Friday, August 31, 2018

Vegas - Aug. 31


We started our Friday in Vegas at the Venetian as many do (apparently) - a little morning at the gym. I used some knowledge from my personal trainer to build a workout (including a whole host of equipment), but then Alisa and I just hung out and stretched in the sitting area of our room when we interrupted the cleaning staff.
It was my job, as Alisa showered, to pick where we were going to brunch. Given that it was a Friday, we had slightly fewer options, but Giada's, at the Cromwell Hotel, did a Friday brunch with mimosas. (And the menu looked good too.)

We took a taxi there - only four blocks away, but the blocks are deceptively long in Vegas, and we were hungry! (Not optimal, because we had to take two lefts to get there, but our feet didn't hurt at all!)

We waited a few minutes in their small foyer with Giada's books on display (she's a Food Network star, known for her Italian). We got a flatbread pizza (and mimosas) and a savory and a sweet dish to split... and then I saw the "build your own brownie" and got a second dessert.

While we were enjoying our meal, we happened to overhear our neighbors talking about their day(s) in Vegas, and we started engaging them to hear their stories. They were on their regular anniversary trip, taking in the food and the sights (and not a lot of gambling). Yes, they were enjoying the food as much as we were. No, they were probably not enjoying as many mimosas as we were, but they were very kind to walk with us partially back to the Venetian - unknown if it was because they were enjoying our company or betting if we could even make it back.

We got back to our 17th floor (or so) room and passed out. We slept (purposefully) through dinner reservations, but we did get up slightly before needing to get to the Bellagio for our show. I tried to put everything I needed in Australia in my checked bag, and everything I needed for Hawaii in my shoulder bag. Punchdrunk from a nap and still with champagne in my system, we headed to "O".

Alisa got us amazing seats - the folds of the curtain all the way to the expressions of the acrobats as they tumbled through the air, plunging into the watery stage. The "borks" of the clown and his love story; the ghoulish cast that followed the spindly legged emcee; the strong men and women that climbed and swung and dove and disappeared underwater and made me think about stage construction and magic while chowing down on popcorn - it was a great, great show.

And, again, we were fooled by what looked like a short walk to get back to our hotel. We flowed along with the mob, up and down escalators over the streets below. The half mile took forty-five minutes at our barely strolling pace.

Thankfully, I had packed, because we ran up to the room, I grabbed my stuff, hugged Alisa, and hopped in a cab to the airport.

With about 90 minutes before my flight, I was at the counter, ready to check my bags, when the attendant asked me about a visa. Embarassingly, I had done no research as to how to actually get into Australia's borders. Though the flight was through Hawaii (so I had another few hours to obtain a visa, in my book), they wanted one before I got my ticket.

Thankfully, they knew the web address where I could apply for one and (usually) get it nearly instantaneous. "Be careful," they cautioned, "and make sure you double-check your passport number and other details." So I meticulously used my phone to type out all my details. Seconds passed, and I got a confirmation email.

Minutes passed, and the airline workers couldn't see my visa. We waited and refreshed a couple times. On the fourth look, they finally realized they had put in my passport number incorrectly! One digit later, my bag was checked and I was able to pass right on through security.

I don't remember if I had time to get to the lounge and grab a snack, but I was on the plane and off to Hawaii and that's what mattered.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Grand Canyon brunch, Lake Powell, and Valley of Fire before Vegas - Aug. 30

