Florence, Italy – Day 3

Sunday – Our 1st morning in Italy started beautifully with our “included” breakfast at our hotel. We slept great last night, and both felt recharged and ready to face the day. After breakfast, we walked the 3 blocks to the Termini, the train station in the center of Rome. We had our pre-purchased tickets, and simply had to figure out how to find our train’s platform. We must have looked like lost tourists, because a seemingly nice man offered to help us. He showed me how to read the posted train schedule, and how to get to the right area of the huge station to wait. It turns out that the trains come in on various platforms, but near the standard one they usually use. We just had to wait until they posted the final arrival spot. Mike offered him a tip, but imagine our surprise when he informed us his rate for the service, and refused to leave until he got it. We paid up, seething. However, at least we did learn how to navigate. Once the train platform number was posted, he pointed it out, led us to the platform, and then went on his way. We only had to find the spot to wait for our #4 car. Well, guess what. Another kid expertly managed to point out where we needed to wait, and walked us down the platform to our spot. He lingered nearby, and struck up a friendly conversation. And we fell for it AGAIN! He didn’t leave us and insisted on helping us onto the train. Took our bags and stowed them. Now, it was very helpful because we didn’t have a clue as to how it all worked, or where to go. But he showed us to our seats and demanded money for the guidance. Then MORE money for the luggage help! At that point, I passed up the no thank you and simply said NO way. Unbelievable! We learned a valuable lesson the expensive way.
The train ride was very cool. The super fast train was fascinating. Wish we had one between Houston and Dallas! We had booked reserved seats in Business Class, and on a Sunday morning, we had few neighbors on the car. We struck up a conversation with a couple from California, and thoroughly enjoyed sharing notes and plans on our trips. The entire trip was less than 1-1/2 hours, and we got great views of the beautiful countryside outside of Rome and up through Tuscany. We also went through many tunnels which was really different, and passed oncoming trains at a zillion MPH… Very different from driving!
When we reached Florence, we took note of the station as we will be returning Tuesday for our train to Pisa. This time in the train station, we ruthlessly refused any offers of “help”. We aren’t falling for that again. We headed outside, and managed to link up with a taxi driver who was happy to provide our price up front. We headed to our hotel, the Westin Excelsior, which is located on the banks of the beautiful Arno River. We had used Starwood points to book the stay, and they kindly upgraded us to a larger room which looks over the river.
We headed out to find an ATM, since we had managed to get fleeced out of our small stash or Euros. We then had a delightful lunch, lingering a long time with wine of course, at a small cafe along one of the nearby streets. The woman who owned the place told us that she serves wine from her uncle’s vineyard, and the light lunch was fresh and yummy! We then strolled down the bank of the Arno River, headed toward the famous Ponte Vecchio – a pedestrian bridge over the Arno which is lined with gold and jewelry shops. The jewelry was beautiful, and we saw many very unique pieces. Gary and Pam would love that place! Mike bought me gorgeous silver faceted drop and chain. What a great momento of a wonderful afternoon! We then wandered down yet another fascinating street – out of the bright sun, and nicely cool. An interesting looking building beckoned, and we stuck our head in to see what was going on in this amazing looking place. We were pleasantly surprised to find out that we were in the Palazzo Corsini, an old, huge palace. They apparently open it only once per week, and we stumbled onto it. The place is gigantic! We can’t imagine what living in palaces like that must have been like. We could only see it from the outside, and wandered the courtyards, and looked at the giant staircases at 2 entries to the palace. It was great!
We decided to head back to the hotel, and rounded a corner to come upon a young woman with a voice straight out of an opera theater singing in a plaza in front of a church. Just WOW! Like many other people, we lingered for a long time enjoying the amazing music.
We returned to the hotel to rest up a bit, as dinners are late in Italy. Around 7:30 we headed upstairs to the hotel’s rooftop bar and restaurant. The place was packed, but we found a nice table with a view overlooking the city. It was amazingly beautiful from that vantage point! We had a delicious limoncello martini, followed by Mike’s rum and my Chardonnay. We enjoyed ourselves so much that we relaxed right through dinner, and found ourselves hungry about 10:00, and the hotel restaurants were closing. We ended up in the elegant bar downstairs where we ordered a light dinner, accompanied by what turned out to be one of the best bottles of Chardonnay we have had. We pretty much shut the place down, and headed off to bed with visions of what delights Monday would bring in Florence!

