Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Given that postage from Austria back to the US is prohibitively expensive, we are reluctantly going electronic this year. So attached you will find our annual year-end photo montage in Adobe Acrobat format.
But do not fret because in addition to Seasons Greetings, you are receiving the Vienna, Hawaii, Bratislava, Salzkammergut, Hohe Tauern, and Budapest Megamail. Some might call it a MegaMegamail. Or, given our current location, perhaps an Ubermail is more appropriate. You may well elect to commit suicide instead. No one would think you a coward for taking the easy way out.
But do not rush to drastic solutions because, out of the kindness of my heart, this has been condensed to the unbelievably low page count of just 5. No, I did not leave out any other digits, there are just five, cinco, funf, pages of Ubermail here. In that respect, Ubermail, much less Megamail, seems an embellishment, but I'm pressed for time so I leave it up to you to properly name it.
So, let's start with Hawaii... this was June by the way. Recall, this was for my parents 50th wedding anniversary. The trip started with a week on Maui in Lahaina in a B&B, which we rented out the entire property. Then a few days in Kauai in a diaspora of hotel rooms. Then it was just Sam and I for a day and half on Waikiki before our return.
If you've never been to Hawaii before, here are my tips:
If you a part of a big group, renting an entire house not only makes financial sense, but really adds to the camaraderie and memories. However, most rentals are for a week minimum so you will need to plan accordingly. I pool makes a big difference. AC, not so much because it becomes very comfortable in the evenings. However, the late afternoons can get quite warm.
If you stay on Maui, and you've never been there before, you are likely to do more than just hang by the pool/beach. For this reason, I think staying in a more central location like Kihei makes more sense as the Haleakala Volcano and Road to Hana (two things you will definitely do) are in easier reach than if you stay, for example, on the west side of the island as we did in Lahaina.
That said, if you are going to Maui and you just want to roll yourself out to the beach every day and roll yourself to a restaurant in the evening and then roll yourself to bed every night, then Lahaina is the perfect place to stay.
Maui is very pretty, but in a far more desolate sort of way than I was thinking. There are definitely pockets of lush tropical rain forest, but on Maui, this is the exception, not the rule. Kauai on the other hand, is very green and lush throughout. Though, it has fewer flowers than Maui. Kauai is also much less built up than Maui or Oahu, so if you want a true get away from it all vacation; Kauai might be your better destination.
Waikiki is a waste of time. It is a horribly small beach in the middle of a large city that is overrun with people.
Arrive at the crack of dawn for the Arizona Memorial. The line that you will see is for the tickets. You can then come back in a few hours and take the boat to the memorial. They are soon starting on an enlarged visitor center and it will be a welcomed expansion because the current one is overrun.
Hawaii is expensive, no way around that.
Riding down the big volcano on Maui isn't as fun as it sounds. Actually, my brother convinced Sam and I to try and bike UP the volcano first. Mmm, although it was fun, both Sam and I baled out at various elevations. I made it above 7500 feet (starting from sea level, I don't think this was too bad), but my brother made it all they way to top: 10,000 feet. And he couldn't shut up about it the rest of the week! :)
That activity filled our first day on Maui while we waited for the rest of the family to show up. Other activities undertaken: The Road to Hana. When you do this (notice I didn't say IF) be sure to have a really good guide book, or at least a CD. The CD sounds corny, but it does really help to slow you down and appreciate all the magic going on that you wouldn't see if you just zipped on through to Hana.
Another road trip you should take on the other side of the island is the northwest coast. Although not as lush as the Hana coastline, it is just, if not more scenic (not all that annoying vegetation getting in the way :)), but also has a plethora of tidal pools in which you dip your little white tootsies into. And the best part is that there is hardly anybody there so you can have the place pretty much to yourselves.
The Io Valley is a nice stop, but don't bother with the Maui Tropical Plantation nearby. We did the standard scuba/snorkeling trip. I haven't gone scuba diving in over seven years (scares me to think how fast time goes) and it showed when I attempted to kill myself. To be fair, I blame the poor equipment. My mask kept flooding and just drove me bonkers. But, I'm alive and well.
