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Posts from the ‘Travel’ Category

Life through rosé colored glasses

I discovered the recipe for the perfect vacation:

1 part France.

1 part boat.

Mix with 6 liters of bagged wine – enjoy!

After mingling with the bros in Punta Cana last year, we opted for culture, serenity, and independence for this year’s spring vacation. Weezie and I are rabid Francophiles, so our vacation planning often goes something like this:

Reid: “We could go to the Balkans…”

Weezie: “Or France.”

Reid: “Don’t you want to go to Poland?”

Weezie: “Maybe, but we haven’t been to France in awhile.”

Reid: “I read an article that says Montenegro is absolutely beautiful and completely undiscovered.”

Weezie: “France?”

Reid: “France.”

And so we found ourselves in Port Cassafières, a small port barely a kilometer from the Mediterranean, receiving a brisk introduction to our 29-foot Cirrus B canal boat.

Cirrus B

This was to be our home for a week-long, self-drive cruise along the Canal du Midi, the canal that links the Mediterranean to the Atlantic across the southwest corner of France. After a laughably short introductory cruise and a long orientation to the galley kitchen (this is France, after all), we were wished “bon voyage” and sent on our way.

Several incredulous friends have asked, “Don’t you need a permit to pilot a boat by yourself?”

The short answer is “no”. It seems crazy, I know. If somebody tried to do this in America, you’d have to sign a disclaimer the size of a phone book and personal injury lawyers would hand you their business cards as you boarded your craft. I’ve always admired how Europeans don’t feel compelled to legislate against stupidity. And, to be honest, they’ve idiot-proofed these boats.  The hulls are festooned with rubber bumpers and the top speed is limited to a leisurely eight kilometers an hour.

For me, this vacation was a sublime blend of relaxation, physical activity, and sight-seeing. With the exception of the locks, which were nerve-wracking the first few times through, the unhurried pace, breathtaking surroundings, and fully self-supported vessel made it easy to de-stress and concentrate on enjoying the journey.

Our boat was equipped with everything necessary for a comfortable voyage, including a cozy double bed:

Cirrus B bedroom

 a bright dining and living area:

Cirrus B dining

a full galley kitchen:

Cirrus B kitchen

and a tiny, but tolerable loo:

Cirrus B bath

With our creature comforts satisfied below deck, we were free to spend our days at the outside steering position, puttering from port to port. A typical day went something like this:

Wake up.

Cruise down impossibly picturesque canal lined by allées of plane trees.

Canal du Midi

Canal du Midi

Canal du Midi

Lock up or down.

locking up

locking up 2

lock

The locks were never boring. Some locks were automatic, while others were run by lock-keepers. Occasionally, we went through alone.  More often, we were shoe-horned in with several other boats, bumping and bobbing as water rushed into (or out of) the the gates.

Eat lunch, à la française.

lunch 2

lunch 1

lunch 3

escargot

Just kidding!  We didn’t eat the snail. We did, however, eat a bunch of his buddies at a bistro in Paris. Escargot: proof that absolutely anything is edible if it’s served in a piping hot pool of butter and garlic.

 Lock up or down some more.

locking up 3

locking up 4

fonserannes

The photo above is of the back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back locks at Fonserannes, just outside Béziers. This seven step staircase lock takes your boat up or down 70 vertical feet over the course of an hour. We tackled this lock on our first full day of cruising, gazed upon by hundreds of curious, camera-toting tourists. After that trial-by-fire, every other lock seemed easy by comparison.

Take a cultural excursion.

