Tag Archives: Alastair

International travel with a baby

Over the years, I’ve blogged quite a bit about travel. Before we were parents, Al and I were pretty big travelers. Al has been to 100 countries (!!!) and we’ve done quite a bit of international travel together, including extended stints in South Africa and the U.K. But since having Lucia, our travel has pretty much come to a grinding halt. I did take Lucia to California to visit my family when she was ten weeks old, but traveling with a tiny newborn is a far cry from bundling a wriggly, restless toddler onto a plane. Tiny babies are adaptable little lumps who can sleep anywhere. Toddlers, on the other hand, are whirlwinds of activity and opinions and demands, who don’t deal particularly well with sitting in one place for extended periods of time.

For many parents, myself included, the idea of packing up one’s toddler and all of her attendant things (travel crib, travel bath, travel stroller, car seat, toys, books, spoon, sippy cup, snacks, etc., etc., etc.) and flying anywhere — let alone overseas — is enough to induce heart palpitations. But Al and I decided to go for it, anyway, our cardiac health be damned. We just got back from an almost three week trip to the United Kingdom to visit Al’s family, and it went… surprisingly well? I’m still kind of shocked we all survived without at least one of us being institutionalized/arrested, but we did!

Here are a few things I learned and tips that we found useful in our travels with baby. As with all things parenting (and all things travel), your mileage (and/or kilometrage) may vary.

  1. Take an overnight flight whenever possible. Here’s the thing: you want your kid to be asleep as much as possible on the plane, because an awake baby on a plane is a bored/restless/whiny/uncomfortable baby on a plane. On the way to Scotland, Lucia slept the entire flight, because the flight took off around 7 pm (her usual bedtime). Of course, the flight was only six and a half hours, and Lucia usually sleeps 12 hours a night, so she was an utter disaster once we landed, but having her sleep the whole time on the way there was nice.
  2. If your kid’s going to be awake on the flight, pack lots of snacks. Normally, I have Lucia on a pretty strict schedule. She gets up, goes to bed, and eats meals and snacks at the same time every day. She has two designated snacks during the day, one at 10 am, and one at 3 pm, and I don’t let her graze or pick at things between meals. However. On the long-ass flight back from the UK to the US, during which Lucia was awake for six out of the seven hours we were in the air, I gave that kid as many snacks as she wanted. Oh, you’re bored and whining because we have read every board book we packed six times and you’ve thrown all of the in-flight magazines on the ground and ripped the barf bag to shreds? HAVE A SNACK. I gave her rice cakes and rice puffs and cheese and bananas and whatever else I could find and it was wonderful because it kept her occupied. Pro tip: give your toddler a snack cup like this and let her slowly pick up and eat small snacks like these. It takes forever and it keeps her quiet (at least, until the snacks are gone). Another pro tip: give your kid something to eat or drink (a straw cup is ideal) during takeoff and landing or pressure changes, because it helps relieve the pressure in her ears.
  3. Take more diapers than you’ll ever think you’d possibly need, and pack a change of clothes for both the baby and yourself. I learned this the hard way when I flew with Lucia to California. She had a poop explosion in the airplane lavatory — the less said about that, the better — and I’d only brought diapers and wipes with me into the lavatory (rather than her entire diaper bag with the extra onesie). Consequently, I had to walk a half-naked baby back down the aisle of the plane in order to change her clothes and get a new shirt for myself (yes, it was that bad). People were nice about it but, you know, my advice is to go ahead and bring the whole diaper bag into the lavatory with you. In general, it’s always good to have extra diapers and wipes when traveling because you never know what kind of delays you’ll experience, and Lord knows babies’ digestive systems don’t always cooperate with our best laid travel plans.
  4. Pack smart. I spent a long time thinking about what to bring with us to the UK, given that we wouldn’t be able to borrow baby stuff from anyone there (since Al’s cousins’ kids are all older) and we didn’t want to deal with renting or buying stuff there. Here is our packing list, which was barebones, but ended up working out well for us: a super-light, super-portable travel crib (which we put in Lucia’s suitcase); her stroller base; her infant car seat (which we clicked into her stroller base); our Ergobaby carrier; a select number of board books and toys (maybe four books and three toys); a portable, battery-operated white noise machine; clothes for various weather situations (but not too many); travel packs of Dreft; baby spoons; weighted straw cups; a silicone bib; a silicone feeding mat; the aforementioned puffs; a jar of Crazy Richard’s peanut butter, and, probably The Most Important Thing, three lovies. Next time, I probably would have packed more puffs and board books and skipped the feeding mat, but pretty much everything else was essential.
  5. To counter jet lag, expose your kid to lots of sunlight during the day, do your best to replicate the home routine, and hope for the best. We had a remarkably easy transition with Lucia once we were in the UK. She only had one Bad Night (and hoo boy, was it a doozy), and slipped right into her normal schedule of one two-hour nap during the day and then twelve hours of sleep at night. I am not sure if this is normal, but I’m not questioning it. However, since we’ve been back in the US, she’s been waking up an hour earlier than usual in the morning (ugh), which I am assuming is jet lag and will go away. I hope. I pray. Because Momma doesn’t like getting up at six unless there’s a Royal Wedding on TV.
  6. Just do it. Al and I are really happy we took Lucia to the UK. She got to meet tons of family, see new places, and have new experiences (including petting lambs, playing in Soft Play areas, and trying meringues). The trip was really good for her, and for us. Yes, there were rough moments, and a lot of hauling around of baby gear. But it was worth it. If you’re debating whether or not to travel internationally with your kid, don’t let the daunting logistics or fears about time changes hold you back. You’ll all adjust, and it’ll be fun. Do it.
Lulu in Exmouth, UK

Lulu in Exmouth, UK

What are your best tips for international travel with a baby? Am I missing anything key? Would you let your baby pet various farm animals that may or may not be carrying weird, farm-animal-borne diseases? Because I did! (And yes, we spent a long time having our shoes disinfected by the Agriculture people in the Philadelphia Airport).

