Author: Dustin

Zip Lining in Vermont

Zip Lining in Vermont

After my sister showed me pictures of a recent stay she had in Stowe, we knew we had to stay there on our New England trip. When you think of New England, Stowe is what you picture in your mind’s eye – rolling hills covered with colorful trees and the quintessential steeple standing proud just daring tourists to eff with it. While we were excited to relax and take in all the beauty, we wanted adventure as well. Being there in the shoulder season made that a bit of a challenge, but one we were able to overcome.

While I’m sure Stowe Ski Resort has excellent zip lines, we were extremely disappointed when we found out they closed the weekend prior to our arrival. That disappointment quickly turned to excitement when we found out about a company called Arbortrek that operates zip line adventures just over the hill from Stowe at Smuggler’s Notch.

Speaking of notch, this company is top-notch (see what I did there?). They operate canopy adventures year round; rain, snow, or shine. The only things they close down for are wind and lightning. If you’re there in winter time, you can combine your zip line adventure with skiing, while summer visitors can enjoy hiking, canoeing, biking, disc golfing, and segway tours. In addition to zip line tours, Arbortrek also has a treetop obstacle course and a climbing adventure course. We chose to just do the zip line; and I’m glad we did, because although it was not yet winter, I was freezing my balls off.

There are three different zip line packages: Arbor’s Wild Ride ($99.95), Arbor’s Wild Winter Ride ($87.50), and Arbor’s Express ($65.00). Arbor’s Wild Ride is the main attraction and includes 8 zip lines ranging from 150 to 1,000 feet in length, 2 sky bridges, 2 rappels, and lasts 2.5 to 3 hours depending upon how many people are on the tour. The latter two are only available November to April and offer shorter variations of Arbor’s Wild Ride for those that don’t want to brave the cold for that long. We opted for the full Arobor’s Wild Ride and loved every bit of it, despite the cold.

Arbor’s Wild Ride

For those afraid of heights, let me put you at ease. I hate heights. However, Arbortrek’s staff does a good job of instilling confidence. The first thing you do is go over safety and have a class on how to properly zip line. They have the equivalent of a bunny hill near their office where they allow you to practice before they take you up to the actual course. Being one of the least coordinated people I know, I can tell you with ease that if I can do it, you can do it as well.

Arbortrek provides all the equipment needed for this adventure. And they have two guides accompanying you the whole time. The guides explain and demonstrate the safety procedures throughout the whole tour. My favorite being that with two points of contact, you are never not attached to a cable.

While we’re on the topic of guides, these guys hire some great people. The tour guides were knowledgeable not only about zip lining, but about the vegetation in the local area. That may not be the most exciting subject to all, but it was interesting to learn about the kind of trees used for zip lining and why. Also, since Kendra took a liking to the Sugar Maple (and is now on a quest to find some in Utah to put in our new yard) she was able to get a lot of her questions answered about them. Turns out they can grow in Utah’s climate as well. So I’m sure I’ll be planting some next spring.

This was my first time zip lining, and though it’s not quite as breath taking as paragliding or canyoning, I can say that this was one of my favorite parts of the trip. It is pretty exhilarating once you get going, especially on the longer lines. But rather than bore you with a bunch of adjectives, I’m just going to leave you with some pictures. And if you’re interested in booking your own zip line adventure, please click here. Please let us know how your adventure goes in the comments.

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P.S. The drive from Stowe up to Smuggler’s Notch is breathtaking, despite being colder than a witch’s titty. We were lucky enough to catch a couple pics of the mountain tops contrasted with the fall colors with some pretty ominous storm clouds moving over. We heard there are some pretty cool hikes that start up here. Unfortunately we hadn’t packed for temperatures quite so low, but we’d love to go back and explore more. Hopefully you’ll be more prepared than we were.

Despite looking like a walkway, this is actually the road. It get’s a little sketchy… make sure you have a fully functioning horn.

 

Top Five Restaurants of New Orleans

Top Five Restaurants of New Orleans

New Orleans Eat

Food. It’s really one of my favorite things in life. And a vacation in New Orleans is the perfect place to indulge in it.

New Orleans is known for its cuisine; and after this trip, I can completely understand why. New Orleans is heavily influenced by Cajun and Creole cuisine. Being right on the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico, seafood also plays a prominent part. I’m usually pretty picky when it comes to sea food, so I was a little bit nervous; but after having eaten it for a weekend, I can say that I would probably be twenty pounds heavier if I were from this area. In a city that doesn’t have a last call, even during hurricanes,  you’re bound to find something to whet your appetite. As you’ll see in the reviews of all the restaurants we tried, I really had no complaints (and probably a little too much praise).

We have come nowhere near close to being acquainted with all the restaurants in New Orleans. But with the experience we do have, here is my list of the top five restaurants of New Orleans. Keep in mind, these are not ranked in any particular order. They’re just the five that we liked the most.

1 – Ruby Slipper

Ruby Slipper MenuMost of the places we ate at were recommendations from a self-proclaimed New Orleans connoisseur, my boss’s brother. However, this one was just a lucky google search. I hopped online to find us somewhere to get our grub on while Kendra was finishing up getting ready for the day, and the pictures of the food at this place just looked amazing. It’s located right in the middle of the walk between our hotel and the French Quarter, so we decided to give it a try. It was around 9:30 or 10:00 on a Saturday morning, so we did have a little bit of a wait; about a half hour or so. So…. Effing…. Worth It.

They sat us outside next to the specials sign that read, “White Chocolate Bread Pudding Pancakes.” Normally I prefer French toast or waffles. But add white chocolate and bread pudding to damn near anything and I’m sold. Kendra decided to go with the Bam Bam Biscuit, which is a biscuit with scrambled egg, pepper jack cheese, maple bacon, and a fried green tomato. As always, we shared our plates so that we could both experience trying more of the local cuisine. Suffice it to say that this was not a breakfast fit for a type 1 diabetic such as myself, but sometimes my attitude is that my blood sugar can just rot in hell while I enjoy myself for a weekend. I’m sure that’ll come back to haunt me, but that was the last thing on my mind as I enjoyed the decadent bread pudding pancakes.

We loved this place so much that we decided to visit once again the last day of our trip shortly before we flew out. Kendra got the Bam Bam Biscuit again, and I opted for the French Toast Batons, which were brioche French toast sticks tossed in cinnamon sugar, served with applewood-smoked bacon. Again, the Ruby Slipper did not disappoint. This is probably one of the best breakfast restaurants I’ve ever been to.

Ruby Slipper Breakfast

2 – Dickey Brennan’s Bourbon House

Bourbon House

This was one of the recommendations from my boss’s brother, and he was even nice enough to tell us exactly what to order. The Signature BBQ Shrimp Po’ Boy. So this is the only Po’ Boy I’ve ever had, so I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on what exactly differentiates a Po’ Boy from any other sandwich. However, I will take plenty of time explaining why this one is much better. The bun is a loaf of French bread sliced in half. The sandwich wasn’t cut open as typical sandwich. Rather, it was cut into from the middle of it, but not cut on the outsides, forming a pocket. What was in that pocket was nothing short of the highest degree of heaven, pure mouth bliss, an orgasm in your mouth, however you want to describe it. It was grilled shrimp in a bourbon sauce. Not being a bourbon drinker, I have no idea if most of the flavor came from bourbon or not, because it definitely had a unique taste with which I wasn’t familiar. I did leave that restaurant, though, thinking that I need to start drinking bourbon.

Signature BBQ PoBoy

3 – Cornet

We really just stumbled upon this place because it was where one of our tours ended. I’m assuming the tour group has some sort of an agreement with the restaurant because it was a little weird that they would end a voodoo tour at a restaurant. As we walked through, I saw and smelled some delicious Cajun food and decided to stay and have dinner after.

I’m not a huge fish guy, but I decided to try the Cajun Platter, which included fried catfish, red beans and rice, jambalaya, and green onion smoked sausage. As expected, it was all amazing, even the catfish, and especially the sausage… ha sausage. Kendra got the Tour of New Orleans appetizer which includes jambalaya, gumbo and craw fish mac and cheese, as well as a side of hush puppies.

Not only was the food great, but so was the ambiance. We sat out on the balcony overlooking Bourbon street, which provided for some entertaining people watching.

Cornet Dinner

4 – Cafe Du Monde

Restaurant is a strong word to describe this place. But since it is such an iconic part of New Orleans, it has to be mentioned.

Cafe Du Monde has been around for a while. The original cafe was established in 1862; and they’re still around, so they must be doing something right. Their menu is small and simple; beignets, coffee, milk, and chocolate milk. Where was this place when I was nine? Aw, who am I kidding? I still have the pallet of a nine-year-old, so I really enjoyed this place. A beignet is a French style donut, square in shape, and covered in powdered sugar. They come in orders of three, so I was figuring we’d each have one and a half. That was until I remembered that Kendra doesn’t like donuts. She tried one, but didn’t care for them enough to split the other one with me. I’m still not sure how I manage to trust a woman that doesn’t like donuts, but she’s got me wrapped around her finger somehow.

Cafe du Monde

5 – Dickey Brennan’s Steak House

Turns out that half the restaurants we went to are part of the Dickey Brennan group of restaurants. I had never heard of Dickey Brennan before. I did a quick google search and learned that he was quite the restaurateur of New Orleans. If he were still alive, I’d try to have him move in with me and Kendra and be our personal chef, because everything we ate at his restaurants was pure gold.

Dicky Brennan's Steakhouse

While a steak house isn’t exactly local cuisine, we decided to give this place a try as it was another recommendation from my boss’s brother. He hadn’t steered us wrong yet. And still hasn’t. I got the rib eye steak and au-gratin potatoes. The only other time I’ve had a steak as yummy as this one was when Kendra and I splurged one year for our anniversary and went to Ruth’s Chris. Kendra got the filet, which she was also impressed with. And although a steakhouse may not be what brings people to New Orleans, we were still able to try some food local to the area. Kendra ordered the turtle soup, which was uniquely flavorful without that strong seafood taste you’d expect.

Turtle Soup

I really wish there would have been something that didn’t taste so great so that my review wouldn’t sound so biased, but this place continued to impress as we headed in to dessert. We ordered the bread pudding and pecan pie. I didn’t realize that either were part of Louisiana cuisine as we have both back home, but apparently they’re both desserts that New Orleans touts as part of their cuisine. They were both delicious.

