Krakow, Poland

Leaving Zakopane, the weather was terrible. The rain that had started the day before had only gotten heavier over night. That made for a fun excursion, loading the small car full of luggage while trying to keep from getting soaked! Once we were on the road, we realized what should have been a 90 minute drive was going to be much, much longer as we dealt with traffic from too many cars on the road, construction issues, and the general slow down that pouring rain will cause.

While I worried about Tony (since he was the one driving and is famous for tons of patience EXCEPT when it comes to traffic delays), he was worried about Matteo and the inevitable “Are we there yet? I’m hungry! I have to go potty!” that would start up at some point. Luckily, Tony kept his cool and Matteo did well too. Just 4 short hours later (ha!) we were in Krakow.

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Our Airbnb in Krakow was right across the street from the Wawel Royal Castle. This was our first stop when we were ready to go exploring. Because it was peak travel season in Europe, we did have to deal with crowds, mainly from several large tour groups that we ended up sandwiched between as we took in the sights. Photography inside the castle was not allowed, otherwise I would absolutely flood this blog with the beautiful images. We were able to take photos on the grounds though, which were equally beautiful.

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We also celebrated Tony’s birthday while we were in Krakow. A birthday in the middle of traveling meant no party, but honestly what better way to spend Tony’s birthday than doing what he loves — specifically exploring a new city? I think he was okay with this less traditional celebration.

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Krakow’s Old Town was also impressive, with a giant open, pedestrian-only square. We wandered through the square for several hours, checking out the different vendors, shops and cafes. We were hoping to visit the Auschwitz Museum and Memorial while there, but found that the buy-ahead tickets were sold out — and we were hearing that those who showed up on the spot were waiting up to 4 hours to get a spot in a tour. With Matteo, that kind of uncertain wait time wasn’t workable, so we had to scratch it off of our to do list. If we make our way back to Poland, we’ll know to book those tickets in advance, especially if its peak tourist season.

We left Krakow with two more stops on our list. Next up was Ostrava, Czech Republic.

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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!

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.

 

 

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!

Scottish Highlands

After four nights in bustling London, we packed our things and made our way back to Heathrow for our flight to Aberdeen, Scotland. London traffic on the way to the airport had me nervous, but the flight was short, easy and uneventful. At this point, the hardest point about traveling with Matteo has very little to do with Matteo — it’s all the “stuff” we have to bring (like the carseat and stroller).

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At Aberdeen’s airport, we picked up the rental car that Tony had reserved. I was quite nervous about driving in the UK — simply because I think the habit to want to overcorrect to the right side of the road would be difficult to overcome. But Tony did so well! I served as navigator and we were on our way for the roughly 3 hour drive from Aberdeen to the Airbnb we booked in the Highlands.

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The drive was lovely. Very little traffic and fairly straight forward with directions. We stopped on the way at a grocery store the Airbnb owners had recommended so that we could stock up on kitchen basics before we got in to the Highlands and away from store options. Every mile further we drove, the views became more and more impressive. Expansive, rolling green hills with gorgeous wild flowers everywhere you looked.

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The Airbnb we booked is without a doubt our favorite booking so far. We stayed in a renovated oat mill. The mill was the perfect set up for our family — beautiful and rustic, so comfortable, and in a location that made us feel the Highlands. All three of us loved it. It was the perfect place for us to stay with Matteo. The owners, knowing we were traveling with a  little boy, even left several of their sons old toys for Matteo to enjoy — including a train set that entertained him for hours.

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The Highlands felt like the opposite of London. Where London was a place to expend energy and fit as much into a day as we could, the Highlands made the perfect place to recharge and relax. The house had wifi but no television, and it was a testament to the beautiful set up that Matteo didn’t even notice the lack of television during our stay. We spent the days reading, walking, taking in the view, cooking, playing with Matteo’s toys, running*, and trying to figure out ways to move to Scotland permanently.

I think we could have stayed in the Highlands for a month without getting bored. The beauty of this part of the UK — its unrivaled by any place I have traveled to before. It was like love at first sight — an instant connect and feeling of compatibility. With so many beautiful locations on our planet, we try not to visit the same place twice. The goal is to see as much of the world as possible! But Scotland…that’s a place we’d like to visit again.

