickets, chaos erupted from the river below. My husband came over and we watched as about 15 young men stood thigh-high in the frigid river water practicing their karate. Talk about discipline! I would have dipped my toe in and been outta there!

Japanese karate boys

So after our entertainment, we began our assent up the mountain.  It was a long hike.  I’m not sure if it was because I was starting to feel a little under the weather at this point, or whether it was because people with children kept whizzing by us, but I was really starting to feel old at this point!

We did finally reach the top however, after what was actually a very scenic and beautiful hike.  And there they were – the Japanese macaques, in all their red-faced glory!  I could have squealed with joy.  All right, I may have squealed with joy.  Fine.  I squealed with joy.  But it was so exciting!  You had to be there to understand I guess, but there were these little red-faced monkeys everywhere!  And babies too!  I was overwhelmed with emotion, and so were the monkeys, as it turns out.

Baby Japanese macaque

The Japanese macaques are so human-like in their emotions.  You may see one monkey stalking off to be by himself. Or maybe another one yelling at the rest in anger.

Angry macaque

Or perhaps a baby cautiously hoarding his food from his older siblings.

Baby macaque hoards food

And then there are the babies curled up on their mama’s laps, sleeping through it all as their mama lovingly picks through their fur for bugs.

Mama & Baby macaque

It is raw emotion at its best, and it is beautiful.

All this raw emotion can lead to tiffs between the 6 monkey bosses and the other monkeys (there 144 there one of the keepers told us).  But never fear, there are workers there who are on top of everything and keep the monkeys from misbehaving.  One girl was suddenly surprised by a monkey being near her (a monkey at a monkey park! Go figure), and began screaming hysterically, flailing her arms.  So the monkey did the same thing right back at her until one of the workers ran him off. I’m pretty sure she was American, but for embarassment’s sake, let’s just say she was from some other English-speaking country where they have New York accents.

As we left, my husband basically dragging me away, there was a playground for kids with an enormous slide.  I opted for the slide, which, tall and steep as it was, did not go too fast, given all the mud and the fact that my tush barely fit its width.  My husband took the stairs, waiting patiently at the bottom, shaking his head, and we continued our descent out of the park.

Hozugara Boat Ride

We thought about the boat ride, but it was really cold and humid, and quite frankly, seemed like an activity for our next trip to Japan…in warmer weather.  Http:// So we headed for the Bamboo Forest!

Approach to the Bamboo Forest

It was amazing.  Bamboo taller than I’ve ever seen…in an unbelievable shade of blue-ish green, in a forest so expansive.  A sea of bamboo as far as the eye can see.  Truly amazing!

Bamboo in the Bamboo Forest


On one side of the Bamboo Forest, you will find an enormous temple call Tenryuji.

Garden & pond at Tenryuji

It is adorned with a gorgeously landscaped garden and pond filled to the brim with old koi fish.  Founded in 1339, it is the largest temple in Arashiyama, and one of Kyoto’s many UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  Definitely worth the visit if you are in the area, if only to see the koi.

Koi at Tenryuji

There is also another temple that you should definitely make an effort to see if you have the time and energy.  It’s called Otagi Nenbutsuji.  It is a ten minute walk north of a temple by a similar name, so easy to get confused and stop there. But keep going.  You may want to rent a bike or even get a taxi to go there, as it is a ways out of the center of things.  But if you take a bike, you can pass through the Saga Toriimoto Preserved Street, which has been preserved in the style of the Meiji Period, with many of the buildings being converted to cute shops and restaurants.

The Otagi Nenbutsuji has 1200 stone statues of rakan, or followers of Buddhism, each one bearing a unique expression on his face.  These are new in relation to most things in Japan, made in the 1980’s-1990’s, but are still very impressive.

Before you go to Arashiyama, you can find a great map and a list of other sites to see at this website:  I found it extremely helpful all-around when planning our trip to Japan.