(Cook)book review: A Good Food Day, by Marco Canora

I haven’t done much cooking over the last six weeks, since, you know, baby, etc. But our last round of parental visitors left yesterday and I figured it was a good time to restart my normal cooking routine. I’d been wanting to crack open Marco Canora’s cookbook, A Good Food Day: Reboot Your Health with Food That Tastes Great since I’d gotten it. I liked the fact that the recipes seemed healthy but not diet-y, with lots of fresh, whole ingredients and flavors. Canora’s philosophy, as laid out in his “10 principles for a good food day,” involves making eating enjoyable through consciously, mindfully eating a wide variety of real, high quality foods. This jibes with my philosophy, too, so I was excited to give the book a shot.

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I chose the recipe for braised chicken thighs with garlic, lemon, and Greek olives, since I’m a sucker for a good bone-in, skin-on chicken thigh. I started cooking just as Al was dropping his dad and brother off at the airport, and Lucia was awake (sort of), so I threw her in the sling, covered her with a receiving blanket so that no hot oil would come anywhere near her, and got cooking.

Cooking with Lucia

Cooking with Lucia

I realized as I was cooking that I didn’t have the Greek olives that the recipe called for, so I substituted some capers, figuring they’d provide the salty, briny kick that the recipe needed. I also didn’t bother peeling the garlic cloves as the recipe instructed — who has the time, right? The recipe was easy to make and came together quickly — definitely do-able for a weeknight. And, I’m happy to report, it tasted great.

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I am not always a fan of cooked lemons — I think sometimes the tartness can verge on the sour and overpowering — but in this, the lemon-y taste was counterbalanced by the sautéed onions and garlic (yum). The chicken came out perfectly tender and juicy. I served the dish with baked sweet potatoes and roasted asparagus.

Dinner, complete

Dinner, complete

Overall, a very satisfying meal! I’m looking forward to cooking more out of Canora’s book soon. Al has requested the cacio e pepe popcorn, so that’ll be my next project. Recommended for those who want to cook with healthy, whole ingredients without skimping on satisfying flavor.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

Lucia Wren

Last time I wrote, I was super pregnant and counting down the days until our baby — who, while being very real, still felt a bit, um, theoretical — made her appearance. I had a feeling — just a feeling — that she was going to come a bit early, and this feeling was bolstered by a premonition from Al’s stepmom (and she has crazy strong intuition) that the baby would show up at around 39 weeks. Incidentally, my chiropractor also predicted that the baby would show up around January 27 or 28. These predictions proved to be quite accurate, because six days before her due date, on January 28, Lucia (pronounced “Loo-CHEE-uh”) Wren made her debut.

Me and my baby

Me and my baby

Without getting into the nitty-gritty of the labor and delivery process, I’ll say that giving birth was the most intense, crazy experience of my life. I know those two words (“intense,” “crazy”) don’t do much to impart how mind-bending it is to experience a fully formed human emerging from one’s body, but it’s the best I can do. It. Was. Crazy. Also: awesome, wonderful, empowering, and overwhelming, but mostly just CRAZY. Anyone who’s given birth (especially without the aid of painkillers) knows what I’m talking about right now. Dude.

The VERY abridged story: The contractions show got on the road at around 10:00 am on the 28th and Lucia was out at 7:22 pm. I was on another dimension (an astral plane? who knows) for much of the labor process, but the whole thing was pretty peaceful, all things considered, and fast, especially for a first baby! So, lucky me, and lucky Lucia.

Chillin', baby style.

Chillin’, baby style.

She was born at George Washington University Hospital under the care of a fantastic team of midwives and nurses. We also had a doula, who happened to be tied up with another birth when I went into labor, so she sent a replacement doula, a very nice lady named Laurie, who showed up at my bedside while I was still laboring at home (and was not entirely in the same universe as anyone else) and gave me fantastic support and encouragement. Everyone at GW, from the midwives and nurses who helped deliver the baby, to the postpartum nurses, pediatricians, and lactation consultants, were really, really great. We feel really lucky to have given birth there. To quote Travis Birckenstock, “a very enthusiastic two thumbs up.”

We named the baby Lucia because, first of all, it’s a gorgeous name, but also because it’s a family name. My dad’s mom was born in Italy and her maiden name was Santa Lucia. I always loved the sound of the name and the fact that Lucia means “light.” And let me tell you, this baby is the light of our lives so far. I’m a bit biased, but I think it’s fair to say that she is one of the cutest babies in the world, if not THE cutest. Also, she’s a bit of a mini-me, based on photos I’ve seen of myself as a baby. We have the same chin. And kind of the same mouth. And the same hands. Did I just asexually reproduce and not know it? Because, if so, sorry, Al.

Baby Steph

Baby Steph

Baby Lucia

Baby Lucia

She’s also super chill. Her hobbies include sleeping, pooping, eating, and mewling. She doesn’t cry very much and occasionally gives us big smiles, although I suspect this is probably related to gas. I’ll take it! Even though Al and I are both super sleep-deprived and a bit overwhelmed, we are overjoyed, and are having so much fun taking care of her and just staring at her.

Daddy reading baby a story... about Bruce Jenner's transition to becoming a woman.

Daddy reading baby a story… about Bruce Jenner’s transition to becoming a woman.

I’m tempted to flood the internet with a million photos of her, but I am holding back since I’m not sure she’ll appreciate that when she’s old enough to make her own decisions about what she shares online. So, for now, this will have to do. In the meantime, blogging might slow down a bit since I spend large portions of the day with my hands full. But expect more tales of Lucia down the road, and more normal posts once I figure out this parenting thing!

