Exploring Copenhagen ūüá©ūüáį

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With old world squares and palaces, colorful waterfront townhouses, copper spires, and modern glass buildings, Copenhagen is a fascinating smorgasbord of sights. It’s absolutely beautiful, and it was easily one of our favorite places we went on this trip.

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We started and ended our cruise in Copenhagen, so we were fortunate to be able to tack on a few extra days there during our trip. Our original plan was to do most of our Copenhagen sightseeing over 2 days post-cruise, but when our cruise departure time was delayed about 8 hours due to engine trouble on the cruise before us, we ended up with an extra day in Copenhagen prior to leaving.  This meant that we were able to spend a day before and a day after the cruise exploring the town and it also gave us extra time to get out of the city a bit.

Copenhagen is a city that is easily accessible for tourists. The people we encountered were so friendly, and everyone from the gas station attendant to the hot dog vendor spoke English really well. People were happy to help. In fact, we ran into the same metro kiosk attendant at two different stations on different days, and both times she went above and beyond to make sure we knew the right kind of ticket to purchase and the easiest way to get to where we were going.

Speaking of the metro, the city and outlying areas are all in one large public transportation system. For a single price you can ride buses, trains, and subways, getting you pretty much anywhere you want to go. This, along with the most pedestrian and bike-friendly roadways I’ve ever seen, make this city a breeze to get around. I mean, where else do the bikes have their own streets complete with lanes and stoplights?!?

In three days, we covered quite a bit, and here are some of our favorites:

Nyhavn: The quintessential waterfront on every Copenhagen postcard. The canal is full of tourists, but for good reason. It’s a beautiful stroll with outdoor cafes and wooden boats out front of the most colorful townhouses dating back as far as the 1600’s. Hans Christian Andersen even lived here for many years.

The Little Mermaid: Speaking of Hans Christian Andersen, a statue of the Little Mermaid sits a short walk away from Nyhavn. The city of Hans Christian Andersen has quite a few things around town honoring the author, including a statue of him near City Hall, but the Little Mermaid statue is the most iconic.

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Canal Tour: Some of the best views of the city are from the water, so it was fun to take the open top canal tour on our first day to help us get oriented with the city.

City Walking Tour: Led by our good ‚Äúfriend‚ÄĚ Rick Steves‚Äô handy guidebook, we set off for a few hours on a walk through the city. This is one of our favorite ways to see a new city, and it didn‚Äôt disappoint in Copenhagen. We passed City Hall and Tivoli Gardens (an amusement park), strolled along the pedestrian boulevard (Stroget), and had lunch in the City Square (Gammeltorv). We wandered back alleys, walked past Christiansborg Palace and the copper dragon shaped spires of the stock exchange, and the meandered back to the piers of Nyhavn. From there we made our way to Amelienborg Palace where we watched the changing of the guard before strolling up to Kastellet Park home of the Little Mermaid Statue.

Strolling through the city: It’s such a pretty city to walk, that several times we found ourselves casually taking the long way through town or walking along the river just because we could.

National Museum: While Americans tend to know more western European history, I’ll admit that my northern European history is a bit lacking. The National Museum was a great way to spend an afternoon learning more about Scandinavian history spanning prehistoric times, the Vikings, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and modern times. Room after room of this museum is stuffed full of artifacts. It’s almost like a mini, Danish version of the Smithsonian.

On our last full day in Denmark, we decided we wanted to get out of the city and explore two castles that had both been recommended to us. We bought all day metro passes and then headed off to Fredricksborg Castle in in Hillerod and Kronborg Slot in Helsingor. Both were easily accessible by train, and devoting a half day to each seemed just about right. Plus the trains kind of make a triangle between Copenhagen and the two castles, making it easy to get out there and back.

Fredricksborg Castle: Built in the 1600s, Fredricksborg Castle is the largest Renaissance Castle in Scandinavia. Although there was a fire there in the 1800s much of it was restored, and today it holds the Museum of National History. The castle and the surrounding gardens were just breathtaking!

Kronborg Slot: ‚ÄúTo be, or not to be: that is the question.‚ÄĚ Regardless of the answer to the question of whether Kronborg Slot is or is not in fact Elsinore (the castle for the backdrop of Shakespeare‚Äôs Hamlet, Prince of Denmark), the castle stands on its own merits. Elsinore is apparently the anglicized way to spell Helsingor, the city where Kronborg Slot is located, and as such they‚Äôve made a big deal about the tentative connections. This includes a Shakespeare festival, live performances of Hamlet, cut outs of Hamlet and Ophelia, and more. There was even a live acting performance of certain scenes while we were there.

The castle, complete with moats and turrets, sits on the coast guarding the waterway between the Baltic and North Seas. It’s strategic location allowed Denmark to control the entrance to Baltic, and the taxes they received helped make the kingdom of Denmark very wealthy at its peak. While quite impressive from the outside, the inside of the castle was Spartan due to having caught fire and then only being restored in a minimalist fashion with bare rooms and wooden floors. However, one of the more unique parts of the castle was getting to roam the crypts underneath.

If you want to see more pictures, you can click here to visit our Amazon Photo Album.

A Day in Stockholm ūüáłūüá™

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Sidestreet in Stockholm

IKEA and Stockholm Syndrome. I hate to admit that’s about all I knew about Stockholm and Sweden as a whole before we ventured off the boat to explore the city. ¬†Stockholm turned out to be one of my favorite ports on this cruise for a number of reasons, and it’s definitely a place I would return to in the future.