If you have any tips or would like to share your experience in Arashiyama, please do in the comments – we’d love to hear from you!

And until next time, may your travels bring you much happiness and enlightenment!





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Shopping on Nakamise Dori, Tokyo – not to be missed… Tue, 17 Feb 2015 21:00:00 +0000 So you’re going to Tokyo! That’s fantastic!  Japan is wonderful country with a unique and beautiful culture.  You’ll want to bring lots of little goodies home for yourself and for your friends and family,...

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So you’re going to Tokyo! That’s fantastic!  Japan is wonderful country with a unique and beautiful culture.  You’ll want to bring lots of little goodies home for yourself and for your friends and family, and there is no short supply of amazing and hand-made items.

But where do you go for these handicrafts and souvenirs when you’re in Tokyo?  Sure, there are many places throughout the city, but if you’re in the Asakusa area of Tokyo, there’s one place not to be missed.  One place where you can find something for everyone.

Beautifully wrapped purchases

It’s called Nakamise Dori, and is the entranceway to Senso-ji Temple, on Kaminarimon Dori.  You will know it immediately by the huge crowds around the area – it seemed to be crowded the entire time we were in Tokyo.  And since we stayed at the Gate Hotel (which was amazing and worth checking out if you’re looking for a hotel with a great location for site-seeing in Tokyo) which was across the street and down just a bit, we had a good view of it for the whole week.

So yes, the street is packed with tourists, but just take a breath, relax, and stroll at your leisure down one side, check out Senso-ji when you get to the end, then make your way back down the opposite side.  We did this, checking out all the shops, and then wound up going back twice to pick up items we saw & just had to go back for.

What can you get in the shops on Nakamise Dori?  Just about any kind of Japanese souvenir you can think of!  There are inexpensive, machine-made items galore, so you won’t be hardpressed to find your t-shirts and key chains.  But you can also find hand-made treasures, such as chopsticks, woodblock artwork, and pottery, at what we found to be very reasonable prices, and beautifully wrapped to boot!

Kimono nicely wrapped

We were able to get little kimonos for our young nieces, and Japanese puzzle boxes for our nephews, as well as many other gifts, which made battling the crowds well worth it (not to mention the fact that the crowd was quite orderly, polite, and easy to get in and out of – just please keep a tight hold of your little ones if they’re with you!).  Luckily, my husband was at least a head taller than the crowd, so if we got separated, he stuck out like a sore thumb.  Regardless, I do recommend that if you are traveling with someone else, that you make a plan of where to meet in case you get separated.

Nakamise Dori

There is one shop on Nakamise Dori I feel I must mention.  We went there two out of our three trips to the street.  Not only did they have some of the most unique gift items (like the puzzle boxes), they also carry an array of beautiful Buddha figurines, sake sets (which are not too expensive and are so adorable), masks (that are not like the cheap chintzy ones you see at so many of the other shops), and so many other crafts and souvenirs.  The staff is so courteous and amenable, and every purchase is impeccably wrapped with nice paper.  I believe the name of this shop is Sanbido, but since few of the shops boast signage, you’ll have to do with my directions and the attached business card.  It is on the left side if you are heading towards the temple, in the middle of the third block back. Http://

Sanbido on Nakamise

If you are popping in to buy something quickly at one of the shops on Nakamise Dori, and want to leave without browsing the rest of the shops on the way out, it is definitely worth hopping out one of the perpendicular streets & exiting out a side street towards Kaminarimon.

Whatever you purchase on Nakamise, I’m certain you will be amazed by the experience and your purchases will bring back memories for years to come.  And don’t forget to stop in at Senso-ji – it is quite a site!  If you have any tips or favorite shops on Nakamise Dori, please comment and let us all know!

Until next time, may your journeys bring you happiness and enlightenment!

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Finding a Decently Priced Flight… Fri, 06 Feb 2015 20:41:41 +0000 Most of the trips we take these days require air travel, which of course is not always easy to find at a decent price.  There are a few tricks I’ve learned over the years...