New Zealand, Part 2(b): South Island, continued

Here is the third and final part of our New Zealand adventure, covering the remainder of our time on the South Island. Check out parts one and two if you haven’t already.

The Catlins

The Catlins

From Te Anau, our next stop was an area called The Catlins, in the far south of the South Island. Al and I had both been looking forward to The Catlins, but it turned out to be one of my least favorite parts of the trip. It’s not that the scenery in The Catlins isn’t impressive — it is! very! — but the weather was so utterly hideous that it was hard for me to enjoy it. I grew up in Michigan and I thought I knew from variable weather, but The Catlins was a whole new ballgame. Within seconds, we’d watch the sky turn from sunny to ominous gray and then start to rain, which would then progress into hail, and then snow, and then back again, over and over. The entire day that we drove through The Catlins, we were barraged with a mix of rain, hail, and snow, punctuated by brief moments of sunshine. Even when the sun was out, though, it was still bitterly cold (hence the snow flurries), and I spent a lot of time sitting in the van with the heater on full blast while Al would hop out to take photos, and then rush back in.

My view from the van as Al took pictures

My view from the van as Al took pictures

It was also really windy, so driving along the treacherous, winding coastal roads often felt perilous, as our van rocked back and forth with each gust of wind.

Sure was windy!

Sure was windy!

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We stayed at a campsite that was sort of in the middle of nowhere (like most things in The Catlins, I guess) and no-frills. Let me assure you that getting up to use the (unheated) facilities in the middle of a rainstorm was not awesome. Neither was being passively aggressively told off by some lady in a giant RV in the morning for making too much noise while opening my van door to go to the bathroom at midnight. (EXCUSE ME FOR BEING PREGNANT, LADY. Sheesh.) Anyway, we did see some really cool stuff in The Catlins, like Slope Point (the southernmost point in NZ), and we had a really good meal on the road (at the Beachhouse Cafe in Riverton), but I was ready to be done with the whole area after a day or so of crazy weather.

It was necessary to bundle up.

It was necessary to bundle up.

We fled The Catlins for Dunedin, known by Kiwis as “the Edinburgh of the South.” Dunedin, at first glance, is sort of unremarkable, especially compared with the in-your-face scenery along the west coast of the South Island that we passed through to get there. But it’s sneakily charming in an understated, Scottish way. Al and I didn’t get up to much in Dunedin other than a bit of sightseeing and eating, but it was a pleasant, low-key stop for us. In town, we visited the Otago Settlers’ Museum, which turned out to be really interesting. Dunedin was settled by Scots, and the city still retains a strong sense of Scottish heritage (hence, Al noted that everyone in Dunedin looked like they could have been related to him). At the Settlers’ Museum, they had a room where you could put on Scottish settlers’ outfits and pose in front of a backdrop. Al’s picture was pretty authentic.

Hard to get more Scottish than this!

Hard to get more Scottish than this!

After Dunedin, we drove north toward Christchurch, but we made a few stops along the way, including in Oamaru, the steampunk capital of NZ. Steampunk is, according to Wikipedia, a “sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery, especially in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century.” Oamaru lends itself well to being a steampunk center since its main street is lined with limestone buildings from the 19th century, giving the whole place a Victorian feel. Oamaru seems to have embraced the Victorian/steampunk theme wholeheartedly; there’s even a steampunk-themed playground. We checked out Steampunk HQ, a weird and fairly creepy museum stuffed with odd bits of machinery and art, blending Victorian era technology and the macabre.

He has a license to operate this.

He has a license to operate this.

A rough-and-tumble steampunk penguin we found working in the yard.

A rough-and-tumble steampunk penguin we found working in the yard.

Steampunk HQ light show

Steampunk HQ light show

The day we visited Oamaru happened to be Al’s birthday, so we stopped in a Victorian-style hotel for a beer (for Al) and a flat white (for me), and browsed through some of the little artists’ shops along the main street. We also popped into the Whitestone Cheese Company to taste some of the local delights. We demolished a full cheese board as a snack (don’t judge us) and then got on the road to Christchurch.

Birthday beer in Oamaru

Birthday beer in Oamaru

Christchurch was devastated by a series of huge earthquakes in 2010 and 2011 and is still rebuilding. I think because of this, Al and I had a hard time getting a feel for the city, much of which is still under scaffolding. Part of the problem, too, was that it was raining for most of the time we were there, and a lot of the activities we had read about in our trusty Lonely Planet guide were outdoors. To wait out the rain, we went to the movies (Gone Girl) and by the time we emerged, the weather had cleared, so we strolled around Christchurch’s Botanic Gardens. It must be a sign of how old and boring we’ve become, but Al and I do love a nice botanic garden. This one reminded us a lot of Cambridge (UK), which is intentional, since Christchurch was settled by the English (The Canterbury Association, in fact) and was designed to mimic an English city. Like any good English city, Christchurch had some good Indian food, so Al and I celebrated his birthday eating delicious curry and naan at a restaurant called Himalayas.

At the Christchurch Botanic Gardens

At the Christchurch Botanic Gardens

Our last pit-stop on the South Island before catching the ferry back to Wellington was Kaikoura, a beautiful spot known for whale (and other wildlife) watching. We parked our van next to a roadside seafood barbecue place, ate some scallops and chowder, and then checked out the seals that were hanging around on the rocks. The seals seemed unfazed by the fact that there were people right there, snapping photos and gawping at them.

Kaikoura

Kaikoura

Al and a seal

Al and a seal

After taking our seal photos, we loaded into the van and headed back to Picton to catch the ferry to the North Island. I was sad to leave the South Island; we had seen so many incredible things there. One of the things that struck Al and me most about driving around New Zealand — especially the South Island — was the fact that you could pull off to the side of the road almost anywhere and see something breathtakingly beautiful. Most of the things we saw from our van window weren’t listed in our guide or on any map; there’s just too much to see in New Zealand to even begin to list all of it. The whole country is bursting with hidden treasures. For example, on our way out of Dunedin, we pulled off in a little town called Waitati to get a coffee and try whitebait, a local delicacy (it was okay).

