Tag Archives: Europe

#CatTravels: Four Hawaii girls in search of a beach

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When people hear we traveled all the way to Hawaii to come to Greece to sit on a beach, they think we’re a little crazy.

I mean, let’s face it, Hawaii’s got some stellar beaches. We tend to claim some of the Top 10 beaches in the world on lists by travel writers and bloggers. We have some of the best surf and sandy stretches on the planet.

Why pay $1,700 for a plane ticket and travel for 24 hours halfway around the world to sit on a beach that’s probably not as awesome as the one right down the street?

Because we can.

And because that’s what we do. We find beaches.

So it’s no surprise our group — all from Hawaii — went in search of a beach while in Greece. Crete, particularly, is known for its beaches. It’s got hundreds of miles of coastline with a variety of beaches, from powdery sandy ones to rocky shorelines littered with windsurfers.

We decided to head to the famous Balos Lagoon, located northwest of Chania between Cape Gramvousa and the smaller Cape Tigani.

It’s easily one of the most popular beaches in Crete — and one of the most photographed — because of its turquoise waters and shallow sandbar perfect for families. In the high season — June through August — there can be thousands of people scattered here. Seriously. Lucky for us, we were going in May. While the sun was out, the northwest winds were kicking, and it was ridiculously cold, too cold for these Hawaii girls to get in the water.

Here’s what our adventure to the beach looked like:

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The adventure started with an hourlong bus ride to the harbor, where we would board a ferry to take us to the beach. It was a scenic drive along the coastline to Kissamos.

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The bus (19 Euros per person) picked up several more people on the way and took us to the ferry, which was docked here. We climbed aboard, grabbed good seats, and sat in anticipation of Balos.

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Here’s what the ferry looked like on board. There were seats along the sides and in the middle, with a food concession serving roast chicken and stuffed bell peppers. The ride cost 16 Euros per person.

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The view from the bow.

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Our first stop, though, wasn’t Balos. We went to a beach on Gramvousa, an uninhabited island off Crete. We had an hour here to explore this very small island, which houses the remains of a Venetian fort and buildings left behind by Cretan insurgents.

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To get to the fort, though, we had to hike. And we were wearing slippers!

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Part of the trail had stairs, which didn’t make it any easier to climb up. The whole hike, though, took only about 10 minutes.

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The view from above is breathtaking. This fort was built in 1579 during the Venetian rule over Crete to defend the island from Ottoman Turks.

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The view from inside one of the forts.

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A lot of folks, though, decided to just stay on the beach and soak up the sun. Smart move considering the weather was vastly different at Balos Lagoon, which was just a 10-minute ferry ride away.

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We boarded the ferry and had lunch. These are the stuffed peppers.

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The crew was even grilled food onboard for us. Here are the chicken skewers. Not bad!

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Our first glimpse of Balos from the boat. The water was indescribably beautiful. It looked so refreshing and inviting. And that blue — it didn’t look real!

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We got off the ferry — and onto another, smaller boat that took us to the beach — and hit the beach immediately. You can’t tell from this photo, but the winds were howling. It was too cold to even take off our sweaters!

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One side of the lagoon is azure blue; the other is green. This is where the sandbar is, with shallow, warmer waters. A lot of this area is protected as it’s home to some rare species of flora and fauna, including Eleonora falcons, cormorants and monk seals.

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We took a walk on the sandbar. There’s even a tavern here, selling drinks and snacks.

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I love the pink sand here — and on popular Elafonissi Beach — that you can’t find in many other places. The sand is really crushed seashells. So beautiful, this photo doesn’t do it justice. We stayed here for about three hours before boarding the ferry to head back to Kissamos.

There is really no words to describe how stunningly beautiful this beach was. Too bad it was so windy. We managed to strip down to bikinis — for about an hour — but none of us ventured into the blue waters.

Which was OK. The good thing about this group, it really didn’t matter. Being together — talking and laughing on the beach with our eyes closed during the frequent sand storms — was enough.

