Friday, August 25, 2023

Paris .... Slowing It Down

We slept in on Monday and enjoyed our mediocre breakfast at the hostel.  Andy spent the morning geting the City Mapper app set-up on my phone, so Ally and I could navigate our morning without him.  You see I've always been the driver and Andy the navigator.  Even on trips I plan the destinations whether a hotel, restaurant, or other and Andy figures out how to get us there.  City Mapper was awesome.  You set your city and then put in where you want to go and it gives you ALL of your options.  I mean all from walking to scooter rental to moped rental to bike to cab to buses to the metro.  The part I was most frightened about was getting on the metro going to wrong direction, but it even told you that.

So with that about 9:30AM we were off and actually got to ride the first train together and the boys got off a couple of stops in front of us as they were headed to Musée de l'Armée while we girls were headed to the shopping district with our first stop being the iconic Galeries Lafayette.

The boys gave the Museum high marks and totally wished they had more time.  But loved what they saw, but really wanted to make it around the back to Napoleon's Tomb.  The exhibits range from arms and armor of the 13th century all the way up to modern day and the World Wars.  It's definitely a place they want to return as their 2.5hours only scratched the surface.

Ally and I explored the floors of the Galeries with most being way to expensive for us.  There was an entire floor with major designers that the pieces did not even have price tags and there were salons for you to view things with your personal shopper.  We opted for the more affordable floor and even found a top on sale in orange (GO BEAVS) in the Diesel section.  Then we scooted across the street to H&M, which mind you this is H&M Paris.  So this Mom was very happy to see the more classy looks versus ripped jeans.  Ally found a "going out" top as well as two pairs of pants for school.  Then we agreed it was caffeine time, but there were not any traditional cafes in the area so yes, we went to Starbucks, but they had tables outside set-up like a normal cafe so we could watch the passers-by and even more important....a bathroom.

We were both pretty tired so we opted to walk to meet the boys at the Louvre for our 1PM entry.  We got a little nervous as the boys metro'ed in and got lost in the labrynth that is a shopping mall and food court under the Louvre.  But they made their way out and we approched the lines which wrapped and wrapped themselves around the glass pyramid entrance.  After we found out which line we were to be in I almost threw in the towel, but we agreed we would give it 15 minutes to see how fast it moved.  And it flew...and we were in quickly.  We had a reservation and pre-bought tickets.  Most of the scarey lines were people who were trying their luck at getting in without a reservation.  

Once in though it was still packed and today the temps outside had finally increased to more summer-like and the a/c was struggling to keep up with the throngs of people packed inside.  So we went on a 2 hours we would see the majors...Venus de Milo, Winged Mercury, and the Mona Lisa, and whatever else we happened upon while taking this path.  And we did the end of our two hours we followed the hundred of people to the room with the Mona Lisa.  Andy more wanted the kids to see the craziness around it...this massive room and hung on a massive wall with tons of traffic control for the masses of people hung a painting that is only 30inches x 20 inches.  Yep, that's it!

We wound our way out of the Louvre and back underground for Alec to secure his McRoyal with Cheese from McDonalds so he could send a pic to his friends.  This is something to only be done once...our order took 45minutes.  Ouch!  But it gave us time to relax and discuss our evening.

Back to the hostel the kids were done!  So we ordered pizza to be delivered to the hotel along with soda and they could chillax, take showers, and pack for our early morning flight.  Andy would research and find us a wonderful French resturant close-by to go have a couple's dinner and we would bring the kids macaroons for dessert.

I love all the walking in Paris.  We ventured down to the area of our first dinner and settled into outside seats and went all in on a French cuisine at La villa des abbesses.  Andy started with French Onion Soup and I had mussels in escagot butter (I had escargot the previous night) for starters.  For an entree I had duck and Andy had a pork loin.  We both had traditional french wines with Andy having a Bourdeux and myself a Chablis (we had visited the Chablis region on our last trip).  A couple of hours later and we were stuffed and ready for that walk and re-visited Dolce Pepone from our first night as they also had macaroons.  

