Blog #32 - Vegas Baby, Vegas!

Last we left you we were running to catch our flight from LA to Las Vegas.  Since then we have been spending our days walking “the strip”, “gaming”, watching shows, and generally taking in Las Vegas, which is a non-stop circus.  

Steph is still wondering why it has taken her 35 years to come here…


On our first day we wandered our immediate neighbourhood, which began with our lovely and kitsch hotel, the Excalibur (i.e. think of Knights of the Round Table), followed by Mandalay Bay and Luxor.  We have to tell you, for the price we paid ($50 a night) despite the lukewarm reviews, we were surprised how it won us over!  Maybe we were already in a good mood?  Or, maybe, we’re just suckers for medieval stuff?  Either way, it was cozy, cool, and corny, all at the same time.  

On our second day we would do nothing but walk up and down “the strip”. 


Starting from the south end, we walked north and saw New York New York, Paris, the Bellagio, the Flamingo, Caesars, and then further north along, past the Venetian, past Wynn and Treasure Island, we ended up all the way at Circus Circus – which is basically a bad indoor carnival.

Now, walking the strip is cool, but it can be a seriously frustrating experience.  Yes, the sidewalks are sufficiently wide, however, it is otherwise total chaos.   As you walk you are approached for show tickets, restaurants, to buy homemade CDs, or sometimes just “girls”.   It isn’t much better inside the casinos.  In there it’s timeshares, galore.

So – to get back to the point – it took us all day to walk the strip!


We did however partake in the “gaming” as we went.  Steph worked on her roulette technique, and Vince took a free craps lesson that ended up costing a lot of money.

It was so strange to see so many of the things we had already seen in full-size elsewhere in the world.  Luxor is fashioned after the pyramids and the sphinx; the Venetian after Venice and so on.  While we were in Italy, we stood near the spot where Caesar was assassinated, which made looking at a giant statue of him at the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Flamingo feel extra weird.


On the third day, our schedule included hanging at the pool and soaking in the rays, visiting to Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum which is the best way to see your favourite pop stars in the flesh (wax) and we capped it off with tickets to Cirque de Soleil's show Love featuring the amazing Beatles music.  Superb!

So in the end, we weren’t so lucky on the tables, but it didn’t really matter because there was only one real reason we stopped in Vegas on the way get remarried of course!!!

Over the past nine months spending 24 hours a day together, we still cannot believe how happy we are and how much more we have fallen in love with each other.  So we wanted to be newlyweds all over again and decided to tie the knot ... AGAIN!


Here's to many more adventures and chasing our dreams together.  By the time you read this we will no longer be on the run – we’ll be back home in Toronto as we can't wait to see all of our friends and family.

Thanks for helping us make this journey of epic proportions the best decision ever!  It has truly changed us and things will never be the same.  We actually have one more blog we want to write so until then....have fun and thanks for following us!

Blog #31 - California Dreaming!

Last we left you we were heading to North America after our three week stay in Peru, where we learned how to make chocolate, explored ceviche and knocked Machu Picchu off our bucket list.  

By this point we had made it completely around the world.  We didn’t have any more crazy countries planned, but we weren't quite ready to go home.  We were however quite ready to be somewhere that kind of felt like home ... so ... let’s go live in LA!!


Los Angeles has always been on Steph's bucket list and after being hailed on in Peru we were both in the mood to be in the sun once more, before heading back to Toronto for the fall.  We planned a whole three weeks in tinsel town and luckily for us our friend Brigitte let us stay in her amazing condo in the valley.

Well, for those who don't know, Los Angelinos refer to the area north-west of downtown as “the valley” and it’s a place they don't really venture or go to unless they have a grandparent living in the area...haha.  Well we were all-lined-up for 3 weeks of living like senior citizens in Encino (smack in the heart of the San Fernando Valley).

Brigette’s condo was great and included a pool, gym and barbeque … the trifecta!  It gave us a little hideaway, away from the craziness of LA and served as a nice place to relax while we worked on our resumes and generally prepared to re-enter the real world.  

Speaking of the real world, did you know people do not walk in LA?  Nope not at all ... everyone drives so we also had to rent a car for the three weeks.  And heck, when you’re in California, you gotta drive a convertible.  It’s wasn’t a Mercedes or a BMW, no, you won’t believe it but it was a Chrysler!  Yes, they make convertibles now.  ;)

Ok, so what did we do for the three weeks? Well what didn't we do? 


Our first week we managed to score tickets to the Hollywood Bowl to watch John Williams lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic through his classic movie hits (mainly Star Wars and Indiana Jones).  It is a surreal experience listening to the Star Wars theme live and then looking around as 18,000 fans wave their lightsabers in unison.

Other big events for us that week included shopping at various outlet malls in the ‘burbs, driving the Pacific Coast Highway up and down the ocean with the top down and of course getting two spots on the Price is Right.  Things that most backpackers do, right?


Our “Price” (this is what CBS staffers call it) episode airs on October 18th, and although we signed a confidentiality waiver we can tell you that unfortunately we were not invited to "come on down", but we are pretty sure we will be seen on TV flailing our arms.  It was such a fun time and something we highly suggest you do if you are ever in the area and you have an ENTIRE DAY to spare.  It’s free, and highly entertaining, but expect to be waiting for hours before the show begins.

For our second week, we got tickets to the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson which was on Vince's to-do list from the moment we booked the LA tickets.  It was great and we were treated to two tapings.  The studio is way smaller than it looks on TV, and the warm-up comedian picked on Steph the whole time.  Apparently she’s judgemental AND a homewrecker.  Ha!


We also made sure to explore Hollywood Boulevard, including the Walk of Fame, the Chinese Theatre, and the Dolby (formerly Kodak) Theatre.  This is where the Oscars are hosted every year.  Sounds fancy, right?  Well, it’s about as fancy as Clifton Hill at  Niagara Falls, Ontario.  Kitch to the max. 

As far as friends go, Vince was the winner this week. 

His long time friend Lucy lives out in LA now so we hung out with her, and her boyfriend Jung, several times.  Together we partook in some of the best bars and food LA has to offer: which goes to show, no matter where you are in the world, you always need to know a good local.  :)


One weekend Vince’s friend Kam and his girlfriend Sabrina decided to come for a quick visit, and we took the opportunity to explore Venice Beach.  From there we walked (through a thick cloud of really weird people) for 3 miles until we reached the Santa Monica Pier.  It was gorgeous and filled with tourists, sunbathers, and rides.  This was the first time either of us had ever seen full-sized carnival rides on over a body of water.  Surreal (again). 


Before we dropped off Kam and Sabrina at their hotel, we took in a show at the famous Comedy Store.  Because we were sat in the front row we got heckled by most comedians (um: Kirk Fox 1, Sabrina 0).  Chris D'Elia rocked the place – award for the best set of the night.


For our last and final week we had our sights set on exploring Santa Barbara (not just cause it’s Katy Perry's hometown… ;).  We heard it was beautiful and a fun little place to explore.  It’s high-end, that’s for sure.  It and the surrounding hills were gorgeous and full of fancy shops and restaurants.  It also boasted the largest fig tree either of us had ever seen ... thank you TripAdvisor! 


In no particular order, we also attended a taping of Jimmy Kimmel, went to an Angels baseball game with Lucy and her boyfriend Jung, and just last night (the night before we leave LA) we also saw a Kings’ preseason hockey game (thanks again Jung!).

If you overheard Vince yelling at the hockey game, you’d have known we’d been in been in LA for a while, and away from Canada, far too long:  “Hey ref he’s holding the stick!  Like, for a long time!”


Dude, I gotta to tell you, this place gets to you…haha…love it!

But LA would not have been the same without such amazing friends to share it with: thank you Brigette, Kam, Sabrina, Lucy and Jung.  We feel so thankful to have such amazing friends.  

Well we have to go now, after three weeks in LA we are now running to catch our second-last flight before we head back to Toronto.  

The last stop on our agenda ... Vegas baby, Viva Las Vegas!!  If we win enough on roulette, we will be on the next flight to Thailand (haha...just joking!).  But seriously, anybody out there have a favourite number?? ;)

Now they say what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but we promise to report back!  Later dudes ;)

Blog #30 - Guinea Pigs, Llamas and Alpacas, Oh My!

Last we left you we were on our way to cross from Chile into Peru by bus, and this was to be Alex’s first over-land border crossing (other than Canada into the States of course), and our second in South America.  We didn’t really know what to expect or if we should be worried but we were ready to start our Peruvian adventures.

Once we arrived in Arica from the desert, we were told we would have to catch a taxi to cross the border but we soon discovered that info was incorrect.  There was actually a cheap local bus that would take you over for about five dollars each.  And in our travels we’ve come to learn it is often simpler (and safer) to just follow the crowd, so we lined up with the locals and got on the next tin can on wheels to cross the border.


It was an unusual ride.  As soon as we sat down, we were serenaded by the finest Spanish rapper you have ever heard   Hahaha…already this journey we were on the right foot, thanks Vanilla Ice!

Once at the border it actually was a bit of a breeze and quite organized.  Other than one of the customs guards giving Vince a strange look for his Che Guevara beard, we had made it through!  The bus dropped us off in Tacna, a very small industrial, middle of nowhere kind of town in Peru and after 20 hours of travel, and now we were expected to find our way to Arequipa by bus to finish the day…geez!

We three tired musketeers were looking to jump on the next bus heading to Arequipa, and maybe because we were so tired, Alex and Steph’s judgment may have been altered as they overruled Vince in electing to take an ‘Economico’ bus. 


Let’s just say Vince was not impressed with the decision as this is the closest thing you can get in Peru to a ‘chicken bus’.  Many passengers got on carrying potato-sack bags, with odd edible items, and every few miles we would pick up a vendor of some kind.  One person who got on the bus had a reasonably fresh laceration on his head.  (we think he was still drunk from the night before…).  In any event, we were by miles the only Gringos on this thing.  We sat at the very front, looked a little scared the entire time, but otherwise tried to enjoy it through the mix of music blasting from the driver’s cabin and the Kung Fu movie playing overhead.

We didn’t think we were going to make it.  However, after a very scenic (scary!) drive we arrived in one piece at our hotel in Arequipa, ready to pass out and die for the night.  Overall, more than 24 hours of constant travel to that point…


But we were quickly rewarded.  In Arequipa we discovered the food in Peru was some of the best in the world, and generally kicked Chile’s butt.  We got into the ‘foodie’ thing and swapped notes on where the hot restaurants were: we tried ceviche and alpaca, but we passed on the guinea pig.  We just weren’t ready for that yet. :)


One main reason to see the Arequipa region is to explore the nearby Colca Canyon, which is vast, deep, beautiful, and most importantly, full of condors.  Now if you’re like Steph, you might not know what the big deal about a big bird is.  Well she (and we) found out quickly.  Basically a condor is a crazy-huge vulture that’s so heavy it (apparently) can’t fly without using the canyon’s huge burst of thermal air (between the hours of 8 am and 10 am, of course).  Also, the Incas believed it was the condor that carried their spirits into the sky after death. 

Colca Canyon is definitely the best place to see these crazy birds, however, if you’re on a day trip (like us), you have to leave Arequipa at 2:30 a.m. to get there!  Yes, we did this.  On our tour bus we were handed blankets and tried to sleep, however we had to wake up for breakfast at 7 a.m.  A few hours later we managed to see 3 or 4 Condors, pretty cool!


We said goodbye to the condors and soon were on our next overnight bus to Cusco, which is 3400 meters above sea level, and which would be our home base for the next week.  When we rolled in we were shocked at how hard it was to breathe!  Nevertheless, we started walking to our hotel.  Slowly.  No problem…and after about 30 minutes of huffing and puffing we arrived at our hostel and we were pleasantly surprised – it was actually really nice, cheap and had a private en-suite bathroom…phew! 

We quickly dropped our bags and ran for a hop off, hop on city sightseeing tour of Cusco.  Considering how remote it is, Cuzco is a large city!  We wanted to see everything, from the main square and the Inca foundations to the ruins in the outer landscape (the Inca name for the upper ruins above Cuzco sounds like “sexy woman”, seriously!).


On the next day, we signed up for the Sacred Valley tour, which was a small sneak peak of various Inca ruins with beautiful landscapes and Inca terraces.  We learned even more of the area including its flora and fauna.  Definitely getting an education in the history of the area.

By now we were getting acclimatized to the altitude and feeling ready to go higher than 3400 meters… only a few more days to go.  So, since we’d be roughing it on the Inca Trail we decided to cash-in on Cuzco’s better cuisines.  Over the days we were there we had some world-class food.  One night we had beef, fish and alpaca served sizzling on volcanic hot rocks, and on another night we managed to have Indian food (in a restaurant run by a UK expat … ;).  However, the night before our big expedition we settled for a burger in the worlds highest Irish Pub.  So cool! 

The next morning we woke up at 5 a.m., packed our little bags, and ran over to the meeting point.  Soon we would begin the journey to the Inca Trail and ultimately climb and walk for four days to the end prize, Machu Picchu.  It’s something that was on all of our bucket lists (but especially Alex’s) as she did a project on Machu Picchu it when she was a kid in school. 

We met our guide Jimmy at a close by hotel.  He was very nice and was now responsible for the three of us, and two of our new friends on the tour, Ofer and Ronit.  They, like us, were excited and nervous to start the trek. 

Nervous, why?  Well aside from the weather and the altitude, some details that can make people nervous (incl. Vince) are you are walking somewhere between 8 and 10 hours each day, sleeping in tents (every night!) and are without any showers or proper toilets around.  Peeeyewww.  Oh well, we’re tough (or were soon to get tough), and we like roughing it!


We piled into the little van with all our gear and drove three hours to the starting point.  For those who don’t know, only 200 hikers, and about 300 porters per day (= 500 ppl.) are allowed on the trail.  This is the reason this, the “official” Inca Trail trek, requires booking in advance about 6 months out. 


So day one can be anti-climactic.  By the time you’ve shown your passport at all the checkpoints, and stood in line, it’s about noon before you really start walking.  However when we arrived at our first stop our team of porters had already set up lunch in a big-top circus-style dining tent, and we ingloriously scarfed down the most amazing camp cooking you could imagine.  Fantastic!  Who knew five star chefs could cook out in the wilderness?


After lunch we continued on to our last and final stop for the day, our overnight camp site, where our porters had run ahead of us and already set up all of tents and gear for us.  This isn’t roughing it, it’s just a lot of walking before being pampered!  The sights on the first day were very impressive, and overall the terrain was relatively easy (mainly flat terrain and lower altitudes). 


On day two we woke up nervous, as we were told that this day is would be the hardest.  The day starts off with six hours of steep incline, to the highest point we’d be on the whole trek (4,200 m).  It was definitely a struggle but we all made it and we were so happy when we reached the top.  What an amazing feeling to beat the beast and work so hard.  We even saw Porters struggling this day, so you can imagine how it was for us.  This was one of the most rewarding days.


That night as we swapped war stories over dinner, it slowly began to hail.  And then it started to come down!  Our Canadian training came in handy because these ice pellets didn’t melt until the next morning.  Our tent was OK, however, Alex’s didn’t fare as well and as such, she was our honorary guest for the night (sleepover!).   

Day three was supposed to be the longest day, 10 hours mainly downhill.  Oh geez, watch out knees.  We descended and descended for hours and walked and walked.  Definitely a hard day.  Different than day two but hard in other ways.  We rolled into the campsite just before the sun went down and literally passed out once again.

Day Four is the easiest day, you walk for about one to two hours until you reach the Sun Gate, and, ta daaa!!!  Machu Picchu.  What a glorious sight after three full days of trekking and not showering.  Such a great reward.  We ooohed and awwwed for hours and our guide talked for hours as he led us through one of the most mystical and magical places we had ever seen. 


So interesting and such a great experience.  If you ever get a chance to go to Peru, we highly recommend you take the time to do a trek to Machu Picchu, rather than just taking the tourist train there.  It makes the experience just that much more memorable.


After we were done exploring, we jumped on a train and headed back to Cusco.  It was massage time.  We had booked ourselves a few spa services to help us recover, and boy was the timing right….  Not only were our muscles hurting us but we all began to come down with a really bad cold (probably a holdover form that really wet and cold night on Day 2…).


We spent one more day in Cusco, including a great lunch with our new friends Ofer and Ronit, where we congratulated ourselves for a great job on the Inca Trail (especially Ronit, who had knee surgery just this past December).


