Monday, August 6, 2012

May 2011 Trip Part 3 - Santorini, Greece

So, the last entry ended with us taking the ferry from Mykonos to Santorini.  I’d like to elaborate on the ferry a little more.  I’ve had some bad experiences in the past with seasickness.  As a result, I was very hesitant to go with the ferry for our transport between Mykonos and Santorini.  However, it made a lot more sense from a cost and timing standpoint than flying as there was no direct flight available from Mykonos to Santorini.  I also read a lot of positive reviews about the fast ferries that operate between the Greek islands.  As I said in the last blog entry, the experience was much better than I anticipated.  Things were a little hectic at the port in Mykonos while we were waiting for our ferry (the Flyingcat4) as there were a couple of different ferries that arrived and departed before ours and very little organization to the boarding process.  Once the Flyingcat4 arrived, we had little trouble boarding and locating our seats.  The seating was more like economy class in one of the older jets in the US but on a much larger scale.  Unless you were seated by the window, there wasn’t much to see.  I had taken my Dramamine in advance to prepare for the trip, but fortunately, the ride was very smooth.  I’m sure it’s a much different experience when the water is rougher, but thankfully, the seas were not angry that day.

We were very excited to visit Santorini.  Ever since we first saw the amazing pictures of Santorini, it was high on our list of places to go to.  What we didn't anticipate was how much we would enjoy Mykonos.  We intentionally went to Mykonos first as we thought we needed to save the best place for last.  While Santorini was an awesome place, I think our expectations may have been too high.  For an overall experience, I think Mykonos might have a slight edge over Santorini.  What Mykonos doesn't have over Santorini is screensaver worthy views and some of the most amazing sunsets we've ever seen.

Upon arrival, we were picked up by a van from our hotel Astra Suites at the ferry landing.  The island of Santorini is the remnant of an ancient volcano that exploded thousands of years ago.  The main part of the island now is one portion of the rim of the volcano.  The road from the ferry landing has to ride all the way up the inside of the volcano rim until you get to the top.  Once up top, you are treated to some truly stunning views.  Astra Suites is in the village of Imerovigli which is at the midpoint of the island and at the highest elevation.  This makes for some of the best views on the whole island.  Most of the hotels are perched dramatically on the side of the caldera seemingly defying gravity.  As a result, getting to and from our room required hiking up and down quite a few steps.  What was really impressive was seeing these guys on the hotel staff effortlessly hauling huge suitcases up and down the steps.

Amazing views abound on Santorini

As I mentioned earlier, our five nights on Santorini didn't quite measure up to our stay on Mykonos, but we still had a great time enjoying the different parts of the island and some great food.
Here are the highlights from our time in Santorini:
  • Astra Suites balcony - Every morning we were served breakfast on our balcony with the amazing view to entertain us.  It's hard to imagine a better way to start the day.  We also enjoyed several breathtaking sunsets from the balcony.  The balcony was so enjoyable that we skipped going out for dinner a couple of nights and instead ate dinner while watching the sunset.  As with Mykonos, the local tomatoes and olives in the stores were so good that we were content with making simple salads for dinner.
Breakfast on the balcony

Dinner on the balcony
  • Imerovigli and Fira - One of the really neat things about Astra Suites is that it is right on a walking path that goes along the caldera rim from the village of Imerovigli to the island's main village of Fira.  It's about a 20-25 minute walk from Imerovigli to Fira along the path, and you get to enjoy different perspectives of the caldera rim along the way.  We made the walk to Fira a couple of times for dinner. 
Great views on the path from Imerovigli to Fira
View towards Fira, notice how the hotels are perched on the cliff
  • Renting a car - We rented a car for two days while we were in Santorini, and I would highly recommend this for anyone who goes to Santorini.  There's quite a bit to see on the island, and renting a car is the best means for exploring.
Our lovely rental car
  •  Oia - Possibly the most well known village on Santorini is Oia with its bleach white buildings perched on the north end of the caldera.  We drove to Oia the first day that we had our rental car and spent a couple of hours walking through the labyrinth of streets and paths.  You feel like you're in a picture book the whole time you are there.  If visiting Oia from other parts of Santorini, it's best to go on a day when there aren't too many cruise ships in port on the island as it can get quite crowded with tourists.  We were fortunate that there were only a couple of smaller cruise ships in port the day we went.
Hanging out in Oia
Baklava in Oia
  •  Sigalas Winery - After going to Oia, we ventured to Sigalas Winery on the backside of the caldera.  What's not evident from all the dramatic pictures of the Santorini caldera is that there is a substantial part of the island on the backside of the caldera that is relatively flat.  This part of the island contains quite a few wineries as the dry climate of Santorini is quite suitable for growing grapes.  We had an enjoyable wine tasting on the outdoor patio at Sigalas.  It almost felt like we were in California wine country.  We ended up purchasing a few bottles to take with us.
Wine tasting at Sigalas
  •  Santo Winery - The last stop on our first day with the car was Santo Winery.  This winery has wines from several winemakers on the island.  The tasting room is set on top of the caldera with the typical amazing Santorini views.  Definitely not a bad place to taste a few wines.
  •  Southeast coast beaches - On our second day with the rental car, we ventured to the beaches on the flatter Southeast coast of the island.  As I said before, this part of the island contrasts drastically with the caldera side.  We drove to the famous red beach and walked around for a bit.  Then we drove to Perivolos Beach which is famous for its black sand.  We had lunch there and then relaxed on the sand for a while afterwards.  It looked like it was a place that got really crowded in the high season.  I can imagine that the black sand gets really hot.
Black sands of Perivolas Beach
  • La Maison - On our first night in Santorini, we had dinner here since it was a short walk from our hotel down the path towards Fira and it was recommended to us by the hotel owner.  The most memorable items were the tomato balls which are a local specialty and the Santorini salad.  They are basically little fried balls made out of a combination of local cherry tomatoes (Santorini is famous for these) and herbs.
Santorini salad
  • Ellis restaurant - We walked to this restaurant in Fira on our second night on the island.  The highlight of this meal was the lamb kleftki which is lamb roasted in a foil packet with vegetables and herbs.  Other items we enjoyed were the fava dip and the Santorini salad.
  • Katina’s - If you make it to Oia, you have to make time for a meal at Ammoudi Bay which is the little fishing port below the village.  There are a handful of restaurants to choose from all of them with seating right on the water.  We decided on Katina's based on some reviews that we had read before going.  Eating at Katina's was similar to a couple of the places we went to in Mykonos in that you go inside the restaurant to select the fish that you want to eat.  We chose red snapper for our main course with starters of roasted eggplant puree (delicious), fried zucchini (very good) and grilled octopus (not as good as others we had).  While eating our appetizers, we got to watch our red snapper being cooked on the outdoor grill.  The fish was absolutely amazing.  It was very simply prepared, but it may have been the best fish we had in Greece.  It was definitely a memorable meal.
The "menu" at Katina's
After a visit to the grill.  So tasty!
  • Sabbas Greek Tavern - We had lunch here on the day we went to Perivolas Beach.  The only memorable thing we had was the fried zucchini blossoms.  That's not to say it was bad, but there was nothing that stood out about the place.  That seemed to be the case for a lot of the restaurants on the beach.
  •  Stamna - It's hard to believe, but it took us until our second to last day in Greece to get souvlaki.  There were several to choose from, all of them had the obligatory guy trying to lure us in.  We settled on Stamna for souvlaki, and it satisfied our craving.  Ashley had a traditional chicken souvlaki, and I got a lamb gyro.  It wasn't fine dining, but it definitely tasted good.
  • Anogi - We went here our last night on Santorini at the suggestion of the hotel staff.  It's a fairly new family run restaurant focused on home style Greek dishes.  This was one of the best meals of our time on Santorini.  Highlights included calamari salad, grilled octopus and shrimp giouvetsi (kind of like Greek risotto).
Calamari salad