Sampling whitebait in Waitati

Sampling whitebait in Waitati

We’d pulled over not because we’d read about Waitati anywhere, but because I had seen a sign on the side of the road for a Sunday market, and figured it’d be as good a place as any to stop and get a flat white. At the little market, as we were drinking our coffees and eating our whitebait sandwich on white bread, we were approached by a kind of wacky looking lady who smelled strongly of patchouli. She wanted to tell us about the Greenpeace campaign she was working on to stop offshore oil drilling in New Zealand. We listened politely as she told us about her campaign and then she began telling us about Waitati and its alternative culture (which includes a local “pirate queen“). She also mentioned that just down the road, there was a beach where blue penguins roosted. She assured us that no tourists knew about the beach and we should check it out. So, we drove down a couple of winding roads, following the signs to Doctor’s Point, and ended up at this beautiful, empty beach.

Doctor's Point, Waitati

Doctor’s Point, Waitati

We didn’t end up seeing any penguins (the tide was up and it was hard to get to their nesting area), but the place was beautiful, and there was hardly anyone else there. Al and I agreed that if this beach had been in any other country, it would have been written up as a must-see destination, but the fact is, NZ is lousy with tiny, untouched beaches. All you have to do is wander a little and you’ll find them.

Doctor's Point - Al is the little speck in the distance

Doctor’s Point – Al is the little speck in the distance

Overall, Al and I agreed that New Zealand was one of our best trips ever. It had its highs (scenery! penguins! seals!) and its lows (being pregnant in a van with no toilet! hail!), but what good trip doesn’t? We will always remember our pre-baby adventure in NZ fondly. I’m so glad we went and I recommend it strongly to anyone else who’s thinking of taking a great adventure.

 

New Zealand, Part 2(a): South Island

As promised, here’s the report on the second part of our New Zealand adventure (part one is here), in which we explored the South Island in our trusty camper van. Since we saw so much in the South Island, I decided to break this post into two pieces, so as not to overwhelm. New Zealand can overwhelm.

Al and I had heard before we came to New Zealand that the South Island was where the really impressive scenery was, but I don’t think we appreciated how beautiful — and varied, and, in some cases, extreme — it would be before we saw it with our own eyes. Although we didn’t travel through all of the North Island, and I’ve heard that the northern part of the North Island is spectacular, Al and I both agreed that the South Island was, overall, way more interesting. If you only have a week to spend in NZ, spend it on the South Island; I promise you won’t regret it.

Not bad, NZ.

Not bad, NZ.

After taking the ferry from Wellington, we started off in Blenheim, which is situated right in the heart of Marlborough, one of NZ’s best known wine regions. Blenheim, like most wine country towns, is pleasant and peaceful. Even the low-fuss campsite where we stayed was charming, with wandering sheep and rolling hills. But the main reason one comes to Blenheim, of course, is not for the scenery or the sheep, but for the wine tasting. Given the whole pregnancy thing that’s been happening, I played the designated driver for the day and ferried Al from winery to winery. I took sips of the wines and got an idea of what Marlborough has to offer (mainly, good aromatic whites, especially pinot gris, plus their famous, grassy sauvignon blanc, which is not my favorite but sure is distinctive), while Al got nice ‘n boozy and had a grand old time. I occupied myself by drinking a lot of flat whites (which, I’m convinced, are 99% milk and 1% actual coffee, which means it’s okay to have ten of them). To punctuate the wine tasting, we also had a great lunch at a pretty restaurant called Rock Ferry.

Blenheim

Blenheim

The entire next day we spent driving from Blenheim to Franz Josef, home of an eponymous glacier. Along the way we stopped in Punakaiki to look at the pancake rocks and blowholes.

Pancake rocks

Pancake rocks

Rainbow over a blowhole

Rainbow over a blowhole

In Franz Josef, in the morning, we took a hike out to view the glacier (you can’t get on the glacier except via helicopter), took some photos, and then got on the road to go to Queenstown.

Glacier in the background

Glacier in the background

Driving into Queenstown, Al and I were treated to one of the most stunning natural views either of us has ever seen (and keep in mind that Al’s been to LITERALLY a hundred countries, so that’s really saying something).

This doesn't adequately capture Queenstown.

This doesn’t adequately capture Queenstown. Like, at all.

Neither does this.

Neither does this.

Or this.

Or this.

The town is nestled among several ranges of mountains and is situated along a bright blue, lightning bolt-shaped lake (Lake Wakatipu), which makes for some truly breathtaking views. The town itself reminded me of a cross between South Lake Tahoe and Vail — cute and touristy. Queenstown is known for its scenery and for its outdoor (including adventure) sports. Again, being a preggo, I took a hard pass on the adventure sports, but I did go on some lovely runs along the lake (while Al did stuff like careening down a hill in a wooden cart — to each his own). We also ate some fantastic Thai food in town at the oddly named At Thai. Al claims his pad thai was the best he’s had in his life (and we spent three weeks in Thailand, so this is not faint praise).

Taken during a run in Queenstown

Taken during a run in Queenstown

Also spotted while running

Also spotted while running

On our second day in Queenstown, we did some more wine tasting (okay, Al did most of it) in Gibbston, located in the Central Otago wine region. Central Otago is known for its pinot noir, which, to an American palate, tastes nothing like pinot noir. It’s fruity and jammy and not really my cup of tea/wine, but Kiwis seem very proud of it, so Al and I were diplomatic in our comments. After tasting at a few wineries, we drove to an adorable little historical town called Arrowtown for dinner. Arrowtown used to be a gold mining town and was home to a population of Chinese immigrants who showed up to work in the mines. Today there’s a historic Chinese settlement with preserved buildings from the mining days, in which Al took many goofy pictures.