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Follow my #CatTravels adventures in Greece and Crete on Instagram @catherinetoth and on Twitter @thedailydish.

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#CatTravels: Ancient and modern Athens

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I’m not exaggerating when I say this: we are literally in the cradle of Western civilization.

And it’s been interesting watching ancient and modern collide here in Athens.

There are payphones near the Acropolis and tourists snapping selfies with their iPhones — yes, that was us! — at the Temple of Zeus.

Human habitation in Greece can be traced back to the Paleolithic Age. We’re talking 12,000 to 10,000 BC. Buildings and cemeteries have been uncovered dating back to the Neolithic Age, about 7000 BC. And the first urban centers in the world popped up here during the Bronze Age — 3000 to 1100 BC — with settlements in Greece, on Crete and in the Cyclades.

And as you walk around Athens, you see remnants of this great civilization — still great, actually — in the strangest of places.

Like we were walking through the now-touristy Plaka, once an ancient neighborhood now a bustling visitor attraction with street vendors selling magnets and olive oil. You are surrounded by the ruins of Ancient Agora of Athens, around which this area is built.

And as you walk past gelato shops and sidewalk cafes selling gyros, you can catch glimpses of the Acropolis, an ancient citadel that was inhabited as far back as the fourth millennium BC. It was in the fifth century BC when Pericles oversaw the construction of such important buildings as the Parthenon and the Temple of Athena — both of which can be seen today, overlooking a sea of orange-roofed homes no doubt plugged into WiFi.

This is a city where ancient and modern intersects — and it’s really a trip to see.

Here’s what our first full day in Athens looked like — and yes, we took selfies:

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Our morning started with a walk to the Panathenaic Stadium (or Kallimarmaro). This multipurpose stadium hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. It’s made entirely of white marble — the only one of its kind in the world — and is one of the oldest stadiums on the planet.

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In ancient times, this was the site of a stadium that was used for the athletic events that are part of the Panatheniac Games. In 329 BC, it was rebuilt in marble and later enlarged to accommodate 50,000 spectators. It was rebuilt and refurnished for the 1896 Olympic Games.

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Next, we visited the Temple of Zeus, which was built between 472 and 456 BC. Originally, there were 104 Corinthian columns of which only 15 remain standing.

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It was amazing to walk around this ancient site and imagine what the 43-foot statue of Zeus — one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, destroyed in the 5th century AD — would have looked like, looming overhead in ivory and gold.

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It wasn’t even 10 a.m., so we walked around the Plaka, once an ancient neighborhood now lined with souvenir shops selling things like snow globes and olive oils.

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This is where visitors do a lot of their shopping. There are shops selling handmade scarves, tacky T-shirts, coffee mugs and Greek sandals.

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Lan and Rona found authentic Panama hats for 55 Euros — a steal!

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We stopped in at a quaint cafe called Eris Cafe for some breakfast. We started with freshly squeezed orange juice that’s served warm — because it’s that fresh.

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I had scrambled eggs — very creamy and soft — with bacon — smoky and meaty — and fresh fried potatoes. A perfect fuel-up for a big day of sight-seeing and walking.

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Then we made our way to the Acropolis, located on a high, rocky outcrop above the city of Athens. You can literally see it from anywhere, so we just followed the paths that led there.

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There’s an area just as you’re walking to the Acropolis that offers stunning panoramic views to the city. It’s no wonder crowds of people stop here first before heading up the stairs to the ancient ruins.

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On our walk up to the Parthenon, we stopped to see the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a stone theater structure located on the southwest slope of the Acropolis. This theater was built in in 161 AD and used for music concerts. It was restored in the 1950s and has hosted such artists as Plácido Domingo, Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli and a slew of important Greek performers.

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I won’t lie: it’s crowded at the Acropolis, easily Athens’ most sought-out sight. Not even the slippery stairs and tiring climb up won’t stop the throngs of visitors to make the trek here every day, rain or shine, through this propylaea (monumental gateway) to see these antiquities.