Stockholm is built on the water, so the scenery from the water is wonderful.  We took advantage of a very touristy mode of transportation called a Hop On, Hop Off Sightseeing Boat (they also have buses) which allowed us to get on a small boat, bounce to different parts of the city, and take in the view from the water. Most of the cities we ventured to this year had something similar, though Helsinki and Stockholm were the only cities in which we used them. The buses and boats run every 15 minutes or so, and they conveniently link all of the most touristy places.

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There were only a couple of things we absolutely wanted to accomplish while we were in Stockholm: the Vasa Museum and our go-to Rick Steves’ self-guided walking tour of Old Town (Gamla Stan).

On our walking tour, we spent about 3 hours wandering the streets of Old Town.

  • We saw the Royal Palace with a statue of King Gustav III in front. ¬†This king took Stockholm¬†from an inconsequential port¬†to a bustling European capital.
  • We ventured into Stortorget (the oldest square in Stockholm) with its quaint, colorful buildings and throngs of tourists.
  • On one side of Stortorget, the Nobel Museum (where you can find information about the Nobel Prize winners) sits housed in the old Stock Exchange building.
  • We found the smallest statue in Stockholm: Iron Boy (pictured at the bottom of the collage below).
  • We passed through many picturesque streets with quaint little windows and doors.
  • And of course, we ate Swedish meatballs.

 

Probably the most interesting thing we did while in Stockholm was visit the Vasa Museum.  I had no idea what this was before we toured the museum, but this museum is devoted to the restoration and preservation of the oldest and best preserved wooden military ship that sank about 40 minutes into her maiden voyage in 1628. This 64-gun warship sank in the harbor in the middle of Stockholm and stayed there for 333 years! Due to the makeup of the water in the harbor, it survived and was nearly intact when divers and marine archeologists raised this boat out of the harbor in the 1960s.

The most impressive part of the museum is the fact that when you walk in (and no matter what floor of the museum you’re on), you have an unobstructed view of this 17th century warship. ¬†The museum is incredibly well thought out, and it has tons of information about the excavation and preservation of the ship, as well as information about life in 17th century Stockholm. ¬†It was probably one of the most interesting and well laid out museums I’ve ever been to – and to think.. I didn’t even know what it was before we went there! ¬†There’s a free (included with your entry fee) film and tour, and I highly recommend both. ¬†They give you tons of¬†background information for the ship and why it sank.

One thing I would advise if you have the opportunity to visit this museum…get there when it opens! We didn’t have to stand in line, we were some¬†of the first people in the door, and when we left the line looked like this (and that wasn’t even the end):

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line to get into the Vasa Museum

The sail away from Stockholm was probably the most incredible I’ve ever seen from a boat because you spend approximately 5 hours sailing through the Stockholm Archipelago before sailing into open water. ¬†It’s amazing that this HUGE cruise boat can sail through tiny islands where you feel like you can reach out and touch the trees. We had our¬†Eno Hammocks¬†with us on our cruise, so we hung one of them (mine) on the balcony while we sailed away. It was incredible.

 

A few more thoughts from our time in Stockholm:

  • We found a 7-11 (we were there on July 11th), but there were no free slushies. That might have something to do with the fact that in most parts of the world, they write the date with the day first, month second. ¬†Maybe we have to go back on November 7th.¬†IMG_6543
  • This was our last port, and I have to take a moment to give a plug for Chacos. These sandals saved our trip. Because this trip was a stopover on our way back to Saudi Arabia, we weren’t particularly planning for the weather of Northern Europe when it came to the clothes we packed. We were more prepared for a hot, dusty climate, not a cold, wet one. ¬†That includes the shoes we had. ¬†I had a pair of black flats, cheap sandals, tennis shoes, and my Chacos. ¬†None of the first three options were great for cold, rainy days, so I wore my Chacos most of the time. ¬†My feet were a bit cold, but it didn’t matter if my shoes¬†got soaked because they are designed for more rugged adventures (unlike my cheap Target sandals). This was a last minute purchase for me, so I’m glad Eric told me to pull the trigger and get them!IMG_6430
  • We found an awesome board game store in the middle of Old Town! ¬†Despite the fact that our carry-ons were full of games already, we contemplated purchasing more!¬†IMG_5852
  • Like most places we visited this summer, Eric and I completely blend in with our blonde hair and fair complexions. It’s nice (and sometimes confusing) to have people speak to you first in Swedish (or German, Finnish, or Danish depending on where we were) before switching to English when our faces remained a blank expression as we processed whether or not we understood what we heard.
  • Here are some more pictures from the Stockholm Archipelago.
  • Here is a link to our Amazon album with many more photos from Stockholm and the Vasa Museum.

 

 

Two Days in St. Petersburg ūüá∑ūüáļ

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The Nutcracker. Tchaikovsky. Siberia. Matryoshka dolls. Dostoyevsky. Furry hats. Vodka. Anastasia. Putin…when you think of Russia, there are probably¬†many¬†things that come to mind.

Here’s a “recap”¬†of¬†our recent adventure in the city of St. Petersburg. ¬†In honor of Russian literature which tends to be rather long, this post is quite the novel. Enjoy!

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Church on Spilled Blood

While Eric¬†and I usually prefer exploring cities on our own, St. Petersburg is a bit trickier when it comes to DIY adventures. ¬†The city is spread out, and Americans (and probably many others) need a visa to enter the country. ¬†Coming in to St. Petersburg by cruise ship means you can avoid having to obtain a visa ahead of time, but there’s a catch. You have to book an excursion through an established sight-seeing tour company. Additionally, unlike many of the other cities we went to this summer that we consider ‚Äúwalkable,‚ÄĚ St. Petersburg is massive, and¬†several¬†of the “must see” sites are actually outside of the city, making getting to those places a bit more difficult.

