Tag Archives: Europe

#CatTravels: 48 Hours in Ireland

IMG_6806

Years ago, back when I worked at the now-defunct Honolulu Advertiser, I plugged in “Dublin” in a travel booking website and found roundtrip tickets from Honolulu for less than it would cost to fly to Vegas.

And I didn’t go.

It always lingered in my mind, the fact that I let that opportunity get away from me.

So I’ve been thinking about Ireland ever since.

Not that I have any connection to the North Atlantic island. I’m not Irish (that I know of) and I don’t drink Guinness.

But I do love Oscar Wilde (his middle name was O’Flahertie), soda bread, Lucky Charms and the color green.

All kidding aside.

Ireland is one of those magical places, where the lush countryside is as emerald green as it appears in travel guides. The sea cliffs are as dramatic, people as friendly. Everything about Ireland is exactly how I had imagined. It’s the kind of place that makes you believe in fairies and monsters.

When we were planning our honeymoon to the United Kingdom, we, of course, included Ireland. Our friends had just come back from a two-week adventure across the island — the largest in the British Isle archipelago and third-largest in Europe — driving along its southern and western coastlines, staying at little bed-and-breakfasts along the way.

It sounded so quaint and idyllic.

There was no way we could be that relaxed on our two-day jaunt.

Originally, we were going to spend five days in Ireland. But my husband convinced me to rebook our flights and hotels so we could spend more time in Scotland, instead. So we had just about two full days in the country — and really, that wasn’t enough.

DAY 1

IMG_1404

IMG_1418

IMG_1417

We flew into Dublin and rented a tiny Nissan Micra from locally owned Dan Dooley Car Rental. Like in the rest of the British Isles, you have to drive on the left-hand side of the street, opposite of how it is in the U.S. And having a small car, trust me, was a good thing. (Roads are perilously narrow.)

We were heading to Cong, a teeny village straddling the borders of Galway and Mayo counties with less than 200 residents. (It’s also the home of Sir William Wilde, historian and father to the prominent playwright.) Its claim to fame is Ashford Castle — and we were staying there for the night.

It was going to take about two and a half hours to get there — I was driving, too! — so we stopped halfway to Cong at a small town called Kilbeggan, famous as the location of the oldest recorded incidence of a tornado in Europe.

But that’s not why we were there.

We wanted a drink and a quick bite to eat (above, second and third). And the Saddler’s Inn delivered — with a cold pint of Guinness and ham and cheese sandwiches. (That was the only thing on the menu!)

IMG_6474

IMG_6506

IMG_6500

IMG_1465

Just before sunset, we arrived at Ashford Castle (above, first), one of Ireland’s finest luxe hotels converted from a Victorian faux lakeside castle. It was built on the site in 1228 by the Anglo-Norman House of Burke right on the banks of Lough Corrib, Ireland’s second largest lake.

We had some time to kill before dinner, so we walked around the property, which sprawls over 365 acres of land, much of it wooded. There were neat paths that meandered through perfect gardens. Such a gorgeous area! The hotel offers various activities that allow you to truly absorb your surroundings, including cycling, skeet shooting and kayaking in Lough Corrib.

We had dinner at Cullen’s at the Dungeon (above, fourth), the more casual dining experience at the castle. I tried an Irish specialty: beef and Guinness stew.

IMG_6542

IMG_6543

We had breakfast in the immaculate George V Dining Room (above, first and second), with a buffet spread that included cheese, salami, croissants, soda bread, scrambled eggs, bacon, black pudding and fruits.

We needed the fuel for our long, complicated drive north to the Céide Fields in the northwestern tip of Ireland.

IMG_6556

IMG_6566

IMG_6571

The Céide Fields is an archaeological site that contains the oldest known agricultural field systems in the world. Using various dating methods, it was discovered that the creation and development of the Céide Fields goes back some five and a half thousand years.