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The most impressive, of course, being the Parthenon, dedicated to the goddess Athena. Construction started in 447 BC when the Athenian Empire was at its height of power. It took nearly a decade ego build, and it’s considered one of the most important surviving buildings of Classical Greece.

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On this hilltop is the Temple of Athena Nike, built between 427 and 424 BC and dedicated to the goddess Athena. “Nike” means victory in Greek, and Athena was worshipped in this form — as the goddess of victory in war — here.

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We headed back down the Acropolis toward the city proper and walked along the Plaka, now bustling with visitors and Athenians out on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

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We popped into a bakery selling pretty cakes and pastries — all next to traditional Greek desserts like baklava and taptakia.

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Rona was very excited about the mini ice cream cones the shop served. (So was I!)

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Here’s the shop’s baklava, that iconic Greek dessert of filo pastry filled with chopped nuts and sweet honey. Except this version was overly sweet and we couldn’t finish it.

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I went totally un-Greek and ordered a coffee-and-bitter-chocolate gelato. But it was a perfect snack on a hot day like today.

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We continued walking, now through more of an upscale shopping area, and found a street vendor selling gorgeous bouquets of flowers for just 3 Euros.

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We all chipped in to get Lan, the only mother in our group, a bouquet of flowers for Mother’s Day.

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After a pitstop at another cafe — just for water and a quick spanakopita — we walked to Melilotos, a hip new restaurant on Kalamiotou Street that started as a delivery service and got so popular that chef-owner Konstantinos Siopidis decided to open a brick-and-mortar spot. Good call.

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This restaurant came recommended by the woman who works at the apartment where we were staying. (It’s always good to get advice, especially about food, from the locals.) We started with the fig salad, which came with figs, cashews and deep-fried feta cheese topped with a housemade balsamic dressing.

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We shared one of the house specials: a slow-cooked salmon (cooked in paper) with a crust of celery, leeks and herbs and topped with onions and a sauce flavored with mastic from the island of Chios. This is an example of innovative Greek cooking that uses locally sourced ingredients and showcases what makes this place so special and unique.

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For dessert — and with only three selections, it was actually a tough decision — we ordered the chocolate pie, another recommendation. This soft, rich pudding was just how I love my chocolate pies, with a biscuit crust that was more like a cookie than an actual crust. (It would have been even better had the crust been a bit saltier to cut the sweetness.) If I hadn’t eaten everything else today, I could have finished this myself. A nearly perfect dessert.

It was only 7 p.m. when we called it a day. One of my girlfriends got sick and the rest of us were pretty tired from all the walking and eating. We needed a nap. So we headed back to our swanky apartment, complete with a rainforest showerhead and free WiFi, in the middle of an ancient city.

The irony never ends.

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Follow my #CatTravels adventures in Greece and Crete on Instagram @catherinetoth and on Twitter @thedailydish.

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#CatTravels: Yes, I’m going to Greece!

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Last year I told my girlfriend, in so many words, that whatever she wanted to do for her 40th birthday the following year, I’d do it.

And I meant it.

There was talk about renting a beach house and playing around with a Slip ‘N Slide. Or maybe spend a relaxing weekend on Molokai. All doable.

Then I got word of the plans: we were going to Greece.

And she wasn’t talking about the musical.

Greece is one of those magical, mystical countries that I’ve only thought about, never seriously looked into. Unlike China, though, it’s fairly high up on my Place To Travel Before I Die list. I’d love to stroll around Athens, the country’s capital, and feast on things like moussaka, spanakopita and, of course, ouzo, Greece’s iconic drink.

We’re flying out tomorrow morning, spending roughly 24 hours in transit, before arriving in the country of 11 million people.

I’ve got no plans, no itinerary, I’m not even packed yet. It’s just a week in Greece with a jaunt to Crete, before heading home. (The rest of the girls will be staying longer.)