Grilled octopus

Shrimp giouvetsi

Monday, September 26, 2011

May 2011 Trip Part 2 - Mykonos, Greece

Note: So, this blog entry is several months late.  I don't have a good excuse.  Hopefully, I'll be better about getting posts up quicker after a trip.  I'm breaking the Greece trip into two posts, one for Mykonos and one for Santorini.  I'll work on getting the Santorini post up in the next week or so.  Enjoy...

After two awesome days in Rome, we headed off to Greece for five nights in Myknonos and five nights in Santorini. A trip to the Greek Islands has been high on our list of things to do for a long time. Needless to say, we were very excited about this part of the trip. To add to the excitement, we flew to Mykonos on my birthday! Before checking out of the Cavalieri in Rome, we celebrated with an awesome room service breakfast. After breakfast, we had an uneventful trip to the airport in Rome. The flight to Athens went off without a hitch. We had a long five hour layover in Athens, but thanks to Ashley's status with US Airways, we were able to pass the time in the Aegean Airlines lounge. We then had a short flight to Mykonos with some great views of the Greek Islands.

On arrival in Mykonos, we were picked up by a shuttle from our hotel and set off for the 15 minute drive to the hotel. We would be staying at the Mykonos Grand Hotel for 5 nights. We’ve been fortunate to stay at some really nice places over the last few years. Our experience at the Mykonos Grand is one of the best we’ve had (just behind our honeymoon in Bora Bora, possible subject for a future post). The service we had at the Mykonos Grand was probably the best I’ve experienced at a hotel. The hotel is set on a cove on the southwestern corner of Mykonos, and it has an amazing view of the island of Delos. Upon arrival at the hotel, we were given a personal check-in by Georgia who gave us lots of great recommendations on things to do and places to eat (very important!) on Mykonos. She also gave us a personal tour of the hotel and ended it by showing us our upgraded room (because of my birthday!). She also arranged for a free birthday dessert at the hotel restaurant later that night. This type of service was common throughout our stay at the hotel. During breakfast, Georgia and Theodore, the hotel manager, made a point of going around and chatting with each table of guests to see how they were enjoying their stay and help with suggestions of things to do. I would highly recommend this place to anyone traveling to Mykonos. I will say that it’s located in a pretty quiet area of the island. If you want to be in the middle of the action and partying, this may not be the place for you. There were a couple of restaurants a short walk down the beach, but otherwise, you have to go into town (10 minute drive) for more dining/shopping/partying options.

Not a bad place to spend my birthday
Overall, we had an amazing time in Mykonos. It’s a beautiful island with several great beaches and some excellent food. We couldn’t get enough of the fresh seafood and the awesome greek salads with juicy local cherry tomatoes and decadent local goat cheese.

