Summer Travels — Riga, Latvia

We are in the middle of our great summer of travel right this very moment, but if I don’t start blogging, I’ll get even more behind and will end up not doing it at all. So with the advice of Tony’s Grandma, Shirley, I’m taking a few minutes to catch up on where we’ve been/what we’ve been up to so far this summer.

Tony’s last day of work for the school year was Thursday, July 6. On Friday, July 7th we left Abu Dhabi for our first stop, Riga, Latvia. Several people have voiced surprise/interest as to why we chose Riga as one of our stops. Really, the entire trip was planned around a great deal Tony found flying KLM business class from Helsinki>Toronto (and then back) with a layover in Amsterdam. Once we booked the return trip tickets, we had to figure out how to get to Helsinki and that’s where Riga came in to play. It was inexpensive to fly to from Abu Dhabi, we were able to find a well rated Airbnb apartment, and the cool climate of the Baltics was appealing after another year in sweltering Abu Dhabi.

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Matteo and I in Riga’s pedestrian only Old Town

I personally didn’t have super high expectations one way or another when it came to Riga, so I was surprised by how much I liked it. Tony and I were both blown away by the beauty of this city in the summer time. Parks bursting with beautiful flowers were seemingly around every corner! We had perfect, warm weather that made it inviting to stay outside all day. Food/drinks were cheap, and sidewalks were wide making it an easy city to stroll with Matteo.

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Tony and Teo ready for our relaxing river cruise in Riga, Latvia

Highlights of our time in Riga include the beautiful, pedestrian only Old Town, a river cruise down the Daugava River, a morning spent at the KGB museum, and our time exploring the large indoor/outdoor market. Matteo loved renting a “power wheel” jeep in the park and practicing his driving skills much to the giggles of his parents.

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Matteo ready to drive!

Riga was a great start to our summer. You could stay as busy or relaxed in this city as you choose — by staying at an Airbnb, we started off our summer relaxed and excited for the stops to come.

 

 

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Favorites

A fan/reader (ahem, my sister — hi Jules!) suggested I write a post all about travel favorites/memories from the year 2016. I loved the idea and think its a great way to reflect back on such a fun year.

So here goes, all answers are 2016 travel specific:

What was your favorite city/location?

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Our Airbnb in the Highlands — this beautifully renovated Oat Mill set us up for an experience that made both of us list this location as our favorite of 2016. I think we’ll be talking about that trip for the rest of our lives.
  • Tony: After thinking about it silently for a few moments, he finally settled on the Scottish Highlands. He was debating between there and Paris.
  • Jen: Same answer for me, the Highlands! It was just otherworldly, misty and cool, green and lush. I’m sure it helped that we visited in the summer and stayed at an amazing Airbnb. Also, Paris was a close second. We had great weather for the end of December and really loved the beauty of the city at Christmas time.

Where/what was the best meal?

  • Tony: KöD Copenhagen. The meal was a splurge, but was so worth it! The steaks were fantastic.
  • Jen: I loved the fantastic breakfast I had in Paris at a cafe called The Hardware Société. I don’t know if its just because I was so hungry, or the excitement of being out and about exploring on our first day in Paris, but the breakfast blew me away. All of the food in Paris was fantastic.

Most memorable travel moment?

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Tony in his first class, Etihad “apartment”
  • Tony: The chance to fly in the Etihad first class apartment to and from London in the spring. A once in a lifetime experience — made possible through the wonders of booking on points!
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Standing outside Guerlain
  • Jen: I know it will sound silly to some, but I really loved my morning exploring the Guerlain Perfumery on the Champs Elysses in Paris. It was amazing! So amazing, that even though I was there just to look, I ended up going back two days later and purchasing a bottle of their perfume, one who’s scent I couldn’t stop thinking about. For a beauty lover like myself, exploring that store with decades and decades of beauty indulgence was perfection.

Most kid friendly location?

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Exploring in Amsterdam, summer 2016
  • Tony: Amsterdam. We didn’t go out and do too much because of the terribly jet lag, but overall there was a lot to do with kids.
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Happily playing with cousins in the USA last summer
  • Jen: The USA is what first came to mind — mostly because Matteo had the chance to play with family, specifically cousins who shared their toys! Non-family trips though, I think my answer is Copenhagen. I felt like we could take Matteo pretty much anywhere with us, the Danes were very friendly, and the city itself felt very accessible with a stroller. They also had a GREAT children’s exploratorium/museum. None of the locations we visited  were outlandishly unfriendly for kids — the worst was probably Malaysia as the time change/food choices were rough for him.

Where do you want to go next?

