Saturday, August 15, 2009

Germany 2009 Trip Report

This trip was to celebrate our 25 anniversary. We are from a small town in Oklahoma and have never traveled out of the US other than to the Caribbean. Just the two of us traveling this time, we left the three teenagers at home.

Day 1:

Our flights on American Airlines out of Kansas City were smooth, but a late start out of Chicago resulted in us arriving late to Heathrow. We had about 30 minutes to make our next flight to Munich. If you were in Heathrow on Friday, June 19th, I am sure you noticed us. We were the out of shape sprinters. When we got to security I frantically flagged down a worker and begged for help to make our next flight. Thankfully we were taken through security quickly. We probably still would have missed the flight, but when we arrived at the gate we found that our flight to Munich was delayed 30 minutes. I will never again criticize the contestants on “The Amazing Race”. It looks so simple from home! We breathed a sigh of relief when we finally got on that last plane.

We arrived in Munich at 4:00 pm excited and a bit apprehensive about being totally out of our comfort zone especially since the only German we know is in our pocket size translator book. We located the Avis desk and picked up our compact car with GPS unit without any problems. As we were leaving Munich heading towards Fussen where we would spend our first two nights, my husband mentioned that “Ausfahrt” must be a pretty good size city to have so many exits. Turns out ausfahrt means “exit” in German…lol!

After we drive awhile we spot a McDonald’s which is of course synonymous to “public restroom” so we make a pit stop. Even the familiar McDonald’s was interesting. It was two stories and had such a small parking lot that we were required we parallel park. My husband makes it up the stairs before me and I find him hesitating between the restroom doors. There are no symbols only words. German words. He points to the “Damen” door and tells me he is “pretty sure” that is the ladies and why don’t I go ahead in and see? Being “pretty sure” you are correct is just not enough when it comes to restrooms. I found someone to verify!

We arrive in Fussen and find a picture perfect town with cobblestone streets and pretty buildings. After driving in circles for a bit we locate Hotel Zum Hechten, our first hotel recommended by Rick Steves. We find our room to be basic but nice, with interesting bedding, shiny updated bathroom, flat screen TV and cute balcony with bright red geranium window boxes. Our two night stay at 94 Euros a night was very pleasant!

Day 2:

When we awake the next morning we are a bit disappointed to be greeted by cloudy skies and the threat of rain. Rain turns out to be our weather forecast for the week but after receiving reports from home where the heat index was 108 degrees we decide to embrace the weather and be thankful that we are not hot! We enjoy the hotel breakfast buffet included in our rate, although we find the sandwich fixin’s a bit strange, and head out to explore. Our plan is to stop in Mittenwald on the way to visit Castle Reifenstein in Vipiteno, Italy. We ooh and ahh at the beautiful scenery all the way to Mittenwald. We are from a rural area where crops and cows are common but have never seen such groomed fields and our cows do not wear bells!

We spent a pleasant couple of hours in Mittenwald. We visited the church and several of the shops and took lots of photos of the painted buildings. Unfortunately the rain began to come down pretty steady at this point so we did not spent as much time here as we would have otherwise.

The reality that we were actually in Germany, Austria and then Italy was truly amazing! We were in awe of the fact that we are actually seeing the Alps, the ALPS! In person! Around every bend in the road there was a picturesque town and we could not believe that each town seemed to have a prominent church. During this drive there were a few times of intense stress. We probably should have read the instructions on the GPS before using it. I think it would have been easier to discover that if a wrong turn is made or you lose the signal just to keep with the instructions and it will turn out ok. We spent a lot of time not trusting the GPS and wondering if we were lost. In retrospect we did not have any problems driving or finding our way, but there was a bit of underlying stress of autobahn driving and just general stress of not knowing where the heck we were. Of course my husband is now bragging that he “drove the autobahn”!

We took a great many photos and eventually found our way to Vipiteno. We drive around taking in the sights of this small town which seems different than Germany or Austria even though it is just over the border. We need directions to the castle so I take advantage of a refueling stop and ask the attendant and another customer. There was a lot of smiling and gesturing and a few English words but not nearly enough to actually locate anything. By this time it is early afternoon and seems a long time since our breakfast sandwiches so we decided to take a break for some lunch at a small hotel. When we are handed the menu it is, of course, in Italian. Our German menu coder is not going to help here! My husband was very brave and just pointed at a selection and ended up with some type of rice dish. It was very obvious to our waiter that we couldn’t read a word. He asked me “spaghetti?” and I was grateful to say “yes”! We found our experience with language very interesting in this town. We had not traveled far but we couldn’t find anyone that had enough English to direct us to the castle!! We did finally SEE the castle up on the hill but by the time we located it the tour time had passed and we were exhausted. Although we didn’t tour the castle who could complain? We just had lunch in ITALY!! We oohed and ahhed our way back to Fussen with a break for shopping in Innsbruck.

Day 3:

Our Germany information before this trip was pretty limited but one thing I was aware of was that Walt Disney’s castle was inspired by a castle in Germany, so I was really looking forward to seeing Ludwig’s castles on our second day. After our bologna sandwich breakfast (just kidding, kind of) we took the 10 minute drive to the castles. We purchased our tickets through the hotel receiving a small discount and would have avoided long ticket lines if they would have existed. We walked up the hill to Hohenschwangau Castle, took a great many photos of the beautiful castle and views and enjoyed the tour with about 20 others.