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Most of the trips we take these days require air travel, which of course is not always easy to find at a decent price.  There are a few tricks I’ve learned over the years though, that have helped me keep the price of our flights at a reasonable level, while still affording us the comforts we expect when flying.

We fly coach and don’t require silver spoon treatment, but we do want personal entertainment systems on longer flights, a decent meal, and comfortable seats.  So although often times we could probably find a cheaper flight on a no-name airline, it might not always be worth it to us if we arrive haggard and exhausted.

There are a couple of different avenues I use when searching for flights.  If you haven’t guessed yet, we’re big fans of American Express.  We charge as many of our monthly bills as we can to Amex, to build up our points.  When you use the travel link on American Express, not only do they often have the best pricing (or if not, at least very competitive with the other travel sites like Expedia, Travelocity, etc.), but you can use your points to pay directly for flights, hotels, car rentals, tours, etc.  You can also pay for a portion if you don’t have enough points to pay for the whole thing, which reduces the cost, making an already reasonably priced flight even more affordable.

In the event that we’re flying to Europe, I always check Aer Lingus’s website directly (  I can say that I always have found the best prices for flights to Europe through Aer Lingus.  The one drawback (if you can even consider it a drawback), is that you will always have a layover in either Shannon or Dublin.  My husband and I take full advantage of this stop-over, with a nice pint (or 2) of Guinness for him and a cold glass of draught cider for me – no matter what time of day, it’s always available!  Plus there are some great shops to pick up some wonderful Irish handicrafts.  Aer Lingus also has great sales quite often.  So if the price doesn’t suit you, wait a week or two, and try again – the price often fluctuates by several hundreds.  I generally look at the other travel sites to get an idea of what the average going rate is for my European destination, then try Aer Lingus.  If the price is not much cheaper, I hold off and keep checking till I get a better price.  I’m usually doing this about 3-4 months in advance.

Another trick I’ve learned that works more often than not, is flying into one airport and out of another.  For instance, last time we went to Ireland, we flew into Shannon and out of Dublin, which was about $300 cheaper than flying in and out of Shannon.  Of course this only works when we’re not staying in one place.  We did the same thing in Germany, flying into Munich and out of Berlin.  This doesn’t always create a financial benefit, but you’d be surprised how many times it will lower your flight price.

Frequent flyer programs are a great way, if not to get cheaper or free flights, at least to get some perks.  Unless you fly a lot, and always on the same airline, frequent flyer miles can add up slowly.  But where frequent flyer programs come in handy, is with the perks you are often provided for being a member.  Often frequent flyer members are first to be offered upgrades, which is always nice.  You can also usually take advantage of airline hospitality lounges when you’re a member of their frequent flyer program, if not for free, for a nominal fee, which comes in handy when you have a long layover or are delayed.

Also, don’t delay if you see a good price.  If you find airline tickets to Japan for $1100, when they usually go much higher, don’t wait for the price to go up, because you know it will.  Next thing you know you’ll be paying $900 more and regretting your delay.  If you find the best deal, don’t wait around for a better one – jump on it!

With tickets purchased for a reputable airline at a decent price, you can head to your destination with confidence and ease.  If you have any tips or tricks that you use to get a great rate on flights, please let us know by commenting!  Happy flying!

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To Kennel or Have a Sitter? That is the Question… Thu, 05 Feb 2015 15:56:18 +0000 We travel as much as we can – at least two big trips a year, with a scattering of smaller trips in between.  We also have our own little zoo that I absolutely could...

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We travel as much as we can – at least two big trips a year, with a scattering of smaller trips in between.  We also have our own little zoo that I absolutely could not live without.  We currently have four (that’s right, four!) large dogs…well, Smooch isn’t so so large, and three furry cats.

