Sri Lanka: Sigiriya

Lion Rock

We left Trinco at 9:30, and the drive to Sigiriya, or Lion Rock, was only about 2 hours. We checked into our hotel, changed our clothes, and headed straight for Lion Rock.

After you get your ticket, there’s a museum you can explore. We didn’t spend much time there because it wasn’t air-conditioned. The grounds are full of more ruins and interesting places to explore, and there are some vendors selling wooden trinkets and other souvenirs.

The ruins and archeological sites around Lion Rock

The guidebook suggested climbing Sigiriya first thing in the morning to avoid the worst of the heat, or later in the afternoon to avoid the worst of the tourist hordes. The thing is, the climate at Sigiriya was downright comfortable compared with Oman, so we ignored the advice. We arrived around 12:15 and started the climb up around 1 pm. The climb took about an hour, with frequent water stops. It’s about 50 stories up, and it’s basically a continuous climb up lots of stairs.

The one time I was able to actually look at and take a picture of the view during the climb up without my fear of heights getting the better of me

There’s lots to see on the climb up, including cave paintings, a thousand-year old wall of graffiti, huge lion paws carved into the rock (which is why it’s called Lion Rock), and beautiful views, if your fear of heights doesn’t get the best of you on the climb. Mine did, and I reached a point where I just kept my head down and kept going up, rather than enjoying the scenery.

The paws are the only part left of the lion for which Lion Rock is named

Once you reach the top, there’s a bunch of ruins and more even better views. It’s definitely worth the climb!

Ruins on the top of Sigiriya

Stunning views from the top

After Sigiriya we went to Dambulla to see the cave temples. It’s another 25 or so flights of stairs up to see the caves. The cave temples are incredible, and there’s so much to look at. Each cave has a huge resting Buddha in it, and most of them have a bunch of other statues and paintings also, mostly of more Buddhas.

Dambulla cave temples built into the side of the mountain

Lines of Buddhas inside the cave temples

Buddhas everywhere!

A note about clothing: since Sigiriya is archaeological ruins, shorts and tank tops are fine. For Dambulla, you should cover your shoulders and your knees. If you aren’t appropriately dressed for Dambulla, they have sarongs and wraps that you can rent.

We stayed at The Nature Park Villa, which was lovely and very inexpensive. M had a lot of fun running around the hotel grounds, and we all slept very soundly. The breakfast they provided the next morning was delicious and more than enough food!

The sunset through the jungle at our hotel

I would say that climbing Sigiriya is a definite must-do on any trip to Sri Lanka. You really only need to spend one night here, and if the temperatures are too high, go visit the cave temples (only about 20 minutes away) first and then go to Sigirya later in the day. Just make sure you bring plenty of water: you’ll get thirsty on the climb up!

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Sri Lanka: Trincomalee

Trincomalee shoreline

Our next stop after Anuradhapura was Trincomalee. We chose to go to Trinco because we wanted to go diving, and supposedly in June the diving is better along the Eastern side of the island. Plus there’s some interesting stuff to do, and we never say “no” to spending time on the beach!

The drive from Anuradhapura to Trincomalee is about two and a half hours. If you explore the Sri Maha Bodi and the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba before leaving Anuradhapura, you’ll be able to leave by 11 am, arriving by 1:30 or so. There’s a hot spring you can stop at on the drive over, just outside of Trinco, and it’s an interesting opportunity to stretch your legs.

Very different from the hot spring we have near Muscat, but interesting none-the-less

There were metal pails you could fill up with water. Some people dumped water all over themselves (we did not)

We spent two nights in Trinco. The first day, after we arrived, we tracked down some lunch and checked out the beach, and we visited the Kandasamy Kovil, a Hindu temple on a cliff overlooking the ocean.

The temple is scenic and beautiful, and the views of the ocean are stunning. The history of the area is also quite interesting, as are the tame spotted deer all over the peninsula. The cliff across from the temple is supposedly the best place in the world for whale-spotting, but we didn’t see any. If you are serious about seeing some whales, there are whale watching tours you can go on, or you could bring your binoculars and hope for the best. With a 2-year old in tow we didn’t really feel like doing either.

The temple facade

Vishnu was getting a facelift

Swami Rock, whale-watching central

The peninsula is loaded with tame spotted deer

The next morning, we woke up bright and early to go scuba diving. We used Taprobane Divers, and they were great. All our tanks had over 200 bar, the BCDs much nicer than I’m used to, and our dive guide, Rohan, was very cautious and safety-minded. The dive shop is located in Nilaveli, which is about 30 minutes from Trinco. We dove at Swami Rock, which is right below Kandasamy Kovil, and at Navy Island (not actually an island) which was right off the coast near our hotel. Neither spot was that great, frankly, but all the Hindu statues at the bottom of Swami Rock were pretty interesting. The visibility was so-so and we didn’t see anything particularly exciting, but it’s always cool to dive someplace new.