We first stopped at a viewing spot to see the 365-foot cliffs of Ballycastle (above, first), these horizontal layers of sandstone roughly 350 million years old. Mayo County is home to the country’s highest cliffs — yes, taller than those of the famed Cliffs of Moher — and second highest in all of Europe at Croaghaun, Achill Island. (The Benwee Head cliffs in Kilcommon Erris stand nearly 900 feet straight above the wild Atlantic.) The coastline here was just breathtaking.

But we had come to see Céide Fields.

We walked up to the visitor’s center (above, second) built on the archaeological site of what is considered the most extensive stone monument in the world, stone-walled fields preserved beneath a 5,000-year-old bog. We got to see parts of the wall (above, third) that had been uncovered.

IMG_6617

IMG_6625

IMG_6599

IMG_6659

Then we were back to Ashford Castle for some hawk flying. The oldest established Falconry School in Ireland gives you chance to fly a hawk around the woodlands of the castle in a one-hour private Hawk Walk.

Uh, of course we were doing it.

We met Tommy (above, first), one of the instructors and bird expert, who introduced us to Andes, a Peruvian hawk and champion hunter. He explained how this whole thing was going to work: the hawk would be tied to the glove as we walked to an open area on the castle grounds. Then we would let it fly away, calling it back with a small piece of raw beef hidden in our gloved fist. “You don’t train a hawk,” Tommy said. “You learn what it needs.”

These hawks — and falcons (above, third) — were amazing. Among the most intelligent birds in the world, hawks boast exceptional eyesight, able to perceive the visible range and the ultraviolet part of the spectrum. Not only can they see greater distances than humans, their visual acuity is eight times that of ours. In addition, these birds of prey can attain speeds in excess of 150 miles per hour, traveling thousand of miles a year. They are pretty astounding creatures, and handling them was very humbling.

IMG_6779

IMG_6747

IMG_6740

IMG_6741

IMG_6743

IMG_6745

It’s hard to top flying a hawk, but spending a night in Doolin (above, first) wasn’t too bad, either.

Doolin is a coastal village in Clare County, best known for being the capital of traditional Irish music. We didn’t know this at first, but when we checked in at the charming Twin Peaks B&B (above, second), the owners were quick to tell us to get our meals before 9:30 p.m. After that, they said, the music starts and you’ll be hard-pressed to find an open seat.

And they weren’t kidding.

The pubs on the town’s very small main street was packed with people eager to hear live traditional Irish music. We popped into The Chocolate Shop (above, third and fourth), next door to Doolin’s famous Gus O’Connor Pub, for a little snack. This place is one of the few shops that carry the Wilde Irish Chocolates, handmade artisan chocolates that are to die for.

We stopped by O’Connor’s just for a quick bite — I got a burger with bacon and cheese, my husband got fish and chips — then called it a night. We had a big day tomorrow of surfing and beer-drinking.

DAY 2

IMG_6783

IMG_6801

DCIM999GOPRO

IMG_6821

Prior to our arrival in Ireland, I had been emailing with Cathal “Ben” Bennett, owner of Bens Surf Clinic located in Lahinch, known as one of the best surfing spots in all of Ireland (above, first three).

The beach is the spot for lessons, too. There are several shops offering surfing instruction and board rentals, so it was a perfect place for us to get wet in Ireland.

Ben had emailed me the night before and said the waves were decent and the conditions really good. He wasn’t kidding. Aside from the nip in the air, we were greeted with blue skies and sunshine — and small waves. We suited up — we were wearing a 5/3 mm wetsuit and booties — and paddled out.

To be honest, I was a bit concerned about the cold. The water temp here was around 60 degrees — the average water temperature in Hawai‘i is 74 degrees — and I had never worn a wetsuit before. But as soon as we paddled out — and Ben did tell me this — the cold wasn’t a factor at all. My hands warmed up pretty quickly, and by the time I got out to the lineup, I didn’t feel the chill at all. In fact, it got a bit warm. And when we got to shore, we shed our wetsuits and wore T-shirts for the rest of the morning.

I have to say, this was probably one of my favorite experiences on this entire trip.