This essentially left us with three options to consider when deciding how we’d tackle St. Petersburg:

  • Option 1: Go through the process of getting visas ahead of time so we could make our own plans¬†like we do in most ports. ¬†This was not a great option because an American applying for¬†a Russian visa can be expensive and kind of difficult. The visa alone costs $200, you have to show proof of a local sponsor, and this has to be done well in advance. Not to mention we already live abroad which adds another layer to sort¬†through. Then, on top of that you have to figure out and pay for transportation, entry fees, etc. The logistics¬†for¬†this option seemed a bit daunting.
  • Option 2: Book an excursion through the cruise line.¬†This option was a way to bypass the visa process because the visa is included as¬†part of the services you receive from your excursion fee, but we‚Äôre not really fans of cruise line excursions. They tend to be pretty expensive (our ‚ÄúBerlin¬†on your own‚ÄĚ excursion which was literally just train tickets was $200 each!), and tours usually consist of charter buses full of people being herded around from site to site. No thanks.
  • Option 3: ¬†Book a private tour through a local tour company.¬†This would allow us to get around needing a visa because like the second option, it’s “included” in the price of your excursion, but this option also allowed us to customize our tour, have a much smaller group, and a potentially lower price.

Ultimately, we decided to look into local tours, and after searching tons of websites and emailing several companies (as well as consulting our Rick Steves’ guide), we landed on¬†Tailored Tours of St. Petersburg. It‚Äôs a small company that focuses on small tours and is run by guides who are historians, art historians, and university professors who do this during their summers. Once we booked with Tailored Tours, Eric reached out to our ship‚Äôs roll call on¬†Cruise Critic¬†to see if anyone else was interested in joining us.

If you’re not familiar with Cruise Critic, it is a website that allows cruisers to connect ahead of time, plan shore excursions, and organize events like meet & greets for their upcoming cruises. ¬†Eric has signed up for both cruises we‚Äôve done, and it‚Äôs been an awesome way to meet great people, plan fun events, and make friends from around the world. ¬†Two couples from Cruise Critic wanted¬†to join us in St. Petersburg, which gave us travelling companions and helped lower the price! Double win!

After getting everything settled with our tour group, we were all set to see St. Petersburg with a group of 6, a private car, and our own tour guide. The only thing we had left to do was meet our guide at the cruise terminal once we arrived in St. Petersburg. Easy peasy.

Our guide, Vera, was incredible.  She is a journalist and opera expert with a passion for art history, and we were all impressed with the extensiveness of her knowledge of Russian history.  Honestly, remembering the names of people alone would do me in, but no matter what we asked her, she knew what each building was and famous people and events that took place there. Unlike many of the group tour guides we overheard who sounded like they were reciting a script, Vera had a real understanding about the history, art, and sites she showed us. She was very professional, and it was evident that she loves her job and wants to share her knowledge with others. Not to mention, she had a way of jumping in front of the tour groups with 40+ people.

With Vera as our guide and our own private driver, we managed to see everything we wanted to see and probably more. ¬†Because we hired a private tour guide, we didn’t have to arrange the schedule, plan any of the excursions, arrange the¬†entrance times and fees, or navigate the city. ¬†It was quite refreshing to simply show up, and for roughly $100 more than just the cost of an individual visa, we feel like we made the right choice.

In no particular order, here are a few highlights from our 2-day tour in St. Petersburg:

Peterhof & the Lower Fountain Parks with the Estate Gardens 

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Peterhof

This is the restored estate of Peter the Great, one of the most influential Czars of Russia who founded St. Petersburg in the early 1700s. ¬†It is often called the “Russian Versailles,” and although I’ve never been to the actual Versailles, I agree that it gives off the same vibe. ¬†We didn’t tour the interior of¬†Peterhof, and apparently that’s ok because the grounds are what people go to see. ¬†Despite rainy, cold conditions, we walked through a portion of the beautiful, green gardens. ¬†The grounds span a large area of land, so it would be nearly impossible to see it all in a short time considering all the other things to see in St. Petersburg.

Dotting the gardens are thousands of fountains that were mechanically ahead of their time – they use a pump system for spraying water.

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Peterhof

Apparently, Peter the Great was quite the jokester as there are several trick fountains around the park. ¬†They are essentially motion-activated, so when someone walks by a statue or sits down on a bench, they might get wet from secret fountains. ¬†Luckily, Vera knew which ones were the trick fountains, so we didn’t get unnecessarily wet.

Church on Spilled Blood

This church {pictured at the top of the post} is quintessentially Russian. ¬†With its colorful onion-domes and ornate, iconic fa√ßade, this Orthodox Cathedral is reminiscent of Moscow’s¬†famous St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square. Though one would assume that the name of the church comes from Jesus’ spilled blood, it’s actually named for the location where Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881.

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The inside of the cathedral is incredible. ¬†Russian Orthodox Cathedrals are knowns for their ornate icons and front alter pieces, but¬†these¬†icons are special because they are all mosaics. During the time of communism, many churches fell into disuse and/or were destroyed, and this church was no different. ¬†It wasn’t completely destroyed, but it was abandoned and it wasn’t until after communism fell that¬†the mosaics in the church were rediscovered and fully restored.

Catherine’s Palace

I must confess that for most of our time in St. Petersburg, I had the song “Rumor in St. Petersburg” from the animated movie¬†Anastasia¬†stuck in my head, but the desire¬†to sing songs from the movie was never stronger than while we toured Catherine’s Palace. ¬†If I’m not mistaken, this is where the movie begins and where the character¬†Anastasia begins to have flashbacks to her childhood, but to focus solely on the movie would be to do this place an injustice.