Here are the highlights from our time in Mykonos:

  • Renting a car - We rented a car for two days, and this allowed us to really get out and experience the island. We went to several beaches, drove into Mykonos Town for dinner, checked out one of the local grocery stores (great for getting olives and wine for pre-dinner snacks and drink) and hit up a local bakery for baklava.  One note on going into town is that the parking can be a little difficult.  We tried one night to park in a lot by the famous Windmills which were convenient to the center of Town, but that was a terrible idea.  We found the best place to park to be the large lot by the old port, though the walk into town is longer from there.  During our stay, Mykonos Grand started offering an hourly shuttle into town which I would recommend taking advantage of.  On the one night we used the shuttle, we somehow missed the last return shuttle back to the hotel even though we were early to the pickup spot.  We got a taxi back to the hotel pretty easily, though.
Nice ride!
  • Beaches - Mykonos is known for its many beaches, and we made it to quite a few. We were concerned before the trip that the temperature would not be warm enough to enjoy the beaches, but it ended up being perfect as long as the sun was out.  The beaches we went to were Elia Beach, Kalo Livadi Beach, Panormos Beach and Agia Sostis Beach.  They each had unique characteristics that made them enjoyable.  Overall, I would say that my favorite was Kalo Livadi beach with it's long stretch of powdery sand set in a beautiful bay.
Agia Sostis Beach
  • Mykonos Town - The main town of Mykonos is one of the neatest places that I've been to.  There is an area of a couple of square miles in the center of town that is closed to motorized vehicles.  You can spend hours wandering through the labyrinth of alleys filled with shops and restaurants.  Most of the shops have locally made goods that reflect the artistic nature of the island.  There are a couple of picturesque waterfront areas, one with a beach backed by a square lined with restaurants and one called Little Venice with several buildings in a row right on the water.  You can also look for Petros the Pelican (the town mascot) who can be found walking around some of the main areas.  Ashley had fun following him around to try and get his picture.
Typical alley in Mykonos Town
Petros the Pelican
  • Mykonos Grand pool and beach - We spent a couple of days hanging out at the Mykonos Grand pool and the small beach next to the hotel.  The pool was very nice with an amazing view over to Delos.  The beach was decent.  It was nice enough if you're just hanging out at the hotel, but it's not nearly as nice as some of the other beaches that we went to.
Mykonos Grand pool
  • Walk to Ornos - On our last full day on Mykonos, we decided to make the ~1 mile walk from our hotel to the nearby town of Ornos.  It was a nice walk with some great views of the island along the way, though the roads on Mykonos aren't exactly pedestrian friendly.  Ornos is a neat little village with several restaurants on a beach.  There wasn't much going on there at the time we went, but it seemed like all the businesses were getting ready for a rush of visitors in the next few months.

  • Dolphins of Delos (restaurant at the hotel) - We had dinner here on our first night, and the food was very good.  We had the first of many Greek salads on our trip.  Ashley's entree was a fish called John Dory that was very good.  I had an excellent roasted lamb dish.  We were surprised with a complementary chocolate torte for dessert to celebrate my birthday.  This was also the place that we had breakfast every morning.  There was a very nice selection of fresh fruit as well as some tasty Greek items such as stuffed grape leaves, salad of fresh tomatoes with capers, and Greek yogurt.  Breakfast also included the standard made to order eggs that I took advantage of every morning.
  • Hippie Fish - This restaurant is just a short walk down the beach from the Mykonos Grand.  We went here on our second night on Mykonos.  The restaurant has a really nice open air dining area right by the beach.  Hippie Fish was our first introduction to what we found was a common practice at restaurants in Greece of actually picking the specific fish you want to eat for dinner.  To place our order, the waiter took us to the back of the restaurant where the fish cook was, and we got to see what our options were.  We chose a nice looking sea bass.  For starters, we got a Greek salad and grilled squid.  The salad was a simple yet delicious mix of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, peppers and olives with an olive oil dressing.  The fresh grilled sea bass that we had for our main dish was very tasty.
The "menu" at Hippie Fish
  • Sol y Mar - This is an open-air restaurant on the beach at Kalo Livadi that was recommended to us by Georgia at Mykonos Grand.  We had a great lunch here consisting of yet another amazing Greek salad topped with local cheese, fried zucchini blossoms and a plate of grilled chicken with tzatziki.  The food here is excellent, and the beach setting really makes it a cool place.  I'm sure it's a great place during the summer (probably crowded though).
Greek salad at Sol y Mar, YUM!!!
  • Kounelas Tavern - This is a well-known seafood restaurant in Mykonos Town that we had seen recommended in a few places.  The restaurant is tucked back in the labyrinth of alleys in the town.  We were seated in an outside courtyard adjacent to the restaurant which was really neat.  This is another choose your fish place which is a concept that I really like.  After being seated, we were taken back to the kitchen by the waiter and shown a selection of fish that were arranged in refrigerated drawers.  Ashley chose red snapper (whole grilled fish), and I chose tuna (grilled steak).  We ordered an appetizer plate of fava bean puree (underwhelming), tzatziki (up to standards) and eggplant dip (really good).  Both of our fish entrees were great.  Ashley's red snapper won out over my meaty tuna, though.  Since the courtyard we were sitting in was open to the alleys, each table was approached throughout dinner by several girls selling flowers as well as a clown on stilts who somehow squeezed into the small courtyard.  The clown made a balloon animal for each table, and even though we didn't ask for one, we ended up giving him a couple of euros for his trouble (kind of annoying but we're on vacation so not that big of a deal).  At the end of dinner, the restaurant gave us some complimentary cinnamon liqueur in a weird phallic bottle.  We could have done without the liqueur and the bottle.  Overall, we had a great time, and I'd recommend the place though not ahead of Kalita.
Red Snapper at Kounelas
  • Kiki's - We were told by several of the staff at Mykonos Grand that if we did one thing in our time on Mykonos it had to be lunch at Kiki's.  Kiki's is set on a hill above Agia Sostis beach with amazing views of the island.  You pretty much have to know where it is to find it as it's at the end of a gravel road and hidden underneath densely branched trees.  The column of smoke from the grill is the only clue that it's there.  The restaurant is open-air like a lot of places on Mykonos, and one if it's quirks is that it has no electricity.  As a result of not having electricity, they are not able to stock a lot of food and thus close up when they run out.  During the high season, you have to show up early to have any chance of eating there.  We didn't have any trouble with this as we were there before the start of the high season.  Their specialty is fresh salads and grilled chicken.  We had a salad of artichokes and beans in olive oil that was excellent.  For our entree, we shared a grilled chicken breast stuffed with feta and sundried tomato.  We typically don't order chicken at restaurants as it's usually pretty boring and easy to cook at home.  This chicken was worth making an exception.  Given the beautiful views and the tasty food, I would highly recommend lunch at Kiki's.
Awesome setting at Kiki's
  • Katerinas - This place is in the "Little Venice" part of Mykonos Town where the buildings are right on the water.  This area is known as a great place to grab drinks and watch the sunset.  We chose Katerinas after walking by a couple of others.  It was nice place for a sunset drink (we could kind of see the sunset from the bar, but the best outside spots were already taken), but it had a bit of a touristy feel to it.  I'm not sure I would go back.
  • Kalita - We went here on the recommendation of Theodore from Mykonos Grand (can't say enough about how great the staff is there).  This restaurant is right in the middle of the maze of alleys in Mykonos Town, which made it a bit of a chore to find.  Once we found it, we were treated to one of our best meals on Mykonos.  Kalita had more of an upscale/modern feel to it than some of the other places that we ate at on Mykonos.  Their focus is a modern take on Mykonian cuisine, with particular attention to local products.  We started with what may have been the best Greek salad of the trip, a simple salad of local Mykonos tomatoes topped with local goat cheese.  It sounds simple, but the flavor was amazing.  Ashley got grouper over spinach for her entree which was amazing.  For my entree, I got lamb en papyote (baked in parchment paper) which was equally as amazing.  We decided to get the creme brulee for dessert (we usually skip dessert) which was another excellent choice.  I would highly recommend this place as the food is top notch and the service is excellent.
Simple but amazing Greek salad at Kalita
  • Avra - For our last dinner on Mykonos we decided to go to Avra in Mykonos Town after checking out menus from a few different places.  We had a great experience here.  We started with the standard Greek salad (good but not as good as some others we had).  Ashley had the moussaka which was recommended by the waitress, and it exceeded any moussaka we've ever tasted.  I had octopus sauteed in wine sauce which was very good but not as good as the moussaka.
At the end of our time in Mykonos, we were sad to leave, but we were excited to go to Santorini.  We decided to take a high speed ferry from Mykonos to Santorini.  For anyone that knows me well, this was a big deal as I have major problems with sea sickness.  As it turns out, everything went well.  It was a very smooth ride, and the two hours passed without incident.  I'll delve into our stay on Santorini in the next post.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