We had until 11am on Thursday to check out, so we started with a bit of a walk before a planned brunch just before (or just after) check out. 
When we had seen the Bright Angel Trail from the viewpoints along the rim, we saw a tunnel drilled into a rock not too far down the trail. According to the sign when we got there, the Upper Bridge was .2 miles down the canyon. We could handle that!
We walked down, posed, posed, walked up to a bench, sat and looked out at the canyon, then headed to the photography exhibit of two brothers that put the Grand Canyon on the map. 
It had the portable boat they’d bring down, some of the footage they shot, and the camera and projector they used in the early days of the canyon. They also helped collect the toll for the trail down the canyon, before the Park Service took that over. Their house was just hanging off the edge of the canyon!
The Grand Canyon Village in general was built before the Park Service came in, by entrepreneurs trying to coax the rail in. 
We headed back to El Tovar for breakfast. I had this southwestern mix of foods on a crispy tortilla, but the cinnamon roll was definitely my favorite. 
The breakfast was creeping into our checkout time. We had already put our big suitcases in the car, but I went up to grab our smaller suitcases. When we loaded them into the car to head out, the tire pressure light was on. 
I knew there was a repair shop at the Village - Alisa hopped out and none of the tires was noticeably flat, so we decided to wait until the gas station just outside the south entrance to the park. 
The tires on the car were different from the pressures listed inside the door, so we filled it up, but not enough for the light to go off. Oh well, we were returning the car that night. Just had to get it back to Vegas. 
Our return trip had us crossing a bridge over the Hoover Dam. We stopped for a photo on one side, but the 100-degree heat stopped us from walking to the visitors center. Instead, we decided to take the walk along the bridge overlooking it. 
The heat didn’t play a factor once we got near the bridge because the crazy wind was extremely cooling - and pretty disorienting for me. I don’t like it when wind and height mix. So we got a third of the way along the long bridge, with me clinging to my phone, sunglasses, and hat, and I decided to kneel down for a peek over the edge. That was good enough for me!
We had a few hours yet before we had to drop off the car (since we had picked it up at 11pm), so we looked along the route for things to do. I remember enjoying the Valley of Fire when I was here five or so years ago, so we added that to the directions. 
It just so happened that the most direct route was through Lake Powell recreational area - which meant I got to use my National Parks Pass again!
I really wanted to see the desert foxes that were on a sign when we turned off for pictures, but we just saw a lot of patches of grass on dry, dry ground and a lot of speeding cars.
The Valley of Fire was a state park, but we didn’t have cash in the right amounts to leave it in the cash box, since we were after hours. We couldn’t find the credit card machine at the locked up visitors center, so we just risked it. As we were driving around, we found a herd of mountain sheep! They were grazing and chilling, and I was so excited. We drove past them like three times as we were trying to get the pass to the park sorted out. The final time, I nearly got us stuck in the red sand shoulder. It made sense why all of the signs said to not pull over. 
We backtracked, once we determined that we couldn’t pay, to the Seven Sisters. Alisa walked around the first one and was asked to leave by a couple that was doing a marriage ceremony. Cool, I guess, but it’s also a public park?
We took a bunch of pictures of our sweaty selves before continuing on the petroglyphs there. While we climbed up the metal staircase, Alisa spotted a hare. I scoured, but still couldn’t find a desert fox that might be stalking it. 
After a scenic drive along a gravel road, we headed out of the park and toward Vegas. The sun was setting as we entered the valley, and Air Force jets were doing maneuvers. 
The Venetian valet-parked our rental car as we got upstairs. Our bags hadn’t gotten there, but I was ready for a shower, and they had great plush robes. I got out in time to tip the busboy, change, then head to drop off the car. The mileage counter rolled over to 800 miles - 800 miles by me in three days!
It was shockingly seamless to drop it off, after grabbing gas. An Uber ride back, and I was ready for dinner. We had gotten Venetian coupon books on the plane, and one of the restaurants know for its “crazy shakes” had a free shake with purchase. Alisa had only brought down one coupon, thinking we’d share it... I went back upstairs to grab mine. We had to sign up for the Venetian rewards club, but between the shake and free $25 gambling, it was worth it. 
I got the cookie-inspired shake, which included an entire ice cream sandwich in it. Alisa got the peanut butter one, which was dripping with M&Ms. 
So, feeling gross and full, we decided to go gamble. Alisa was ready for her slots. I had chosen table games, so I spent some time reading up on craps while she turned $25 of fake money into $60 of real money by gambling $5 at a time and quitting when she was ahead. 
We got to the craps table and I was ready with my cash and my voucher. Thankfully, because I had to bet the same as my voucher, my first bet passed and I got $50 back in chips. 
We stuck around for a free drink (mine was a terrible margarita), then I took my $60 in chips and turned it in. My $40 that I had put in plus the $25 from the casino - I didn’t break even if you count the fake money, but I really got $20 more dollars. 
And with that, it was midnight in Vegas, and it was bedtime. 

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Grand Canyon National Park - Aug. 29

