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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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.

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.

 

Edinburgh, Scotland

The quiet, open spaces of the Highlands were such a contrast with bustling London — and made for a great opportunity to relax and gear up for the next stop on our trip, Edinburgh. Tony and I had been particularly excited to see Edinburgh — we both have heritage in Scotland (Tony’s maternal great grandfather was a butcher in Edinburgh, and my side goes further back but has Scottish roots as well) and my oldest brother and sister in law spent a summer in Edinburgh many years ago that made an impression on me as a teenager. So needless to say, we were excited.

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Watch out for sheep!

Unexpectedly, the drive to Edinburgh was one of the highlights on the trip. Normally, long car drives just feel like something you have to get through in order to get to where you really want to be, but in this case it was so enjoyable. The Scottish countryside is MESMERIZING. The roads were hilly and winding, the sky was vast and beautiful, wildflowers were everywhere. For much of the drive, there were no other cars in view and so we could slow or stop to snap a photo, pointing out ruins to each other or pulling to the side to let sheep pass as needed. It was really fun!

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Edinburgh — Such a beautiful city

Once we made it to Edinburgh, I was surprised both by the size of the city and the beauty. The hills made for some incredible views. We snagged an Airbnb apartment right on the Royal Mile, putting us at a 5 minute walk to the Castle.

We loved so many things about beautiful Edinburgh. The weather was lovely and cool, and we only had a few instances of rain (we’d been prepared for far more moisture).

Highlights of the trip were definitely visiting Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace (the Queen’s residence when in Scotland) and, for Tony, Arthur’s Seat. Edinburgh Castle was incredibly crowded on the day we were there, and was not stroller friendly, but even with those annoyances we thoroughly enjoyed seeing this historic site. The weather was absolutely perfect and the views from the castle walls were breathtaking!

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Edinburgh Castle

Holyrood Palace is on the opposite end of the Royal Mile from the castle. We toured the castle and grounds in the morning. The highlight of this tour for me was the special exhibit of the Queen’s fashion — including items the queen wore when she was only 3 years old (beautifully preserved) all the way to present day. The items were beautiful and included information about each designer. It was interesting to see the garments and notice that as she grew up, she developed a very clear sense of style as most of the later garments were very similar in shape and style. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take photographs inside the palace, but we did get a few nice photos on the grounds.

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Holyrood Palace

With the recommendation of my sister-in-law Melissa, we knew we wanted to venture up to Arthur’s Seat for the fun of a hike and the reward of more beautiful views. Because we would not be able to take Matteo, we decided to do the hike separately. Unfortunately, on the day I wanted to go we had rain and a cranky Matteo, so I didn’t get to do the hike, but Tony did and shared his lovely photos.

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Tony’s view from atop Arthur’s Seat

Because it’s Tony, he of course tool the long way and decided to run up to the top of the hill. In addition to being a great workout, he was greeted with gorgeous, albeit windy, views of Edinburgh.

Our time in England and Scotland went by so quickly. It left such an impression on us — it was love, really. If there’s one location we’ve visited that we think ANY AND EVERY ONE would enjoy, it’s the UK.

 

 

 

Park Hyatt Dubai

During the first weekend in May, Tony, Matteo and I packed up and made the 1.5 hour drive to Dubai for a long weekend spent at the Park Hyatt Dubai.

Park Hyatt Dubai

We love to stay at Hyatt properties because of our award status with the chain, which gives us extra benefits like suite upgrade when available, late check out, free breakfast, etc. This Dubai property followed in the footsteps of the other Park Hyatt properties we’ve stayed at, it was absolutely beautiful with fantastic service.

The property is spread out, with separate buildings attached by breezeways and walkways. Every square inch of the property was gorgeous — with the blue and white theme, and modern, luxurious furnishings leaving us saying “wow!” throughout our stay.

Upon check in, we were upgraded to a suite which meant that we had a large bedroom and a separate living area (where we could roll Matteo’s cot at night). Also of note? The gorgeous bathroom that featured a HUGE tub!

With several restaurants, a great pool, gym, and spa, we didn’t feel the need to leave the property for the duration of our weekend stay. Because it was Mother’s Day (US) weekend,  Tony and Matteo surprised me with a morning at the spa where I received a wonderfully relaxing massage.

Our weekend was quiet and relaxing — the perfect preparation for the end of school year crawl that awaited us back in Abu Dhabi as we wait for our mid July summer break and the exciting line up of travels we have planned (UK > US > Netherlands).

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We will definitely make plans to return to the Park Hyatt Dubai property for a future visit when we want to get away, but don’t have the time/inclination to leave the UAE. A great, relaxing weekend!

Salzburg for Christmas

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One More Breakfast at the PH Vienna “The Bank”

After a lovely three days in Vienna, we started our fourth day with one final big breakfast at the Park Hyatt before packing up our suite and making our way to the train station.  The three of us purchased our tickets in advance from the Hutteldorf station which was one stop west of the Hauptbahnhof in Vienna where everyone else in our group booked their departure.

We decided to take the Westbahnhof and booked our tickets a few months out; this was cheaper than booking directly with OBB (the main rail company in Austria). For our journey, the cost was 24.50 euro total for the journey to Salzburg.

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Waiting for the Train in Hutteldorf

The train ride across the Austrian countryside was quite pretty and it was enjoyable to get outside of the city and see some of the smaller villages and rural areas of the region. Because the train was quite full, and we had a lot of luggage, it wasn’t quite as comfortable as it could have been but overall it was by far the best option to travel the 300 KM journey.