After visiting the public restroom where we paid 50 cents to urinate for the first time in our lives (yes I took a photo of the machine), we got in line for the bus to go up the hill to Neuschwanstein Castle. We were awaiting the bus when it seemed like flood gates were opened and many, many people poured in. It was still very manageable since the tours are timed but I think it would be advantageous to arrive as early in the day as possible. We made a brief stop on Mary’s Bridge before walking the last few minutes up the hill to Neuschwanstein Castle. The view of the castle from the bridge is certainly worth the short walk. I was informed on Fodor’s board to expect scaffolding on the castle, or I would have been disappointed. Another walk and we were at the castle entrance. One small tip: you place your ticket in a machine to enter when your tour time is posted. Similar machines in the US actually take your ticket into the machine and then you proceed through the turnstile. The machine at the castles do not take the ticket they just scan it; you keep it in your hand and proceed through. I felt for the Americans who did not understand the procedure and were not able to get through the turnstile. The line was backing up and they were frantically looking for help as we passed by. Speaking of Americans, we found it so interesting that we could spot the Americans a mile away. They were the only overweight people with ball caps and big white tennis shoes. I am sure they were engaging in conversation about “so much walking” just as we were. We enjoyed the Neuschwanstein Castle tour, made a few gift shop purchases and headed back down towards the horse drawn carriages. We just reached a café/gift shop with umbrella tables when the rain started. Pouring rain!! We were so very fortunate in our timing. We stopped for some lunch, purchased an additional umbrella and then rode the covered carriage down without ever getting wet!

Originally we had planned to spend one more night in Fussen but we decided to go ahead and head up the Romantic Road on this rainy Sunday afternoon when everything was closed. We made a stop at Wieskirche on the way. My first impression as we drove up was a bit disappointing. I had imagined a picture perfect setting with a beautiful church in a meadow. I did not picture the souvenir stands right on top of the front door, but once I stepped in the door the souvenir stands were forgotten. We are not Catholic and Rococo is not our style but it didn’t matter, this church is really special. I loved the ceiling with Jesus on the rainbow! Wieskirche was one of the most memorable sights we enjoyed in Germany.

We spent the rest of the day enjoying the drive up the Romantic Road towards our next destination of Rothenburg. So many things to see and discuss! We get as far as Dinkelsbuhl and decide to call it a day. We do not have a reservation but we get out our trusty Rick Steves book which recommends the Hotel Palmegarten. We are not surprised to find a very attractive hotel with beautiful flowers when we arrive. The manager was not onsite but came within minutes of our call and gave us our key to our small but very clean room. No paperwork, no credit card, she didn’t even ask us our name, just a friendly greeting and told us she would see us in the morning! The room was a bit dated but had a lot of character including a small chandelier and a balcony overlooking charming houses. We enjoyed a meal across the street and had an early night. I had not been sleeping well so far on the trip. I always have trouble sleeping when not at home and maybe I had the additional thoughts of what those three teenagers we left at home were up to, but lack of sleep was certainly not due to noise. One thing we were beginning to notice was how quiet our hotels have been. I guess lack of sleep and the very quiet hotel with a comfortable bed caught up to us and we didn’t awake until 10:30 the next morning which is very unusual for us! We made our way down about 11:00. After good morning greetings we are SHOCKED to find that the manager didn’t want us to miss breakfast although we were an hour late, so she saved the breakfast buffet for us. Needless to say we highly recommend the Hotel Palmegarten! 75 Euros for a spotlessly clean room, free wireless, excellent location, awesome friendly service and definitely breakfast!

Day 4:

We arrived rested in Rothenburg and really loved the town. The cobblestone streets, sidewalk cafes, beautiful buildings! We enjoyed touring St. Jakobs Lutheran Church which was such a contrast with Weiskirche Church. We are Lutheran so found it especially interesting. We also enjoyed the Crime and Punishment Museum. There were so many wonderful shops to explore and I was excited to realize that a Black Forest Cuckoo Clock would actually work in our budget. Anneliese Friese Shop offers a 20% discount on purchases with the Rick Steves book so we go in and once again received some very special customer service. When I showed Ms. Friese the book she greeted me as if we were long lost friends, she showed me photos of Rick visiting the shop and she autographed a map of Rothenburg for us which I thought was very sweet. We left the shop with a HUG and not because we made a purchase large enough to warrant one!

I had read several times that for the best Rothenberg experience you should spend the night, but it was still shocking what a difference it made. When the shops closed and the tour busses left, the town became almost deserted. We planned on taking the Night Watchmen’s Tour but unfortunately when we arrived at the square we found that although the town was very empty in comparison to what it had been, the 300 people that were left in town were all going on this tour! I am really not even exaggerating much on the amount of people. There were two HUGE school groups and various others. We decided that this was not what we had in mind for our anniversary evening so instead we took a long walk around the city wall and enjoyed a picnic in the castle garden which was right outside the Hotel Kloster Stueble. Since this was our actual anniversary we splurged a bit on this hotel and were not disappointed. We had a wonderful third story loft style room called the Falcon’s Nest. It included a sitting area, beautiful furnishings, gorgeous tub and shower, flat screen TV, and breakfast. 176 Euros and worth every penny!

Day 5:

Our first stop on our drive back to Munich where we will spend our next two nights is Castle Baldern. This castle is located near Bopfinger about 20 minutes off the Romantic Road. We do not know anything about the castle and located it only because it is listed on our road map. We find a castle at the end of the winding mountain road that included a large walled courtyard with imposing buildings, etc. The next tour starts in minutes and we are the only ones touring! Our friendly guide apologized for limited English but we greatly enjoyed seeing the castle and she conveyed plenty of information to us.

This castle certainly had a “lived in” feeling, some original furnishings and lots of weaponry. It has not been restored other than the roof (if we understood correctly) and is a bit faded, worn and very real.

In Harburg we stopped for lunch before visiting the castle, in what we thought was a restaurant, but turned out to be a deli. They had some prepared foods and a small eating area and a server with nonexistent English. It was a bit confusing to place our order but we managed and felt as if we were really on an adventure!