We now knew our flight was already a couple of hours delayed the next day, so we would get to sleep in, so after getting videos of our view we all settled in for a pleasant last night snooze in Paris.  Tomorrow we were headed home and another amazing trip would come to an end.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Paris at Warp Speed

Our travel companions, the Jarnac, family had not been to Paris where this was our family's second visit and Andy and my third visit.  So we opted to spend the day hitting the highlights and making sure they got a taste to return.

They started their morning with a tour of the Eiffel.  They booked early which was smart and ubered down to the site and we slept in a bit.  We would metro down to the Place de Concord and then get on our major source of transportation for the day, The Big Bus Tour, a hop on hop off bus, and we took it around to the Eiffel Tower to meet them when they came down.

One of my bucket list items was seeing the city from the Seine, so this time we added that with Beataux Parisiens to our ticket and after grabbing expensive snacks we made our way to the terminal and were one of the first in line for seats for the 12:30.  Most opted to be outside on the upper deck.  Ally and I opted for inside.  This boat uses a app which recognizes your location and plays audio accordningly.  It was a beautiful vantage point plus we got to see all the wonderful boat homes as well as folks lounging and just enjoying the river.  The most shocking moment for us was seeing Notre Dame.  We had watched it burn on TV while visiting my Dad in Ohio in 2019.  We were all so sad.  It was incredible to see the scaffolding and the work going into reconstructing it.

After our tour, time to snack again.  All the eating in Greece had definitely caused our stomachs to grow and require more food.  So we sat and the kids ordered all kinds of stuff - pizza, crepes, slushies...and the adults... a bottle of wine.  We were hanging out and awaiting a neat moment for Ally.  One of her sorority sisters from OSU was in the city and close by and she and her family were going to stop and say hello.  It was a fun moment.

Then we hit the bus and decided to stop at some of the larger stops...Notre Dame, Louvre, and finally we thought the Champs.  However, the city has taken to closing it off on Sundays to pedestrian traffic which is cool, but it meant the bus dropped you off pretty far away..actually back where we started our morning.  So the Jollys opted to head back to the hotel to rest and the Jarnacs would stay out.

Then we would all meet up at 8:30 for dinner at the same place we had taken our kids 8 years earlier.  Cafe De Trocadero. We remembered it as a bit of a tourist trap, but we were there for the location and they took reservations.  We could see the sparkle without the crush of the crowds.  Dinner was actually very good and our waiter was amazing.  We totally remember having a very rude waiter last time, but we were younger with kids definitely on a budget and probably picky.  Timing was perfect.  The lights went off at 10PM and I would hold down the table while everyone else ran to the grass round in the middle of the street and had an unobstructed view without the crowds (See the other side of the street?  There are probably a couple thousand people there.) and during the 5 minutes dinner arrived.  It was such a nice evening.

After dinner we parted way...the Jarnacs off to find one of the best hot choloate places in Paris and we were off to sleep as we had one more day and they would be flying back to Cali in the morning.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Evening 1 Paris: Walking the Montemarte

Last time we were in Paris we stayed at a Cross Pollinate property in the Montemarte but out at the Jules Joffrin Metro station.  This time we wanted to be walking distance to more, so we did Caulincourt Hotel & Hostel.  We've stayed at a hostel in San Francisco now a couple of times and we like the extra exposure it gives the kids to other people and cultures.  Where hotels in Paris go for $500+ US a night this was less than $200 and included breakfast...albeit meager it was something.  It was the only real downside we read in the reviews.  It still included coffee, juice, tea, a basket with one criossant and one small bread loaf, jam, butter, cereal, and milk.  It was an easy walk to the Lamark-Caulicourt Metro station.