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We ate dinner outdoors at a tapas place called La Rumbla, and it was delicious.

La Rumbla

La Rumbla

Our next stop after Queenstown was Te Anau, a town situated on Lake Te Anau, the largest lake on the South Island. I really liked Te Anau; it was quiet and peaceful and, as an added bonus, our campsite had two lambs on the premises (and you could feed them with bottles!).

Te Anau

Te Anau

Running in Te Anau

Running in Te Anau

Al makes a friend

Al makes a friend

 

On our first day in Te Anau, we took a boat out on the lake to go see the Te Anau glowworm caves. Looking at the glowworms involved walking through a series of dark, dank caves filled with dripping and rushing water, then boarding some little boats and being rowed slowly though the pitch dark while peering up at the glowworms clinging to the cave ceiling above. Glowworms (AKA arachnocampa luminosa) are really beautiful in the dark — they look like a starry sky — but, as we learned during the presentation afterwards, they’re actually pretty gross. For one thing, they’re a species of “fungus gnat.” Try to think of something grosser than that. I dare you. They’re also cannibals who eat each other whole. Plus, they look super gross up close. I’m just telling you.

On Lake Te Anau

On Lake Te Anau

Roadside lunch

Roadside lunch

On our second day in Te Anau, we drove to Milford Sound, a huge fjord within the appropriately named Fiordland National Park. Milford Sound is supposedly NZ’s most popular tourist attraction, mostly because the scenery within the fjord — waterfalls, glacial peaks, wildlife — is so spectacular. Unfortunately, the weather in Milford Sound is almost always heinous, and the day we went was no exception. We took a two-hour cruise around the fjord and it rained the entire time, plus it was windy, which caused the boat to rock, which caused me to clutch my flat white and grimace stoically out the window while Al went outside and took photos. Here’s what I’m learning about myself as I get older: boats aren’t my thing. In fact, pretty much every time I go on a boat, I end up regretting it. I inevitably feel seasick, and scared, and spend the entire time wishing the boat would just stop moving, already, which it never does. But despite all of this, I don’t regret taking the Milford Sound cruise, because we got to see two rare crested penguins just hanging out on the shore, plus a bunch of fat sea lions lolling on the rocks.

View from boat, Milford Sound

View from boat, Milford Sound

Waterfalls, Milford Sound

Waterfalls, Milford Sound

On the rainy and windy van ride back to Te Anau, we encountered another example of NZ fauna: the kea, a marauding parrot known for eating the rubber off of car tires and windshields. The keas we saw walked out onto the road where traffic was stopped and peered quizzically up at the cars and trucks, as if scoping out the best opportunity for rubber snacking. Luckily, our van escaped unscathed.

Kea

Kea – look at that beak!

More on the rest of our South Island odyssey in the next post!

Moosehead Lake

Last week, Al and I went on a week-long vacation to Maine to hang out with Al’s dad, step-mom, and youngest brother (plus two of his brother’s friends, plus two border collies). Al’s dad and step-mom live in Bangor, so we flew into Bangor and then drove with them up to Moosehead Lake, Maine’s largest lake.

View from the dock, Moosehead Lake

View from the dock, Moosehead Lake

We stayed in Greenville, on the southern side of the lake, in a beautiful cabin that Al’s parents rented. Even with seven people and two dogs in residence, it didn’t feel crowded, because the cabin was so spacious and comfortable. It also had a private dock and wonderful views of the lake.

Moosehead Lake, on a cloudy day

Moosehead Lake, on a cloudy day

Although the only things I wanted to accomplish during my vacation were reading, sleeping, and eating, we ended up doing a lot of other cool stuff during our week at the lake. I went running every day and spotted some cool wildlife (a woodchuck, two snakes, assorted bunnies); I accompanied Al and his dad to a local golf course one day to watch them play nine holes; we went moose spotting (and saw two moose/meese — more on that in a second); I bought a floaty lounge chair, made Al blow it up for me, and then spent an entire afternoon reading while floating on the lake; I played many exciting rounds of contract whist with the family; and I even allowed Al to convince me to go out on the lake in a kayak.

IMG_7786One of the highlights of the trip was seeing my first moose! One evening, Al’s dad took us to an area about 20 miles from our cabin known for moose spotting, and we camped out there for several hours, straining our eyes for any signs of moose. Moose like swampy, wet areas, and they generally come out between five and seven PM, according to local wisdom. Thus, we got to the suitably swampy moose-sighting area at five and stayed until 6:30, but spotted nary a moose. Disappointed, we all packed back into the mini-van and headed for home. Then, on the way home, we spotted a moose crossing the road in front of us, which was exciting enough on its own, and then, a few minutes later, we came upon a young moose grazing just feet from the road. Other people had stopped their cars to take photos, so we followed suit and got out to ogle the moose. My father-in-law (who’s a registered Maine Guide, so I trust his judgment) estimates that this moose is about a year old. I got a couple of short (but pretty good) videos. Here’s a 15-second one:

So that was pretty awesome! It’s hard to get more quintessentially Maine than seeing a moose on the side of the road. Apart from the moose, this vacation was great because it was so relaxing. I spent a lot of time knitting, hanging out with family, playing cards, reading (I polished off Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land and most of M.E. Thomas’s Confessions of a Sociopath), playing with the dogs, and admiring the scenery.

Ruby the Border Collie

My morning coffee and book on the deck

Now that’s what I call a sunset, Volume XI

Enjoying the fabulous sunset

When the week was over, I was sad to leave. It’s always hard to go back to real life after stepping away from your obligations almost entirely for a week. But it sure was great to recharge with family in an idyllic setting like Moosehead Lake. There’s something good for the soul about floating on one’s back on a lake with a book. I should really do it more often.