On Wednesday, we awoke past sunrise, so no canyon in the golden light. We could handle that for a good night’s sleep (finally).
We decided to eat the snacks and produce for breakfast before going out for both lunch and dinner. Having three meals out felt expensive and unnecessary. 
I wrote out the time and subject for all of the ranger talks for the day on our map. At 9am, not far away, was a fossil talk. Not a bad way to start the day! I was also very excited for a condor talk later in the day, and I immediately tried to ID all the turkey vultures as condors. 
The fossil talk met at the Bright Angel Trailhead. Having read all of Marguerite Henry’s books, I was familiar with the trail because of “Brighty of the Grand Canyon” - another reason I was also excited to see the mule paddocks at some point. 
Our ranger told us the lightning storms were bad and to take covers, and he was the first to teach us the “rule of thumb.” If you can’t fully cover up the animal you are looking at when you line it up with your thumb, fully extended, you are too close - for ground squirrels and for elk. 
We heard about the layers of the canyon, and that we were on old sea bed. He let us loose on some rock shelves with identification guides, and Alisa and I found shells and the burrows of tunneling creatures. Success! We could be paleontologists. 
I asked the ranger how to identify condors before we left for a walk along the canyon. Condors have white along the top of their wing, then black along their flight feathers. A turkey vulture is much smaller and has black underneath along the bone of their wing and white at the edge. 
Equipped with that knowledge, we started walking along the “Trail of Time.” We were walking uphill, yet each little trail marker had a later and later time period, in millions of years. What is crazy is that the canyon documents half of the world’s history - nearly three billion years!
We stopped at the first two lookouts along the “Red” bus line by walking before taking advantage of the bus. At roughly the third lookout, we climbed down a set of stairs to be along an outcropping, inside the canyon. What comes soaring beneath us but a condor!
My regret from this day is that we were close enough to read the numbers on its tag, but we didn’t write them down! I thought, afterwards, it was 27. Alisa thought it was 70-something. I did snap a picture though!
We continued along most of the stops of the tram. One stop was just three benches, and everyone else who jumped out immediately jumped back in the bus. Alisa and I got to enjoy the canyon alone for the ten minutes before the next bus. 
We hopscotched along the south rim of the canyon like this until reaching Hermit’s Rest just after noon. While we walked past other buildings by our lodge, the name Mary Colter had stood out as an architect whose stone-driven style I enjoyed. And here was another of her creations, emerging from the rock like it grew there. 
There was just a snack counter, no cafeteria to speak of, so we popped into the gift shop, hit the head, then took the tram ride back to the Bright Angel trailhead. In looking at the description of the restaurants in the Village, we liked the sounds of the Arizona Room. When we found it, attached to the Bright Angel Lodge, it was very different than the upscale description. The kitchen was exposed, like in a cafe, and the decor was kind of old and sad. The food wasn’t great, but the people watching along the canyon rim was fun. 
Fun fact - everything “Bright Angel” was named after a stream that the explorers had seen emerging from the side of the canyon... like a Bright Angel?
We hadn’t visited the official visitors center yet, and a tram stop right outside got us on the right line to ride there. I saw the mules in their pens from the bus and was satisfied. 
The bus driver told us that a twenty minute movie showed at the top and bottom of every hour. At 4:30, there was a geology talk, so I wanted to see if we could make that as well. So we risked it and sat down for a watch. There were grand vistas and a deep narrator, and I’m sure that when I was watching it, I learned and enjoyed it...
But, on to geology. We hopped on a bus and made it to the museum, where our geologist ranger was just hanging out. She walked us 400 yards down the canyon, and we sat at an amphitheater and talked about the swampy layer and the shallow ocean layer and the creatures that have been discovered in each. We walked back to the geology museum for a quick look around. 
With that learning done, it was time to walk back to the visitor’s center. The overlooks on the canyon in the late afternoon light were stunning, so we got very distracted taking pictures. Before I realized it, we were going to be late for the condor talk back at the Village!
We got back, hopped on a bus, and it just so happened that that bus passed an elk and her calf! More great wildlife!
That made up for the fact that we were fifteen minutes late to the talk, but there was still 45 minutes of answering questions and story-telling. The ranger had a book from the library about condors and their captive breeding program and reintroduction. Passages about watching a young condor plunge from the nest and just barely recover to prevent a crash landing. About the first egg in captivity. And about seeing them back in the wild. 
Afterward, we told her that we’d seen a tagged bird, and she showed us the sheet with the numbers. There was no number 27! We guessed at another number (23? 73?) and I just took a picture of the whole sheet. Opportunity lost. 
We hung out on the rim outside El Tovar for sunset, which wasn’t as spectacular as the day before (and we missed out on multi-tasking with happy hour at the same time). Alisa went off to buy a puzzle, and I went back for a change and a phone charge before our dinner reservation. 
The dining room was old wood and antler chandeliers. It was gorgeous, and a bottle of red wine was definitely on the table - literally?
Just after we ordered, a critter started running around the beams. It was like a red panda! I forget the name of the creature, but apparently three of them live in the attic and pop out for dinner service to ask for people to share. They get shooed back up along the rafters. 
We had salads and shared a super good cheese plate, because on the way in was the table of desserts. 
I was so torn on which dessert I wanted, but settled on the flourless chocolate cake. I nearly gave up - it was so rich and delicious.
It was our final night in that one bed - again, fat and happy so, thankfully again, slept well and didn’t disturb each other. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Glen Canyon Float Trip - Aug. 28