Like a bike ride through a vineyard:

bike ride vineyard

poppy

or a tour of the the winding streets of a postcard-perfect hill town:

capestang

french village

or of a quiet canal-side village:

lesomail

or ogle the colorful buildings of a port city:

narbonne port

or hike to an awe-inspiring site like the Étang de Montady, where a bunch of overachieving 13th century monks decided it would be a good idea to drain an entire valley full of wetlands by dividing it into pie-shaped wedges that drain to a single center point:

etang de montady

or to the Malpas tunnel, excavated BY HAND over eight days in the year 1679:

malpas tunnel

Park the boat.

in a sleepy hamlet, surrounded by other boaters:

lesomail2

or in the middle of nowhere, with a view to a hill town in the distance:

sunset 1

or smack dab in the center of a bustling city:

narbonne port 2

Watch the sun set:

sunset 3

sunset 2

narbonne sunset

Repeat.

This is my happy place, at the wheel of our Cirrus B.

driving boat

New life goal: acquire a French canal boat, even if it’s this one:

sunken boat

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Five reasons to reconsider that all-inclusive vacation you’re planning

Weezie and I like to travel and we’ve managed a foreign vacation each year that we’ve been together. Until this year, our vacations were highbrow European tours that saturated us with language, culture and architecture. This year we were after something completely different, a vacation that was lower stress, required fewer decisions, and resulted in less jet lag. At the recommendation of a friend, we decided to try an all-inclusive beachside resort in the Dominican Republic, Excellence Punta Cana.

excellence punta cana

Our most stressful decision each day was “beach or pool?” (the answer was always “beach”). I’m a reluctant consumer of luxury, so it took a few days to really get the hang of all-inclusive pampering. Before leaving, I wasn’t really sure of what to expect. So, if you’re considering an all-inclusive vacation in your future, here are a few reasons you might want to reconsider:

You don’t drink.

Because when you get right down to it, for most folks, “all-inclusive” translates to: “I’ve prepaid for 500 drinks this week and I’ll be damned if I leave this place and haven’t had 501.” Barely 30 seconds elapsed from the time we arrived at the resort until we had champagne glasses thrust into our hands. And by day three, it didn’t seem strange to see people sipping cocktails out of coconuts at 8:30 in the morning. Given the daily restocks of the in-room mini-bar, the ten bars and endless drinks at meals, it’s kind of a miracle that the place hasn’t been burned down yet. Even the poolside wait staff plays along:

Waiter: “Would you like another drink, sir?”

Me: “No thanks, I’m fine for now.”

Waiter: “What, are you working tomorrow?”

Me: “Good point. Another mai-tai for me and pina colada for the missus.”

coconut drink

You suffer from middle class guilt.

95% of the other vacationers at the resort were, like us, American, white, and solidly middle-class. The Dominican staff is mainly dark-skinned, of Dominican or Haitian descent, and, presumably, poor. The class distinctions are overt. You’re left wondering what the staff thinks of Americans based on what they observe at the resort. I’ll bet “loud”, “large”, and “entitled” are among their conclusions. Given this, the they were remarkably good-natured and helpful, and we left with very positive impressions of the people of the Dominican Republic.

dominican beach

Bros.

You know the type: aggressively masculine, misogynistic, frequently drunk and determined to let you know it. Formerly isolated to the frat house, somehow bro culture has achieved cultural acceptability in mainstream society. The bro is in his natural habitat at an all-inclusive resort: there’s beach, booze, babes and most importantly, lots of other bros. The most “bro” moment of the week was when a group of said bros started a tribal chant urging the wait staff to bring them a pizza at the pool. Pure class.

palm tree beach

You’re on a diet.

By the second or third day at the resort, we realized that you didn’t have to eat three courses at every meal. Portions were epic and sometimes desserts or appetizers showed up even when you didn’t order them. Mountains of bacon at the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet set the tone each day, and 24-7 room service meant that food was never more than a phone call away.

dominican flower

Tipping makes you uncomfortable.