Recent DC visitors

Al and I have been lucky this summer to have lots of loved ones visit us here in DC. As a result, I’ve gotten REALLY good at giving tours of the National Mall, even if I don’t know the history of any of the monuments, buildings, or memorials and am completely ignorant about most important things about this city, other than where you can get good fro-yo. Hey, historical details are what iPhones are for.

First, my mom visited for one night at the end of May and we got some good museum visiting and pool lounging in! We made sure to hit the National Gallery and checked out the Andrew Wyeth windows exhibition, as well as the Cassatt/Degas exhibition. Very cool.

National Gallery tunnel

National Gallery tunnel

Me and my mom

Me and my mom

Then, for Fourth of July weekend, my cousin-friend Catie visited. It was her first trip to DC, so I felt it necessary to pull out all the ‘Murrica stops. First, we went to the National Mall and gazed at the monuments (at least, the ones that weren’t closed in advance of the fireworks) and watched various military service-members in their dress uniforms doing drills.

Catie and me at the Washington Monument

Catie and me at the Washington Monument

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Next, we checked out Georgetown and stuffed our faces at the excellent Good Stuff Eatery. I highly recommend the turkey burger and onion petals (drool). Catie and I decided that we are definitely going to buy a house in Georgetown, just as soon as we become multi-millionaires (any day now).

Cute houses in Georgetown

Cute houses in Georgetown

Patriotism, Georgetown

Patriotism, Georgetown (this guy was blasting Whitney Houston’s version of ‘America the Beautiful’)

That night, we went to the roof of our building and watched the fireworks over the Mall.

Fireworks

Fireworks

The next night, we went to see Counting Crows (a long-time Steph-Catie favorite band) at Wolf Trap, an amazing outdoor concert venue (and national park!) in Virginia where you’re allowed to bring in your own food and drink, including booze. We brought a picnic, sat on the grass, and aurally revisited the mid-1990s as we listened to Toad the Wet Sprocket warm up the crowd. Counting Crows, by the way, were awesome. This is the second time I’ve seen them this summer (I’m a super-fan) and they never fail to disappoint. Catie and I sang along to every single song (except for the stuff off their new album) and even Al got into it. SO FUN.

Picnicking at Wolf Trap

Picnicking at Wolf Trap

Counting Crows!

Counting Crows!

Adam Duritz!

Adam Duritz!

Mid-concert

Mid-concert

Overall, it was a fantastic weekend and I’m glad Catie finally got to see DC.

The next weekend, Al’s mom and step-dad, Carol and Gerald, visited. Neither of them had spent much time in DC, so we took them to the Mall and did a long walking tour of many of the monuments. It was approximately one billion degrees outside (Celcius) but we persevered and saw a lot of stuff, including the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, reflecting pool, World War II Memorial, a bit of the National Gallery, and the Natural History Museum. We ate lunch at the cafe within the National Gallery sculpture garden and admired the outdoor art.

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

WWII Memorial

WWII Memorial

Sculpture garden

National Gallery sculpture garden

Gem display at the Natural History Museum

Gem display at the Natural History Museum

Carol, Al, and me at the Natural History Museum

Carol, Al, and me at the Natural History Museum

We also did some wine-tasting in Virginia (Loudoun County), which is always lovely. It’s so peaceful and beautiful there.

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All in all, it was another great DC visit with family.

THEN, the following week, my parents came back into town to look at houses in Virginia, since they’re moving back East next year. We checked out Winchester (which was just okay) and then made our way up to Leesburg (which was charming and adorable). We had a nice time walking around the historic district of Leesburg and eating lunch at the Wine Kitchen. The weather was hot but beautiful.

Leesburg

Leesburg

Parents in Leesburg

Parents in Leesburg

So, the last month has been a whirlwind of visitors, and it’s been great. But for the rest of the summer, we aren’t expecting any more guests. Therefore, I feel confident saying that Al and I won’t be stepping foot in a museum until the next round of visitors shows up, whenever that may be. Hey, we never claimed to be cultured.

 

 

Portugal, part two — Sintra: gardens, castles, and creepy toys

For the second leg of our Portugal trip, Al and I took the train from Santa Comba Dão back to Lisbon, and then another train from Lisbon to Sintra, a city about 20 miles outside of Lisbon, known for its beauty, quirkiness, and abundance of castles and monuments. We stayed at the utterly charming Cinco Bed and Breakfast, which had great views of the city and a friendly cat named Jack.

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The first day, we arrived fairly late in the afternoon, hot and tired from six hours of travel, so we decided to keep it low-key and hike up a giant hill to Sintra’s Moorish Castle (Castelo dos Mouros). [About that decision — here’s the thing about me and Al: we’re constitutionally incapable of actually being low-key. We always say we’re going to “chill” and we never actually do. Even when we’re sitting on the couch, we’re both always doing something. It’s a sickness. But we are who we are, I suppose]. So, we hiked up to the Moorish Castle, which was originally constructed in the 8th-9th centuries, which is an astonishingly long time ago, if you stop and think about it. The castle has fabulous views of the city, which is lush and green and populated by all sorts of interesting looking mansions and castles.

View from the Castelo dos Mouros

View from the Castelo dos Mouros

We spent some time up there, looking around and taking obnoxious selfies, then we came back down to town and did a fortified wine tasting at a local wine shop. The Portuguese call fortified wines “vinhos generosos,” and the lady pouring them for us certainly was generous. We tried madeira, port, and moscatel. My favorite was the white port, which I’d never tried before. Boozy and delicious.

That's a lot of fortified wine. Not that I'm complaining.

That’s a lot of fortified wine. Not that I’m complaining.

