Sailing Turkey with MedSailors

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Sailing. Snorkeling. Stand Up Paddle Boarding.img_8339

Sun. Swimming. Sea Turtles.

Our time in Turkey last week was pretty amazing. You can check out our video of the week along with a few of the highlights below.

 

 

A few months ago, our friends Catie and Jason invited us to meet them in Turkey for a sailing adventure with MedSailors. MedSailors is a skippered yachting company that organizes holidays for 20-35 year olds in Turkey, Greece, and Croatia. You can hire your own boat or just book a berth on a boat you share with others. We recruited our friends Michelle and Brian to join us, and before we knew it, it was time to head to Turkey.

Michelle, Brian, Ashley, and I flew into Fethiye late Friday night, met Catie and Jason at a nice little AirBnB, and then headed to the marina to meet up with the MedSailors team and our fellow crew members. The six of us were put on the Cavok, and we were joined by Katie and Vicki from New Zealand and the UK and our awesome skipper, Sergei. The best surprise that afternoon though, was to find out that the Cavok was a Catamaran! The extra space on deck was great to have during the hours we spent sailing and hanging out in the sun.

The flotilla for the week consisted of three boats including ours, and the majority of the sailors were from New Zealand, Australia, and the UK. Our agenda was pretty simple, and the majority of the days went something like this: breakfast – swimming– sailing – stop at a bay for lunch/swimming – a bit more sailing – stop in a bay or city during the afternoon – some sort of excursion or exploring the city – dinner – going out/hanging out.

The Turkey route is an awesome blend of sailing, hidden bays, small seaside towns, and a few chances to get out and be adventurous. Here are a few of our favorite highlights from the trip:

Paragliding – we went tandem paragliding from 1700 meters over Ölüdeniz with Gravity Paragliding. It was amazing!G0039119.jpg

Hiking Saklikent Gorge – A huge slot canyon with walls up to 300 meters high. We hiked a few kilometers in crossing an icy stream and several cold pools that were chest deep.

Patara Beach – a beautiful sandy beach where we watched the sunset one evening.

Kayaköy – an abandoned city we hiked to the morning after spent in Coldwater Bay. It was quite a hike, but it was fascinating to see building after building that was deserted in the 1920s. The city just seemed to go on forever, and we were treated to chocolate and banana pancakes after our return hike.

Sea Turtles – In several bays we were able to swim with sea turtles! We made sure to get up and go snorkeling early those days for the best chance to see them and were rewarded several times.

Stand Up Paddle Boarding – Ashley loved taking the paddle board out whenever the boat stopped for some time.

The Food – Turkish food is delicious! The pide, casseroles, doner, and fish were great pretty much wherever we stopped. Plus, Sergei made great breakfasts and lunches on board. I was seriously surprised by the awesome dishes like Turkish ravioli he was able to make while simultaneously sailing the boat!

Overall, it was a fantastic week, and we can’t recommend it highly enough. The MedSailors team was top-notch, the route was great, and it was a week we’ll remember for a long time. If you’re outside of the 20-35 age group or looking for a trip that’s even more laid back, MedSailors has a sister company, YachtGetaways, that runs the same routes. We loved our time with MedSailors, but if we do it again we might try and recruit enough friends to book an entire boat with YachtGetaways. Croatia, anyone?

Our friends Catie and Jason run a podcast at Funktravels.com, and one night we recorded an episode on the boat. You can have a listen here.

If you want to see more of our pictures from the week, you can check out our Amazon Photo Album.DCIM104GOPROG6345912.

The Manta

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Every Friday and Saturday, KAUST has a boat – the Manta – which goes to a couple of different reefs for either snorkeling or diving on a rotating basis. If the boat goes snorkeling on Friday, it goes diving on Saturday, and then the next weekend, it swaps. It’s a great way for those of us without a car to go diving without having to figure out how to get to Jeddah to one of the resorts.

The Manta leaves KAUST at 9:00am, and they provide a light breakfast of croissants and fruit.  We sail about 30-45 minutes into the Red Sea to Fahal Reef.  The reef itself starts at a depth of about 30ft, and on our last dive there, we stayed pretty consistently between 30-50ft. We’ve occasionally gone a bit deeper, and have been to 100+ feet once or twice on these trips – after we got our Advanced Open Water Certification, of course!

On the KAUST dive trips (we’ve never done it as a snorkeling trip), you pay for 2 dives, the tanks for those dives, dive masters to guide you, a light breakfast, and lunch. After completing the first dive, there’s a brief time on the surface for lunch and prep for the second dive.  Lunch typically consists of wraps, fruit, and something sweet.  It’s actually a pretty good little lunch.