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Rome, Italy – Day 1-2

We started our adventure to Italy and the Mediterranean with a bang. We raced around the house on Friday morning trying to get all open planning items done – which included getting all of our clothes together and packed. Mind you, we were leaving for the airport at 11:30 am, and had not started our packing! Anyway, we managed to get ready in time, and headed to the airport with great excitement. We were going to Italy!
We arrived at the airport and checked in with US Air. We found out that the flight was a bit delayed but we would make our now tight connection in Charlotte NC where we would catch the big plane to Rome. As we had plenty of time, we hit the Chilis in Terminal A and ordered a nice burger and fries. And of course, a glass of wine to celebrate starting our 25th anniversary adventure to Italy! While we were waiting for our food, I grabbed our boarding passes and headed to the gate to make sure we were still on track with the tight connection, while Mike guarded our table.
Imagine my surprise when I found out that the plane was now over an hour late and we were destined to miss our connection! It was even more disturbing to find that some “kind” soul had already looked at the problem and decided to rebook our trip for the FOLLOWING day. WHAT?! I pretty much panicked and for a short moment I found myself about to lose it with the US Air representative, and we all know that is the wrong tact to take when you need help. I shamelessly resorted to begging her to find a reasonable alternative. Thankfully, she pulled it off! She rebooked us on Lufthansa, routing through Frankfurt, Germany. We would be arriving a few hours later than planned in Rome, but still on Saturday. Instead of having 2 nice seats together, we would now be sitting far apart and in middle seats. The plane was basically sold out! So I gratefully accepted the option and headed back to meet up with Mike at Chilis to eat my now cold burger. I downed the food and the very needed glass of wine while I updated Mike on our new plan.
He paid up while I headed down to retrieve the bags that US Air had pulled for us from checked baggage. Amazingly, that worked quite well. By the time Mike caught up with me, I had grabbed the bags and we were ready to roll. Headed across the IAH airport from Terminal A to Terminal D on the clunky tram located in the basement of the airport. We made it there in decent time, and easily checked in. Next unpleasant surprise? The security area was absolutely mobbed. There was no line for TSA Pre (pre-cleared for security, which is normally much faster), and it seemed that a billion people had all decided to go through security at once. After that challenging process, we headed to our gate where we found out that we would be on the new giant mega plane! We were so excited! But the downside is that a mega plane holds mega people. And everyone was in line to board. We leveraged our status there to board a little early, and settled in for the night. We were not able to sit together for the 8-1/2 hour flight, and both got stuck in the middle. We so missed the nice seats we had reserved on the US Airways plane…
To make a long story short, the 2:45pm flight landed at 8:30am the next day in Frankfurt. The plane was packed, and though the plane was huge, the builders had not allocated any more space per row than older planes. Maybe even less! However, we were given pillows and blankets, 2 very nice meals, and the alcohol was free. After arrival we talked about it and found that we had both been cramped like sardines, were over-warm as the AC was not cooling evenly across the space, and had not slept. I snoozed a bit but never slept and Mike didn’t sleep at all. We thankfully got off of the plane in Frankfurt and went through customs and through security yet again. Then headed clear across the airport to catch our short flight from Frankfurt to Rome. Fortunately it was uneventful, and we yet again had free food and wine. We like Lufthansa!
We safely arrived in Rome and caught transport to our hotel, the Augusta Lucilla Palace. We passed amazing sights, and cannot wait to see this beautiful city! We have settled in to the hotel for our 1 night stay – we head to Florence (Firenze) by train tomorrow. But we will be back to Rome later in our trip, when we will dive into the city. We had a nap and headed out for dinner and wine before we crash for the night. We were recommended to a nice Trattoria down the street for dinner. We had a wonderful experience – the owner was gracious and the lasagne was the best either of us has ever had. We thoroughly enjoyed the evening. It has been over 31 hours since we got up on Friday morning. We can’t wait to get a good night’s sleep! Can’t wait to see how navigating the train system will be on Sunday!