After that, we returned to the B&B, where we had dinner (cheese, prosciuttio, bread, and wine — the usual) and watched British TV. We had both missed British crime dramas and since Sintra’s dinner scene seemed overpriced and touristy, it was much more appealing to sit on the couch, see the sunset, and watch Hercule Poirot solve some crimes than to venture out into the night. We’re old, what can I tell you?

The next day, I went for a run in the morning and took photos of some of the interesting things I saw around the city, including some weird animal sculptures in the local park.

Frog sculpture at the local park

Frog sculpture at the park

Then, Al and I went to the Quinta da Regaleira, a UNESCO World Heritage site. It’s a sprawling estate packed with unique architecture and carvings. It was refurbished in 1892 when it was owned by the Barons of Regaleira, a rich family from Porto, who hired Italian architect Luigi Manini to design the estate. Manini was, apparently, into some weird stuff, as the Quinta da Regaleira is filled with references to the Knights Templar, Masonry, alchemy, and the Rosicrucians.

Templar cross on the floor of the chapel, Quinta da Regaleira

Templar cross on the floor of the chapel, Quinta da Regaleira

Al’s favorite part of the Quinta da Regaleira was a deep well that you could walk down, which led to a series of caves and waterfalls.

Emerging from the underground cave

Emerging from the underground cave

Well at Quinta da Regaleira

Well at Quinta da Regaleira

We also enjoyed the fantastical animal carvings.

Switched at birth?

Switched at birth?

Before packing it in for the day, we stopped by the Museo dos Brinquedos (Toy Museum), which was fascinating. All the nightmarish dolls one could ever want!

Creeptastic dolls at the Toy Museum

Creeptastic dolls at the Toy Museum

Finally, before leaving Sintra, we had to eat lunch and do one more wine tasting at that little wine shop. Then, we bid the town tchauzinho and headed back to Lisbon for the final leg of our journey.

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Next stop: Portugal, part three: Lisbon.

 

Portugal, part one — the Dão wine region: heavy on biking, light on wine.

This past week, Alastair and I took a vacation to Portugal. It had been on the top of my list of places to visit for years, and since we hadn’t gotten a chance to go while we were in London, as soon as Al got the opportunity for vacation, we took it. (Incidentally, for my insane husband, who has traveled more than anyone I know, Portugal was his 99th country visited. 99th!! We think he’s going to hit 100 this summer when we go to Belize. Like I said: insane (in the membrane)). Anyway, our trip can be neatly divided into three parts: 1) the Dão wine region; 2) Sintra; and 3) Lisbon. So, without further ado, I give you: Portugal, part one: the Dão.

Azulejo, Nelas train station

Azulejo, Nelas train station

In the Dão, we hoped to bike through lush vineyards while stopping frequently to taste wine. That was pretty much our entire plan. But, as we soon found out, things would not go exactly to plan.

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Making the best of things = kind of our strong suit.

Immediately upon arriving in Portugal, we took a couple of trains from Lisbon to Santa Comba Dão, the tiny town where we’d be staying at an agro-tourism cabin. We have no real interest in agro-tourism, unless you consider drinking large amounts of wine to be agro-tourism, but the place we were staying, Quinta da Abelenda, advertised that it was situated near a bunch of vineyards, and it rented out bikes, so it sounded perfect for our purposes. We pictured ourselves biking idly along country roads, stopping every couple of kilometers to booze it up in some beautiful vineyard. I had a really clear vision of us laughing over a baguette and clinking wine glasses in a sun-dappled meadow. What a fool I was!

Quinta da Fata

Quinta da Fata

We arrived in Santa Comba Dão quite late at night and went to bed as soon as we got in, after lighting the cozy wood stove in the cabin. The next morning, we were eager to get a move on our wine adventure, so we asked the proprietor of the establishment what route we should take. He seemed utterly baffled by the idea that visitors to the well-known wine region in which he owns tourist lodgings would be interested in tasting wine. He literally — literally — scratched his head with confusion and told us that it would perhaps be possible, in some theoretical sense of the word, to taste wine, in the same way that going to Jupiter is possible. But he didn’t have any clear ideas on how we would go about doing it.

Wood stove in our cabin

Wood stove in our cabin

We decided, since we had gotten a late start on the day, to just try for a full day of wine tasting the next day, and take the bikes out instead, assuming that we’d pass at least a few wineries along the way. Our cabin was situated along the Ecopista do Dão, a paved biking and walking path that stretches ~50 km (~30 miles) from Santa Comba Dão to the bustling city of Vizeu. So we set off on our bikes for a leisurely journey.

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Fifty kilometers and zero wineries later, we were crabby, sore, hot, starving, and thirsty. We walked our bikes around Vizeu, a pretty disappointing town, considering the vast effort expended to get there, until we found a restaurant, where we shoved food into our mouths like urchins. When it was time to go, I found that my butt was actually too tender from the last three hours of biking in jeans to remount a bike, so we found a bus to take us back to Santa Comba Dão. After quite a to-do involving taking the wheels and the handlebars off the bikes so that they’d fit in the hold of the bus, and then struggling to put everything back together again once we arrived at our destination, we sighed with relief to be back in Santa Comba Dão, butts intact. However, we found that the bus had dropped us off quite far from the cabin, and since I physically could ride no more, we had to walk our bikes several miles back to the cabin, as it was getting dark. Then we got lost. I think the low point was walking our bikes in the pitch dark along the side of a highway, semis and cars roaring by us, with no clear idea of where the hell we were. I should also add that we were hungry, I was cold, and, as I’ve already mentioned, my butt hurt. Not my finest moment.

Ecopista path

Ecopista path

The next day, we awoke with renewed vigor, determined to go wine tasting if it killed us. Long story short: the Dão did not feel like opening its welcoming arms to two eager wine tourists, and we were stymied at every turn. Long story long: We took a train to a town called Nelas, where we had heard that there might be wineries that actually allow people to taste their wines. After fruitlessly driving around in a taxi and passing several wineries, none of which were open, we finally made it to Quinta da Fata, a beautiful winery that, lo and behold, had wine available for tasting! [Cue heavenly choir!]