May 2011 Trip Part 1 - Rome

In May, Ashley and I were able to take a couple of weeks off for an awesome vacation to Rome and the Greek Islands of Mykonos and Santorini.  What made the trip even better was that we kicked things at the fabulous Excellence Playa Mujeres resort Mexico celebrating the wedding of our friends Amy and Jeff.  There's a lot to cover from this trip so I'm going to break it up into two posts, one on Rome and one on Mykonos and Santorini.

We had a couple of reasons for choosing to go to Rome.  One reason is that it is a fairly short flight to Greece from Rome.  The other reason is that we had heard it is one of the best cities to visit in Europe.  We were definitely not disappointed.  We visited Rome for two nights before going to Greece and due to the flight schedule we spend another night in Rome on the way back home.  This gave us roughly 2 1/2 days to explore the city which was just enough to introduce us to its awesomeness and build a desire to make a return trip.

I think Rome is an amazing city.  It's one that I definitely want to visit several more times.  You definitely feel like you are in Europe when you are walking the tight, winding streets bound by old, mid-rise buildings.  There is an energy to the city that is hard to describe.  There is amazing food. There is a ton of history.  Bottom line, there's a lot to love about Rome.

We landed early on a Monday morning and made it through the airport much faster than expected.  Much to our surprise, there was no thorough passport check like we endure coming into the US.  We then grabbed our bags and headed out to find our transportation.  Before the trip, I had arranged transport from the airport to our hotel through Rome Shuttle Limousine based on recommendations in a FlyerTalk forum thread for our hotel in Rome.  The booking process for the transportation was quite different than I'm used to.  I filled out a form on the company's website.  They sent me an email asking me to confirm.  I responded with confirmation.  There was nothing beyond that.  I was left hoping that there would be someone at the airport to pick me up.  Sure enough, someone was there with our name on a sign.  This was a common trend throughout our trip.  When someone says they'll do something, they do it without needing reconfirmation.  I think I've been conditioned here in the US that I have to follow up on bookings/reservations/etc to make sure that it's been done.  Anyway, the driver led us out to a shiny, black Mercedes Benz sedan, and we had a comfortable 40 minute ride to our hotel, the Rome Cavalieri.  This is a gorgeous hotel set on a hillside about a 10 minute drive from the main part of Rome.  We were fortunate that we were able to use points to stay here as it was an extremely nice hotel.  The only downside is that the distance from central Rome, but this didn't really bother us as we only stayed there two nights.  We also took advantage of Ashley's Hilton status to get free access to the spa.  We had heard from another couple that it was really nice, so we checked it out on our second day after walking all over Rome.  It was definitely worth checking out and get us into a more relaxed mood.

Hotel Cavalieri
For our one night stay in Rome on the way back from Greece, we stayed at the Hilton Rome Airport hotel which had two great benefits.  The first was the convenient location by the airport for our morning departure to the US, and the second was a free shuttle into Rome.  This allowed us to maximize our time in Rome for the day (which was possibly the best of the three days we had there).  I'll end my rambling with a word of warning to anyone flying back to the US out of Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumcino airport.  Make sure to arrive at least 3 hours before departure of your flight.  We arrived around 2 hours before our flight, and it took us around 1.5 hours just to get past security.  The check-in/security process is highly inefficient.  After security, there is another line for passport clearance (moves fairly quickly).  Then, you have to take a bus to the terminal where the actual gates are.

