Monday, December 26, 2011

Visiting Florida

Florida in One Week

Florida is a long state - north of Florida to the keys is a 10 hours drive. World class theme parks, stretches of white sand beaches,hep metropolitan city-experience, exotic bird watching and quaint pirate towns are some of the highlights of a Floridian vacation. The list is enough for a week's indulgence.
Lets assume you fly into the Orlando International Airport. Now, Orlando itself has enough things-to-do and places-to-see to fill up a week's time. But lets spend only 3 days here. The visitor has to choose between the 4 Disney parks, 2 Universal Studio parks, 2 Sea World parks, the Gatorland, a trip to the Kennedy space museum and Cocoa Beach, when he has limited time.

Dolphin feeding @ Sea World,Orlando

Some of the must places to hit are:
DAY 1:
Disney World's Magic kingdom - caters to the interests of both travellers with or with-out children.The Cinderella's castle, the Philharmonic 3D show, 'its a small world' ride are some of my recommendations. Children will definitely have plenty of more things to do like meeting the Mickey Mouse, but if you are adult traveler and waiting in line for a photo with the Mouse doesn't tickle your fantasy, I should recommend you getting a Park Hopper ticket. It allows you to see more than 1 Disney parks in a day.The second park recommended for an adult traveler is the E.P.C.O.T with the very slow but wonderful ride through the human progress in the big round dome, the GM-test-drive-ride, and the miniatures of different countries sprawling around the lake. One can get the taste of the different cultures and cuisines as he travels from Mexico to the UK around the globe.


The must must ride you should get on is the Soaring. It is an exhilarating and awesome experience of flying over the state of California. I recommend getting a fast pass for the ride as soon as you get into E.P.C.O.T, and then explore the rest of the park, to avoid long lines for the ride. The normal wait is often 2-3 hours, and if you don't collect the fast pass before 12pm, you are most likely to get a slot after 4 hours- so plan accordingly.Whichever park you are in the day time, you should come back to the Magic Kingdom at around 7pm to grab a spot in front of the Castle for the daily Spectromagic parade followed by the truly magical 'Wishes' fireworks around the castle.

Wishes Fireworks

DAY 2:
On the second day, lets venture to the Universal Studios to explore the world of Harry Potter.I had found it as a very magical adventurous theme park. You can find the Three Broomsticks Restaurant, Hogshead pub with a real hog's head, the butterbear stalls, the newspapers cuttings with moving characters and the very fascinating ride of Harry Potter and the Forbidden journey.

Simpson's 4D ride @ Universal Studio's Adventureland

The Hogwarts Park

Though, I think this is more worth a visit, you can instead want to visit the Sea World. This is also an wonderful experience with shows with killer sharks and pet animals, and opportunities to feed baby dolphins.
DAY 3:
On the second evening, drive east from Orlando to the Cocoa Beach, and stay the night there. Wake up to the sounds of the strong waves and a brilliant sunrise sight. In the daytime, get over to the NASA's Kennedy space center ( Now, who does not find space exploration fascinating? Now, if you are lucky, you can get a chance to witness a live shuttle launch while in the area. If you are not driving, there are daily package tours from Orlando to the Space centre.

Clearwater Beach

DAY 4:
On the fourth day, start west from Orlando or Cocoa towards Tampa. You may opt to make a small stop at the Seminole Hard Rock casino ( It is only about 15 minutes drive from the city. If you did not see the Disney World's Animal Kingdom, you can visit the Busch Gardens in Tampa today. Have a fun day with wild life safaris and dangerously fun roller coaster rides. 

Tiger Hole @ Disney's Animal Kingdom

In the evening, drive further west to the Clearwater Beach.

Sunset @ Clearwater

You can alternatively stay in the St Petersburg city. These are cities with award winning white sand gulf beaches. Stay the night on one of the gulf beaches.
DAY 5:
On the fifth day in the morning, venture south after crossing the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the Pinnealas County. It is a magnificent sight of architectural achievements made by mankind.

Sunshine Skyway bridge

From there the Everglades National Park is a 3 hours drive. You can make a stop at Sarasota if it seems a very long stretch to drive. Sarasota's Siesta Key Beach is one Florida's best. Or Ft Meyers is also a good stop. Details of Everglades NP can be found here: Everlades NP blog entry
DAY 6:
Key West from Everglades is a 4 hours long drive. The two way narrow US 1 is not a safe road to drive in the night. Besides you will also miss out on the wonderful feeling of driving over the ocean.

US 1

So, spend the fifth night in any of the modest accommodations in the Everglades City, and start early next morning.
DAY 7: 
Key West is a pirate city. Besides sea activities, other suggested activities are the Ghost Tours (Tripadvisor review), sunset celebrations at Mallory Square and seafood and key-lime pie eat outs. Key West was actually our favorite weekend gateway when we were Orlando residents. Key West is the southernmost point of the Continental US. If you have an extra day, you can make a day trip to Tortugas National Park -

Sunset @ Mallory Square

Leave Key West for Miami on the 7th day. One of our favorite stop on the way from Key West to Miami is Bahaia Honda State Park. 

