Northern Italy and the Dolomites

What could be better that Northern Italy in the fall?  Right now, nothing comes to mind, which is a good thing, because that’s where we will be for 19 glorious days.

We arrive in Milan 4 days before our OAT trip starts.  How in the world did it happen that one of the least fashion savvy women on this planet will be in Milan during fashion week?  I imagine the streets will be loaded with even more beautiful people than usual, wearing exquisite clothes.  Will that change my determination to travel with only a carry on and backpack?  The answer to that question is “not a chance”.   Initially the plan was for us to exit the plane and head for the train without a detour to baggage claim, but then we got a call from our trip leader.  She reminded us that although it will be warm in Milan and Tirano, temperatures will drop during our visits to the Swiss Alps and the Dolomites.  So, that means we will need bulkier items.  I was able to fit everything into my trusty Eagle Creek carry on, but Mike’s clothes are considerably larger than mine.  So, one of us will be checking luggage.  That’s okay.  I’ll get a chance to see whether international flights are as picky as domestic ones about carry on size.  On our last domestic flight, I discovered that United has changed the dimensions for allowable carry ons to 9″ x 15″ x 21″.  My trusty Eagle Creek bag is 10″ x 13″ x 22″,  or 2,860 cubic inches, versus an allowable 2,835 cubic inches.  Really?  Will the gate person play hard ball?  Because we will be waiting at baggage claim anyway, it doesn’t really matter.  I’m determined to pack light regardless, because after our first night in Milan, Mike and I will be going our separate ways, and I will be traveling solo by train, bus and boat.

Mike is heading off to Stradavari’s old stomping grounds –Cremona–to hang out with his violin making buddies.  While he’s there, I’ll be in Tremezzo, on Lake Como.  Wonder if George and Amal will need a baby sitter for the twins?  And will I have packed the proper outfit?

Ah yes, packing.  I did my usual clothes “auditioning”.  It didn’t take long for me to realize I needed to amp up my quick drying wardrobe.
For my last “one bag” trip, I  used a laundry service midway, because I spent half of the trip in just one place–Beja, Portugal.  This trip, however, I will wash as I go, because over 19 days, we will be staying in 8 different hotels.    This also took some serious retooling of my laundry aids.  The expandable clothes line I packed last time was pretty worthless when I couldn’t find two suitable attachment points that would also allow me use of the bathroom (thus the need for laundry service).

Thanks to my travel buddy Sally, I now own “clothespins” that can be looped over shower bars, and foldable hangers.

What I had never done before is something that bloggers Terri and James of Gallivance recommend: try living out of the bag for a week.  Of course, they were preparing for an around the world trip lasting several months, while I’m just going to one country for less than three weeks, so I didn’t feel the need to literally live out of my bag.  Instead, what I HAVE been doing is limiting myself to the clothes that I plan on taking and washing them out in the sink.  So far so good.  My LL Bean travel pants have been drying in less than 8 hours!

IMG_7519Some travelers swear by packing cubes.  In the past, I relied on my jumbo zip lock bags instead and they have served me well, but this time I decided to give a packing cube a try.  This cube opens on both sides, and is divided into two compartments–perfect for stashing things that  I will be using on a daily basis.  To my surprise, I was able to fit pajamas, underwear, toiletry bag and laundry supplies, plus a few small items–jewelry and scarves.  So, I can pull this out in every hotel, and I have the equivalent of two bureau drawers.  Take a look.

Best of all, it fits nicely into my carry on, leaving just enough room for everything else.  If you are interested in what I was able to jam into my bag, here’s a link to the Google spreadsheet.

Of course, this list could come in handy in the event that my luggage is lost.  (Which it was, briefly, on my trip to Portugal and Spain earlier this year.)

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I suspect the reason I haven’t used packing cubes was my carry on is already divided into neat sections.  As for whether I folded or rolled, the answer is, I did both.

Okay, so enough with the packing.  Full disclosure, although I sincerely hope that what I share is helpful to others, I REALLY have recorded it to help me, because I tend to forget what I took, what worked, what didn’t, if I have’t written it down.  Yes, a mind is a terrible thing to lose, or waste, or whatever is going on with that empty space atop my shoulders.