Lemon tree at Quinta da Fata

Lemon tree at Quinta da Fata

Although Quinta da Fata does not do traditional “tastings,” the bottles are very cheap (and very good!), so they encourage people to just buy a bottle and sit outside to drink it. So we did that, and it was lovely. The woman who owns the place was very kind and gave us an extensive tour of the winemaking facilities, the house, and the bed and breakfast, all of which were empty when we were there. After sitting in the sun, admiring the view, and sipping some wine, we left feeling optimistic about our prospects for finding other nice wineries in the area. That optimism ended up being misplaced, because the next place we went, while open, told us they couldn’t do a tasting because the wines “weren’t the right temperature” (huh?), so we just bought a couple of bottles and took the train back to Santa Comba Dão, accepting defeat.

Tiled bench at Quinta da Fata

Tiled bench at Quinta da Fata

That evening, we sat out on our porch at the cabin, admired the horses, dogs, chickens, and cats that came to say olá, drank some of the wine we had bought, ate prosciutto and sheep’s cheese, and read. Here’s a fairly uneventful (but short) video of what our evening looked like.

Once we accepted that we were not going to have the wine tasting experience we had anticipated, a burden was lifted, in a way, and we felt free to enjoy just sitting around and watching the world go by. I think there’s some sort of life lesson in there, about keeping expectations low, not trying to plan everything, going with the flow, and so on. Lesson learned, I guess. I think we had such high expectations for wine tasting in Portugal because we had done a similar thing in the Wachau Valley of Austria in 2010 and it was magical. As I recall, everything was easy and charming and boozy and fun. But actually, re-reading my blog post from that trip, I see now that a similar thing happened then, in which our expectations, at least at first, did not meet reality, and we had to adjust. Lots of the wineries were closed, we were turned away by an angry ogre at one of them, and it poured rain on us as we were biking. I had sort of forgotten about all of that. I guess it’s easy to forget mishaps in the past because they all get lost in the fond haze of vacation nostalgia.

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Overall, though, the Dão was beautiful and relaxing. We did eventually taste some nice wines, and I’ll never forget our cozy cabin with the wood stove and friendly horses. I’m calling it a success!

Next post: Portugal, part 2: Sintra.

Oslo

I turned 31 this weekend, and to celebrate, Al planned a surprise weekend getaway for us to Oslo. He didn’t tell me where we were going until the night before, but, as I mentioned, he gave me cryptic little clues along the way.

Oslo

Oslo

On Friday night, we took the train to Stanstead Airport and flew to Oslo. When we got off the plane, it was rainy and cold and so dark we couldn’t see anything out the windows of the shuttle bus to the city center. But the next morning, when we emerged into the Oslo daylight, we saw this:

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Leaves, glorious leaves!

 

As you may know, I’m a sucker for fall colors. And Oslo seriously kicks butt when it comes to fall colors, you guys.

To wit:

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Apart from goggling at the beautiful leaves, Al and I packed a lot of stuff into our brief weekend in Oslo. On Saturday morning, we walked around the city and took in the major sights. As it turns out, there aren’t a ton of “major sights” in Oslo because it’s quite a small (but very pretty) city. First, we checked out the Opera House, which was designed to look like a glacier floating in the harbor. It’s a pretty stunning sight from afar, and it’s even cooler to be able to walk on top of it and get a view of the city and the harbor.

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In the afternoon, we headed to the excellent Norwegian Museum of Cultural History. Part of it is a traditional museum, indoors, with exhibits behind glass (including an exhibit about Norway’s long knitting tradition!). But another part of it is an open-air museum full of traditional Norwegian buildings (farmhouses, storehouses, lofts, churches) with restored interiors that you can peek into. Many of the buildings (such as the Stave Church, which was originally from circa 1200) were refurbished and brought to the park by King Oscar II in the 1880s.

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My favorite exhibit was an apartment building that you could walk through that showed various apartments of both fictional and real families from the late 19th century to the late 20th century. Since Al and I saw Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House here in London for Al’s birthday a few weeks ago, we were interested to see the recreation of the Helmers’ (fictional) apartment (it was cool!). After that, we also paid a visit to the Viking Ship Museum, which, I’m sorry, was overrated (and kind of a rip-off). Save your krones and just go see the cool open-air cultural museum.

For my birthday dinner, we ate at the wonderful Smalhans, which specializes in fresh food and organic wines. We had an eight-course dinner and it was SO delicious. After dinner, being the big nerds we are, we set out to find the apartment of Harry Hole, one of our favorite (fictional) alcoholic Norwegian detectives. After some searching, we found it!

Outside Harry Hole's house

Outside Harry Hole’s house

 

We also found Harry’s local bar/restaurant, Schroeder’s. We were going to go in, but it actually seemed to be full of locals (like, REAL locals) and we got intimidated. But we saw the outside, so. Mission accomplished.

On Sunday, we spent part of the day wandering through the sculpture garden at Vigeland Park, which includes more than 200 sculptures designed by Gustav Vigeland. Some of the sculptures were nice. Some of them were weird. And others were, frankly, disturbing. See for yourself.

Parenting: what not to do.

Parenting: what not to do.

Arm wrestling?

Arm wrestling?

A Scorpio and a scorpion

A Scorpio and a scorpion

After gawping at the weird sculptures, we went and grabbed some lunch at a cozy cafe, where I chowed down on elk tartare (first time for everything) and Al had a tiny bowl of French onion soup that cost more than our monthly rent in South Africa (well, almost). But it was worth it! It was such a great birthday weekend! I’m so glad I got to see Oslo, even if only for a weekend. Thank you, Al, for a great trip. Now let’s get planning that weekend trip to Finland…