Funny note: I asked Vera about Anastasia and what Russians thought of the conspiracy that one of the Romanov’s didn’t die with the rest of the family…she didn’t even know what I was talking about.

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Catherine’s Palace

This is the summer residence of the Czars built in 1717.  What struck us as amazing about this place were the interior rooms with the most gaudy gold you can imagine.

This palace is also home to the famous Amber Room, which as the name suggests is a room completely covered in the gemstone amber. We weren’t allowed to take pictures in the room, and because it’s apparently such a hot spot for tourists, we didn’t get to spend much time in the room due to the crowds. It was rather unimpressive, in my opinion.

The Hermitage

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This is the winter palace of the czars, directly on the banks of the major canal that runs through St. Petersburg. Today it is one of the largest and oldest museums in the world. It has literally millions of pieces of art from all over the world, including lesser known pieces by famous artists like Da Vinci and Michelangelo (among many others).

The rooms in the museum are as beautiful and interesting as the artifacts that fill the museum. With Vera as our guide, we only stopped to see the most interesting pieces in the museum.  If we had stopped to look at each piece for only 5 or 6 seconds, it would take years to see everything!

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River Boat Cruise

Because we could customize (to a degree) our itinerary, we opted to have a river cruise through the middle of St. Petersburg.  It was so cold, but as many of the buildings are built with their most elaborate façades facing the water, it was a pretty ride.

 

Peter & Paul’s Fortress &¬†Cathedral

This is the original citadel of the city built by Peter the Great. ¬†It was used as a prison for political prisoners until the revolution in 1917. Today it is a museum. The cathedral¬†is the location of the tombs of the czars of Russia (except two), including Nicholas II (the last czar and Anastasia’s father).

 

St. Isaac’s Cathedral

This building reminds me of the U.S. Capitol Building because of the shape of the dome.  Probably the most notable thing about this church are the columns on the front.  They are each made of one piece of solid marble!

 

Final thoughts about St. Petersburg:

  • It feels very European. ¬†Peter the Great loved European culture and architecture, so you see traces of Europe throughout the city.
  • They are very proud of their bridges which are all draw bridges. ¬†Interestingly enough, if you work on a different island of the city, you better get home before the bridge goes up for the night. ¬†Otherwise, there’s no way to get home.
  • If you want to see more pictures from our adventure, we have plenty to look at! ¬†Follow this link.

 

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Peterhof

A Day in Helsinki ūüáęūüáģ

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Of all the cities we visited this summer, Helsinki was probably the one we knew the least about. I wanted to see Temppeliaukio Church (Rock Church), but other than we didn’t have a ton of things we had to do. We planned for an easy day, catching a bus into town, leisurely walking through the city, hitting a few of the highlights and maybe grabbing a nice meal.

When we got to Helsinki though, the weather threw us a curveball. We’d had some poor weather on the trip, but this morning might have been the worst. As we docked, the fog rolled in and you could barely see the port from our balcony. As we exited off the gang plank, midway down the ship you couldn’t even see the front of the ship!

With rain imminent, we decided to start our morning with a ride on one of the local double decker sight-seeing buses. The roof would protect us a bit from the elements, and we would hopefully be able to stick out some of the bad weather.

We were fortunate enough to get front row seats on the bus, which meant that we had the best view even if there wasn’t much to see because of the fog. We cruised through the city which is a neat blend of new and old. As we neared the city center we considered getting off to explore on foot, but as we arrived it really began to rain.

IMG_5978Instead off getting off, we opted to continue on the bus, taking the full loop all the way back to the ship. We boarded the ship, thawed out, and decided to have an early lunch on board.

It was a pretty discouraging morning, but don‚Äôt worry ‚Äď our Finnish adventures didn‚Äôt end there. After lunch, there was a break in the weather, so Ashley and I decided to head back out. Being a Sunday, the Rock Church wasn‚Äôt open to the public until after their service, so we hopped back on the bus and rode it to the stop closest to the Rock Church.

Temppeliaukio Church, or the Rock Church, is a Lutheran Church built in the 1960s. It’s actually in the middle of a pretty residential neighborhood away from the rest of the touristy parts of town, but what makes it unique is that it was built almost into the ground, and the interior walls are made of the natural, surrounding stone.

We arrived just as they opened to the public, and it was packed. We squeezed in with everyone else, and as people funneled in and out, we decided instead to take a seat on one of the back pews. There was an organist playing the beautiful organ, and the acoustics of the place were amazing. It stayed busy, but after a few minutes the madness died down. It was nice to simply sit and enjoy the beautiful building and music despite the throngs of people.

After visiting the Temppeliaukio Church, we cut across town by foot instead of riding the bus all the way around. We walked through the grounds of the National Museum and then caught the bus to the Senate Square and the Market Square. On our way, though, a funny thing happened. The fog burned off, the sun came out, and all of the sudden it was a beautiful day!

We climbed the steps to the Helsinki Cathedral and then meandered through the Market Square before hopping on the bus to head back towards the ship.

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The path back to the cruise port was along the water, so after one or two stops we got off the bus and walked. There is a great walking path with restaurants, ice cream shops, fishing docks, benches, and grassy hills overlooking the water complete with nearby islands and sailboats. We slowly meandered along the path back to the ship, and what had started as a cold wet morning turned into one of our favorite and most relaxing afternoons of the trip.

If you’d like to see more pictures, here is a link to our Amazon Photos Album.

Places: Al Nakheel Restaurant, Jeddah

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We interrupt our regularly scheduled blog posts about our European vacation to remind our readers (and perhaps ourselves) that we still live in Saudi Arabia.

