Thursday, April 30, 2015

Planning Two Weeks in Germany

Planning big trips can seem impossible at the start. So many options, limited time, and you obviously want everything to be perfect. We just went through this to book a dream trip to Germany!

I love the initial planning. Nothing gets me more excited about a trip than those first achievements of booking flights and beginning a rough itinerary. I love reading books on the location, not only about a place's history, but also fiction novels. Walking past buildings that you can connect to a story really brings a place to life!

Don't mistake this for planning days out. Personally, I think going with the flow on vacation is the best strategy. For big trips though, you need to understand the scope of the country and prioritize. Unfortunately, you can't see it all, and if you try, the trip will be a blur.

Getting ready to now depart for 15 days in Germany, here is some quick advice. It can be easy and should not be a deterrent for booking the big trip you always wanted to take!

Check out some travel forums and ask them the same questions you are debating. It is as simple as typing in "what to do in 2 weeks in Germany," and likely the first few responses will cover it. I have had luck posting questions on Tripadvisor. The travel community is an awesome group of people with unique perspectives and willing to help.

Guidebooks are great but use them as a "guide" and not an itinerary. They nicely establish the top things to do and contain educated tips and tricks. You won't see everything you want, so fight the urge to check boxes and see it all. Some of the best travel experiences happen outside the pages of these guidebooks, but they are always a fantastic start to researching a vacation.

Sometimes, just go with your gut. I have always found Berlin to be compelling, so we made sure to plan more time there. Could I give specifics as to why or what I want to do there? No, I just wanted to soak in that city. At the end of the day, any travel plan you make will be incredible, so don't get too caught up on the details. Unplanned moments are the memories that hang on the longest and make travel so rewarding.

All that said, here is our itinerary. Hopefully this is a help to others planning a similar trip.

Munich for 7 nights - This will come with day trips to Dachau and Neuschwanstein Castle. We are staying right in the heart of the city and will leisurely explore Munich and the surrounding region of Bavaria.

Bamberg for 1 night - A small town along the train route from Munich to Berlin, this is a UNESCO world heritage site with a ton of breweries, yes please!

Berlin for 7 nights - High speed trains make it so easy to explore cities far apart, so getting from Munich to Berlin is simple! Likely, we will spend all of this time in the city, absorbing the culture and history of the country's capital.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Helicopter Ride Over Kauai

Kauai by helicopter is a must see. The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook Kauai Revealed, written by Andrew Doughty quoted it dramatically, "Going to Kaua'i without taking a helicopter flight is like going to see the Sistine Chapel and not looking up." This high praise sold it for us. I want to give an additional plug for the guidebook, because it is a funny, honest, and incredibly helpful tour guide for the island.

After the Flight - We sat in the two back seats
This helicopter ride was not only a highlight of the trip, but one of my favorite travel experiences, period. 

Jack Harter

For our adventure we flew with Jack Harter, and we chose to ride in the door-less helicopter. My desire to get quality pictures outweighed the anxiety that we would be within inches of the open air as we cruised at speeds around 100 MPH! I can't imagine this adventure without the wind blowing through the chopper with unobstructed views.

waimea canyon

So much of the island can only be seen from above, soaring through canyons, under clouds, alongside waterfalls, and above rainbows. The scope of Kauai is magnified from this viewpoint, its true grandness and absolute beauty in full display. 

Jack Harter

The diversity of the landscape almost seems fake, and I understand why so many movies have been filmed here. We even saw a set piece built for the upcoming Jurassic Park movie!

Seated with a fully equipped headset, the pilot is able to speak to the group and explain the sights along the way. He did a great job making sure we were comfortable, while allowing us time to soak in the magical visuals. I am lucky a button was needed to make the microphone work, because I am pretty sure I just kept blurting out holy sh!t over and over again.

The pilot also did a fantastic job of spinning the helicopter around, so we could see the same extraordinary spectacles from all angles.

Jack Harter

Jack Harter

Upon landing, I asked Anna if her throat was dry like mine...after some thought, I realized that my mouth was literally hanging open the entire flight!

Na Pali Coast

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Home Away from Home - Kuhio Shores

Kauai has the magical ability to eliminate stress and create an automatic state of relaxation. It is a therapeutic element of traveling we have come to cherish. A huge part of that comes with feeling at home and comfortable in the place you stay. Kuhio Shores is a phenomenal condo located as ideally as they come. In particular, room 115 that was graciously shared with us by Jack and Dorinda.

Aloha from Kuhio Shores! Fresh off the plane, this was our intro to Kauai
Traveling to Hawaii from Minnesota is a long trip, with multiple flights, travel time of about 15 hours, and a time zone change of another 5 hours. By the time we rented our car and bought groceries, we were ready to rest. With check-in planned in advance, we arrived at Kuhio Shores, walked into our home for the week, and dropped our bags in awe, admiring the perfection in front of us.

Our first view of the week and most common - Straight out from our lanai
Instead of unpacking, we crashed onto our lawn chairs, relaxation overtaking us. For the next several hours, we soaked in the sun, listened to the waves crash, watched the surfers, chatted, and gazed at the sunset. It was glorious beyond description.