Turns out there are two very different points-of-view with regard to tipping at all-inclusive resorts. The first is that you should take the phrase “all-inclusive” at face value: you paid for everything, including gratuities, before you arrived and you don’t owe a penny more. The second approach is, “What’s another hundred bucks over the course of the week? The staff works hard, and it’ll benefit them more than it will me.” I started out in the first camp, but my guilty conscience quickly forced me into the second after witnessing several people leaving tips after meals. Since you don’t pay for anything at the resort, there’s no basis for determining the proper amount to tip. We settled on $1-$5 each time someone helped us out, depending on their helpfulness and attitude.

palapa

Would we vacation this way again? Maybe someday, but we’d go in the winter and take friends. For now, we’re satisfied to cross “go to an all-inclusive resort” off our bucket list and look forward to our next opportunity to travel abroad.

p.s. – For those of you who have requested more people photos on the blog, the reason they appear so infrequently is because this is what happens when we try to take a romantic selfie:

bad kiss

The 90/90 rule

I promised an update on the kitchen plumbing several weeks ago, so you might be surprised to learn that it isn’t done yet. To loosely paraphrase computer programmers’ “90/90 rule”: the first 90 percent of the plumbing work accounts for 90% of the job, and the remaining 10% of the plumbing work accounts for the other 90% of the job.

The most important pieces of the project are done: our master bath is back on line and the new water heater is doing its job. But we’re still without an upstairs guest bathroom, the gas rough-in for the range isn’t complete, and the new vent hasn’t been punched through the roof.

A handful of minor hiccups stole momentum from the project. First, they couldn’t figure out how to connect the new chrome supply lines to the clawfoot tub in the guest bath. I was given the option of buying a new set of pipes for $250 to replace the supplies that I’d already bought for $150. Frustrated, I spent 10 minutes looking at fittings in the plumbing aisle at Home Depot, bought a $3 brass part and made the pipes work. I can’t figure out why the plumbers weren’t more embarrassed when I showed them the solution.

brass bushing

Last week the roofer that the plumber hired to make the hole for the roof vent was too scared to get on our house. You read that right: a roofer, scared of a roof. Matt (the lead plumber) and I agreed that the guy was not invited back to finish the job, even if he could find the courage to do it. Now, we’re waiting to be worked into another roofer’s schedule.

Owing to a number of weighty life distractions, I haven’t been nearly as annoyed as I should be about this whole situation. And instead of dwelling on my frustration here, I’ll just leave you with some random old house porn. Weezie and I were in Winston-Salem, NC last weekend and made a quick visit to Old Salem, a Moravian village started in the 18th century. I was particularly fascinated by the Fourth House, the oldest surviving structure in the village, dating to 1768. It’s a half-timber house, with wood posts exposed to the weather – a phenomenally bad idea in the warm, wet, termite-ridden American South. And yet, because old-growth wood is amazing, it still stands.

fourth house

If you look closely, you can see roman numerals carved into the timbers that helped the carpenters keep the custom-fit joints organized when they were erecting the house.

carpenter mark

Go east, young man

When I was a young man, eastern North Carolina was the forlorn stretch of tobacco fields, Wal-Marts, and bait shops that you had to endure in order to get to the beach. I thought little of it, and certainly never imagined that there might be anything COOL there. But, when you buy a really old house, you become a really old house voyeur, and that’s done a lot to change the way I see the eastern part of the state. Our neighbors to the north and south like to take all the credit for historical significance, but North Carolina holds its own, particularly if you’re willing to venture off the beaten path.

My newfound appreciation for the region was jump-started when I met Weezie and began accompanying her on trips to Tarboro to visit her mom. It’s an enchanting place, with block after block of gorgeous homes, the only original town common outside of Boston, and some of the nicest folks you’ll ever meet.

In desperate need of a weekend away, Weezie and I spent last weekend in Edenton, another gem of a town that overlooks the Albemarle Sound. Founded in 1712, Edenton was the capital of North Carolina for several decades in the early 18th century. The town’s early significance is reflected in its stunning architecture, with fine examples of every major historical style of the past three centuries.  