Next was Lake Titicaca to rest and recover and do some small tours of the area.  After a short overnight bus ride the cold still had a hold of us.  So we literally spent the next 48 hours in bed.  The only significant achievement was that Alex and Vince managed to split a Guinea Pig (Alex took the right side, Vince the left…), and we saw the famous floating islands of Uros. 

 It was all a snotty blur until we jumped on a flight to Lima in time for Alex to grab her flight home.  It was such a great month having Alex with us and her planning of our itinerary was awesome, ambitious and complete.  With her back home now, we finish this blog entry from our hotel room in Lima, where we’ve been burning time waiting for our discount (i.e. Sunday morning) flight to pull up to the gate. 

Tomorrow we begin our next and final chapter of this crazy trip, California, more specifically the Los Angeles area.  We have rented an apartment for three weeks in Encino and have already been putting together a jammed-packed, super-fun, celebrity-filled itinerary, which we are excited to report back about. 

Hey you never know, maybe we’ll win an around the world trip on the Price is Right!  Could you imagine?  Adios amigos and don’t forget to check out Alex’s corner below to hear about her experience on the Inca Trail.


Alex's Corner: The Inca Trail & Machu Picchu

Best. Trip. Ever.

As I mentioned in my last “corner” the highlight of my trip to South America was bound to be the Inca Trail trek. It was what I had been planning for and looking forward to for a year, since we started to plan to meet up for this adventure. It is hard to be the most amazing thing among so many other amazing things, but that’s exactly what the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu were for me.

The trek took place over 4 days involving steep up, steep down, and “Peruvian flats” (up and down, just somewhat less steep). No showers for four days, bathrooms that rivaled the worst of any that Steph and Vince had seen on their travels, and absolutely amazing scenery, Incan ruins, and history. We were travelling with a great couple from just outside Tel Aviv, Ofer and Ronit. Ronit had torn her ACL and had surgery in December and I am still in awe of her for deciding to do this trek and for owning it the way she did. Way to go Ronit!! In addition to our new friends, we were also accompanied by 10 porters to carry all of the gear, an excellent chef, and a fantastic guide (who was totally Vince’s Peruvian brother from another mother), Jimmy. We had a great team.

Day 1 was kind of a warm up, hiking for approximately four hours with a break in the middle to get us to our first campsite in time for tea, then dinner, and then bed because we had to get up at 5:30 am! Plus it was dark and we had no electricity or fire (no fires allowed anywhere on the trail). We were provided with tents and sleeping bags and slept in layers of clothes with hats and gloves on because it was going below zero! I froze but managed to get some sleep and was woken up to a knock on my tent and a bowl of hot water to wash my face. And then began Day 2, which I am going to call the most eventful day of the trek.

IMG_9899 - pixellated.jpg

Day 2 is known as the hardest day, as it is the day of going up, up, and up, to the highest point on the trek, Dead Woman’s Pass (4215m above sea level). Steph set a personal challenge for herself and decided to see how quickly she could blast up the mountain. She totally rocked it, completing what our guide said is generally a 5 hour climb in less than 3 and a half hours. Way to go Steph! I eventually joined her and Vince at the top and it was totally incredible. When you look down at where you’ve just come from, it truly shows you what you are capable of. After passing the highest point, we worked our way down to our second campsite in the beginning of the “cloud forest”, which is the higher part of the jungle. We had tea and watched a storm across the valley against another mountain, which was beautiful…until it wasn’t across the valley anymore. While we were sitting in the tent chatting about the day, we started hearing thunder and then heard hail start to hit the tent! All of a sudden we were in the middle of a huge hailstorm that continued for at least an hour! At some point it occurred to me that I should probably check on my tent to make sure that none of my stuff was getting wet. Well, I was a bit late. My tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, bag, and clothes were all different degrees of soaked. Awesome.  I rescued what I could, but it was really a mostly lost cause (hence the picture that Vince took of me climbing out of my soaking wet tent). What to do on the Inca Trail when you have no dry clothes or place to sleep? Cuddle up with your wonderful friends who have a nice dry tent of course!  Steph and Vince were kind enough to share their tent with me that night and, all in all, it was really just a fun little adventure within our adventure.

On to Day 3, waking up at 5 a.m. instead of 5:30 this time. What follows a day of uphill climbing you might wonder…a day of downhill, naturally. The longest day, and definitely the hardest on the knees, Day 3 ended at our last campsite after a good 10 hour hike. We were exhausted. After another awesome meal and a little ceremony (ed: tip-fest) for our team of porters, we went to bed ready to wake up at 3am to start our last day. We had to get up at 3am so that we could wait for the checkpoint to open so we could hike to the Sun Gate (the main entrance to Machu Picchu) by sunrise. On that particular day there was too much fog to see any kind of sunrise but the fog created a gorgeous mystical effect that was just as amazing as any sunrise. After the fog lifted and we looked down from where we were standing, we saw Machu Picchu down below us.

It was honestly like standing in the pages of a history book. Pictures can’t possibly capture how incredible this place is. I couldn’t believe that I was standing looking down at a truly magical place that I had learned about years and years ago that always seemed like a whole lifetime and a world away.

We made our way down to the ancient city and proceeded to have the best possible history lesson provided by our guide, Jimmy, while walking through the massive stone walls. The sun was now beaming down and we were exhausted, sore, and un-showered, but so, so happy!  We made it!  Vince slept in a tent for multiple nights! Steph exceeded her own expectations for herself! I was standing exactly where I had dreamed of being for years! This was honestly the experience of a lifetime for all of us.


There is so much more to say about the trek, about Machu Picchu, about the amazing porters who run the trail in a fraction of the time it takes us with 25 kgs of weight on their backs, about everything. Just as in pictures, it’s impossible to capture everything in a few paragraphs of writing. All I can say is that this is, by far, the best thing I have ever done. Ever. When it was over and I was back in Cusco, I felt sad that it was done.  That was it, no more trek. And then I immediately decided that I will go back to Peru and do another trek, a different one, maybe in the jungle next time! Next time :)

I’m writing this from my balcony back home in Toronto and sending it to Steph who is (eagerly, I’m sure) awaiting it in Lima before they leave Peru. I miss the trek and I miss South America and I miss my dear friends. So to Steph and Vince I say: we all can’t wait to have you back in Toronto and I can’t thank you enough for the amazing time I had with you both. This was the trip of a lifetime and I won’t ever forget a second of it. Lots of love and looking forward to seeing you soon!

- Alex

Blog #29 - Three Hot Chile Peppers!

Last we left you we had safely arrived in Santiago and had managed to check into our rented apartment in the Santiago neighborhood of Providencia.  It was super cute and definitely in a hip area.  The location was perfect for jogging along the park and hiking one of the large-ish city hills nearby. 


Most importantly, however, Santiago is where we were going to meet Alex!  That morning we woke up at the crack of dawn (actually about two hours before sunrise) and jumped in a taxi to the airport to be her “welcome wagon”.   Since she was on her own we figured it was the least we could do.

She arrived without a hitch.  Well, other than being dinged for over a hundred bucks.  You see, all people flying into Chile have to pay a $132 USD fee of some kind, but to add insult to injury they don’t take US bills that have been ‘crumpled’.  Strange world.

Ok some background -- the three of us have been planning this portion of the trip for about a year now, and before we left Canada in December the three of us had the good fortune to sit down with Vince’s friend Paul who not only is half Chilean but was also a super-duper South American tour guide for many years.  Yes, he himself! 

So for many months now we’ve had the pleasure of knowing insofar as South America (SA) goes, we’re well ahead of the game!  We had our itinerary outlined for us by a presumably impartial and unaffiliated expert!  Awesome.

So, armed with too much knowledge, we wanted to do it all!  However, we had to pick our battles.  Alex had a month off work with us, and we wanted to get in as many of the major sights and activities of Chile and Peru as possible.   Our schedule was going to be tight.  In this blog, we only focus on Chile.


First off, since it’s winter down here, we skipped all the beach towns.  Easy decision.   With the time we had at our disposal in Chile we saw city, valley and desert – all very cool.

So after a few days of wandering Santiago, catching up, enjoying the local wines and trying to figure out the food, we were off by bus to achieve goal number one … the city of Valparaiso. 

This was to be our shortest reposition in Chile as it was only an hour and a half bus trip from Santiago.  We left early in the morning to ensure we had maximum daylight to explore the port (i.e. gritty) town of Valparaiso.


The town of Valparaiso has seen better days, literally.  Before the opening of the Panama Canal it was the richest city in SA.  And now, well, upon arrival, we quickly realized that we were in a rough, but artisano, town.  And the surrounding hills are so steep it feels like the town was built upon itself. 

Now, when we say hilly, imagine walking up a long curving 45-degree road, with 30 pounds of bags on your back, for about 20 minutes.  And it was hot!  Ultimately, we made it to our hotel after a rest break or two.  The only casualty was Vince’s shirt. 


The hotel was a kooky surprise, as stylistically it was part log cabin, part condo-townhouse.  What was best was that almost the entire top floor of this hotel was a dedicated viewing area, with a wonderful view of the bay.  We were quite lucky they had a room to accommodate three adults.  It’s a little more work now that there are three of us but definitely in the end will save all of us a bit of pesos.

While in Valapariso, we had a must do on our list.  To join a walking tour of the city and learn everything we could about this quirky but endearing place.  Our hotel recommended a company that provides free English walking tours at 10am everyday.  Great!  Free and English?  And there’s a pamphlet!  We’re in! 

We walked ourselves down to the designated meeting point, and waited for the guide to show up.  He was supposed to be in a red t-shirt.  We waited and we waited and after about twenty minutes of waiting, Vince decided to use his broken Italianized Spanish to get one of the cafes to call and find out what was going on.

Well the guy on the phone was clearly woken up and let us know he would run over and be there in five minutes.  What kind of tour was this?  We waited another fifteen minutes and then called it quits.  The walking tour that first morning was just not meant to be.  When we got back to our hotel they threw out all of this guy’s pamphlets!

But the silver lining to this story is that there was a second company offering the same exact thing at 3pm called “Tours 4 Tips”.  In fact they were the original!  We were still smarting from being rejected but we mustered up enough courage to go to the meeting point at 3pm.  Not only was our guide on time, but it was the best tour any of us had ever had.


Our guide Ben took us around Valparaiso on foot with twelve other tourists and gave us the most informative and funny lesson on this place, from its history to its current local culture, to its crazy street art and fabulous food.  He was an American backpacker from California who visited two years ago and just never left.  We could definitely see why, as we began to understand his passion for the place.

Architecturally, this city was like nothing any of us had seen before.  All of the important buildings in the old centre were 19th century, but all other buildings in the city were a myriad of different bright colours, often tattooed with street art. 


That evening on Ben’s recommendation we went to one of the hippest restaurants to experience the local dish called Chorrillana which is basically stewed beef with gravy and onions, on top of a bed of potatoes all topped with a couple of fried eggs.  Definitely not something your dietician would recommend, but holy cow…amazing!

Well fed and well rested, we woke up on our second day and took a bus to a very famous destination in the area near Valparaiso, “Isla Negra”.  This is where the famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda had one of his three houses.  We figured out a way to “hack” the usual joining of a tour and get ourselves there on our own using public transit, which saved us a bunch of pesos.  What a treat we did, it was a gorgeous day weather wise and there were few other tourists.


It was wacky bungalow full of things he hand-picked himself throughout his life, and it was long and narrow and snaked along the coastline, just out of reach of the Pacific Ocean.  But what else would you expect from a successful poet?  A four-bedroom two-car garage in the suburbs?

It was certainly out of the way, but so well preserved and unique that it left an impression with each of us.  If you are ever in Chile and can get to Isla Negra, we highly recommend learning more about this Nobel prize winning poet, and visiting this site!  Fascinating guy!


By the time we were just starting to get attached to Valparaiso, it was time to go, so we booked three overnight bus tickets to next stop – the Elqui Valley. 

Now this bus ride wasn’t any ordinary bus ride, its was Alex’s first overnight ride in a bus!  We were semi-pros at this from having travelled through most of Vietnam (and more recently Argentina) by bus, so we could certainly understand her slight anxiety and hesitation about putting your life in some bus driver’s hands as you try to sleep, for eight to nine hours.

You would have to ask her, but we think she only slept a couple of hours by the time we had arrived.  Yeah team!  With two and a half awake brains we arrived at La Serena before sunrise, burned a few hours in the bus station taking turns drinking instant coffee and going to the bathroom.  By 9 a.m. however, we three were on foot in an industrial park heading straight for the Budget Car Rental.  It was Vince’s brainwave (and need to drive after months of not doing so) that led us to rent a car for the Elqui Valley, and as such, we were now set to travel in style through some of the most beautiful mountain terrain you could imagine. 


If you have never heard of the term “glamping” before, we are a true example of it.  Most backpackers work their way through the Elqui Valley by bus, but not us!  Since we are now operating with the collective power of three, and we were only in the valley for two nights, we dropped the extra money in order to make max use of our time.  And it was a good move!

The Elqui Valey goes inland from La Serena, and up.  Overall it is a route about 150 kms long, dotted with different towns along the way. 


We drove far into the valley, past many towns, to our home for the night, the town of “Pisco Elqui” (yes it was named after the drink… ;).  Here, awesomely enough, there is an awesome astronomical-themed futuristic camping experience called the Elqui Domos.  Imagine huge dome shaped, loft-like, two-storey with full running water, electricity, and heater -- glamour camping at its best.  You are even able to unzip a hole in the roof to observe the stars of the southern hemisphere from your bed!  No alien sightings, however, and by the time the third bat flew past we decided it was time to zip up the roof!


Either way, we were in the astronomy mood now.

Chile is home to many, many observatories, and some of the most advanced in the world.  Most of the reason is climate – the area of the Elqui Valley gets over 300 clear nights per year.  Prime sky watching real-estate.

The next day we were headed down-valley to stay in Vicuna, the big town in the region we had seen on the way up.  Before we did, however, we managed to squeeze in some horse back riding through the neighbouring valley of Cochiguaz.  This was even more rustic than Elqui Valley. 


We hired our own guide and explored the nature like true Chilean cowboys.  Alex (experienced in the equestrian arts) and Steph kept the pace while Vince spent most of his time negotiating with his horse, which liked to wander and eat at inappropriate times.  We came to the conclusion that Vince got the perfect horse for him.  Payback maybe?  Hehe!

After the horse ride we got back into our car and headed into Vicuna for a short Pisco distillery tour.  Heck, after driving through grape fields for a day, you have to try the stuff, right?  Well, it was fully in Spanish, which made it fun.  However, Pisco tastes horrible, which wasn’t fun.  The stuff can be described as comparable to bad brandy, or maybe grappa for those Italians reading this, but overall Pisco really wasn’t our thing (especially Steph who gagged during the tasting and is still cringing at the thought of the stuff). 


Following our distillery tour and tasting in Spanish (hehe) we checked into our hotel for the evening.  Wow, has no one in this town ever heard of insulation before?  We might as well have slept on the side of the road -- it was cold!  Also it was decorated like grandma’s old age suite at shady acres, at least it was only for one night and was actually perfectly positioned in the town for us to explore on foot.  

After we dropped off our bags, we drove over to the Mamalluca observatory for a real (like, with a telescope) star gazing observatory tour!

Vince and Alex were pumped to explore the southern skies with a guide and compare their pre-existing knowledge of astronomy, but Steph was far from enthused (she barely passed that course in University).  Well we were all delightfully surprised as all three of us thoroughly enjoyed the talk, and our guide was super-enthusiastic.  We even saw Saturn’s rings through the telescope…crazy! 


Our days in Elqui Valley came to an end too quickly.  After we drove ourselves back to La Serena (150 km) to hand in the car, we spent the day in La Serena before we got on our next overnight bus to our last major stop in Chile, San Pedro de Atacama in the middle of the Atacama Desert, which, is the driest desert in the world.

We drove overnight (with Alex much more relaxed), and arrived 16 hours later around noon.  The ride felt quicker, as mostly we just slept.  The last hour of the drive was on dead-flat straight road, and finally when our bus pulled in to the bus station, we were taken aback.  Up to now, bus terminals normally had ticket booths, and at least some sort of info desk or map to help direct you when needed.  Not this time.  This time we were dropped off literally in the middle of the desert, just on the outskirts of this desert town, with nothing around except a handful of other confused backpackers.  It was eerie but kind of cool at the same time, and we decided to walk into town on foot (rather than taking the easy way out and jumping in a taxi) and join the others in our search for our hostels.