  • Tony: When I asked him this, I got an audible sigh back. He hates hypothetical questions! But with a little prodding, he answered with this list: The Balkans, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Zanzibar, stating that they are all currently on his travel hacking radar.
  • Jen: Croatia and Iceland are at the top of my wish list, with New Zealand not far behind. I would also welcome another trip to France, maybe in warm weather and venture out in to the countryside this time.

 

Geneva, Switzerland

On Monday the 26th, we packed up our things and prepared to leave Paris. The second stop on our Christmas vacation was Geneva, Switzerland.

Tony booked tickets on the high speed railway, leaving Paris and arriving in Geneva in just about 3 hours. The train made for a very comfortable trip! It was so fun to watch the scenery change from the city of Paris, to a more industrial area, to finally countryside for the remainder of the trip. According to the screen at the back of the train car, the majority of the trip was travelled at 290 km/hour.

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Matteo and Tony on the train

 

We arrived at the train station in Geneva on time and ready to make our way to the Airbnb. While we had good weather for Paris in late December, much of the trip was under gray skies so it was a welcome change to see sunshine and blue skies staring at us. Our Airbnb host had told us which tram to take to get to her place, a short 10 minute ride away.

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Our Airbnb in Geneva

The airbnb Tony selected from this trip is one of my favorites (nothing can beat the renovated Oak Mill in the Highlands, though!). It is far larger than I was expecting for a centrally located city apartment. Well decorated and comfortable, with a better than average stocked kitchen for a vacation rental, I knew we would feel right at home here. Matteo was so happy to have a place to run around and play, and a HUGE bathtub to enjoy too.

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Visiting St. Pierre Cathedral

As tends to be the case, after a week of traveling Matteo was starting to feel fatigued, so our time in Geneva has been far more relaxed and slower paced than Paris — which is fine, because its a much smaller city. We have taken advantage of the opportunity to simply wander the streets of this picturesque city — taking in the natural beauty that surrounds it. It reminds both of us a bit of both Salzburg and Innsbruck, Austria though has a distinct charm that is all its own. The not-as-big city feel is always my preference, so of course I’ve spent the last several days dreaming about what it would be like to live here.

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The Jet d’Eau fountain behind us

Today is our travel day. Our flights home were booked on award points, and unfortunately there wasn’t availability for all three of us to fly direct from Geneva to Abu Dhabi, so while Matteo and I will take that flight this evening and arrive early Friday morning, Tony will first fly back to Paris and then have a layover in Doha, Qatar before landing in Abu Dhabi mid day on Friday. I don’t love that we’ll be traveling separated, but it is what it is — I am glad that we’re all flying on points rather than $$ (thanks travel hacking!)

Once back in Abu Dhabi, we’ll  welcome the New Year before Tony returns to work on the 2nd. Matteo has more time off, as school doesn’t start until the 8th for students. I’m hoping to plan some play dates for him next week as he greatly misses his friends from his class.

It’s been a wonderful Christmas vacation. Two weeks in Europe — we feel so lucky! Of course, this is what we had in mind when pursuing and accepting the position in Abu Dhabi, and that has meant sacrificing time with our family and friends in the US, whom we certainly missed over the holidays. Lots of love to you all — we’re excited to see everyone in summer 2017!

2016 Travel Roundup

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Tony and I were discussing 2016 this morning. For many, and certainly from a global view, 2016 saw a lot of terrible things, but personally — for Tony, Matteo and I — it may have been the best year of our lives.

Travel Roundup

January — We celebrated the New Year at midnight in the sky as we flew back to Abu Dhabi from Munich at the end of our Christmas vacation.

February — A weekend away to Ras Al Khaimah for Tony’s first official half marathon

March — Tony jetted off to London in Etihad’s luxurious first class apartment for a soccer weekend

March/April — We spent Spring Break in beautiful Copenhagen, Denmark

May — Over Mother’s Day weekend, our family made the short drive to Dubai for a relaxing weekend at the Park Hyatt

June — Tony and I celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary (!) with another weekend in Dubai, this time staying at the Ritz Carlton. Somehow, we missed blogging about this weekend away.

July/August – For Tony’s summer break from work, we got out of the blistering heat of Abu Dhabi and started our 6 week of travels. First stopping in London, then a few days in the Highlands before making our way to Edinburgh. From there we flew back to London to catch the flight back to the US where we spent soaked up family time in Michigan, Arizona and Ohio. On our way back to the UAE, we stopped for a few days in beautiful Amsterdam, to catch our breaths and try to acclimate to the time differences!

September/October — While we debated taking a trip during this time period, we opted not to because Matteo began pre kindergarten in September. The change to his schedule took a lot of hard work and purposefulness to get used to, so we didn’t want to add to the chaos any more than necessary.

November — In later November we took our first trip east to Asia with a vacation to Malaysia.

