Zakopane, Poland

Ah, Zakopane. Poland’s sporty resort town.

The drive in to Zakopane was really beautiful and fun. Nestled next to the Tatra National Park, as we wound our way to the center of town we passed trail heads that were absolutely BURSTING with tourists and hikers. Our Airbnb in Zakopane was further into town, walking distance to the pedestrian only strip of the shopping area.

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It was in Zakopane that we dealt with poor weather for really the first time during our summer travels. It started to rain on Saturday evening and pretty much didn’t stop until Monday. Luckily, we were able to take advantage of what we could Friday evening after arriving, and Saturday morning/early afternoon.

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Trail running in Zakopane

Tony hit the trails for a run early in the morning on Saturday while Matteo and I were still snoozing and then we went out as a family, first stopping at the park for Matteo to get some play time in. From there we went to the “downtown” area and checked out the shops, cafes and restaurants and then back to the park for some more play time.

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Once the rain started, it didn’t let up. This gave us time to catch up on some reading, Netflix, and podcasts, and to do a little bit of nothing too. Our airbnb was comfortable enough that vegging and not doing much felt like an okay choice. I still stand by my assessment that I really don’t mind the rain if I have the right gear, but we had nothing other than flimsy rain jackets (our umbrella broke in Toronto so we didn’t even have that) so we felt a bit stuck.

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We still pick up a postcard in every new city we visit. This is our pick from Zakopane.

Leaving Zakopane ended up being a bit of a pain — in addition to the heavy rain, we were leaving a tourist town on a Sunday afternoon, along with what seemed to be the WHOLE OF POLAND, to head in to Krakow. Add rain and lots of cars on the road to a ton of unexpected construction, road closures, and a few accidents and what should have been a 90 minute drive took a full 4 hours! I was mostly worried about Tony, who typically loses his patience in traffic, and Tony was mostly worried about Matteo (bathroom breaks? temper tantrums?) but honestly all three of us did just fine.

What else can you do but take in in stride? This has been a long, beautiful summer of travel so far so what is one day of headache? A small price to pay!

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Kosice, Slovakia

Leaving Budapest in our rental car, we made the 3 hour drive across the border to Kosice, Slovakia. Once we were out of the city, the drive was quite pleasant — beautiful countryside that included fields and fields of sunflowers.

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Kosice is not a big city and we knew that we wouldn’t need a lot of time here to see what we wanted to see. The two biggest features are the beautiful Old Town area full of shops, cafes, and restaurants and the centerpiece of downtown, their cathedral St. Elizabeth.

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Because we were in an Airbnb again after several nights in a hotel, a chunk of time was spent doing laundry! We were also excited to have access to the modest kitchen (more like kitchenette) so that we could cook lighter/healthier meals for ourselves.

Two nights in Kosice was enough to see the things we wanted to see. We were charmed by the beauty of this small town, full as it was with tourists.

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On the way to our next stop, we made our way to one more tourist stop, Spiš Castle. Situated on top of a high, steep hill, the castle ruins overlook the beautiful (BEAUTIFUL) Slovakian countryside. Smooth, slippery stones made for a bit of difficulty navigating this site but it was well worth it for the views that awaited us.

Matteo found himself overwhelmed by both the steep climb and decline on the way to and from the castle, so Tony happily gave him a piggy back ride both up to and down from the castle. While there were other families there with young children, it is definitely not a stop that one could visit with a stroller so if you make your way to this castle with young kids, plan on using a baby carrier if your child isn’t able to walk well.

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The castle was a great point to stop as we made our way over the Slovakia/Poland border and on to our next stop, the resort town of Zakopane.

Budapest, Hungary

Of all of the cities we were scheduled to see on this summer trip, Budapest was the one I (Jen) was least excited for. It’s silly really — I used to have a friend from Romania and if you’re not aware, the Hungarians and Romanians have a complicated, difficult relationship. For that reason, this friend used to regularly tell me how awful Hungary was and basically, without me realizing it, she planted in me a preconceived notion that I would not like Budapest. Which is ridiculous, because Budapest absolutely wowed me!