Everything was the colour of sand, even the houses (which, thinking back, were made of sand brick…).  Everything was slightly covered in dust.  After dodging a few tumbleweeds we got to the centre of town and found the main drag.  There were lots of people!  It was actually busy!  In downtown San Pedro we found dozens of tour companies offering excursions that ranged from sandboarding to volcano climbing.  Alas, no need to worry.  Despite the fact there were no two-storey buildings in the town, we were going to be OK. 

From town we were told our hostel was another ten-minute walk through town, and we were given specific directions on how to find it.  No problemo.

Ten minutes later we arrived and were pleasantly greeted by the owner, and his 12 cats and 3 dogs.  This was bit of a surprise as we had read many good reviews of this place.  Don’t get us wrong we love the millions of dogs and cats roaming Chile as they are all actually pretty nice as you may remember from our Argentinian blog, but to actually have to sleep amongst them, this was another thing. 

We don’t want to be negative as the owner was extremely helpful in our planning of our three days in the desert and providing great tour company recommendations, as well as spot-on restaurant advice, such that in the end we were quite happy there but it was an animal crazy house which took a lot of getting used to.  Anyhow, we were hardly ever there. 


By the time we had checked in, dropped off our bags, and went back to town, it was 2:30 p.m., and we were on a tour bus by 3:00.  Now that is some high-speed travel!  Here are the three tours we crammed in while in the desert less than 72 hours.

Tour #1 – Valle de la Luna:  which means Valley of the Moon and really lives up to its name, presenting a dramatic lunar landscape of wind-eroded hills.  Within this area we saw Valle de la Muerte (Valley of Death) and Man’s Gorge (not sure the real name) to explore caves and watch the super colourful sunset.  Some of the best views you could ever imagine. 


Tour #2 – Tatio Geysers: we had to drag ourselves out of bed at 4am, wait in the dark and freezing temperatures for our tour guide and then ride three hours on a bumpy road.  Was it worth it?  You bet your ascot!  We saw an amazing display of geothermal fireworks from the many geyers and underground blow holes.  Other than Steph maybe losing a few toes to frost bite, we had a super good time.  And breakfast? Yummy hot spring boiled eggs…delish!


Tour #3 – Salar de Atacama: the largest salt flat in Chile, this area was formedby waters flowing down from the Andes which, unable to escape from the basin, are forced to evaporate, leaving salt deposits on the earth.  Its not white but its still pretty cool.  Its also where you can see three different kinds of flamingos.  Oh and did we mention the crazy lagunas we saw…fan-freaking-tastic.


All in all our three days in the desert were amazing and filled with some of the most incredible nature you have ever seen.  We finish this week’s blog a bit differently than the rest.  Since we have Alex with us for a month, she has agreed to be our first guest writer.  Check out below Alex’s Corner.  We are currently on a twenty-four hour journey over the Chilean/Peru border with our next destination being Arequipa, Peru.    Adios amigos from the three musketeers!


Alex's Corner


Hi everyone! As Steph and Vince mentioned in their blog, I have been given the honour of adding some of my thoughts while I join them on their journey. First, I have to say, those two are a fantastic pair and I couldn't have asked for better travel companions. I'm so lucky to be sharing this bit of their adventure with them. Thanks for having me, Team Luciani!

So, as I'm sure you've already gathered, Chile is a pretty amazing place and we are seeing things we've never seen before, and doing things we've never done. And yes, one of those things for me was an overnight bus. Now I'm not generally a nervous passenger but for some reason the idea of a double decker bus barrelling along one lane highways constantly passing other vehicles and basically feeling like a boat in a hurricane made it tough for me to relax. So, while Steph and Vince snored blissfully, I spent my time holding on for dear life and staring at the digital message board that continuously informed us of the speed at which the bus was travelling and which was set to beep whenever it went over 100 kph. Which it did. But we made it to La Serena alive and I've handled subsequent overnight buses no problem. At least that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Chile isn't a place that I grew up feeling that I needed to visit but now that I have, I would recommend it to anyone. To be able to have great wine (a personal highlight, for those who know me), tour busy cities and ports with great artisan culture, walk along coastline, explore seemingly untouched valley floors and trek across vast expanses of sand dunes, desert, salt flats, and lagoons; it's a whole world in one country. And the people (and very well-fed street dogs!) are some of the friendliest I've met. The one area that we felt could use a bit of a boost was the cuisine, not exactly world-renowned, but that's just fine with me because everything else was absolutely stunning and next we are off to Peru, where the range of different climates lends itself to one of the most exciting culinary scenes in the world, so we've heard! I can't wait to explore the land that I has been on my bucket list since Grade 9 history class.

Bye for now!
The Third Musketeer

Blog #28 - Don't Cry For Me Argentina!

After we said goodbye to Europe and the nice, warm summer weather, we started our 24-hour journey across the pond south to Buenos Aires (BA), where we were to begin our third phase of this trip...the Americas!  

Although we knew we would be arriving during their winter, we had no idea how cold it could be.  Well, it turns out we arrived during a cold snap.

Walking off the plane in shorts and t-shirts was not a good idea as we still were not feeling 100% from our cold/flu we acquired in France, and the flight itself made Vince even worse (Eustacesan tubes not working!).  We needed sweaters pronto.

You are probably thinking at this point, why Argentina? 

Well, Vince had heard great things about Argentina.  And since we had a few days before needing to be in Santiago, Chile, instead of just flying straight there, we could take a cheaper flight to BA, check it out, take a bus across to Mendoza (wine country), also check it out, and then lastly, go over the Andes Mountains to Santiago by bus.

With this plan, you see, we got to travel across Argentina for ‘free’ because the difference in airfare was equal to the price of the bus.  Awesome … what could go wrong? ;)

It’s just a short ride across the Andes to Santiago, right? 

BA was large and sprawling, and filled with a mixture of modern and not so modern architecture.  However, more important to us at the time was the fact it was expensive.  We went looking and looking for sweaters, and we discovered that the prices in Argentina were not going to be favourable to us in any regard.


They are having a currency problem in Argentina (again!), and at an exchange rate of 5.5 to 1 USD (ATM rate), the whole place (especially BA) is a rip off.  But, if you bring US cash, which has a going street rate of 8 to 1, this place isn’t all that bad.

But since we’re not made of cash, US or otherwise, we bought exactly one sweater each to tide us over until Alex could join us in Santiago (and bring some extra sweaters for us from our friends Miranda and Phil– thank you)!.

Our first night we had a very snazzy dinner in BA.  We met up with Marcelo, Steph's work buddy who recommended our hotel, and also gave us a very informed tour of the city on the way to the restaurant.  He was more than gracious as a host, especially as we began to struggle with jet-lag toward the end of the meal, which of course, was steak.  It was amazing and plentiful, and in Argentina, it’s basically a non-negotiable.  You must have the beef.  This is not a country for vegetarians.  Thanks for the warm welcome Marcelo!


On day two our colds still had a grip on us and we were no warmer, so we decided to declare an ‘indoor recess’ and catch up some things: our sleep, the blog and our usual calls to friends and family.  Finally, we’re in the same time zone!

We did however managed to find the bus station, where we got a lesson in the weather.  Let us explain.  You see, we could buy bus tickets out of BA to Mendoza, no problem.  However, from Mendoza to Santiago we were told that the road was closed.



Oh crap!

Ahem!  Right.  Now let’s think back to that day in Greece when we booked the flight to BA, and not Santiago.  Snow wasn’t on our radar, nor on anyone else’s within a five thousand kilometer radius.  But here it was now, somewhere in the Andes, and it was in our way.   We HAD to get to Santiago to meet our friend Alex by a certain day.  Urgh!

We took our lumps at the station, walked back to the hotel, and looked up the price of a flight across the Andes.  Plan B, right?  The cost was more than four hundred bucks, each.  So then the discussion got real, real fast.  And that’s when Vince got to learning about South American weather, in Spanish.  More on that later.


Back in BA, the weather and our conditions were improved enough on our last day that we could tour a little.  We heard of a vintage artisan market that takes place on Sundays only.  We bundled up and explored the 100's of stalls for antiques, artsy items and picked up a few scarves, toques and mitts.  Just in time for our first South American bus ride, to Mendoza!


Buses in South America are like trains in Europe.  They are everywhere, go anywhere, and everyone takes them.  For our first trip we had big, comfy, premium seats on the bottom of a double-decker coach.  The trip was 15-hours long and we slept the whole way. Phew!

Arriving in Mendoza we could already tell we were going to enjoy this place much more than BA.  It’s a smallish town, doing well in the wine world, and we finally had some warm clothes!  Our hotel was smack in the middle of the town, close to all the restaurants, and prices seemed to be more reasonable (especially the steak and wine ;). 

With our time in Mendoza we hiked and took a wine tour. 

No, we didn’t ski (frown).  Money and time are the usual travel headwinds, and they were both present here.  However, keeping one’s bones unbroken is also important… ;)


On our first day we hiked westward up and into the national park, just west of downtown Mendoza, with the intent of keeping in shape for the Inca trail walk that’s now quickly approaching.  That day we learned there are a lot of street dogs, smart street dogs, in South America.  LOTS!  And Steph found out very quickly after talking all cutie, cutie, cutie to a local pooch, that they will adopt you instantly and for as long as they want. 

As a result, for most of our walk to the park (about 30 minutes from town) we were accompanied by a big blond scruffy K9.  He even crossed streets when we did, and followed our scent (and giggles) when we tried to lose him by running down a side street and making a quick turn.  He showed up a few seconds later with a “hey guys, where ya going?” expression…

Also, whenever Steph did her morning jog in the nearby park, she would attract a complement of 3 or 4 dogs as escorts.  OMG, SOMEONE IS RUNNING!!! 


On our second day we went on a wine tour, a la minibus, where we were taken in a large group to two vineyards (OK) and an olive oil factory (awesome)!  The only issue with the tour was that it was largely in Spanish, but since the language of flavor is universal we were quite happy just sipping and nodding. 

But by day three, it was time to head to Santiago. 

So, how’s the weather Vince?

Vince: “Um, I guess we won’t really know until we get to the bus station…”.

So, before sunrise on the morning of third day in Mendoza, with our fingers crossed, we took a taxi to the bus terminal. 

The cold snap had ended and the mountain pass was open!

And better yet, we already had tickets!  Good ones!  :)

You see, in total defiance to what we were told at the bus station that day in BA, it was indeed possible to purchase tickets for the Mendoza-Santiago bus, ONLINE!  In fact, the entire bus was empty!  So we ended up getting the two very best seats on the bus.  Top deck, front row, passenger side! 

Take that BA bus station ticket-sales guy who has to use Google Translate to converse in English!  (Just kidding, we were super-grateful for the help!). 


Vince certainly was the hero with his Vegas-style booking here, and as a result we were treated to front-row for our 6-hour drive through and over the Andes mountains. 

The views on the drive were breathtaking, and the Andes, up close, are the most massively impressive natural wonder we have so far taken in on this trip (New Zealand included).  In fact, on the way up, we passed the highest peak in the Andes, 6962 m, and Vince just caught a quick glimpse of it on the right side of the bus.  It was really quick, hence, no photo.  ;)


The Chilean border ran like a well-oiled machine.  Our only hassle was self-inflicted.  Steph got a little scolding for declaring (rightly) her trail mix, which was resolutely given the blue dye treatment right in front of our eyes. 

Chile is just about as strict as New Zealand when it comes to “bio security”, which comes as little surprise when you think how this place is in essence an island with the mountains on the east, an ocean to the west, a desert to the north, and the end of the world to the south (especially in winter).

As for the drive, soon after crossing the border the bus slowly snaked down from the mountain pass through no less than 26 crazy “Las Cuervas” switchbacks. 


This is the best-known part of the trip from Mendoza to Santiago.  And to add to the crazy, people ski right over you! 


The drive was beautiful the whole way, except for the last bit.  You see, on the approaching Santiago, the pollution creeps in slowly.  It’s a bit sad to go from crystal clear sky to one of the more heavily polluted cities in the world in just a few hours. 

Nonetheless, we made it OK and on-time, and we got ready to receive our friend Alex, who was coming from Toronto the next morning to join us for a FOUR WEEK EPIC SOUTH AMERICAN ADVENTURE!

She has signed up for a whirlwind month long adventure withTeam Luciani.  The rest of Chile and Peru lie ahead!  We are so excited to have another friend from Toronto come visit us.

Until the next adventure...Adios Amigos!

Blog #27 - I See Germany, I See France, I see London's Underpants!

Last we left you, we were on a train after we had sprung our bags from the Bus Terminal Jail in Vienna and we were happy to be back on track, rail that is, for our last week in Europe.  We had Munich, Strasbourg and London in our sights.

Our first stop, Munich, was a quick one. 

We rolled into Munich train station around noon and walked to our hotel from there as we booked one near the train station with the intent that we’d catch up on some much needed sleep, catch up on the blog, and ‘detox’ from the Prague and Vienna shenanigans.  Celebrating birthdays is hard work, and we’re not 21 anymore!  :)


After lots of sleep and a strong shower, we were ready to explore Munich for a day and see what it had to offer.  Well it was truly beautiful, with many parks and people out and about.  We decided to spend a bunch of time in the English Garden. 


We sought out the famous bier garden, had pork knuckle and sausage, and, oh yes, almost saw some naked people.

Now, aside from the fact one could unwittingly walk into the “naked” zone of this park, it was easy to see why Munich deserves its ranking as one of the most livable cities in the world.  It also ran like a fined tuned machine, and was impeccably clean -- German engineering at its best.

munich park naked people.jpg

One funny thing that we were not expecting was the number of traditional ‘costume’ (i.e. Liederhosen) shops, and the many people who actually wear it, even “off season”.  We understand that Munich is the home of Oktoberfest, but it was great to see people in traditional garb just because the sun was out. 

It was a pity we didn’t have more time to explore, however we had been invited to celebrate Bastille Day with Vince’s friends Yves and Natalie in Strasbourg, France.

It’s only about four hours from Munich to Strasbourg by train.  So we arrived early.  This gave us the chance to rent bikes (easy), and do our own tour of Strasbourg (no problem!).  It was clean, beautiful and filled with old worldly charm.  We took the bikes right back to the German border, and we crossed over twice -- no passports needed...hehe.


After returning our bikes, we met our hosts at the train station, and grabbed our luggage.  

First on the agenda for that day was to catch up with Vince's old friend-in-law Yves.  Vince met Yves 20+ years ago in Toronto (well Richmond Hill, to be exact) while Yves was visiting their common friend Noble after his student exchange in France.  So we reminisced and had a lot of laughs, most of which related to Vince as a teenager!


Later that night we had our first French meal, and despite the fact we thoroughly enjoyed Italy, we had never eaten like this.  French food is world famous for a reason, and Yves and Natalie were more than capable of showing us why.  Thank you!  Our Cordon Bleu that night was a work of art, as was every meal we had with them. 


The next day we all took a trip to Guebwiller, Yves's small nearby hometown.  It was Bastille Day (like the fourth of July ;).   We drove along the wine road and marveled at the beauty of this region.  Along the way, we met the Alsatian mascot, the Stork.  These monster birds migrate between Alsace and Morocco every year, and in the summer in Alsace they are everywhere, usually nesting on top of peoples’ homes.  Some years ago a tax rebate was introduced to those who built a stork nest on top of their house – apparently the Stork lobby is strong in Alsace.  :) 

Later in the day we hit the Haut-Koenigsbourg Castle ... our very first French castle.  It was incredible and huge and filled with much history.  Although now a big tourist site, you could really imagine what it would have meant in medieval times. 


By the evening we had made our way to Yves mom's mountain house outside of Guebwiller, where, of course, we enjoyed more delicious French cooking.  What a fun meal, and great way to meet Yves’s mom.  Vince's French by this point had gotten much better, but Steph’s hadn’t.  Steph had resigned to the fact that the French she took in school was long gone, and the small amount of Italian she knows is now vexing her in picking up any other latin languages ... haha ... oh well, she definitely speaks wine!


That night we took in the local Bastille Day celebrations with carnival rides, music, and fireworks in downtown Guebwiller.

So much fun, and when the time was right we even got to show off our Gangnam Style moves, to the delight of the younger locals.

On our very last day in Alsace we toured the nearby Ecomusuem, which is many, many hectares of recreated Alsacian ‘typical village’ configured to display how Alsatians lived hundreds of years ago.  Not surprisingly, this place had a blacksmith, a spinner, several stables, and a load of old quaint stuff.  However, Vince and Yves’s favourite was the “distiller”, who was actually serving! 