After our lunch adventure and driving through the cute town of Harburg we find the Harburg Castle. Unfortunately we find that an English tour is not offered. We decide to go ahead and take the German one. We figure we can at least look! The guide did speak English and was kind enough to say a few sentences to us in English in each location after the German explanation. It was a good tour for us and I am sure a great tour for those that could understand everything being said! We learned that the castle is owned by the same man that owns the Baldern Castle and he lives in the area in a third castle. Wow!

We eventually arrive in Munich using our GPS unit, which has now become our friend, and easily locate the Pension Lindner where we will spend our next two nights. Our clean double room with private bath included wireless internet, breakfast and was in an excellent location about a block from the Marienplatz. We were surrounded by all kinds of shops and restaurants and again enjoyed great service. 75 Euros per night.

Day 6:

We were thankful that the location of our hotel allowed us to walk to all of the sights in the area. We enjoyed the various churches, especially the Asamkirche, The Residence, people watching and shopping. Shopping opportunities abound here with all kinds of what looked to be very nice clothing, jewelry stores, etc. We spent our time and money in the t-shirt, beer mug, refrigerator magnet venues (we’re hicks remember?) but there certainly seems to be something for everyone! We spent our last evening in Munich with the inevitable visit to the Hofbraeuhaus. Somehow we managed to find our way in the backdoor to the upstairs hall (it is just amazing how not being able to read signs affects everything!) where a buffet and corny stage show are offered. Arriving in the backdoor enabled us to scout the buffet, which left a lot to be desired, and we were happy to find that ordering from the menu was also an option. We found the Hofbraeuhaus mildly entertaining. My lack of enthusiasm may be due to the fact that I was drinking coke as opposed to a liter of beer.

Day 7:

We woke up on our last day in Germany a bit sad to see a great vacation coming to an end but also looking forward to the comforts and kids at home. We did a bit more walking and shopping soaking in the atmosphere and then headed out to tour Dachau on the way to the airport.

We felt almost obligated to visit such an important sight in history and found the grounds and museum to be very well done. Dachau was stark, cold and depressing just as it should be. I can’t say that we enjoyed the tour but we were happy that we went.

We enjoyed one last ooh and ahh drive through additional picturesque small towns before spending our last night in Germany at the Kempinski Airport Hotel. We chose the Kempinski for convenience for our 7 am flight home. We enjoyed the American style bedding, plush bathroom and continental breakfast for 139 Euros.

This first trip to Europe was a very big deal for us. World travel is not a common experience within our friends and families, but something I have always dreamed of doing (most world travelers we know went on a ticket from Uncle Sam). We enjoyed every minute of our time on this vacation even the times of stress and especially the times where we had issues with language or felt out of our comfort zone. We were impressed over and over by the beautiful scenery, architecture, cleanliness, and friendliness of the people we encountered. We enjoyed a great vacation that expanded our world and consequently our children’s world as well. Thanks to all who answered my posts to help me plan this great adventure and for reading this lengthy report!

We loved Germany!

Colorado 2008 Trip Report

This trip report is about our family’s quest to determine an answer to the age old family vacation question…beach or mountains???

As the summer of 2008 approached, we as a family were split on where to go for our vacation. Our final decision? Beach and mountains! In June we traveled to Vieques Island, Puerto Rico and had a fun time. Later that summer, in July, we packed our bags again and headed to Buena Vista, Colorado!

Day 1:

We wanted to get an early start on the first leg, so we had packed our van the night before. At 5:00 am we set out on, what I calculated to be, an eleven hour drive. We headed down the road to Wichita, KS where we had our first stop. Of course, everyone slept on that leg except for…Dad! We stopped in Wichita for a quick bite of breakfast and the restrooms. In typical Dad fashion, I told everyone to use the restroom again before we left because we weren’t going to be stopping in every town we went through for restroom breaks. Famous last words. Between our three teenagers and my wife we promptly stopped in Kingman, Pratt, Greensburg, Dodge City, Garden City and finally Syracuse, KS all before we got to the Colorado border! A note about Greensburg. This city was hit a couple of years ago by a massive tornado. It literally wiped the whole town off the map with the exception of what I think may have been a granite library. We stopped in at a convenience store, for yes another restroom break, and then we drove through the town. It appears that many of the homes are being rebuilt and they are trying to rebuild using “green” methods and materials. From what I understand, several celebrities have contributed time and monies to help the people along. They have a long way to go but our prayers are with them. I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with western Kansas, but if you enjoy flat, treeless miles on the road this is your place! The truth is, it is an interesting and nice drive in its own special way. Now I would be remiss if I left out one important fact about our trip. Approximately one week before we left, my wife was coming down the stairs in our house and about halfway down, she missed the next step. I soon got a call from her at work. She was upset because she had fallen and her rear end landed squarely on the corner of the next step and she tumbled to the bottom of the stairs. She was okay but sore. By the time I had gotten home, she had a raw steak colored bruise the entire size of her rear end cheek! Over the next week, the bruise morphed and changed into different colors, sizes and hardness. So here we are now a week later and she’s having to sit on this bruise for hours in the van and let me tell you, those seats are not THAT comfortable!

We eventually crossed the Colorado border, and yes, with stops in Lamar and Rocky Ford (melon capital of the US I think!), La Junta, until eventually we drove down through a low lying area and as we popped up over the edge just outside of Pueblo, CO…there they were! Mountains!