We wandered around Lahinch for a bit, grabbing a beer at a local restaurant that faced the ocean and popping into the Celtic T-shirt Shop (above, fourth), which specializes in artistic Celtic designs. Cool little town.

IMG_6827

IMG_6829

IMG_6837

IMG_6849

IMG_6852

After cruising around the beach town, we jumped into our rental car and drove two and a half hours to Dublin, where we were going to spend the night before heading back home.

You can’t come all the way to Dublin without visiting the Guinness Storehouse, especially if you love beer the way my husband does.

Open in 2000, Guinness Storehouse is a Guinness-themed tourist attraction at St. James Gate Brewery. The building in which this seven-story beer lover’s mecca is located was constructed in 1902 as a fermentation plant. Now, it tells the story of Guinness, the beloved Irish dry stout that originated here.

The self-guided tour covers the history of the brewery, the process, a showcase of advertising, even an interactive exhibit on responsible drinking. The draw, though, is the tasting. You learn how to properly drink a pint of Guinness — lift the glass to your mouth and take in a good-sized mouthful to get the perfect sip — and what makes this stout unlike any other.

Then you can head up to the Gravy Bar with 360-degree panoramic views of Dublin — and where you pick up the free pint that comes with your admission ticket.

Not surprisingly, a lot of people just head straight up to the top floor and skip the exhibits.

We had been told by everyone, even some Scots, that you have to drink a pint of Guinness while in Ireland. “Guinness doesn’t travel well,” people said to us. And they were right. There’s something about the perfectly brewed mouthful, that slight tang, its thick and creamy head, that you don’t really get anywhere else but here.

Then again, you can say that about everything we experienced in Ireland. It’s so much better done there.

Thanks to everyone who followed our #FoxHoneymoon here, on Facebook, on Twitter or on Instagram! It was a pleasure sharing our experiences with you! Hopefully we have inspired all of you to take that dream trip to Europe — or anywhere in the world, to be honest. There’s lots of exploring out there. What are you waiting for?

Comments { 12 }

#CatTravels: The Highlands, Day 2

IMG_6340

If the first day in the Highlands in Scotland wasn’t packed with enough memories to create a Shutterfly photo book, the second day just turned that into a full-length motion picture.

We visited the most photographed castle in the British Isles, ate Scottish ice cream, gazed at a waterfall, and hung out at the most famous loch in the world.

And it started with breakfast.

IMG_6255

The Berkeley House, where we had stayed the night, provided a great breakfast the next morning, complete with a nice selection of cereals and breads, and the option to order a full breakfast.

So in Scotland — as in Ireland and England — there’s something called a full breakfast. It comes with eggs, often scrambled, back bacon, link sausage, buttered toast, baked beans, maybe a grilled tomato or mushrooms, sometimes haggis, and on occasion you might get a slice of black pudding. I only ordered it once — back in Edinburgh — and it’s a lot to eat at once. Here, at the Berkeley House, I just opted for fruits and yogurt.

We met up with our tour bus from Timberbush Tours and headed out to explore another part of the Highlands — really, the highlight of the two-day adventure.

IMG_6291

IMG_6267

We were extremely fortunate with the weather. I was worried Scotland was going to be fiercely cold — and the Highlands even worse. It turned out that we had blue skies and sunshine, even in northern Scotland. Our tour guide, Marty, said it’s only this clear and sunny about 50 days out of the year — and we were lucky enough to catch it like this on our trip.

IMG_6353

IMG_6321

IMG_6322

IMG_6329

Our first stop was the famous Eilean Donan Castle (above, first) located on a small tidal island where three lochs — Loch Duich, Loch Long and Loch Alsh — meet in the western Highlands. The castle itself overlooks the Isle of Skye and is surrounded by the forested mountains of Kintail. It’s pretty spectacular.

This castle is one of the most photographed icons of Scotland — and one of the most photographed castles in all of the United Kingdom. It’s not unusual to see it on shortbread tins, postcards, calendars and whisky bottles.