Both KAUST and the K-12 school on campus are getting ready to start up again, and that means that most everyone is coming back from summer vacation ‚Äď remember, this place has been called the King Abdullah University of Sports & Travel¬†before. To celebrate the start of the new school year and catch up with one another, a group from my office went down to Jeddah one evening for dinner.

The restaurant we went to was Al Nakheel or the Palm Garden. Located just off the Corniche (Jeddah’s beachfront), Al Nakheel is a local, traditional restaurant with large areas of outdoor seating for dinner. The family (mixed-gender) section where we sat was a large open tent with air-conditioners and fans blowing in. Being August in the desert though, it was still hot despite the a/c’s best attempts to keep us cool.

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The food though ‚Äď oh the food was more than worth the warm environment. We ordered family-style, entrusting our dinner to one of my colleagues who is from Jeddah, and it was great! We‚Äôve enjoyed a lot of Middle Eastern food since we moved here, but this might have been the best yet.

They brought out a huge spread of ‚Äúappetizers‚ÄĚ including baba ganoush, hummus, tabouleh, spinach samosas, stuffed grape leaves, olives, and more. Then the main course arrived, and it was a great selection of beef, lamb, and chicken cuts, kabobs and shawarma. Meat, meat, and more meat with a side of French fries. That‚Äôs my kind of meal!

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Can we just take a second and say that it’s amazing that French fries are served with, on, or even in so many Middle Eastern dishes? It’s seriously the best. Okay, moving on…

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Dinner was fantastic, and then we followed it up with dessert and tea. I love how relaxed dinners are here. Evenings built around great food and easy conversations seem a bit more like an event than a grab-and-go meal. Dinner lasted a couple of hours, we were all full and happy, and then we loaded up for our one-hour drive back to KAUST.

Our evening at Al Nakheel was great. I hear it’s super busy on the weekends and reservations are a must, but during the week it wasn’t too crowded. We’ll definitely be going back!

A Day in Tallinn ūüá™ūüá™

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The little country of Estonia is not exactly a country that people put on their list of places to visit (I confess that until I lived in Poland a few years ago, I hadn’t even heard of it), but if you have the chance to spend some time there, you should take advantage of it. ¬†The country is part of the former Soviet Union, but when you look out over the old town of Tallinn, the country’s capital, it has a very different feel than most of the former Soviet Union I’ve seen. ¬†As you survey the city, you see red tile roofs and a beautiful old city wall as opposed to boring Soviet apartment blocks. I’m sure they’re there, they just don’t dominate the skyline as they do in some places.

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the old medieval wall

On our day in Tallinn, we spent all of our time completing Rick Steves’ self-guided walking tour through the old part of town. ¬†Old town consists of what used to be¬†two separate, feuding medieval towns – an upper town and a lower town. ¬†Now it’s all considered one big old town, separate only in name. ¬†There is a newer part of the city, but it doesn’t hold much appeal for tourists. ¬†The port we docked in¬†is probably one of the closest and most convenient ports we stopped in making the walk¬†to old town very easy. ¬†The approach to old town (per Rick Steves’ advice) begins with entering the city through a gate called Fat Margaret (a really squatty, fat section of the city wall).

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a partial view of Fat Margaret on the left

Our first actual stop on the self-guided walking tour was St. Olav’s Church, an old Lutheran church with a tall spire that you can climb. ¬†Today, this church is the only¬†baptist church in town. ¬†We decided to climb the tower, and we timed this¬†extremely¬†well by being there right as it opened. ¬†I highly recommend climbing the tower but I encourage you to try to get¬†there as¬†it opens otherwise you’ll be climbing the 234 spiraling steps while other people are descending. ¬†There aren’t two different staircases for ascending and descending, and if you have to fight people along the way, it¬†could make for a really tough climb. There is not an elevator!

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St. Olav’s Church

With Estonia’s close proximity to the Scandinavian countries as well as Russia, it has had a rough history of foreign domination¬†from both Sweden and Russia. ¬†Approximately 50%¬†of the population is ethnically Russian, and there is quite a bit of tension between the ethnically Russian and¬†ethnically Estonian¬†populations. ¬†With a large number of ethnically Russian people, there is a great deal of Russian influence in architecture and culture. ¬†It doesn’t take long for a tourist to notice the onion domes of Russian Orthodox cathedrals dotting the city.

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the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral

To illustrate the tension between the dominating ethnic populations, this cathedral sits opposite the Estonian Parliament building almost taunting Estonians with the presence of a building that is distinctly Russian directly in sight of their seat of government.

Don’t be fooled, however. Estonia is not only influenced by Russia. Texas..yes, Texas…is represented here as well….

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My Texan ‚̧ԳŹ

Ok, it’s only a restaurant, but we still laughed about the fact that even in tiny Estonia, traces of¬†Texas can be found.

A couple of things to note about Estonia… first of all, the medieval¬†part of Tallinn (the only part worth seeing on a day in port) covers a relatively small area of the city. ¬†When there is more than one cruise ship in port for a day – there were 4 while we were there – it can be overrun with tourists! It may be a bit of an exaggeration, but I’m not sure we saw anyone who was actually Estonian the entire time we were there. ¬†If you’re on a cruise, it’s difficult to arrange your time in port when there won’t be other boats, but if you’re able to schedule your visit for the off-season, you’ll probably appreciate the lack of throngs of people and tourist trap attractions.

Secondly, you’ll note that we are wearing pants and jackets. I was actually wearing my fleece jacket, raincoat, and a scarf! ¬†We visited Estonia in July, and we nearly froze. ¬†That’s not always the case – we heard this area was having an unusually cold summer, but be prepared for cooler weather when you visit! ¬†It rained on us while we toured the city, and the temperature was in the 50s!