We arrived at night so it wasn’t until the next morning that I realized what a beautiful city Budapest was. Separated in the middle by the Dabube River, one side of the river is the Buda side of the city and the other is the Pest side. Full of history, the gorgeous architecture along the banks of the river had me surprised at every turn.

We spent one morning on a river cruise with audio tour — one of my favorite things we’ve done all summer long. Typically I’m not able to give my full attention during an audio tour at a museum because I’m busy wrangling Matteo but here he was contained and enjoying just being on the boat so I was able to actually listen to the tour as we cruised down the river.

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Buda’s Castle

Our hotel was in a great location, just down the hill from Buda’s Castle. The castle itself is stunning, but the views you get when you reach the top of the stairs — WOW! Absolutely amazing. We also spent a morning on Margaret’s Island where we rented a family bicycle (which I thought Matteo would love  — and he did, for about 5 minutes and then it was “this is boring”).

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Climbing trees on Margaret’s Island

On our third day in Budapest, Tony picked up our rental car for the next portion of the trip — a road trip from Budapest to Kosice, Slovakia > Zakopane, Poland > Krakow, Poland > Ostrava, Czech Republic > Bratislava, Slovakia and finally back to Budapest, Hungary to return the rental car and fly out of Budapest and back to Abu Dhabi.

Helsinki, Finland

I’m pretty sure I could write “Go to Helsinki” and feel like I covered the most important part of this blog post. It really is a beautiful, beautiful city. Particularly in early August. Our entire summer trip this year was more or less built around Helsinki and a great price Tony found on a KLM business class flight to/from Toronto. With Helsinki mapped out as a main destination on our trip, everything else fell in to place, including Tony’s decision to sign up for his first marathon.

Tony has been running for years, becoming more serious about it in the last several years. He ran his first official half marathon in February 2016 up in Ras Al Khaimah and I think that very positive experience planted the seed of interest in him to sign up for a full marathon. With the dates aligning well for the Helsinki City Marathon, its like it was meant to be.

Originally we had booked at Airbnb for our stay in Helsinki but it was cancelled just before we left Abu Dhabi in early July. Luckily, Tony was able to book us in to stay at the Klaus K Hotel on points thanks to our Starwood membership. The location of the hotel was great, but otherwise we had a rather underwhelming stay at the hotel. I don’t have anything overtly negative to complain about, but the room was small (even by European standards) and the customer service was lack luster. Still, as I said it was a great location and for that we were grateful, especially considering the city was largely booked well in advance for this marathon weekend.

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Preparing to start the race

Jet lag hit us pretty hard in Helsinki. It was a 6 hour time difference from Toronto, and there’s just not a great way to get over that quickly. The first day there, Matteo and I slept until nearly 1:30 pm! Tony was up at 11 am, with some effort, but since it was Thursday and the marathon was on Saturday, I admit having some worries about how jet lag would affect Tony come race day. He remained optimistic and concentrated on getting quality rest when he could, and eating well in preparation.

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At the 14 km mark

The marathon didn’t begin until 3 pm which meant that the jet lag wasn’t as big a problem as I’d been expecting. Matteo and I joined Tony down at the starting line, cheering as the race began. The 14 km mark wasn’t far from our hotel so we made a plan to see him there too (scheduling it based on his expected km/minute time) before we made our way down to the finish to cheer him some more. It was such a cool thing for Matteo and I to watch Tony succeed in this marathon, after months of training and preparation. While Matteo is too young to vocalize it, his excitement as he cheered for his daddy as he crossed the finish line was absolute magic. Such a special moment for our family!

With the marathon complete, we had most of the day Sunday to relax and enjoy the city before we flew out Sunday evening for our next stop on the trip — Budapest, Hungary. Though our time there was relatively short, Helsinki made its mark on us and would definitely be a preferred repeat destination for the future. Clean, walkable, friendly and safe — it was everything we had hoped it would be.

The Elusive Upgrade

Happy New Year!