Our second view after arrival - Head leaned back relaxing on the patio chairs
Hours a day were spent lounging here
We knew about the ocean views, but we hadn't fully comprehended just how great this perk was. Suffering jet lag on day one, I awoke bright eyed and ready to go before looking at the clock and seeing it was only 3 am! After a few hours of dozing, I finally got up to make some coffee. On that day, we discovered the amazingness of the Kauai sunrise. From that point, we didn't wake up any later than 6 am because watching the sun come up each morning with coffee in hand (and occasionally the camera) was a highlight of the trip.

I have never been so enthralled at 6:30 am  
This picture is at the exact same time as the sunrise above, but looking to the right 
Kuhio Shores
Another version of our daily sunrise
The location was ideal, and each day, we could lounge and watch the surreal sunrise and sunset and everything in between. This included frequent sea turtle sightings, friendly birds, surfers, and so much sun! In 8 days, I ended up finishing two books from the comfort of our backyard.

By the end of the trip, we were critiquing styles because we saw so many surfers!
Kauai Sunset
Love the peacefulness of the man on the rocks and the sailboat as silhouettes in the sunset
A bit camera happy, we took over 800 pictures during the trip. After a closer look, about 200 of them were just sitting at Kuhio Shores. Every picture from this post is within steps of our room, and it was difficult to edit down. Even the parking lot was a jungle-like garden, with the most vast array of plants and flowers I have ever seen!

Nice colorful welcome sign
Having some fun with my new prime lens
I have a feeling the depth of color from crayola crayons came from a day spent in Kauai
Immediately to the right of the condo was Lawa'i Beach with soft sand for sitting and phenomenal snorkeling just offshore. Also next door is the Beach House Restaurant, where we ate several times and enjoyed some of the best calamari of all time.

This is where we also had a special snorkeling encounter. The Hawaiian sea turtle, or Honu, can be symbolic of good luck. Was that ever true for us during our final snorkel of the week, when we lucked into almost bumping right into a sea turtle. We spent about ten minutes alone swimming with the majestic creature, and at one point, it turned and watched us as intently as we watched it!

This was the border between our condo property and the Beach House Restaurant next door
Condo lodging in general is amazing. You can feel more in touch with the island and it is a calmer experience, adding to the relaxing nature of the island. Hawaii can be expensive, so the ability to buy some groceries and make homemade breakfast and lunch is incredible, and then dinner leftovers are easy to manage too. There is not fancy landscaping, pools, and special services, but the value of a peaceful oasis in this location is impossible to put a price tag on.

Leaving our stuff out to dry off after a swim less than 100 yards away - This bird also hung out with us all week
Additionally, our place was stocked perfectly with extras. Provided for us were beach chairs, coolers, ice, all necessary cooking equipment, DVDs and Hawaiian music, spices, and even a guide book if you need some last minute advice. It felt like home!

Kuhio Shores
Loving the sunset
The only hesitation I had about booking was the lack of air conditioning, but this ended up being a blessing. Rather than even try to use it, we could just let the trade winds blow in, cooling the room to an ideal sleeping temperature. The crashing waves were hypnotic after a busy day in the sun, resulting in very restful nights.

Goodnight Kauai
Kauai, without question, is the most beautiful place we have traveled. It was also one of our most special and relaxing trips, thanks in huge part to our wonderful accommodations at Kuhio Shores.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Kauai by Land, Air, and Sea

Kauai is aptly nicknamed the Garden Isle. Flourishing with remarkable beauty, it is a postcard around every corner. The diverse elements in each part of the island sync harmoniously to produce what is ultimately the most beautiful place I have ever seen! 

Just one of the many lookouts while driving around the island
Options are abundant to view the island through your own means or with help from others. They vary in scope based on the desired level of adventure. By land, air, or sea, Kauai shows off its extraordinary looks and exposes the numerous personalities that make it a glorious visual experience.

The best example of this was Na Pali State Park, the phenomenally rugged, yet lush west side of the island. It is a fascinating terrain that is a challenge to see, daring visitors to explore. Helicopters, boats, or hikers are pretty much the only ways to view as motor vehicles are not allowed. Na Pali is best known for its magnificent coast with cliffs rising up to 4,000 ft and the striking Kalalau Valley.

Our first meeting with Na Pali was the best, while riding in an open door helicopter! Much more to come on that thrill ride, but to cruise alongside the coastal wall was awe inspiring.

Jack Harter Helicopter
The scope of the coast is hard to describe - The arch near the center of this picture apparently is large enough for a plane to fly through  
In and out of the Kalalau Valley, lucky to catch the end of a rainbow
Next, we booked a sunset boat cruise with Holo-Holo. Cruising through the Pacific on a 65 foot Catamaran, the coast erupts out of the ocean, bathed in a magical late afternoon light. The ocean out there is choppy, but the boat smoothly slices its way through the waves, making sure we didn't spill our drinks! Complete with an enthusiastic crew, open bar, heavy appetizers (pretty much dinner), and rounded off with a glass of champagne to enjoy the sunset, this is a brilliant way to see the coast.