While I’m excited to see this country, rooted in so much history and lore, I’m even more interested to see how this trip will all work out.

For starters, I’m not planning it. Not that I’m OCD about planning — ask Melissa Chang about that! — but I do like to have a small say in where I’m going (or, at the very least, what I’ll be eating). But it’s not up to me — and I’m cool with that.

And secondly, I have never traveled with this bunch before. As the birthday girl referred to it today, “It’s my Random Friend Trip.” Truly is. So that should be interesting as well.

The truth is, it didn’t matter where we were going — Greece, Molokai, my backyard — as long as I was going to hang out with my turning-40 friend. We can eat souvlaki anytime.

So if you’ve got suggestions on places to visit, things to eat, post ‘em here. I think the only things we’re definitely doing are eating Greek food and lounging at the beach. In 70-degree weather. Wish us luck!

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To learn more about Greece, click here. And don’t forget to follow my #CatTravels adventures on Instagram @catherinetoth and on Twitter @thedailydish.

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#CatTravels: Let the derby begin!

Game day!

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You know it's game day in London. Everyone is dressed in their team jerseys and colors. This was the scene was we walked to Emirates Stadium, home of the Arsenal Gunners.

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Before I met Derek, I knew very little about soccer.

Like, it involved a ball, two goals, and a grassy playing field.

I didn’t grow up playing — or watching — the game, and the only time I actually kicked around a soccer ball, my friend accidentally kicked me in the left shin and fractured it. (So I get why players wear shin guards.)

Derek, on the other hand, lives and breathes the game. He’s played soccer most of his life — even in college — and would still be kicked around a ball had it not been for two knee surgeries and a distraction called his Ph.D.

And as a good girlfriend, I sat through a few televised matches and read about the World Cup. Lucky for him, I actually do enjoy sports. And lucky for him, I learned to really appreciate what he calls “the beautiful game.”

The last time we were in London, we caught the Tube to Emirates Stadium, home of the Arsenal Gunners, one of his favorite teams. On my urging — if you can believe that! — we bought very expensive tickets and sat through what’s really a truly English experience.

Premier League soccer — or football, as it’s called here — games are nothing like their American counterparts. For starters, they consist of two 45-minute (or so) halves; meaning, they only last about 90 minutes, not all day. And the spectators are more like college fanatics — they dress up, they cheer and sing, they stand the entire time. It’s really an experience.

So since we were back in London — and since Arsenal was playing that Sunday — we bought tickets from a slightly sketchy Russian (another story) and went to the league’s first derby of the season.

Follow my #CatTravels adventures in Europe and Japan on Twitter @thedailydish and on Instagram @catherinetoth.

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#CatTravels: Wedding bells in London

Since many of you are having problems with my photo galleries — and I don’t blame you; scrolling down for every photo is mighty annoying — I’ve posted the gallery up top. Hopefully that will suffice until I get this all sorted out. Thanks for your patience!

Let's get there first!

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The first thing we needed to do was get from Paris to London in time for the afternoon wedding. So we caught a Eurostar train that took us through the Channel Tunnel, a 31.4-mile undersea rail tunnel.

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After all, we were here for a wedding.

That was the whole purpose of this jaunt to Europe. Derek’s friend from his days living in Japan was getting married to a woman from a small island off Greece.

We had stayed with them three years ago when we first visited London — and when we got the invitation to their wedding earlier this year, we saw it as yet another excuse to fly halfway around the world.

Guy and Maro were getting hitched at Hackney Town Hall, in the borough of London where they both had lived. It was going to be a fairly simple ceremony, done in the courtroom with maybe a few dozen friends and families in attendance.

Then we were off to — where else? — a pub for drinks, food and festivities.

What could be better than that?

Follow my #CatTravels adventures in Europe and Japan on Twitter @thedailydish and on Instagram @catherinetoth.

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