We are back home in Abu Dhabi after a really great travel day last week. On Thursday morning, Tony packed up and left Geneva for Paris. He booked our flights on points and for our return flight there was not reward availability for all three of us to book the direct flight Geneva to Abu Dhabi. Instead Tony booked two business class seats on that flight for Matteo and I, and then booked a three leg flight path for himself that would take him home by going Geneva back to Paris, then to Doha, Qatar where he would have a 7 hour layover before flying to Abu Dhabi on Qatar Airlines. Tony genuinely enjoys flying and had not yet flown on Qatar Airlines so he was excited for the chance to check it out — especially since he was able to book first class seats for the latter two legs of the trip.

Tony left in the morning, leaving Matteo and I the majority of the day to pack and relax. Our flight was at 8:30 pm, so there was no rush to get to the airport. Our Airbnb host kindly let us move check out from the default 11 am until 4 pm — which we greatly appreciated! We were lucky that there was not another guest scheduled to come in on the same day. I scheduled an Uber to pick us up from the apartment shortly after 4pm and Matteo and I made our way to Geneva International Airport.

The airport was very busy with holiday travelers, but we found the staff kind and professional. Because we were so early for our flight, we had to wait for about an hour before we could even get in line to check our suitcase with Etihad, but we passed the time as best we could. Matteo hung out in his stroller (we still love our City Mini!) and watched some downloaded episodes on his iPad while we waited. Once it hit 5:30, three hours before our flight, we were able to check in for our flight, make our way through security, and go to the lounge to wait. The lounge had light snacks and beverages, wifi, comfy chairs and bite sized swiss chocolates that kept Matteo happy while we waited.

When we got to our gate to board our flight, we were quickly called for boarding. Upon giving our boarding passes to be scanned, the Etihad employee asked me to step aside as they needed to print new boarding passes for us. I just reminded them that I was traveling with a minor and asked that they make sure our seats were together — he double checked the computer, smiled, and let me know that our seats were still together, but we were being upgraded from business class to first class.

I was so excited! I knew the flight wasn’t sold out, and even though I’ve heard of frequent fliers being upgraded before, I’d never experienced it for myself. This was a great flight for it too — I was flying by myself with a 4 year old, and it was an overnight flight where the added comfort meant a far better chance for sleep. When we boarded the plane, we excitedly checked out the first class cabin. Matteo and I definitely got some skeptical and worried looks from fellow first class passengers, and I totally understood as we all know that a small child can be a wild card on a flight. I was so proud, though, as he quickly showed his skills as a frequent flyer. He sat down, fastened his seatbelt, enjoyed a water and a cookie, and was asleep before the plane even took off.

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Just boarded and settling in to his first class seat

I stayed awake longer than I would have had I not been seated in first class, but I wanted to experience it! The Etihad service is phenomenal — kind and attentive. They were so helpful with Matteo too. Noticing that he was already asleep, a flight attendant grabbed me right after take off (when the crew is up and moving, but passengers are required to remain seated) so that we could recline Matteo’s sleep in to the bed position and get his sheets and blankets right away. I thought that was so kind! It worked too — Matteo was asleep from before take off until I had to wake him upon descent in to Abu Dhabi airport.

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Trying to get back on schedule! I try to wake him, he tries to sleep.

Longer trips are definitely harder on Matteo now as compared to when he was younger. We arrived last Friday morning, and as I write this on Wednesday morning we are still struggling to get him in bed before 11 pm Abu Dhabi time — and we are only dealing with a 3 hour time change between here and Paris/Geneva. Thankfully, we still have until January 8th before Matteo has to go back to school, so there’s still time to adjust. Getting back in to the routine of school will be great for him — he is really missing his friends.

It is always nice to be home, but made even more so as we returned to Abu Dhabi at its prime season — lovely mild weather and tourists everywhere. To our family and friends who are/will/might consider a trip here — whether to visit us or not — this is the time of year to do it! It is gorgeous!

We don’t have any trips booked yet for 2017, but have some ideas we’re working through and will be excited to share them as they are booked. For now, we’re ready to enjoy January here in Abu Dhabi, and plan to do some activities here as we enjoy the city that will be bursting with tourists for the next few months.

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!