Here the highlights from our time in Rome:

  • Piazza Navona - This was our first stop on our first day in Rome.  It's one of the major piazzas in Rome.  It's quite large and in the shape of an elongated oval.  Apparently, it was the site of an ancient Roman stadium.  There are a couple of fountains in the middle and cafes line the edge.  Piazza Navona is surrounded by a maze of tight alleys and streets filled with shops and restaurants.  Even though the area is touristy, it's still fun to explore.
Piazza Navona
  • Pantheon - The Pantheon was one of the sites I was most excited about seeing in Rome.  It was built in 126 AD, and it still has the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome (thanks Wikipedia).  The dome and its oculus (hole at the top of the dome) are a breathtaking site.  One of the cool effects of the oculus is the beam of sunlight that it allows inside of the building.  There is very little lighting otherwise so the effect is quite dramatic.  The design of the Pantheon has been an inspiration for quite a few structures including the dome of the US Capitol building and the University of Virginia's Rotunda.
Pantheon Oculus
  • Trevi Fountain - This is apparently a must see.  While it's a really cool fountain with all of the statues, there were so many people packed into the small area around it that it was hard to enjoy it.  We were there on a Monday before Rome's busy season.  I can't imagine what it's like on a weekend during the summer.  We didn't spend a lot of time here, but we did check it off the list.
Trevi Fountain
  • Spanish Steps - This is another spot that's high on the list of sites to see in Rome.  It's a popular place for sitting and enjoying Rome.  The piazza at the base of the steps is a popular spot for tourists.  We didn't spend a ton of time here, but I did snap a few pics.
Spanish Steps
  • Colosseum - This is probably the most well-known site in Rome, and it's definitely something I've wanted to see in person for a long time.  We went here on our first day in Rome during a whirlwind tour of some of the major sites so we only saw it from the outside, plus we had heard from a few people that the inside tour wasn't that exciting.  It's definitely an impressive structure from the outside.  We also checked out the nearby Arch of Constantine and got a view of the ancient Roman Forum from a distance (something I'd like to check out in more detail on a return trip).
  • Trastevere - A trendy neighborhood with lots of restaurants and bars.  We strolled through here on our second day in Rome.  There's less of the hustle and bustle here than in central Rome.  We stopped in a small food market and got a couple of slices of pizza for lunch.  We returned here later that night for dinner at Taverna Trilussa and there were lots of young people about going to the numerous bars and clubs.
Street in Trastevere
  • Vatican - From Trastevere, we walked down the Tiber River to the Vatican.  We spent the majority of our time here in the Vatican Museums.  In order to see the Sistine Chapel, one of my top priorities on the trip, we had to go through the Vatican Museums.  I would recommend going in the afternoon around 3pm.  Apparently, the line to get in is really long in the morning.  At the advice of our hotel concierge, we booked our tickets in advance so that we could skip the line, but there wasn't much of a line when we arrived.  Finding the entrance to the Vatican Museums ended up being a minor adventure.  We walked up to the Vatican on the side of Saint Peter's Basilica.  There was a long line to enter Saint Peter's, but it took us a few minutes to figure out that the line was for Saint Peter's and not the Vatican Museums.  We finally asked us a guard who informed us that we had to walk outside the Vatican City wall around to the other side of the Vatican.  After a 10 minute walk, we finally arrived at the entrance to the Museums.  The Vatican Museums are a massive collection of museums showing different paintings, sculptures and other art that the Catholic Church has collected over hundreds of years.  We were primarily interested in the Sistine Chapel, but you have to go through a maze of different exhibits to reach it.  We didn't spend a lot of time perusing these exhibits, but our favorite was the Gallery of Maps which has maps of different regions of Italy frescoed on the walls.  We finally arrived at the Sistine Chapel.  The famous ceiling painted by Michelangelo is a beautiful sight even if you are crammed in shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of other tourists.  I kind of wished I had studied up on the scenes depicted on the ceiling before going as that would have enhanced the experience.
Saint Peter's Basilica
Ashley in the Gallery of Maps
  • Sunset from Hotel Bernini - Ashley had a great idea to go see the sunset from the top of the Hotel Bernini on our second night in Rome.  Our hotel offered a free shuttle into the city that dropped off right by Hotel Bernini.  This was definitely worthwhile as we got some great views of Rome at sunset.
Sunset from Hotel Bernini
  • Via del Corso - This is one of the main streets of Rome.  It's lined with shops and restaurants.  We strolled down it on the last day of our trip.  It can get a little crowded, but it's a great place to experience Rome.
  • Piazza del Popolo - If you walk the length of the Via del Corso starting from Piazza Venezia, you will come to Piazza del Popolo.  This is one of the larger piazzas in Rome.  It's a great place for people watching with several restaurants and cafes on the outer parts.
Piazza del Popolo
  • Hotel de Russie - A family friend of Ashley's recommended that we check this place out.  It's a very nice hotel near Piazza del Popolo that has an awesome courtyard restaurant.  We took a break from walking and enjoyed some wine in the courtyard.  We had not made dinner plans that night so Ashley had the idea to ask the concierge for a recommendation.  Not only did he give us a recommendation, he called and got us a reservation at a great restaurant even though we weren't guests of the hotel.  Excellent service!
Hotel de Russie courtyard
  • Ristorante Trattoria - We went here on our first night based on a recommendation from the concierge at the Cavalieri Hotel.  Their specialty is Southern Italian food, and there is a glass wall between the kitchen and dining room so that you can see the chefs at work.  When we arrived, there was only one other table occupied in the restaurant which had us a little worried.  We think this was because it was a Monday night.  The other thing is that Romans eat really late.  If you show up at a restaurant at 8pm in Rome, you will be one of the only ones there, and the others will probably be American tourists.  Ashley had a great pesto pasta dish, and I had a great pasta dish with shrimp and tomatoes.  The coolest part of the dinner was that we got to see the chef make our desert chocolate torte as our table was right beside the window looking into the kitchen.
Dinner at Trattoria
  • Taverna Trilussa - Taverna Trilussa is in the Trastevere neighborhood and is highly rated on TripAdvisor.  We came here on our second night in Rome.  While we really enjoyed our food, the service was interesting.  This was our introduction to what is supposedly typical Roman table service.  Service in Rome is notorious for being indifferent and non-intrusive, a major contrast from typical service in the US.  Apparently the reason behind this type of season is a desire to leave diners alone to enjoy their meal and only come to the table when called for.  This is definitely what we experienced at Trilussa.  Our waitress pretty much left us alone, and we had to flag her down to get her to our table.  I hope that we weren't being shunned because we were pretty much the only Americans in the restaurant.  Anyway, we got the tasting menu since it looked really good.  Winners from the menu were the cheese plate, cured meats plate and pasta Amatriciana (Roman specialty pasta with tomato sauce and pancetta).
Pasta Amatriciana at Taverna Trilussa
  • Due Ladroni - We went here on the last night of our trip after the concierge at Hotel de Russie recommended it and was gracious enough to book us a reservation.  This place had an old-style Italian restaurant feel to it.  It was obvious that the waiters were used to lots of tourists because they were very professional and attentive.  There were lots of locals there as well, certainly a good sign.  We had an awesome experience here, and I would highly recommend it to anyone that goes to Rome.  This was one of the top restaurant experiences of our trip.  With the exception of my grilled lamb chops, everything we had was amazing.  We started with an amazing plate of parma ham and fresh mozzarella.  For the pasta course, Ashley's fussolini with clams and mussels in pesto sauce barely edged out my amatriciana (it was so good at Trilussa I had to get it again) for the winner.  Ashley got grilled sea bass with tomato sauce for her main, much better than my grilled lamb chops.  Add in an awesome bottle of Montepulciano and you've got a memorable meal.
Parma Ham and Mozzarella at Due Ladroni