We spent the rest of the day playing on the beach (Nate and M) and napping (me). The beach is lovely, and the humans, stray dogs, and cows all seem to enjoy it.

Cows along the Trinco beach

We stayed at Dutch Bay Ocean Cottages, and it was… basic. It felt like a throw-back to our Peace Corps days. Granted it had air conditioning and a private bathroom, and luckily we didn’t get bedbugs or anything like that, but we pulled up and I was like “Oh boy.” Thankfully Nate focused on the nice view from the hotel veranda rather than the lack of amenities, and he stayed positive. The hotel provided a babysitter so we could go scuba diving, though, and she took good care of M while we were gone for 6+ hours. So that’s something.

Our hotel didn’t have a kitchen, and we had to venture out a bit for our meals. We ate at a place called Beach Paradise, and the restaurant didn’t look like much, but the food was AMAZING. I had seafood with rice, and Nate had deviled prawns. It took a while to prepare, but it was worth the wait. Our other favorite restaurant was the Green Park Hotel, which is actually not a hotel. We literally ate there for breakfast, lunch and dinner. At dinner they set up tables and chairs on the beach, and it’s really lovely.

The view from our hotel

I’m glad we went to Trinco and we enjoyed our time there, but I don’t think we’d come back simply because we’d rather explore new places. We saw all there was see, which was really neat and worth the trip, but there’s definitely no need to spend more than 2 nights here.

Next stop: Sigiriya, or Lion Rock!

Sri Lanka: Anuradhapura

Ruins and guard stones in the Abhayagiri Monastery in Anuradhapura

We arrived in Colombo at 4:45 am, breezed through immigration and customs, met our driver, and we were on the road by 6:00 am. We stopped on the road to buy water and a quick bite to eat, and we checked into our hotel by 10:30 am. We were all pretty tired from the red-eye flight, so we took naps and arranged for the driver to pick us up at 2 pm.

Anuradhapura is known primarily for its ancient Buddhist temples and archeological ruins. Have your driver take you immediately to go buy your entrance ticket in order to make the most out of your $25. The museum is supposed to be pretty good, and after that go explore the ruins.

More Abhayagiri Monastery ruins

The moonstone in the Abhayagiri Monastery ruins

Cows roaming around the Abhayagiri Monastery

The following morning, before leaving for Trincomalee, go visit the Sri Maha Bodi, or the Bodhi tree temple, and the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba, neither of which are included in the $25 ticket. Our driver took us to before we bought the ticket, which gave us about 1.5 hours to explore the entire enormous area that the ticket gives you access to.

The ruins are really cool, and I was reminded a lot of the temples of Angkor in Cambodia. It’s definitely not as awe-inspring as Angkor (what is?) but the ruins in the forest with the monkeys, cows and Buddha statues are fun to explore.

When you’re in the Abhayagiri Monastery area, first explore the moonstone and guard stone ruins, then walk over to the Abhayagiri Dagoba. This will give you a chance to explore all the ruins in the wooded area, and it’s a fun spot to walk around. You’ll find the Elephant Pond (no actual elephants, sadly), lots of Buddhas, and some other neat ruins to poke around in.

Visiting the Thuparamaya Dagoba, one of the oldest Buddhist dagobas in Sri Lanka

The Sri Maha Bodi: this tree is had generations of caretakers for the last 2,000 years and is a major pilgrimage spot for buddhists.

One thing to note is that, for most temples and the grounds, you have to take your shoes off before entering. So if you’re wearing sandals, this means you’re walking around on hot rocks, sand, and bricks barefoot. I’d keep a pair of socks in your bag for these occasions. My feet were swollen and bright red after spending a few hours exploring the temples, and it was pretty unpleasant.

The Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba

Elephants lining the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba

Anuradhapura was a good first stop for our trip. Prior to arriving in Sri Lanka, I knew next to nothing about the country, and the history and ruins of the area where a good crash-course.  We were able to explore at our own pace, not feel too rushed, and our hotel had everything we needed.

We stayed at The Lakeside at Nuwarawewa. The room was basic, but the hotel grounds were lovely and the restaurant was amazing. I ordered vegetarian curry and rice for lunch and I got enough food for 2 people for $5.

The pool area at the Lakeside at Nuruwewa

Lunch!

Our trip to Sri Lanka

At the Ruvanvelisaya Dagoba in Anuradhapura

We recently got back from a 9-day trip to Sri Lanka and it was incredible. Absolutely amazing. It’s a relatively small island, and there is so much to do: temples, archeological ruins, beaches, hiking, national parks, snorkeling and scuba diving, wildlife safaris, religious artifacts, you name it. Oh, and the food is amazing.

The view from our hotel in Trincomalee

Before having a child, our travel style was to hit the ground running, spending a night or two in most spots, trying to do as much as possible in the time available. We took trips, not vacations.