This 13th-century stronghold of the Clan Mackenzie and its ally, Clan Macrae, was rebuilt between 1919 and 1932 and included the construction of an arched bridge to give easier access to the island. A visitor’s center opened in 1998 — and there’s even a live webcam there, too. (The castle was featured prominently in “Highlander.”)

We walked around the castle, much of it restored and rebuilt, and took a ton of photos and selfies (as you do), before heading to Loch Ness in search of the mysterious creature fabled to live there.

IMG_6383

IMG_6380

But first, we had to eat!

We stopped at Fort Augustus, a small village at the southwest end of Loch Ness with a population of roughly 650. As you could probably guess, this town relies heavily on the visitors to the loch, made famous for its cryptid resident.

We ate lunch at Scots Kitchen, ordering beef nachos (above, first) and roast beef with veggies and potatoes. I was surprised to see nachos on the menu at a Scottish restaurant. And even though it wasn’t your traditional American-style dish, it was completely addictive. The beef tasted a lot like taco meat, with the cheese and red onions a perfect complement. I thoroughly enjoy it.

IMG_6392

IMG_6407

IMG_6409

Loch Ness (above, first) is the second largest loch in Scotland by surface area but, because of its insane depth (755 feet at its deepest point), it is the largest by volume. This one loch contains more fresh water than all of the lakes in England and Wales combined. It’s best known for the monster, affectionately known as “Nessie,” which allegedly lives here, along with European eels, northern pike, white sturgeon and a variety of trout and char.

Loch Ness also serves as the lower storage reservoir for the Foyers’ pumped-storage hydroelectric scheme, which is designed to “soak up” excess power generated by wind and wave farms, using it to pump water up to a reservoir. Turbines here were originally use to provide power for a nearby aluminum smelting plant. Now, the electricity generated supplies the National Grid.

The lochs have locks, too (above, second and third). Opened in 1822, the lock system is part of the 60-mile Caledonian Canal that links Inverness to Fort William. The canal was originally built to provide a shortcut for merchant skippers between the east and west coasts of Scotland.

Of course, visitors flock here for one purpose: to see if they can spot the infamous Loch Ness Monster.

This large, reptilian creature lurking in the loch has been urban legend since 1933. Evidence of its existence has been largely anecdotal, with the occasional photos and sonar readings suggesting that something big — really big — does live down there. We didn’t see it — but that doesn’t mean we don’t believe it’s down there!

IMG_6434

IMG_6437

IMG_6453

IMG_6455

IMG_6457

After visiting Loch Ness, we headed to Pitlochery for a nice walk to the Falls of Bruar, a series of waterfalls on the Bruar Water (above, first three). While today this area is heavily wooded, it was once sparse and barren. This gorge is a living memorial to the poet Robert Burns, who came here in 1787 to admire these falls. He wrote, “The Humble Petition of Bruar Water,” in which he urged the 4th Duke of Atholl to plant its bleak banks with trees. Larch and Scottish pines were planted in the 18th century, only to be cut down during World War II. After the war ended, trees were replanted in the area. You can see Scots pine, hybrid larch, fir and spruce.

It’s a short but scenic walk to the waterfalls — maybe about 15 minutes — with a nice bridge to best view it. The natural waterfalls has been attracting visitors since the 1720s, and it continues to be a popular destination for travelers.

After the walk, we wandered around the nearby House of Bruar, a collection of retail departments including a 15,000-square-foot food hall that showcases the best of Scottish foods and drinks — including locally made ice cream.

If that’s not the best way to end a two-day tour to the Highlands, I don’t know what is.

IMG_6416

Thank you to Timberbush Tours and our guide, Marty (above), for taking us on this magical two-day adventure into the Highlands. Definitely a highlight of our trip to Europe!

Comments { 4 }

#CatTravels: The Highlands by tour bus, Day 1

IMG_6176

If there was only one thing we were going to do on our honeymoon, it was visit the Highlands.

At least that’s what my husband said.

While we were on our way to Ireland.

True story.