Its location couldn’t be more seductive. Broad Street, the main commercial drag, dead ends at a park that overlooks the cypress stands of Albemarle Sound. There sits the Barker House, Edenton’s “living room”, with impressive double-decker side porches and commanding views of the water:

barker house

barker house porch

Nearby is the Chowan County courthouse, situated at the end of a green overlooking the same vista as the Barker House. This is the only place in the state outside of Raleigh that the North Carolina Supreme Court can hear cases:

chowan county courthouse

A few blocks in the opposite direction is the Cupola House, a quirky and endearing house with a connection to Hillsborough. Our town was first established as Corbin Town, in honor of Francis Corbin, an agent of Earl Granville.  This was his home, completed in 1758:

cupola house

West of Broad Street, close to the water are several awe-inspiring, big-money mansions. The first one pictured here, Pembroke Hall, can be yours for a cool one-point-three:

pembroke hall

italianate house

Wandering away from the waterfront, there are plenty of less imposing, but no less beautiful homes.  This one, built in 1744, gives me hope that the Ordinary House can still look good a decade from now:

edenton old house

Across the train tracks on the east side of town, the old cotton mill has been swankified as loft apartments:

edenton cotton mill

Broad Street, which impressively still supports an independent, first-run movie theater was desolate on Sunday morning – church is serious business in these parts:

broad street edenton

And just when you start to get really impressed by all this highbrow culture out in the middle of nowhere, there’s always something to remind you that, yes, you’re still in eastern NC:

camo recliner

I’ll let you know if I win.

Hvratska

Sitting in an orientation session before my freshman year at college, I clearly remember the senior advisor exhorting her wide-eyed audience to get involved in any activities or groups that interested us, even if we didn’t feel fully qualified for them. She told us how she’d never considered herself an athlete because she didn’t play sports, but then remembered that she’d been to the gym every day for three years. If that didn’t make her an athlete, she asked, what did?

I had a similar revelation recently when I realized that Weezie and I have traveled overseas together six times, and have only know each other for six years. I’ve never considered myself a “traveler”, but I think we’re both deserving of the title with so many miles under our belts. Since 2007, we’ve been to the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, France twice and now Croatia (or, Hvratska, as the locals call it), Slovenia and Bosnia.

We’re low-maintenance travelers (no zip-off pants, jammy packs or checked luggage for us), and we get a little better at at it each time we fly away. This year we learned that when we rent a car, things go more smoothly when we’re being guided by a brilliant offline GPS app for smart phones called CoPilot Live HD. On other trips, I’ve had the road atlas thrown at me on more than one occasion after taking the second exit off the roundabout instead of the third (a tip for future honeymooners: sit on the beach).

The best thing about travel is that it rewards you three times: before the trip with excited anticipation, during it with new experiences, and afterwards with good memories. And time away from home makes you appreciate what you have there. This was our first trip since we’ve lived in Hillsborough and though we would’ve gladly hung around in Slovenia for a few more days (weeks, months…), coming back to our beautiful little town and the Ordinary House made reentry into the real world a little bit easier.

While I’m not able to share all 600 of the photos I took, here’s a brief overview of where we went, with some visuals to prove it.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

Fun fact: When you order “small fried fish” in Croatia, you’re actually ordering a bucket of fried minnows – see below.

Dubrovnik is well-deserving of its nickname, “Pearl of the Adriatic”. Ringed by 14th century ramparts and paved with marble tiles polished to a shine by visitors’ footsteps, the town draws mobs of tourists from far and wide. If anything, Dubrovnik’s success is also its greatest liability. We learned that there are only around 2,000 year-round residents remaining, and that the population within the town’s walls can grown by more than 10,000 people each day in the summer when cruise ship passengers arrive from their vessels. Even in early May before the summer crush, the crowds were sometimes overwhelming. But the delicious gelato, a cliffside bar called ‘Buza’, and sublime Mediterranean weather made for a fine time nonetheless. We stayed in an apartment in the Old City instead of one of the soulless resort-style hotels that line the nearby peninsula. The only giveaway that this place was at war and under siege only 22 years ago are the new clay roof tiles that top the buildings. Dubrovnik is well worth a visit and is an easy-going introduction to the Balkans.

dubrovnik street

stradun

minnows

Mostar, Bosnia

Fun fact: To entertain tourists, speedo-clad young men dive from the peak of the Stari Most bridge that spans the Neretva river in the middle of the old town, but only after they’ve collected enough “donations” to boost their courage.