On to the other preparations.  I got tickets for the train from the airport to our first hotel, from this very helpful website.  There are others, but I found Trainline easy to use.  Who wants to deal with unfamiliar ticket machines, in another language, while jet lagged?  Not me.  Being a bit obsessive compulsive, I also got tickets for when I’m traveling solo to lower my anxiety level.   From the Como train station, I have a choice of taking either a ferry or a bus to my hotel in Tremezzo.  Thanks to the internet, I have the schedules for both, and can decide which option is most appealing once I get there.

What a difference from my travel days in my early 20’s, when I got on a plane to Colorado without any reservations, with very little money, and only a vague idea of where I was going and what I was going to do when I arrived.   With google maps, trip advisor and the internet’s search options, I can be somewhat spontaneous, while limiting the risk of bad decisions.  (The thought that a bad decision was possible never crossed my mind in my younger days!)

Hope you’ll follow along on this next adventure.

Reykjavik, Iceland

If your idea of the perfect vacation is warm days full of continuous sunshine, then Iceland should definitely NOT be on your bucket list.  If, however, you are intrigued by quirky experiences, visually spectacular landscapes, geology, elves and trolls, go ahead and book your trip.

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I was amazed that the plants were thriving in this cold, gray weather! 

Those of you that have been following me know that I am a lazy, somewhat random blogger, but my friend Nancy is not.  If you want interesting, timely accounts of our trip, hop on over to her blog.  She’s done such a fine job, There is no need for me to take you over the same ground.  Instead, my post is a loose collection of whatever caught my eye.

Although Mike and I arrived in Reykjavik a day before the tour officially started, we took it slow, using our extra time TRYING (and failing ) to get over jet lag.  

The one in the middle belonged to a giraffe

While in Reykjavik we DID manage to make it to the museum Nancy (intentionally and wisely) missed.  Unless you are particularly intrigued by pickled whale penises, I recommend you do likewise.  Save your $15,000 kroners admission fee ($10,000 for seniors) and buy a glass of wine instead.  Good news: You can tour the gift shop for free.

 

 

 

My family will be pleased to know I did NOT do any Christmas shopping there.

 

 

I am  particularly fond of outdoor art and Reykjavik had plenty of it, both traditional, like the statue of Leif Erikson ( a gift from the USA), and unconventional (on the sides of buildings).

 

Icelanders are hearty souls.  Check out this sign above one of the restaurants.  1E24E02F-2AB3-4A9C-A011-22E2511561AF.jpegFor those of us not familiar with the metric system, 5 degrees Celsius translates to a balmy 41 degrees Fahrenheit.  While we were in town, the mercury skyrocketed all the way up to 52 degrees, still WE drank our coffee inside!

The Hilton Reykjavik is a lovely hotel some distance from the town center.  No matter.  During our stay, we were content to spend our evenings at the hotel.  One night, Mike organized a surprise party to celebrate the start of the last year I’ll be in my sixties.  Yes, that banner DOES light up and yes, it WILL be used again for the August birthday girl in my life.  

The second night at the hotel, everyone was gathered either around the big screen TV in the lobby area, or by the smaller one in the bar, to watch Croatia win the soccer semifinals.

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No restaurant meal for THESE soccer enthusiasts! 

Although ours is an organized tour, it is possible to go off on your own.  Sam did just that, hiring a guide to take him salmon fishing on  a “two rod river”.  What is THAT, you ask?  Well,  for that one day, Sam and the guide (2 rods) “owned” the river.  No one else was allowed to fish there.  Was he successful?  Well, OUR tour guide took home two of Sam’s three salmon.  (Photos courtesy of Sam’s guide).

 

While Sam was fishing, the rest of us were touring the Ocean Cluster House, an absolutely fascinating place.  With most of my family still living in or near New Bedford, Massachusetts, I am well aware of the impact changes in the fishing industry can make on an area’s economy.  Icelanders dealt with fishing restrictions very creatively.   They don’t (can’t) catch as many fish, so they have figured out how to extract maximum value from every pound of fish they are allowed to catch.4D7C4ED2-385F-4F10-A781-6D90B70F5B01
 This jacket is made entirely of processed fish skin.  It is incredibly soft.  Yes, I touched it. 

Fish skin is also being used as bandages.  Apparently, the fibers in cod skin are more similar to human skin than the skin of pigs, so the bandage can be absorbed into the body. 

Other products are used for cosmetics—fish intestines for hand cream, because (according to the Ocean Cluster House guide) someone noticed that Icelandic fishermen have very soft hands, and figured they got that way from handling fish intestines. (My Dad must have steered clear of fish intestines!) 