Bahaia Honda SP

Miami, like Orlando can again be a vacation spot on its own, depending on your tastes.
DAY 8:
There is the magnificent South Beach, the millionaire houses and plethora of sea activities to explore here. Miami has the Hollywood touch to its style and glitz. It is a perfect city for a luxurious gateaway. You can catch your flight home on the eighth evening from Miami International airport.
Also note that you can also use the Key West internal airport EWY, if you want to make it a keys-vacation. Or Ft Lauderdale airport is also an alternative. It is only 45 minutes from Miami.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

4 days in Rome

Rome, the eternal city was very welcoming with a cosmopolitan city feeling. The lady of our hotel/apt. did not speak English at all. After a rather difficult first encounter with her, the later meetings went quite smooth in English and Italian with an hand-gesture-interface. The hotel/apt was very nice considering the high walls, old windows, 2 minutes walking distance from the Colosseum, the punctual and meticulous room keeping services , delightful fresh Camay soap bars every day and the daily breakfast at a roadside cafe on the Cavour street, included in our hotel cost.
Stayed @ Cheap & Chic Hotel Roma, Rome, IT

Nero's racing grounds near Ludus Magnus
We spent the whole of our first day in Colosseum area. We had the Roma pass, and so we were allowed to skip the line, both at Colosseum, and the Palatine garden and Roman Forum opposite the Colosseum. For a classic Hollywood movie lover like me, traveling with a strong history buff as my husband, 4 days in Rome fell short to satisfy us, more so when one of those 4 days we had to visit the Vatican city. We wanted to explore every bit of the ancient(Colosseum,Forum,museums), medieval (the obelisks and cathedrals) and new world Rome. The ROMA pass was a great help, as we took the bus and underground trains everywhere, round and round over the city. We even stopped at the Ludus Magnus where now stands only two stones bearing evidence of an once very popular gladiator training school, we stood on the side of the road where once Reno drove his carriage like a madman, the Via Appia Antica -  the first road ever built, and put our hands in the Mouth of Truth which cuts your hand if you tell a lie.

Temple of Saturn
 And then, all the churches in Europe are famous, specially the ones in Rome. One had St Peter's chains, one had the saint's head, one had the stairs which Jesus Himself had strided on His way to crucification (we saw pilgrims crying there. Rudy is an atheist, but he joined the pilgrims who were climbing the steps on their knees, and he had found it too overbearing and did not finish his climb. I felt he was on the verge of conversion amongst believers that day.). We also went to the church which was the old home to the Pope before the St Paul's cathedral.

Abandoned/ancient St Paul's Cathedral


Roman Pantheon




Pope's old home

boy taking out thorn(Roman replica from the original Greek one)

Venus lost her clothes somewhere
..caught telling a lie
One of the Pontificus Maximus

Gift of Govt. of India to the Govt. of Rome

With all the history, relics, stories, architecture, and of course good food, Rome was surely a very overwhelming experience for us. So I remembered to throw a penny over my left shoulder in the Trevi Fountain so that some day we can go back to Rome.

Next time, I will not miss the trip to Pompei - the city frozen in time.

3 days in Florence

 Florence and Pisa

Santa Maria Del Fiore

We had taken a night train from Venice to Florence.Our hotel in Florence was at a walking distance from the station - thanks to Rick Steves for the very-well-thought advice. We were in the city where Renaissance as the world knows of, started. 
We did all the typical things-to-do and hit almost all the places-to-see as mentioned in the numerous blogs and articles and videos I had studied for my preparation for the Italy trip. On our first day, we went to the Palace Vechchio, Uffizi gallery ( I remember the very long line to enter the gallery, the 10 euro guide book we bought near the entrance which helped us to appreciate all the magnificient masterpieces inside), lazed around at the Ufizzi square, attended an evening choir in Italian inside the Santa Maria Del Fiore cathedral.

Gold carvings by Michaelangelo


The second day, we took a train from Florence to Piza, and then a bus from outside the station to the grounds of the Leaning tower of Pisa.It was suggested to spend the 15 euro to climb the leaning tower but we didnt. I remember how we wanted to take a photo together with the tower, and had sought out a very fat man for help. He had such a big belly, he could not sit low enough to take the picture, and the tip was cut off :) 

Leaning Tower of Pisa

In the evening, once back in Florence, we went over to the Ponte Vecchio bridge we had seen before from the Uffizi gallery. It was the only surviving old bridges which housed the very old dingy merchant shops. They were primarily gold shops. No we did not buy gold in Italy, but we did buy a (real) leather bag from the San Lorenzo market.