I am always in awe of the mountains when I see them for the first time on each trip I have ever made. They are beautiful! After a couple more hours of driving we eventually arrived in Buena Vista, CO, our destination for this trip. The drive did not take eleven hours but more like 13-14 hours! We drove through town, and then we eventually left town, and I began to wonder if I had made a wrong turn when I saw the place where we would be staying…Arrowhead Point Campgrounds.

After registering at the main office and buying myself an Arrowhead t-shirt, we picked up our keys and pulled up to one of their “cabins”. These cabins are not the rustic sort that you picture up in the mountains, but in reality, they are mini pre-fab manufactured cabins with wood siding. That being said, we were happy to be there and unloaded all of our stuff for the week. Upon unpacking and fighting about who had to sleep where (kids that is), I opened up the window in our bedroom and the window perfectly framed a beautiful mountain! We opened the window up and a cool breeze flowed through the cabin. We ate dinner and took a walk through the campgrounds. Cool temperatures and no Oklahoma humidity! It felt wonderful!

Day 2:

We woke up and drove through town checking out the sights until we ended up at Wilderness Aware. We had reservations for a six mile raft ride down Brown’s Canyon on the Arkansas River. This particular year we were told the river was running higher than normal due to the heavy snowfalls the area had received the previous winter. The kids and I were ready to jump in the raft and go. My wife was another story. I didn’t realize that she had requested the very best, most experienced guide when she made the reservations because she was sure that we were going to die. After much coaxing and reassuring by me we all climbed in and pushed off. The river, the mountains, and the scenery were all beautiful. We constantly ooh’ed and aah’ed at the sights. My wife did enjoy herself even though she had to sit on her other rear end cheek the entire time due to her injury! As we pulled up to the shore at the end of the ride, the guide asked us if we had requested her because of the two people who had died on the river a few weeks earlier…we all looked at her, and at the same time said, “Someone died here???”. I instantly looked at the guide and thanked her for not bringing that up before we headed out on the raft trip otherwise we never would have gotten to enjoy it like we did! Lastly, I bought myself a rafting t-shirt. By the way, we got discounted pricing on the rafting tickets through our campgrounds.

Day 3:

We woke up early and headed into town so that we could go on our jeep tour. We had made arrangements for the jeep tour through Wilderness Aware as well. The jeep tour company was named High Country Jeep Tours. We arrived at their office and prepared ourselves for a fun trip when we learned that there had been a miscommunication and the tour we thought we were going to take was not available. In addition, we had intended to be the only ones in the jeep on the tour. Instead, we were told that we were going to be headed out on another jeep tour to Mt. Antero and that there would another couple with us. We were not happy about the arrangements but there really wasn’t anything else we could do and we had to go that day since it was going to be our last day in Buena Vista. So we all packed up and hopped into the back of the jeep. We got to know the other couple and they turned out to be very nice. We headed off for Mt. Antero. Mt. Antero is a member of the 58 "14-teeners". That means at 14,269 feet tall, Mt. Antero is one of 58 mountains in Colorado that surpass 14,000 feet.

After driving a few miles to get to the base of Mt. Antero, we pulled off the paved road and began our ascent up the mountain. The scenery was amazing. The jeep was equipped with 4WD and we needed it many, many times. The driver took his time driving so that we didn’t bounce out thankfully! He was very informative and gave us the history of the area and pointed out many things that we might have missed without his help. We completed the first part of the ascent just as we were coming to tree line. We passed by a few campsites that literally were out in the middle of nowhere. It looked like fun. Now came the really “fun” part of the ascent. If any of you have driven in the Rocky Mountains, at some point, you have driven up switchbacks. Well let me tell you, these were the steepest, rockiest, and by FAR the narrowest switchbacks we have ever been on! Literally one of us could reach out and touch the rocks or snow on the mountain side of the jeep and the other person could look out their side of the jeep and practically look straight down! It really wasn’t straight down but it sure felt like it! Since the driver really had to watch the road closely, he asked us to help him by looking ahead and letting him know if another jeep was coming down the mountain toward us as we were going up it. The reason why is that the road is barely wide enough for one vehicle, let alone two! We did in fact have a couple of jeeps coming down at different times and our driver had to stop at a bend in the switchbacks because the other drivers had already started down our leg of the road. We certainly did NOT want him trying to drive in reverse on a road that narrow to a bend so that other drivers could get by us. We eventually reached a high mountain meadow with a couple of small lakes. It was beautiful! We continued on until we got very near the top of Mt. Antero. We hopped out and we had an hour to wander around and investigate this beautiful area. We looked out and literally felt as if we were on top of the world! Mt. Antero is known for its vast quantities of minerals and crystals at its summit. In fact, I believe, the largest aquamarine gemstone discovered in the US was discovered there. We picked up a few pretty samples to take home. A word of caution, we Okies, being low altitude land lubbers, learned quickly just how difficult it was to run across the mountain tops and lose our breath! You would have thought we had just run the fastest mile race of our lives! In addition, even though it was mid-July, bring yourself a jacket. Its still cold at 14000 feet! My wife warned us all to wear pants and to bring a jacket. Everyone did…except for me. In my infinite wisdom, I thought that a t-shirt and shorts would be fine. I was wrong. We hopped into our jeep and began our descent. We traveled back down to the tree line where we stopped by a stream and ate our sack lunches that came with the tour. We continued on down the road until we were back to the paved roads.

Upon returning to the paved roads, our guide took us on up to a small old mining town named St. Elmo (yep, they sell St.Elmo’s t-shirts and I have one!). It is a cute little town with a few residents and definitely some touristy shops to grab your souvenirs. We enjoyed our time in St. Elmo. After leaving the mining town we headed back down the road and eventually returned to Buena Vista. Although the jeep tour did not go as we had planned, we really enjoyed ourselves very much and would recommend this company.