Apparently the alcohol in times past was flavoured with holly, elderberry, anise, etc., and other herbal tones.  At one point the (old) man pouring the shots indicated that one of the herbs acts as an aphrodisiac.  So, after an awkward pause Vince asked (with Yves translating), if the man had tried any himself.  The old man replied, “when you’re young you don’t need it, and when you’re old it doesn’t work anymore”. 

Of course, smart-alec Vince then asked if there was a bottle that was “Viagra-flavoured”, to which the old man said, “Yeah, that stuff works, but I only take it so I don’t pee on my shoe!”  Oh the French, so comfortable about sex ;)

Special thanks to Yves and Natalie for all the laughs, and for going above and beyond all weekend and making our first Bastille Day one we will always remember.

Three more days left in Europe and we had London in our sights! 

We knew we would at some point-- and here it was, our Ryanair flight!  Herded like cattle we flew from Baden-Baden (closest airport we could find to Strasbourg with cheap flights) to Stanstead at the unworldly hour of 7 a.m. 

We arrived early in London and were greeted by Steph's friends Chris and Jo, who live in the lovely village of Wimbledon (you may have heard of it ;).


After catching our first real cold/flu while in France (not bad for 6 months of travel), we didn’t do London as intensely as it deserves.  We took the opportunity relax and recover.  We had to be healthy for South America which was in only in a few days.  So that is mainly what we did with our time in London.   

We did however manage to squeeze in a day with our Toronto buddy Katie who was also finishing up her European vacation that week.  Good timing, as her and Steph share a crazy love for the Royals and they were determined that Princess Kate would go into labour while we were there.  In that single day we all managed to fit in a visit to Buckingham palace to see the changing of the guards, play with the royal (bomb sniffing) dogs, see Westminster Abbey, and tour the Royal Mews (which is really just their garage).

Oh well, even though we had spent the weekend with THE baby storks in Alsace, our labour inducing powers did not prevail and so we spent the night watching the musical We Will Rock You, a tribute to the REAL Queen... band that is.  ;)


Special thanks to Chris and Jo for putting up with our sniffles and coughing as well as the fun curry conversation sessions and great catching up time.  Also thanks to Sara and Will, their kids, for letting us adopt their mom and dad for the days we were there.  Its not fun being sick without parents around.  ;)

Well that concludes our two months in Europe and we can not believe its all done and we are moving into the third phase of our around the world trip … the Americas!  This will be the last chapter of our grand journey, where we plan to conquer Argentina, Chile, Peru (more specifically Macchu Picchu) and end in the US.  We are excited about South America and meeting up with our T-dot gal Alex for the adventure.  Two more months left before heading home.  So until next time, adios amigos!

Blog #26 - Condolences to Our Friends

It is with a heavy heart that with this note we deliver our condolences to our friends, Lucy and Sheryl, who both experienced the loss of their fathers on July 4 and July 5, respectively.

Our hearts are with them, and we regret we’re not home to be there in person. 

Being away from home for so long gets to be hard.  You eventually begin to miss life’s big events, both those joyous and sad.  We do what we can with flowers, phone calls and emails, but it is at times like this we miss our friends and family the most, and while it is still a few months away, we’re looking forward to being back home.

We will always have fond memories of both Bianco and Harry, and we feel privileged we were able to know them.

Blog #25 - Czech with your Friends Wien Ordering the Schnitzel!

When we last left off we were on a seven hour train from Budapest to Prague, where we were scheduled to meet up with one of Steph's best friends Safiya, and her roommate Katie.  

Also, we were looking to celebrate a few birthdays while we were there: both Vince and Katie were going to add a candle to birthday cake.

We arrived just a day before Safiya and Katie, so we got a hotel for the night.  We checked into quite friendly but wacky Hotel Taurus in a not so touristy area of Prague and immediately ventured out to replace the power adapter we left behind in Prague (power is everything), and, with our noses in the air, to look for a meal.  Using what has now become a finely-tuned intuition for finding value restaurants, we chose a restaurant halfway called "The Three Little Pigs".  Vegetarian options were scarce, as were vegetarians.  And not only was the food plentiful, it was great.

The following morning we became tourists again and we made our way into the city centre to find our apartment.  Once again, it would be Airbnb, but courtesy of Safiya (thanks Saf!). 

On our way we could quickly tell Prague was going to exceed our expectations.  It is a beautiful city filled with statues, beautiful buildings, medieval bridges, the smell of rotating ham and the sound of chefs pounding meat in the kitchens (to make schnitzel). 


If that wasn’t enough, from time to time we caught a whiff of a bakery dealing in sweet dough.  At that point, Prague begins to feel like an amusement park.  Yes, it was so real it actually felt fake (must be too many Dracula movies). 


The check-in with the landlord went well, and again we were in a good spot in the city centre!  After an hour of so of unpacking, it was time to meet Saf at her Metro stop after her flight, and get the party started.  Big hugs!  Also, Vince was turning 28 ;), and that called for a celebration.


The three of us caught up over a few bottles of wine and treated Vince to a medieval dungeon restaurant that was supposed to feature fire throwers and sword swallowers, but alas, it was the circus freaks’ night off, so we ended up entertaining ourselves.  What a great and silly night.

The next day we met up with Katie, who is a teacher, and she decided to spend some of her summer vacation with us.  Now we were feeling privileged!  It’s always great to see our Toronto friends on the road, both old and new.  Partly due to Katie's jetlag and partly due to our headaches induced by the earlier night, we took it easy and just sauntered through the old city streets.


The next day, coincidentally, Katie was celebrating her 22nd ;) birthday so we threw her a party which included a beer-filled ride through the city on a six-person hexagonal bike (think of a picnic table you can drive…), followed by a few hours at a “vintage” Prague casino.  

This casino was smoke-filled, with narrow tall rooms, decorated ceilings, worn carpet, and get this: a balcony!  In North America, you can’t even find window in a casino, but this place let you actually look at the sun!  And, there was also all-you-can-eat schnitzel.  There were platters of pork and chicken schnitzel in the blackjack / roulette room.  But alas, drinks were extra. 


We would post pictures of this place, however, NO CAMERAS ALLOWED!  And rules you think might be bendable at home, just aren’t in other places.  We quickly found out when Saf tried to snap a shot of a guy at the roulette table who looked like Jágr's son....hahaha...not really, just a kid that was the spitting image of Jaromír Jágr.  He is Czech, so you never really know.

For our last day in Prague we signed up for a proper guided bike tour of Prague to learn about the city, its history, and its architecture.  


Our tour guide took us everywhere.  Steph's favourite building was the “Dancing House” which was built on the site of one of the (only) two buildings to be damaged during WWII.  The building looks like a couple dancing, and cleverly, it is nicknamed the ‘Fred and Ginger’ building ... super cool!  

We also saw the John Lennon Wall, which was immensely impressive.  The day after Lennon was shot in 1980, someone walked up to this wall and painted a portrait of the man (this was a very rebellious act, since the Czech Republic was at the time in fact Czechezlovakia and under communist control).  The next day it was painted over.  However the day following it had returned, but, it was painted over again.  This went on and on from 1980 onward, and now the “Lennon Wall” has become a wonderful hundred-foot plus span of graffiti and messages of peace.  It is very powerful to see.


With the extra context courtesy of our excellent tour guide Francesco (he was from Italy!) by the end of the bike tour we had fallen in love with the old and new quirky aspects of the city.  

Prague is a very popular stag/stagette destination for blokes and birds from the UK, and this should come as little surprise.  Cool backdrop with amazing beer, and importantly, it is very walkable.

It was sad to leave, but our time in Prague had finished and the four of us moved on to our next goal.  Vienna...the land of Wiener Schnizel and classical music.

Same drill, different city.  This time Saf and Katie led the way as they arrived by noon while we were still on the bus (cheaper tickets, and hey, Wi-Fi!).  Once again Saf's choice in apartments was spot on.  Large, trendy and cutely decorated.  We dropped off our bags.  Our first stop – one of the more famous Schnitzel houses, Figlmüller!

On the way there it became apparent that Vienna was not as much a backpackers destination as Prague, as it was more refined.  There were no drunks in the streets of Vienna, and people were elegantly dressed.  Our days of drinking dollar beers were over! 

But fine culture was all around us.  It was a nice feeling.  We lined up at Figlmüller for about an hour while enjoying wine from a bar across the lane.  In line we met a bunch of Canadians with the same visions of Schnitzel, and we debated the usual rivalry between Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Maple Leafs ... haha ... it felt like home.  Great food, conversation and über schnitzel.  We could now die and go to heaven.  With our bellies full and the day of travel wearing on us, we decided to retire to our apartment and rest up for a big day of touring.

We decided to see Vienna by bike, our seven days with the ladies definitely have a tri-theme to it ... beer, meat and bikes!  So fun!  We rode on our last day and did a self-guided tour (Saf and Vince took turns being navigator).  Our bike ride took us about 35 - 45 kilometers up and down the Danube, and it was awesome.  Good exercise and great tanning day.


However, a word of warning, Austrians take their cycling VERY SERIOUSLY.  There is not such thing as a “bike lane” … bikes get their own roads, and walking on one will get you a strongly executed bell to the ear.  Bikes even have their own on- and off-ramps from bridges!  Take a look for yourself:

Special thanks to Safiya and Katie for coming along for our Eastern European adventure and celebrating with us!  We are super excited to get home and pick up where we left off.  Such a great time!

Once we said goodbye to Saf, we had a few more hours in Vienna with Katie so we ended up dragging her though Mozart’s house (poor girl ;).  That place may have been rockin’ in the 1780’s, but it isn’t so much today.  

Afterward we headed to the State Opera House.  On the way we walked past what must have been Rihanna’s hotel (she was playing in Vienna the next night), and did a few minutes of stalking.  Who are these people that stand around waiting for celebrities to go into or come out of buildings?  Well, for ten minutes that day, we were those people!

The Mozart concert was cool.  It was touristy, but what the heck.  It was Vince’s classical day!


 The next day – well the next day is simply embarrassing.

 You see, in an effort to save money on a hotel room, we booked an overnight bus to our next destination, Munich.  But it left at 11:15 p.m., and in order to enjoy the day we went early to the bus station and placed three of our four bags into a locker, so that they wouldn’t be weighing us down while we wandered Museum Quarter, parks, and other assorted places.  The keen ones among you may already know how this ends, but to make a long story short, when we returned at reasonable hour to take our bags from the lockers and hop on our overnight bus to Munich, it was closed! 

 The office area that had the lockers was closed, lights out at 9 p.m.

 Apparently, we didn’t get the memo (maybe because it was in German??), that even if you have an 11 p.m. bus you have to get your bags before 9pm ... ARRGH! 

 So with our bags stuck in jail, we were forced to miss our bus, and we had find a room ASAP.  We got a room at the nearby budget Ibis, which was seriously budget, but clean and the next morning we grabbed our bags at 6:40 a.m., and got our sorry butts to the train station to get an early train to Munich.  

 So instead of rolling into Munich at 6 a.m. on a bus we are heading to Munich on a high-speed train, a few hundred dollars poorer.  That is the fee for our idiocy.

 If we learned anything, it’s that when you travel, especially when you try to travel on the cheap, you have to stay vigilant.  You can search for hours for the cheapest way to get somewhere or do something, but if along the way you make the kind of mistake that could get you kicked out of clown college, you will quickly wipe away all the ‘little picture’ savings. 

Oh well...c’est la vie...Vienna 1, Team Luciani 0.

 Munich, here we come.  And we could use a beer!


Blog #24 - Feeling Hungary Yet?

Last we left you we were mid-air from Naples to Budapest, via the previously unknown to us “Wizz” Air.  It was a short flight that didn’t give us much time to get over the fact that we were leaving the most amazing food land on earth.  (You can bet when we left Italy, we didn’t leave Hung(a)ry …wah wah… sorry, we couldn’t resist).

We landed in Budapest on time, jumped directly into a taxi, and headed straight to our accommodation for the week, an apartment courtesy of Airbnb (  

After being able to function in Italy (even in Rome!), speaking the local language, it was a bit of a shock to again be in a country where we knew literally none of the language.  Our taxi driver spoke only a little English, however he managed to teach us a few Hungarian words before taking a call from a very funny friend and/or professional comedian that went on until he dropped us off.  His laugh was truly contagious.  


Giddy or not, the driver dropped us right in front of our beautiful Baroque apartment for the week, right in the centre of Budapest!  We had picked the perfect location for the week of exploring right across from the famous Synagogue.  Super score!


Our hosts Patricia and Matteo were there on time, waiting for us to give us the key, and presto, we were now officially in Eastern Europe, with our own awesome lofty apartment and our own kitchen!  We would spend many mornings of the coming week buying groceries in the Central Market (which is just like St. Lawrence Market in Toronto).  


It reaffirms one’s faith in humankind when you find an apartment on the internet, and when you show up, it’s better than the photos!  It was “flash as a rat with a gold tooth” (this is an Aussie expression we have been dying to use!  :)

But back to Budapest, and more specifically Pest, the east side where we were staying – it is a magical, beautiful city filled with amazing architecture and the smell of deep fry dough everywhere.  


The first thing we noticed was that our area (District V) was intensely driven by the cafe and bar culture.  There must have been a baby boom in the 80's and 90's because there were zillions of twenty-something’s everywhere.  Everyone seemed to be enjoying the beer, conversation, and music at all hours of the day.  We had arrived in a young and hip city.

Our second notable observation was the awesome public transport system.  


Did you know that Budapest was the first city in Europe to build a subway?  It is just a few feet below the surface of one of the main roads in Pest.  And the trains, whether trams (above-ground) or the metro (below-ground), ran very often.  We never waited more than a few minutes for any vehicle!  Perhaps this is a holdover from Soviet days?  Either way, people in this city moved around on transit quickly and efficiently, and happily, for that matter.  The smooth transit made this place very easy to enjoy –we ended up buying a week-long transit pass for about 20 dollars, and we made good use of it. 

However on the first day it rained like crazy, so we spent that day just enjoying the apartment, catching up on our emails, celebrity gossip and cooking with paprika.

The next day we went to Castle Hill on the Buda side and did a self-guided Rick Steeves tour on our iDevices.  During this tour we stumbled upon the most unbelievable fountain of King Mattias hunting with his dogs.  It had to be one of the most unique and captivating fountains we had seen on our travels so far (other than the Trevi Fountain in Rome, and the 1:12 scale replica of Niagara Falls at “Windows of the World” in Shenzen, China).  


Not too far away from the fountain there was a lonely medieval-costumed squire-guy just waiting for tourists to come his way and try their hand at archery.  Vince couldn’t resist, so he paid his two euros for five arrows and, against all odds, showed the guy, and Steph, exactly where the bullseye is! 

We rented bikes one day and manage to cycle up to Margaret Island, which is a cute little spit of land smack in the middle of the Danube River, dividing the two sides of the city.

We went to a “gypsy” classical concert, which was filled with recognizable classic music, folk tunes, and the funniest boot-slapping dances you could imagine.  It was like watching a Hungarian Michael Flatly (Lord of the Dance) ... but way less green and with fewer curls :).  Have a look:

When Saturday night rolled around, we thought maybe we could pretend to be hip 20-somethings and we had caught wind of the “ruin bars”. 


About 10 years ago someone had the idea of rolling a beer keg into an abandoned building in downtown Pest, and start serving beer.  Ten years later Pest is now full of ‘ruin’ bars, which range in style from gritty to just strange.  We hit three bars in total, the more popular ones: one was graffiti garage sale themed, one was circus themed, and the last was enchanted forest on acid themed (think flying owls with boobs).  

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On our walk home, we walked through a square that was basically a BYOB chill party, with its own live rapper … oh to be young again.  This city is a fantastic backpacker place with tons to see, do, eat and drink!  Fantastic!

NOTE ABOUT LAX DRINKING LAWS:  Along with the extensive subway lines there were trams and buses and even a rolling bar (human and beer driven of course).  Check it out:

On the last day, when our week was almost up, we were feeling pretty comfortable and trusting of the place, we took a leap of faith and tried the most local of things one can do in Budapest: an escape game! 


The owner of the one we picked (there are about 20 different places in Budapest) told us that it’s a unique Budapest idea that is only now slowly being copied elsewhere.  

So, get this ... you pay some guy to lock you in a room and your mission is to figure out how to escape, in less than an hour.  There are a series of clues and puzzles and crazy devices in the room you need to figure out, before the ‘bomb’ goes off.  We managed to get out in fifty minutes, however, we did get a lot of help from Big Brother, who every so often would tell us over the loudspeaker to: “look in the vacuum cleaner”, or “try to turn on the computer”.