December — That brings us to the current month. We spent 10 days in Paris for Christmas before leaving for 4 days in Geneva, Switzerland where I sit writing this at this very moment. Paris at Christmas time was absolutely magical, and Geneva has proven to be the perfect spot to relax and after the hustle and bustle of the City of Light (more posts coming on this trip).

Tomorrow we leave Geneva and fly back to Abu Dhabi to spend the final days of 2016 in our apartment. When we made the decision to move to Abu Dhabi, so much of it was based on a perceived opportunity to travel and see the world, and we’re definitely working toward that goal. I’m excited to see what travels lie ahead in 2017!

Food Delivery Apps

Traveling with kids can be difficult. From my limited perspective as the mother of a very opinionated 4 year old, I know going in to a trip that there are only going to be so many “golden hours” each day during which we can freely do the things we want to do. Tony and I look at the trade off like this — we could wait a few years until Matteo is “easier” to travel with, or we can go now and know going in that we will won’t be able to go go go as we would if we were traveling just the two of us.

One of those concessions ends up being dinner time. Matteo does best on our trips if we do our sightseeing in the morning/early afternoon. We typically head out for 4 or so hours in the morning, have lunch and then can squeeze in another few hours. By the time evening comes around, Matteo’s mood will only be stable if he can relax and play in the comfort of our airbnb/hotel.

That means we end up limited when it comes to dinner options. Room service is always an option if you’re staying in a hotel, but that can get expensive fast. What we’ve depended on (and loved) for the last several trips, are food delivery apps. UberEats, Deliveroo, Foodora, Postmates, etc. allow you to browse local menus, make your selection, and pay all from your phone.

The apps available to you depends on your availability. Many include a sign up bonus such as $10 off your first order, or a discount when for referral sign ups. Tony and I take advantage of those situations by one of us signing up and then immediately doing a referral sign up for the other which often means saving $20 over two meals. These apps mean you can still explore cuisine in your area without having to actually go out.

We look forward to the time when we can take advantage of the evenings on our vacations as well as the morning and afternoon, but for now we’re okay with this compromise.  If you’re traveling with kids, or considering it, definitely take the time to download a food delivery app or two in your area to give yourself a Plan B when it comes to dinnertime.

Arriving in Paris

Bonjour from Paris!

Christmas vacation is here! That means we get to spend ten days in Paris and three in Geneva!

Before the vacation could begin though, we had to get to Paris. Fresh off of practically 24 hour travel days getting to/from Malaysia, I was so relieved that this time we would only have to deal with one direct flight Abu Dhabi to Paris. Utilizing our American Airlines points, Tony was able to secure Business Class seats for the 7.5 hour flight.

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Frequent Flier

When booking an Etihad flight with American Airlines points, you don’t get to choose your seats and so while we ended up with two seats next to each other, the third seat was four rows up and on the opposite aisle. Up in row 8, Tony got to relax, sip champagne and watch movies while back in row 12 with Matteo, it took me 4 hours to get through a 1.5 hour long movie, and I ended up logging about 1,000 steps according to my Withings watch with only 2 steps between my seat and Matteo’s.

I kid, I kid. Honestly, Matteo was great on the flight, but he was busy; wanting/needing snacks, distractions, the iPad, his headphones, his batman toys, activity pack, stickers, all at different times and then back out again once I had put them all away. Oh well, he still does GREAT flying and for that we are so grateful.

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Matteo outside the beautiful Notre Dame

We arrived in Paris at around 2 pm local time. Getting through passport control and collecting our bags was a piece of cake. My favorite part of flying business class with Etihad is their chauffeur service — a ride to/from the airport. By the time we left the airport in Paris, we were beginning to hit rush hour. It ended up taking almost 2 hours to get to our Airbnb apartment in the Opera district but we just got to sit back and relax.

The Airbnb we’re staying at is a first floor, 2 bedroom apartment with a kitchenette and tiny bathroom. We’ve been very pleased with the location. The only negative is that the washer/dryer isn’t working — which is a bummer as when packing as lightly as possible, we factored in being able to do laundry at the 2 Airbnbs we’re staying at on the front and back end of the trip. For what it’s worth, Matteo’s doing his part to lessen the dirty laundry pile by insisting on wearing the same superhero shirt for the last three days.

Each day, we choose a “big” attraction to see in the morning (when Matteo’s at his best) and then “secondary” sightseeing for the afternoon. So far we’ve been able to visit the Sacre-Coeur, Notre Dame, and we’ve taken a river cruise down the Seine as well as vintage shopping, visiting the Lego store, shopping at Galeries Lafayette, and browsing the shelves at the beautiful book store Shakespeare & Company.