We opted to Uber into town from the airport versus the train to the Metro and were there in half the time which gave us time to clean up before meeting our guide at the Abesses Station for a walking tour I had secured through Get Your Guide.  The weather was a shock.  We had prepared a bit with rain coats, but given the heatwave that was gripping the majority of the world we expected a warm rain.  Paris was the mid 60's with rain, wind, and just brrrr....  But we made a quick pit stop at our first Boulangerie, Alexine, in route for a little sugar/pastry pick us up.  Our guide, Hannah, was this cute short lady who's English was quite good, and with her energy and our sugar and carbs we were off. She showed us everything I had on my list...the Wall of Love, the vineyard, the places Picasso, Van Gough, and others frequented, oldest operational cabaret (Au Lapine Agile), the running man in a wall (stuck there supposedly busted escaping the house of his mistress)...and yes Alec touched the bust of Dalida a famous singer who lived and is buried here and touching her bust supposedly gives you luck with females.  And much more.  She would leave us after 90 minutes at the Basilica/Sacre Couer, the famed monument of the neighborhood.

I had first tried for a reservation at a famous French restaurant, but couldn't get a table for our group of 9.  So I went for Al Caratello, an Italian restaurant within 10 minutes from the hotel.  It was in the top 150 of over 14K resteraunts (according to Trip Advisor) in the city, so we figured it has to be good.  A charming place off a little side street we entered the place at 7PM and there were only two other tables.  By the time we left it was packed and people were waiting and locals were getting take-out.  It was scrumptious with massive portions.  I would leave a little early with several of the kids to get gelato at Dolce Pepone while others stayed behind to finish wine and enjoy the company of some friends who happen to also be in Paris and joined us.

Time for rest because the next day was getting the Jarnac family as much of Paris as we could cram in a day before they would head home because this was their first visit.

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Interested in our Greece Trip/Ship

Nearly everyone we have shared the Greece trip with has asked how I found it.  I honestly am not really sure.  I know I wanted a cruise, after getting Andy to abandon the notion of a chartered sailboat trip with a captain and cook.  And then I know I wanted a small ship as we are spoiled on other low ratio trips where we get to know staff and staff us.  I wanted some inclusive aspects, again me not cooking was part of my argument for not doing the charter.  I think I just Googled and Goggled and stumbled across ....

We flipped through their trips.  And wound up reaching out to them regarding three:

The kids and we quickly dismissed Bali after having spent the last sabbatical in Thailand, Cambobia, & Vietnam.  And after speaking with the agents we decided the second Greek cruise fellow passenger demographics might pose to too large of an age gap to our kids.  So we settled on the Signature Greece Cruise.

We were nervous as we didn't know much about the company, so we read reviews, read through all their policies, and placed our deposit.  We felt a little better when we received a big glossy magazine filled with all their trips and I was able to reach out several times to Nora, who is the travel specialist for this trip to work through cabin selections and ask other questions about amenities.

The trip would include wonderfully appointed rooms (ok they could be a little more generous on the bath shampoo and conditioner, but that is truly our only "even better if")), 2 meals a day on board (generally buffet, except the special ones), lots of free on-board amenities (samba lessons, pilates, cooking lessons as well as hot tub, kayaks, snorkel gear, and more), and transfers.  Additional out of pocket included of course the bar (pricing published upfront), spa (yes there were services on board), guided excusions (but our activities crew was always ready to recommend do it ourself instructions), and gratuity (also recommendations made upfront and really quite affordable).  We added an additional transfer and hotel on for when we landed in Greece before boarding the ship that they booked as well.

We would spend the months ahead researching photos of the ship, passenger reviews, and down right getting excited.  We would find later that Unforgettable Travel was a middle man for The Elysium, the Ship of Elixir Luxury Cruises  The pictures are pretty spot on of the ship.  Here's their Facebook too with videos and more.  The only thing perhaps slightly askew of all their claims was the gym....was very tiny and minimally appointed (notice there are not pictures of it), but Alec still used it a few times and didn't complain.

In regards to service again everything was pretty spot on.  Only two things to note... 1) GMT (Greece Mean Time) means things may or may not happen per the schedule.  Be flexible.  And us being used to "Island Time" in Jamaica this was no problem.  And 2) was the beach party beverages.  We really should have known they were not included, but there were two meals where a cocktail or two were included that were more special set-ups, so we thought this was the same.  Our bartender was usually very diligent about getting our charges right, but on this day our 6 beers became 11 on our tab, but really in the grand scheme of things it wasn't a big deal.