Even fish heads are utilized.  They are dried and exported to Nigeria for use in soup!?  By using all parts of the fish, Icelanders have upped the value from $8 per pound to about $3000. 

71551513-8F2B-4FF7-BDD6-F5B729E92814Better yet, because these products are manufactured in Iceland, they have created new industries and new jobs.  That’s a good thing, because today’s Icelandic trawlers are able to catch 200 metric tons in one trip, with far fewer fishermen, doing very little actual fishing; they now just monitor computers that run the equipment.   

72ECD07D-4C8C-4520-B301-B04F1823E5A0Our last stop was at the National Museum, an incredibly beautiful building, where we learned Iceland’s history through artifacts, clothing and household items.  Given that we will be riding Icelandic horses in a few days, I was particularly interested in the saddle exhibit.

Fortunately  women are no longer required to ride sidesaddle or wear corseted riding habits.

Next stop, Stykkishólmur.   Okay, so we have already been there for two days, and are now in Aqua-ree-ray (That’s how it is SAID, not how it is spelled).  I’m just having too much fun to keep current! 

Planning to Visit Yellowstone? Here Are Some Helpful Hints

Okay, first off, full disclosure.  We have only been to Yellowstone and the Tetons once, so I don’t pretend to be an authority, but having just gone through the experience, I don’t take for granted what more experienced National Parks travelers might.

Also, I am not, and never have been, a camper, not even in an RV, and don’t get me started on tents!  So, if after all that truth telling, you are still with me, here’s what we learned from OUR experience.

Tip #1 Researching your Trip
I discovered this wonderful brochure late in the planning process.  It has maps, showing  where the various lodging options are located, plus information about restaurants, park activities, and many, many other helpful hints.  Don’t be put off if you are traveling in 2019 and the 2018 brochure is the only one available.  Trust me. The information doesn’t change much from year to year.  Of course, the usual travel books are available at the library, but I found this brochure provided the information that I most needed in a brief and user friendly format.

And while you are at it, be sure to download the FREE Yellowstone App from whichever place you go to for your apps.  For me, it is the Apple store,  and on their site, the app looks like this.

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Once you get the app, go to “settings” (The little gear on the bottom of the screen), and choose “Download Offline Content”.  This is important because there are many areas within the park where internet access is nonexistent, but because YOU were smart enough to download, you can access the maps and important information about the sights that are nearby.

Tip #2 When to Book Your Stay
It is important to plan your trip WAY in advance, particularly if you want to stay inside the park during the summer months.  Reservations open in March for winter bookings; spring, summer and fall reservations are accepted starting May 1,  for the following year.  

We made our Yellowstone lodging reservations for May 25- 29 in early December.  I had mistakenly thought that by choosing a time when the season was just starting and while the kids were still in school, the competition for rooms would not be as keen.  Wrong!  If we had waited much longer, we would have been out of luck.  So who else was visiting Yellowstone at the start of the season?  While there, we heard German, Spanish, French, Chinese and Hindi being spoken, and saw buses from Australian and Chinese tour companies in the parking lots.  It was nice to see people from other parts of the world enjoying the beauty that this country has to offer.   Just don’t wait too long to book your hotel or cabin.

Be sure that you book through Xanterra, the official park concessionaire.  I mistakenly thought the company I found via my internet search, entitled US Park Lodging, was the vendor through which one made hotel reservations within the park.  Wrong.    I should have contacted Xanterra, and my mistake increased the cost of our lodging by 10%.  A non-refundable 10%.  And if we need to make changes to our reservation, we need to do so through Xanterra–NOT US Park Lodging.  So, YOU have now been warned.

Tip #3 Getting There
We flew into the Jackson Hole, Wyoming (JAC) airport, but other choices include Cody, Wyoming(COD),  Bozeman, Montana (BZN)  or Idaho Falls, Idaho (IDA).  Cody and Jackson are the closest — a little more than 50 miles from park entrances, while Bozeman and Idaho Falls are almost double that distance.

Although United airlines offered a non-stop flight to Bozeman, we opted for a connecting flight to Jackson.  The distance and the fact that we had never visited Jackson Hole or the Tetons were the deciding factors.

It took some playing around on the United Airlines website, but the difference in prices ($654 versus $1037 Round Trip) was worth the effort to determine which arrival and departure dates were the most economical and convenient.   (We did our airline reservations before our lodging reservations).

Of course there are some who choose to drive from home to the park, and we met a few of those adventurous souls!