Hahaha, what a blast but what a mental headache the morning after a few ciders.  We loved the escape game, and were in the “zone” the whole time (except Vince, when he was taking photos), but if you are at all claustrophobic, a germ freak, or think you might not be at your best trapped in some low-rent inner-city basement maze – this might not be for you.  Here is the website of the one we did so you can see:  Fun!

We ended our six days of Budapest in true Hungarian style in a public bath.  Did we mention that bathing is a huge part of their social life here?  The turks showed them how it’s done. 


We picked the big one in the main city park called Szechenyi, and spent four hours there roaming around in hot tubs, cold tubs, lukewarm tubs, saunas, current pools, salt pools ... we think there is a total of 18 different pools in all.  Our fingers were large prunes by the end but we felt great and very relaxed afterwards.  

We could see why this was so popular with the locals.  Hitting a bath is the definite must-do when in Budapest!  It makes every Sunday a funday.

We highly recommend this different and beautiful city.  Rent a bike, take transit, or take a bath.  We will have long and fond memories of our week as Pesters.


We sign off now, en route to Prague in the Czech Republic.  We are meeting up with Steph's bestie Safiya for a week of fun, antics and more European adventures.

Blog #23 - Ruined in Pompeii and Spoiled in Capri!

When we last left you we were on a train heading to the notorious southern Italy, which is known to be quite a different ball of Italian wax.  

After our time was up in Rome we had a little more time to burn in Italy.  So our dilemma was how to spend it?  Stay in Rome?  Head north?  Go up into the mountains of Abruzzo?  

At the end, our decision was guided by the fact we found a cheap-o flight out of Naples to our next destination in eastern Europe.  So, Naples, Pompeii, and Capri here we come!  

The south, in particular around Naples, is a ramped-up version of Italy.  Everything happens with more passion.  Things are a little less safe, it’s a little louder, but the food and the wine is so much more intense!

Vince had been to the area many years prior and knew Pompeii would make a good travel base so we used it as our springboard to the area.

So after a long travel morning, we got to Pompeii, walked across town and arrived at our humble and cute “Hotel Diana”, which we found was right next to another train station.  Not the same train line we used to get there… but hey, this is what adventure is about, right?  It turns out Pompeii has three separate train stations, each on different train lines, which range from almost legitimage to total sketch – so, guess which one came in on??)  


We still had an afternoon at our disposal so we got right back on the local train (sketch) to knock the first ancient site off our list … Herculaneum (Ercolano, in Italian).

A little brief history lesson for those who don't know about Herculaneum. 

Clearly, it isn’t nearly as famous as Pompeii, but they both suffered the same fate under the same volcano on August 24, 79 AD.  However, it was closer to Mt. Vesuvius, and so it was buried deeper, more quickly, and with hotter ash, than Pompeii.  As a result, the details in Herculaneum are generally better preserved than Pompeii. 

At the site, which has only been 25% excavated, jewelry, furniture, food, legal documents (in stone), several hundred skeletons, and (multi-storey!) houses have been found, showing how people lived, worked, and even ate.  So interesting!  Plus, compared to Pompeii, this site is small and compact, making it manageable enough to see within a two to three hour period.


Just as we were wrapping up, and the sun was getting low in the sky, we contemplated dinner.  Back to Pompeii, or, hmmm… only 30 minutes by train to the best pizza on earth, eh?  So just like that, we were on a train for Naples, for pizza.

Naples -- what an intro to the South!  Dirty, gritty, crazy but the best pizza on earth!  Our goal was Pizza Sorbillo because it was recommended by a Neapolitan (that we met on the train) as the best pizza in all of Naples.  When we got there, it was busy as heck.  We took a number and grabbed a glass of prosecco from the happy hour stand next door and enjoyed the circus of a street outside while we waited.  

Once seated, we ordered quickly, were served quickly, and we ate quickly (that part was easy), in order to make it in time for our train.  Our walk back to the station at twilight, was quick and direct.  We held on tightly to our pockets so we could make it home in one piece.  Score 1 for team Luciani, no mugging!

The next day, after dreaming about ancient life and watching a pretty-cool documentary on Herculaneum ( we woke ready to tackle Pompeii.

For a city, Pompeii is mid-sized.  For an archeological site, it is enormous.  There are several streets, squares, temples (no roofs), two theatres, an huge oval amphitheater, and of course, a brothel. 


In Pompeii, there is little shade, so we just walked around until we were totally ruined.  Hahaha...get it?  Ruined.  And we probably only saw half of the place.

Either way, seeing these cities in the flesh, almost as they were 2000 years ago, has been the crown of all our visits to sites of ‘antiquity’ on this trip.

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Coming back to the present, we were ready to change gears, and footwear, and get hiking!  It wasn’t easy to get to, however, early one morning we got a taxi up to the start of the trail known as the “Path of the Gods” (Sentiero dei Dei), which is high up on the Amalfi coast. 

From its beginning in Bomerrano to Positano, it take four hours to complete.  We started very early, the weather co-operated, and for most of the hike the views were simply breathtaking.  If you can believe it, the last portion of the walk is a straight descent down more than 1000 steps – our legs were literally shaking by the end. 


Yes, we’re nuts but it was beautiful and worth it, plus we have to burn the pasta calories off somehow! 

Positano is quite the looker.  It is on the water and nestled between mountain ridges.  It was however very busy (both the beach and the town were crowded). 


After making it back to our home base Pompeii, we had a nice meal and made dessert friends with the family that ran an excellent Gelato shop called Golden Ice.  Vince corrected the daughter when she called whipped cream “soft cream”, and in turn she told Vince that he spoke Italian like a robot.  Haha…thank you very much Signore Roboto!

Alas, the next day we would say bye-bye to the Pompeii.  Because we were about to really open the wallet and splurge on Capri.

After so many days in the sun, we ended up sleeping in.  After a boot-camp style jog with all our bags, to the furthest train station (did we tell you Pompeii has three train stations??), we just made the train we needed to catch to make the ferry in Sorrento

After a ferry ride that made us thankful we didn’t have time for a big breakfast, we took a bus to the less expensive side of the island in Anacapri, to our hotel.  Hotel Senaria was cute and clean, and had excellent service.  Toto, we aren't in Kansas anymore.  Remember when we told you that a 4 star in India is about a 1 star in the western world?  Well on Capri, a 3 star is more like a 5 star, service-wise.  It wasn’t cheap, but it was only for one night, and we were very happy.

So, what to do?  Aside from the usual Italian activity of strolling around to ‘be seen’, what can you do on Capri? 

Well, every island has a high point.  So our first activity was to go to the top!  Much as with the Amalfi coast, the views from the top of the island on Capri are breathtaking, and half the fun was the crazy-windy chairlift ride there and back!  


Later in the afternoon we started for the famous Blue Grotto, or in Italian, the Grotta Azzurra, which is a water-filled cave on the sea.  No bus for us.  We walked down from Anacapri and along the water using the “Path of Old Forts”.  This was a lovely surprise! 


It was a lovely trail, winding above the sheer rocks which went into the sea.  We alternated from watching crashing waves and reading the cute ceramic plaques that described the wildlife and plants in the area.  We even saw goats roaming below in the rocks!  Don’t fall! 

When we got to the Blue Grotto, it was closed.  It was unfortunate, but we weren’t surprised.  We’d been told that with the rough sea it wouldn’t be possible to go in.  Not safe for swimming!  But it still put on a great show.

Also – little known fact, when the tourists aren’t lined up at the Blue Grotto, the fishermen are!  These guys were pulling in a fish every single minute! 


For our last night in Italy, of course we got all dressed up in style, went into Capri, and started people watching.  We put on our best cruise-ship threads and chose a restaurant based on the fact Jerry Springer was in a bunch of the photos.  Must be good right?!  Haha.  Well, the food was good, but the service not so much.  We had Gnocchi alla Sorrentina and Caprese Salad, of course.  After all, this is where the stuff comes from.  (Oh, and by the way, Jerry Springer’s face shows up in a lot of restaurant photos in Capri!)

Time to go!  The next day we had to get to the Naples airport to catch our flight to Budapest.  In order, we took a bus, a boat, our feet, another bus, to the plane.  And it all worked!  Everything ran on time that day, such that we actually had time during our walk to visit the pizzeria where Julia Roberts enjoyed a slice in Eat Pray Love.  It is called L’antica Pizzeria di Michele, and it makes only two kinds of pizzas: Margherita and Marinara.  (If they made a third kind it might be called “Get Lost!”, or “No Pizza per te!”).

We write this from Budapest, where we have a private apartment for a week.  

We were sad to say goodbye to Italy but now we’re excited to see what Budapest has in store for us.  Only a couple more months of this crazy adventure left...we have to make the most of it!

Ciao, and szia!


Blog #22 - When in Rome, Do As The Romans Do!

Last we left you we were on the train heading to Florence to experience for ourselves the epicenter of Italian art and culture. 

Vince had been there before, but this would be the first time for Steph. 

Florence is never cheap, we knew we’d have a challenge ahead of us to find a reasonable and economic place to stay.  On first cut, we found no hotels for less than 125 euros (approx. $175 CAD) per night.  Ouch.  And we did not want to end up in a hostel with the twenty-something’s (because, as we’ve discovered earlier while on the road, we’re not 20… anymore).

Um, maybe we shouldn’t have left Florence until the last minute…

Our dilemma: where can you sleep on the cheap at a world-class tourist destination, when you don’t want to spoon creepy crawlies nor hear drunk kids being loud and obnoxious at all hours of the night? 

The answer?  The suburbs!

So, our “Florence hotel” was in fact in a very industrial area called “Prato Est” and was coincidentally also right next to one of Italy’s biggest malls! 

So there we were in a 4-story Ibis Hotel in the far end of a mega-mall parking lot.  It was just us, a few businesspeople, and on one particular night, a busload of weekend shoppers/tourists from Hungary.  The location also helped us scratch an itch we’d been having for some minor retail therapy since hitting Europe a few weeks ago (after several months on the road our threads were getting a little old…).


What a score and what a way to hack Florence, no?  We got a nice clean room for maybe one-third the cost of Florence proper and the only catch was that we had to take a thirty-minute train into the city.  We were tourist-commuters!  Not a bad deal, overall, and the fare was only 2.50 euro each way (the TTC could take a lesson in here!).

So we explored Florence on foot, by walking.  We learned so much in such a short period of time, admiring all of the beautiful things about this city – all the statues, churches, fountains, gardens, and architectural marvels all around.  So many recognizable names lived here – too many to list – but let’s just say this was the city of Ninja Turtles (Rafael, Donatello, Leonardo, and Michelangelo).  OK, now we have really shown our age. :)


Florence is vast, but the historical center is easy to navigate by foot and there are so many culinary treats along the way, from the usual cannoli and gelato, to cold cuts and cheese plates.  Seriously, we found a deli-counter restaurant that served only antipasto!  In the two days we were actually in Florence, we visited and climbed the Duomo (most beautiful views of the city – go in the late afternoon), Piazza Michelangelo (the views!), and of course we walked across the Ponte Vecchio (did you know this was the only bridge in Florence that the Germans did not blow up upon their retreat in WWII, on account of its beauty?).

Italy, like many other places, has regions that each make their own claim to fame in the food department.  For example, Cinque Terre is known for the lemons and pesto, while Lucca was known for wild game such as rabbit and stuffed pastas.  Well, Florence is known for Steak!  Awesome! 

Learning what food each region is proud of is half the fun of traveling Italy.  We love this and think we should do the same in Canada.  Each city and town should claim a food to make their town mascot.  Wouldn’t that be funny on the ‘Welcome To’ sign?? Toronto…home of bad street meat.  Maybe on a t-shirt??  No?


When it was time to pack up and head out we were a bit sad as we truly enjoyed our time there. 

But no time to reminisce just yet!  We were on our way down to Rome to see our friends Gisella and Roberto, BUT on the way there we were also going to make a pit-stop in Pisa. 


It was an hour train ride from Florence to Pisa, and as soon as we arrived mid morning, we checked our bags at the main train station and headed by foot to the complete opposite side of the town to see this famous landmark.  Pisa in general was quaint town, smaller than the other cities we had seen but nice all the same.  In Pisa, because it was a short stop (maybe 4 hours) we really didn’t figure out their town mascot cuisine, but we sure enjoyed the drinks.  Vince’s new favourite afternoon Italian cocktail is the Spritz.  The ingredients include Aperol (bitter, but not so bitter like Campari), Prosecco, and a splash of soda, all dressed up with bricks of ice and a wedge of orange.   A perfect way to cool off from the intense Pisa heat.

The leaning tower was spectacular and unbelievable, and despite the searing heat (no shade!) we managed to spend a solid hour taking kitschy photos and admiring the view.  We highly recommend an afternoon in Pisa … but not much more than that. 

So we collected our bags and headed to our final destination of the day…. Roma!

We rolled into the Rome Termini around 7:00pm and quickly jumped into a taxi to head to Parioli, a nice neighborhood in Rome just north of Villa Borghese, to stay with our friends for the next four days.  We had visited Gisella in Rome before, a few Christmas’ seasons ago, and had a fantastic time so we were looking forward to the reunion and to catching up.

It was instantly awesome, as it has been with our other hosts in the past, we just jumped right in and adapted to their schedules / rituals / eating patterns ;).  We just love to see how other people live, especially in different countries, in different cities.  When in Rome, right?!


Gisella and Roberto’s apartment was built in the 1930s – during Mussolini’s reign – it had the highest ceilings you have ever seen.  It was like you were living in a fashion museum.  On our first day in Rome – get this – we didn’t leave.  We spent the whole day just enjoying her living room, catching up on administration and cooking her and her daughter Viola the best Italian-Canadian meal we could (after a short jaunt to the local market).

The second day we took a long slow walk to the Vatican in the afternoon, about a two to three hours from Parioli.  When we got there we plugged in our headphones to the iPhone and took in one of Rick Steeves’ audio tours of this ultimate Catholic church.


We may have forgot to mention earlier, but since learning of it on the cruise, consistent with the theme of ‘hacking it’ we have been using an iPhone app by Rick Steeves, the guy who is an expert Europe traveler.  He gives expert audio tours of most of the big sites, and most important, they are free!  His tours are funny, down to earth, filled with just enough history and facts and also the odd corny joke.  Plus, isn’t it cute that we walk around Europe, arm in arm listening to our iDevices together…. awww amore! 


After the Vatican we met up with Gisella and Viola for an evening of local food at a non-touristy dinner spot close to her apartment. The traditional dishes to Rome were all ordered including Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe and Pasta alla Norma. Yum and very Roman. So relaxing and so nice to see Rome from a different, more residential, perspective. 


On our last day, we decided to go inside some other sites that we’d seen from the outside on a previous trip, namely, the Colosseum and the Forum. We spent 4 hours walking around Palatine Hill, learning from Rick Steeves for free and taking shade wherever we could from the intense sun. We don’t think we have ever been this tanned before. Thank goodness for SPF 50. After we finished we walked past Steph’s favourite building… the Typewriter (also built by Moussolini). Vince is convinced she wants to be a dictator someday when she grows up. For dinner that night we planted our behinds smack in the middle of tourist ground-zero in Campo di Fiori to enjoy the setting sun and the various buskers around the piazza, all from our outdoor dinner table. (Our favourite was the bohemian bubble lady, who blew bubbles for kids to pop – that was it. She had a committed fan club of children, including us. ;)

This last visit to Rome was very memorable and enjoyable and we cannot wait until the next time we go. A special thank you to Gisella and Roberto, and especially Viola for letting us take over her bedroom. We wouldn’t have had such a fun time without you. We hope to host you someday in Toronto where we can return the favour. Grazie!

We sign off this week from the train heading south to Pompei. We will be spending four days in this area exploring volcanoes, ancient ruins, and hopefully hiking the Amalfi Coast. We even splurged and booked a night on Capri. Hoping to spot a celeb. Hey when in Amalfi, right?! 

Allora, ciao amici!


Blog #21 - Eh oh! Oh eh!

Last we left you we were disembarking from our crazy mansion on the sea after twenty-two days of easy-peasy travel stocked with three course meals, a state of the art gym, and comfy sleeping quarters.  We were now ready and refreshed to tackle Europe and start the Luciani European Adventure!

We walked ourselves off the boat and then from the port to the train station in Citiavecchia where we headed north to the poor man’s French Riviera, le Cinque Terre!  