We loved the vibe and energy on the ship.  Our fellow shipmates were a big part of this and this is not always the case as the staff remarked time and time again how we were the best energy all year.  With 6 teens on board and a total of 8 nearly life-long fraternity friends and wives (our two from Purdue and the other 6 from ASU) well we brought the party for sure.  And the staff was incredibly friendly, on it, and always, I mean always, making sure we were taken care of...

We were super happy with this trip.  It was a chunk of change, but felt very much worth it.  Would we recommend it to others - YES!  We might suggest you look into booking straight with Elixir as it appears they give discounts for your 3rd and 4th persons.  I haven't done the math exactly, but it appears at first glance it would save some money.

Here's links to two videos we did of a "ship tour."
And after our 7AM pick-up including the same driver we had when we arrived we were off with the Jarnac family to the Athens Airport and our next adventure - a couple day layover in Paris

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Sifnos & Farewell Party

Last day…it started slow, but the last days had flown.  This morning we pulled into Sifnos as the sun was rising.  This morning the humidity was fully on, and it was hot.  Alec slept straight through several wake ups after the long day yesterday, so he opted to stay on board and sleep.  The rest of us headed on land and decided it was our last day so time to take a Greek bus.  2 euros for the bus versus a 25-euro taxi ride we reminded Ally this was the way to go for a traveling college student.  It was easy and clean, and the AC was even working well.  

The Chora was beautiful 25 minutes up on a hill overlooking the harbor.  Lovely little shops, beautiful buildings, but the heat got to us and we popped into a local café where the owner did not speak English and had our first freddo (cold) cappuccinos.  Back on the bus and back to the harbor we settled into Takis for lunch right on the water again.  Something for everyone it worked out well.  We have been eating so much I have converted over to salads on land the last few days.  

Ally still having a few more items to look for for friends we stayed on land and Andy returned to the ship to Alec who we had gotten his massage rescheduled and was relaxing after.  We thought we had a tender back at 2:15pm but walking there it pulled away 5 minutes early as they had staff who needed to get back ASAP for preparations for the night.  Mikel felt bad so he invited Ally and I to sit with him at a café and got me another freddo coffee while Ally enjoyed gelato.  It was wonderful to sit and talk with him.  38 years old with a bachelors and masters in Spanish from Cuba, the oldest of 4, he’s been working for a few years saving money for a home and is returning home this fall.  He misses his family and talks to them and his friends there almost daily.  He talked to Ally a lot about life and family.  The nicest guy!

Back on board we decided to wear all our new Greek clothes for our farewell dinner.  A beautiful evening that started with group photos on the back deck and drinks.  Then course upon course upon course of Greek food.  We heard there was a surprise and noticed staff gathering on the lower back deck in dress uniform. After dessert Mark took the wireless microphone, he’s been using all week and we finally got to see and meet ALL the staff.  The captain, chief engineer, engineering team, housekeeping, and then of course everyone we had seen day in and day out all week wait staff, tender trio, activities, and of course the bartender.  There are about 25 crew and when the boat is full capacity, 50, that means a 1:2 ratio.  And we definitely felt the personal attention and care.  So nice to know nearly everyone by name.

Next thing we knew confetti guns went off showering the entire back deck in color and we would dance for the next hour plus, including the limbo and Greek dance we had been taught.  The best part was the staff danced too.  In fact, someone won a bet with the activities director to take $50 off their bar bill because they got the captain to dance.  Mikel, also our Samba teacher, got his moves on too.  So much fun under a beautiful night sky.  Can’t believe it was coming to an end…an overnight trek back to the mainland and we were off the ship at 7AM to the airport and the next adventure.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Delos, Secluded Beach #2 PARTY, & Mykonos