We altered our travel style a bit once M came along, lowering expectations for what we’d see and accomplish each day. We still took trips, but they were generally less intense and a little slower-paced than they used to be. But M has grown a lot and is pretty easy-going,  and he’s generally happy to do whatever we’re doing, napping in his hiking pack or stroller along the way. So with this trip (because it was definitely not a vacation) we reverted back to our former travel style.

I knew it would either go well or be a temper-tantrum-filled disaster, and it went about as well as I could have expected. Aside from some trips in the car taking much longer than planned, everyone had a lot of fun, we saw and did tons of awesome stuff, and nothing went seriously wrong.

Sigiriya, or Lion Rock

I’ve talked to a number of people are interested in going to Sri Lanka, but planning an itinerary is kind of daunting because there are so many options. Some of folks have asked about our itinerary, and since the trip went well, here you go:

Day 1: Arrive in Colombo, drive to Anuradhapura
Day 2: Drive to Trincomalee
Day 4: Drive to Sigiriya
Day 5: Drive to Ella
Day 7: Drive to Udawalawe
Day 8: Drive to Colombo
Day 9: Depart from Colombo

Because it might make more sense in map-form, here’s this:


(Yes, I just embedded a map on my blog. I am pretty proud of myself, I gotta tell ya!)

I’m planning a blog post for each location with what we did, what worked, what didn’t, and anything else that might be helpful.

In the meantime, here are some pointers for planning a trip to Sri Lanka:

  • Take the monsoon season into account. There are different monsoon seasons for different parts of the island. Monsoon season is May to September in the west and south-west areas, while it’s in the east and northern regions from October to February. We largely avoided the west and south-west parts of the country on our trip.

Inside the Dambulla cave temples

  • Look into hiring a car and driver. I’m pretty sure you’re only allowed to drive in Sri Lanka if you have a Sri Lankan driver’s license, and frankly the roads and traffic are so crazy, there’s no reason to drive yourself if you can help it. Hiring a car and driver is surprisingly affordable, and you shouldn’t have to pay more than $60/day for all the costs associated with it.

At the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy

  • If you’re traveling with little kids, particularly babies or toddlers, bring everything you think you might need with you. Don’t plan on trying to buy anything in Sri Lanka. Unless you’re staying in Colombo, chances are you won’t be able to find whatever you’re looking for very easily. We brought bags of snacks and fruit pouches, sunscreen, a thermometer, medicines (Tylenol and ibuprofen), a pack n play, child-safe bug spray and a metal-framed hiking pack. Oh, and a car seat. Definitely bring a car seat, especially if you’re hiring a car.

The view from Ella Rock

  • It’s cold in Nuwara Elia! Luckily we only drove through rather than stopping, because if we’d overnighted there I would have frozen my ass off.
  • Food and goods are very inexpensive, but the cost to enter most sites is pretty high. Sigiriya was $25, so was Anuradhapura, and Udawalawe National Park was $20. On the other hand, as long as you’re not in Colombo or ordering lots of alcohol, you’d have to try pretty hard to spend more than $15 per day on food. If you know Nate, then you know how he eats, so that’s saying something.

Elephants at Udawalawe National Park

  • You have to pay with cash just about everywhere. Out of the 5 hotels we stayed at, only 2 took cards. Outside of Colombo, it’s rare to find anywhere that will accept plastic.
  • Dengue is prevalent, so bring bug spray!

That’s about all I can think of for now, but if anything else comes to mind, I’ll add it to the list!

Vacationing, non-biolumnisecent algae, running, and other stuff

Oh, man. Winter is going by way too quickly. I feel like I blinked and January was over. Why is it that time always flies when you’re having fun? Never in my life have I been like, “Well that sucked. Thank god it was over quickly.”

Sunrise over paradise

Nate and I spent five days in the Maldives and it was the most vacationy vacation I’ve ever had. It was fantastic. In case you have questions about our trip, here are my responses to the most common queries:

  • Yes, it’s worth it.
  • We stayed at the Centara Grand Island Resort and Spa and we loved it.
  • Yes, it is a kid-friendly resort (but you’ll have more fun if you leave them behind unless they are amazing swimmers).

Our bungalow was the third one.

While we were away Athena stayed at Jebel K9 and she had a great time. It’s kind of out in the middle of nowhere, about 45 minutes from Muscat, and the hours aren’t exactly work-friendly, but I think it’s the best boarding you’ll find in the area. I drove down the driveway to the main house and felt like I was entering Doggy Manor. The dogs are kenneled in a huge fancy house and then they have a bunch of dog runs outside in a humongous compound where the dogs play with handlers and with each other. She came home happy and tired, so I’ll take it.

M has started going to half-day daycare/preschool and it’s been great for him. He and one Korean girl are the only non-Arab children in the class, and he’s even getting Arabic lessons once a day (the school operates primarily in English).  The school focuses on developing children into responsible, helpful, and mindful citizens, so they’re learning about gardening, recycling, helping around the house, and community service. Recently he had a field trip and the school sent a text message telling all the parents they need to give a carseat for their child to use that day. In a country where you see children riding on the driver’s lap, hanging their heads out the window, this was great to see. Let me know if you need Muscat daycare/pre-school recommendations, because we’ve been very happy so far!