Bread Pudding & Pecan Pie

Please leave any great New Orleans restaurants where you’ve eaten in the comments. We’d love to give them a try next time we’re in the Big Easy. And hey, if you want some things to do in between meals, here’s some ideas.

Top New Orleans Attractions – An Adventurous Weekend in The Big Easy

Top New Orleans Attractions – An Adventurous Weekend in The Big Easy

We had a shit load of expenses last year. It sucked for my wallet, but it did wonders for my credit card point balances. One amazing thing that came from it was the ability to get enough Southwest Rapid Rewards points to qualify for the companion pass. The companion pass allows you to book a flight on Southwest airlines (with cash or Rapid Rewards points) and you get to take a travel companion for free. We’ll be able to take advantage of it until it expires at the end of 2017. So, 2017 has turned in to the year of domestic travel for Kendra and me. While not as exotic as international travel (you just don’t feel as cool saying that you just got home from L.A. as you do saying you just got back from Europe), domestic travel has the benefit of, well, being domestic. In addition to one long two-week vacation, we’ve been able to have a couple really nice weekend getaways.

New Orleans Weekend

Kendra has had an itch to see New Orleans for quite a while, and I’ve always thought it seemed like a cool city. I honestly didn’t know much about the city other than Cajun food, jazz, and hurricane Katrina. So when she suggested we take a trip there for Labor Day weekend, I was all about it. Didn’t stop to think about the fact that it would be smack dab in the middle of hurricane season. And somehow the fact that there weren’t increased fares to travel there over the holiday weekend still didn’t make me consider it. It wasn’t until Hurricane Harvey was bearing down on Houston that I stopped to think, “Hey, isn’t it hurricane season down there?”

Despite the tragic events of Houston, New Orleans has luckily had a mild hurricane season. For the week and a half prior to our trip, I was checking the weather everyday ready to cancel our trip. Though the forecast promised heavy rains the whole time, we decided to be adventurous and head down anyway. I’m so glad we did. Somehow every meteorologist on the planet had it wrong. The weather was beautiful. It was a little overcast for parts of Saturday afternoon. But all that did was provide a bit of respite from the hot dankiness characteristic to the area.

Airfare, Accommodations, & Transportation

We stayed at Holiday Inn New Orleans – Downtown Superdome. We used our two free nights that we get every year for keeping our Chase IHG card active. It’s completely worth the $49 fee. The really cool thing about this benefit is that it can be used at any IHG hotel. So you could even stay at a place as nice as the Intercontinental in Bora Bora. It seems a little silly to use a benefit like that at your run of the mill Holiday Inn. But the nights were about to expire and we’ll have two new free nights loaded to our account soon that we can use somewhere nicer, so we opted to use them here. It was also nice that we used them in a little bit more of a working man’s hotel anyway since we stayed for a third night and could afford to pay the actual nightly dollar rate.

We opted to forego the rental car for this trip. Our hotel was central to everywhere we wanted to go, and we figured if we got tired of walking, there’s always Uber. Uber turned out to be a great resource for the trip. As expected, our feet took quite a beating, so it was nice to hop into a car every now and then. Uber is a fantastic way of doing a quick getaway in a single city. I think we used Uber about a dozen times, and we still spent less that we would have with a rental. Plus, we didn’t have to worry about paying the nightly $30 fee at the Holiday in for parking. It’s slick the way it works too. Just open the app, type in where you want to go, and the driver is usually there within three to five minutes. If you can’t tell, this trip totally sold me on Uber.

So anyway, now that we’ve got all the business out of the way, let’s talk about all the fun shit we did in the Big Easy. I often hear people talk about their favorite city. Both my sister and my boss love San Francisco. I have a friend that loves Boston. As for me, I’ve never really had a favorite city. After visiting New Orleans, I think I might be willing to say it’s my favorite. It’s so different from every other US city. The culture, architecture, art, and food really set it apart, and it doesn’t surprise me that it often tops the list of unique US cities.

French Quarter

We planned to leave most of our first day in New Orleans open to just be able to walk around and check out the city, and be open to doing whatever we wanted to spontaneously. The only appointment we had was a 7:30 voodoo tour of the French Quarter. So after our delicious breakfast at the Ruby Slipper, we decided to take our own stroll down Bourbon Street. Unfortunately at the time of our visit, New Orleans was in the process of replacing its dated sewer system, so the first few blocks of Bourbon Street funneled all the tourists to fenced off sidewalks. Luckily it only lasted for the first four or five blocks and then opened up. The streets seemed to be a little dirty and smelly. I’m not sure if that’s because of the way they had everything torn up, or if that’s normal. From everything I’ve heard about New Orleans, I expect it’s typically that way. Dirty or not, you can’t help but fall in love with the place. The architecture is so different than anywhere else in the US. In fact, as we walked through, it reminded me a lot of downtown Panama City. All the two and three-story buildings, with their tall doors and windows, shutters, and plants hanging from their balconies create a charming atmosphere.

New Orleans Architecture

As we meandered through the streets we started realizing just how entertaining the people watching was going to be. There were a couple things at play that made this truly an interesting weekend to be in New Orleans. First, there was an LSU/BYU football game that was scheduled to be in Houston, but was transferred to the Superdome due to the flooding with Hurricane Harvey. Second, the Decadence Festival. I had never heard of the Decadence Festival, but apparently it occurs every Labor Day weekend in New Orleans. Our Uber driver told us about it the night before, when I asked what it was, the best way he could describe it was “Gay Mardi Gras.” Perfect… Not really my scene, but watching the dynamic play out between LSU scene, the BYU scene and the gay pride provided for some free entertainment all weekend. Blue BYU shirts, the yellow LSU shirts, and what looked like an explosion of pixie dust from the festival provided for some colorful views. It was funny to see quickly the blue shirts began disappearing once the gay festivities were in full swing. I don’t think the BYU fans had too great of a weekend as their team lost 0 – 27 that night.

We meandered our way toward Jackson Square, which is an area about the size of a city block on the outskirts of the French quarter near the Mississippi river. It was here that in 1803 the Louisiana Purchase took place, making Louisiana a US territory.  In the middle of the square sits a statue of Andrew Jackson on a horse, commemorating his significant role defending the city in the war of 1812. St. Louis Cathedral towers over the square to the north, while the streets to the east and west are adorned with typical New Orleans facade buildings. Be sure to stop here for some good pictures as the statue, cathedral, and green space make for some great scenery. All but the street to the south of the square are closed to vehicular traffic. So it has become a pretty hip place to walk around and see street performers as well as a place to purchase paintings and other cool knick-knacks from street vendors.

Jackson Square

With my wife being a fan of the macabre, I thought it would be fun to check out the Museum of Death. It’s located just one block north of Bourbon street. This place was quite a bit more morbid than I expected, guess that’s why it’s called the museum of death. Right where you purchase your tickets, there is a picture on display of a guy who wrecked his motorcycle and his whole body has been dragged on the street and mangled. Apparently it’s the litmus test before you enter; Kendra and I passed.

Museum of Death

Inside they have displays of all sorts of things death. There’s a video on a loop that shows how brains are surgically removed from skulls. There’s a display of most of the notorious serial killers as well as some artifacts and letters that belonged to them or their victims. Pretty much every major and minor conflict in modern history that involved death (9-11, World War II, Oklahoma City Bombings, US shooting rampages) had a display. It was quite disturbing, but still kind of cool because there were artifacts that aren’t available anywhere else to see. It makes me curious how they got a hold of them. As we finished our tour they asked us if we had any questions. I asked if they could tell me where we go when we die. Unfortunately, they were no help there. Also unfortunate that we were not allowed to take pictures… though maybe it’s probably for the best. I don’t want to gross you guys out.

We had a little bit of time to kill, so we took a few more strolls down Bourbon Street to enjoy some people watching. By now it was getting into the late afternoon, and the Decadence Festival was in full swing. Watching dudes that I never would have guessed if I just saw them in a normal setting were frolicking around, hand-in-hand, dressed in nothing more than tight briefs and suspenders. Some even had butt flaps that opened up into their nether regions.  Most of it was just entertaining. The only time I felt really uncomfortable was when I had to push through a crowd of half-naked men standing around making out with each other to cross the street. It was the kind of crowd that you can’t avoid physical contact in, like a night club. Only in a night club, I don’t mind so much if I get bumped into. But my options were limited. I couldn’t go over. I couldn’t go under. The only way was through a solid wall of dong. I made it through okay, but I really prefer to just watch them from the comfort of a balcony while stuffing delicious Cajun food in my face (secretly being jealous of their perfectly sculpted bodies). Now I know how women feel at the beach.

Decadence Festival

Voodoo Tour

7:30 arrived, and we made our way to the meeting point for our voodoo tour. I’ve decided that Voodoo is probably one of the world’s most misunderstood religions. Hollywood has done a decent job of mysticising it. Even still, it’s weird as shit. No disrespect, I think my own religion is weird as shit as well. We walked from one Voodoo shop to another as well as to homes of some of the most famous Voodoo practitioners including Marie Laveau. Apparently she was like the Don Corleone of New Orleans for most of the 1800’s. Not too shabby for a woman of color in the south in the Antebellum era.

Voodoo Shrine
Voodoo Shrine

While learning all about the Voodoo Queen was mildly entertaining, what I enjoyed most about the tour was just walking around the French Quarter at night. I’d been walking around it all day, but it has a different appeal at night. I love the way the homes are lit with flickering lanterns and depending on the street, smooth jazz floats in the air. By the end of the tour, the spectacularly costumed people parading the street waited with their arms stretched toward the balconies for the chance to be adorned with Mardi Gras beads.  Kendra asked our tour guide where the tradition of Mardi Gras beads stemmed from, apparently people used to throw flour and bricks in celebration until that was outlawed. Beads took over as a more practical option.

New Orleans at Night
Photo Credit – backroadsandbarstools.blogspot.com

Snug Harbor

As a self-proclaimed metal head, Jazz has never really been my thing, but how could you come to New Orleans without checking out the music scene? One of our Uber drivers recommended a couple different clubs on Frenchman street just a few blocks east of the French Quarter. Apparently, Frenchman street is the less touristy version of Bourbon street. It was nice to arrive there and not be surrounded by half naked men.