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View of Paris from the Sacre-Coeur

The food we’ve sampled so far in Paris has been wonderful! One of the ways we save money when traveling is by only eating two meals a day (a late breakfast or early lunch + dinner) and thanks to the Airbnb, we’ve been able to grocery shop in order to avoid eating out every meal, but what we have had, we’ve enjoyed. Of note was a beautiful breakfast/brunch near the Sacre-Couer at a restaurant called Hardware Society. YUM. We’ve also indulged a bit in street food — there’s a crepe stand about a block away from our Airbnb. We also walked through the Christmas market at the Champs Elysees, and each sampled a treat along the way (Tony ordered mini pancakes with fresh strawberries, I had a beignet).

We are really enjoying our time in Paris so far. The good thing about being here for 10 days is knowing that we can take our time — our days don’t have to be packed from morning to night in order to see it all. And that slower pace is nice for Matteo too, who definitely needs a break now and then in order to stay happy as we travel (that, and a stready diet of Goldfish crackers and McDonald’s chicken nuggets).

Tomorrow we check out of the Airbnb and in to the Park Hyatt. It will be fun to get to see another Paris neighborhood and we know from experience that the Park Hyatt amenities will be second to none. I’ll be looking forward to sharing more of our trip over the coming week.

Au revoir!

p.s. Thank you to Tony’s high school French teacher, wherever you are. He retained enough knoweldge from his two years of French to do quite nicely ordering food and asking simple questions. I am so impressed!

The Copenhagen Card

If there was one takeaway to give you after our trip to beautiful Copenhagen, Denmark last week, it is this: GO THERE.

We loved it. We have been incredibly fortunate over the last year of purposefully pursuing travel to visit some really cool locations. In the US, we visited Austin, San Antonio, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle and since moving to the UAE in September we’ve added Muscat (Oman), Istanbul (Turkey), Vienna, Salzburg, Innsbruck (Austria), Munich (Germany), Ras Al Khaimah (UAE), London (England — just Tony) and now Copenhagen (Denmark). While we loved just about every location on that list, Copenhagen has pulled forward as both Tony and my favorite place to date.

It’s just a beautiful city. It was very “toddler travel” friendly with super high walkability/public transport, as well as being easy to navigate. Tony and I will take turns writing about some specific parts of the trip, including our top list of sites to see, but for now I wanted to start with how we travelled to an expensive city without blowing our budget.

Scandinavia in general is considered an expensive place to visit. With the help of travel hacking, we started this trip ahead of the game. The 7 day hotel stay was covered with a credit card award earned last year — the only hitch was we had to stay at the same hotel property for the full 7 days. Typically, we like to hit more than one city on a stay that long, so we wanted to pick a city where we felt like we wouldn’t run out of things to do and see. Copenhagen delivered on that front. Our flights were booked on points, although we had to deal with a less than ideal route to make that happen (we flew Abu Dhabi > Rome > Paris > Copenhagen). Because we stayed at the Marriott Copenhagen with elite status, we had access to the hotel’s executive lounge giving us free breakfast each morning, as well as afternoon snacks and a hot hors d’oeuvres each evening. This bonus alone insured we could easily keep our spending in check on our trip.

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The other big cost saver for us was the Copenhagen Card. Benefits of the card include:

Tony purchased the cards for us at the Copenhagen airport. You choose the card based on the length of your stay — options include 24, 48, 72, and 120 hours. With Matteo under 10, and thereby covered by the purchase of an adult card, we only needed to buy two adult cards. The cost came to just under the equivalent of $245. I know that might sound steep at first glance, but don’t forget that it includes our transportation (including to and from the airport) for 5 days and admission to so many museums and attractions!

By using the list of attractions covered with the Copenhagen card, we were more easily able to narrow down what we saw and did each day. We visited both Experimentarium City and the Zoo — without the Copenhagen card, entry to those two places would have cost $65 and $66 respectively. That’s nearly half the cost of the Copenhagen card right there. We also visited three different castles, and the Viking Ship Museum with free entrance under the Copenhagen card. Adding all of the entry fees to the costs covered, we ended up saving about $40 overall buying the card rather than paying admission charges upon arrival. That savings does not take in to account the public transport we used — mostly, because I can’t remember all of the buses/trains we took, and charges varied depending on where you were going (i.e. more expensive to go to the airport than to the center of the city). Had Matteo been a little older and able to handle longer days, the savings would have been even greater as there were several museums we didn’t get to visit due to him holding us back (kidding! well, not really, but that’s travel with a  three year old).

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Glad to have the option for public transportation when the wind made walking feel too cold to our desert sensibilities

So that’s the Copenhagen Card! They can be purchased online at http://www.copenhagencard.com/buy-copenhagencard or do what we did and pick one up at the airport. How you get the card isn’t important, what is important is that you GO TO COPENHAGEN. You’re going to love it!