There we met up with our good friends from Toronto, Erin and Jeff.  It had been two and a half months since we last saw a familiar face.  We were so excited!

We arrived in Cinque Terre after four hours of train hopping and then started our ascent up the crazy slope to our rented apartment in the tiniest of the five towns, Corniglia.  Minor geography lesson for those who haven’t been or are unaware of Cinque Terre – “cinque” means five and “terre” means lands, so as you could have guessed this place is comprised of five beautiful towns that are just dripping into the Mediterranean sea, on the coast just north of more-famous Pisa.  It has cliffs, colourful houses, and one of the most scenic hiking trails in Italy.


So the five day reunion with Erin and Jeff would also be supplemented by two days of amazing hikes.  To keep costs sane, we all agreed on staying in downtown Corniglia, which is the middle town, highest from the water, and no less that 382 vertical steps from its train station.  We also think it was the prettiest of the five (but not for the feint of heart, or weak-kneed…).  Our plan on the first day was to hike to the two towns in the south, Manarola and Riomaggore, and on the second day, hike to the other two towns in the north, Vernazza and Monterosso.  Molto Bella!

We arrived after Erin and Jeff and so we were greeted by Jeff popping his head out their apartment window (Ciao!), which was followed by a flurry of warm smiles and big hugs.  In fifteen years, Steph had never been apart form Erin for this long (except for the time Erin went on her Australia/New Zealand adventure after graduation).


Our apartment was super-cute and tucked away high up in a popular corner of Corniglia between a couple of gelato shops.  This is a very small town and as such has only a few small café and restaurants.  You can tour around the town and see everything in about fifteen minutes, but upon arrival we were happy to relax and take twice as long (hey, the sun was setting!).  


Of course our first night was spent catching up, eating amazing local food, and conking out after way too much wine.

When we woke up in the morning, the four of us discovered a quaint little café that served the most fabulous focaccia filled with arugula and ricotta for breakfast and Lavazza cappuccinos, so, from this point onward this would be out first stop each day.  Once we had filled each other in on the last five months, and filled our bellies, we set off on our first day of hiking.


However, along with ourselves, we also brought along some nasty rain and cold weather, and to make matters worse that first day, just after we bought our trail passes we were informed that due to a recent landslide (in 2011!) the scenic trail remained closed, so for us to get to the towns south of Corniglia we would have to hike far up the ridge, and then back down.  This is how we discovered the little village of Volsatra (which is not blessed one of the five “Cinque Terre” towns). 


The walk was super hard, but a great workout.  By the end of the three hour hike in the non-stop rain, both Steph and Erin looked like drowned rats but it was fun nonetheless.  We met lots of other hikers along the way and finished our day at the best restaurant in Corniglia, enjoying local rabbit and pasta.  Sorry Thumper :( 

On our second day, we had our fingers crossed that the weather would hold up as the trail in the other direction was supposed to be quite beautiful, and the northern-most town was supposed to have an actual beach!  After another three hour hike, along the water this time (beautiful), the hype proved to be true, it was so magical and full of sunshine.  What an amazing hike and great way to spend the day.  We enjoyed pizza in Monterrosso and had wine on the beach, and even indulged in the local lemonade as lemons were on every tree in this region.


To get back to our town, instead of hiking back or taking the train, we managed to catch the last shuttle boat, and so we enjoyed the views from the water and got to see all five towns once again before departing in the morning.  Other than a touch of sea sickness experienced by Erin, it was breathtaking, and a great way to see Cinque Terre.  And other things!  Upon docking we were faced with a view even some locals may never get – in North America we call this a “banana hammock”, but in Australian we learned it’s called a “budgey smuggler”.  Whatever you call it, it’s just wrong….and for heaven’s sake it isn’t proper fishing gear either!  Hahaha!


Cinque Terre was most definitely a fabulous stop and we were so happy to experience it with Erin and Jeff.  Together we all packed up and jumped on the first train to Lucca.  We were so lucky to invade their annual vacation for five days and we were most happy to show them Lucca.  Also, this was one of Vince’s favourite places in Italy which he had visited many times prior.

The journey only took two hours, and when we got off the train you could feel the calmness and romantic ambiance of this Tuscan walled town.  We were excited about exploring and eating our way through the entire old town.  We quickly checked into our modern bright bed and breakfast just outside the wall and dropped off our bags.  We were itching to walk and sample the vino.

Now after four days in Italy, Steph’s Italian was starting to get really good for a ‘mangia cake’, and so being immersed in Lucca where English was not as readily spoken was a good thing.  Her goal is to be conversationally fluent before leaving Italy…you can learn a whole new language in three weeks right?  Time will tell.

While in Lucca we tried many local restaurants and dishes.  The ingredients were so fresh and in season including the peas, artichokes, mushrooms, tomatoes…yum!  And did we mention the pesto is to die for?  What a culinary adventure including the best local wines.  Tuscany is a true treasure we would highly recommend.


In Lucca we spent two days strolling the streets, looking at the many churches, perusing the shops and markets, and cycling atop the city wall which was four kilometers of park dreams.  Steph and Erin even managed to negotiate a price for a half-kilo of cherries from a near-toothless woman at a fruit stall near the main square, paying more than double the market rate! (I have a feeling the lady knew they were tourists….).

We had such a great time with Erin and Jeff, which made us miss Toronto even that much more.  Thanks to both of them for traveling so far to bring home to us, allowing us to be part of their romantic vacation, and for the lifetime of memories.  We cannot wait to get home to pick up where we left off.  We miss you already!

After we said our goodbyes and parted ways, we spent an extra day in Lucca to plan our next moves within Italy, and hey, get a haircut. 

We write this entry on the train en-route to Florence where we start our second week of this Italian adventure.  So excited to see what is in store for us, on and off the plate. 

Until our next blog, please enjoy the ‘Mangia Cake’ Cam below.  You can take the Toronto girls out of Canada but you can’t take Italy out of the girls.  Eh oh! Oh eh!

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Blog #20 – Goodbye to a Dear Friend

Last time we wrote you, we were just finishing up our first ever cruise on the Holland America Noordam, which took us from Istanbul to Athens stopping in Egypt to see the pyramids.  It was such a memorable and enjoyable eleven days so we decided to take a second cruise from Athens to Rome, stopping at many of the Greek Islands, Venice and Croatia.

Well at the start of this week, Steph received bad news from her best friend Cara.  After three and a half years of battling cancer, Cara’s father had passed away.  We were at a cafe in Venice, relaxing our feet and checking our emails when the news came in.  Our hearts broke instantly and for the first time on this trip, we truly considered jumping on the first plane back to Toronto. 

Bob was like a second dad to Steph for the past fifteen years.  He was there throughout Steph and Cara’s university years, was often the chauffeur to their parties, allowed more than one silly sleepover in the basement, and was standing proud at their graduation.  Between weekends at the cottage, Christmas Eve at Gran’s, and countless nights out celebrating big occasions, there has not been one special moment in Steph’s life over the past fifteen years that Bob wasn’t part of.


He was one of the most caring, generous and happiest people we have ever met.  Throughout his illness he was always positive, even when he wasn’t feeling well.  It has been so hard not being at home for Jan and Cara and the rest of the family, and not being able to give him a proper goodbye. 

So naturally we’re not in the mood to be funny or write about the places we’ve been this week.  This week we just wanted to write about our beautiful friend Bob, who we will never forget. 

Now, more than ever, we can’t wait to get home, but until then, everyone in Bob’s family should know we are thinking about them and love them all very much. 

Before we sign off for this week, we must send out a special thank you to Rick and Sandra from Winnipeg, whom we met and spent much time with on this cruise.  They were so nice and great companions during this tough time.  They did their best to lift our spirits and it was great getting to know them.  We hope someday to meet again. 

This morning we disembarked the ship and started our dry land portion of Europe, beginning with Italy.  There are many countries we hope to see and many friends who are making the trip out to see us.  It will be so nice to see them as this week has definitely made us miss everyone from back home.  Life truly is way too short.

Blog #19 - We're Not Supposed to be on this Boat!

Last we left you we were sleeping over in the Abu Dhabi airport as we were flying to Istanbul to start the Luciani European Vacation. 

And now we’re in Athens! 

But last week we were in Egypt! 

How is this possible?  Because, yo!  We’re on a cruise!

Now, you may be thinking what would two self-respecting backpackers be doing on a cruise?  Well, for some time we’ve knew Europe would be the most expensive part of our trip, so a while ago we began looking at “last minute” cruises as a cost-saving option.  These suckers really go on sale as the departure date approaches, so if you’re flexible with your time, you’re good to as gold! 

However the challenge for us was to find a cruise that would bop us around for a per-day total cost that was lower than we could manage overland in Europe. 


Well, to cut to the chase, the “price was right” and we booked a seriously rockin’ Mediterranean cruise a few weeks ago.  The winning bidder that fateful night was the “Holland America” cruise line, and since leaving Istanbul we have already gone through the Greek Islands, to Egypt and back to Athens. 

At the moment we’re in Athens and next week we’re headed to Croatia and Italy!  All for cheaper than we could do it ourselves.

But putting aside the great value we’re getting on this ride, and the myriad of different coastal cities we’re seeing – a new one almost every day – this boat, and cruising in general, is it’s own surreal experience.

It started even before we landed.  As our plane descended toward Istanbul we could see the Bosphorous Straight below, that divides Europe and Asia.  And docked right in the straight was this big navy blue ship that looked like a massive floating hotel.  Could that be it?  Holy smokes.  We immediately started giggling.  The other passengers on the plane probably thought we were just nervous flyers.

We landed, figured out the Istanbul transit system and went straight to our hotel in the old part of the city.  We explored the immediate area and took in as much non-Asian food (finally!) that we reasonably could, and tried to fight off jetlag. 


The next morning we got on an Istanbul hop-on, hop-off, bus tour.  Corny, we know, but since we didn’t have much time in Istanbul, we figured this would be the best way to spend our time.  However it also served a second purpose – transport.  Since the hop-on, hop-off bus tour went past the ship, later in the day we did a second loop with our backpacks (not a recipe for popularity), hopped-off with our packs and just walked up to our ship!

What looked large from the ship, and from the bus, was just insane from the dockside.  The “Noordam” is a crazy navy blue spectacle.  Sitting at ten decks high with two pools, a basketball court, theatre, movie room, piano bar, and about a half-dozen restaurants and countless bars, in many ways this is the most magical experience we’ve had on this trip! (Please keep in mind how much time we spend concerning ourselves with food, shelter, security, etc. ;).

We admit, we haven’t been really “roughing it” very hard the past few months, but this cruiseboat is out of this world, and we’re a little afraid it will be hard to adjust back to backpacker life once we are done.  Consider that right now we are in a floating five-star hotel, gym, restaurant and taxi, and that since we boarded most of our meals have been on tables that have actual tablecloths, and of course the food is first-rate.  Also, there is no shortage of it.  We heard someone say, “at the beginning of a cruise people check-in as passengers, and check-out as cargo”, but despite the tools of destruction that are at our disposal, we’re trying our best to stay conscious of what we are eating while taking advantage of all the food that is nearly impossible to come by as backpackers (in particular, fresh veggies, good meat and fish, and of course, soufflé).

As such, we may have set ourselves up for a fall.  ;)


Cruise tip: when you eat in the dining room (as opposed to the buffet) you will be sat at a large table with other couples.  Not time nor the place for a quiet, solitary meal.  You see, cruising benefits the extrovert.  On board there are about 2000 people and everyone has a small room.  So people are always about and social engagement is constant.

So what do we do?  Actually, for most of our meals we choose the dining room (white tablecloths!), and as such we are rewarded with interesting conversation from interesting people who are (invariably) our elders.  Given that we’re their kids’ age, and not employed at the moment, we get a lot of the same questions.  But it’s fun!  It’s like going through three job interviews per day (… good practice for when we re-enter reality ;). 

So if you’re a sociable type and like to meet new people from different walks of life and chew the fat (figuratively, or that of some exotic animal), cruising is definitely for you.

So, who cruises?  On this boat, retirees.  Mainly from the US, Australia and Canada.  You see, Holland America is one of the most “traditional” cruise line brands and as such it has one of the highest average passenger ages of the major cruise lines.  This is not a party boat.  In fact, every “formal night” Steph has to wear a dress, and Vince has to wear his fancypants and loafers we purchased just for this purpose. 

On average, approximately 75% of Holland America’s passengers are over 50.  So, if you didn’t already know, that makes us special!  But seriously, deep down we must be old souls, because we're fitting right in.  Now, there are also a few young families and younger couples on board (however every time we cross their path we wonder if they’re also here on a “last minute” sale. ;) 


The on-board activities are ridiculous, but after a few days Stockholm syndrome sets in and they don’t look so bad: namely, shuffleboard, trivia contests, bingo, and skill contests that involve rolling hula-hoops for accuracy. 

Well, to our credit, as a team we won the movie kiss trivia contest against a dozen other teams: the game involved identifying the kiss scene being shown on the screen…which were stills taken from old Hollywood movies.  Needless to say Team “Lucky Luciani” took the title with 37 correct answers out of 40, and this massive score, according to our smarmy show host who is also a bingo caller, was a Noordam  record! 

Whatever, we won a bottle of bubbly (which we will save until next Saturday ;).

Every night there is a live show in a three-story theatre that seats hundreds (remember there are almost 2000 people on this boat).  Apparently, the company that puts on the show is owned by none other than Barry Manilow.  That seems about right (we don’t feel the need to comment any further on the live entertainment ;).

Overall, cruising has been like a vacation from our vacation. 

So you may be thinking, are you guys bored? 

Actually, it has been quite the opposite.  We wake up in a new place almost every day, so time is flying and we’re having a tough time keeping up! 

To give a quick rundown, so far we have explored: Istanbul, Mykonos, the ancient city of Ephesus, Rhodes, the Giza Pyramids in Egypt (including a lunch cruise down the Nile River), Alexandria, Crete, and Athens.  And we’re only half done!

At lightening speed, then:

Istanbul was as good as the hype and was also a great place for Vince to get a proper shave.


Mykonos island was beautiful and quite cosmopolitan (and has beaches that are ready to party)!


The ancient Roman city of Ephesus has seen better days (after all, it was once the second largest city in the world, behind Rome).


Rhodes is very interesting to explore on foot – a true medieval city, with roots and roads that go much further back!


We spent two days at Alexandria and got to see Cairo, and the Sphinx and the Pyramids.  This, of course, was magnificent.  And spending a day on the ground just touring Alexandria on our own was a good, if adventuresome, experience

Crete was cool and it seemed to have it’s own thing going on, aside from tourism (we know this because once we got more than a few streets away from the dock, there was zero English).


And right now we’re in Athens.  So far, this place is far, far better than Vince remembers it from his trip here in 2007.  We’ve successfully tromped around on our own, with the help of yet another hop-on, hop-off bus, of course…

From the first morning when we got on the boat our time has been rolling along like a dream.  Every time we wake up we’re docked in a new place, and from the point of view of this massive boat, where you don’t even feel the waves, it can feel like the travel gods are just floating the cities up to you, instead of the other way around

Now fast-forward into the future: from the best we can tell we will (as will many of you!) probably be cruising when we retire. 

And if we could take it one step further, on the few days we’re entirely “at sea” (i.e. not docking anywhere), it becomes like a “vacation from our vacation from our vacation”! 

But for now we’re super-glad we’re travelling this way on our way to Italy!

With many more days more to go we expect the funny stories, people and memories to keep piling and look forward to sharing those with you.  Gotta run now…we are in a Cha Cha contest and Steph is revved to open a can of whoop ass on those old foggies…hahaha…watch out grandma!

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Blog #18 - Rubber Ducky You're the One!

Last we left you, we were coming down from the walls of Xi'an and boarding another overnight train.  

In China, overnight trains are a fabulous way of getting around as they are super clean and super safe, and offer a smooth comfortable ride.  You can actually sleep!  Not as much in India and Thailand.

We boarded on time, found our bunk bed, and slept all the way to Shanghai.

We arrived 15 hours later, quite refreshed and excited to see if Shanghai would impress us.  Also we were hoping we would discover that it was less polluted than Beijing and Xi'an.  Instead of keeping you in suspense, nope, we were quite disappointed. 

It would seem that it should be a sunny day, on the weather front, but when you looked up, the sun was still behind a thick yellow smelly cloud of ozone and haze....urgh!  We were basically in an environmental full Nelson.  Entering into our second week in China we couldn’t get away from the pollution.  And we had gone from the most pristine place on earth, New Zealand, to the most polluted one.