This morning we arrived at Delos.  This island is completed uninhabited, but instead has archeological park. Andy and Alec took the tender very early into the island…partially to beat the crowds, but also the heat.  Completely exposed with pretty much no greenery it was going to getting scorching hot fast.  In Greek mythology, this is precisely why Leto, escaping the wrath of Hera, was able to find sanctuary here in order to give birth to Apollo and Artemis. In some versions of the myth, Zeus (Leto's lover) called on his brother Poseidon to create the island with a thrust o
f his trident, hence the name Delos, which signifies 'appearance' or 'apparent' in ancient Greek.  The boys found the site very good.  Ally and I opted not to do it as, and this will sound a bit snobbish, but through our living in Israel, we have seen a lot of ruins.  But they saw a lot of pieces still with amazing mosaic tile work and an entire row of lions.

We knew we had a swim stop in the afternoon before heading to Mykonos, so I scheduled massages for Ally, myself, and Alec.  Ally went first and while she was in getting a very good Balinese massage, they moved the boat to a secluded beach and proceeded to load the tenders with umbrellas, pillows, and large grass mats.  The boys arrived back I sent them and Ally to the beach and it was my turn for some relaxation/massage.  After getting out I found one of our activities directors and told him I needed to get Alec back from the beach for his massage.  He said food was being sent over to the beach for lunch and I could go over and swap with him.  Once on land, Mark, the lead activities coordinator said Alec is having too much fun.  You can get a massage any day, but you can’t have a party on a secluded beach in Greece any day.  So, he sent word back to the ship he would be staying.  And we proceeded to have one of the best afternoons of our trip.  Food, beverages, music, dancing, snorkeling, and that beautiful Cycladic blue water. Amazing!!!

Back on board we all cleaned up for
Mykonos.  As we pulled in the only “big box” was leaving, and our ship was the only one anchored in the harbor.  We tendered in and had about 45 minutes until our dinner reservation, so after dragging the boys through the insanity of shopping in Santorini (and all other islands) we decided to split up.  Scared of the labyrinth of streets we opted to go straight up the first alley and back down.  We would return here later in the night as it had some great shops and was the most affordable…well except the $2K, on sale for $500, skin care regimen I got sucked in for.  Let’s just say it was only a cream and it really did work removing all the lines under my eyes, but it was the most unnatural crazy feeling sensation.

After escaping the eye cream trap by throwing Andy under the bus - “I can’t spend that kind of money without his permission” – we headed back to the waterfront for our reservation at Vegera.  I had picked this restaurant because they had online reservations, a great view, fresh seafood, and burgers, fries, and pasta for the kids. Turned out another great choice as we met the boys who were already at the bar being offered welcome shots.  Another amazing meal that ended with another freebie of beautiful platters of Greek yogurt topped with a cherry sauce.  Light, refreshing, and delicious. 

After dinner we opted to try to walk to the iconic windmills along the water like our crew had told us.  We tried but didn’t have a lot of luck.  So instead, we ducked into stores again and even a bar with all the kids playing ABBA.  We even danced in the street.  Ally really wanted to shop, so we split up again and headed back to the harbor and started up into the alleys.  They were right…it was insane…and expensive.  Chanel, Gucci, and other labels where no piece, even a little tube top, was less than 225 euros.  Now hopelessly lost I turned the navigation over to Ally and she got us out and even walked us right by the windmills.  We made it safely back to the first alley and did our shopping.

We all met at the tender pick-up spot and I was done, but Ally wanted to try the Mykonos nightlife.  So Andy, Alec, and she stayed on land…along with the rest of the Jarnac crew and they went to a couple of bars and got taste she was looking for.  I think they rolled back on the boat after 1AM and we would move through the night arriving for our last day, a full day, at Sifnos.

Tuesday, August 8, 2023


Today we awoke at Naxos anchored off Agios Prokopios, apparently the most popular beach of the island.  We looked out and saw a long beach with rows and rows of sunbeds.  After a family conference we decided we would stay on the boat and rest and relax as we had a lot for our afternoon and evening planned when we made it to the Chora.  So we donned swimsuits and grabbed our books and headed to the upper deck for reading and even a snooze.