Fussolini with Clams and Mussels in Pesto Sauce at Due Ladroni
  • Bibamus - We stopped here for lunch on our first day and had pizza.  The pizza was quite good (Ashley had mushroom pizza and I had anchovy pizza), but there's probably better pizza in Rome.  We chose this because we were starving after our flight from the US, and it looked better than several other touristy places near Piazza Navona.
Anchovy pizza at Bibamus

Sunday, January 9, 2011


In December, Ashley and I made our triumphant return to Hawaii.  This time we focused our visit on the island of Kauai.  We'll have to hit the Big Island on our next trip to round out all of the major Hawaiian Islands.  We had heard a lot of great things about Kauai from friends that have been there, so we were really excited about this trip.

Our base of operations was the Kauai Marriott Resort and Beach Club in Lihue, which was in an excellent location for exploring the rest of the island.  While the rooms were somewhat dated, they were comfortable and more than sufficient for a relaxing week in paradise.  The Marriott is on Kalapaki Beach in a cove that is protected from the ocean.  This keeps the water fairly calm and makes it an excellent place for stand-up paddle surfing, which we tried for the first time.  If I lived in Hawaii, I would go stand-up paddle surfing everyday as it's a lot of fun.  The beach is also really nice for relaxing and enjoying the sun, and we did quite a bit of both.  One kind of weird/unique thing about Kauai is that there are chickens running loose everywhere.  We saw them pretty much everywhere we went.  Apparently, they were freed by a hurricane in the early 1990's.

Kalapaki Beach
Stand-up Paddle Surfing
Rooster on the loose!
For this trip, we rented a car for the whole time, something that I would highly recommend in Hawaii.  There is so much to see and having a car gets you access to all of that.  Plus, taxis are insanely expensive in Hawaii.  It's much more cost effective to rent a car.

A big first for both of us on this trip was going on a helicopter tour.  Neither of us had been on a helicopter before, but we had heard this was the best way to see the island as a good portion of it is not accessible by car.  We did a tour with Blue Hawaiian, and it was definitely one of the highlights of the trip.  The beauty of Kauai is hard to describe from the Jurassic Park waterfall to Waimea Canyon to the Na Pali Coast to Mount Waialeale (the wettest spot on earth).  It was definitely amazing to see it all from a helicopter.  Our pilot Dean gave us an awesome tour, and we ended up getting the DVD they offered as our pictures didn't quite do the tour justice.
Helicopter we flew on
View of North Shore from Helicopter
Two of our favorite things in Kauai were shave ice and poke (pronounced po kay).  For some reason, we didn't try shave ice on our last trip to Hawaii a couple of years ago, but we definitely made up for that this time.  If you've never heard of it, shave ice is finely shaved ice with flavored syrup poured on it (it's best to get it with a scoop of macadamia nut ice cream in the bottom).  It is kind of like a snow cone but far better than any snow cone I've ever had.  There are several shave ice stands around the island with different flavors and combinations.  I've listed the ones we went to and our thoughts on them below.  As for poke, it's typically a salad of cubed raw ahi tuna with some onion and seaweed and flavored with soy sauce and sesame oil.  There are several variations of poke, though, from spicy tuna poke to shrimp poke to octopus poke.  There are several local markets around Kauai that serve freshly made poke daily.  We typically got a few containers of different kinds of poke and shared them for lunch on the beach.  So tasty!!!
Shave ice!!!