We had calculated it at least three times the night before, but we had to make sure we could actually leave at 9am and get to the Glen Canyon Raft Trip along the Colorado at 9:15 after a 75-minute drive - but yes, that’s how we did it. 
I booked the lodge because it said it had breakfast. Well, it had packaged croissants and coffee. So we left for Wilderness Adventures. 
Now that it was light outside, it was amazing to drive around. We pulled off a few times for photos, including down a dirt road where a dog barked its head off at us. We didn’t stay long there. 
Once we got to the address, we drove all around the building before we found the front for checkin. I used my National Parks Pass (whoo!) and we got the run down. It’ll be hot, but the water is freezing, so don’t expect to swim. There will be beaches for swimming, but your stuff will stay dry. 
We had plenty of time before the meeting time, so we headed to the gas station for snacks. Alisa also had her bag of vegetables from her farmshare that she made into snack bags of green beans, peppers, and tomatoes.
They couldn’t find record of me requesting a veggie lunch for Alisa, but, after we went through security (because the dam needs similar security to an airport - who knew) and got on the bus, they found one to switch hers out with. 
The bus took all the passengers for the day’s activities at one time, so we didn’t know yet who was on our boat. To get down to the boat landing, the bus took a road through the cliff along the side of the downriver part of the dam - it was actually used for transportation when the dam was being built as well. The bus driver said it would take us five minutes; it took us nearly exactly five minutes in the darkness. Every fifteen seconds, a light would flash - these were the holes leading sideways out from the tunnel into the canyon. We slowed down at one halfway down to see... not much. Kinda the other wall of the canyon. 
Once we got down below the dam and the suspension bridge that crosses it, we were given hard hats for the 100 yards down to the boat. Essentially, if anything came flying off the bridge, they wanted our heads protected. 
We all made it to the boats with no concussions, and Alisa and I were sent to the boat with just six others, and our 27-year-old captain, Andrew. The other passengers were all traveling together from Missouri - we got to know each other by the end of the day. 
Given that these boats can fit over twenty people, it was luxurious how much we could spread out. It was our own tanning bed while seeing the views.
First, we got a brief history of the dam. It was started in 1956. Blah blah. The interesting part to me was that there was important equipment at the bottom of the dam that they didn’t want a rock slide to crush, so they drive bolts into the side of the canyon flanking the dam to ensure nothing falls. Those that do that job swing around on rappel lines!
Being down in the canyon seriously warped our sense of perspective. At one point, Andrew pointed out a chunk in the rock above us that was football fields tall! Crazy. 
The wildlife in the canyon was fun to spot. Not fifteen minutes into the tour, I spotted a roadrunner! It was odd but not unheard of down in the canyon. 
The more typical fauna were ducks. Merganser ducks specifically had very pronounced stripes on their head. A few heron flew through and stalked their fish. Rainbow trout was the majority, and we could see them, the water was so clear. Another type of fish, though, is not loving the river since it’s been dammed. Primarily, the temperature of the river. Since the water comes from the bottom of the lake, it is a brisk 47 degrees - not ideal for this fish. 
Also changing the habitat were invasive trees that held the river banks together and also sucked up tons and tons of water. The Fish and Wildlife Service introduced a beetle to help quell their numbers - but I’m just thinking now that beetle is going to have ripple effects. 
Andrew told us the story of Powell, the first white explorer of the canyon. He went down it twice - and he was missing an arm! (We found out later it was only a hand, but still.)
We pulled over to the side of the canyon for a water break - water that was clean enough for drinking had been filtered through the layers of the canyon and was coming out in a natural spout for all of us to try. 
Afterwards, we pulled over to a beach. After staring at our boxes from Subway for two hours, we were all ready to dig in. Post-subs, Andrew took us up to petroglyphs from natives found in the canyon. They had stick figures of important people, and the mountain sheep they had hunted. The Park Service built a wall to keep visitors back from the edge of the canyon, which changed the wind pattern, removing another few inches of dust and sand and exposing more sheep. They aren’t going to do a dig on this site because the drawings are more protected if they are still buried. 
One of the reasons is because they can’t get defaced. He showed us where “Trent” had written his name over the thousand-year-old masterpiece. Trent had been kayaking alone down the river, and one of the guides had seen the tag after he came through. They radioed it in, and officers asked for a Trent at the takeout point. Thinking he must have won something for solo kayaking, he quickly volunteered himself - for a $10,000 fine and hundreds of hours of community service. Some German teens had also defaced it, and they had to answer for their crime or else never be allowed in the US again. They took these crimes seriously - thankfully!
Only one of our boat opted in for a dip at that beach. 
After lunch, we continued down the canyon. Andrew showed us where a sluice (channel) had been carved out from the rock for panning for gold. 
We came upon a pinnacle, and our entire group of adults agreed it looked like a middle finger. Andrew is supposed to ignore that pinnacle with school groups. 
The second beach was just across from a high wall which made an impressive echo. It was here that I decided to take the plunge, and I hopped in for a single, brief, breath-taking shoulders-under second. It was refreshing once I wasn’t in the water anymore, but I had to wait to dry off to apply my fifth coat of sunscreen. The boat did not have a roof. 
Speaking of echoes, Andrew said that one of the ways they measured the distance of the canyon was by shooting a pistol near the end of our tour. That shot took 24 seconds to echo back. 
We rounded Horseshoe Bend (which, based on Instagram, looks better from the top of the canyon, but we didn’t make it to that lookout).
Side canyons would cause rubble in the main channel when they flooded or had rock slides, and that was what caused rapids. We had a “Class .5” as Andrew put it as our only occurrence of that. 
As we rounded the last bend, the walls of the canyon sloped down to land on either side. To our left was a small group of wild horses - more fun critters!
To our right, after we peered down into the water, was a boiler from a sunken ship. That was our last attraction before getting to the dock at Lee’s Ferry and looking for our bus. 
Alisa and I took a bathroom break that also got us out of the scorching sun, and, when we got out, they had discovered that our bus was now a shuttle, and we were ready for the 30-40 minute trip back. 
I definitely feel asleep on that one. 
It was time, now, to drive to the Grand Canyon! Our snacks would last us through the three hours to the entrance station. 
It was twenty minutes before sunset when we arrived at the east entrance gate. The ranger wisely guided us to the Tower for a sunset view. We grabbed our sweaters (first time we’d needed them) and joined the crowds sitting along the outcropping to the canyon to watch the colors change within and above the canyon. 
Great, a sunset, but now we were hungry. Grand Canyon Village was another 45 minutes into the park, and we stopped at the Tavern, the first restaurant we saw in there. It was cafeteria-style, and we found enough food to satisfy. 
With that, we found the parking lot closest to our hotel, El Tovar, and after spending a few minutes trying to determine if an end cap was a spot, someone came to move their car and we grabbed theirs. 
The hotel was majestic at night - a wide front porch with a parked roof just visible. We hauled our bags up the six steps to the lobby, which had giant wooden beams and animal heads. A rustic look, with leather chairs and old carpets with large, beige and brown patterns.
Our room was on the third floor, and we definitely had the bellhop lug our luggage up (and tipped him too - prepping for Vegas meant I actually had cash!) The pro - the bathroom was up-to-date. The con - it was one double bed.
Good thing we were (mostly) too tired to care.