Snug Harbor

The club was classy, in fact I was probably a little under-dressed in my flip flops, but they still let me in. While the music was enjoyable, I couldn’t believe how into the music some of the people around me were. I mean they were really getting in to it. I guess my style just isn’t refined enough, I got a little bored after about an hour. But what I did enjoy, were these street performers that we heard outside while were waiting for our Uber to arrive.

Garden District

Somewhere in between all the French Quarter stuff we did on Saturday, we were able to catch an Uber over to the Garden district of New Orleans. This is a neighborhood that was developed throughout the 1800’s and has many large mansions with really cool facades. All we really wanted to do here was walk down the streets and catch a few glimpses of cool houses, and visit Lafayette Cemetery #1, the oldest in the city. After all, what trip to New Orleans would be complete without visiting one of New Orleans’ most iconic features?

New Orleans Weekend

Like the rest of New Orleans, its cemeteries are unique; unique enough to be featured in several films and be an attraction to many tourists. Because New Orleans sits below sea level they hit the water table at about 3 feet, making burial at 6 feet impossible. Their solution? Above ground tombs.  Most of these tombs have two shelves inside, the top shelf is for the recently departed. The body is placed inside and the heat and humidity decomposes the body. Once decomposed (generally after one year) the body is moved below to the second shelf. This method allows for multiple generations of the same family to be buried in the same plot. This peculiar way of burying the dead offers a stunningly eerie view, and it’s easy to see why it has been featured in so many films. Weather you opt to take a guided tour or wander the grounds yourself, it’s worth checking out.

Swamp Tour

If you’ve ever seen a movie filmed in the swamps of southern Louisiana, you can imagine the excitement of booking a swamp tour in this area. There’s always such a sense of eeriness with the unknown of what’s under the water’s surface, the trees adorned with Spanish moss, and all the run-down shacks full of toothless seance practicing creepers.

Well we were there in the middle of the day, so it wasn’t so scary. Also, any mysticism of the area was completely raped and murdered by our tour guide. I felt like the goal of this man was to make us think that there was absolutely nothing interesting about the area. He took us out in what I would best describe as a pontoon boat with an awning. He wasn’t quite this direct, but basically what I heard him say was “Nobody rides the fan boats down here, we make a lot more money down here than the rest of the country thinks, there’s nothing exotic about hunting crocodiles, and none of the cool stuff you see in the movies ever happens here.

New Orleans Swamp Tour

Despite the boring tour guide, the scenery was breathtaking. It’s an environment that is resistant to humans coming in and screwing it up, so all the forestation was beautiful and pristine. We even caught a glimpse of a bald eagle. Unfortunately, the water levels were unseasonably high because of Hurricane Harvey. This covered up all the logs where crocodiles like to hang out. We did see a baby crocodile right at the beginning and there was one spot in the tour where we just saw the tip of one’s head; but other than that, we didn’t have too much luck spotting any.

Plantation Tours

The plantation tours were probably what I was most excited for on this trip. I love seeing and walking through big, old houses; especially those that have humongous grounds with sprawling oak trees. I’m not too much of a historian; but it was my wife’s major and I always appreciate learning about the events that shaped the areas I visit. The area’s rich Civil War and slavery history makes a plantation tour a must do when in the area. We were lucky enough to do two.

Oak Alley Plantation

Oak Alley Plantation

Oak Alley was the more traditional out of the plantations we toured. If you close your eyes and imagine a pre-Civil War southern plantation, chances are you’ll see many features of Oak Alley. Located on the west bank of the Mississippi River, it’s named for its distinguishing visual feature, two 800-foot rows of oak trees that were planted in the 1700’s before the present house was built. Running rows of oak trees from the front of the property to the house was a customary practice back then as it created a funnel to suck gusts of the cooler air above the river towards the house to cool it off in the hot and humid summer days. The one at Oak Alley stands out because of its sheer size. The trees are quite a site to take in. Many branches are so old and grown that they have almost grown back in to the ground.

Oak Alley

Old Oak Trees

The plantation was built and run by Jacques and Celina Roman. Jacques died of tuberculosis in 1848 leaving his wife and children to run it. Being a big spender, Celina racked up a bunch of debt. Combine that with the abolition of slavery after the Civil War and the plantation was no longer viable. The property passed through the hands of various owners until Andrew and Josephine Stewart acquired it in 1925 to run as a cattle ranch. Josephine was the last person to live in Oak Alley, leaving the grounds to the Oak Alley Foundation when she died in 1972. It was then opened to the public for all to enjoy.

All in all, this was a cool place to see. The tour wasn’t as interesting as the grounds themselves. They also provide a lunch of typical Cajun cuisine. While I wasn’t impressed enough with the meal to add it to my list of food recommendations, it was an enjoyable meal. Though it didn’t make my top-five list, I would still strongly recommend this place for their buttermilk pie, which was rich, decadent, and delicious.

Laura Plantation Tour

With my feet still aching from the previous day of walking all over the French Quarter, and now having a swamp and plantation tour under my belt, I really would have rather headed back to town for dinner and rest, but we wanted to make the most of the time we had. So we were off to another plantation tour; this time, the Laura plantation. If Oak Alley is the epitome of a southern plantation, Laura is anything but. Aside from some the colorful exterior paint, the exterior of the main house made it look like an ordinary home. What the Laura plantation lacked in flare was made up for with a really interesting story, and a much more entertaining tour guide.

Laura Plantation

A Frenchman by the name of Guillaume and Duparc built the house in 1805. He and his wife Nanette acquired several adjacent parcels of land and ended up with a 12,000-acre sugar plantation. The Duparcs owned 186 slaves and housed them in 69 cabins. Each cabin was occupied by two families. The slave cabins were used even until well after the civil war. While the workers were obviously compensated for their work, it wasn’t much. And living and working conditions weren’t great either. It wasn’t until that part of the tour that it impressed upon my mind how open the wounds still are. I couldn’t believe that people in the Unites States would live in such conditions so close to my life time. I now get why race is still an issue.

Duparc Family Tree

While the operations of the plantation passed down to the children upon Guillaume’s death, Nanette kept a tight rein on things, even when it passed down to the next generation. She had a mother-in-law “cabin” built so she could stick around and keep an eye on everyone. She was known to be quite brutal, especially in keeping the slaves in line. Though her personal servants had gained her favor over the years, they were still slaves. What adds to the intrigue is that, due to some indiscretions of her son, she shared grandchildren with her servants. Unfortunately, this did nothing to change the way she treated them.

As you can see, the subject matter of this tour is quite heavy, but it made for a really interesting afternoon, and gave me a lot to think about. My conclusion: slavery is stupid.

Even though my feet were tired, I’m extremely glad we toured the Laura plantation, and if I had to pick a favorite out of the two, this would easily win.

So there you have it; everything we were able to pack in to a quick weekend getaway. We wish we would have had more time. Have you ever been to New Orleans? What would you recommend if we were able to go back for more time? Please feel free to elaborate in the comments.

 

 

 

How to Travel Big with Chase Travel Partners

How to Travel Big with Chase Travel Partners

In our How to Redeem Chase Points for Maximum Value post I discussed the difference between redeeming points directly through the Chase portal, and transferring points to Chase travel partners. I won’t go into the depth of the difference in this post; suffice it to say that if you want to get more bang for your buck… or point… then you should make an effort to transfer points to partners rather than redeem directly through the portal. In this post, I’d like to introduce you to the individual Chase travel partners. As always, I’m covering Chase first because it’s my preferred program. I’ll cover Citi and American Express travel partners later.

Chase Travel Partners

The current lineup of Chase partners includes 7 airlines and 4 hotels as seen in the chart below.

Airline/HotelProgramTransfer Ratio
AirlineBritish Airways Executive Club1:1
AirlineFlying Blue Air France KLM1:1
AirlineKorean Air Skypass1:1
AirlineSingapore Airlines KrisFlyer1:1
AirlineSouthwest Rapid Rewards1:1
AirlineUnited MileagePlus1:1
AirlineVirgin Atlantic Flying Club1:1
HotelIHG Rewards1:1
HotelMarriott Rewards1:1
HotelThe Ritz-Carlton Rewards1:1
HotelWorld of Hyatt1:1

Notice that the travel ratio on all programs is 1:1. Well, what the hell does that mean? It means that for each Chase Ultimate Rewards Point you transfer to a particular partner, you will receive one point in the program to which you are transferring. This may seem like a no-brainer if you are new to travel points. However, there are other programs that ding you for transferring. For example, you can transfer Citi ThankYou Points into JetBlue’s rewards program at a 2:1 ratio. So you would basically lose half your points. There are other examples where you get more points than you originally had. Let’s use Citi ThankYou Points for another example. You can transfer ThankYou Points into Hilton’s rewards program at a 2:3 ratio, meaning that if you transfer 1,000 Citi ThankYou Points to Hilton, you would end up with 1,500 Hilton HHonors Points.

Chase Travel Partners

Anyway, back to Chase. I have personally only used five travel partners: Southwest, United, Marriott, IHG, and Hyatt. This doesn’t mean that I don’t see value in the other six, because I certainly do. My wife and I have yet to travel to Asia. But make no mistake, we have our eyes set on a couple locations in the near future… Thailand, China, Japan, Cambodia… we just haven’t decided which one yet. But once we do, I’m sure Korean Air or Singapore Airlines will come in quite handy. But enough about my travel aspirations, let’s dive in to a couple scenarios and see how these partners can be utilized.

Chase Cards

Chase currently has 5 cards that allow you to collect Chase Ultimate Rewards Points. I’m going to ignore the Chase Freedom Cards and just focus on the two Sapphire cards as well as the Chase Ink. The chart below shows the points you could earn given their current bonus offers.

Credit CardSign Up BonusAuthorized User BonusRegular Points Earned While Getting BonusTotal PointsTotal Points If You Double Up With a Travel Buddy
Chase Sapphire Preferred50,0005,0004,00059,000118,000
Chase Sapphire Reserve50,0004,00054,000108,000
Chase Ink Business Preferred80,0005,00085,000170,000
Total180,0005,00013,000198,000396,000

You may be thinking, Ya right that’s the best-case scenario. And your right, but it’s also pretty achievable. My wife and I did it when we first started out. Granted the cards were branded a bit differently then, but we were still able to amass that amount of points fairly quickly. The only one that might be a challenge is for both of you to get a business card. You each would need a separate business.