In pursuit of some cultural spice and a semi-exotic visa stamp (which we didn’t get), we detoured into Bonia on our way to our next stop in Croatia. While Dubrovnik’s war damage is nearly imperceptible, it’s all around in Mostar. Shells of bombed out buildings and facades riddled with bullet holes stand only blocks away from the historic center. The main attraction in Mostar is the arched stone Stari Most bridge, destroyed in spectacular fashion during the Bosnian war, but recently rebuilt using the same materials and techniques as in ancient times. Minarets and calls to prayer make Mostar’s Muslim population obvious. The town outside the center is dull and obviously struggling. The border crossing back into Croatia was extremely long and seemed to demonstrate the lingering distrust that exists between the Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. Despite this delay, I’m glad we made the trip.

stari grad

war damage

Split, Croatia

Fun fact: Much of old town Split (pronounced ‘spleet’) is actually contained within the remnants of the Roman emperor Diocletian’s retirement palace.

We didn’t leave enough time to explore Split properly, especially since we spent an hour chasing down our hotel receptionist who was having wine with friends at the cafe around the corner. (Note to hoteliers: never, ever close reception and leave a note for your guests to call you at a local number (which requires a calling card and a pay phone) and then tell them to wait while you finish your wine. Ever. It makes those guests VERY grumpy.) While Dubrovnik is something of a museum, Split is a living city built in and around a Roman emperor’s retirement palace. It has a decidedly more cosmopolitain feel than Dubrovnik and is Croatia’s second most populous city after Zagreb. The sea front promenade is abuzz after dark, making it a fun place to hang out in the evening. Even so, this was probably our least favorite stop of the trip.

split promenade

Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

Fun fact: The first shots of Croatia’s war for independence from Yugoslavia were fired at the Plitvice Lakes when a man shot the park’s police officer.

Plitvice is not near anything, but it’s worth driving out of the way to see. A series of lakes that spill into one another in spectacular fashion, this natural wonder has picturesque views at every turn and feels like something out of a Lord of the Rings movie set. Like Dubrovnik, it’s a victim of its own success and is overrun by tourists. Narrow wooden walkways that arc over, around and sometimes through the water give you up close and personal views of the lakes, but make it possible to get stuck behind a slow-moving pack of German tourists who act like they’ve never seen a fish before. We followed the “short” loop, which took around three  hours, but went past most of the significant natural highlights. If you go to Plitvice, I’d recommend staying in the area the night before and devoting a solid half day or more to exploration.

plitvice

boardwalk

Piran, Slovenia

Fun fact: Piran’s main square (Tartinijev trg) used to be part of the town’s marina, until it began to smell like poo and was filled in.

Piran was our consensus favorite stop of the trip. A tiny town on a peninsula that juts into the Adriatic, it’s the jewel of Slovenia’s short 30 km stretch of coastline. It felt like the Riviera, particularly given the Italian influences in the architecture, but only if that Riviera was run by Germans. The Slovenians seem industrious by European standards. We actually witnessed the closure of a restaurant at 9:30 on a Friday night, which is appetizer time across the Adriatic. Piran’s core is a delightful medieval maze that spills onto the main square, the marina and the seaside promenade that rings the town. Piran is small, and you can walk from one end of town to the other in 15 minutes or so. It has a laid-back vibe that made it easy to relax and enjoy the spring sunshine. Our B&B lent us bikes which we rode through the adjacent tourist town of Portoroz, sort of a Slovenian Myrtle Beach, and further to the Piran salt flats. Here, workers flood low-lying fields in the summer, letting the sun evaporate the water and harvesting the salt left behind by hand. The town provided a needed spot of relaxation in our admittedly ambitious itinerary.

piran marina

piran back street

piran square

Julian Alps, Slovenia

Fun fact: During World War I, Ernest Hemingway drove an ambulance in these mountains, which was the front line for vicious fighting.

