Tag Archives: Travel

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).

Thanksgiving in Pittsburgh

Happy belated Thanksgiving! To think: only a few, short days ago, we were still basking in the golden glow of everyone’s favorite gluttony-and-gratitude-based holiday, and now we’re deep in the throes of Cyber Monday (which lately has been extended to Cyber Week)-style cut-throat consumerism. Sunrise, sunset. I don’t know, wouldn’t Thanksgiving be even better if it weren’t immediately followed each year by events in which people get trampled to death in parking lots? Of course, I say all of this as I contemplate buying a severely marked-down food processor online. At least I’m not trampling anyone. Yet.

This year, for the first time since 2011, Al and I were in the U.S. for Thanksgiving (last year we were in London and the year before that, Cape Town). The day before the holiday, we drove out to Pittsburgh to visit Al’s friends Hakan and Meredith, who recently moved there from Louisiana. The drive to Pittsburgh from Alexandria was supposed to take four hours, but between the unrelenting snow and my compressed bladder, it took us six-and-a-half. Frequent (and annoying) pee breaks are the new normal for preggo me, and there’s nothing to be done about it. Despite all the stops, though, we got to Pittsburgh before it got dark.

Thanksgiving dinner

Thanksgiving dinner

Pittsburgh, as it turns out, is a pretty cool town! I had never been there before, but I’d heard good things, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s an old industrial town filled with red-brick buildings and steel bridges and funicular railways running up steep hills. Since it has that aging steel town vibe, it lends itself well to hipster enclaves, and there are lots of fun, young neighborhoods packed with cool bars and shops and restaurants. Plus, since there are a ton of universities and colleges in town, there are plenty of museums and cultural events. Of course, the only “cultural event” in which we participated while there was a showing of Disney’s Newsies (the musical), but hey, you do what you can.

Our Thanksgiving day was nice and low-key. Meredith and Hakan did most of the cooking (turkey, stuffing, carrots, cranberries), but I contributed mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie (using the same recipe as I used two years ago, except minus the hand-roasted and pureed pumpkin, now that I’m back in a country where canned pumpkin is a thing), and a gallon-sized bag of Chex cookies ‘n cream Muddy Buddies. We sat down to eat dinner around four and then went downtown to see the evening show of Newsies, which was pretty faithful to the delightfully cheesy 1992 movie of the same name, except with more pirouettes and high kicks!

The next night, we went to dinner in Shadyside, a hip neighborhood in the East End of Pittsburgh. We ate at the astonishingly unfashionable hour of 5:30 (in fact, when the restaurant called to confirm our reservation, they asked whether anyone in our party had “trouble going up and down stairs”), and it was great. Now that I’m in my thirties (and seven months pregnant), I really enjoy eating early and then being able to digest for a few hours before going to bed early. I figure this lifestyle will make my transition to the nursing home that much easier when the time comes!

We bid our friends adieu on Saturday morning and drove back to Virginia. The snow had melted and we made quick time on the way back, even with all of my many pee stops. We were sad to say goodbye to our pals, but now that they live much closer, I’m sure we’ll see them again soon. As we drove back, I reflected on all of the things I’m thankful for this year. There are a lot, but most of them can be boiled down to the following: the baby, Al, my family, and living in a country in which canned pumpkin is abundant.

Happy Thanksgiving! 

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!

New Zealand, Part 1: North Island

As much as I hate the term “babymoon” as a term to describe a last-hurrah vacation taken before the arrival of a baby, I very much like the idea of it. And given that Al and I love to travel, it seemed obvious that we needed to do something kind of ambitious for our Last Big Trip Before Baby. After much brainstorming, we decided on New Zealand, mostly because it’s so far away, we couldn’t imagine doing it with a child in tow, and also because it sounded so awesome. I mean, anyone who’s seen The Lord of the Rings movies knows that NZ does not scrimp on impressive scenery, and if that’s not enough to convince you, try resisting the charms of the NZ tourism campaign posters from Flight of the Conchords!