One other thing to be careful about is the authorized user bonus. Most cards allow you to add an authorized user such as a spouse when you sign up for the card. Both of you will receive cards with your own names in the mail, but both are tied to the primary user’s account. Basically just two cards for the same account, like debit cards on a joint checking account. Banks figure that you’ll spend more on the account if there are two of you using it; solid logic. So often times there will be a bonus if you add an authorized user, and that user makes only one purchase of any dollar amount. The bonus is usually 5,000 points which seems like a no-brainer; easy points. This has worked out well for us, but I have heard rumblings of people not being qualified to receive the sign-up bonus on their own card if they were an authorized user on someone else’s account. Ever since I heard that, I’ve been a little weary of adding my wife as an authorized user if she hasn’t got the sign-up bonus for that card yet. For example, if neither of us had ever signed up for a Chase Sapphire card and we both want to get the sign-up bonus, I would sign up for it first without her being an authorized user. Then after I get my sign-up bonus, she could sign up for the card and add me as an authorized user (since I’ve my bonus is no longer at risk; I’ve already received it). I know some people still get away with it with no problem, but for me it’s not worth sacrificing the chance to get a 50,000 bonus for 5,000 extra points.

Regardless, between the two of you, you can still amass a large amount of points in a pretty short time.  Let’s assume both of you are able to get your own individual personal cards, and only one gets the Chase Ink Business Preferred. Let’s say you’re careful and decide to only go for the authorized user bonus on the second person to get the card. Once you’ve hit all your spending requirements, you will have earned 306,000 points. Oh, the fun you could have. Let’s see what you could do.

Hawaii

Hawaii

United Airlines charges 22,500 points per person for a one-way saver (which means your dates need to be a little flexible) flight between the mainland US and Hawaii. So two round-trip tickets would cost 90,000 points (22,500 points x 2 people x 2 flights). You’ll also have to pay a negligible amount for taxes. If I remember right it was about $10 per ticket when I went to Hawaii in 2014.

This leaves you with 216,000 points for hotels. And this is where you can get a bit more creative, and it’s really based upon what you value. Do you want to live in the lap of luxury for a couple of nights, or would you rather stay longer in more of a working man’s hotel? It’s really up to you, here’s some of your options if you were to stay in Maui.

HotelPoints Per NightNights Possible with 216,000 Points
Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa20,00010
Hyatt Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort25,0008
Hyatt Residence Club Maui, Kāʻanapali Beach30,0007
Marriott Courtyard Maui Kahului Airport35,0006
Marriott's Maui Ocean Club - Molokai, Maui & Lanai Towers40,0005
Marriott's Maui Ocean Club - Lahaina & Napili Towers
40,0005
The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua60,0003
Ritz-Carlton - Kapalua
Ritz-Carlton – Kapalua

If you only had 3 nights for a quick getaway, you could spend your whole trip at the swanky Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua. However, if you were planning on a longer trip, you could spend 10 nights at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa, or anywhere on that spectrum. You’re more likely to spend around 5 days in Maui which would allow you a lot of different options. If you wanted to spend a couple nights at the Ritz you could, and then spend the remaining three nights at a less swanky hotel.

When we were in Hawaii, we spent our time in Maui at the Hyatt Andaz, and as you can see from the pics in this post, it’s nothing to complain about.

Florida

Miami Beach

United Airlines charges 12,500 points per person for a one-way saver flight between cities in the mainland US. So, again, two round-trip tickets would cost 50,000 points (22,500 points x 2 people x 2 flights). So in this example, you’d have 256,000 points left to spend on hotels. Here’s some of your options in Miami Beach.

HotelPoints Per NightNights Possible with 256,000 Points
Hyatt Regency - Coral Gables12,00021
Hyatt Centric South Beach Miami15,00017
Courtyard Cadillac Miami Beach/Oceanfront35,0007
Holiday Inn Port Of Miami - Downtown40,0006
Winter Haven, Autograph Collection40,0006
Ritz-Carlton The Miami Beach Edition70,0003
Courtyard Cadillac - Miami Beach
Courtyard Cadillac – Miami Beach

You’re probably getting the idea here, but I’ll do one more example and look at an international destination.

Australia

Sydney

United Airlines charges 40,000 points per person for a one-way saver flight between cities in the mainland US and Australia. Two round-trip tickets would cost 160,000 points (40,000 points x 2 people x 2 flights). So in this example, you’d have 146,000 points left to spend on hotels. Your options are more limited for hotels since the airfare is a bit more expensive. I’ll discuss ways to deal with that below. But first, let’s assume there’s nothing you can do about it and all you’ve got are 146,00 points for hotels. Here’s some options if your visiting Sydney.

HotelPoints Per NightNights Possible with 146,000 Points
Hyatt Regency Sydney20,0007
Park Hyatt Sydney30,0004
Holiday Inn Old Syndey40,0003
InterContinental 60,0002
Intercontinental - Sydney
Intercontinental – Sydney

As you can see, you can still have a decent vacation even when more points are used for airfare. However, there are ways to get more points to make up for it if you’d like to spend more time (which honestly, if you’re going to fly all the way to Australia, you should spend at least two weeks there). Luckily, all four of the Chase hotel partners have their own co-branded credit cards that offer either more points, or free nights as a sign-up bonus. You can sign up for them and get the bonus just as you would the Ultimate Rewards cards. The only difference is that the points you get from these cards are not flexible. You can’t transfer them from program to program. If you get a Chase Hyatt card, the points you get will only be redeemable at Hyatt hotels. This isn’t so much of a drawback as you can use the points to supplement what you can’t get with Chase points (or the other way around, depending upon how you want to look at it). I just want to make sure that the beginners understand the difference between what can be done with flexible bank points like Chase Ultimate Rewards points versus program specific points such as Hyatt points.

Here are the co-branded cards you can get to extend your stay longer. And remember, both you and your travel partner can each get a card so you can double up on the bonus points.

Credit CardSign Up BonusSpending RequirementTime FrameAnnual FeeAnnual Fee Waived First YearApplication Link
Hyatt Credit Card40,000 Hyatt Points $2,0003 Months$75NoApply Here
IHG Rewards Club Select80,000 IHG Rewards Points$1,0003 Months$49YesApply Here
Marriott Rewards Premier80,000 Marriott Points$3,0003 Months$85NoApply Here
Marriott Rewards Premier Business80,000 Marriott Points$3,0003 Months$99NoApply Here
Ritz-Carlton Rewards2 Free Nights in a Category 1 - 4$4,0003 Months$450NoApply Here

So there are just three examples of trips you could take by utilizing Chase travel reward partners. There are probably a few destinations where Chase partner hotels aren’t available; but for the most part, you’ll be able to visit pretty much any city you’d like. Some have tons of hotels, while others are more limited. Just do a quick Google search for any city you want to visit, and combine Hyatt, Marriott, IHG, and Ritz to see what’s available.

If there’s a city you want to visit, and you’re having a hard time figuring out award travel, leave me a comment and I’d love to look into it with you. As always, thanks for taking the time to read.

Road Trip From Annecy to Paris, Beaune, and the Eiffel Tower

Road Trip From Annecy to Paris, Beaune, and the Eiffel Tower

As much as we loved the small town of Annecy, Paris was awaiting our arrival. It’s a five-hour drive, so we packed up early, said farewell to our gracious Airbnb host, and hit the road.

Beaune

About a third of the way to Paris sits the wine capital of Burgundy, the city of Beaune, pronounced bone. Ya, I had a lot of fun with that telling my wife that we’re going to Beaune. Being the wine capital of Burgundy, Beaune is surrounded by wine villages, and producers house their facilities within the city. We’re not alcohol drinkers so that’s not what lured us in. Rather, it was the venue for the annual charity wine auction that drew us there, the Hospices de Beaune.Beaune

Back in the 1400’s, when Burgundy was ruled by Phillip the Good, numerous massacres that occurred at the close of the Hundred Years’ War left many families in the countryside near Beaune destitute and susceptible to a recent outbreak of the plague. One of the Duke’s chancellors, Nicholas Rolin, and his wife built a refuge for the poor and inflicted in response. It served as a hospital for the underprivileged and church until the 1970s.

It was constructed rather flamboyantly, small, but still flamboyant. The building is made up of two wings surrounding a paver courtyard. The facades have ornate painting patterns as do the roof tops along with dormer windows. Inside is a room called the Room of the Poor. It is a long hall lined with beds on both sides with tables and benches in between for meals. The room opens into a chapel, allowing the sick to attend mass from the comfort of their beds.Beaune Hospital Beds

Entrance costs 7.50 Euros and the audio tour does a great job of explaining the rich history of this location. Each room was fascinating, from seeing meals preparation in the giant kitchen, to the display of old medical tools. This stop probably added about two hours on to our drive from Annecy to Paris, but well worth the time and money. Plus, it was nice to get a break from the car.

Arriving in Paris

The five-hour drive through the French countryside was surprisingly like a road trip in the United States. There were a lot of scenic areas interspersed with long, flat drives with nothing to look at. The last couple hours of the drive were rather rough as I had to keep slapping myself in the face to stay awake. However as soon as we hit the outer limits of the city, the anticipation of driving into the heart of one of the largest cities in the world did the trick to get me wide eyed and bushy tailed.

Our hotel was in La Defense, the business district of Paris about five miles northwest of the city center. As responsible travelers, we did extensive Google mapping of the area prior to arriving. As we looked at the streets, we noticed the lines not only make spaghetti patterns like most big cities, but were talking multiple levels of spaghetti. You couldn’t see half the roads when you clicked on satellite view because there are so many vertical layers of roads. Luckily the anticipation was worse than reality. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to pick up driving in Paris as my new pastime. But we were able to make it in to the parking lot of our hotel without major incident.

Thumbs up for Paris
Thumbs up for Paris

We planned to spend the last five nights of our trip in Paris. We didn’t have enough points or free nights in any one program to spend the whole time in one hotel. We were able to get our first three nights in the Hilton Paris La Defense located in the CNIT shopping mall. Since we arrived on Saturday, we were able to use our two free weekend nights we got from the Citi Hilton card (an offer that’s no longer available) as well as a third night using 72,621 of our Hilton HHonors rewards points that we got from the various American Express Hilton co-branded credit cards (luckily these offers are still available).