I’m a sucker for a good mountain, so we took the scenic route to our next stop, Lake Bled, by way of the Julian Alps, Slovenia’s small corner of that famous mountain range. We crossed the Vršič Pass, the highest pass in the country, which had only just opened for the warm months. The winding road to the peak has 48 hairpin turns that lead to ever more spectacular scenery as it skirts around Slovenia’s highest peak, Mt. Triglav, named for it’s three distinct peaks. The south side of the pass was sunny and scenic, but the temperature nose-dived as we climbed, and by the top there were snow banks taller than our car piled at the road’s edge. Colorful poles line the road to help plow drivers find the road in inclement weather. The backside of the mountain was stormy and cold, but no less picturesque. Apparently this road was built by Russian POWs in WWI, and there’s a small onion-domed wood church on the way down that commemorates a group of them that were killed in an avalanche. While less impressive than Swiss or Austrian Alps, these mountains were well-worth a three hour detour.

IMG_0538

vrsic pass

Lake Bled, Slovenia

Fun fact: Slovenian grooms run their brides up the long set of stairs on the island in Lake Bled to prove their worthiness for marriage.

We generally find Rick Steves’ guidebooks to be reliable in their assessment of various European destinations, but Weezie and I both felt like Lake Bled was significantly overhyped. Yes, it’s beautiful, and no, you shouldn’t miss it on a trip to Slovenia, but we only derived a half day’s entertainment from the place. The lake is guarded by a castle and set against the backdrop of the nearby Alps with a fairytale-like island in the middle. The three hour hike around the lake inspires you to take a picture of the same view every 50 meters or so. The surrounding town is mostly dominated by pensions and B&Bs for vacationing Europeans and adds little to the visit. The highlight was our trip to the church-topped island. We elected to avoid the traditional gondola ride, and got there under our own power using a rented rowboat. Once the vendor reminded me that you can’t row facing the front of the boat, we got underway and found ourselves at the island’s shore within 20 minutes, despite my cringe-inducing rowing form. Weezie gave it a try on the return trip, and I’m certain that plenty of Japanese tourists are sitting at home giggling at their pictures of the little white girl being forced to row her man across the lake. Lake Bled is probably best when used as a jumping-off point for outdoor adventures in the nearby mountains.

bled island

rugged

weezie rows

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Fun fact: They say that the tails of the dragons on Ljubljana’s famous Dragon Bridge wiggle when a virgin crosses it.

The town with the name that no English speaker has ever gotten right on the first try (L-yoo-blee-ahna), Ljubljana is like a miniature Vienna, not surprising since it was under Hapsburg rule for centuries. It’s minuscule compared to other European capitals, but that makes it easy to digest in a day or two. The town center has been beautifully pedestrianized by its former mayor, and the city’s best activity is to wander the side streets and roads lining the river. The sprawling modern part of town is uninspiring and there is little in the way of museums, so the pouring rain made it a little difficult to entertain ourselves after awhile. The best thing we did was the “free” tour of Ljubljana, led by an English-speaking guide with an encyclopedic and entertaining knowledge of her hometown. Though the tour is free, it’s good enough that you’ll want to donate a decent sum by the end of it.  The morning of our departure, we took a breakneck shuttle ride to the laughably small airport and began our three leg journey home.

ljubljana street

triple bridge

All in all, the Balkan countries seem to have mostly shaken off their ugly past and have as much to offer as any of their Western European counterparts. We both look forward to a return visit, mainly to explore more of Croatia’s stunning coastline. And that, folks, is where we’ve been and why you haven’t heard much about house projects lately.

couple in piran