GuntherrificGunther, the old man of the house, is our 16 year old Samoyed.  He can’t always get up off the tile floors by himself because of his arthritis, and wears diapers because of his incontinence problems.  He’s also often confused due to a touch of dementia, is half blind, and can’t really hear that well.  But he’s happy and when he has a moment of clarity, is just delighted to realize where he is and be a part of our family.

May 1562Huck & GuinnessGuinness, our sweetheart and dumb-dumb, is our nearly 13 year old German Short-haired Pointer.  Even though he’s older than dirt for his breed, he’s healthy as can be – oh, except for the liver cancer.  But we keep him comfortable on his pain meds and give him some herbals (so about 16 pills a day) to keep his tumor from growing and he seems to be doing just fine.  Plus he gets to go see Dr. G every few weeks, who he loves.

Huck, our biggest and most timid boy, is our 4 year old Newfoundland Flat-coat Retriever Mix (Flat-coat is like a black Golden Retriever for those who aren’t familiar with the breed).  He is my Once In a Lifetime Dog – he owns my heart and lives and breathes just to be with me.  We think he was pretty much a stray his whole life until he came to us, so he’s a little afraid of people, but in the two years that we’ve had him, he’s made great strides and has become much more social.  To be honest, I don’t care if he likes anyone but me…well okay, maybe my husband too.


Smooch is our baby.  She’s tiny compared to our other dogs, a little 35 pound Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever (a really extraordinary breed – not very common, but well worth looking into if you’re looking for a great family dog that’s easily trainable, good for low energy or high energy families, and so very lovable).  Smooch is about 2 years old and keeps Huck on his toes.  They spend hours outdoors running around together, or just curled up enjoying a good nap.  I think she might be my husband’s Once In a Lifetime Dog – she’s certainly Daddy’s little girl at any rate.


Then we have Francois, our red tabby.  First let me say, that about 95% of orange cats are boys.  That’s why our girl cat has a boy’s name.  But she really seemed to like it and by the time we found out she was a girl, it had stuck.  Francois has Tourette’s Syndrome, or the cat equivalent anyways.  She’s fine most of the time, but sometimes she’s got some ticks and runs around the house with tiny little steps and yells at us a lot.  But she’s a great cat.  There’s a funny story about how we got her.  We became great friends with the incredible people who bought our last house.  And since we had had our cat Toey disappear there, I had never lost hope that she’d show back up, and was always asking if they’d seen her.  So one day they said that they hadn’t seen her, but that we absolutely had to come see this great cat that had shown up.  We already had two cats and weren’t really looking for another, but we were having some problems with mice in our pool shed, so we thought, hey, why not?  We could get a cat to keep outside and put a little cat door into the pool shed.  Problem solved!  We went to see the cat and as we pulled into the driveway, here comes Francois, running up with a dead chipmunk in her mouth!  Sold!  She came right up to us and was purring and loving all over us.  We took her right home.  I think we managed to keep her as an outside only cat for about 3 days.  She’s our princess now and just does whatever she wants – except I won’t let her out after dark!  She’s just too precious!  (It’s ok.  I know I’m insane.)

006 001 (2)PolyGinger

Poly & Ginger.  Our two Manx cats.  They are so sweet and adorable – and skittish.  Poly (short for Polyurethane – it was my husband’s turn to name.  What can say?  I only get one veto and I always have to use it on Fart), has no tail – she has what’s called a Rumpy Riser, which is basically a stump.  While Ginger, her sister, has a full tail.  With Manx cats, their hind legs are taller than their front legs, so they often will have issues with their spine or arthritis later in life.  They’re about 8 now, but so far so good.  They both have the most unusual and beautiful seafoam green eyes I’ve ever seen in a cat – really stunning.  When I went to rescue them, I was just going for Poly, but came home with both.  My husband goes to these things with me since then.  I just can’t be trusted not to adopt the whole litter!

