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.

 

 

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.

 

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!

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!