This area isn’t what you would imagine when you think of the typical Paris atmosphere. As I said, it’s in the business district and a good walk from any of the main Paris attractions. I enjoyed staying here. It’s close to metro access which gets you to all the Paris sites within minutes. So, if you’re looking to stay in the typical romantic Paris atmosphere, skip on this area. But if you’re okay with being in a more modern area outside of the city center, it’s a delightful place with comfortable rooms.

The Eiffel Tower

By the time we got checked into our room, showered, and refreshed from our long drive it was about 5 or 6 in the evening. We were a little hungry and wanted to go see the town. As I had never been to Paris, I wanted to head straight to Paris’ most iconic landmark, the Eiffel Tower. Since this was my first time using the metro we took a few minutes to figure out how the whole ticketing process worked. It was surprisingly simple. We made our way to the Bir-Hakeim exit and walked a couple blocks to arrive at the Eiffel Tower.

Honestly, I wasn’t prepared for how impressed I’d be with the Eiffel Tower. I mean, it’s a cool looking tower and I was excited to see it, but there’s just something about standing there looking at it. It really is an architectural marvel. Constructed for the 1889 World’s Fair, Gustave Eiffel won the contest to build the fair’s centerpiece with his plans for the Iron Lady. Given that his competitors were lobbying for a giant guillotine, it makes since that Eiffel won. Despite the tower’s 7,300 tons of iron and 60 tons of paint she is still a dainty lady as she weighs no more per square inch at her base than 245 lbs. (111 kg).

The tower is open 365 days each year and you can purchase tickets online prior to arrival, if you reserve a time months beforehand. If not, you’ll be waiting in lines for up to two hours, just for your ticket. Ticket prices vary depending on how far you want to climb the tower. There are three levels of the Eiffel tower. The top level is only accessible to the public by elevator and costs 17 euros. You can access the first and second levels by elevator or by climbing the 360 steps for each level. Elevator tickets for the second floor are 11 euros, and tickets to climb the stairs are 7 euros. If you can’t get your tickets prior to your arrival, don’t worry you’ll still be able to go you’ll just have to trudge through the lines like we did.

As the lines (both security and elevator) were rather lengthy we knew it would be hard to go out to dinner as well as go up the tower. Luckily, they do sell concessions at the base of the tower. So, I grabbed us a couple waters and a sandwich to share as we waited in line.

Buying tickets to the top, was the obvious choice for us. We could always climb the stairs on our way back down. It takes two elevators to reach the summit, and we wanted to experience the tower from top to bottom. We took the elevator up to the second level only to get into another line to wait for the elevator to go up to the top level. The wait however was quite enjoyable. By the time we were at this point, the sun had set and the lights began illuminating the city, which made for great scenery while we waited. My wife was kind enough to orient me pointing out the Notre Dame, the Louvre, and the Sacre Cour, all destinations we will write about in other posts.Streets of Paris

We finally made it to the top and the views from way up there are simply spectacular. It’s fun to look down at the large city and see all the patterns. There are tons of roundabouts with roads spreading out to connect to others like spokes on a wheel. During our time at the top, I was lucky enough to learn a little English jargon. An English mother who had obviously been lost in the winding city streets was pointing out to her child that from up here, you can actually tell that there is order to the city. From up here you can see that the streets aren’t so “higglty picklety.” I chuckled a little inside.

On our way to the bottom, we stopped at the first floor. I quickly walked out to the center to look down on the base of the tower. Behind me, I heard a guy say, “No thanks that’s not for me” and he stood back and looked from about 10 feet behind me. I wasn’t quite sure why he was so worried. I mean I don’t like heights, but if I feel safe and secure, it’s fun to look out from a nice vantage point. Plus, it’s not nearly as high as the level we just came from.Kendra on the Eiffel Tower

My wife looked at me with a little smirk on her face and asked, “Are you okay dude?” At this point, I realized I must be missing something. I looked around but couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary… until I looked down. There I was standing on clear glass staring 187 feet (57 m) down to certain death.  I then carefully tiptoed back to where Mr. “No Thanks” was standing on nice safe ground. Normally I notice that kind of stuff, but the way the light was hitting it in the night must have made it hard to see. Walking out on the glass is only for the brave, or idiots not paying attention to their surroundings.

Trocadero GardensTrocadero Gardens

When you go to Paris, expect to be bombarded by solicitors and scammers. As we arrived at the base, we decided to cross the Seine river and head over to the Trocadero gardens to get some pictures from Palais De Chaillott. On our way, we had to push through crowds of scammers trying to force their products on us. After several attempts, one man put a rose in my wife’s hand and then turned to me for five euros. When I told him I didn’t have it, he said he’d accept whatever I had. So, I grabbed the rose he put in my wife’s hand and gave it back to him.

He looked at me as if I had just murdered his firstborn. You know what, if I want to buy a rose for my wife, I’ll come to you and ask. This isn’t the way a business transaction works. The thing that bothers me about this, is that he knows that most couples wouldn’t be able to do this as it would cause an argument. Well he dicked with the wrong couple! Kendra and I see eye to eye on spending money on souvenirs. Anyway, off my soapbox.

We meandered through the gardens for a few minutes until we found a nice spot to sit and wait for the lights that glisten the tower at the top of every hour. As we sat, we had about 12 thousand people try to sell us beer, wine, or champagne.  In fact, until this day whenever I hear any one of those words, I think about my time at the Eiffel Tower. We grew very tired of saying no. Seriously every 15 seconds someone is approaching you.

We figured since we were in the city of romance, we would just start making out the next time someone offered. So we did. It was a bit awkward, but hilarious. There was one guy that I swear watched us kiss for a whole minute. Kendra started feeling awkward and started to pull back, but I was in this. I held on to her head and wouldn’t let go until he left. The guy did eventually give up so we were able to decouple. We were pleased with ourselves.

It was getting late and we had planned a long day of walking at Versailles the next day. So, we headed back to Bir-Hakeim to hop on the Metro and go back to our hotel for a good night’s sleep.

Top 12 Things to Do in Annecy

Top 12 Things to Do in Annecy

Top 12 Things to do in AnnecyIf I could go into the past and plan this trip again, I probably would have shortened up my time in Nice and Paris, and spent more time in Annecy. Looking back, it was my favorite stop of the trip. Annecy is a typical European town: narrow cobblestone streets, old buildings adorned with flowers and flags, and really cool old shit to look at, so naturally we fell in love with it. Between the mountain vistas, the lake, the food, and the charming town I would love to live here. Check out my list of the top 12 things to do in Annecy.

Top 12 Things to do in Annecy

1. Paragliding

Dustin ParaglidingFor a guy whose ass cheeks get clinched just thinking about heights, I would not have expected to enjoy paragliding as much as I did. In fact, if you want a more detailed read of this epic adventure, click here. Soaring above Annecy near the Alps, ranks as one of my all-time favorite experiences. Trust me it’s worth every euro for this unique perspective of Annecy.

2. Old Town, La Vieille Ville

Thiou CanalOld Town, La Vieille Ville, is nicknamed “the little Venice of the Alps” due to the three rivers that cross the area. The best way to explore this area is by foot. Stroll along the streets surrounding the Palais de l’Isle or up Rue Pierriere to Rue Sainte Claire which is full of restaurants. On Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday mornings there is a lively market along Rue Sainte Claire.  Whichever cobblestone street you choose to wander you’ll be delighted by the pastel buildings, the aroma of delicious pastries, and friendly people.

3. Bicycling Around Lake Annecy

BycicleSpend the day biking around the perimeter of the lake, if you get hot or tired you can always stop and cool off in the lake. We were lucky enough to stay in an Airbnb in Veyrier-du-Lac where Franck our host gave us access to his bikes. We spent a delightful evening cycling along the east shore perimeter before watching the sun set across the lake. Didn’t haul your own bike or stay with Franck? Don’t worry you can still rent bicycles, roller blades, or paddle boards in Annecy by clicking here.

4. Lac d’Annecy

AnnecyPerhaps this is a little obvious, but you should spend some time on this stunning lake. Fed by mountain springs, it is known for its crystal clean water. We decided to explore the lake by hiring a paddle boat that we found near Pont des Amours. On the paddle boat, we soaked up the views that can only be seen from the lake, while competing with Kendra to see who could pedal faster. If you’re seeking a bigger rush, several other companies rent equipment for water sports on Lake Annecy.

5. Pont des Amours or Lovers Bridge

Photo By I, Semnoz

Pont des Amours or Lovers Bridge sits at the edge of Lake Annecy at the mouth of Vasse canal. Legend has it, that if two lovers kiss on the bridge they will stay together forever. Although it is also rumored, that the early years of the bridge had a shadier tale; it was the place to meet prostitutes. Whichever legend you prefer, it arguably offers the most amazing view of the lake and surrounding alps.

6. Jardin de l’Europe

Jardins de l'EuropeMinutes from the heart of old town Annecy, the Jardin de l’Europe is a huge lakeside urban park covered with giant trees.  The park was built on a former swamp island in the late nineteenth century. The gardens provide fantastic views, cool shade, and is an ideal place for a picnic or to sit back and relax, without the hustle and bustle of the nearby streets. In addition to the beauty, the park also has free public restrooms.

7. Palais de l’Isle

Palais de l’Isle, or “the thing” as we called it, used to be a medieval castle and prison but is now an art and history museum. This castle is what drew us to Annecy. Squatting in the middle of Thiou canal, surrounded by pastel buildings and bridges adorned with bright-filled flower boxes, it’s easy to fall in love with Palais de l’Isle and Annecy.  Like hundreds of other tourists, you’ll be hard pressed to not stop on one of the many bridges that cross the canal to snap a picture of this alluring castle.

8. Food

Crepes

Swiss DinnerI won’t pretend to know the ins and outs of the Annecy food scene, but I will tell you about the delicious food we had, and where we found it.

  • La Creperie du Thiou – We lucked out in stumbling upon this place right around lunch time. Kendra had always told me how great the crepes and croissants were in France, so I decided to put her word to the test. As always, her word pulled through. We had both a sweet and savory tooth that needed to be satisfied, so we got a chocolate covered crepe, as well as a ham and cheese one. The pic above will do them more justice than any of my words.
  • Le Sarto – Being so close to the border, there is plenty of Swiss influence in this area. Having wet our palettes with Swiss cuisine on our previous trip, we couldn’t resist the Swiss restaurant situated next to the canal overlooking the Palais d l’Isle. We were served a chicken breast covered in a mushroom sauce with melted cheese along with bread to dip in Gruyeres Fondue. Ya… my tongue was hard.