Red Beach, Auckland

Red Beach, Auckland – one of the first glimpses I got of NZ

On September 20, we embarked on our three week odyssey to NZ, and it ended up being one of our most unique, fun trips ever. Three weeks is a long trip, and we saw a LOT of stuff, so I will break my post into two manageable chunks: the North Island and the South Island.

We flew into Auckland (via Los Angeles and then Fiji, oof), where Al’s cousins Will and Gil picked us up from the airport. They moved from Scotland to NZ five years ago and live in a lovely, airy house in the far north of the city, in an area called Whangaparaoa. We stayed with them for a few days, adjusting to the radical time change (17 hours!) and eating home-cooked meals. We also checked out pretty Waiheke Island, a short (but pricey) ferry ride away from downtown Auckland and home to a bunch of fancy wineries and olive groves.

Waiheke Island

Waiheke Island

After a few days in Auckland, we were ready to pick up our transport for the rest of the trip: a camper van! When we showed up at the van rental place, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, Al and I were both expecting to be shown to our huge, fully outfitted RV, in which we’d cruise around NZ like passengers on a luxury yacht, buffered from all the troubles and inconveniences faced by the lowly likes of common car travelers. I imagined laughing down at people in cars from my perch inside my Ashton Kutcher-style Windstar, where I’d drink artesian bottled water straight from my mini-fridge and flip channels on my satellite TV as Al drove. Never mind that the price quote we got for our entire three-week van rental was $500; I had convinced myself, against all reason, that we were going to be traveling around New Zealand like RV royalty.

Imagine my shock when we were shown to our camper van, which was, in fact, just a regular old van. There was no TV, no reading nook, no bathroom. In other words, it was not at all what I had envisioned in my completely unrealistic fantasy. I was especially disappointed by the fact that our van did not have a bathroom, since, as a preggo, I have to use the facilities approximately every three minutes. But I tried not to seem as horrified as I was as we loaded our giant suitcases into our tiny, wheeled home and drove uncertainly away, trying to remember to keep to the left. Overall, the van worked out fine. Was it the most comfortable place to sleep, change clothes, and sometimes eat? No. But I did learn how to cook eggs on a camp stove situated inside a vehicle, and that’s a (probably dangerous) skill that’ll last me a lifetime.

Our van!

Our van!

Our first stop after Auckland was Tongariro National Park, famous for its skiing and its views of Mt. Ngauruhoe, or, as it’s more widely known, MOUNT DOOM. We got to our campground in the evening, cooked a meal in the community kitchen, and went to sleep. The next morning, we went on a two-hour hike to look at some nearby waterfalls and ogle Mt. Doom in all its glory. It was pretty impressive. Then we packed up the van and headed to our next destination, Wellington.

Wellington waterfront

Wellington waterfront

Wellington is the political capital of NZ, and is famous for its nightlife, food, and blistering winds. Something about Wellington’s position on the mouth of the Cook Strait makes it particularly susceptible to gale-force winds, and we nearly got our faces blown off while we were there. After we arrived, we ventured downtown, ate dinner at a Malaysian place, and checked out a craft beer bar, where Al sampled some of the local delights. The next morning, I went running along the waterfront and admired the views and Victorian houses, which give the place a San Francisco-esque feel, and then Al and I checked out the Te Papa Tongarewa museum and the cool public art down by the waterfront.

In Wellington

In Wellington

(From Wellington, we hopped on a ferry that would take us across the Cook Strait to the South Island. I’ll cover our adventures on the amazing South Island in another post, but for now, let me pick up again a few weeks into the trip, when we arrived back on the North Island via ferry.)

When we got back from our exploits on the South Island, we drove from the ferry in Wellington straight to Rotorua, a city known for its geothermal activity: hot springs, boiling mud pools, and geysers. Because of hydrogen sulphide emissions, the whole joint smells like eggs. Weirdly, Al and I both enjoyed the eggy scent of Rotorua. (Another sign it’s probably good that we’re married.)