Not a bad view for a road race!

A few weeks ago I ran my first half marathon since October 2014. My training didn’t go perfectly and I didn’t PR, but I ran the whole thing and I finished. And my time was only 9 minutes slower than my last half. The race was through Al Mouj north of Muscat and I thought it was relatively well-run, no pun intended. They didn’t finalize the race course until like a week ahead of time, there was no race expo at packet pick-up, and parts of the course were through a construction site (after which I had to take my shoes off and dump out the pebbles and sand). But they had lots of water stations and they were handing out gels and bananas. Maybe I’ll do a separate post on the race since I think this is quickly getting boring for anyone who doesn’t care about running.

Moving on… We spent Christmas day at our favorite beach with some good friends. One of the upsides of having an artificial Christmas tree is that you can take it apart, so I pulled the top off and brought it to the beach, along with the star tree topper. We drank prosecco and grilled chicken and sausages while the kids played in the sand and chased crabs. It was a perfect way to spend the day and I didn’t miss the cold Wisconsin winter weather for even a minute.

Mother Nature tried to be festive and decorate for Christmas

However, one thing that was odd about the beach that day was the amount of algae. It was ridiculous. The water was bright green. We went back again a few weeks later thinking maybe it would be gone by then, but it wasn’t. One of my friends said she’d heard it was bioluminescent algae (which I can’t mention without thinking of the quote “Oh, I see what she’s done, she’s covered a barnacle in bioluminescent algae, as a diversion.” If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you probably don’t have kids.) so I even drove back to the beach late at night to try to get some cool photos. Turned out it wasn’t bioluminescent, or I wasn’t doing whatever needed to be done for it to be bioluminescent.

Not bioluminescent, just green and smelly.

We drove to see the beehive tombs at Bat and Al Ayn/Ain a few weeks ago. We couldn’t find the ones at Bat, but the Al Ayn (not to be confused with Al Ain in the UAE) tombs were visible from the main road. I may have shrieked when I first saw them. They are 5,000 year-old tombs that are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and they are pretty fricking cool. There are supposed to be more tombs at Bat, but the ones at Al Ain are spectacular because of the setting. They are perched on top of a hill in front of a huge mountain and they’re very well-preserved. Once we figure out how to get to the ones at Bat, I’ll write a separate post about that too.

Beehive tombs at Al Ayn

Alright, I have to go finish my book club book. I didn’t finish last month’s and I’m not failing two months in a row!

Paris in December (with a baby)

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In December we met Nate in Paris for about 10 days. Our plan was to meet there and then travel together to the Midwest for Christmas with our families. Nate arrived a few hours before us on a Saturday morning, and once we exited customs we hopped in a taxi to our AirBnB apartment.

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Parisian buildings in the late afternoon sun

As you might imagine, there is lots of info on the internet about what to do in Paris. Museums, markets, shops, restaurants, etc. There is not, however, a lot of info about what to do when you’re there with a baby, especially one that is crawling around and starting to develop a sense of independence.

Never in a million years did I think I’d be writing so many baby-centric posts (yes, two is a lot as far as I’m concerned) and if you stop reading now I don’t blame you. I would have before I had a kid.

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Late winter sunlight makes for a lot of beautifully-lit photos. In this case, the Hotel de Ville.

That said, here are my tips for managing Paris with a baby:

  • You can find lots of good baby foods, like pouches, snacks and applesauce at the grocery store. But if your kid is addicted to peanut butter, bring it with you.  We found pouches with no added sugar that were really inexpensive and M loved them.  That beautiful Eiffel tour photo at the top? We asked a stranger to take a family portrait with that background, but M had a pouch that he would not let go of.  So instead of having a photo with a screaming baby, we have a photo with a brightly colored pouch reflecting the flash. Like I said, he loved those pouches.
  • Rent an apartment. M loved having the space to crawl around and explore, and each evening Nate played with him while I bought ingredients for dinner and a bottle of wine. We would eat lunch on-the-go or at a restaurant each day and then we’d eat dinner in our apartment.  It worked perfectly. Plus, everyone sleeps better when you have your own room, especially when you’re jet lagged. Our apartment was in the Marais near the Bastille metro stop, and the location was amazing. We could walk just about anywhere, and the metro and bus were really convenient. We were near a farmers market on Sundays and there were wine shops, produce markets, grocery stores, patisseries and boulangeries all close by. Having an apartment (and therefore a fridge) also means you can buy all the cheese you want .
Most of these ended up in our apartment fridge

Most of these ended up in our apartment fridge

Each night we tried a new bottle of wine with dinner in our apartment. Our favorite was the Bordeaux in the green bottle towards the middle.

Each night we tried a new bottle of wine with dinner in our apartment. Our favorite was the Bordeaux in the green bottle towards the middle.