Monday, August 27, 2018

DC -> Vegas -> Arizona - Aug. 27

I didn’t make this vacation easy on myself. Besides starting to lead a team not two weeks before leaving, I also was finishing up career reviews for my advisees at work. And those reviews had to be delivered Monday - the day that I left.
So I cleared my calendar and had one breakfast and two lunch meetings - plenty of food to start the trip off with. Afterwards, I went home and met Alisa for the drive to airport. Except that I had forgotten a key for my coworker and dogsitter Alex to pick up Ellie, so we had to swing by work one more time. 
The airport parking shuttle took about ten minutes to swing by to pick us up - during which we attempted to stay in the shade, but the humidity and heat index still caused us to sweat. 
Because we were flying super basic economy, but also because I had a United card, we couldn’t carry on a large bag, but we could check one. Done. 
We found the Turkish Airlines lounge as the only open lounge at Dulles, and we ate cheese and drank wine while we waited. 
The plane was delayed leaving and arriving in Vegas, so we tried to optimize once we got to the airport by sending Alisa after the bags and me after the rental car. Cars in Vegas are expensive, so I went with Fox Rentals. When I searched for it in Google Maps, it only had 1.5 stars. 
The two shuttles to get there lined up ok, just each took another ten minutes to get farther from the airport. Once I made it to the front of the not long but very slow line, the customer service rep spent another ten minutes bouncing between two computers to get the agreement for the car. 
I was given a choice of three on the lot, and I chose the one that had a USB outlet that I could see. It also had a lot of stains on the seats...
I picked up Alisa and the luggage. I was hoping we could get a little further down the road before food, but the delays (and the lack of any substantial towns along our route) meant we stopped at Tacos and Beer and got nachos. I tried jackfruit for the first time - awesome but weird but awesome. Just like pulled meat. 
And with that, we were on the road. We chatted for the first hour, then the dreariness set in. The second hour was a lot of twitching to stay awake and singing along to whatever we had downloaded (because internet wasn’t easy to come by). The three hour drive put us along the Arizona/Utah border, so we jumped in and out a few times before settling in to Utah - which has time an hour different than Arizona where our canyon adventure tomorrow was. 
We pulled up to Aiken’s Lodge at 2am (which was at least 4am DC time), and fell out of the car into our room. The AC in the back was so loud, I thought I wouldn’t be able to sleep, so I turned on ours for an additional cacophony of white noise and promptly passed out. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Portugal - March 14-20, 2018

After landing in  Lisbon, we waited what felt like a long time for our bags, then took a car to our hotel. The streets were tiny and, despite being a Wednesday, there were certainly people out.

Thursday (the 15th), I did a morning walk to the nearby convent Carmo - now a museum on a giant hill, but a great view over the city (that didn't face the sea). Mark got back early, so we walked down to the main square by the sea. We had to compare Portuguese wine with Italian wine, so we stopped by a wine tasting bar on the square. After adding Euros to a card, we slotted it in above different types of wine to try them. Mark got his first taste of port in Portugal! We did Rick Steve's walking tour around the area - saw different churches and learned about the central planning of Lisbon, before avoiding the line and taking the tall stairs back up to our hotel's village. We had some light food at the old beer hall Alisa and I went to - great mosaics on the wall. As we poked around. we found a little market at the top of streetcar street that had a good view, but was mostly closed.

For dinner, to try a neighborhood I hadn't been to, we walked away from the old city along Avenida Liberdade - much more north than Alisa and I had ventured - to find a recommended (guess what) seafood restaurant. But it was homey and delicious too! Plaid table clothes, giant wooden blocks of fish, and affordable wine - a great example of Europe.

Friday, with Mark partially off work, we took the opportunity to go visit the cute small neighboring town of Belem. My favorite part of Belem, as we had already tried, were the pastels de Belem - the egg custards I'd already had nearly every day. But there was more to Belem than the patisserie. Our cab driver recommended that we check out Cascais, but he couldn't recommend a place for lunch, so we started with lunch in a no-frills restaurant's covered porch. The french fries were surprising - I can no longer remember if they were surprisingly good or bad, but we added wine, because that's the right call regardless.

Once we attempted to get into the site-seeing part, we were met with an odd rain cloud. It was ominous as we watched giant waves hitting the old lighthouse - which was really more like a tower at the edge of the ocean. The line was pretty long, and the wooden walkway to the tower island, while short, was getting hit with some of the high waves. We watched a few distracted tourists get their feet soaked, and decided it wasn't the line for us.

As we headed along to the Monument to Discovery, the raincloud burst. We dodged some of the worst of it by popping into a waterside cafeteria, thinking we could get gelato... but, instead, we found a steamy crowd and decided to stick with the now-calmer rain to book it toward the monument.

We made it to the entrance for the Monument to Discovery - Henry the Navigator's multi-story statue and museum. The museum part was about creepy medical discoveries and experiments - maybe brought on by the fact that the Portuguese were sailing around? Anyway, by the time we were done with that, the sun came out and we could emerge on the top to see the April 24th Bridge (looks like the Golden Gate) and the channel out to the Atlantic.

We took a look at the Jeronimos Monastery. The cloister had gorgeous architecture underneath a now blue sky with white puffy clouds. We saw the kitchen, the dining hall, and so forth, but really, the inner courtyard, with its gargoyles, was the best part.

As we were leaving, we exited through the gift shop. Taking a peek around, Mark found a Portuguese board game - Caravelas. Not wanting to get weighed down too early, we passed... for the moment.

Next was the naval and archaeology museum next door. All the ships for Mark to wallow in. With a long hall of history, a long hall of miniatures, and an airport hanger full of restored ships, we saw plenty in a short amount of time. That gift shop was also very nice, but only had the second of the Caravelas games. We stopped back by the Monastery gift shop to pick up Mark's souvenir.

Finally, finally, it was time for hot chocolate and pastels de nata, at Pateis de Belem. We got lucky again - the line was long but not unreasonable, but when the rain appeared again, we were happy to already be in line. One Uber ride, dodging the rain to jump in, and we were back to our hotel.