Here are some other highlights from our trip:


  • North Shore beaches - This is pretty much a must do if you come to Kauai.  We drove all the way to the end of the road to Ke'e Beach and worked our way back.  The drive itself is amazing, though the last few miles are a bit dicey with several one lane bridges.  Ke'e Beach is one of the most amazing beaches I've ever been on.  This beach is undeveloped so it almost feels like you're on a deserted tropical island (at least until you see all the other people who found the spot).  This beach has an amazing view down the Na Pali coast.  Early in the trip we purchased a couple of cheap beach chairs at K-Mart.  We brought these with us so that we could relax on the beach for a while.  We also stopped at Hanalei Dolphin Fish Market on the way up and got some poke and a sushi roll to snack on hanging out at the beach.  After leaving Ke'e Beach, we stopped at Ha'ena Beach and snapped a few pics.  After getting some shave ice in Hanalei, we ended our day on the beach at Hanalei Bay by the pier.  Hanalei Bay is in one of the most amazing settings you can imagine.  It's got a long curved beach backed by mountains.  Words can't do it justice.  One of the neat things about our visit to Hanalei Bay was seeing all the local families hanging out and enjoying the day.
Ke'e Beach
Hanalei Bay
  • Waimea Canyon - Waimea Canyon is called the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific."  It's certainly an amazing site and does look similar to the Grand Canyon.  If you're staying in Lihue, I would recommend leaving first thing in the morning for this trip.  It takes a couple of hours including stops for pictures to get to the end of the Waimea Canyon road, but there are some amazing views along this drive.  We hit the Shrimp Station in Waimea on the way back, and that is a place that's not to be missed (more on that below).
Waimea Canyon
  • Po'ipu Beach - After driving up to Waimea Canyon, we stopped at Po'ipu Beach on our way back and spent the afternoon relaxing on the beach.  We had heard that this was one of the best beaches in Hawaii, so we were excited to check it out.  While it is a great and picturesque beach, it's not as spacious as other beaches we visited in Kauai.  We enjoyed our time here, but it didn't live up to what we thought it was going to be.
Po'ipu Beach
  • Spouting Horn - This is a blowhole near Po'ipu Beach that is really cool.  There is a hole in some volcanic rock at the shore here.  When a wave comes, the water shoots up through the hole like a geyser.
Spouting Horn
  • Kapa'a Bike Path - We rented bikes in Kapa'a from Eastside Coasters ($10 for 2 bikes all day long), and rode down the oceanside bike bath in Kapa'a (also known as the Ke Ala Hele Makalae).  This was a really fun activity as the views along the path are spectacular.
Kapa'a Bike Path
  • Kilauea Lighthouse - This lighthouse is right on the edge of a cliff on the North Shore.  We didn't actually go up to the lighthouse (there's a charge to do that), but we did snap some pictures from the viewpoint by the parking lot.  It was a very scenic spot along the rocky coast.
Kilauea Lighthouse
  • Wailua Falls - Wailua Falls is a short ride inland from Lihue and is an awesome site.  Apparently, these falls were featured in the intro of the Fantasy Island television series.
Wailua Falls
  • Yoga House - Ashley went to this place for yoga a few times and had a great experience.  They offer a great one week unlimited deal that includes mat and towel.