Later that afternoon and early evening, we pulled off the road and followed a trail down to the Arkansas River. If you’ve seen the Arkansas River in Oklahoma, you would be shocked to see it in Colorado! At points it is barely 20 feet wide! We climbed around the beautiful sandstone rock formations, hiked around, and took many pictures. In addition, there many differently colored granite stones lying around. The flakes in the granite made these stones very pretty, and yes, we brought a couple home for landscaping in the yard! In fact, I am currently using one that I found broken in half perfectly as a door stop in my office.

Day 4:

We woke up early and packed. We enjoyed our visit to Buena Vista, Arrowhead Point Campground, and all of the surrounding area. We headed down the road to Colorado Springs, CO.

After a nice drive, we pulled in Colorado Springs and got our room. Once we rested, we headed out to Manitou Springs. This is a neat little Victorian style village with lots of shops and eateries to enjoy. We walked all over the town and enjoyed our lunch at a small bistro.

We then went to the American Numismatic Association. Yes, a coin museum! I am a little bit of a collector of coins and one of my sons has some interest so we wanted to stop in and take a tour of their museum. It was laid out very well and we enjoyed our visit! Once again, I bought myself an ANA t-shirt!

We headed back to our hotel room and later that evening we enjoyed eating dinner at a nice restaurant.

Day 5:

The next morning we woke up and started out on our adventure for the day!

First up, Garden of the Gods! We first visited their main building. It houses a souvenir shop, small restaurant I believe, and a cinema room that shows a short movie about the grounds. We hopped into our van and headed out for the driving tour of the park. There were many interesting sights to see. If you’re adventurous, they even have a hiking trail that you can take and it probably is even more scenic if you have the energy to take it. And nope, I couldn’t leave without a Garden of the Gods t-shirt could I?

After stopping to eat lunch, we headed to the Cave of the Winds. We pulled into their driveway…which I am not kidding when I say, it literally seemed to go straight up the side of the mountain. Our van was loaded with five adults and I wondered if I was going to have to kick it into a low gear just to make it up! We in fact finally make it. The views from up on the hill were very pretty. They have a nice souvenir shop as well. We bought tickets for the tour and lined up when they called our tour number. We were with about 20 others and a high school aged guide. They gave each of us a small “lantern” to carry. You know…in case the lights go out! *wink wink* The guide did a good job telling the history of the cave and she even tried to spice it up for the tourist. It was interesting…but to be honest, its overhyped. Nice t-shirt though!

Next we spent some time checking out the rest of Colorado Springs. Eventually, we drove out to Seven Falls. Why did we decide to go to Seven Falls?…well…for the t-shirt…what else is there??? We pulled up and paid our entry fee and at that time we were given a ticket with our numbered parking spot listed on it. I drove the family on up into the park and eventually found our spot. And to our surprise? There is another car parked in our spot. I am a believer that if someone tells me to park in a certain spot…I do it. We had gotten lucky enough to get a spot that was very close to the entrance and there were no other spots around. Now bear in mind, it had been a long day by this time and I was tired. I pulled up and the family who had parked in our spot was just getting out of their car. I leaned out my window and pointed out that they were in my spot. I was now on a mission. That parking spot was MINE! They looked up at me and said it didn’t matter who parked there. I reminded them that we all got assigned parking spots and that spot was mine. They told me that I should find another spot. I told them that I wasn’t interested in another spot and that they needed to move. They disgustedly got back into their car and pulled out but not before they felt it was necessary to holler a few unmentionable comments to us. You know what? I don’t care…that spot was mine and we didn’t want to walk any further than they did. So after slowly pulling their car away, I pulled our van into the spot and we marched off to the falls thrilled at our victory! The falls are very pretty and they have lit them up in different colors. In addition, you can take an elevator up to the top of falls and see the falls from above. We took lots of pictures and had many ooh's and aah's. As we were leaving, guess what? Nope…the family was gone. We passed a souvenir shop and I got myself ANOTHER t-shirt! I’m going to be set for years in t-shirts!

We drove on back to our hotel and packed up knowing that the next day was going to be a long trip home.

Day 6:

We drove and we drove and we drove until we got home…and in the famous last words of Forrest Gump, “That’s all I can say about that now.”

We truly enjoyed our trip to Colorado and in the days that followed at home, the question came up several times…beach or mountains? Much to my wife’s chagrin, I think I have won the kids over to the mountains! Beaches are fun too…but there is just something about those mountains!

I hope you enjoyed our trip report, my wife usually writes these but I wanted to give it a try myself. Hopefully it wasn’t too wordy or dragged out but then again…hey…its my trip report! Have fun everyone!

San Juan / Vieques, Puerto Rico 2008 Trip Report

My family of five, two adults and three teens enjoyed a San Juan, PR / Vieques vacation from June 17-25. I hope someone can benefit as much as I did from reading trip reports on Fodor’s!

Old San Juan / Travel to Vieques

On Tuesday, June 17th, we departed Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport. We live in a small town in northeast Oklahoma and found a great deal on flights from this airport. The airport is so small that we parked in long-term parking and then walked to the terminal. After uneventful Delta flights, we arrived in San Juan about 8:00 pm. During landing a great many of the passengers burst out in spontaneous applause. My family and I all looked at each other like we must have missed something. We never did figure that out. Another airport oddity was all of the people standing outside of the airport windows peering in at the arriving passengers. I guess that they are not allowed inside the arrival area? We felt as if we were on display as we made our exit in search of a cab. We certainly felt on the edge of adventure with a great many of the voices around us speaking a language we don’t understand!