  • You can let your baby crawl around at the Petit Palais (free admission) and in parts of the Musee d’Orsay. You can not let your baby crawl around in the War Museum. We let M crawl around the exhibits at the uncrowded Petit Palais, and when a museum employee came walking by I thought she was going to yell at us, but instead she smiled and waved at M. At the War Museum we did get yelled at. In the Musee d’Orsay there’s a kind of lounge area by the impressionist wing with big leather chair things and a huge clock. It’s also by the gift shop where there are lots of neat things. The gift shop by the impressionist wing is better than the gift shop on the main level.
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Big clock, tiny baby at Musee d’Orsay

  • You can find nice free bathrooms at department stores and at the Petit Palais. I’m sure there are other places too, but these came in handy for us.
  • You can take your stroller into the Louvre and the Orsay.  You can not take your stroller into the Orangerie or the buildings in the Versailles complex. A word on strollers in the Louvre: finding functioning elevators that take you where you want to go is HELL. Seriously, it was bad. The problem was that it looked simple, and each time we thought we were just one elevator ride away from where we needed to be. So we never folded up the stroller and carried him because it was always “just five more minutes.” This went on for over an hour. At the Orangerie, we entered with our stroller and then we checked it and they gave us a small stroller to use. Another note about the Orangerie: if you are taking photos with a DSLR camera and your flash is turned off (as it should be), you still might have a light that flashes when your camera is focusing.  Turn this light off or a museum employee will give you a talking-to. For Versailles, I’d recommend bringing a baby carrier along with your stroller. But don’t bring a hiking pack because you can’t take that into the buildings either. You have to check your stroller when you enter the either of the Trianon buildings or the chateau. You can use your stroller in the gardens, including the area between the Trianon buildings and Marie Antionette’s hamlet. However, make sure it’s an all-terrain stroller because it’s rocky, sandy and uneven in parts. Whew, that was way longer than expected.
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We got lost in the Louvre trying to find elevators. Luckily we stumbled across a small window with this lovely view.

  • Babies love art museums. All the big colorful paintings, statues and sculptures are fascinating to tiny humans. Even more so if you take the time to point out the animals. But expect the fascination to last for a limited amount of time.
  • There are farm animals in Marie Antoinette’s hamlet at Versailles.  M could have spent hours there, and wow did he scream when we left. I felt kind of bad because this was one of the first things we did that he enjoyed, and our time there was sadly limited. We let him walk along the fence line and try to feed dead leaves the animals.  He had so much fun.
  • Go out for a late lunch. You’re in Paris, so obviously you want to eat the wonderful French food.  With a baby, the best time to do this is lunch.  It’s less romantic than dinner, so you’re not ruining it for anyone else if you have a fussy baby. We’d eat lunch around 1:30 or so, towards the end of the lunch rush. Restaurants were less crowded, which is important since hardly anywhere has high chairs and there is more room to stash the stroller. On a related note…
  • L’ Esmeralda by Notre Dame and Cafe du Marche on Rue Cler have high chairs. L’Esmeralda seems to have mixed reviews, but we enjoyed it and for a restaurant right by a seriously touristy place like Notre Dame, the food was genuinely good and not expensive. I could have eaten at Cafe du Marche every day. That place was awesome. I’m sure there are lots of other restaurants in Paris with high chairs, but these were ones that we found easily that served us well.
  • If you have a stroller, the metro is a pain in the butt.  Lots of stairs and no escalators or elevators. The bus system is really easy and takes you everywhere you’d want to go.

Also, a few notes about Paris in December:

  • It’s amazing, do it!!! It never got that cold (it was generally in the 40s), and we only had a few hours of light drizzle one day. The crowds are less, and there was hardly anyone at Versailles when we went.  Granted some of the statues were covered, the fountains were turned off, and parts of the gardens were closed, but there were only 20 other people in the Hall of Mirrors.  It was incredible.
  • You can get mulled wine in the street and raw oysters. I remember walking around by Notre Dame looking at the Christmas lights and watching all the people our first afternoon there with a cup of mulled wine in hand, never ever wanting to leave. And we ate so many raw oysters at the farmers market. It was awesome.
  • The Christmas Market on Champs-Elysees was kind of a bust. Most of the stalls were selling stuff you could find just about anywhere. Although there were a lot of stalls selling good mulled wine.
  • You can find good Christmas decor and ornaments at the garden and flower market near Sainte Chappelle. Plus, you can easily do all of your Christmas shopping in Paris.  You’ll come home and you won’t need to worry about it!
  • You don’t get the harsh summer sunlight in your photos and nearly everything has perfect lighting. 

Okay, I think that’s it. I’ve got other posts in the works for our other trips we’ve taken (I’m working on focusing on the good things that have happened over the past year).

Oh, I should add that Nate sat with M for the return flight and I sat by myself on the other side of the plane and it was amazing.  I watched movies, napped, raised and lowered my tray table and window shade when I wanted, and sipped my drinks as slowly as I wanted. I will never again understand people when they say “OMG I have this super-long 10 hour flight. Whatever am I going to do with myself?” Um, you can do whatever the hell you want, dude. You’re by yourself.