It was the day before we were going to catch a plane from Edinburgh to Dublin when he tells me that he wanted to spend most of our time in Europe in Scotland.

I wish he had said this before we left Hawai‘i.

So I scrambled to change our flight, cancel our hotel stays in Western Ireland, and find last-minute accommodations in Edinburgh.

And despite the frantic rescheduling and the ensuing stress it caused, the decision to stay in Scotland turned out to be one of the highlights of our entire trip.

For that, we’d have to thank the Highlands.

This historic region of Scotland north of Edinburgh — that area is referred to as the Lowlands — is sparsely populated, with stunning mountain ranges and picturesque lochs (lakes) dominating the landscape. The tallest mountain in the British Isles — Ben Nevis, which stands 4,409 feet above sea level — is located here, as does the infamous Loch Ness and its legendary inhabitant.

The Highlands also boast Britain’s largest national park, the 1,748-square-mile Cairngorms National Park, which accounts for 6 percent of the size of Scotland — and dozens of small villages and charming towns near glens, across islands and along coastlines.

It’s easy to get seduced by Scotland here.

A friend I met at a writers’ conference put me in touch with a tour operator that specializes in the Highlands and islands of Scotland. With more than 16 years of experience and an arsenal of knowledgable guides, Timberbush Tours is one of Scotland’s longest running tour operators, offering 1-, 2- and 3-day tours of this region.

We decided to jump on the two-day tour to the Highlands, which included a visit to a couple of castles, a few lochs, and the Glenfinnan Viaduct best known for its role in the “Harry Potter” films.

IMG_6095

Tours run out of Edinburgh and Glasgow daily. We met outside the Ensign Ewart pub on Lawmarket (i.e.: the Royal Mile) at 9 a.m. on a Saturday. The tour was full, so we settled into our seats on the air-conditioned bus for the long journey to the Highlands.

IMG_6130
Stirling Castle

IMG_6122
National Wallace Monument

IMG_6107
View of the landscape from the National Wallace Monument

The great thing about any tours is that you can see a lot in a short amount of time. (And, especially in our case, we were led around by a hilarious, extremely knowledgeable guide named Marty who said things like, “That, over there, is Loch Lochy. We call it that because we ran out of names.”)

In our first day, we visited Stirling Castle (above, first), which dates back to the early 12th century and has long been considered one of the most important and historic castles in Scotland; drove past Doune Castle, a medieval stronghold used in the filming of the cult classic “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”; and walked around the National Wallace Monument, (above, last two) a tower commemorating the 13th-century Scottish hero Sir William Wallace. (Think “Braveheart.”)

Next, we headed to Trossachs Woolen Mill in Kilmahog, Perthshire, where lives the world-famous Hamish, a hairy Highland cow (or coo). (He’s so famous, actually, he’s got his own Facebook page!)

IMG_6136
The carrots and potatoes you can purchase to feed the Highland cows.

IMG_6142
Meet Hamish!

Highland cattle are a Scottish breed of cattle with long horns and long, wavy coats in black, brindled, red, yellow or dun. They are stunning cows, for sure, and very iconic to the Highlands. And hand-feeding them was a thrill, to say the least.

IMG_6160

We stopped at the woolen mill for a bit to eat lunch. I had Scottish pancakes (above) — which seems just like regular pancakes except these were thicker and smaller — and bacon (which isn’t at all like the bacon we have in the U.S.). It hit the spot, nonetheless, and after about an hour here, we were on our way to Glenfinnan.

IMG_6179

IMG_6187

Along the way, we crossed through Glen Coe, a volcanically formed glen that is known to offer one of the most beautiful vistas in all of Scotland. We stopped at the Three Sisters (above, first), three steeply-sided ridges that extend north into the glen.

We noticed a winding trail that cut across the landscape here (above, second). Turns out this is part of the West Highland Way, a 96-mile trail from Glasgow to Fort William in the Scottish Highlands. About 85,000 people use the path every year, with about 30,000 completing the entire trail. Needless to say, my husband quickly put this on his travel bucket list.