So that’s our amazing and wonderful zoo.  They make me laugh out loud every single day.  They are always, without exception, thrilled to see me whenever I arrive home.  And they give me more love and affection that I deserve.

But what, you ask (as does everyone), do we do with our little herd, when we travel?  And what should you do with your pet or pets while you’re away?  This is a tough question, and one that depends completely on several factors.  There are several options open to you, and several factors to consider when making your decision.

First off, let’s talk about options.  No matter where you live, there are always kennels to be found to board your pets.  This is mostly for dogs, but many will board cats also.  Most veterinarian offices offer boarding services as well.  You could get a pet sitter – someone who would come to your home 2-3 times a day, let your pets out to do their business or walk them, feed them, give them any necessary medications, play with them a bit, and then go home.  And then the option we use, a house sitter – someone who actually stays at the house while we’re away, caring for both the house and all the needs of our animals.

Which one is best?  That really depends on you and the type of pet or pets you have, and the personality of your pet.  For instance, cats are very independent.  When we go upstate to my parents we’ll bring all the dogs, but the cats will stay indoors with extra litter boxes, enough water and food to last the 3 or 4 days, and some cat nip to keep them busy.  They’re super happy to see us when we get back and we make sure we love on them till they’re sick of us, but they really don’t need anyone to see to them.  If we were to leave them longer, we would have someone look in on them, because once their litter is full, they turn into evil little devils that will pee every where, so…there’s that.

But what is your pet like?  My sister’s dog, Joxer, is a Catahoula Cattle Dog.  In case you’re not familiar with the breed, very high energy.  So a pet sitter is not going to work for her.  That dog needs to go to a kennel where there is play time every day with other dogs or people.  Somewhere where the dog can burn off his energy or he will become destructive.  If you have a high energy dog, this might be the best option for you.  That is if it’s not cost prohibitive.  Kennels can be very costly.  So if you have multiple dogs, like we do, the price can be astronomical.  Tack on the extra charges for any medications they might need and it can really become cost prohibitive.  There are all sorts of boarding situations though, so if that’s the option you think is best, don’t give up after just talking to one kennel.  Groomers often have boarding facilities, as well as dog trainers, and don’t forget people you know.  Is someone you know a dog fanatic?  Do they already have a dog or two of their own that they care for and probably wouldn’t mind adding another to their repertoire for a week or two?  I wouldn’t wait until you’re ready to go to bring it up – maybe offer to reciprocate and it may cost you nothing!

How about a pet sitter?  Perhaps you have a low energy dog or cats and just need someone to come a couple of times a day to let them out or walk them, feed them and give them a little lovin’.  For some pets this is all they need – especially for older dogs who are past the destruction phase when they get bored.  This is probably the least expensive route, as you can usually find a neighbor or friend willing to help out.  If not, there are reliable ways to find a decent pet sitter.  One good way would be to ask around – see if anyone else is using anyone they trust.  Another is to go to your local high school guidance counselor’s office and see if they could recommend a good student who is responsible.  I personally, would go with a top performer who is in extra curricular activities, like sports, clubs, etc., because these students tend to take life a little more seriously.   I’d feel like they’d take the job seriously, and the life of my pets seriously too.  That’s just me though.  You can also use a service like AngiesList, which you must subscribe to or, which is free.  This is a great, lower cost option, but remember, you are giving someone access to your home, so it must be someone you trust.