Pura Vida

A few weeks ago we met up with Nate in Costa Rica.  He had one last R&R and we wanted to go someplace with a beach, but no super-long plane rides, in the same timezone as the Midwest, and Costa Rica fit the bill perfectly.

Dude, Costa Rica is AMAZING. We were in and out of the airport in less than an hour, and it was so easy to drive around and explore. We had a fricking awesome time, even though M got some stomach bug and we spent the first several days cooped up in our beach house. Thank god we had a washing machine and dryer. But this was our view, so even that wasn’t too bad.

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The view from our front porch: coconut trees and the Pacific

The house we rented was about 30 minutes west of Quepos, along the Pacific Coast.  We spent the whole time in that area, exploring literally everything the guidebook had to offer. Here are some of our favorite things we did.

Marino Ballena National Park: This is a beautiful national park with uncrowded pristine beaches. The majority of the area protected by the park is aquatic, which is pretty cool. There are several different beaches, and our favorite was Playa Pinuelas.  It was slightly protected from the open ocean so the waves weren’t too big, and we could drive up to the beach, so we brought beach chairs, sand toys, etc.

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Playa Uvita at Marino Ballena

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Playa Pinuelas

Cascada Nauyaca: You can hike or take a horseback riding tour to this waterfall.  We hiked, and it really wasn’t too bad.  It was 5 miles roundtrip, and we were lucky on the way up because it got cloudy just as we were hiking a long section with no shade. It was nice to have hiked there on our own rather than going with a group because we could stay as long as we wanted.  It was so amazing and the cold water felt awesome. I would avoid doing the hike during the rainy season because you’re either going uphill or downhill at least 90% of the time and the trail would be a muddy slip-n-slide.

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Nauyaca waterfall

Alturas Wildlife Sanctuary: This sanctuary on a mountainside provides medical care and rehabilitation for wild animals that are injured, taken out of private homes where they were pets (the law prohibits keeping animals other than dogs or cats as pets in Costa Rica), or are somehow unable to keep living in the wild.  We toured the sanctuary and saw the animals they weren’t able to release back into the wild for one reason or another.  They do an amazing job caring for the animals, and the tour was really interesting.  Afterward we had cocktails and enjoyed the view.  It was a great way to spend a few hours, and M really loved watching the animals, especially the monkeys.  The monkeys were cute and definitely interesting.  One of them kept hurdling rocks at the cage and another was on anti-depressants and anti-psychotics.

The view from the sanctuary/hotel patio

The view from the sanctuary/hotel patio

Manuel Antonio National Park: This park is beautiful, there is tons of wildlife, and the beaches are ridiculously picturesque.  For all these reasons, there are also lots of people. The park does limit the number of people allowed in each day and you can avoid the crowds if you get off the main paved trail that runs through the park. We packed sandwiches and went in with the idea of hiking the trails and then going to the beach, enjoying whatever wildlife we happened to spot along the way. This worked out well.  We saw lots of tour groups crowded around a telescope or with binoculars, and there was no way M would have had the patience to literally stand around and wait for a butterfly to open its wings. Frankly I don’t think I had the patience for that either given how hot and humid it was. We saw lots of monkeys, a sloth, raccoons, a deer, and coatis.

Manuel Antonio beach was very popular and the water was quiet

Manuel Antonio beach was very popular and the water was quiet.

The raccoons were out of control. They would dig through unattended bags looking for food, and Nate watched 3 raccoons and a coati duke it out over a sandwich

The raccoons were out of control. They would dig through unattended bags looking for food, and Nate watched 3 raccoons and a coati duke it out over a sandwich

Sunsets and cocktails at the beach: Each evening after we got back from our daily excursion, I’d make a cocktail and sit on beach and read. Nate and M would play in the sand and have fun, and it was glorious.  The sunsets from our beach were stunning.

One of the many sunset photos. I haven't even edited this!

One of the many sunset photos. I haven’t even edited this!

Other things we enjoyed were Hacienda Baru (nice hiking paths and lots of wildlife), Cascada Verde (nice little waterfall that you can slide down with lots of shallow pools; follow the signs from Uvita and stop right before the security camera signs where there is parking on the right), and exploring restaurants along the coast. Our favorite was Por Que No? in Dominicalito. It reminded me of The Village in Pohnpei. We loved everything about this place.

We avoided Quepos and the Manuel Antonio area. Both were completely crowded shit-shows.