IMG_6189

IMG_6192

IMG_6200

IMG_6195

Next stop: Glenfinnan, a quaint village with a monument at the head of Loch Shiel erected in 1815 in tribute to the Jacobite clansmen who fought and died here (above, fourth). We walked along a short path (above, first) to a lookout where you could see the loch in one diction and the Glenfinnan Viaduct (above, third) in the other. The bridge was made famous in the “Harry Potter” movies, when Hogwarts Express took the young wizards to school.

IMG_6216

IMG_6245

IMG_6233

We spent some time wandering around the area around Loch Shiel. One path (above, first) took us through an area filled with dragonflies (above, second) and butterflies, flitting about. We walked through forests where we spotted Scots pines (above, third), a species of pine native to Europe that can grow up to 110 feet. The wood is used for pulp and sawn timber products.

IMG_6248

IMG_6250

Our final stop on the first day of the tour was Fort William, the second largest settlement in the Highlands with about 10,000 inhabitants and a major tourist town that attracts hikers, climbers, bikers and skiers.

We stayed at the Berkeley Guest House, a quaint bed-and-breakfast just off the main street. The original house was constructed in the late 1800s but has since been renovated into more modern accommodations. The owner, Norrie MacLean (above, second), grew up in the Western Isles of Scotland and had spent 23 years in Canada before buying this place in 1997 and opening it as a B&B. (His son bought the house next door and converted that into a bed-and-breakfast, too.)

“I moved back because I wanted to fish,” MacLean said, always a twinkle in his eyes. “But I’ve only fished once.”

We ended up eating at a nearby hotel — the pubs and restaurants in town were surprisingly packed, with wait times up to 40 minutes for a table! — and calling it an early night. We had a long day tomorrow — more riding around the countryside — and a Loch Ness monster to see!

Thank you to Timberbush Tours for taking us on this magical two-day adventure into the Highlands. Definitely a highlight of our trip to Europe!

Comments { 2 }

#CatTravels: Four Hawaii girls in search of a beach

IMG_2393

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:

IMG_2401
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.

IMG_2406
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.

IMG_2416
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.

IMG_2413
The view from the bow.

IMG_2445
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.

IMG_2429
To get to the fort, though, we had to hike. And we were wearing slippers!

IMG_2447
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.

IMG_2467
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.

IMG_2457
The view from inside one of the forts.

IMG_2501
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.

IMG_2527
We boarded the ferry and had lunch. These are the stuffed peppers.

IMG_2529
The crew was even grilled food onboard for us. Here are the chicken skewers. Not bad!

IMG_2535
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!

IMG_2558
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!

IMG_2562
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.

IMG_2570
We took a walk on the sandbar. There’s even a tavern here, selling drinks and snacks.

IMG_2577
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.

***

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

Comments { 5 }

#CatTravels: Ancient and modern Athens

IMG_1927

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:

IMG_1909
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.

IMG_4295
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.

IMG_1928
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.

IMG_4321
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.

IMG_1948
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.

IMG_2050
This is where visitors do a lot of their shopping. There are shops selling handmade scarves, tacky T-shirts, coffee mugs and Greek sandals.

IMG_2049
Lan and Rona found authentic Panama hats for 55 Euros — a steal!

IMG_1964
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.

IMG_1966
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.

IMG_4347
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.

IMG_1992
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.

IMG_1994
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.

IMG_1996
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.

IMG_4380
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.

IMG_2019
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.

IMG_2043
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.

IMG_2033
We popped into a bakery selling pretty cakes and pastries — all next to traditional Greek desserts like baklava and taptakia.

IMG_2035
Rona was very excited about the mini ice cream cones the shop served. (So was I!)

IMG_2037
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.

IMG_2047
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.

IMG_2064
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.

IMG_2068
We all chipped in to get Lan, the only mother in our group, a bouquet of flowers for Mother’s Day.

IMG_2080
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.

IMG_2086
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.

IMG_2091
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.

IMG_2092
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.

***

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

Comments { 7 }