Cabs were easy to locate with fixed rates. We paid $20 plus one dollar for each bag for our short trip to the Sheraton Old San Juan. The hotel was a typical Sheraton but in an excellent location right across the street from the cruise ship dock and an easy walk into Old San Juan. Amenities we enjoyed were the rooftop pool with a great view of the ships and a small casino. Our first meal in Puerto Rico was at the Chicago Burger Company located at the Sheraton. What a long trip for a Chicago burger, but we were just too tired to search out a better option (my last trip report was about Chicago!). During our meal the friendly waitperson asked us about our vacation plans. We told him that we were spending a day touring Old San Juan but then we were excited to be heading to Vieques. I guess our Oklahoma accents and pronunciation were really off because it took several tries before he could figure out where we were going!

Prepared, due to this website, we set out on Wednesday with a copy of a walking tour of Old San Juan from Puerto Rico Day Trips. It was great to not only enjoy the sites but to also know what we were looking at!! Our three teenagers were very patient with Mom wanting to read the description of each building, fountain, etc. The highlights were of course the El Morro Fort and I loved the San Juan Cathedral. We are not much for serious shopping but we enjoyed purchasing souvenirs. The walking tour is in three parts and we made it through both one and two before we were too hot and tired to continue and headed back to the hotel pool. Later that evening we walked to the Hard Rock Café for our evening meal. Old San Juan was beautiful; we enjoyed taking a lot of photos.

Thursday morning started early with a 6:00 am pick up from Professional Luxury Transportation. Our friendly driver was waiting for us and we headed out to catch the 9:30 am Fajardo ferry. The driver did speak English but after asking him three times what his name was I was embarrassed not to have understood. He pointed out a few sights on the way and we caught most of it. We found it interesting throughout the trip that even when Spanish speaking people are speaking English we had difficulty understanding. We speak a bit sloooower in Oklahoma. The cost for the service was $180.00 round trip for five people in a comfortable van. We were very pleased with the service and would highly recommend them.

I was a bit apprehensive about taking the ferry due to comments read on Fodor’s board, but really didn’t have much choice with the cost comparison to flying. We arrived at the ferry port about 7:30 am and there was already a very long line for tickets (approx 50 people maybe more). Uh oh! Within a few moments we realize that there are two ticket windows and the long line is for Culebra. The Vieques line had four people in it and now us. It was an interesting wait for the tickets. A nice festive atmosphere with many people obviously going on a day trip to the beach, but we certainly felt the odd ones out. When the ticket office opened we purchased round trip tickets for five for $20.00. The lady mentions that the Vieques ferry usually leaves from section four so we head into the building to get in a new line.

When we get inside we see that section four is labeled for “resident or special travelers” and there is another section labeled for “visitors” or something similar. Hmm…what to do? So we start asking around and are told by several different people that we should be in the “visitor” line. Eventually there are several more tourists in the line with us and we have some good conversations while waiting. We are feeling pretty good to be first in the line and are not worried at this point about being able to get on the ferry, but that whole section four thing is nagging at me and that area seems to have a lot more people in it than could possibly be just residents. Announcements are made over a speaker in Spanish but we can’t understand a word. That is a bit disconcerting and my teenagers at this point are pretty uncomfortable with the fact that we don’t know exactly where to go or what to do and are clearly the minority. Great travel lessons!!!! One tourist near us in line that speaks Spanish walks over to the section four to make sure we are in the right place and she is told we are. BUT...when it comes time to board EVERYONE hurriedly crowds into section four except for the tourists standing under that “visitor” sign. After a few minutes when they are all on board and we are standing there looking stupid a guy pushing a broom herds us over to section four to board the boat. LOL! They store our luggage in the interior of the boat and we all split up to find seats. Of course according to my kids I should have known how all this works! In hindsight, I don’t know how I could have done anything differently, but heads up to future travelers! The ferry ride itself was pretty pleasant. Those of us on the outside upper deck enjoyed the sun, breeze and occasional face full of water.

Vieques has been on my list of places to visit for quite some time so it felt great after an hour or so to see the green island and be arriving at the dock!

Getting OFF the ferry was easy. We gathered up the luggage and headed on our way.

“Casa des Los Frutales” was to be our home in Vieques. I located the house on Enchanted Isle on the internet which was a very helpful website for planning this trip. The house manager met us at the dock in the Jeep that we also rented from the homeowner, which made things very simple! We squeezed in with one teenager on my lap, for the thankfully short ride, as we took our first look at Vieques.

When renting over the internet there is always an element of risk that the accommodations will live up to expectations, but we continued to have good luck in this area with Los Frutales! The house, which is located basically in the middle of the island, is a wonderfully maintained, comfortable vacation home. We enjoyed the many fruit trees, privacy, pool, and beautifully decorated interior. If anyone would like more details just let me know, I could go on and on about the house! We had one issue during our stay concerning a problem with the electricity and the house manager was immediately helpful and we even received a follow up phone call a day later from the owners just to make sure everything was taken care of. Great house and wonderful service!

After quick sibling fight on who gets what bedroom we geared up with swimsuits and snorkeling equipment to hit the first of many beaches! On our short drive to Esperanza, which we determined would be an easy first snorkel site; we continued to form our first impressions with the island. Our teenagers only other trip to the Caribbean was to Grand Cayman and although I tried to describe to them the differences in the two islands they were not quite prepared for the more modest homes, what we would call “run down” buildings and the more charming aspect of livestock in the street. Although I was prepared for the modest living and didn’t expect a “tourist” town, the roadside trash was a surprise to me and I will be honest, continued to be an irritant to me during our stay. Unfortunately, when we walked from the car to the beach by the old pier in Esperanza we walked through a lot of trash on the ground. I can completely understand the cost and logistical dilemma of discarding large items like refrigerators, but just common roadside garbage is especially disheartening. We snorkeled around the pier and did see a large school of fish but not much else. It had been a long day by now so we made a quick trip to the grocery store before heading back to the house. I was very surprised to find grocery prices not much higher than home. I really didn’t need to lug that extra suitcase full of food all the way from Oklahoma! We finished the first of five great evenings relaxing at the house and pool.