Ok enough complaining!  We rolled into town and made our way to our hotel by metro.  It was a four-star, but since we got it on sale and the standards of hotels are all over the place in China, well, sometimes a four star is great and sometimes it’s not.  After a shorter than average “we just got here adventure” we found the place.  From the outside it seemed OK.  Oh, and it had a coffee shop called “Kinloch’s” that specialized in “traditional Scottish coffee”, since “1869” (btw, a Scottish coffee was coffee with scotch, that’s it).

The hotel was otherwise a perfect nitty-gritty busy midrange hotel.  Moreover, because it was China the cigarette smoke was unbearable.  People were smoking in the lobby, in the coffee shop, in between floors, nowhere was safe (except maybe the gym) and the staff even puffed away while on duty.  Gross!  Hey what do you expect for $40 a night (we got it on sale).

Otherwise our plan for Shanghai was to meet some of Vince’s friends for dinner and drinks.  Marcela and Ricardo lived in Toronto for a few years, ago, and with their advice we made the best use of our time, walking every inch of glitzy Shanghai, taking in sights from the Orient Pearl Tower, to too-cool Xintandi.  We had a great dinner above the Bund, and caught up and swapped notes on life.


On our own we also went to Fuxing Park where they play live music and dance while the sun is still up.  Only we’d find this interesting.  We also took a cool yet useless trip to the airport and back on the 430 km/h magnetic levitation train!  It was useless because we didn’t have a flight that day, but this thing flew, literally, it does not touch the track.  The sensation, once it got up to 430km/h (not a typo) on the straightaway, was that you were sitting on an airplane that was just about to take off.

Shanghai was pretty cool, all in all.  It’s a young, aggressive city.  We found some time to pop into some five star lobbies to see the rich peeps in their element.  There is a lot of money flowing into Shanghai, and many ultra-luxury brands, and ritzy restaurants too.  It felt more like Singapore than China, and it was hard to believe this city is in the same country as Beijing.

Special thank you to Marcela and Ricardo for hosting us for the weekend.  We had a great time and it was so nice to see friends in mainland China and to swap stories.


We got our way out of town by taking an early-morning taxi to catch our ultra-early (cheap) flight, to, of course, Shenzhen!  Where?  Well, we looked at how best to get to Hong Kong from Shanghai, and found (and which Edwin confirmed on a Skype call with Vince, too) that you can fly super-cheap to Shenzhen and just take the subway to Hong Kong!  Crazy eh?

Well we did just that, and it was less than half the price of flying direct.  On top of that, after a bit of research, we found that both Shenzhen and Guanzhou (near Shenzhen) together make up the amusement park capital of China!  Score!

We landed at around noon with all our bags strapped to us and a few hours later we hurried by metro to one of the many amusement parks.  We chose a destination that was very interesting, and even though there were no thrill rides, we just had to see this.  It was called “Windows of the World” and basically, they have created an amusement park that highlights and recreates the wonders of the world in miniature, varying from 1:15 scale all the way to 1:4!


So, if you’re denizen of Shenzhen, and have a sense of adventure but not Shanghai money, you can just visit this park and literally go around the world in an afternoon.  It was so weird, and around every corner was a surprise.  We were in awe.  Also, it was also a bit creepy to visit places we had just been, like the Taj Mahal or Angkor Wat, but there they were, in miniature!


We figured that the Chinese maybe don't get to travel that much so instead they bring the world to them, quite genius.  And this place was busy!

Once we were done circling the globe, our feet were barking, so we hopped on the metro and made our way to Hong Kong.  This wasn't the first time we had crossed a border on foot, but it was going to be the first time we would be doing so in a subway station. 

Well, we, and at least a thousand if not more people per hour were making the same crossing (Sunday night, shopping weekend?), so it was easy. 

After an hour on the train and a short cab ride later, we were at our friend’s apartment in Hong Kong.

You see, while Steph was at the detox resort in Thailand, she met Colleen who also was not eating for eight days.  Needless to say, she invited us to stay with her in Hong Kong, and after much insisting, we took her up on the offer.  It would be a fantastic way to see and do Hong Kong with our new friend as well as save a few bucks.  Hong Kong hotels are expensive yo!


Her apartment was very nice and her company was great.  We felt so welcomed and impressed by Colleen's hospitality, we are hoping she will someday come and visit Toronto and stay with us.  Thanks Colleen!

And as luck and a little planning would have it, Steph’s good friend Shermie from New York was also in Hong Kong and so we took our hands off the wheel for a few days and followed her and her boyfriend Erik around HK and Kowloon for two and a half days.  It was great to have to think of where to go and what to do.  Our mission was simple, and fun: shop, eat and find the massive rubber ducky (to be honest we don’t know much about this big duck other than it has been spotted in London and Sydney, and so it has a little cult following).  We had never heard about it.  Tourist trap for the jet-set crowd?


The shopping was cheap, and food was fabulous.  Of course, since we were now in Hong Kong there was no more language barrier, and Shermie speaks BOTH Mandarin and Cantonese, so, we were set.  We were taken to all the local establishments including Australian Dairy which was the weirdest, busiest breakfast restaurant.  Get this: it specialized in chicken and ham macaroni soup with a side of white over buttered toast and the best scrambled eggs you have ever had.  To us this was new, but it is “home cooking” for many HK natives. 

Obviously HK was not a diet zone as we took part in this and many other unusual food experiences.


Perhaps the best food highlight was a restaurant called Yardbird.  The owner and chef is from Calgary, which right off the bat is cool, but the tapas-style, almost-nothing-but-chicken menu was the coolest.  You could order a skewer of gizzards, oysters, liver, or, if you were less adventurous, good ol’ breast or thigh.  This was not your hometown “Swiss Chalet” rotisserie.  (Hey, we’re not saying Swiss Chalet is bad, it’s just not a rocking HK hipster joint like Yardbird). 

We had so much fun catching up with Shermie and seeing her in her element.  Having a translating tour guide makes any place feel like home, fast.  Thanks Sherm-berger and Erik for letting us tag along on your annual vacation.  What a fun time and we hope to see you either in Toronto or New York in the fall, when we return.

Well that's it for us.  That concludes our China adventure and our stay in Asia and Asia-Pacific.  We are in the Abu Dhabi airport writing this on our way to Istanbul, from where we will start our two-month stint in Europe.  

First bucket list item to cross off....cruising!  We board our first ever cruise ship in Istanbul on May 17th.  Watch out shuffleboarders...hold on to your comes the Luciani’s!  Yeeehaaaw!


Blog #17 - No Peking Your Nose in Public!

After three weeks in glorious, clean and beautiful New Zealand, it was time to change things up again and see what was going on in China.  

This would be the second communist country so far on our world tour, and the fourth country that required a tourist visa to be obtained in advance.  It seems China is always in the news lately – so we were definitely anticipating an adventure.

We landed in Beijing having left Auckland twenty hours prior, and when we stepped off the plane we were like baby lambs, clean, blinky and a little shaky-legged.  As such, we were wholloped by the pollution we knew would be waiting for us.  We had heard about it, and we came prepared with masks, however, it hit us sooner and harder than we thought it would: while waiting for our luggage, our chests and throats began to burn.  

So why did we choose to visit this country again?  Oh ya, for the crazy experience!

We soon noticed there is very little spoken English going on in mainland China.  Written English shows up here and there, however for the first time it seemed we might not be able to get our butts out of the airport!

Ultimately, we figured it out.  Lucky for us our hotel was near the last stop of an airport transfer bus.  So for a few bucks each we jumped on what we guesstimated would be “close enough”, and sure enough, it was (but just barely).  After an hour of walking around a strange, bigger-than-life city, we made it to our hotel under our own power.

We didn’t have that much time to ourselves that day.  After unpacking, taking a nap and a shower, and discovering that Facebook does not work in China!, we ran down to our lobby to meet our welcome wagon: our friends-in-law, Ada and William.  While we were in Sydney with Peter and Gaye, Peter noted to us that he had good friends in Beijing who could host us and show us around the town (even though we had not met them before).  Ada and William were very gracious and generous hosts: on our first night they took us for a traditional Chinese dinner.  We had the most delicious BBQ pork, finished with Portuguese tarts (I know, not so traditional, eh?).  

Overall, it was the perfect first-day introduction to Beijing and China.

So before we go any further we should send a special thanks to Ada and William!  It is always a good idea to have a local, no matter where you go, and China is no exception.  And who else but a local would be able to answer our crazy (and Steph’s inappropriate…) questions?

A few more observations about China: there is an abnormal amount of public expectorating going on here.  Everywhere.  Now, its understandable with high pollution you may find you the desire to clean your pipes from time to time – it’s actually quite reasonable -- however, it’s something else when everyone, including those you’d very least expect, will just out of the blue, churn out a loogie at top volume and launch it off. 

Men, women, it don't matter.... it was just gross and happening everywhere.  We started to count, and as of the time of writing were at 24 “instances”, after only 5 days. 

(But since we are trying to be culturally sensitive, we’ve since learned and should share with our lovely readers that in traditional Chinese medicine it is considered unhealthy to swallow phlegm.  So there you go.  I wonder if according to Chinese medicine it is unhealthy to get hit with someone’s phlegm?  That question doesn’t translate so well, so we never ended up asking it. 

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Back to the blog!  In China, much like India, we got a lot of attention.  Except in India, the attention was on Steph.  But this time the attention was on Vince, basically (so far as we can tell) because he’s currently sporting a beard.  Oh and with a soldier’s hat on he looks like Che Guevara. 

There are very few westerners here, and even fewer who have beards, so once again we have become the local freaks.  People want Vince’s photo, as they did Steph’s in India. 

On our first full day of sightseeing we ventured into the Forbidden City, which is the walled ancient “capital within a capital” from within which the most recent dynasties ruled China for many hundreds of years.  It is filled with beautiful gardens, beautiful buildings and ancient artifacts.  


We learned from our self guided audio tour that Emperors would have many concubines living in the Forbidden City with them and they would socialize with the wives as well...very strange...but we are guessing the Emperor's wife got the memo before she agreed on this arrangement and probably was relived she could share the duties of keeping her hubby happy.  (We wondered aloud if “jade digger” would have been a term used hundreds of years ago. ;)

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Following our tour of the Forbidden City, we walked directly south across the street into Tiananmen Square.  This is basically the centre of Beijing, and it feels like the centre of the Chinese universe.  It is flanked on all sides by monolithic buildings and is under the watchful eye of Chairman Mao himself.  He’s also the only one who is allowed to sleep there (the only building in the square is his mausoleum).  Otherwise it is simply massive, and is designed to make you feel small.  The square can hold one million people, which, put into immediate perspective the enormity of the student protests that took place back in 1989. 

Otherwise, this is a great area for people watching (and being watched, as there are both uniformed and plain clothes officers throughout the square).

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We noted that florescent colours are this spring’s must-wear.  Also, the usual hipster accouterments are making their way over here (hats, suspenders, and t-shirts so expressive they could be granted a degree in philosophy).  Hipsterism is truly making its way around the world.  


Also later that day we hit a very touristy narrow snack street to see some of the crazy things they put on sticks to eat.  We were not disappointed.  Bugs, fish, solid jellies – everything imaginable was skewered (some still alive!) and was ready to be cooked on demand.  BTW, Vince is so gross!

On our second day, which coincidentally landed on a Saturday, we booked an excursion with a hiking group called “Beijing Hikers”.  They turned out to be a large group of expats that do this all the time.  This would be no typical visit to the Great Wall.  No, nine, neit, boo. 

We woke up at 6:30 a.m. and met the group by 8 a.m. at Starbucks on the  northern fringes of the city (we told you these were all expats, right?).  We all piled onto a bus and drove two and a half hours to an obscure section of the Great Wall of China.

Since we are generally ambitious and reckless, we signed up for a “Level 5 hike”.  There ain’t no Level 6.  We figured we’d be up for it, and since we just finished the Tongariro ‘alpine’ crossing in New Zealand, this would be easy, right?  That was a volcano.  This was a wall, had stairs, etc -- piece of cake! 

Or not.  This walk was to be 18 kilometers of hiking and we were unsure what pace this group was going to keep.

It turns out the group were very serious and the pace was fast.  The lead guy just ran, like, the whole day.  The pace was so fast that there was little time to truly admire the scenery or take photos, except for a few 5-minute short water breaks.  


You see, the Great Wall was not built for rollerblading.  It was built to keep an army from crossing any further south.  It just traces the top ridge of a mountain range and is therefore basically a series of steep hills and steep descents.  It was definitely the hardest hike we had ever done.  Six hours in total, mainly up or down and little in-between.

At one point though, after Vince had stopped to smell the roses and shoot some video, Steph hammered on and ended up leading the whole pack for a while, ahead of even the guide.  She was pushed on by the crazy competitive nature of everyone else, and of course, her love of winning (yes!). 


Vince later caught up holding a beer he bought from a vendor on one of the towers.  This was followed by a t-shirt purchase, and later a bunch of postcards.  Hey, it’s hard to say no when you’re weak! 

All in all, it was a fabulous day, great exercise and mystical “wonder of the world” scenery.  We also met some nice people along the way... several expat Canadians, and other tourists, too.

The only negative thing we can say is the soreness in our thighs which lasted for 4 full days afterwards, during which time we made noises like the Three Stooges anytime we’d climb or descend stairs.

Sunday rolled around and we were ready for a break, which was perfect as Ada (she’s back!) wanted to take us to see some not so touristy things of Beijing.  We were happy that we could just stroll the city and speak English with her the whole day.

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First stop – crazy alert! – Ada took us to a section of a famous Beijing park where for a few hours every weekend the parents and grandparents of unattached young men and women take over the place and establish a little love market.  You think the NBA draft has drama?  This is wackiest matchmaking we have ever seen.  Parent set up chairs alongside one another and place a little poster on the ground in front of them, and on this poster, for lack of a better word, is their kid’s “stats” (most prominently: age, income, profession).

Imagine your parents finding you love...yikes!  Would you hand them over your online dating profile, and just check in from time to time?  I don’t think so!

It was like a garage sale for love, and the most interesting (if not intrusive) people-watching hour in recent memory for us.  It takes reality TV to a whole other level.   

We also hit a very touristed (hipsterized) huton, which is a collection of narrow residential alleyways and streets for which Beijing is known.  The secret is out about hutons, as they are the most pedestrian friendly part of the city, so several of the more enterprising ones have tourist attractions.  This one was a crazy hipster hang out (hostels, up and down the street), and also good if you needed to replace your lost Che Guevra T-shirt, get some gelato, or, stinky can see our reaction to this “treat”. 

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But the day wasn't over, one last stop.  We had heard from another hiker the day prior that there was a coffee shop in town that was a 100% replica of the “Central Perk”, the coffee shop in the television show Friends.  Since China is the country where trademark laws come to die, we figured it must be true and we went to check it out.  And there it was!  There was also extra seating next door, and it was laid out like Joey and Chandler's apartment.  So fun!  So American!  And pretty good coffee as well. 

We want to send a special thanks to our new friends Ada and William for showing us around and making us feel at home in Beijing.  We hope to stay in touch and visit again in the future.

On our last day in Beijing, we managed to fit in a Chinese Acrobatic Show and a “light dinner” that included Peking Duck (we were curious and it was yummy!).  That night we boarded our sleeper train to Xi’an, the apex of what is known as the “Chinese triangle”.

Xi'an is over three thousand years old, and as such is the historical capital of many of the prior dynasties to rule China.  More recently, however, it is famous for the thousands of Terracotta Warriors nearby.  We were very interested to see these things in real life.  


Well were we shocked.  Thousands of these clay warriors have been discovered and apparently they are still finding more.  Rows and rows of these things including horses and chariots, all buried about five feet underground.  It was unbelievable.  The largest exhibit, “Pit 1”, was so large we felt like we were walking around the inside of an airplane hangar.

Now the history part is a bit foggy for us, as there was very little English, but what we gathered is that this army was built out of clay to be put in the mosuleum of one of the emporers to protect him in the afterlife, but it was buried and destroyed when the area was pillaged by enemies, hundreds of years ago.  They only discovered this in 1974 when farmers digging a well, uncovered a piece of one warrior.  

It was probably the most interesting exhibit we have seen to date.  Just WOW!  We even got to dress us like the warriors for pictures.... we are the corniest tourists ever, but hey for $5 how can you say no. 

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We only scheduled ourselves for two days in Xi'an and with the first being completely taken over with the Terracotta Warriors, it only left the last day to explore the city.  We decided to take it easy and see a couple of attractions called the Bell Tower and Drum Tower, as every tourist in Xi'an does.  Meh.  It was OK, but a bit boring. 