So the last option, the one we use, a house sitter.   I can tell you from experience that it doesn’t always work out perfectly.  We have come home to a disaster of a house.   We have been picked up in our own vehicle by a drunk person.  We have come home to find our dining room furniture in our master bedroom.  Not to mention, having a house sitter can be a bit costly.  But if you have animals that need a lot of attention, or have a lot of animals, it may be less expensive than kenneling. I used to house sit for a friend when I was younger for free.  It was like a mini-vacation for me.  Their place was a lot nicer than mine, they always left great meals for me to eat, and I loved their pets as much as my own, which I was allowed to bring with me (just had 2 dogs then).  So this is who you’re looking for.  Do you know someone like this?  Someone who might consider it a treat to stay in your home?  Someone who will love your animals and treat them well?  Someone you can trust?  My suggestion is to first try family and close friends.  Our sitter is my mother-in-law’s best friend’s step-daughter.  We trust her implicitly, she always takes good care of our babies, and the house is always beautiful when we arrive home.  We try to make it as easy as we can for her to house sit.  We trust her to have her boyfriend stay here with her.  We try to stock the house with food we know she likes.  And if there’s  ever any issue, like having to run a pet to the vet, or having to stay an extra night unexpectedly because our flight is delayed, we try to make sure we compensate her well so that she understates how much we appreciate her going the extra mile.  Word of mouth is important here.  I know she’s gotten quite a few house sitting jobs because we tell everyone we know how great she is.  So ask around.  Someone you know probably knows someone who is willing and able to care for your little ones like you do.

It’s important to make the right decision for both you and your pet.  For us, putting every one in a kennel would not only put us in the poor house, but I think the stress would just be too much for the 2 older boys.  And if they’re stressed, I’d be stressed, and what fun would that be on vacation?  If you find the right situation, you can go to your destination and enjoy your trip knowing your pets are well cared for in a situation that is best for them, leaving you to be relaxed and carefree!



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Being Sick While You’re Abroad… Wed, 04 Feb 2015 14:59:02 +0000 Even if you don’t have 4 auto-immune diseases like me, being ill while you’re away is certainly something to be concerned about.  After all, Giardia has been known to knock even the healthiest person...

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Even if you don’t have 4 auto-immune diseases like me, being ill while you’re away is certainly something to be concerned about.  After all, Giardia has been known to knock even the healthiest person flat on their back for weeks.  And food poisoning, like I had in Aruba, can really do a number on you.  Just take a look at me.  Isn’t is nice to have a travel companion who documents everything?

When traveling to a foreign country, it’s important to know what you’re getting into…before you leave.  Do some research while you’re planning your trip.  Is it safe to drink the water?  And don’t forget, if it isn’t, then it isn’t safe to do things like brush your teeth with it, or eat items like salads & raw fruits & vegetables that may have been washed in it.  Also, do you need any special vaccines or medical treatments before you go for thing such as Malaria or Hepatitis?  Have they had a recent outbreak of the Measles or Chicken Pox or something for which you’ve not been or can’t be vaccinated?  Are there poisonous plants, spiders, snakes, etc., that you’ll need to watch out for while on your trip, and if so, how readily available is treatment for encounters with these dangers?  Do you need to bring treatment with you?

Bring with you the basics – you may not be able to find them at your destination.  I always pack Immodium & something to get you going, Sudafed or some kind of nasal decongestant, Airborne & Vitamin C lozenges, & if you’re prone to stomach issues like me, some Gas-X & Tums are never a bad idea.  This assortment usually gets us through whatever minor health maladies try to to strike us down while we’re away, but you’ll want to create your own travel medicine chest based on your own needs.  Keep in mind that it might be  a good idea to bring along a surgical type mask for the flight if you’re on an immuno-suppressant like me, or just likely to pick up any cold virus within  a 20 block radius, like my husband – especially if your flight will be a particularly long one.  In Japan, people who are sick wear masks so as not to infect others.  Unfortunately, the rest of the world is not quite so considerate, and you might wind up like us, getting stuck on a 13 hour flight in front of two people who sneeze and cough the whole way without even covering their mouths!  You’ll want to be prepared – trust me!