Here are some general tips for Costa Rica (keeping in mind that we only explored one small area of the country and I’m not an expert):

  • Rent an SUV. And know that you’re going to have to pay for car insurance. Unless you’re sticking to paved highways, you’ll probably encounter seriously steep unpaved roads. As for the car insurance, this was a shocker for us. Our seemingly cheap rental car suddenly cost over $600 for two weeks. Luckily they upgraded us to an SUV for free.
  • Bring sun screen, bug spray and reusable water bottles. Sun screen and bug spray are expensive and tap water is generally drinkable.
  • Buy a SIM card by the baggage claim in the airport.  They cost $20 each and include two gigabytes of data.  We had either 3G or 4G almost everywhere we went. Our hotel was near the airport, but the car rental shuttle took us to a facility in the middle of nowhere.  We would not have been able to find our hotel without those handy SIM cards and google maps.
  • Buy alcohol in the duty free by the baggage claim. There didn’t seem to be a limit and it was much cheaper than what you can find in stores.

Thailand vacation: Dolphin Bay

A sight for sore eyes!

A sight for sore eyes!

After a few days in Bangkok, we headed to Dolphin Bay Resort, around 3 hours south of Bangkok, and about 30 minutes south of Hua Hin.  We wanted to go to a beach within driving distance of Bangkok where we could just relax and do nothing, and this fit the bill perfectly.

The hotel (it’s definitely not a resort, despite the name) is across the street from the beach, and has a few salt water pools and a good restaurant.  The beach isn’t the pristine aqua blue water beach that you see in the Thailand guidebooks, but it was shallow, there weren’t many waves, and the water was nice and warm.

There were massive jellyfish that washed up on shore  each afternoon as the tide was going out, but luckily we didn’t encounter any in the water.

The view down the beach across the street from Dolphin Bay Resort

The view down the beach across the street from Dolphin Bay Resort

It’s definitely a family-friendly hotel, and everyone there either had kids or was retired.  There are a bunch of excursions you can go on, and we would have taken advantage of that if we thought M could have handled it.  But we were pushing the baby envelope enough by introducing him to water, sand, heat, having to wear a hat, and swimming pools all at one time.  So we just hung out on the beach, by the pool, and in our air-conditioned hotel room.

The hotel also has a spa  where you can get Thai massages and other stuff.  One afternoon we took turns watching M and each of us got an hour-long massage.  It was heavenly.

If I’m being honest, my favorite thing about the hotel was going downstairs every morning for breakfast and being greeted with the smell of bacon.  Every morning, I ate bacon.  It was wonderful.

The hotel restaurant was good, not spectacular, and slightly expensive for Thailand, but inexpensive for a hotel restaurant.  The panang curry, however, was extraordinary, and I can be picky about restaurant food.  The burgers were also better than expected.

After a few days of eating at the hotel restaurant, we decided to venture out a little, and we discovered a wonderful place called Meaw Restaurant that had tables and chairs set up in the sand by the beach.  The food was better and less expensive than our hotel, so we went back for lunch and dinner every day after that.  Plus the waitress would bring our food and then take M, fan him, and coo at him while we ate.

We almost didn’t give Meaw Restaurant a try simply because of the name.  It looked too much like “meow,” which is a little ridiculous, but we wouldn’t go to a Woof Restaurant or a Neigh Restaurant, so there you go.

One night while we were eating dinner at Meaw, a very nice young lady asked if she could hold M.  We said yes. Then she gestured, asking if she could take him to the open-air bar next door.  She seemed harmless enough so we said yes (questionable parenting choice? maybe.), and she was back less than a minute later because M was starting to get fussy.  Apparently she walked up to a dude there, claimed M was his, and that he needed to give her money.  Ha!

Overall, we had a nice, relaxing vacation in Thailand, to the extent that that is possible with a baby. Neither of us wanted to leave!

Thailand vacation: Bangkok

We had a chance to get out of Dhaka for about a week, so we headed to Thailand.  Since this was our first “vacation” with M, we wanted someplace where we wouldn’t have to do too much in order to have a nice, relaxing time.

Grand palace (1 of 1)

Temples in the Grand Palace complex

We spent a few nights in Bangkok when we arrived, and then another night the day before we flew back to Dhaka.  We had one full day before heading to our hotel on the beach, and I thought it would be feasible for us to see the Grand Palace and one of the other temples.  Well, we decided to shlep to a bagel shop for breakfast that was further away than we thought (everything looks so close on the map… but it’s not) so we didn’t get in a taxi to go to the palace until about noon, and then traffic was horrid.  We arrived at the palace around 1:00, made our way through the literal hordes of tourists, and by 3:00, M had reached the end of his baby rope and was screaming bloody murder.  So we hopped in the first taxi we found and went back to the hotel.  We knowingly fell victim to a common taxi scam where the driver quotes you a flat rate probably twice the price it would cost with the meter running, but we needed air conditioning as fast a possible, so whatever.

Grand palace2 (1 of 1)

The entrance to the Emerald Buddha temple. Except it’s actually made of jade.

We didn’t make it to the other temple I wanted to visit, so I guess I’ll have to wait until the next time we’re in Bangkok to see the world’s second largest reclining Buddha.  That’s traveling with a baby: you are no longer in charge.