9. Chateau de Annecy

Chateau d'AnnecyRising dramatically above the old town, is this castle built between the 12th and 16th centuries as a residence for the counts of Geneva. After several fires, it was abandoned as a home in the 17th century. With a few repairs, it served as a barracks until 1947. In 1953 the city of Annecy acquired the property and restored the castle to house a museum of modern art.

The steep cobblestone climb from the Thiou canal is beautifully encompassed by moss covered rocks and ivy creeping over ancient buildings. We opted to just explore the outside of this castle, but if you’re inclined to tour the museum, the Queen’s tower and castle walls offer a spectacular panoramic view of Annecy.

10. Beaches

BeachThere are many beaches and accesses to lake Annecy. These three are my top recommendations:

  1.  Plage St Jorioz on the southwest shore of the lake this beach offers a large parking area, lifeguards, and a sandy beach.
  2. Plage de la Brune lies on the northeast shore of Lake Annecy. This beach is situated next to restaurants, so if you forget to pack lunch this is an ideal location. Quite a bit smaller than St Jorioz, it tends to be less crowded; however, parking is small and fills quickly.
  3. Plage D’Albigny sits along the north-central shore, and is connected to the Jardin de l’Europe . It is close to old town which offers plenty of parking, nevertheless if you’re looking for sand skip over to St Jorioz as D’Albigny beach is rocky.

11. Chateau de Menthon

Château de Menthon Saint Bernard
Photo by Florian Pépellin

Chateau de Menthon sits high on the hill in Veyrier-du-Lac just 15 minutes from old town Annecy.  Offering reenacted tours of medieval times by actors it sounds pretty fun, right? The downside is, these tours run seasonally and are only offered in French.  This majestic castle is the castle that inspired Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, so even if you’re not fluent in French it’s worth checking out.

12. Gorges du Fier

Gorges du Fier
Photo by Rémih

 

Gorges du Fier
Photo by Guilhem Vellut

Gorges du Fier is a natural wonder of the Alps region, located just 6 miles (10km) west of Annecy.  It’s a breathtaking river canyon with a suspended footbridge affixed to the rock face 82 ft (25 m) above the river over a narrow gorge. It also has a natural pool for swimming and a small café offering snacks if you get peckish.

The river canyon is open daily between March 15 and October 15 opening at 9:30 with last chance for entry at 17:15. Visiting this enchanting canyon requires a minimal fee of 5.70 euros per adult, 3 euros per children ages 7-15. Children under 7 are free. Luckily, there are two free car parks for public use, so getting here couldn’t be any easier. This easy climb is suitable for pregnant women and elderly; however, it is not wheelchair accessible.

Unfortunately, we did not learn about this attraction until after we got home. Hopefully, after reading this post you won’t miss it like we did. Because it is definitely on my list to see the next time we are in the area. For more information regarding Gorges du Fier, click here.

Alright all you Annecy connoisseurs, have you had the chance to do any of these things? Are there any fun activities that I’ve missed? I’d love to hear about it in the comments. As always, thanks for reading.

 

Sao Lourenco, Algarve Beaches, Calanques in Marseille, and Drive to Nice

Sao Lourenco, Algarve Beaches, Calanques in Marseille, and Drive to Nice

Our last day in the Algarve was a rather lazy one. We started our day off with a visit to an old Catholic church called the Sao Lourenco, then relaxed for most of the afternoon on one of the sandy Algarve beaches, then finished our day with dinner at an Argentine steakhouse. The next day was an early morning to catch our flight to France where we started off with a visit to the calanques in Marseille before taking a drive to Nice.

Sao LourencoSao Lourenco

We got up on the morning of our last day in Portugal and went to see the Sao Lourenco church. This is another gem we would have missed if it weren’t for the recommendations of Roger the Brit. The Sao Lourenco doesn’t look much different than any other church from the outside, what sets it apart is on the inside. The surfaces of the interior walls and ceiling are covered with a unique blue and white tile called azulejos. Azulejos were not only used for decoration, but they also served to control interior temperature. The azulejos inside the San Lourenco depict the life of Saint Lawrence.  He was a pretty bad ass dude who got killed for giving money to the poor instead of Emperor Decius. The walls and ceilings depict him healing two blind men, giving money to the poor, talking with the pope, getting whipped with rods, seared with irons, and thrown over a mound of coals to die… like I said, total badass.

Photography isn’t allowed in the chapel, but who’s to say that someone couldn’t accidentally open the camera on the cell phone placed on their lap and snag a few pictures of the ceiling?

Beach

After our busy day of dolphin chasing and cave exploring, we decided it was time to hit the beach for some relax. The beach was a bit more crowded than it was when we jogged it the previous day. Being an American, I’m not too used to the liberal nature of European beaches; a lotta boobs, and a lotta wang. Once you get over the initial shock, it’s not that big of a deal, they’re just bodies. I asked Kendra if she wanted to be adventurous and walk along the beach in the buff, we didn’t have the balls to do it though. Maybe next trip… or never.

Parilla Restaurant

Parilla RestaurantFor dinner, we found an Argentine steakhouse called Parilla about a mile away from our hotel. This was probably one of the best dining experiences I had in Portugal. The exterior dining area had a pretty cool atmosphere with lights wrapped around each limb of the large trees, giving a soft amber light. Everything one needs for an evening of romance.

We ordered a couple starters. The one that sticks out in my memory was a cheese plate. They brought it in what I will describe as similar to a deviled egg platter. In each dip was a delightful dab of melted cheese with all sorts of herbs. Kendra had a beat salad, which looked like ass. The steaks were rather amazing and we topped them off with a dark chocolate ice cream and cheese cake for dessert. If you’re in the area, I’d recommend you try it out.

We got up for an early flight out of the Faro airport. Our connecting flight was in Lisbon, and then off to Marseille in southern France. Flights between European countries tend to be pretty cheap, so we didn’t bother to use any points. We just did a google flight search and found some tickets for around $80 a person. Kendra sat by a guy that only spoke French, yet he was determined to have a conversation with us. I still don’t know to this day what we were talking about. He’d point at things to try to explain what he was saying, and when I gave up trying to understand what he was talking about, I’d just nod my head as if I understood, and this seemed to suffice for him. I still don’t know what we talked about. Pretty friendly for a French dude.

We landed in Marseille and were able to get our luggage and rental car fairly quickly. We were a little nervous for the drive through Marseille as the road map looked like mom’s spaghetti. We had a few missed turns and a couple hectic bouts of re-routing, but we were able to make it through. One of the wrong turns allowed us to get some cool views of the town and the dock area. We were also able to snag a couple views of the Chateau D’If, where the Count of Monte Cristo was imprisoned.

Calanques

Calanques in MarseilleThe reason we flew into Marseille is that we wanted to see the calanques. Calanques are narrow steep walled inlets cut into the limestone along the Mediterranean coast of southern France. A large group of them between Marseille and Cassis were designated as national park in 2012. The pictures we found online looked beautiful, and this is one of the things we were the most excited to see in France. Being diligent planners, we google mapped the route. Knowing we’d be there around lunch time, we found one inlet that had a restaurant. We quickly learned that just because a road goes there, doesn’t mean you can use it. There’s a cutoff point where only locals can continue to drive through by car, everyone else has to get out and walk. So there we were after a flight, with no water in our camel backs, and a little grumpy from dealing with the maze of streets that is Marseille…. why not hike a mile up and over a mountain?

Le LunchThough not the smartest idea, the sights were breathtaking. We eventually made it to the other side where we figured we could get some water to go with our lunch. Wrong again, the restaurant was closed. Luckily, there was another restaurant a little further down the hillside that served seafood. This was our first experience with the language barrier in France, which is a much larger barrier than it was in Portugal… not a whole lot of English speakers in this particular area. We stumbled our way through getting a table, and Kendra (not knowing the word for water) just said “Coke”… the universal drink in any language.

Our Cokes arrived like manna from heaven, and we were left trying to google translate the French menu to find something edible. Kendra isn’t a huge seafood fan, so she opted for some dish that involved tomatoes and eggplant according to google. I chose a shrimp and risotto plate. What ensued could only be described as the worst meal of my life. It was like eating moldy ass underwear with skid marks. Kendra’s eggplant thing had the consistency of mushy meatloaf topped with curdled tomato paste, and mine was like trying to chew a disembodied rubber chicken. The restaurant is called Le Lunch and I would avoid it like a plague, unless you’re in desperate need of a refreshing Coke.

We sat at the beach and enjoyed the Calanques as we let our “food” settle as neither of us wanted to experience a bulimic buffet, and contemplated the steep hike back to our car. Not 200 yards into our trek, a jovial French man pulled over and waved for us to get in. Visions of getting raped, brutally murdered, and buried in the French hillside only to be forgotten by my American friends and family flashed through my brain. I compared that against the thought of enduring the hike back over in the blistering heat without any water, and it was a rather easy decision to make. We quickly hopped into the air-conditioned paradise of his back seat. I’m glad to say there was no rape, murder, or burial. He was a nice fellow. We tried to pay him for his kindness, but he refused. He dropped us off at our car and we were back on the road and headed to Nice.

Holiday Inn Saint Laurent Du VarWe stayed in the Holiday Inn Saint Laurent Du Var. We used 70,000 points that we got from our Chase IHG card to book a two-night stay. It’s a bit of an older property and not quite as fancy as the others we had stayed at on our trip, but it had magnificent views of the French Riviera and Mediterranean Sea. After we got settled we walked along the coast and found a nice pizza joint called Tortolla. It was a nice reprieve from the shit ass lunch we had earlier. They had English menus, and the title said it all, “This is Eat!”Tortolla

Moral of the story: contrary to popular belief, the French are not all ass holes. In under 12 hours, I met two: one really friendly, and another that took time out of his day to save us a trip over the mountain. And later in the trip, we met one who paid for our parking since the meter was not accepting our credit card. Turns out Dumb and Dumber is not the absolute truth when it comes to paradigms by which I should live my life.

Have you ever been to any of these places? If so, I’d love to hear about any of your experiences. Please feel free to leave a comment and I’ll be more than happy to get back to you.

Should I Cancel My Credit Card or Will I lose All My Points?

Should I Cancel My Credit Card or Will I lose All My Points?