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Kuirau Park, Rotorua

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Anyway, being the cheapskates we are (or at least, have become since finding out we’re having a kid), we decided to do Rotorua the free way, and check out a local public park, Kuirau Park, which has its own mud pools and bubbling lakes, rather than shelling out money for one of the expensive geothermal parks. We wandered around the park with to-go coffees in hand and checked out the boiling mud pools and free public foot baths. Al actually stuck his feet in the foot bath, but I, fearing foot-and-mouth disease, kept my shoes on.

Al, looking like he's really enjoying himself, in Kuirau Park

Al, looking like he’s really enjoying himself, in Kuirau Park

After seeing enough boiling mud to feel like we had done Rotorua properly, we got on the road back to Auckland. But along the way, we stopped at Hobbiton, where you can go on a tour of the preserved set of Hobbiton and The Shire from the Lord of the Rings movies. Of course, being us, we didn’t feel like paying $150 for the tour, so we got a bite to eat at The Shire’s Rest cafe, took a photo with the Hobbiton sign, and then left. I mean, a lot of New Zealand looks pretty much like The Shire (rolling green hills, sheep, blue skies), so I feel like we got the idea. I am kind of bummed I didn’t get to step foot in a hobbit hole, but as I told Al, I would rather spend my money on New Zealand merino wool than on a tour of a movie set. Hey, I have my priorities straight.

We came, we saw, we left.

We came, we saw, we left.

We had one full day left in Auckland before our flight, and we used it to go shopping for yarn (okay, that was just me) and to check out the Auckland Zoo. Our main goal at the zoo was to see a morepork (a small owl native to New Zealand and Tasmania) because we had become mildly obsessed with moreporks over the course of our three weeks in New Zealand. Why, you ask? First of all, the word “morepork” is awesome and I want to say it all the time. Second of all, moreporks are adorable, and everyone knows it. We even drove through an area of New Zealand in which the regional government had adopted a morepork-based PSA campaign, in which a cartoon morepork named RuRu (which is the Maori word for the owl) warns drivers to be careful in a variety of situations, including fog, rain, and snow. We thought it was so cute we stopped to take a photo of a sign explaining the campaign.

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Anyway, we were really jazzed on moreporks and wanted to see one at the zoo, but unfortunately, they’re nocturnal, and it was impossible to see anything in the zoo’s nocturnal exhibit (since it was, you know, pitch dark). We did see the outline of a kiwi bird poking around in the dark, we think, but that was about it in terms of nocturnal bird sightings. On the upside, we saw some seals and shags (cormorants) and blue penguins, so at least we got to view some native NZ animals. I still hope I get to see a real morepork some day. A girl can dream.

Stay tuned for a post on our adventures on the incredible South Island!

 

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.

Charleston

Last week, Al and I decided to go on a mini Southern road trip. We were in Florida, so we drove up the coast on a Friday evening, stopping in Savannah for dinner, and then ending up in Charleston, South Carolina. I had heard lots of good things about Charleston and I had a vague idea of what it would be like before we got there. Despite managing to resist the siren call of the new Bravo monstrosity Southern Charm, which is filmed in Charleston, I still gleaned the general idea of the place. I expected waterways, men wearing polo shirts tucked into colorful shorts, women wearing sundresses, champagne, hanging creepers (the plant!), cobblestones, grits, and general genteelness. I was not disappointed.

Hi, we're in Charleston.

Hi, we’re in Charleston.

Now, I’m going to be honest with you right off the bat: most of our Charleston trip was spent eating. I recommend, if you care to visit Charleston, that you spend most of your time eating, as well, because the food there is really good. The rest of your time you can spend admiring the Spanish moss and going on a ghost tour (more on that in a minute). But if you don’t want to read about all of the things we ate in Charleston, you might want to skim this post. Forewarned is forearmed!