Ponte Vecchio 


On the third day, we went inside the Santa Maria Del Fiore cathedral in the morning, and in the evening explored Pitti gardens.

Pitti Palace gardens

The third night, we had left for Rome. Rome was 4 hours away.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

One Week in Italy

As I have been planning for our trip to France, I remembered that I had not completed penning down our experience in Italy. So.. taking up after 2 days in Switzerland , early morning on our 3rd day in the European continent, we took the EuroStar to Venice. It was a 9 hours journey. I remember watching the landscapes changing from the white mountains to brown smaller mountains to flatlands.
And this was our next 9 days itinerary for Italy....

Leaving our hotel in Venice

2 days in Venice: 
Venice is a city of 120 small islands with over 400 bridges linking them. One of them is the famous Rialto Bridge, iconic to the city. We took the vapporatti from the train station to our hotel stop. The directions to the hotel (@Citta di Milano Hotel Venice, Venice, IT ) which we had from the website, was only with "lefts" and "rights". It seemed pretty strange to us that there were no street names, till we actually got on to the island. It was a labyrinth of small lanes and smaller alleys. It had a village-like atmosphere, with very close quarters with clothes hanging from the windows, shadowing the cobbled streets.There were children playing on the streets.We found people chatting, laughing and being merry around each corner. We could hear a violin playing somewhere far. We had seemingly travelled back to the medieval age. After freshening up a little, we started out to explore the San Marco square.

the streets of Venice
The St Mark’s basilica at the square was closing at around 6pm, so we were already late. For us the only sought after artifact inside the museum was the table used in the Last Supper.
The square was very crowded with thousands of people and thousands of pigeons. A big cruise ship had docked at the Venice port. We also saw the Bridge of Sighs. We stayed out late, on one of the benches, and saw the sun set over the Mediterranean. The pigeons slowly  outnumbered the people around us, and then as the birds also gradually disappeared, we decided to call it a day.

Rialto Bridge


Next morning, we were out to explore the Grand Canal. After a gondola ride, lunch at a cafe beside the water, two gelatos at a gelataria under the Rialto Bridge, a quick trip to the Murano island, and shooting hundreds of photos attempting to bring back home exact memories of how beautiful the place was, our stop in Venice had come to an end.

Worth mentioning, we did strike a deal for a half hour 30 euro gondola ride at the Rialto Bridge stop (as suggested in one of the many blogs I had referred to before.)

The Grand Cana

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The River of Grass

The king of the swamps
It has been almost an year since we moved from Orlando; and besides all the Floridian-activities i miss sometimes, i miss our occasional visits to the Everglades National Park. It was a 3.5 hours drive for us if we drove straight south till we hit US41. US41 approximately marked the north boundary of the Everglades NP. A big attraction for the said route were the numerous plantations, and their extended thatched roofed stores selling perfectly tender avocados, ripe bananas, pineapples,grapes, berries and all other sorts of palatable fruits, all so very cheap! The alternative route was via the turnpike through Miami.
It is not really easy to capture the true vastness of the Everglades in the way I remember the place in my head, through my writing. When I think of it, I want to say it is barren, but then if you ask me, are there no trees? no animals? Oh, there are very tall trees on the border and the whole park is covered with very tall grasses, there is hardly any proper paved road to walk on, and there are crocodiles and snakes and insects and birds and turtles and..

Gators dozing  on Tamiami trail

Everglades is the third largest National Park in the Continental US. The park is a 1.5 million acres stretch of swamp lands, home to the American crocodiles or alligators and numerous species of birds. All the pullouts on US41 or more popularly known as the Tamiami trail teems with hundreds of alligators,particularly if you are there after a tropical shower, in Fall or Winter. The park got its name from the "glades" variety of grass which carpets the whole of the swamp.They sure don't go out much in the South ! The murky mysteriousness of the park have also been made famous over the years through numerous Hollywood movies like "Gone Fishing", "Shark River" and "Distant Drums" to name only very few.

the baby gator
When we were there, one time we had attended an alligator-show with alligators of course and tarantulas and snakes. The man had pulled the gator’s  jaws open and put his head inside the jaws.
The trick was to feed the gator very very well before the show, for as quoted by the showman,gators are not very intelligent animals, they have only two things on mind-food and sleep. So, when the gator was not hungry, it was being lazy and made no effort in closing its mouth! 

the gator show
On another trip to the park, we had boarded the tram from the Shark Valley visitor center. The tram took us till the Observation point, through 15 miles of the "River of Grass" as some locals refer to the swamps as. From the top of the observation point, we got a birds eye view of the flat swampland. We could see only grass till the end of the horizon around us. 

the Everglades from the observation point

the tall crane.. doesn't the landscape look somewhat barren?