All good things come to an end. After a quick 3 days/2 nights in the Highlands, we packed our things and hopped back in the rental car to make our way to the next stop on our summer travels adventure — Edinburgh.

*On our first full day in the Highlands, Tony decided to go for a run. His plan was to stick to a 6 mile path/loop that he’d found on a map. He took off around 7:45 am — by 10 am he wasn’t back yet and, knowing his mile time,  I was officially nervous. Another hour passed, and I started to panic. I had decided to give him until noon to get home or else I would have to go over to the cottage’s owner place across the street and ask for help. I was terrified that something had happened to him! Luckily, at 11:45 Tony made it back. He had gotten horribly lost on the poorly marked path and had to figure out a way back to our rental by manner of cutting through people’s farms. He even was zapped by a cattle fence in the process! All said and done, he made it back — filthy and exhausted — but okay. Because I had been so afraid that something terrible had happened to him, we made a pact to never go running without letting the other person know the route we planned to run — particularly when we do not have GPS to rely on.  Funny story now, but at the time I was a wreck!

UK & Amsterdam via airbnb

Even though summer seems a long way off, when planning a trip to a popular destination domestic or abroad it is essential to secure lodging as soon as reasonably possible to ensure availability and avoid paying astronomical prices or staying in an area that is inconvenient or unsuitable for the occasion.   While booking our accommodations for the UK, we saw this firsthand — especially in London which is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.  We were hoping to book one of the two Hyatt properties in London using Hyatt Gold Passport points at the Hyatt Regency Churchill or the Andaz Liverpool Street for four nights in early July.  Currently these properties are going for $560 and $340 per night respectively for there standard room, and neither property has award availability for all four nights of our booking (and we were trying to book 8.5 months out!).  Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 9.36.49 PMAfter a call to Hyatt Gold Passport I was able to secure three nights at the Andaz Liverpool Street using the points + cash option bringing the cost down to $150 plus 12,500 points per night.  We ended up booking the Holiday Inn London City for our first night in London since it was the only really good option under $200 per night that is close enough to both the Heathrow Express and the Andaz for an easy transfer after check out.  This will allow us to stay in London over a busy July weekend at a very reasonable rate and then make our way north.

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When we booked the UK we immediately knew that we wanted to visit both London and Edinburgh, but that still left us  enough time in our trip to choose a smaller, seaside location in between the two large cities.  After a bit of research we settled on the small seaside town of Whitby in the North Yorkshire region of England.  As the case with many smaller towns, there are not really a lot of traditional hotel options in this region, and as a result we opted to rent a private home via Airbnb for our two night stay that allows us to be in a great location that is walkable to all the goings on in town.  We are looking forward to staying in a house with local neighbors and being able to walk around town at a slower pace while having a full kitchen and enough space for us to spread out and relax in separate rooms for a few days (makes such a difference for Matteo!). Airbnb is a great alternative to a hotel for those looking to experience life more like a local than a tourist.

After booking our house in Whitby we decided to look for another rental property in Edinburgh for four nights which will allow us to stay in a prime location along the Royal Mile.  We found a lovely 2 bedroom apartment with a full kitchen located in a historic building that is a 1 minute walk from Edinburgh Castle.  The price for both airbnb properties was competitive with hotels in the area and we could have easily spent a bit more money or a bit less for other area properties; we were able to find rentals that fit our needs in terms of location, space, and amenities.

For our return back to Europe and Abu Dhabi we booked 3 nights in Amsterdam since it is served directly from Detroit and Dubai.  When we looked at Amsterdam we originally were hoping to stay at the Andaz Amsterdam which is a Hyatt property that we were hoping to book on points.  Unfortunately they were out of space for award travel and the paid rates were $350 per night so we decided to turn to Airbnb one more time.  We were able to find a fantastic city center apartment with two bedrooms in a quiet neighborhood that was under $150 per night in mid August.  Sweetening the deal, we were able to take advantage of an American Express offer with Airbnb that gives us a $50 statement credit for booking an Airbnb during November.

Now we can sit back, relax, and get excited about spending 10 days exploring the UK next July and a three day stopover in Amsterdam in August as we make the trek back to the UAE.