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Our boat – the Norwegian Star – in the background

Here is a link to our Amazon album with more photos from our trip to Tallinn.

A Day in Berlin ūüá©ūüá™

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If you saw my previous¬†post, you’ll know that we just returned from a cruise¬†in¬†the Baltic Sea. ¬†You might be confused by¬†the title of this¬†post and think, “But Berlin isn’t on the coast…how did you go there on a cruise?”

Well, you’d be correct with that assessment…but to Berlin we went anyway. ¬†We actually docked in the little town of Warnem√ľnde, which is approximately 2.5 hours from Berlin by train. Conveniently enough, Norwegian rents out an entire train for all of their shore excursions to take into Berlin. ¬†We looked at navigating the trains on our own (rather than paying for the Norwegian-sponsored train – $$$), but it would have taken us longer – and it would involve changing trains. ¬†We’re not opposed to doing that, but it just wasn’t exactly a very direct route. Even our travel expert, Rick Steves (see previous post), said the train the cruise line offers is the best choice in getting to Berlin. ¬†From what I understand, most cruise lines do the same thing that Norwegian does.

So, we paid for the train ($200/person!), but we still opted to explore Berlin on our own rather than take a sponsored tour of the sights.

The day started off with¬†a bit of a hitch because our cruise was delayed leaving Copenhagen the previous day, and since Germany was our first stop, we were late arriving in port. ¬†We were supposed to arrive in Germany around 7am, but we didn’t arrive until nearly 10:30am. ¬†They extended the time we were allowed in the port, but it didn’t make much of a difference for those of us who were on Norwegian excursions because they didn’t alter the return time of the train. ¬†So, we only had about 6 hours to actually explore the city – a huge bummer considering we had well over 12 hours in port prior to the delay.

When we finally arrived in Berlin, a bus dropped us off in Gendarmenmarkt, which is an 18th century square flanked by the¬†French Church of¬†Friedrichstadt¬†(Franz√∂sischer Dom) on one side and the German Church (Deutscher Dom) on the other. At the center of the square is the Concert Hall of Berlin (Konzerthaus Berlin). ¬†We didn’t have much of a plan for once we got to Berlin (we had so much other stuff going on prior to this trip that we didn’t do a lot of planning for the days in port…oops), so we consulted our trusty Rick Steves’ guide to locate a place close to the square for lunch. We found a quiet cafe in the square where we enjoyed some¬†traditional German food – wiener schnitzel. We timed our lunch perfectly because it rained while we ate, and then it didn’t rain the rest of the day!

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Concert house on the left and the French Cathedral on the right

After lunch, we decided to complete Rick Steves’ walking tour from his Northern European Cruise Ports guidebook. His walking tours are awesome because they take you by all the interesting sights, give you plenty of information about what the various sights¬†are, tell you if you need to take an actual tour of¬†something, and oftentimes, he takes you on a route that lets you get away from the heavily trafficked tourist areas.

On our walk, we passed by the following (and so much more):

  • the remaining section of the Berlin Wall

 

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  • the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe which is basically a city block of huge concrete slabs of varying heights¬†that you can walk through (see below),

 

  • Checkpoint Charlie – a¬†recreation of the famous¬†border checkpoint between East and West Germany during the Cold War
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Checkpoint Charlie

  • the Brandenburg Gate
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Brandenburg Gate

  • Reichstag – the German parliament building
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Reichstag

  • and some things we didn’t get pictures of: the US embassy, Hotel Adlon (where Michael Jackson dangled¬†his baby over the railing), the TV tower, Alexanderplatz, Potsdamer Platz (the “Times Square of Berlin”), and the Topography of Terror (the area of land directly behind the remaining fragments of the wall associated with the headquarters¬†of the Gestapo and SS).

 

Despite a rocky start (arriving late in port), the day in Berlin turned out to be a good¬†one with probably the best weather of the trip. ¬†Even so, Eric and I decided that if we had it to do over again, we probably would opt to spend time in the port city of¬†Warnem√ľnde or take a short train ride to Rostock to explore. ¬†Berlin deserves much more time than you possibly have on a cruise, and¬†when nearly 5 hours of your day is eaten by riding the train, it’s difficult to justify going all the way to Berlin. Berlin itself is definitely worth seeing…I would just encourage those who want to see it to plan to spend a few days exploring rather than trying to see it on a cruise.

Here’s a link to some more pictures of our time in Berlin.

 

Why We Choose to Cruise

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Over the course of the next few posts, you are going to see a snapshot of our recent cruise in¬†the Baltic Sea. You might wonder why we chose to see 6 different cities in 6 different countries over the course of 9 days. It seems a little overwhelming, right?¬†You might wonder how a person can possibly fit in all the “must sees” in a city or country in the short amount of time the boat is in port. The short answer is you can’t. There is simply too much to see in such a short amount of time. ¬†Add to that the fact that summer in Europe¬†is busy¬†so you have to take into account the lines and time it takes to get to places.

So, why do we choose to cruise instead of (sometimes in addition to) picking a city or country to spend devoted time in?