Most destinations will be safe and have few health concerns to worry about. However, it is a good idea to do a little research before you go about the medical/hospital systems at your destination as well. You never know when the unforeseen will happen, leaving you in need of medical care.  And if you’re in a foreign country, where you don’t speak the language and know nothing of the local health system, this can be quite stressful, which is the last thing you need at a time of crisis. Find out which hospitals have English-speaking (or any language you can get along in) staff.  It’s also good to know how their insurance system works and if yours would be accepted.  You can check with your credit card company too.  Some offer emergency medical coverage while traveling, while others offer travel medical insurance you can purchase, often at reasonable prices.  We use our American Express Card whenever possible, and although they currently do not offer travel insurance, they do offer a 24 hour Global Assist Hotline that will refer and coordinate medical care, offer translation services, etc.  Any third party care is at your own expense, but at least they can help you know where to go and help communicate what care you need.  With their Platinum Card, they also offer emergency medical transport, which depending on the situation, could be a life saver.  In addition to medical support, their Global Assist Hotline can help with things like Passport Replacement, Lost Luggage, etc. – all those things that can make life miserable when you’re in a foreign country.  (

So say you don’t plan for the worst, and like me on our recent trip to Japan, fall ill and find yourself in need of medical attention? What then?  First and foremost, don’t panic.  Unless you find yourself lying next to an open fire with natives chanting and dancing all around you and a doctor of the witchy sort leaning over you with a mask on (& not the surgical type) and a large knife aimed at one of your body parts, chances are, you’ll be able to get the help you need and everything will be okay.  If you have American Express, call the Global Assist line and let them coordinate everything for you.  If you don’t, use the resources you do have.  Contact the front desk of the hotel or place where you’re staying. Hopefully they have someone who speaks enough English to understand what you need.  Two of the hotels we stayed at in Japan actually had doctors on call that would come to the room if I needed.  This may be the case where you’re staying, although be sure to find out the cost of such a service prior to agreeing to it.  It may actually be more cost effective to find a local clinic or hospital.  Of course, it would all depend on your needs.  At the third hotel we stayed at, they didn’t have a doctor on staff, but the front desk handled everything.

This was at The Gate Hotel Asakusa Kaminarimon in Tokyo (  Not only was it a fabulous hotel in a perfect location for site-seeing, but the courteous staff handled my mini medical crisis with concern, speed and professionalism.  In Japan, when going to the Emergency Room at the hospital, you are supposed to call in first and make an appointment.  You basically call and let them know you’re coming as sort of a pre-registration.  The hotel staff came to my room and called the hospital from there to register me at the International Hospital, St. Luke’s (, so they would be sure to speak English. Then he called us a cab, came back to the room to get us when it arrived, saw me into the cab & told the driver exactly where to take me.  When I returned they asked how I was doing, and even called our room the next day to make sure I was feeling ok.  It was really extraordinary service that went above and beyond any normal expectation of reasonable service. I was very grateful we had chosen to stay at The Gate Hotel.

We had a similar experience at the hospital.  I finished my registration when I got to the hospital, waited about 10 minutes, and was seen by a waiting physician.  Since she had done her final year of training at GeorgeWashington University in the U.S., her English was excellent.  She listened to what I had to say, asked some relevant questions, and began treating me within a few minutes.  The nurses were competent and kind, and by the time I left, just a couple of hours later, I was feeling so much better.  I had medicine I was able to get right there at the hospital pharmacy, and everything included only cost me about $500.  This might seem like a lot, but after spending 5 hours in our local ER a few years ago & walking out disgusted without ever seeing a doctor, only to get a bill for $1482 (after my insurance paid their part – the cost of just walking through the door they said), I’d say it was a steal.  Japan has national health insurance, so they don’t accept private insurances like United or Blue Cross, etc. If this does happen to you, it is a good idea to check with your insurance company when you get home.  If you have out of network coverage, some or all of the expense may be reimbursable, even though the care took place abroad.  It all depends on your policy.

All in all, my experience being sick abroad was not too horrendous, and certainly could have been a lot worse. Using the resources you have available to you, planning ahead, and knowing the dangers and layout of the healthcare land, can all go a long way towards turning your sad & sickly trip into one that’s healthy and enjoyable.


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