The main highlight of our visit to Bangkok was finally getting to see Star Wars.  Nate cared about this more than pretty much anything else, so we utilized the hotel babysitting service and went to a nearby theater. The total cost for 4.5 hours of babysitting, movie tickets for 7:30 on a Friday night at a nice theater, popcorn and soda was about $55!  In the U.S. it would have been at least double that.

Oh, we also found this nice grocery store called Food Hall or something like that, and I was in grocery store heaven.  It was aaaaaamazing.  It was basically a Thai Whole Foods, and I bought mangosteens, avocados, dried fruit, and Ghiradelli chocolate chips to bring back to Dhaka.

I could have spent another hour there, at least, but once again M insisted that things be done on his schedule (are you sensing a theme here?). I’m making the kid sound like a terror, but really he wasn’t that bad.  He did a good job considering how much time he spent in his Ergo and how stinking hot it was.  And honestly, there were times when he cried that I would have cried too, I was so hot and tired of the crowds, but it’s not socially unacceptable for adults to do that.

The first two nights we stayed at Ibis Siam, which is super convenient if you want to get out and walk around and do stuff, with a sky train station practically in front of the hotel.  There’s also a 7-Eleven in the lobby, which was awesome.

The night before we flew home, we stayed at the Swissotel Nai Lert Park, and it was fabulous.  I booked it specifically because the hotel had a babysitting service, and the more I thought about using a hotel babysitter, the more nervous I got, but the babysitter was a very kindly older Thai lady that M took to immediately.  When we got back from the movie, he was in his pajamas, sleeping soundly.  This hotel also has an amazing pool and a super tasty breakfast.  I ate so much for breakfast (crepes! pastries! donuts! bacon! waffles! roasted pork! dude, they even had dim sum!) , if I’d eaten another bite my stomach would have exploded.

Not the best photo, but you get the idea

Not the best photo of the Swissotel’s pool, but you get the idea

We booked the hotels through Agoda.com, which has the best rates I’ve ever been able to find anywhere.

Also, if anyone else is like “OOOOOO there’s a bagel shop in Bangkok?!” here you go: BKK Bagel Bakery near the Chit Lom BTS station.  It’s near the Haagen-Dazs, kind of on a side-street, next to the Kipling Store.  We bought a baker’s dozen to bring back to Dhaka with us, and they are actually pretty darn good bagels.  The sandwiches in the store are also tasty.

We really liked Bangkok, and since it’s so easy to get to, I know we’ll be back!

A weekend in Charleston

IMG_5126

Over the weekend Nate and I headed to Charleston, South Carolina for the Charleston Marathon.  Nate ran the full with a friend from his A-100, and they both rocked it!

I had signed up to run the full marathon, but when I realized my knee wouldn’t be able to handle 26.2 miles I switched to the half.  Then I tripped and fell walking home from work, banging my ouchy knee on the pavement.  I was thinking maybe I’d run/walk the half, running as much as I could and then walking when my knee started to hurt.  Then on Friday I got a cold.  I decided it was the universe’s way of telling me to just take it easy, so instead I cheered for the runners.

Runners coming up King St.

Runners coming up King St.

Cheering for the marathoners was fun, and it was time for me to give back to my fellow runners by being a good spectator.  So I cheered for all the runners, didn’t tell them they were almost done until the finish line was in sight, and clapped until my hands hurt.  Now I understand why people use cowbells.

A statue of John C. Calhoun, who apparently had big hair and was a jerk

A statue of John C. Calhoun, who apparently had big hair and was a jerk

Anyways, we ate at some truly amazing places in Charleston and I’m only sad that we didn’t stay there longer!

On Friday night we had dinner at Coast, which had pretty good Yelp reviews but was a bit of tourist trap.  The crab dip was boring, but the shrimp and grits was tasty and Nate liked his fish entree.

Saturday night we did a pretty serious restaurant crawl.  We started out at Slightly North of Broad, which was awesome.  The cocktails were super (especially the sangria), and we shared the charcuterie and cheese plates.  I’m a sucker for some good chicken liver mousse, and their’s was great.

Then we headed a few feet down the road to The Gin Joint.  Wow, talk about phenomenal cocktails.  Nate had the Ichabod Crane, which was one of the most unique drinks I’ve ever tried. The food was alright; this place is definitely more about the drinks than the food.

After than we went to The Ordinary.  I’m glad this was our third stop and I wasn’t exactly hungry by the time we arrived here.  Otherwise I would have ordered the entire fricking menu.  The food was spot-on perfect.  We had the oyster sliders, scallop hush puppies, and the seafood platter.  The food and drinks here are both killer.

We rounded out the night at Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit.  We were so stuffed at this point, we just took our biscuits to-go and ate them at the airport the next morning.  The blackberry jam biscuits were my favorite…. soooo good.

Words to live by

Words to live by

We’re going to try to make it back to Charleston again before we leave, but our weekends are filling up quickly.  My parents are coming to visit before we leave, we are taking a short trip to Boston, there’s the Cherry Blossom 10-miler and then FACT training, and we’re trying to spend as much time with our friends as possible!