Things that we wanted to do, but didn't: parasailing and zip-lining, though we heard that zip-lining was better on Kauai.
We did the obligatory luau at the Hyatt and it wasn't bad. Surprisingly, the movies we took on our camera turned out pretty good. Sam is in love with Tattoo Man. I have to say, he had muscles in places that made me jealous. Though, we've heard that the luau at the Old Lahaina Inn is even better, but you need to make reservations for that months before you go.
We possibly had the best meal of our lives at the Lahaina Grill. Everything was impeccable. Service, food, atmosphere, even the water won rave reviews. Just be sure to bring your first born for payment.
But in general, we had several evenings with all 10 of us that were just grand. Especially the nights by the pool, grilling out on the BBQ and telling old stories, new stories, embarrassing stories... it was great.
In Kauai, as I mentioned, we no longer had a residence and our numbers dwindled to eight. The bulk stayed at the Marriot, some hotel that would make a Caesar jealous. While Sam and I opted for the Kiahuna Plantation Condos just down the road. I think I would recommend a condo over a hotel on Hawaii. You pretty much get the same stuff, but you also get a full kitchen so if you wanted to save some coin you can eat in. Besides, as many of you know, when Sam and I travel, the lodging is usually not the place to find us.
Kauai is a lot wetter and therefore the waterfall count is much higher. We spent most of our days on Kauai doing hiking in one sort or another. Either short trips down or up to waterfalls, or day long trips along the Na Pali Coast. If I were to go back, I would definitely be interested in an overnighter along the Na Pali Coast. It is simply breathtaking.
And as amazing as it is while hiking along the beaches and cliffs, it is better taken in from a boat, or more likely a catamaran. This is a must do activity and you won't regret it. They even throw in a snorkeling excursion, lunch and unlimited brewskis. Can't top that, can you?
The best meal we had was a place called Roys. Not as good as the Lahaina Grill, but up there. Second born required for payment.
The other must-do activity on Kauai is a drive (and if so inclined, hike) in the Waimea Canyon. This canyon ends up along the Na Pali Coastline. Simply beautiful! However, weather can be hit or miss so you have to take what you can get. Afterwards, stop by the Waimea Brewing Company for a wide selection of microbrews from the Western most Brewery in the US.
As I mentioned, our stay at Waikiki wasn't nearly as nice as the rest of the trip. Nothing was wrong with our hotel, or anything. But it is just that the rest of the Hawaii is so much better I can't imagine why anyone would stay in Honolulu.
So that is Hawaii in a record-breaking two page Megamail. Consider yourself lucky.
After Hawaii, we had a bounty of visitors in July that eventually let us see some of the city we've been living in for the past few months from a more touristic standpoint. We are still refining our walking tour of Vienna. We learn new things every time out and slightly adjust our path to walk less while taking in more. Sorry to those first victims whom we've walked to death unnecessarily.
One thing you should do before coming to Vienna is watch The Third Man, a 1949 Orson Wells movie. We just watched it recently and realized we've been walking people by all the filming locations without even knowing it. Rest assured, future visitors will have pointed out where critical scenes were located and if you see the movie beforehand, you'll realize how little Vienna has changed since 1949.
Also in July we took a day-trip with one set of visitors, Tuppy and Mindy, or as commonly called, Mork and Mindy, to Bratislava. I didn't know what to expect from Bratislava, but overall it wasn't what I was expecting and it was indeed much nicer. Bratislava is great place to just walk around. I don't think there are too many key attractions, though the castle overlooking the city seems to be one. Though, it is disappointing to find out that it was pretty much entirely destroyed and then rebuilt during Soviet rule.
Outside of Bratislava is much better castle to explore. Well, it isn't so much a castle, but rather castle ruins, but they are very impressive. One can catch a bus out there and I would recommend that given how many wrong turns we took in the car.
The castle is situated at a bend in the Danube and provides breathtaking views in addition to being, well, a castle! What more do you need? If you spend an extended period in Vienna, a day trip to Bratislava via either train, boat (in season), bike (it is that close!) or car should definitely be one of your excursions.