The next four days we explored the whole island!

Snorkeling: We knew not to expect the snorkeling to be as good as Grand Cayman, or St. John, but even so we were very disappointed. When we would spot a fish or a sea fan, etc. it would be exciting because it was so RARE. My husband did get a glimpse of a departing turtle while snorkeling on Blue Beach and we did see a lot of starfish at Mosquito Pier, along with a lot of underwater garbage, but never found a snorkeling area from the shore that we considered even “fair” or felt comfortable at as novice snorkelers. For example, at Mosquito Pier (which is really a mile long rock seawall that extends into the water) we were seeing starfish and a few fish, but the water got very deep very quickly, like dark deep where you couldn’t see well, and we were the only people there which sounds great but in reality made us uncomfortable. More experienced snorkelers may have a different perspective but for us snorkeling was disappointing. Thankfully the only disappointment of the week!!

Beaches: The beaches though were a different story. We went to beautiful beach after beautiful beach after beautiful beach. Many times we were the ONLY people there. All of the beaches were very clean; many had picnic areas and shade. Two highlights were Navio Beach where we enjoyed the waves and the Black Sand Beach where we picked up many shells. We walked approximately a mile down the Black Sand Beach and never saw another soul!! WOW! Vieques is ALL about the beaches!

Sail / Snorkel Trip with Captain Bill (741-1037): In our attempt to experience better snorkeling we booked a half-day snorkel trip with Captain Bill. Captain Bill has sailed his boat from Boston to Venezuela and many places in between. While talking to him on the phone I was assured that he knows what he is doing, is licensed and that he will take us to a great snorkeling spot. He also mentions that he doesn’t do “sissy” trips, but when I share with him that I AM a sissy and one with motion sickness issues he promises to take it easy on me. We met him at the dock in Isabella and due to my concerns about the possibility of getting sick he takes us straight to the reef that can be seen when you are arriving by ferry. I am having a bit of anxiety when he ties up the boat, but really, really want to see what is under that water, so we all gear up and hop in. My husband takes the lead and I bring up the rear as we swim out into what feels like open ocean with huge waves (novice snorkeler perception here). We spent under an hour in the water and did see some huge coral, lots of sea fans, and a few fish, and then head back to the boat. I think we disappointed Captain Bill that we didn’t snorkel longer, but it was just all we could handle. The waves were a bit much for us and the open ocean feeling with no other people made us uncomfortable. I never could really relax and enjoy it due to trying to keep track of my kids. We could have spent the rest of the time sailing, but unfortunately we found out that we are not sailors. It was a quiet trip back to the dock with four out of five of us seasick! I am proud to say that I managed not to embarrass the family by heaving over the boat, but it was a very close call. Even though the snorkel trip wasn’t exactly smooth, we were happy to have had the opportunity to see a bit more of underwater Vieques and to have had what will probably be the “once in a lifetime” sailing experience! If you would like to sail out of Vieques I can’t recommend Captain Bill highly enough! He is a great captain and was VERY patient with a boat full of sick Okie landlubbers!!!!!

Bio Bay: We did the Bio Bay trip with Island Adventures. Excellent guides and the pontoon boat was more our speed (sorry Capt. Bill!) The Bio Bay is as great as everyone says and definitely the favorite activity for all of us!!!!!!

Fort: The fort was closed for the day when we arrived, but as we were walking around the grounds taking some photos, an employee stepped out and told us to come on in and have a look. We took advantage of his offer and enjoyed the historical displays. The fort also has a wide selection of books for purchase. We purchased a book called “Vieques: A Photographically Illustrated Guide to the Island, It’s History and It’s Culture” by Gerald Singer. The book is published by Sombrero Publishing Company, PO Box 1031, St. John 00831. My best tip for future travelers is to purchase and enjoy this book before visiting Vieques or to find a copy as soon as you arrive! It is an easy read with beautiful photos. Without the book we never would have found the Black Sand Beach, which was one of our favorites! Learning about the relationship between the US Navy and the island was especially enlightening and for me as an American, embarrassing.

Gas: One tip I would pass along is to fill up the gas tank ASAP! On about our third day we went to get gas and none was to be had. Boy, that was a shock to all of us, and another great travel lesson. It put a bit of a damper on that day because we had no idea when more gas would arrive and with only a 1/8 of a tank felt forced to conserve. Thankfully more gas did arrive and we were VERY lucky to be one of the first cars in line. I have no idea what the usual situation is with gas availability, but we saw some very, very long lines of cars. One other tip that I hope someone will benefit from…wear your seatbelts! When we were informed that gas was once again available, in our excited rush to get to the station, my husband and I did not buckle up. We ALWAYS buckle up but for some reason didn’t this time! We had the pleasure of donating $50.00 each to officials of Vieques. It made us feel a bit better that they seemed to be stopping everyone, residents and tourist alike. Oh well, our fault, so we paid with good humor. What is one more hundred right?

After four great beach days and relaxing family fun nights at our lovely house we headed back to San Juan, this time on an almost empty ferry. I told my kids to mark my words when they visit Vieques again in twenty years or so it will be a very different island. I feel very blessed to have made a visit in these early tourism years.

Our driver was waiting at the ferry port with a smile and was kind enough to make a quick stop at Wal-Mart before dropping us off at the Embassy Suites in San Juan. The Embassy Suites was a good choice for us. The location is minutes from the airport and we enjoyed the two block walk to the beach. The rates also included a free breakfast, a good value for our last night. The next day was a long one with uneventful flights home.