After lunch aboard we would be docking at this port and have the ability to walk on and walk off.  We had a nice laugh after we docked because a few nights prior we docked and were right next to a yacht that rents for $900K-$1.2M for 12 days and they put out a carpet on the dock.  Tonight our crew put out a logo'ed carpet as well and a flag, like you would see at a soccer game...all logo'ed as well.  After a few minutes a mini-bus appeared as we had booked tour because Naxos is the largest of the Cyclades islands with a lot going on in the interior.

Our first stop was a the Eggares Olive Press which had a museum with all the ways they have extracted oil.  The mill dates back to the 1800's and is the oldest remaining of all the mills.  Many of the Lianos family was manning the store where we tried all kinds of oils, including infused as well as jams and olive oil cake.  I was able to get one of the items I had planned on purchasing which was salads spoons made from olive tree wood.  

Next we stopped at the statue of of Kouros in Melanes which lies at the exact position that the archaeologists found it. It is six meters long and dates to the 7th century.  It was a little walk in from the bus, but as it was a low lying area it was cool due to natural springs.

Next we stopped in the village of Chalki and the Vallindras distillery, which has pioneered Naxos’ renowned citron (kitron) liqueur –one of three Greek aperitifs marketed with a Protected Designation of Origin.  It all began in the second half of the 19th century, when Grigorios Vallindras founded a workshop for producing the traditionally local citron-flavored spirit (kitrorako) –already in common use.  In 1896, his son, Markos, decided to develop the business, creating a new distillate with alcohol and citron leaves –the citron liqueur of today.  It was a super cute village.  Unfortunately the distillery was closed but we had eyed a Kitron Bar down at the wharf...we assume an outlet of sorts.  As we drove the hills we also saw lots of marble quaries and learned the marble for JFK's bust in DC is from this island.

Then we stopped at the Church of Panagia Drossiani is the oldest Christian church of Naxos and our tour guide claimed the oldest Byzantine in all the Cyclades. Located near Moni, it is considered one of the most important Byzantine churches and, therefore, is of immense historical significance.  Unfortunately this was also our rudest encounter in Greece.  What we can only imagine was a nun of sorts was livid with our group despite following the rules of donating a few euros for photos, etc..  She literally yelled at us as we departed and this experience would become a running joke the rest of the trip.

And lastly another hoped for stop and therefore purchase...some art from the person who created it - Limpertas Manolis Pottery.  The gentleman we saw at the potter's wheel was 3rd generation and he literally worked by feel.  Never looking at the piece on the wheel.  Amazing and beautiful works.  They showed us several traditional pieces used for common purposes.

We then proceeded to drop our guide off at his village.  So full disclosure.  This guy LOVED his island and loved what he was talking about, but he was completely memorized and recited his information with little emmotion or impromptu effort, so while information filled it was often monotone and hard to stay interested.  Our driver however busted loose after the drop-off and cranked the music and our group was singing and clapping again.

Next we were off for our dinner reservation I had had to reschedule twice due to our changing schedule due to the winds, but we were warmly greeted by Alekzander who I had corresponded with and ushered to a table right on the water for sunset and a spectacular meal including the ability to do butter pasta with cheese for Ally.  She was in heaven.  Dal Professore.  I had selected it to give a bit of Greek for the adults and Italian for the kids.

Next we were off for a few more must stops.  Waffle House for desserts.  The kids loved it getting all kinds of variations of waffles including one that looked like a hamburger.  The required stop for me was Pagonis Sandals a family run business since 1940

.  We were greeted by a young woman who had us look for our favorite style and then helped size us.  We wound up with a lot of pairs.  And of course the Kitron Cafe to try that liquor mentioned earlier.  Three colors and three proofs.  Green, Clear, and Yellow.  Ally and I tried and likes the green.  Andy went straight for the yellow.  There may or may not be a few bottles coming home.

Back on board at just after midnight we needed sleep for another big day ahead, which included Delos and an evening on Mykonos.