Scrambled eggs at Two Boroughs Larder

Scrambled eggs at Two Boroughs Larder

Al and I got into town late on Friday night and he had to work on Saturday morning, so we started our adventure with a late brunch on Saturday afternoon. We ate at the delightful Two Boroughs Larder, so named because it’s situated in the cool, laid-back Cannonborough/Elliotborough neighborhood. The restaurant, like the neighborhood, is cool and hipstery and feels very local. There were families eating with their kids, older people out for breakfast, and, I suspect, a few dorky tourists like us. Al had a chicken boudin blanc sandwich and I had scrambled eggs. Yum. Also, Al had this beer:

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Blonde Bombshell

Later, we wandered around the city a bit, killing time before our dinner reservation. We went down to the water and took pictures, stopped at a bar to sit outside and watch The Kentucky Derby on a big screen, and admired Charleston’s wealth of skinny old houses and elegant gardens. IMG_6555

 

We ate dinner at Cypress, where we split a cheese plate and a giant “steak presentation for two” (and what a presentation it was!).

Cheese plate at Cypress (with real honeycomb)

Cheese plate at Cypress (with real honeycomb)

After dinner, we had the awesome idea of signing up for a Charleston ghost tour, and it was so much fun! A guy named Roy, a South Carolinian with a history degree and a flair for the dramatic, led us around town, explaining various “hauntings” along the way. It was delightful. I don’t believe in ghosts, as a general rule, and neither does Al, but we both got a big kick out of Roy and his practiced delivery of various spooky Charleston stories. There were a lot of stories that began, “Now, a friend of mine…” We both agreed that Roy subscribes to the Keith Morrison school of narration: lots of dramatic pauses and “well”s thrown in for added gravitas. It helped, I think, that we were both reasonably tipsy throughout the tour (as were the five other people who attended), because it allowed us to suspend our credulity and just enjoy Roy’s creepy tales of vengeful Charleston ghosts. I highly recommend doing a ghost tour with Roy’s company if you’re in town; Al and I both agreed it was the most fun thing we did in Charleston (besides shoving food into our faces).

First course at Husk

First course at Husk

The next day, we stopped for brunch at Husk, a Southern restaurant situated in a beautiful old mansion house. Husk had really good food but they also had really good presentation. I especially loved the beautiful wooden salad plates, earthenware cups, and canvas serving bowls.

Mm, biscuits.

Mm, biscuits.

After brunch, Al and I checked out the old Unitarian graveyard, which is supposedly haunted (along with everything else in Charleston, according to Roy). It was gorgeous, full of stately trees with ghostly Spanish moss hanging from their boughs and old gravestones overrun by flowering plants.

Gravestone at Unitarian Church

Gravestone at Unitarian Church

After wandering around the graveyard, we had to get on the road and head back to Florida. I wished we had had an extra day in Charleston so we could have tried some of the other restaurants we heard about and spent more time wandering around the charming old neighborhoods. But I’m sure we’ll be back! Thanks, Charleston!

Portugal, part three — Lisbon: babies and monks and birds

We spent the third and final leg of our Portugal trip in Lisbon. We rented a little apartment in Alfama, the oldest district in the city.

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Al and I were really into Alfama. In some ways, it felt quintessentially European, with its narrow, cobbled streets,  shrines sprouting out of public walls, and ancient churches. But in other ways, it felt decidedly developing world. There was trash in the alleyways, certain streets in the neighborhood reeked of fish, and the buildings were crumbling and peeling. Alfama reminded me of some parts of Brazil, and even of Mozambique.