Holo Holo Boat Cruise
Sun and ocean mist sparkle above the teal blue water
The "Cathedral" cliffs

Finally, with some driving and hiking, Na Pali offers a few views for minimal work. Twice we saw the coast with ease, once at Ke'e beach on the north shore and second by driving to the highest accessible lookout on the island.

Ke'e Beach - Na Pali looms in the background and this beach also had some of the island's best swimming and snorkeling 
Kauai has a personality that rewards patience and going with the flow. If you don't like the weather, drive somewhere else or just wait 15 minutes until the rain turns to rainbows. This drama played out as we drove to the lookout over the Kalalau Valley. Hypnotic clouds filled the air, making our views from the top unique, but not of the sweeping valley we anticipated. Well, we were glad to be aware of the island's mood swings so we could hang out and wait.

This was our view for about 30 minutes while standing in the clouds - The cool air felt wonderful
Na Pali Coast
It took the clouds less than a minute to suddenly disappear
Kalalau Valley
And they departed in fashion!
Kauai is absolutely remarkable. In the morning or evening, in rain or shine, by land, air, or sea, it is serene. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

New York City

After an inaugural sightseeing trip of NYC, we had barely scratched the surface. Ultimately, in our year and a half living out East, we visited the city 6 different times and spent two weeks worth of nights. And without question, we will return!

Staten island ferry
View of Manhattan from the Staten Island Ferry - A nice (free!) way to view the island and see the Statue of Liberty

We are generally travelers that want to absorb more of fewer things vs checking boxes, so our first experience here shows just how awe-inspiring this city can be at first glance. A solid 12 hour sight seeing day and we barely saw anything! However, we soon found that going with the flow and letting the city come to us yields an experience beyond explanation. 

Classic New York scene

Love this picture - Taxis, NYPD, food trucks, and Christmas lights!

While we often travel south and seek out sun and beaches in the winter, December in NYC justifies bundling up and dealing with the cold. All of the images and references in movies are accurate - this city decorated for Christmas is dreamlike. The city was buzzing even more than usual, to gift shopping at the thousands of stores or just viewing the never ending lights. Longer lines, reduced happy hours, and inflated hotel rates come with, but it was so worth it!

Like the city, its decorations are larger than life

We accidentally stumbled upon Rockefeller Center on the night the famous tree was first lit. There are a lot of people in the city, and I think more than half of them were crowded into a few blocks. I am calling foul that Kevin in Home Alone II was ever able to get near the tree with no one else around!

While midtown during the holidays is magical, our other favorite NYC moments have come from moving away from the hectic midtown area. No matter how big a city, how epic, how overwhelming the options are, I feel the true character comes from the neighborhoods and locals. The random, off the beaten paths that make it feel like home instead of a sprawling metropolis. The Village, Soho, Chelsea, and more, these are the areas we wandered most on return trips.

Central Park is a calming break from the noise and concrete of the rest of Manhattan

We booked day of discount tickets to see the Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. We went to a midnight comedy show for $5 and the opening act was Wyatt Cenac, a former "Daily Show" correspondent. We randomly met and partied with a Coast Guard member on leave in the meat packing district. We took the metro to a Yankees game and on the way back, witnessed a break dancing group perform a show on the moving subway. And the list goes on and on. The highlights from our time in the city can't be found in the pages of a guidebook, which makes our memories from here so special and they come back to us in conversation almost constantly.

Wandering the High Line, an old above ground railroad track that has been converted to an amazingly walkable city park.
We saw the unbelievable Bryan Cranston in All The Way - From Malcolm in the Middle, to Breaking Bad, to playing Lyndon Johnson on Broadway, Bryan Cranston is remarkable!

We often ate food truck dinners - The smells resonating from them are phenomenal and draw you in

New York City has an overwhelming amount of places to eat, some cheap, some not so much, some so far out of range it is embarrassing to read the menu. Regardless, you can't walk more than a few blocks without a plethora of choices. In order to get some insider knowledge on some of the history of food in NYC, we booked two sensational tours, one focused on the various ethnic groups that have immigrated to the city, the other on the famous pastime of pizza!

Tenements, Tales, and Tastes is a walking food and history tour focused on the immigrant heritage of the Lower East Side, Chinatown, and Little Italy. This took us to local restaurants we never would have tried ourselves and later motivated us to check out the uniquely engaging Tenement Museum.

Slice of Brooklyn tour took us out of Manhattan to explore the fascinating borough of Brooklyn. We tasted pies from two legendary locations (Spumoni Gardens is glorious!) and learned about the history of pizza and the area. An added bonus was seeing locations from well known movies scenes.

The scene in Goodfellas where Joe Pesci gets shot in the garage - this is the garage! 

View from Brooklyn - We look happy because we just ate at the famous Grimaldi's Pizzeria 

Coney Island Boardwalk

If you plan nothing and let the city come to you, the experiences will be extraordinary, and each hour will uncover something new. We have found ourselves in Central Park in the morning, the Bronx by midday, and then Greenwich Village late night into early morning! It is exhausting talking about, but somehow the energy of the city is magnetic and we keep going. I could probably create lengthy blog posts for each day we spent here. Condensing NYC into this post has been the toughest editing yet since starting this blog.