After all our visitors in July, Sam and I were going a little stir crazy, as were the dogs, and so we quite spontaneously on a Friday night rented a car for the next day and just headed west to see what trouble we could get ourselves into.
Trouble brought us to a part of Austria called Salzkammergut, located just east of Salzburg. I have to say, we're not even in the Alps yet and Austria is looking awfully amazing! The Salzkammergut region is defined by large lakes surrounded by, perhaps not mountains, but at least tall rocky hills. Trust me, it looks amazing.
Probably the highlight of that weekend is a town called Hallstadt. Nestled between the lake and the large hill behind it, the town starts climbing the hillside and still has a medieval feel to it. A must stop if you are even remotely in the area.
Speaking of remotely, the Gosausee (another lake) is even more remote and provides views of the glaciers off in the distance. A lot of hiking possibilities existed around here and we probably would have done more of that sort of thing but we were in recon mode for future trips.
One thing that is very popular at the ski resorts (and there are hundreds of ski resorts in Austria) is to ride the gondolas up to the hilltops and hike around up there. Dogs are welcome so that is what we did, not during this trip, but during our next excursion into the country side: Hohe Tauern.
When we do all these trips into the backcountry, we definitely take the dogs, they love it outdoors. And we stay at pensions, which are equivalent to a B&B, but without the pretense. That means they are simple and cheap and also that they probably won't speak English. But that is OK, it all works out in the end... especially if they accept online bookings. Those cannot be overrated.
So, the Hohe Tauern is a national park region in south-central Austria. Very near the border with Italy, and not surprisingly, you will run into a lot of Italians in the area. There is a special toll road in the area called the Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse that I would highly recommend, but only if the weather is nice. If it isn't nice, you'll only see clouds and start to get a slight sense of vertigo. Not so cool.
But if it is nice out, you will get some amazing views of not just mountains but also glaciers and police cars giving you speeding tickets. But at least it wasn't like Steve Martin in The Man with Two Brains.
If you are in the area, there is the Krimml waterfall that you, and ten thousand of your closest friends, will want to check out. Even though the area is touristy, you will still want to do this, it is worth it. And it's not like Niagara Falls touristy, it actually kept somewhat pristine. There is a very wide path leading to the top of the waterfall and a nice cafe half-way up for you to rest your weary legs.
Speaking of weary, let's move on to Budapest. We visited there in early August as I recall they rolled out the red carpet for us. During the three hour train ride over I noticed that we had an ominous full moon. Ominous because as you know, some vampire movies have been made in Budapest and the city still has a Transylvanian feel at times. However, the next day we noticed that the moon was but a tiny little sliver. How is that possible? A lunar eclipse of all things! I haven't seen one in a great long while so seeing one under these conditions provided us a feeling of being special. Awww.
More VIP treatment we received was that this was the weekend of a big folk festival and the castle district was swarming with temporary huts of Hungarians selling their native wares and in most cases, also making them on the spot too. Found it strange that there were quite a number of places selling medieval weaponry.
The final flair of the red carpet was on our last day there a Red Bull air show took place in the Danube River. Giant inflatable cones were placed in the river that these bi-planes had to slalom through. Very cool. But it also seemed a little dangerous because many of these planes were zipping under, over and around bridges swarming with people. I'm thinking there was no way they would do that in the States.
Budapest is definitely worth spending a few days in. And we didn't spend much time in museums so it is entirely possible to spend a week there and not be bored. The weather was still nice and so we did *a lot* of walking. My feet were totally sore each night.
And each night was spent at the Pilvax Hotel which is just off the big pedestrian thoroughfare where there are many high-end (and low-end) shops. Getting to the hotel from the train station was easy enough, though we did it illegally. When we arrived is just when the metro and normal day buses ended. So we ended up taking a night bus. However, as hard as we tried, the ticket machine wouldn't accept our freshly obtained Hungarian Forints and so I confidently said that we could buy them on the bus. Well, that wasn't true so we were for about 10 minutes 'black riders.' Please forgive us!