The neighborhood

The neighborhood

By the end of our time there, I had decided that Lisbon (and Alfama in particular) looked and felt how I imagine a Southern European city would have looked and felt forty years ago. Not backwards, of course, but not exactly cosmopolitan, either (and I mean that in the best way). Alfama was very neighborhood-y: people yelled at each other from windows, laundry hung out to dry over the streets, kids played in front of their parents’ shops. We saw the same people every day when we left the apartment (most of whom were old ladies in housecoats, doing their shopping), and no one seemed to be trying to sell us anything or otherwise adapting their behavior to accommodate tourists. We later realized that we were staying in the lower part of Alfama, which is decidedly un-touristy (except for a few fado bars), but on our last night, we ventured to upper Alfama, which, we discovered, is where all the tourists had been the entire time. I’m really glad we stayed where we did.

Upper Alfama

Upper Alfama

One of our favorite Alfama experiences happened one night after dinner, when we stopped in a tiny bar near the apartment. When we walked in, the bar was empty except for the bartender (a middle-aged lady) and a monk in full black robes. As soon as we bellied up to the bar to order our drinks, the monk started chit-chatting with us in Portuguese, telling us all about Portugal, port, his life as a monk (which appeared to entail getting up very early but also drinking fairly late at night), and the places he had traveled. When I hesitated over which type of port to order, he told me to get white port because it was “like a woman: sweet, soft, and full of soul,” or something to that effect. Oh, flirty Southern European monk! You sure have a way with the ladies!

At the monk/baby bar

At the monk/baby bar

Later, as Al and I sat there drinking port (and for Al, beirão, a sweet, surprisingly not disgusting herbal liqueur), a family consisting of three adults, a baby, and a toddler came in. Everyone seemed to be regulars (including the kids). I took a video (although it’s hard to tell what’s going on since the bar was dark and noisy, but you get the idea). From there on out, Al and I referred to that place as the “monk and baby bar.”

We did some sightseeing in Lisbon, too — we checked out the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos and the Tropical Botanical Garden — but mostly we just enjoyed walking around, admiring the old buildings and the azulejos, and, of course, drinking copious amounts of port. (Oh, how I love port!) We also got to meet up with my cousin Allie and her boyfriend, Marlo, which was fun. They took us to some bars in Bairro Alto, one of which had a bossa nova band (from whom I requested “Chega de Saudade,” obviously).

Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

Mosteiro dos Jeronimos

I also went for some good runs and saw some of the funky graffiti and sidewalk art along the river. In our wanderings, Al and I also encountered lots of caged birds, which was both sad and weird. I’d never before been to a place where people just hang bird cages (filled with birds) outside of their homes and places of business.

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Now, a word on food. Al and I concluded by the end of our time in Portugal that gastronomically speaking, the Portuguese do three things really well: 1) baked goods; 2) port; and 3) preserved fish. I also enjoyed the simple sheep’s milk cheeses and the marinated olives we got everywhere.

Queijo azeitao - scoopable, delicious sheep's cheese

Queijo azeitao – scoopable, delicious sheep’s cheese

Apart from those things, though, Portuguese cuisine struck us as being pretty nondescript. Unless you’re REALLY into salted codfish, you probably won’t come away from Portugal with a strong impression of their food. But if you have a thing for seafood in cans, hoo boy, you’re gonna love this place!

Into preserved fish? You've come to the right place.

Gorgeous packaging on preserved seafood

One thing the Portuguese do NOT excel at, we found out, is food photography. I started taking photos of all the horrendous food photography I saw, usually prominently displayed in the windows of restaurants, because so much of it was so revolting. Here are just two of my favorites, which were actually framed.

Congealing grease, anyone?

Congealing grease, anyone?

The fact that I can only positively identify 2 out of four of these foods is not a great sign.

I can only positively identify two out of four of these foods.

But you know what? Terrible food photography aside, we ate pretty well in Portugal. And we drank REALLY well. Overall, what I liked most about our time in Lisbon was wandering into cafes and restaurants in Alfama and not seeing any other tourists. We were never bombarded with gimmicks or up-sells or even particular attention, wherever we went, and it was really refreshing. To borrow a phrase from every Lonely Planet guide ever written, the city was very “atmospheric,” and we were sad to leave.

Obrigada, Portugal, por uma visita ótima!

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.