The first year of racking up credit card points is an exciting time in a young boy’s life. It stays exciting for long after that; however, once you hit that first year mark those annual fees will start to rear their ugly heads. At this point several questions will go through your head… Should I cancel my credit card? Will I lose all my point? etc. If you’re like me, signing up for new cards every three months, then you’ve got some decisions to make: either pay annual fees every three months, or start cancelling cards.

Since most cards waive their annual fee for the first year, or at least have a hefty bonus to make it worth it, it’s a pretty easy decision to sign up and keep the card for a year. Deciding to pay the annual fee and keep the card another year is where it gets a bit hairier. Let me make it clear that I would never cancel the card before it comes up on a year; it just makes no sense. There is no downside to holding the card the entire year as the annual fee won’t be assessed until that point. As your average account age is one of the factors of your credit score (more about that here), you want to keep each account open as long as it continues to make sense. Often times it stops making sense as soon as the annual fee comes up, other times it makes sense to pay the annual fee and keep the card. As I’ve gone through this journey there are two things that I have considered in this decision: the type of points you get from the card, and any anniversary bonuses for keeping the card.

Type of Points – Co-Branded vs Bank Points

If you have used all your points, this won’t be a factor. If you have a point balance, this is a big deal. I’ll tell you why, but first we’ll need to review the difference between co-branded points, and bank points.

Co-branded points are awarded by a bank when signing up for a co-branded credit card. The points however are not housed in the bank’s rewards program. They are housed in the rewards program with which the bank has co-branded. Some examples of this are the Chase Explorer Card, the Citi Platinum AAdvantage Card, and the American Express Hilton Surpass Card. Chase, Citi, and American Express are the banks that issue the cards and award the points. However, to access these points, you will need to login to the United Explorer, American Airlines AAdvantage, and Hilton HHonors rewards programs respectively. Though you get bonus points by spending a certain amount on the card in a certain time frame, and continue to earn points through making purchases on the card, the reward points and the credit card are completely separate from each other. This means that you can cancel the credit card with Chase, Citi, and American Express, but your points will still be in the United, American, and Hilton rewards programs.

That being said, a lot of points expire at some point. And one way to keep your points active in many of the programs is to continually add to your point balance. This is done with every dollar you spend on your credit card. So every month your expiration date keeps getting pushed back. Once you cancel your card, you’ve lost one of the ways to keep your points active. This can be overcome if you frequently use the brand of the card. For example, if you stay at Hilton’s often, that will add points to your balance and keep your Hilton points active. So if you’re going to cancel your card, either plan to use your points within the year, or have a backup plan to keep them active.

Bank points are the other side of the coin. These points are part of the bank’s very own rewards program. Chase has Ultimate Rewards Points, Citi has Thank You Points, and American Express has Membership Reward points. Flexibility is a huge benefit of bank points, but the downside is that any balance you have will be erased if you cancel the credit card. However, there are still ways around this. For example, if you have 50,000 Ultimate Reward Points, you could transfer all of them to a travel partner at a 1:1 ratio before you cancel the card. However, you need to be careful here as well. Once you transfer the points to a travel partner, those points become subject to all the same cancellation rules discussed above. So be sure you have a plan in place to use your points soon, or keep them from expiring until you do.

So the bottom line with this factor is that it’s a lot easier to cancel a co-branded card and keep your points. With bank points, you’ll need to transfer to a travel partner first. In either case, you’ll need to have a plan to make sure your points don’t expire.

Annual Fee vs. Annual Awards

Though not nearly as amazing as the sign-up bonus, many cards have an anniversary bonus. There are three cards that I continually keep and pay an annual fee because of this:

  1. Chase Hyatt Card
  2. Chase IHG Card
  3. Club Carlson Card

Chase Hyatt

The Chase Hyatt Card has a $75 annual fee. The anniversary bonus is a free night at a category 1-4 hotel. I’ve looked up five category 4 hotels and found a nightly rate for each. As you can see, there’s quite a range from $232 at the low end to $540 at the high end.

  • Grand Hyatt Washington DC – $359
  • Hyatt Centric South Beach Miami – $540
  • Grand Hyatt Rio De Janeiro – $232
  • Hyatt Regency Paris Etoile – $330
  • Hyatt Andaz Peninsula Papagayo Resort – Costa Rica – $275

Rio de JaneiroBoth my wife and I have the Chase Hyatt Card, so we pay $150 a year in annual fees. However, you can see that we could book a two-night stay in Washington DC at a value of $718. That means that we’re ahead by $568. We’ve found this to be a pretty good deal. Not only were we able to get a four-night stay in Maui for our sign-up bonus, but we have used our two free anniversary nights to stay in San Francisco for our anniversary, and to fund two nights of our vacation in Paris…. worth the annual fee.

Chase IHG

The IHG Card has $49 annual fee and an anniversary award night in any IHG hotel, regardless of category. This can be pretty substantial. Let’s do the same exercise with this card.

  • InterContinental Bora Bora Resort Thalasso Spa – $786.42
  • Crown Plaza Times Square Manhattan – $317.52
  • Holiday Inn London Express – Southwark – $304.57
  • Crown Plaza Los Angeles – Commerce Casino – $198.94
  • Intercontinental Bangkok – $163.99

Again, Kendra and I both have this card and pay $98 per year. We could book a two-night stay in the Holiday Inn London Express – Southwark, a value of $609.14, putting us $513.14 ahead.

Bora Bora

Club Carlson

We have really enjoyed the Club Carlson Card. It’s a bit different from the Chase cards. Rather than annual free nights, the anniversary bonus is 40,000 points with an annual fee of $75. This makes our value comparison different than the previous two, as we’ll need to assign a dollar value to the 40,000 points to see if it’s worth $75. Below are some Club Carlson properties as well as their per night dollar and point value, and a calculated 40,000-point value for each.

  • Radisson Blu Resort, Split Croatia – 50,000 points or $169/night – 40,000 point value = $135.20
  • Radisson Martinique on Broadway – 70,000 points or $276/night – 40,000 point value = $157.71
  • Park Inn & Suites by Radisson Vancouver – 38,000 points or $95/night – 40,000 point value = $100.00
  • Radisson Hotel and Suites Sydney – 50,000 points or $305/night – 40,000 point value = $244.00
  • Park Inn by Radisson Resort & Conference Center Orlando – 15,000 points or $67/night – 40,000 point value = $178.67

As you can see, the value isn’t as high on this card. Based on these properties, the value of the 40,000-point anniversary bonus averages to around $160. Where both Kendra and I have one, the total value is around $320, while both our fees come to $150, putting us $170 ahead. While the payoff isn’t as high with this card, it still makes sense for me to keep it. Why close cards and ding our credit reports for cards that put us ahead $170?

Summary

Let’s face it, the anniversary benefits are nickels and dimes compared to the sign-up bonuses. That being said, you may want to take advantage of them. After having cycled through multiple credit cards, they may be the only bonuses available until some time passes and you can apply for the sign-up offers again. Obviously you don’t want to an annual fee for every credit card you’ve got in your wallet. But before you decide to cancel, make sure you know what’s going to happen to your point balance, and make sure you’re not giving up something of greater value by canceling. As I said above, these are the things I consider before canceling a card. If I’ve missed anything that you find important, please let me know in the comments.

Road Trip In Southern Portugal – Cascais to the Algarve

Road Trip In Southern Portugal – Cascais to the Algarve

Boca Do InfernoHow I wish we had more time to enjoy Cascais. Though I could appreciate the beauty of the area the night before, waking up to a bright sunny Saturday morning just made it that much better. However we had a three night stay waiting for us in the Algarve, and we couldn’t keep it waiting (I know, poor me, have to go to the Algarve). The Algarve is about a 3-hour drive south of Cascais and our check in was for late afternoon, so we decided to stroll the streets of Cascais for most of the morning before hitting the road.

Boca Do Inferno

We drove to town and then took about a 15-minute walk along the coast to see the Boca Do Inferno (Mouth of Hell). The Boca Do Inferno is a chasm in the sea cliffs along the coast. The waves are quite spectacular when they hit it just right. It’s a pretty cool thing to see, but the ocean kind of stinks here for some reason. We only stayed about twenty minutes. If you’re in Cascais, it’s worth your time to check and and snag a few pictures.

On our stroll back to the city center from the Boca Do Inferno, we stumbled upon a car show. Kendra and I aren’t too into cars, but it was fun to check out what they had there. It was getting close to noon so we figured we’d get Kendra in Cascaissome lunch. We walked up and down the streets looking for a spot to eat and finally decided on a burger booth that was set up next to the beach. We were also able to find a pastel de nata, a Portuguese bundle of goodness recommended to me by my friend who grew up in the area. We sat next to some pretty artful sand sculptures while we ate (see above).

Ponte 25 de Abril

After lunch, we decided we should start our trek down to the Algarve. Not many people know this, but there are actually two Golden Gate Bridges in the world. One of them happens to be in Lisbon. Okay, that’s not true, but it looks like it could be the Golden Gate’s sister. Oddly enough, it was built by the same company that built the Oakland Bay Bridge, but not the Golden Gate Bridge. People often compare the two because they have a similar structure and color. It’s called the Ponte 25 de Abril (April 25th Bridge). The name commemorates the date of a military coup that occurred in the 1970s to overthrow an authoritarian regime. It connects Lisbon to the city of Almada to the south. And we had the privilege of driving over it on our way to the Algarve.Ponte 25 de Abril

The Algarve

We arrived at our hotel in the Algarve around 4 or 5 in the afternoon. We booked a stay for 3 nights at the Hilton Conrad for 210,000 HHonors points that we acquired using various American Express co-branded Hilton cards. This hotel was pretty fancy. Kendra really enjoyed the wood monkey sculptures in the lobby. We got to the room and quickly started looking up places to go eat; we were pretty sure anything cooked in this establishment would be way overpriced. We found a place online called Julia’s Restaurant and Bar. It was right on the beach and we were able to watch the sunset as we ate.

So I have a confession to make. Kendra and I typically don’t go out of our way to interact with strangers. So when the guy sitting alone next to us started asking us questions about where we were from, I wasn’t too excited about doing small talk with him. Little did I know that Roger the Brit (as we now refer to him) would turn out to be one of the highlights of our whole trip. We ended up talking with him for a few hours and thoroughly enjoyed it. We spoke about all the forbidden topics: religion, politics, etc. Keep in mind, this is when Hillary Clinton and Donald Monkeys in the Conrad LobbyTrump were neck and neck for the US Presidential election. So both candidates were pretty easy to poke fun of. But it was nice to know that he was as worried about our country as we were. We discussed his views on Brexit, and the turmoils his country was facing as well. He told us that he has kids who live on both coasts of the United States and he visits often. He has a vacation home in the Algarve and spends a lot of time there. The job that he had retired from took him many places around the world and he told us about a lot of his exciting experiences.