Since fado is uniquely Portuguese, we signed up for a (slightly expensive) meal with singing. The operatic but mournful, almost yodeling quality alternated between a few singers while we savored a bottle of wine and a few courses. Near the end, we got to chatting with our neighbors - from Germany, but the daughter studying abroad in Lisbon. We cheers-ed, then walked along the cobblestones back to our hotel on the square.

Saturday, March 17th, was St. Patrick's Day. I looked up festivities, but the options in English were pretty limited. We walked downhill to Time Out Market - a great hall with a market, but the main focus was a food hall. Some of the famous restaurateurs in Lisbon opened outposts here. We got our food, wandered among tables for seats, people-watched, but we were generally much more mellow than the crowded vibe of the place.

We peeked into one of the two Irish bars right by the food hall. The first was one long room, pretty packed to the gills, so we continued to the multi-story (but no less crowded, just more navigable). With no good place to stand, we decided to head back to our neighborhood.

A few streets down from our hotel was another bar - showing some Irish rugby and much less crowded than near sea level.

It was a rainy night, so after some wandering, ended up back at our second hotel, and played some Caravalas. I lost horribly (also, as in, I was a horrible loser). We tried out a trendy new restaurant. Mark loved his mixed drink, the food was exquisite, and it might have made up for me being dramatic earlier.

First up on Sunday was to see the old city on the hill, specifically, Castelo de San Jorge. We hiked up through the windy streets, narrow and cobblestoned. We peeked into a cathedral on the way up - partially to catch our breath, partially because it was free art and architecture.

The castle was as great as I remembered. Extensive grounds, peacocks and cats, a great view over the city and channel, then stone walls to climb up to and play on! Stairs everywhere! Trading turret pictures with Mark while dodging puddles!

On the recommendation of our taxi driver to Belem, we decided to take a train out to Cascais. It is much easier to be spontaneous when someone (Mark) has a phone with internet.

The small town itself had a great little beach vibe crossed with classic European "old" - cobblestone streets and old shopfronts selling beach towels and t-shirts.

We started by checking out the local public beach. There were a few kids chasing waves, but mostly, everyone had their light coats on like us.

Walking along the ocean, we rounded a cape that contained an art museum... but also maybe a hotel? Seemed like a logical place for a bathroom, so we admired the sculptures and the perfumed hand towelettes. And the castle-like structure. Love me some good solid stone wall. Especially with a marina full of expensive boats just outside.

We continued along the ocean. A few more sculptures popped up before we crossed an adorable rock bridge. About a mile along the beautifully paved cycling and pedestrian path was "Boca do Inferno" - a rock structure that kind of functioned like a large "blowhole." When a large enough wave rolled it, it spit mist along its length. Much of the area near the hole down to the water was cordoned off. Rightfully, it looked like it could succumb to erosion at any time. We got our few pictures, pondered upon an ice cream, then headed back along the water to the town.

We scrambled out along the jagged (volcanic?) rocks as we made our way back. Mostly along set paths, but also, needed to get that picture, so crawled out along a boulder to get a view with the coastline.

On the cute bridge on the way back, I pondered a cat for a while as we soaked in the ambiance. We ended our beach adventure with a great little wine bar. Our waiter got Mark excited about quite a few ports, including introducing him to "vintage" ports - where a year was good enough to get its own bottling.

Since every day seemed like rain, we put off Sintra until Monday, our final full day. We started in the central square, at the National Palace. We walked past a variety of statues as we walked the path from the train station into town, hoping the rain didn't get any heavier than the mist it was. When we got to the National Palace, it was just ominous enough that we stopped inside.

The large rooms were mostly decorating in the 15th and 16th centuries, and we saw swans, porcelain and silver sets, and the inside of the kitchen. The kitchen narrows into these two tall, highly peaked domes for smoke to exit. A smattering of rain was getting in as well!

We were both early for lunch and on an off-day for tourism, so our first two attempts for lunch were thwarted. We ended up at the large restaurant just across from the Palace - getting tea in a proper teapot to help ward off the cold.

My favorite parts of Sintra were still ahead, and the clouds were starting to burn off. We ended up talking an Uber up to the top spot, the gardens at the bottom of Pena Palace.

What romance, and heightened greenery, with the mist still gently coating everything. A series of cascading ponds met us, with ferns and old trees encompassing them. I wonder if the swans were the same as when Alisa, Alex, and I saw them?

We roamed our way upward to the castle. I was so excited to get the first big glimpse of the outrageous Pena Palance, and to show it to Mark. It is a gaudy wonderland for the senses - and at such a scale!

We crossed the moat via the short but wide drawbridge, then ducked inside the first museum-like room to get some relief from the rain that kicked up again. After taking in the room and some of the history, we continued on despite the on-again-off-again rain. We wound through the royal quarters, including the very modern bathrooms (for the time - first flush toilets in Portugal!)

Outside the chapel, a path led to the far side of the castle. Peeking around the corner, we were buffeted by the intense wind - being the highest point on a hill makes a difference!

After poking around, we walked down to the Moorish castle ruins - a favorite of mine from last time. The walk from the entrance to the ruins felt especially long, but, after a time and a single cat sighting, we make it to the stone walls surrounding the fort on an outcropping. With the lack of rain finally in our favor, it was great to be able to roam around the walls. Granted, the swift wind was a bit unsettling as we climbed up stairs with low walls and looked out over the valley. Not a crisp blue sky, but we could at least see the National Palace far below.