In no particular order, here are a few reasons we choose to cruise:

  1. The boat is essentially a floating hotel. 
    Some people get on a cruise, pay for all the excursions through the cruise line or a different company, eat their weight in food, drink like fishes, gamble at the casino, play bingo, attend all the parties, go to the art auctions, use the spa facilities, etc. ¬†I’m sure those people get their money’s worth from all the entertainment and things to do. ¬†(They also probably spend tons of money because they do all the things that have an additional cost.)And then there are people like us. We basically use our boat as a floating hotel. ¬†¬†It becomes¬†our place to sleep, eat at least breakfast and dinner, and our transportation to each new country. ¬†Don’t get me wrong. ¬†We enjoy some of the activities on the boat, but we also enjoy relaxing by the pool (when it’s not 60 degrees F like it was this year), reading books (I finished nearly 5 books on last year’s cruise), or playing board games (some boats have board games you can play but we always bring our own).
  2. For us, a cruise is a way to see multiple places in Europe for a significantly cheaper price.
    If you add up the cost of nights in hotels, eating every meal out, and the travel expenses to get from one place to another, traveling in Europe can become extremely pricey – unless you’re willing to opt for some less expensive, possibly less comfortable and less convenient accommodations. When you cruise (at least in our case), the price we spend per day by paying for a cruise is far less than what we would spend on a 2 week vacation in one place in Europe.The reason a cruise becomes significantly less expensive for us as a means of travel is because we are the type of people who don’t spend all the extra money for things we don’t feel like we need. ¬†If there’s something we want to do, eat, or drink that costs extra, we’re not¬†unwilling¬†to pay for it, but we just practice some self-control.
  3. Especially in Europe, we are all about DIY “excursions.”¬†
    To go along with¬†point 2, we save money on a cruise by getting off the boat on our own and navigating the city using public transportation¬†and¬†our feet. ¬†We wouldn’t necessarily recommend this for everyone, but we’re pretty confident travelers and don’t feel intimidated by doing things on our own. ¬†Some of this confidence comes from living abroad previously, but mostly it comes from our friend Rick Steves. ¬†Now, we don’t personally know Rick, but he’s our European travel companion extraordinaire. ¬†Rick Steves is a guidebook author and TV show host who is well known for his expertise of European cities. ¬†He has never¬†steered us wrong, and he’s even given us some tips on how to beat some of the lines in more well-travelled tourist locations – all above board, of course. ¬†His directions and guidance¬†are¬†so detailed, that he gives specific directions about how to find public transportation, what buses to take to various places, how to get to different points of interest in a city, etc. ¬†He even has self-guided walking tours of various cities – some of them are even free audio podcast tours you can download to your phone. Last year, we purchased his¬†Mediterranean Cruise Ports book¬†as well as the book solely devoted to¬†Rome¬†(we spent an additional 5 days there), and we loved it so much that we purchased the¬†Northern European Cruise Ports¬†book this year. We have yet to be disappointed by his guidance, so if you want to know more about Rick Steves, check out his¬†website. ¬†We’re also happy to share with you in more detail our experience with his guidebooks.
    For the record, we don’t get a kickback for mentioning Rick… we genuinely think his work is worth mentioning!
  4. You are exposed to multiple places and cultures.
    It’s no secret that we love to travel. ¬†We love new cultures, new foods, new experiences, and we¬†love¬†to see the places we’ve heard about our entire lives. Over the course of the last year, we’ve explored the highlights in at least 10 countries. I feel like that’s only possible if your job is to travel (oh, how I would love that) or on a cruise. It’s true that on a cruise you’re only in a port for a few hours, so it’s very difficult to see everything you want to see. ¬†But the nice thing about it is, you can see some of the highlights, and it helps you decide if you want¬†to spend more time in that location in the future.For example, last year, we went to the small town of Lucca in Italy. ¬†We decided that we think the Italian countryside is beautiful and would love to go back. ¬†On the other hand, we’ve seen Athens and the Acropolis, so if we never make it back to Athens, we’re ok with that.
  5. In our experience, the food on board is incredible.
    We both gained weight on our 9 day vacation even after walking all day. That should be enough to sell this point. ¬†But I will say that Norwegian (I can’t speak for all cruise lines) does a great job with their food. ¬†We really enjoy the complimentary food items: the buffet, the main dining room, the 24-hour restaurant, etc, so honestly, there’s no need to pay for any of the specialty¬†dining options. ¬†But this year, we had a promotion that gave us 4 free dinners at any of the specialty restaurants, and we thoroughly enjoyed them. ¬†The hibachi dinner we had was incredible and the chefs’ production was even better, and I distinctly remember our travel agent telling¬†us that she had the best steak of her life at Cagney’s Steakhouse on a Norwegian cruise. ¬†I can totally vouch for that statement now.
  6. Your cabin steward makes towel animals for you each night.
    This may not be a real reason to take a cruise, but it sure is fun to come back to your room from dinner to find your room turned down and a towel animal on your bed!
  7. You can make new friends from all over the world.
    The last 2 cruises we’ve been on, Eric has joined the Cruise Critic roll call for our particular cruise. ¬†That means he’s logged into his account, found our particular cruise, and he’s jumped into the discussions. ¬†These discussions are anything from simply introducing ourselves to planning to do some DIY excursions together to doing gift swaps on board. ¬†The cruise line hosts a brunch on the first day at sea for members of the Cruise Critic group – it makes sense because they want to make the people who write reviews happy. ¬†During that time, we meet lots of people. ¬†Last year, we ended up spending many of our days in port with people from this group, and we even ended up having dinner with a few of them throughout the cruise. This year, we shared a private tour in St. Petersburg with 2 couples from our Cruise Critic group. Eric and I really enjoy traveling with each other, but it’s also fun to meet new people along the way!

All in all, we won’t always cruise, but we really enjoy the benefits of cruising. ¬†If you have other questions or want to know more about something, let us know! If you want to see some pictures from the cruise portion of our trip, here’s a link to our Amazon album.