We never asked, but we suspect he’s a widower. After we finished the main course, I got up to go use the restroom, and later Kendra mentioned to me that when I stood up he looked like he was sad that we were leaving. So my sweet wife decided that we would get some dessert to keep him company a little longer. I wish we would have got a picture to remember him, but nonetheless it was an evening and a conversation I will never forget. It was a great reminder to both Kendra and I of another aspect of traveling that we enjoy; seeing the world from other perspectives. We may not always agree on those “forbidden subjects”, but it was delightful to learn from and laugh with Roger the Brit.

Not only was it nice to visit with him, but being a connoisseur of the area, he gave us some excellent recommendations. He told us of a great beach that was pretty much empty if you got up early enough for a good walk. He also told us of the Sao Lorenzo, a church with traditional Portuguese blue and white tile throughout the whole interior. He also gave us some good restaurant recommendations while we were in the area. We took up all three recommendations, which will be posted about later.

Kendra at DinnerNot to get all kumbaya, but I’m glad Rodger initiated the conversation that broke Kendra and I out of our “stick to who you know” attitude. Our journey in the Algarve would not have been as remarkable. We still struggle with this, but that evening at Julia’s makes me want to branch out a little more. I would recommend if you have the opportunity to get to know the local people or other travelers to take it.  You may be lucky enough to spend the evening with someone as remarkable as Roger the Brit.

I’d love to hear any experiences you’ve had connecting with locals or other travelers. Please feel free to leave any in the comments.

Touring Castles In Sintra Portugal

Touring Castles In Sintra Portugal

After a long 24 hour flight, we finally arrived at the Lisbon airport, went through the hustle and bustle of claiming baggage, going through customs, getting the rental car, and fighting through foreign traffic rituals to get away from the airport. A sane person heads straight to the hotel to catch up on well needed rest; Kendra and I take 19,931 steps (at lease according to my iPhone) touring castles in Sintra. And I must say I have no regrets. If I could take everything I love about my hometown, and mix it with everything cool about Europe, it’s Sintra… hiking through the mountains with really cool ancient shit to look at.Hirschis in Sintra

Sintra is a town in the foothills of the Sintra Mountains just outside of Lisbon near the Atlantic coast. It’s unique because there are a plethora of castles, ruins, and estates that are all located in this charming town. With so much to see in one place it’s no wonder why it’s swarming with tourists. Due to the high amount of tourism, driving to Sintra is not recommended as parking is a scarce resource. Kendra and I found several stations online where we could park and then hop on the train for the rest of the journey. Once we figured out how to get on the right road and headed in the right direction, it was only about a 20 minute drive to the Portela de Sintra (the station closest to Sintra with available parking).

Once in town, we stumbled around for about a half hour trying to figure out the best way to see everything. There is a tourist information station just a block away from where the train drops you off. We were able to find a hop-on hop-off bus service that took you to all the main sights. It was a pretty good deal, and we certainly didn’t want to do ALL of Sintra by foot. Though small, Sintra peaks and valleys resemble the scars on Deadpool’s face, so we decided to give it a try.

Our first stop was the Moorish Castle, or as the locals call it, Castelo dos Mouros.

Moorish Castle

Moorish CastleThe Moorish Castle, or what is left of it, is nestled in the forest of Sintra. If you’re like me and don’t know much about European history you’re probably wondering, “who the hell are the Moors?”. Kendra studied history in college so I usually ask her these questions. Apparently the Moors were some pretty bad ass conquerors from Africa that dominated the Iberian Peninsula for much of the Middle Ages. Since the heaviest tourist attraction is the Pena Palace we decided to purchase tickets to both castles at the ticket booth near the Moorish Castle bus stop. If this area is crowded, stroll on past it to the inner most gate of the castle to the hidden ticket office where there is usually little to no wait. Tickets for both castles are 18 euros, or 7.50 euros for just the Moorish Castle.

The Moorish Castle is the oldest of the castles in Sintra, so the outer walls and some sarcophagi are the most distinguishing features. There are parts of the outer walls that could be mistaken for a miniature version of the Great Wall of China. You can traverse the walls which offers some good views of the ocean, the city, and the other sites Sintra has to offer.

The Moorish Castle was my first attempt at using a selfie stick. The one we purchased was really cheap. I had to remove my phone case to connect it and it was kind of bulky and annoying to carry around. On the bright side, nothing puts hair on your chest like taking a picture of yourself with a bright pink stick.

Once you’ve traversed the walls, the courtyard offers a place you can purchase food, eat a picnic, and/or use the restrooms at no charge. I’ve never been so excited to pee for free, as most public restrooms in Europe require coin to use. After relieving ourselves we hopped back on the bus to hit the next stop, the Pena Palace.

Pena Palace

All the way at the tipy-top of the mountain is the Pena Palace, Sintra’s most prominent monument. Sitting so high, it can be seen from much of Lisbon on a clear day.

Pena PalacIt was originally built as a monastery. Apparently, the virgin Mary was chillin’ in the area at some point in the 1500s, so they decided to build her a church. It remained  a quiet area of meditation for centuries until an earthquake in 1755 reduced all but the chapel to ruins. It remained so until King Ferdinand took an interest in turning it, and the surrounding areas, into a retreat for the royal family in the 1800s. He commissioned a German architect to really beef this thing up, while adding a bunch of his own flair including elements of German and Portuguese style. The result is a Disney-esque fairy tale castle with each wing and minaret a different textile and color.

It’s ownership passed hands between various members of royalty until the establishment of the Portuguese Republic in 1910. Queen Amelia, Portugal’s last queen, spent her last night as royalty in the palace before being exiled from the country. At this point, it was classified as a national monument and converted into a museum. The original colors faded throughout the 1900s, but were restored by the end of the century.

Though we had to push through more tourists at this site, it was definitely worth it. Not only are the views of the castle itself stunning, but so are the views of the surrounding area. There are some great photo opportunities for views of the Moorish castle from the Pena Palace, and vice versa.

When we had our fill of people, we headed out to the pick-up spot for our hop-on hop-off tour. We thought we were in luck as the next bus was arriving in 5 or 10 minutes; however, our luck didn’t hold. The bus was completely full and we were left waiting for the next one.  Since there wasn’t a guarantee that we would get a seat on the next one, which was scheduled to arrive an hour later, we started looking for other options.  We were running out of daylight and we wanted time to see the Quinta da Regaliera. This estate is what first brought us to Portugal and Sintra. There was no way we were going to miss it due to some bus schedule. So we found a local that runs a taxi service. It was a little extra cost, but she added a lot of value. We shared the ride with some tourists heading to a different attraction and we got to hear a little bit of the history of both attractions on our ride.

Quinta Da Regaliera

The Quinta da Regaliera was a private home until the 1990s. It was owned throughout most of the 1900s by an extravagant rich dude that really decked out the grounds with elements of Masonry, the Knights Templar, and all sorts of Illuminati hocus pocus mumbo jumbo. The mansion and church are Neo-Gothic in style and are small, but you go here for the grounds.

I’d have to say the grounds of this estate were one of the highlights of our trip to Portugal, the top features being the initiation wells. They are basically inverted towers wrapped in a spiral staircase with moss growing on their surfaces. The two wells don’t serve as sources of water, rather they are used for ceremonial initiation rites. The larger well contains a 27-meter staircase with several landings. The smaller well is less of a spiral and has straight stairs that link each of the ring shaped floors to one another. The smaller one is called the “Unfinished Well” as it doesn’t have the same finished touches as the other.

Initiation WellThere is a network of underground tunnels that connect the two wells and a lake area you can walk across using the stepping stones that pop up in the moss covered water.  Just be careful around the moss lake, a tourist slipped on one of the stones while we were there and fell in. She was okay, but you wouldn’t have guessed that from the screams that were coming from her child.  In our initial travel search, pictures of the completed initiation well are what brought us to this place. It was well (see what I did there?) worth the trip.

The Rest of Sintra

We spent our whole day in Sintra touring the three attractions above. If we had planned a little better we would have been able to tour other cool monuments like the Palace of Sintra and the Monserrate Palace. I found a pretty cool company that offers guided tours of Sintra. If you want to maximize your time more effectively and get more of a guided tour to learn about the history and culture, give them a try.

Jardim Dos FrangosOur Evening in Cascais

After a long day of walking, we took the train back to our car and began the trek to find our hotel. We had about a fifteen minute drive to the Sheraton Cascais Resort, yet another place where I wish we would have had more time. We used 10,000 SPG points that we acquired with our Starwood Preferred Guest American Express Card to stay for free. The ambiance continued to impress upon my mind how beautiful this country is. The red stucco of the buildings contrasted well with the lush green grounds. We got to our rooms and realized the only thing that exceeded our desire for sleep was our desire for food, so after a quick shower we were off to hit the town for some dinner.

A buddy of mine lived in Cascais back in his hellion days, and was kind enough to tell me where to find good eats. Where Kendra and I could sooner solve world hunger than make a restaurant decision, this came in handy. We went to his top recommendation, Jardim Dos Frangos (garden of the chickens). A caution for when you go out to eat in Portugal; they’ll set a bunch of appetizers on the table when you sit down. We American’s are used to not paying for things we don’t ask for, so we assumed they were on the house. So the bread and goat cheese you see on the left, yep we paid for it. No regrets though, we would have done the same had we known beforehand, just wanted to give a fair warning.

We have this habit of posting pictures of our food on Facebook while traveling, and my brother-in-law took the opportunity to mock me for how American my meal looked while on the other side of the world. I must admit, it does look like it could’ve come straight from KFC, but it actually had some seasonings unique to the area. It’s called Piri Piri Chicken, and my brother-in-law can suck it, because it was quite delightful…(even if it was served with french fries).

After a 5,100 mile flight, a 19,000 step hike, and one breast of chicken in my belly, it was time to be done. We took the short drive back to our hotel and hit the hay for a good night’s rest. Please feel free to ask any questions in the comments. I’d love to hear any experiences you have had as well. Thanks for reading.