We spent a full day trolling around the castle area. There is a little trolley that will take people up the hill to the top of the castle, but the line was enormous. We opted to walk up via the pedestrian paths to the right. It is pretty gradual so it isn't too bad. One arrives near the cathedral and something called the Fisherman's Bastion. Both were under significant renovation so that was a bit of bummer, but they are still both worth visiting even in their current state.
Also, at this end of the castle complex is a tower. We later found out that this tower is all that is left of another cathedral that used to stand there. However, it didn't make it through the war. Only the foundation stones still remain.
Working your way back to the palace portion of the castle, in addition to several nice views on both sides of the castle, you shouldn't pass up the Labyrinth. Basically, underneath the castle are miles of old cellars that, of which a small portion have been made into this tourist attraction called the Labyrinth. The dark passage ways you weave your way through contain various art exhibits/social commentaries. It was very unusual and very interesting. They even have a big wine fountain in the middle of it with minstrel music playing that just dropped you into another world. Some might find it cheesy, but I say don't miss it.
The palace proper was bit confusing to gain entry because of this enormous folk festival going on. We had to pay to gain entry to the festival but it was well worth it. Some of the foods we found that were very tasty are a flat bread that is kind of served like a pizza. Be careful with the garlic butter that you can lather on the side. Very, very strong. Also, there is a dessert that you will see every where that you will need to try. It is cylindrical in shape and is made of pastry dough. But then they cover the outside in various toppings. Crushed walnuts were our favorite. You just have to make sure that you get these things fresh. Some places sell them in a pre packaged bag, cold. Those are not so good.
We did check out one of the museums at the castle. There were a lot of sculptures of naked women. I took it upon myself to rate the backsides of them all and have determined that the one on the left as you go up the first set of stairs is the clear winner.
One of our more adventurous activities in Budapest was to climb up the Gellerthegy hill at night. It doesn't sound so bad right off, but this hill is basically a park. Again, not so bad. But then they only decided to put lights along the paths maybe a third of the way up. So, imagine this. We are walking in the pitch black, in Budapest, clearly looking like tourists. Calculating the odds that we would get mugged were constantly going through our minds. As it turns out, nothing untoward happened, but thinking back on things, maybe it wasn't a great idea. But the views from the top are well worth it and this is where we had a terrific view of the lunar eclipse. There was also a bar up at the top in case you need to acquire some liquid courage for the journey back.
Some other things we checked out while in Budapest was the Varosliget park east of town. To get there we took the M1 metro line. This was actually very charming. This seems to be a very old metro line and it is actually more of an underground trolley. There were only two cars in the train and they are, well, like trolleys. And the metro cars themselves have a lot of sculpted wood and wood paneling. Like I said, very charming.
The park had lots to offer, especially on the museum front, but it was fantastic weather so we just contented ourselves with walking.
On the way back to the center, we stopped by the Terror Museum, something recommended by Tuppy when he visited Budapest a few weeks earlier. And it indeed was very interesting. The building where the museum is located used to be first, the headquarters of the Hungarian Nazi party, and then immediately afterwards the Soviet headquarters. Needless to say, there were people who entered that building that never left alive, or in one piece. Thus, the Terror Museum.
The Museum has *a lot* of information to communicate in a variety of formats. It is incredibly dense with information, and that is just in English. If you understand Hungarian, there is at least twice as much. You leave the place with an incredible sense of gloom and doom. And it is hard to comprehend the mentality of a person living under the oppressive conditions for decade after decade.
But as depressing as the place is, doing it as a double feature with the Jewish Museum where it covers the Holocaust makes it a very depressing day. The main synagogue that is part of the Jewish Museum is unlike any synagogue you are likely to see. That is because it is actually a church-synagogue hybrid. This was done in order to make the Jewish faith to seem less foreign or unusual to the people who were of the dominate religion in the area. We found that aspect interesting.
Whew, you are done. In just under five pages, as promised. In future correspondence expect discussions of our trip to Stockholm (that almost wasn't), our trip to Jordan (that definitely wasn't), Oktoberfest (highly censored), Graz and even more about Vienna.
BTW, you can read up on some of our forays in a timelier manner by visiting our outpost on TripAdvisor.
Eric and Sam