Back to the town, back to the train, and back into Lisbon for our last night. We made sure to stop by a great port store to get Mark's vintage port from his birth year, but the rest of our holiday was over.

Tuesday, up early and out! The hotel helped book us a taxi back to the airport, and it was the same plane, different seats to get us back to the US. (A little easier than when I got re-routed to Milan!)

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Cinque Terre and Genoa, Italy - March 10-14, 2018

Mark and I took off within an hour of each other in Dulles on Friday night. Saturday, landing in Frankfurt, I made it through passport control (though definitely didn't enjoy the giant line - that made me a bit nervous) and got on the plane just as Mark was landing in Paris.

I missed the first flight announcement, though the tail end sounded like "rerouting." The second announcement corresponded with our second approach and second failure at seeing the runway; we were rerouting indeed, to Milan, where a bus would meet us and take us back to Genoa.

So, instead of landing an hour before Mark in Genoa, I landed about the same time as Mark in Milan (while his flight made it into Genoa fine). I turned on my phone, deciding that this was as good a time as ever to pay the $10/day for international service, and started texting him with updates.

A airline rep held a sign for us through the airport to baggage claim, then I ran to the bathroom (thinking that I overheard someone say it was a two-hour ride) before coming back out and looking for Door 5. I caught up to the crowd, put my luggage underneath (Mark had nicely given me the smaller bag), and got ready for a ride through the countryside. I had misplaced my headphones, so it was just me and the rumbling of the bus (and thirty other passengers) that lulled me to sleep.

Before I nodded off, Mark sent a few texts asking if I knew if a "Stephanie Smith" had made it on the bus. Her husband was in the same situation as Mark: waiting for his partner after a rerouted flight. That poor soul had only gotten "We're in Milan" and "Shoot, the bus is leaving" messages, so I double-checked she had made it on the bus by confirming with the woman matching the description he gave that she was, indeed, Stephanie.

So, with an extra two hours of travel time tacked on, we didn't make it to Riomaggiore in the Cinque Terre until 5:45pm. Just enough time to change then think about dinner. We weren't going to be trying to see any of the other towns in the dark, so we took our hostesses recommendation and went down to the marina to have a friend of her husband's (who runs a restaurant) take care of us.

Even at 8pm, we saw the restaurant about half as full as when we left an hour or so later. Of the other three couples in there, two were speaking English - most of the tourists we encountered did. A glass of sparkling was on the house as we decided what to eat. We ended up with stuffed seabass and anchovy pasta, with a dessert of "hot chocolate pie" (which was really more like a mousse) with pear in it.

During dinner, we got to know the two women next to us. They had been hiking all day, since this was the only sunny day in the forecast, and we invited them out for a drink after dinner. We all roamed up the hill to a bar (recommended, but closed) before going to the only hangout spot open in the town, getting carafes of wine, judging the other noisy Americans, then becoming the noisy Americans with a pushup contest after a game of yelling words at a deck of cards.

We took a bottle of wine back to our room, said goodbye to the girls, then made it to sleep by 1am. This really helped our jetlag.

Or actually, what really helped our jetlag was sleeping in until 1pm the next day. Just in time for the rain to start. Despite that, Sunday was our own day in the Cinque Terre, so we headed to Manarola for lunch. The recommended restaurant was straight uphill, so up we climbed, with the rain in our face.

It was open, unlike the rest of the town, so we sat down at 2:30 (when the closed for the afternoon at 3) and ordered the mixed seafood starter and crab pasta for two. We were a little aggressive with how much food we thought we could eat. Especially when the starter consisted of twelve perfectly done little tastes of seafood or fish, cooked or raw, marinated or fried, and all so good. My favorites were the crab wrapped in a triangle of black ink something, the raw salmon with pomegranate, and the tuna with roe.

The crab pasta was huge, and we found most of the crab, but left most of the pasta. Of course, coming to Italy with a Maryland boy, we were going to be picking crabs.

The rain hadn't let up at all, so off we went, to explore the next town. I had read there was gelato, so I had my energy.

Corniglia (pronounced Cornelia) didn't have coastline as part of the town, which meant that it was either a twenty-minute climb... or a 2-euro, 4-minute bus ride. We hopped on (also to get out of the rain).

At the top, we started following two women that had a Rick Steves book (or the pages from it, at least - they followed his instructions and ripped out what they were going to use). They headed to the right, up a hill, and we all looked at then popped into a church.

Leaving the church, I tried to get my bearings from the picture of the Rick Steves page and the downloaded Google map that I had. We should've turned left at the bus stop, not followed them to the right, but we all made it on the right path to get to the overlook, where we could see the next few towns, as well as the stunning green cliffs on the ocean.

As we were walking back toward the bus, which the bus driver said headed back to the train station at 5:15, both Mark and I had that moment where our shoes and our coats were no longer rainproof. With 15 minutes until the bus left, we popped into a storefront that also might have been a hotel but was definitely a bar and got a tiny sipping glass of  sciacchetra, a sweet wine made in the hills around us

Mark was getting anxious getting back to the bus, even though it was only 5:07 and the stop was a block away, so we made it back to the square and got into the awaiting bus. Good thing too - the driver must have decided that he was as full as he was going to be, so he left minutes later. The two women that had been poking around with us didn't make it on.