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Kauaii, Hawaii 2011 – Day 8

Day 8, Saturday.  Saturday was our travel day back home. We dragged our feet in our hotel room – we kept thinking that someone would call and tell us we won the lottery and wouldn’t have to leave Kauai and go back to work.  Well, it was no real surprise when that DIDN’T happen – so we finally packed and loaded up the car. As we didn’t have to fly out until mid-afternoon, we decided to make good use of our last day on the island.  We did some more driving around enjoying scenery, and made our way up to Kapa’a where we found a wondful place overlooking the beach to have lunch.  We spent a couple of hours relaxing, enjoying the view and having a little vino and food. We had a great view of some whales frolicking in the ocean – could see them surging out of the ocean as well as spouts of water regularly shooting up. Unfortunately, they were pretty far offshore, and as we didn’t have any binoculars we couldn’t see much! Guess I will ask Mike for some binoculars for Chrismas this year (that will be probably the 10th time, as he keeps ignoring me!  :) )

After lunch, we headed to the airport.  As we have done in the past, we wondered why in the world we had planned to be here for only 1 week – it is just not long enough. Next time, 2 weeks for sure! We caught the flight to Honolulu, and after a short wait there, we loaded onto the mega-jet and settled into our comfy Business First seats (wow, I love Continental points!).  We spent the next 7-1/2 hours in those seats on the overnight direct flight from Honolulu to Houston. Unfortunately neither of us were able to sleep much – probably about 3 hours or so. We landed in Houston at 6:45 am, bleary-eyed and looking like we’d been run over by a train.  We also looked pretty ridiculous as it was REALLY cold outside, and we looked like we had been to a tropical place.  I changed into jeans at the airport, but nothing could hide the fact that I was in flip-flops and a short sleeved shirt, and was pretty close to visually shivering!  Thank goodness we had heated seats in the car, so we could warm up quickly.  What a way to close out such an incredibly fun trip! We headed home, unloaded the car, held and petted Kimba (he SO wanted attention), and fell into bed for a several hour nap!  Home again, home again! Can’t wait until the next vacation…

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Kauaii, Hawaii 2011 – Day 7

Day 7, Friday. Hurray! My birthday! What a lucky person I am, to get to spend my birthday in beautiful Kauai. We had a tasty breakfast out by our pool at the Aupaka Terrace restaurant. We spent the entire day lounging by the beach and in the pool.

We went to dinner at 22 North, a restaurant in the Kilohana Plantation. They feature fresh foods from their own farm as well as other Kauai farms and ranches. The seating is outdoors in a courtyard in back of the mansion. The temperature was very comfortable, and the light breeze was just right! Our meal was excellent and the staff took very good care of us, spoiling me a little extra for my birthday.

All in all, couldn’t have had a better birthday – except that we were far away from all of our beloved family and friends!

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Kauaii, Hawaii 2011 – Day 6

Day 6, Thursday. Another laid back day in Kauai. We had a light breakfast in our room, and planned our visit to the south end of the island. We headed out with plans to first visit Koloa. To get there, one of the routes takes you through the Tree Tunnel. When Walter Duncan McBryde was landscaping his home in the early 1900s, he found that he had over 500 eucalyptus trees left over.  He donated the trees (called swamp mahogany) to the county, and many residents helped to plant the trees along Hwy 520. The result is the Tree Tunnel, or tree corridor. Some of the trees were removed in the ’50s when the highway was rerouted, and there was a lot of damage as a result of Hurricanes ‘Iwa in 1982 and ‘Iniki in September 1992. But it is still quite beautiful!

We did some shopping in Koloa and bought a couple of small things. Then we drove to Po’ipu which is right on the beach on the south side of Kauai. We took a drive along one of the beach roads that meanders between homes, condos, and hotels, and then headed to Brennecke’s Beach Broiler for lunch. They are directly across the street from Po’ipu Beach and have a great view of the beach and ocean.  We had a good lunch at the open-air restaurant, and thoroughly enjoyed sitting back and enjoying the views!  We spent some time at Po’ipu Beach and drove to see the Spouting Horn. This is a small lava shelf where water from waves is thrust through an opening, causing water and air to squirt out a blowhole. This particular site distinguishes itself from other blowholes around Hawaii in that it has an additional hole that blows only air, causing a loud moaning and gasping sound. It is a really beautiful area, and we just stood there for quite a while watching the Spouting Horn spout! We did a little looking at shops in the Po’ipu area.  The impact of the economic downturn is visible – while there are still many shops in the area, there are empty spaces for rent as well.

We also visited the Marriott Waiohai Beach Club in Po’ipu, a Marriott Vacation Club property. It is very beatiful  resort, with lovely grounds, several swimming pools, and a very nice beach location. Would be a good place to stay with a larger party than the 2 of us as it has 2 and 3 bedroom units (our current place does not – only studios or 1-bedroom units). Glad we got to see it in person! 