To work off our lunch, we went to check out the Xi'an city wall.  Looking back this was an even tie with the TC warriors for coolness.  The city wall is massive and about 14 km in total length.  We rented bikes on the top of the wall and did a loop in exactly 100 minutes (which by coincidence was exactly how long the rental permitted).  What a great way to end out time in Xi'an... other than the pollution, it was great!  

So, we write this blog entry from our soft sleeper berth bound for the last corner of this Chinese triangle...Shanghai!

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We are looking forward to the second half of our crazy Chinese adventure, as this week approaching, will be our last in Asia before heading to Europe.  We still can not believe our time on this side of the world is coming to an end and that four and a half months have blown by already.  We are about half way through our trip and so excited to see what the second half has in store for us!

Blog #16 - The City that Always Sheeps!

Our ferry rolled into the beautiful harbour of Wellington exactly as planned, and we were moving into a new phase of New Zealand....the North Island phase!  Since the South Island was so fantastic and beautiful we were quite expecting the excitement and natural beauty to peter off, but we were wrong!

As we rolled into Wellington we could already tell this 200,000 population small city was like no other we had seen before.  It had undulating hills but barely any traffic, and much better coffee than you’d guess from its size and location (the local specialty is the “flat white” coffee, which is basically a zero-froth version of a cappuccino).

Upon arrival, we were greeted by our friends Neil and Helen and their daughter Caitlyn at the arrivals gate of the ferry terminal.  We were glad to have friends to visit and to be shown around by locals and we were once again looking forward to sleeping in real beds for the next couple of nights ;)


Wellington is supposed to be the political, cultural and artsy hub of New Zealand (along with being the actual capital of New Zealand), and it became quite evident to us not 15 minutes into our arrival brunch at the cutest 1960 themed bohemian beach café.  It was loaded with hipsters, however, not the annoying kind.  We must have been in a good mood… either way, the food was fantastic and service was killer.  We just wish we could remember the name of that place!  

Right after our re-fuel session, we were wisked away to see the iconic Wellington Cable Car, which has been running for over 100 years.  From up there we took in all the views: watched planes land at the Wellington airport and tried to figure out which body of water was a bay and which was the Cook Straight.


On our second day in Wellington, our amazing hosts took us all around, from the famous and free museum called Te Papa, to the crazy, indie Cuba Street to window shop and sample some local drinks and grub (coffee, plus dessert this time).  


This is where we discovered some very unusual fashion trends.  In Wellington, as there is in Toronto, there is a small group of teenagers and twenty something’s that like to dress Goth.  Where we are from, Goth fashion has a vampire, punk rocker, all in black scary kind of feel.  Well all of this applies in Wellington and maybe all of NZ (not sure), however there is an undeniable pirate theme running through the place... arrr ahoy matey, eye patch and all!  Hahaha super weird. 

Ok enough rambling, the day ended in true Toronto hipster fashion with us adults (only) hanging in one of the coolest resto/bars called Chow.  The cocktails were to die for (Steph ordered the Ping Pong Punch...delish!) and the tapas style Asian fusion dishes were unbelievably tasty.  For those who know Steph’s hobby of staying hip like the kids, she was in heaven and equates the experience similar to the Toronto based restaurant 'Origins' (the one on Church & King not Liberty Village :)


We would like to send out a very warm and huge thank you to Neil, Helen, Caitlyn and Ryan for welcoming us into their home, for letting us take over their long weekend and for spoiling us like we were one of their own teenage kids ;)... they even bought us toothpaste for the rest of our trip.  Good as gold!

So with two full nights of 8-10 hour sleeps, in a very comfortable bed (thank you again Neil and Helen), we hopped back into our tin can on wheels and hit the open road, continuing north. 

First stop for us north of Wellington was the historic and iconic art deco town of Napier.


If you weren't aware, New Zealand is on a major fault line and has a long history of earthquakes.  On February 3, 1931, Napier fell victim to one of the biggest earthquakes in the country’s history and was completely flattened.  It took a few years, but they eventually rebuilt the town, and when they did, because of the era, almost every single building was rebuilt in art deco style.  Hey, it was the style at the time!  What might have been ultra-modern then (they were the first city in NZ to get electricity, too), seems like a movie set now.  It is the neatest place you could ever see, and you feel like you have gone back in time.


When we arrived, we hit the local tour office and picked up the self-guided tour pamphlet and walked for hours admiring the buildings and colours and layout.  Napier also lies on a pretty nice beach, which makes this town a very rewarding visit.  Unfortunately due to the fact we only had six days left in the north island we could only spend the day, and then we were off again.

Next stop...Lake Taupo.  As we mentioned two blogs ago, we had declared NZ a “budget-free zone” back in the South Island, and so we ate at the occasional restaurant and took in fee-bearing the tourist attractions as they appeared.  But with the Lake Taupo and Huka falls area, it was easy to enjoy on the super-cheap.  There were several things to do here at zero or little cost, so we explored the area, kept the wallet in the glove compartment and had a fabulous time! 


This day quickly became the ‘corniest' day of our trip, as all the places we stopped in at were super-kitchy (this seems to happen in places where a waterfall is the major attraction – Niagara Falls – we rest our case ;).  Here is a list of activities in the area and you can judge for yourself.  We watched the Aratiatia Rapids Dam open and take fifteen minutes flat to fill a river gorge ten meters or so (pretty cool to see and only happens three times a day – and we had a great viewpoint alongside the other retirees ;). 

Then we went to Huka Prawn Park...yup you read that correctly, a shrimp farm where you can fish for your own lunch.  We too were in shock.  Then we went to the Huka Bee Hive, an exhibit completely dedicated to honey and honey production and honey bees.  They even had indoor glass bee hive with bees working away....slave drivers!  Vince had a shot of honey liquor (hey he needed it to wash away the flavor of the mead!).


Then we went and checked out Huka Falls, which turned out to be a lot smaller than all the buildup!  Maybe we’ve been spoiled growing up near Niagara Falls ;).

Our last visit of our corny day was at a spot called "Craters of the Moon”, a 45 minute circuit around a few dozen hectares of ground of volcanic activity.  This was cool.  There were steam vents and thermal mud pools all around.  As an attraction it should rival, if not beat Huka Falls, but for some reason waterfalls seem to get all the glory. 

All in all Lake Taupo was super fun but maybe more geared towards those aged 8 or 80.  Fun day though!

Moving on at high pace, that night we drove south, around Lake Taupo, to camp on the cheap and to be within spitting distance of our biggest goal for the North Island the next morning: the famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing.

You see, since leaving Toronto in December, we have taken up hiking and we have been ramping up the intensity of our walks ever since.  Of course, we don’t mountain climb (for a lot of reasons), but we think we are doing pretty good hitting some of the bigger hills in the Asia Pacific region (and we’re training for Macchu Picchu).  

Assuming the weather co-operated, on this day Tongariro, would be our toughest trek to date.  This walk would be a total of six hours and was mainly uphill all the way to what is called the Blue Lakes.  As well, you have to walk through all four seasons including the season of extreme winds.  By the end, Steph was convinced she was going to have to be carried out to the campervan on a stretcher...the downhill return on a mix of loose and solid rocks was super killer on the knees.


Despite the pain -- what an amazing day and sense of accomplishment! 

We certainly felt our age in our joints, so that night we found a holiday park that also had natural hot pools, included in the price!  Total score, and exactly what we needed.

Waking up pretty much rejuvenated, we continued north to the (also) volcanic region of Rotorua.  This time we were heading for another goal: the Agrodome!  Steph wanted to shear a sheep!  And feed a few, too.  When we rolled in, it was like Disneyland meets Old McDonald’s Farm…fantastic!


Upon arrival we learned to the laughter of the ticket agents that there is “no way” we’d be allowed to shear a sheep ourselves, during the sheep show we did get to watch a poor little lamb go from well-insulated to naked in less than 60 seconds. 

The show was great.  It even included dogs!  Check out this video …those sheep are not stuffed.  It was the real deal.  We had no idea there were 20 different breeds of sheep.  This was actually the first time while on the road Steph wanted to get a job hosting the sheep show.  Can’t be that far from a dog show, right? ;)


After the show, we did the tour.  It was an hour-long tour of the farm grounds and fed every animal you could imagine.  Cows, sheep, deer, ostrich, alpaca and duck…crazy!!!  Steph was in heaven and did not want to leave.  To the confusion of the other tourists, Vince was yelling “mangia, mangia!” to every animal he fed. 

After our morning of farm fun, we headed uphill to the crazy Rotorura Sky Swing because in NZ you have to jump off something, and this was the tamest free fall we could find.

Time was ticking and our flight out of Auckland was less than 24 hours away at this point, so we booted it north one last time to drop off our van and get to the airport in time.  Rush, rush, rush!  We only had to squeeze in one last item before left. 

Our good friend Ritu (who you met in our last India Blog) has family in Auckland who she has not seen in a very long time.  We promised her to go visit their restaurant, give them a hug for her and say hello.  We only narrowly managed to squeeze in the stop, but it was wonderful and we were greeted as family.  What a great hour with delicious food and great conversation.  We hope to visit them again some time but nest time for much longer! 


Well this concludes our last week in New Zealand, by far the nicest storehouse of natural beauty in the world.  We highly recommend that you take every reasonable measure at your disposal to get there – especially if you enjoy the great outdoors – the stuff you can do here, you just can’t do anywhere else.

For example, Zorbing:  We’re not even going to talk about this one.  No, we didn’t do it!  Instead we did this!   


We should run now, as we’re wrapping this one up from Beijing where we just arrived and we are getting ready to hike the Great Wall of China.  Stay tuned for more crazy adventures!

Blog #15 - We Say Trail Mix...They Say Scroggin'!

Last we left you, we had soggy undies from kayaking Milford Sound and were about to jump in our campervan to head to a friends’ cottage near Wataka, on Lake Hawae.  Our plan was to enjoy two days of indoor comfort and relaxation by a roaring fireplace. 

After a couple of intense days in Queenstown and two days of driving to and from (and paddling) Milford Sound, spent in our campervan, we were looking forward to sleeping in an actual bed, and cooking our meals in an actual kitchen and maybe even running an actual bath! :)

The drive through Fiordland, past Queenstown up to Lake Hawae took effort, steel nerves and iron bladders.  We arrived at night and it was like finding an enchanted cottage in the woods.  Sure enough, in the morning we saw it was right beside a magical lake.  It was just gorgeous and just what we needed.  It also had all the modern amenities, as well as a wood burning stove, which gave it a very cottagey feel.

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So we hibernated for the weekend.  We cooked fabulous fish salads and did a movie, wine and taco night…yummy!  Aside from a walk along the lake, the only trip we took of any significance was to the local, off kilter, “Puzzling World”, which is a larger than life collection of crazy mazes and optical illusions.  We were huge geeks that afternoon.

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Puzzling World is one of those places we’ll never forget and we are pretty sure there isn’t another place in the world like this.  It had the largest maze in the world (we think?) and tons of weirdo things to see and do.  Check this out:

We just loved our time in Wanaka and Lake Hawae.  We had been going at top speed from when we landed in Sydney, so shifting into down-gear was a welcomed change of pace.  A special thank you to Ian and April for letting us stay at their gorgeous cottage, as well to Diana for taking such good care of us while in Lake Hawae.   It was exactly what we needed before heading up the west coast to Franz Josef Glacier where we had booked a helicopter tour of the glacier and a guided hike.

With our batteries recharged (both us, and our electronics…), excitement was in the air as we drove for almost six hours to and up the rugged and remote west coast, soaking in the views (magnificent) as we went.  We made a few stops along the way, eating in a small town called Haast, at the tackiest “man cave” you have ever seen, and we also stopped to walk up to the newly completed “Haast Point Lookout”, which was quite grand.  It was a really hard steep climb, but a fantastic workout.

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When we finally arrived at our destination of Franz Josef Glacier, we were very impressed with its familiar feel.  The entire town was reminiscent of Collingwood, Ontario, or Mont Tremblant, Quebec, which in Canada are highly managed single-landlord “towns” (bordering on amusement parks) that are designed to give a ski village kitchy feel.  It was super-cute.  We rolled into town at dusk and saw in our lonely planet guide a holiday park that was advertising to be in the “middle of a rainforest…”.  Well, everything in the area that isn’t glacier is either mountain or rainforest… but this holiday park was super cool, with green-lipped mussels on the menu at their restaurant, so after a long day we happily rolled onto our non-powered jungle campsite and went for dinner…smooth!

At the base of the glacier, in the town, we were also well positioned to walk to the helicopter tour office in the morning, as well we were directly across the street from the glacier hot pools – where we planned to relax our nerves after being in a helicopter for the first time…so nervous!

Well, did we mention rain forest?  When we woke up that morning, all we could hear from the back of our van were gusty winds and heavy rains.  Helicopters aren’t great in either of those conditions, nor in thick grey clouds. 

Despite this rude awakening, we got ready as usual and headed to the tour office to check in.  As we almost expected, we were greeted by a blonde, 20-something surfer dude and his smile: “Sorry folks, conditions outside are not safe for flying so we have to cancel your trip”! 

We were disappointed, but with our refund in hand, we took the opportunity to move up our schedule and make the day a full-on driving one.  It was nine hours until our next stop, but now, we had a whole day to get there!  Also, it didn’t hurt that we felt two helicopter rides richer!  ;)  No point of getting upset.  Certain truths in life: you can’t fight city hall, and you can’t control the weather.

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So off we went up the west coast through blazing rain but otherwise still very beautiful scenery.  We made stops along the way to help break-up the drive.  We visited the famous Pancake Rocks and admired the coastal views as well we even took in a few rainbows including the elusive double rainbow!


It was a crazy long day but we made it into Blenheim.  Here we were very close to Picton, where two days later we were scheduled to catch the ferry to the North Island.  For once, we were ahead of schedule.  :)

Ok so in our last blog we talked about DOCs vs. Holiday Parks and how they are a great way to save money because the only amenity is a bathroom.  Well lets just say we have gotten quite used to the “5 star” trailer park that we have not been to one DOC this week.  Bad campers!  We promise we’ll try to rough it in the North Island.  But for Blenheim, we checked in to a Top 10 Holiday park and fell fast asleep.

Now we must explain that Blenhiem is the de facto capital of the Marlborough wine region of NZ.  This is the wine capital of New Zealand and more specifically (arguably) the Sauvignon Blanc capital of the world, and so what do you do if you wake up in the middle of it??  You take a Tandem Bike Wine Tour of course!!  Duh!!! 

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You would not believe this, but we found someone who would rent us a two-seater bike, a couple of helmets, reflector jackets and a winery map, and send us off.  We left at around 10 a.m. in the morning, and we biked, had lunch, made friends and tasted wine until about 4 p.m.  In our day we visited Gibson Bridge (super-boutique Pinot Gris; husband and wife duet enterprise; only 6 acres; only bottle we bought the entire day), Saint Clair (up and comer), Rock Ferry (awesome organic wine, even better cheese board; super-friendly staff!), Allen Scott (great wine value), and of course, Cloudy Bay (the grape with the most swagger in town). 

Steph had never been on a wine tasting before and to do it by bike it truly was a unique experience.  We pedaled hard between stops (wineries are big!).  We spent the next two days rehydrating.

Shortly after we were in Picton, the place one catches the ferry to the North Island.  There isn’t that much more to say about Picton.  It’s cute and has nice shops and people, and of course it is the launching point to all the great treks of the Queen Charlotte track.  After our day of biking/drinking, we were a little too knackered to take on any section of the Queen Charlotte track, so we stayed on the mainland and got the best view we could from above on the Tirohanga Track.

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The next morning was ANZAC day in New Zealand (April 25), which is analogous to Canada’s Remembrance Day, and the US’s Veteran’s Day, so we awoke at dawn to the sound of bagpipes, and Taps (from a single trumpet), from the ceremonies in town. 

We made it aboard our 8 a.m. ferry, and that is where we are writing this installment of our weekly blog.  We are on the “Blue Bridge” to Wellington.  Being on this boat is like being a NY Mets fan.  This boat is a lot smaller than the competition, so it’s been a somewhat rough ride across the Cook straight.

Once we land on the North Island, we have a bunch of things planned and some friends to visit, and then we’re off to China on May 1stSo satay tuned for more adventures!  ;)  Oh and by the way, today’s word of the day is “scroggin”…otherwise known as Trail Mix…haha…we find this one funny!

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