One more thing that doesn’t particularly pertain to why we cruise…I wanted to give a shout out to our travel agent – Rhonda Wax. ¬†She’s helped us the last 2 summers in booking our cruise and some of the before and after accommodations,¬†as well as¬†making sure we’re all squared away for everything. ¬†This year she even went to bat for us to get an upgrade to a balcony when the price¬†of our cruise dropped after we had already paid for everything. If you’re looking for help with your travel plans, she does a great job helping you understand the process and what you need to accomplish an awesome vacation (not just cruises). When it comes to cruises though, her company has additional promotions as well as more options for shore excursions which broadens your choices¬†when you want to do some of those. For the record, we also don’t get a kickback for mentioning her work!

So, where might we cruise to¬†next? Asia? Australia? We don’t know… stay tuned. :)

A Week in Our Nation’s Capital

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flags at the base of the Washington Monument

To kick off a series of travel posts, I will start with the first stop on our recent summer holiday adventure: Washington D.C.

Since we moved to Saudi Arabia, our families have experienced¬†some major transitions. One such transition is that Eric’s parents have moved from Texas to the Washington D.C. area. ¬†Despite only living 4-5 hours from D.C.¬†when¬†we lived in North Carolina, Eric and I never had the chance to make the trip to explore the city. ¬†So, because¬†adding¬†a flight to the States wasn’t much more expensive than our summer vacation plans to fly to Denmark, Eric and I met in D.C. to spend some time with his family.

There is absolutely TONS to do in D.C., so we didn’t get to do everything. ¬†But the nice thing about Eric’s parents¬†living¬†there is that we’ll be back to explore in the future.

On this trip, we did many of the typical “must dos” in D.C. so we were one of a throng of other people seeing the city the week before¬†July 4th (our Independence Day for my non-American readers). We were¬†certainly the¬†typical tourists. I’ve included links to the places we went in case you’re planning your own trip to D.C.

We visited three (and a half) of the Smithsonian Museums: the¬†National Museum of Natural History, the¬†National Museum of American History, the¬†National Air & Space Museum, and we poked our heads into the¬†Smithsonian Castle, which is the visitors center for the entire Smithsonian system of 28 museums and research centers around the area. (Did you know that the man who donated the money to begin the Smithsonian Institutes wasn’t even American and had never even set foot on American soil?) ¬†Of course, we saw Dorothy’s ruby slippers, Charles Lindbergh’s the Spirit of St. Louis, Muhammed Ali’s boxing gloves, the¬†flag¬†Francis Scott Key saw when he wrote the¬†Star-Spangled Banner, the Hope Diamond, and a baseball signed by Babe Ruth…among¬†many¬†other things. ¬†These museums are a really great compilation of things to appeal to anyone’s interests, and you could spend¬†weeks¬†walking through them – especially if you read everything!

We also visited the¬†International Spy Museum. This was suggested by a friend (and reader…thanks, Erin!), so we took her up on her suggestion and enjoyed it immensely. ¬†Not only are there artifacts¬†from actual spy missions – from bugs to pens that aren’t really pens, but there was also an exhibit about the ultimate pop culture spy,¬†James Bond. ¬†You were also supposed to take on an alias and pretend to be that person throughout the museum, and you got a mission to try to complete. Most of our group missed the station where you were supposed to get¬†the mission (there were tons of people), so I was the only one who participated in that part. ¬†In case you’re¬†wondering, I failed my mission.

We took a tour of the¬†Capital Building. This was one of my favorite buildings when I toured D.C. in 9th grade, but unfortunately, they are doing some repairs and the rotunda was full of scaffolding. Apparently, the renovations are nearly complete, so hopefully that won’t be a problem for too much longer. ¬†One thing I will say about our Capital tour…we had the¬†best¬†tour guide. ¬†She was a funny little old woman who has been working for the Capital for a long time. ¬†At the end of our tour, she gave us passes to visit the House of Representatives. They weren’t in session, but we were able to go in the upper seating area and look around the room.

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Capital Building Rotunda

Eric’s parents live in Alexandria on land that used to belong to George Washington himself, which means they don’t live very far from Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s home. We spent an afternoon wandering the grounds and touring the house. ¬†One of the most interesting parts of the estate is actually the visitors center and the¬†museum in it. ¬†It was a very interesting museum about the life and achievements of George Washington. ¬†They also had models of what he looked like at various points in his life that were very intricate and nearly lifelike.

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Mt. Vernon

One evening, we went to dinner with some friends of Eric’s family. ¬†We decided to make the short trek to the National Harbor in Maryland. This is a very new area with an outlet mall, a ferris wheel, and lots of trendy¬†restaurants. ¬†Apparently, there are lots of things to do there – like kayaking and cruise tours. ¬†We just picked up some more clothes at the outlet mall (we were stocking up while in the States), ate dinner at Cadillac Ranch, and got¬†ice cream.

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National Harbor in Maryland

And of course, what’s a visit to D.C. without a visit to the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial (my favorite), and the Lincoln Memorial?

The Lincoln Memorial:

 

The Washington Monument: (We got to ride the elevator to the top.  Did you know there are plaques inside donated by various states and countries?)

 

The Jefferson Memorial:

 

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the view from a little bridge – one of my favorite spots in the city

 

If you want to view more photos, you can go to our Amazon photo album “Washington D.C.”

 

Places: Saafa Golf Club

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Entrance to the Golf Club

We don’t golf, but the golf course is beautiful!

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Look at all the green!

The restaurant at the golf club is wonderful. It’s also one of the nicer restaurants on campus.

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Entryway of the restaurant and clubhouse

Depending on what we order¬†– typically 2 entrees and drinks – we spend between $30-40, and¬†I’ve never been disappointed by the food. The view doesn’t hurt either!

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the view

Because we don’t golf, I have no idea about the prices or what the course is like, but I know it’s pretty!

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