I am always a bit sad to have vacations come to an end but this time a bit less due to the fact that my husband and I couldn’t agree on the answer to the age old question “the mountains or the beach??” so next week we are heading to Colorado. We will see how the Okie landlubbers do with river rafting!!

Thanks for reading! Happy Travels!

Travel Links:

Delta Airlines
Vieques Island
Professional Luxury Transport, 1-787-640-6900
Culebra Island

Grand Cayman
St.John (US Virgin Islands)
Captain Bill, 741-1037

Chicago 2007 Trip Report

I don't know if anyone will be interested in some small town folk’s first visit to Chicago but here it is...

Our Okie family, which consists of parents and three teens, left on Wednesday and drove to Springfield, IL where we stayed at the Abraham Lincoln Hotel. The “Abe" as the kids not so affectionately called the hotel was a $50.00 per room bid on Priceline. I knew we would be arriving late and leaving early so we wanted something cheap. The location in downtown Springfield would be great for a longer stay. When we first walked into the lobby I thought we got lucky on our Priceline bid but the rooms haven't been updated since Lincoln slept there! Our bed actually sunk in the middle and the bathroom towels were the worse I have EVER seen in any hotel. The room had a dirty feel simply because it was so worn. Bath and Body Works toiletries were a shock. I wouldn't stay here again even if it were free.

Then early Thursday morning we traveled on to Chicago. Our main reason for the trip was to visit a university that our daughter is considering, so our first stop was River Forest, IL where we took the college tour and enjoyed seeing the beautiful neighborhood.

We were planning on using Starwood points for the Sheraton Suites hotel in Elk Grove Village, IL. We do not travel much but have been loyal Starwood members always choosing to stay in Starwood hotels and saving the points for the right occasion. I booked a room with two double beds and a fold out couch, which would accommodate our family. On arrival I was told the only option was a king and fold out couch. Even with my computer printout that showed what I booked, I was basically told tough luck. SO…we had to find another hotel and at this point we were stressed, tired and disappointed!

The first hotel we see is the Holiday Inn Express in Arlington Heights, IL. It was a very pleasant surprise! The room was clean, the beds were a huge improvement over the Abe, and our $139.00 “two doubles and a rollaway” rate included breakfast. I would stay there again!

We enjoyed a huge mall in Arlington Heights. A triple-decker! It included a great Chicago souvenir store, and we ate our first Chicago style pizza at Gino East…YUM!!

Friday was our sight seeing day so we headed into downtown Chicago. I must mention that the driving time consisted of my husbands’ two fisted grip of the steering wheel and frequent stomping of brakes and my frantic cries of "do you see that car???!!", and interspersed with prayers for survival. The kids wanted to know why in Chicago people do not pay attention to lane lines on the road and were constantly yelling at their dad, "Hurry! They are honking at us!!". How embarrassing.

The embarrassment continued when we parked on the top level of a parking garage near the Sears Tower where we had a wonderful up close view of several buildings. I, of course, immediately began looking up and even pointed at a building with these wonderful lion head details that I didn't want the kids to miss..."Mom stop it! We look like tourists!!".

We enjoyed the visit to the top of the tower and would certainly recommend it. Just an aside...the tallest building in our town has nine stories and it is double all the other buildings in our town. Great tourist stop!

Next we planned on ESPN Zone for lunch. I had printed the directions and info on the recommended parking garage which we eventually did locate, but drove all through the garage and it was full. This was a new big city experience for us. We had lots of fun trying to figure out how to get out of the garage without paying! NOT. Okay, so now we are a bit stressed and decided to skip ESPN Zone (thankfully we had visited other locations) and went on to the Field Museum.

When paying for our admission at the museum we were asked if any of our party were teachers or students. Although I did not have my teaching credentials with me and the kids did not have student identifications, the lovely clerk gave us the considerable discounts anyway. Teachers get in free to the museum so it is definitely worth taking an ID! The museum was EXCELLENT! We all enjoyed our time there. Great gift shop too!

We left the museum at closing time (5:00 pm), so you big city people can imagine just what the freeway looked like. We decided we would experience more of the city driving through it, so we took an exit and ended up driving through the Hispanic area. All the kids are taking Spanish in school so we enjoyed the time reading all the signs. I had read on the internet about neighborhood tours with residents and on our next visit we hope to take one. Just the drive was interesting! We were not in Oklahoma anymore!!

We went on to the Hyatt in Lisle, IL where we enjoyed our last night. I was able to book two rooms with two doubles for $139.00 on the first room and a rate of $54.00 for the kid’s room. I signed up for the Hyatt points and think I will change loyalties. The Hyatt was great. Our only issue with it was our experience in the dining room. We being typical tourist were wearing jeans, t-shirts, and sweatshirts. We were not dirty or unkempt just very casually dressed, and we were seated in the very back corner of the EMPTY dining room. As we were being seated the host made some comment about the lighting being better. Whatever! We are hicks but not stupid ones. Even the hick kids had it figured out.

Good lesson on discrimination. As I am typing this I am thinking that you probably just had to be there to know the truth in this experience, but anyway, we still enjoyed the $115.00 hamburger and pasta meals! I would mention too that the beds were extremely small for doubles. I can't quite figure that one out. We greatly enjoyed our short visit. It was really amazing to me how you can get in a car and drive 12 hours and seemingly be in a new world. We hope to visit Chicago again (if our daughter chooses the school there, that will be a given) and enjoy the many things that we simply didn't have time for on this visit.

Entertainment Links:

Sears Tower

Field Museum

Travel Links:

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