  • Hukilau Lanai - This restaurant in the Kauai Coast Resort in Kapa'a ended up surprisingly being one of my favorite meals of the trip.  Each of our meals was excellent.  I had the mixed grill which included spear fish and walu as well as a sugar cane skewered shrimp over creamy orzo and a Thai chili coconut sauce.  Ashley had almond crusted opah with spicy sambal cream, jasmine rice and yacon slaw.  It was a very tasty meal with excellent service.
  • Kauai Grill - This restaurant is in the St. Regis hotel in Princeville on the North Shore.  We went early to have a drink at the St. Regis bar at sunset.  The bar has a spectacular view of Hanalei Bay and is an awesome place for a drink.  The hotel is gorgeous as well.  At Kauai Grill for dinner, we each got the tasting menu, which was excellent.  Highlights were Japanese Hamachi (with sugarloaf pineapple, meyer lemon and wasabi), Seared Kauai Shrimp (with fried baby artichokes, lemon fennel emulsion and paprika oil), slowly cooked Hapuupuu (with tomato lemongrass broth) and soy glazed Short Ribs (with green papaya-jalapeno puree).
View from St. Regis bar
  • Shrimp Station - Just a shack on the side of the road in Waimea with some picnic tables outside of it, but the food is amazing.  The menu consists of shrimp dishes with different flavors.  I had the Thai Shrimp which consisted of shrimp in the shell cooked in a Thai spiced broth.  So gooodddd!!!  Ashley had their famous Coconut Shrimp which are battered with coconut and fried.  Holy cow!!!!  It's kind of crazy that some of the best food we had on the trip was from a roadside shack.  I highly recommend this place for anyone that goes to Kauai.  We ended up getting some t-shirts because we loved the place so much.
Shrimp Station
  • Duke's - This is part of a chain of restaurants throughout Hawaii with a couple of locations in LA.  With the visit to the Kauai location, I've been to all of the Duke's restaurants, one of my great accomplishments. :)  Anyway, this Duke's was conveniently located right beside the Marriott.  We went here on our first night and had a great meal.  As a starter, they have an awesome salad bar with all kinds of goodies.  For dinner, I had the seared seven spice ahi tuna and Ashley had the sauteed opaka paka with lemon buerre blanc.  Both dishes were excellent.  Ashley also enjoyed a pina colada in a hollowed out pineapple to celebrate the start of our vacation.  Duke's also had a downstairs "barefoot bar" with more of a casual menu.  We did this after our long day of going out to Waimea and then Poipu.  I got the cheddar burger, and Ashley had the fish tacos.  Both were quality dishes.
View from Duke's
  • Hamura Saimin Stand - Saimin is a Hawaiian dish that is a result of the blend of cultures that have settled there.  It's a scalding hot bowl of noodles with goodies like fish ball, pork, green onion, hard-boiled egg and spam (yes, spam) in it.  Hamura Saimin Stand is a local place in Lihue that is one of the more famous Saimin spots in Hawaii.  After reading about it and checking out some reviews, we decided to go one night.  It was a great local experience.  Hamura Saimin is in a small non-descript building with a low bar that snakes through it.  You wait in line, and when it's your turn you grab the next seats at the bar that open up.  You place your order (we both got the special saimin as well as two barbecue chicken skewers) and take in the scenery while you wait for your saimin.  You can see into the kitchen where there is a lady who looks like she's been doing this for years preparing all the bowls of saimin herself.  It was interesting to see her go through the process.  The saimin was very tasty.  We also got a slice of their famous lilikoi (passionfruit) pie for dessert, which was so good that we were fighting over it.
  • Kalapaki Beach Hut - This was a burger shack just a short walk from the Marriott.  We hit this up a few times.  On my first visit I had the egg, cheese & Portuguese sausage breakfast sandwich (Mmmmmm.....).  We also tried the ono fish sandwich and the burger for lunch.  Excellent!  One of the cool things they had for lunch were taro fries.  Taro is a root vegetable similar to a potato that is popular in Hawaii, and it's purple.  It was kind of neat eating the purple taro fries.  They were very tasty.
  • Pono Market - This was an awesome little food market in Kapa'a that we got poke from twice for lunch.  The first time we got shoyu ahi poke, spicy ahi poke, onion ahi poke and tako (octopus) poke.  The second time we had the same except the onion ahi poke, but we also got a container of their kalua pork (slow-cooked pulled pork similar to NC bbq).  The poke and pork were excellent!  I wish we had a Pono Market in NC!
  • Hanalei Dolphin Fish Market - This fish market is in the back of the Hanalei Dolphin Restauarant.  We stopped here to get some takeout lunch on our way up to the North Shore beaches.  We got the ahi tuna poke, sesame ahi tuna poke, ocean salad (seaweed salad) and spicy ahi roll.  So good!!!!  The poke here was the same high quality poke that we had from Pono Market, and the sushi roll was awesome.  If only I could bring this place back to NC with me...
  • Shave Ice:
    • Ono Ono Shave Ice - Our first shave ice experience was at Ono Ono Shave Ice.  The lady there was so nice and took the time to explain the whole process.  This place ended up being our favorite of the trip.  On our first visit we had coconut, pineapple, vanilla and cake batter flavorings with macadamia nut ice cream in the middle and coconut cream sprinkled on top.  Heaven!  On our second visit, we got berrylicious (combination of berry flavors), and it was just as good as the first time.
    • Jo Jo's Shave Ice - We went here after lunch at the Shrimp Station in Waimea.  Apparently, the service here can be spotty, but we had a great experience.  They had smaller sizes here so we each got one.  I had the Berry Berry combo and Ashley had the Colada Special.  Each one was prepared with care, and this place was second only to Ono Ono Shave Ice.
    • Shaka Shave Ice - This place was part of Kalapaki Beach Hut.  Ashley got a Hawaiian Style flavored shave ice from here one day while I was dozing on the beach.  I got to try a few bites of what was left, and I thought it was really good.
    • Paradise Shave Ice - This place was in Hanalei, and we both thought it was good.  We shared a Blue Hawaiian shave ice here.
    • Wishing Well Shave Ice - This place was also in Hanalei, and we had read that it was supposed to be one of the better shave ice locations on the island.  We got a rainbow flavored shave ice, but I don't think the ice was freshly shaved.  As a result, it came in last of all the shave ice places we tried.
Hours for Jo Jo's Shave Ice
  • Mermaid's Cafe - This was an awesome little place in Kapa'a.  It's just a little shack with a few outdoor tables.  There are two guys inside that were turning out some awesome food.  We went for lunch one day.  Ashley had the ahi nori wrap, and I had the chicken satay plate.  Both were excellent!  For drink, I had the hibiscus lemonade (a mix of hibiscus tea and lemonade) which was a unique but tasty drink.  Ashley tried the Thai tea with coconut milk which was good but a little rich.
  • Oasis on the Beach -  I had read some great eviews of this place, so I was really excited about it.  However, we didn't have a stellar experience.  This was mostly due to a mixup with us getting the wrong food brought out to us, and the waiter getting flustered as a result.  The food was good, but the overall experience wasn't great.  However, I would give this place another shot if I'm ever back in Kauai.  The Okinawan sweet potato chips they brought as a snack were really good.  For appetizers, we had the shrimp cakes (awesome!) and caprese with local tomatoes and chevre (different take on caprese but tasty).  For entrees, Ashley had uku (gray snapper) with miso glaze, and I had local grass fed beef tenderloin.  Ashley's fish was the winner of those two.  The apple banana spring roll with caramel gelato for desert was the best part of the meal.  So good!
  • Monico's Taqueria - We stopped at this Mexican place on our way back from our long day on the North Shore.  It was very busy, and we took the first available table which ended up being outside.  The only issue was that for some reason you can't drink alcohol outside.  So, no cerveza with dinner.  Ashley had the seafood taco taco (ahi, scallop and shrimp tacos) and I had the ahi fish tacos.  The food was good, but it took forever to get it.  We didn't have the best experience, but maybe we just caught them on a bad night.
  • Toro-tei Sushi - This is a sushi bar near the pool bar at the Marriott.  We went here on our last night.  We had the spicy ahi roll, crispy anuenue roll (salmon, ahi, hamachi and fish roll rolled in panko and fried), ahi sashimi and salmon sashimi.  The sushi was good, but the service was not very personable.