Tip #4 Where to Stay
For our first two nights, we stayed at the Snake River Lodge and Spa in Teton Village, because we wanted to experience as much of what the area had to offer as possible during our first visit to Jackson Hole.

If you are a skier, this is the place to be because the ski lift is a brief stroll away.  If you are trying to save money, this is definitely NOT the place to stay.  On top of the not inexpensive room rate, the hotels in Teton Village charge resort fees and village sales taxes, in addition to the regular taxes charged.

On the plus side:  Because our son was staying with us, we opted for a suite, which was very nice, with bedroom, pull out couch and balcony.

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The view from our balcony at the Snake River Lodge.  Yes, we had a bit of rain during our stay.  

Still, we preferred Springhill Suites by Marriott, in Jackson Hole.  We stayed there for the last two nights of our trip.  It is only 15-20 minutes from the airport, it offers free a great free breakfast, you can walk to lots of wonderful restaurants in the “downtown” area, it also offers rooms with a couch (our couch had a trundle bed), and it was significantly less expensive (58% of the cost of Snake River Lodge).  Not only that, but it is right across the street from a FREE parking garage!

For our four days in Yellowstone, we decided to split our time between the northern and southern parts of this huge park– two nights at the Lake Hotel and two nights at Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel.   That worked out really well for us, because it allowed us to easily visit everything we wanted to see.

If you look at the map below, you’ll see that the roads in Yellowstone make two big loops.  yellowstone mapAs you would expect, the Lake Hotel is located across from Yellowstone Lake.  This very beautiful, peaceful property, was recently renovated. P1190626

It has all the amenities you would want: coffee and tea making paraphernalia in the room,  a hair dryer that is NOT attached to the wall, the bottles of goodies (shampoo, conditioner and body lotion.)  It also has a gift shop, a restaurant and a snack bar.

The hotels within the park all practice “sustainability”.  You can opt to forgo room service for a $5 per night credit to your room charge.  We decided to do that, and donate the savings to Yellowstone Forever.  I have to tell you, we really LIKED not having our room made up.  It was easy to make the bed (we do that at home) and hang up our towels–and we were guaranteed that the maid would not be cleaning our room when we wanted to return to it.

But more about the wonderful Lake Hotel:  The lounge is has a great view of the lake, and the piano music every night makes your before (and after) dinner drinks even more enjoyable.

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The hotel has lots of interesting architectural features, like this beautiful fireplace.  Be forewarned, though, this stay is not going to be a cheap.  Our two nights here were the most expensive of our trip.  If you are looking to conserve your vacation funds, choose a different option, but be sure to come here for dinner or lunch.

We also loved the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, but for different reasons.  This hotel had NOT been recently redone.  For example, the toilet seats are way lower than you might expect.  Be sure to LOOK before you sit!  There are no coffee or tea making supplies in the room, BUT there IS a hair dryer that is not attached to the wall.  (Can you tell I HATE the “on the wall” hair dryers?)  The shower is small and the shower head was located for people of below average height, but the hot water was plentiful and the beds were comfortable.P1030126

The location is fantastic.  Even the elk agree–They would hang out right under the hotel windows.

The park rangers put up orange cones to remind the visitors that the elk are wild animals, and they should keep their distance.  Not everyone heeds the warning, and some visitors have gotten injured because they got too close.

I also loved the photos in our room that depicted the early days of the park.

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You can’t sit on these terraces any more.  They are way too delicate and the ground is unstable/

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It used to take DAYS to get through the park.  The coaches averaged 6 miles per hour and there WERE stage coach robberies, back then, just like in those Saturday morning westerns of long ago.

Tip #5  Getting Around the Camp
We rented our car from Enterprise, which was one of three vendors that are on site at the airport.  Other car companies are located in Jackson Hole, about 15 minutes away.  Although renting from an airport based company increased our cost slightly, because of airport taxes, we thought it was worth the convenience, especially because we had an early morning flight home.  Service was good, it was easy, and they upgraded us to the BIGGEST SUV I had ever seen in my life.  (Our son picked up the car, it was not chosen by this Prius driver!)  Presumably the other car companies offer shuttle service, but we didn’t see any while we were at the airport, so perhaps you need to call into town for that service.

So, that’s all I’ve got for the preparation phase.  Next post will be about tours, dining and the actual park experiences

As I mentioned in my opening, this was our first trip to the area, so this Yellowstone newbie welcomes comments from any and all who have different hints/experiences/observations to share.  Talk to us!