Getting back to the train station, we decided we were too wet to continue, so we took the 5-minute trip back to Riomaggiore. Up the hill, into the room, and off with anything wet. (Later that night, I took the hair dryer to my shoes just to give them a chance to dry before morning.)

We weren't hungry, we weren't tired, we were just wet. So we just sat and warmed up, thinking about dinner, as the rain stopped and the sun went down. Thanks, rain. Now you stop.

As we were walking back, a few of the places that had been open on Saturday now said "closed due to inclement weather." A storm (with warning signs on the weather app) was supposed to come from midnight to 5am, so slightly before our early departure time. At 7:30 or so, we headed out in search of food.

We walked past all of the closed up shops, down to the marina to find the restaurant we had eaten in last night closed, then started wandering (rather, climbing up and down stairs) through the alleys of Riomaggiore. We got back to the main square, and Mark spotted a chalkboard sign with a candle underneath leading up to the only restaurant open in all of Riomaggiore.

We poked our heads in, were told ten minutes, then watched as a couple got up from one of the 10 full tables and left. Another couple was behind us by a few minutes, with a steady stream of people, about once every five minutes, looking to be fed. We were lucky to not have to wait very long.

The pesto testaroli (like a pancake, look it up) and the chickpea pancake with cheese and pruscitto was perfect after our super heavy lunch. Granted, we still got a dessert apiece (a yummier-than-usual tiramisu for Mark and a wine-soaked, baked pear with really good sweet curd sauce for me).

I was worried about the storm, but, as we headed back down the steps then up the block to our boarding house, there wasn't a drop of rain.

Thankfully, the storm never arrived, so we were up and out and on the regional train (taking 1:45 but no transfers) at 7:17am. In Genoa, we walked across the square at Piazza Principle to our hotel for the next two nights and was able to check in early. Mark was meeting his Italian counterpart at 11am, so we had time to go find a quick breakfast of croissants and foccacia.

I got back and started wandering the hotel for WIFI. After asking the front desk where the best WIFI was, they gave me a mobile booster for the room. Now, I could get to work.

Dinner on Monday was a snack at a bar along the wharf (a prosuitto and cheese sandwich) before heading back for a reception for the convient but not connected hydrographic meeting at the same hotel we were staying at. I met a few of Mark's coworkers who are in the working group meeting about standards, ate off of a platter of cured meat literally larger than a car tire, and had some pesto pasta with green beans (and some sparkling wine - what a cheery occasion).

The next day, Mark was off at 9am, so I got up, did a quick workout, then met him at 8:45 to head down to breakfast. Compared to the continental breakfasts of the US, this was amazing - cheeses, meats, an omelet bar, yogurts, fruits, granolas, juices (including a super delicious orange, carrot and lemon juice mix), bread, croissants, cakes... I realized I should've brought down my computer and worked from the restaurant for a while!

Instead, I went up to our room with the slipperiest floors ever, got on the WIFI, and started my work for the day.

At 4pm, the hydrographic conference was headed up to La Laterna - the lighthouse of Genoa. Turning 890 years old (though in a few different constructions), this lighthouse is the distinctive feature of Genoa. And the hydrographic conference was going to get to see the absolute top, not just the landing halfway up where the tourists visit. Nope, we got to climb all 360-odd steps to see the lens itself!

For dinner, we walked to a recommended seafood restaurant, after wandering along the updated wharf to check out their selection. (Also, because we were way too early for Italian dinner when we started.) The food was amazing - fish and octopus, and, walking back, we ran into a coworker that we gave the same tip to - definitely eat there!

On Wednesday, I had a bit of catch up from Tuesday for work, but our flight was early in the evening, so I didn’t have time to work a full day. When Mark got back at 11:30, it was good timing to go up to a castle!

I had quickly researched something that was close to us, and TripAdvisor had high ratings for a castle museum and an elevator that when vertically AND horizontally to get there. The point on the map for the elevator was pretty close to the castle itself, so we ended up climbing up and up and up to get to the entrance gate. A little park surrounded the stone turrets, and we paid the admission to learn about a captain and his adventures. While Genoa has a very old part of the city, this castle was built in the 1800s - not very old for Italy. 

The rooms had all sorts of knick-knacks, except that the notes and the beautiful display made it museum-like. An exhibit on a modern inventor-artist making a light source in Mali was followed by more permanent exhibits on all the locations he traveled. “Exotic” cultures of the Americas and Asia were in a series of a dozen different displays. 

Mark and I left, and, wouldn’t you know it, across the street looked like an entrance to an elevator. We bought our 2-euro tickets, validated them (since they were 100-minute tickets for all public transit in the city), and got into a pretty innocuous-looking elevator. I was surprised that it was only slightly larger than a typical American elevator. I was also surprised that there wasn’t a conductor. 

We went down the however many stories we had walked up, then paused at the end of a curving corridor, where a pod like ours was trundling towards us. The exchange along a set of parallel tracks happened, then we chugged down the tracks to sidle up to the exit.

The funniest part of this was that we emerged less than a block downhill from our hotel - I had just never noticed the doorway in the facade in the plaza. 

Given that it was Pi Day, I insisted that we needed to get pizza in Italy. Not Naples, but we got it with pesto (since, again, very important to the area) in a restaurant a block from the hotel. One of Mark’s coworkers was on his lunch break and happened to wander by, joining us. We chatted until it was time to go get our luggage and get a ride to the airport with the Italians who Mark and his boss had been talking to. Off to Portugal!