awesome airboat ride through the Glades
If we had owned a paddle boat or a kayak, that’s another terrific way to explore the swamps. But the best way to experience the serenity of the Everglades, the somehow desolate yet lush, tropical and foreboding awesomeness- is by getting on the air-boats jetting through the network of waterways that skirt the northwest portion of the park.We were lucky to be on one of the low-raised air-boat, in which we were at a perfect height from where we could touch the gators if we leaned down a little(we didn't actually do it, just saying that we could have.. if we wanted), but the gators could not raise their heads high enough to touch us. When the air-boats picked up speed, the sound was just deafening. The maximum speed an air-boat achieved was 35mph, however swooping on it through the sawgrass towering above our
heads with hundreds of alligators peeping out from the water around, was a heart pounding and exhilarating experience. The guide was very well informed, and seemed very familiar in the surroundings, comprehending from the fact that the birds flew on to his shoulder and sat on his wrist,and waited there for their pictures taken, even when he had no food for the birds. The
Everglades abounds in hundreds of colorful birds of all sizes.

Anhinga drying its wings- that is how they breathe!

mother gator sighing away from camera

There are no lodging in or near the park. Years of past (and 100% possible future) hurricane damages have apparently put a stopper on the government's effort in restoring the business units in the area.Only the 3 NPS visitor centers offer information and restroom facilities. There are campgrounds though, but we did not have an opportunity to camp in the Everglades.

No wonder, I have been remembering the Everglades today. We had visited the park 3 consecutive years (2008, 2009, 2010) during the Thanksgiving holidays. This year we have no such plan.. Alas

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Between Seattle and Crater Lake

Crater Lake is just shocking deep blue and so serenly still, the first time I saw it and every time after. This National Park is a good 8 hours drive from Seattle. We reached there at about 3 in the afternoon. The sun was high in the sky, and the sight of the deepest blue lake was surely worth all the drive so far to just see a lake. We drove eastwards from the North entrance along the Rim to reach the Mazama store. We camped in the Mazama campground. We had booked a trailer camp spot, and it was enough space for our 2 cars and two tents. There were tents nearby everywhere , but the trees in our campsite helped to set up a secluded feeling (not all campsites were same). we were in the D loop. Even when we had booked earlier online, we were given a color on our arrival. We had to drive through all the loops to choose a campsite of our color and choice. It was a little waste of time. But otherwise, the experience was very nice, there were clean toilets, and no bugs and there were plenty of dry wood to use for the fire.
Wizard Island in Crater Lake

It was a starry night, but something I had eaten at a truck stop earlier that day was bothering my stomach too much too enjoy it. The only thing I felt like doing was lying flat on my stomach. So I retired early into the tent. The next morning, after a hearty campy-breakfast, we packed up. We had to drive through the rest of the rim drive and leave for Canby,OR. There were some ten view-pullovers along the way, and we stopped at 4 of them. Everywhere we looked from, the water was equally calm blue.Spotting the Phantom ship in the crater was an added bonus.

Phantom Ship in Crater Lake
It was September, and the weather was really comfortable.The Cleetwood trail leading to the lake was open and we decided to DO IT! it was fun going down, touching the blue waters and dip our feet in the clean cold water, but climbing back was too painful and dusty; well for an out-of-shape and not so fit person like me on a partly sandy trail.It had a 25 feet elevation and straight upwards, only relief was that most of it was shaded by the trees naturally.But after the hike back, I felt a sense of achievement.

The phlock on the Rim Drive in the park

The Crater Lake at the bottom of the Cleetwood trail
From there we left for our drive back northwards.If we had a little more time on our hands,may be a day longer, I would have loved to drive up northwards from the Crater lake NP via Bend,OR through the Mt Hood area.We followed the route shown in the map.All the same, our next destination in the plan was the Columbia Gorge area in the border of the Washington and Oregon.But it was a little long drive of 5 hours, and we decided to slice it up, with an overnight stop in Eugene,OR.There are many budget hotels in the Eugene area with clean and satisfying accommodation. 
The OR countryside near Eugene
From there, on our way to the gorge, we took a little detour in Canby,OR for the Swan Valley annual Dahlia festival. They are the largest dahlia growers in the States.There was free admission , free parking and vast stretches of so many colorful flowers in different shapes.

I had not known dahlia came in so many forms before that day. There were snack stalls, and indoor displays too. It was all so informative and pleasing to the eyes.

Swan Island dahlias

Multnomah Falls
From there the Multnomah falls in the Columbia Gorge area was about 1.5 hours drive.The falls is a tall and thin one. 

There is heavy commercialization growing around the area; that helps in attracting tourists and the state makes money, but it also eats into the natural beauty of the area, to a certain extent.Albeit, it was a nice respite in the cool of the waterfall lapping the shade of the gorge.From there it was 3 hours drive back to Seattle.

Map of the Route