We then stopped at Kilohana Plantation, a working farm and estate. Built in 1936, the 16,000 square foot mansion was the home of Gaylord and Ethel Wilcox and has been restored to its “former glory.” Gaylord Wilcox was a “Sugar Baron”, and the manager of the Grove Farm Plantation. The mansion at Kilohana is said to be the finest example of plantation architecture in Kauai. The property now houses a restaurant, Koloa Rum’s Tasting Room, and a number of shops. In one of the jewlery shops, we found my birthday present from Mike – a beautiful pendant.  Hurray!

We then drove back to our hotel, and finished the day with dinner at Cafe Portofino, a beachside Italian restaurant at our Marriott. Had another delicious dinner! A great ending to yet another really, really nice day. (Sure seems like we spend a lot of time eating!) :)

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Kauai, Hawaii 2011 – Day 5

Day 5, Wednesday.  We had a pretty simple, laid back day. We spent some time this morning touring Marriott Vacation Club’s (MVC) new property, Kauai Lagoons. The property is pretty and the apartments are really beautiful. Once construction is complete it would be a very nice place to stay! We spent the afternoon hanging around the pool and enjoying the great weather.

At the end of the day, we went to the luau hosted by Smith’s Tropical Paradise. This luau is billed as the best luau on the island of Kauai.  It certainly was wonderful to us! The property is quite beautiful – a 30 acre garden filled with tropical plants and trees, as well as a large number of peacocks. The  open-air pavilion was well designed for hosting the diners, and the feast was very good. Following dinner, we enjoyed the “Rhythm of Aloha” show at the outdoor theater on the property.  The show included the Hawaiian hula, Tahitian drum dances, and a Samoan fire knife dance – it was extremely entertaining and VERY good!  We are really glad that we went to the dinner and show!

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Kauai, Hawaii 2011 – Day 4

Day 4, Tuesday. We had planned another “tour” day for Tuesday, with a focus on the East and North coasts of the island. Had a lovely breakfast by the pool at the Kauai Marriott, and then headed out. We wanted to visit 2 waterfalls while we had the good morning light. First, we drove to the outskirts of Lihue to Wailua Falls. You can literally drive right up to the falls and park – however, at the TOP of the falls! The falls have 173 of solid drop, with a 33 foot deep pool at the bottom. Apparently the locals have played at the bottom of the falls for generations, but both hikes down to the bottom were way too difficult, so we enjoyed the view from the top! We next drove up to the Kapaa area, where we visited the Opaeka’a Falls (151-foot fall) and enjoyed the view of the Wailua River and the valley it flows through.  We could also see Wai’ale’ale Mountain from the OTHER SIDE (way far away of course). That was really something as we had just been on the other side, up high and close, at the top of the Waimea Canyon yesterday!

We next stopped off at our timeshare in Kapaa – the Shell Vacation Club Beachboy Resort. It is just as beautiful as we remembered it – right on Waipouli Beach, overlooking the Pacific Ocean to the East. We took a break and enjoyed the view with a cocktail in hand! Then we headed North. We visited some beautiful beaches on the North end of the island – Kalihiwai Beach (and Bay), as well as Anini Beach. The views of the surf, the Kilauea Lighthouse, and the beaches were just amazing. We snapped pictures like crazy, and spent time just watching the waves rolling in. We kept on moving, and drove through the resort area of Princeville (we had stayed at the Princeville Hotel the last time we visited Kauai). We even visited one home for sale on the bluffs in Princeville, which had an Open House in progress – unfortunately the approximately 1,850 sq ft house was $3.2M – clearly we’d have to win a big lottery to live in that little house with the huge view of the Pacific!

We continued our drive, taking in the views of Hanalei Bay, Lumaha’i Beach, Ha’ena Beach, and Tunnels Beach. We finally stopped at the end of the road at Ke’e Beach – yes, the road literally ends here at the start of the Na Pali coast.  We took some time to relax, walk the beach, and watch the surf. This area is extraordinarily beautiful. Na Pali is one of my favorite places that I’ve ever been. I have seen it from boats, from each end, and once we spent a day to hike out to the top of one of the cliff areas from above. We have never hiked in from the North side – the Kalalau Trail is an 11 mile trail through hills and switchbacks which culminates in a beach with a beautiful waterfall – don’t think we’ll be doing that one! Eventually, we climbed back in the car and started back. We stopped over at the Hanalei Colony Resort for a glass of chardonnay overlooking Kepuhi Beach, and yet again were mesmerized by the view of the surf crashing in. This is our first trip in the winter months, and the calm surf of the summer turns into wild surf in the winter. Beautiful!!! We spent the rest of the afternoon driving casually back to the hotel. We ordered room service and enjoyed a relaxing end to yet another great day in Kauai.

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