We arrived in Salzburg around 3:00 pm and had a nice 15 minute walk to our hotel.  We choose the Crown Point Salzburg for 4 nights due to its good reviews, proximity to Salzburg’s “Old Town” area where most of the historic sites are located, and of course the great rates they were offering during our four night stay.

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Westbahn Train Vienna to Salzburg

The city of Salzburg is famous for its fortified Castle, towering churches, and for being the birthplace of Mozart.  It is a quant city along the Salz River and has a much more laid back feel and charm as compared to Vienna.  Fewer tourists and a slower pace made Salzburg an ideal destination to spend Christmas Eve and Christmas.  We spent our time meandering through the Christmas markets, town squares, cafes, churches, parks, and took a funicular ride up to the Salzburg Fortress.  The Fortress is one of the largest and best preserved castles in all of Europe and was originally constructed in 1066; it was last used regularly during WWI to house Italian prisoners.

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Locks of Love Bridge over the Salz River
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Salzburg Castle/Fortress
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Looking up at the Castle
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View from the Castle over Salzburg

Walking through Salzburg’s Old Town is interesting as you stroll through winding, narrow paths housing restaurants, cafes, quaint shops, and also high end designer stores all along the same streets.  There is a mix of local stores/touristy shops, and high end brand stores that make for great window shopping and people watching.  The Old Town is separated by a series of bridges that cross the Salz River and one of these is the locks of love bridge which features thousands of padlocks along the chain link fence.

The river has great cycling paths and walking/jogging paths that stretch along a nice 12 km loop.  In addition to the typical tourist areas and shops there are some great playgrounds, gardens, and parks located throughout the city.  We spent a few hours on Christmas morning at a small playground that had a slide that was way too fast (and would never fly in the US in 2015) but incredibly fun for kids (and adults). The 7 of us had a great time watching Matteo meet some new playground buddies and soaked up the sunshine until it was time for lunch.

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Salzburg Christmas Market at Mozartplatz
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Surf & Turf for Xmas Dinner at Sky Bar 🙂 
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Xmas Day Playground Fun
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If you are in Salzburg GO HERE, and you’re welcome

4 Days was a great amount of time to see Salzburg and though we could have tried to fit more attractions in (Salt Mine tour, Casino Salzburg, nearby skiing), we really enjoyed being able to spend time catching up with family and moving at a slower pace.  Salzburg was a great place to stay over Christmas and we would definitely recommend a visit even if you can only manage a quick day trip from nearby Munich or Vienna.  We checked out on Boxing Day and as the AZ Galietti’s headed Munich to fly home, we continued our trip to Innsbruck where we had no idea what was in store for us.

The Happiest December

This has been the most lovely December in recent memory for many reasons. Firstly, Tony’s work schedule has been AMAZING! The first week of December was a short work week as the country celebrated both National Day and Martyr’s Day, giving us the long weekend that allowed us to explore Istanbul, Turkey. When Tony returned to work, the school began its exam schedule which shortened his work day to 8:15 to 12:20 each day. That means he’s home even earlier than normal giving us time to work out, prepare meals, play with Matteo, and enjoy the gorgeous weather together as a family.

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“Winter Wonderland” at The St. Regist Saadiyat Island Resort. The children DESTROYED this “snow” area and had a blast! 

Abu Dhabi has its share of fun, Christmas family activities all around town (thanks to the high population expat community, Christmas decorations/music/activities are everywhere). Last week, we went to a Christmas tree lighting at one of the hotels. There was a Santa Claus, beautiful decorations, and a ton of people! More importantly, there was a roped off area full of “snow” for the little ones to play. As is typical, it took Matteo a bit to warm up to the idea of playing with other people, but he finally gave it a try and ended up having fun.

Card 2 (1)We also had our first professional photos taken since our wedding! We were able to squeeze into a local photographer’s schedule when she had a cancellation for her 30 minute, Christmas mini sessions (next year we will book in advance!). In case you were wondering, 30 minutes is a LONG time for an uncooperative three year old to do something he has no interest in being a part of. He repeatedly told us he was done and tried to get up and leave the studio. The photographer wisely started with the photos of just Matteo, and by the time we got to taking the family photos, Matteo was DONE. She ended up getting some very cute shots of Matteo, and a few of the three of us that we can work with :). Above is the image of our Christmas card — I’m not hopeful that we’ll get the final images back before we leave for our trip on Saturday, so this year will be a digital Christmas card kind of year. We were so happy with the photos that next year we vow to book a session early enough to send out physical cards!

We are now gearing up for our Austria/Germany trip. I’ve been brushing up on my high school German skills in preparation (thanks Frau Stamp, you remain the world’s best German teacher), and have taught Matteo a few German phrases (Guten Tag! Ich heisse Matteo.). It will be fun to experience two new countries and, of course, get to see one side of our family as Tony’s mom, dad, brother and sister-in-law are meeting us in Vienna. We’ve learned from our National Day weekend travel experience (CROWDS), and will be arriving at the airport earlier this go around to minimize the stress of waiting in the large line of expats leaving the UAE for the holiday break.

2015 has been a year of change and course correction for our family. It’s awesome to look back on the last 12 months and feel proud and happy –we took some big risks this past year, and I’m happy to say that they’ve paid off. We enter this Christmas season grateful for our lives; for each other, our families, Tony’s employment, and the new friends we’re making.

It’s been a very good year.