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People doing their scuba certification through KAUST also use these trips to complete their open water dives.  Nearly every time I’ve been on the KAUST boat, there has been a group of new divers working on their certification dives.

We’ve seen some pretty fun things on these dives.  Tons of tropical fish, spotted rays, eels, and even a sea turtle. Another group even saw a whale shark one weekend when Eric was out there, but that’s definitely not typical.

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On Thursdays, the Manta does sunset cruises, which is what we did for our anniversary this year, and you can also rent it out for parties and group outings.  It’s a pretty inexpensive way to get out on a boat and a bonus for us – it’s only a 4 minutes scooter ride from our house!

KAUST Soup

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“At least it’s dry heat…”

I cannot count the number of times people have said this to me when I talk about how hot it is here. I get it. You assume because it’s the desert, it’s hot, dry, dusty, sunny, etc…

Well, I’m here to tell you that not all deserts were created equal. You see, the desert we live in is hot, dusty, and sunny, but it’s definitely NOT dry. In fact, I looked at the weather this morning before work, and the humidity was at 80%! It felt like 111ºF with 80% humidity at 8 am.  That’s miserable, if you ask me.

There’s really nothing funny about that, but Eric and I have joked about how it feels as though you need a mask and snorkel when you walk outside.  Upon leaving our garage (or any other building for that matter), your sunglasses immediately fog up, your skin gets clammy, and it’s kind of hard to breathe.  Fortunately, in order to make this happen, you are coming from a very well air-conditioned building, and you’re most likely headed to another one.

The best time of the day is right around dusk.  There’s probably something scientific behind this, but until that point, the sun and humidity make it too unbearable to be outside.  Then once the sun has set, you lose the sun beating down on you, but the humidity jumps back up to a soupy mess. This leaves a short window right before the sun goes down when it’s slightly more bearable.

I blame this all on our neighbor to the west, the Red Sea.  I don’t know how this works exactly, but I know the body of water a stone’s throw from our house has to have something to do with how humid it gets here!

Next time you think about life in the desert, just remember that not all sandy deserts are hot and dry!

I guess in our cultural melting pot, we have a KAUST soup!

Christmas in the Summer

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Since we’ve moved to KAUST, we’ve made friends with quite a few people from New Zealand (Kiwis, as they call themselves).  I have learned a lot of things from them – new words, fun facts about NZ, among other things. I already knew that when it’s winter in the northern hemisphere, it’s summer in the southern hemisphere, but it never really occurred to me that that means Christmas is in the summer!

So, think about all the classical Christmas movies we (in America) watch….they are all in the winter with snow – Home AloneElfA Christmas Story. Not to mention the fact that we have songs like “White Christmas” and “Sleigh Ride.”  And how terrible would it be to have an ugly Christmas sweater party in the summer?! Absurd.  Christmas in the summer is a game changer!

Well, we didn’t celebrate Christmas in the summer as the title of the post would suggest, but we did some preparations for Christmas while we traveled this summer.  We added to our Christmas ornament travel collection. You see, each time we go to a new place, we pick up a Christmas ornament (or something that would serve the same purpose as a Christmas ornament). This allows us to avoid filling our house with trinkets and things throughout the year, and then every year when we decorate our Christmas tree, we can reminisce about our travels.

We’ve even grown our collection so much that we’ve got a tree solely dedicated to our travel ornaments (and the collection has nearly outgrown that tree).  We call it our “travel tree.” Here’s a picture of our travel tree at our house in North Carolina.

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travel tree

So, like I said, we grew our Christmas ornament collection by 5 this summer (we already have one from Germany, so we didn’t get another one). Here are the newest additions to our travel tree collection:

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the newest additions to our collection

Do you collect anything when you travel? If so, what? Feel free to share in the comments section.

Three Times Our Travel Karma Ran Out and One Close Call

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When it comes to the actual travel part of vacation, we’re usually pretty lucky – and by that I mean it’s usually uneventful. By plane, train, or automobile, we’re usually more or less on time, make connections, and arrive to our destinations with our bags. If that’s as good or as bad as it gets, I consider it a win in the travel column. I’ve yet to have a magical free upgrade to business class (I’m still waiting), but I’ve been fortunate enough to have empty seats next to me on long haul flights on more than one occasion this year.

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Unfortunately, our string of uneventful trips came to a dramatic end this summer not just once but several times in one trip. As Ashley has previously mentioned, we ended up with pretty strange itineraries this summer as we were visiting both the US and Europe before returning to Saudi Arabia. Ashley went to the states in May, and I followed a few weeks later.

Event 1: Paris to Toronto to DC

My flight from Jeddah to Paris was uneventful, and the plane was empty enough that we could spread out and sleep. That was definitely a win, but my flight leaving Paris was very, very different. All the passengers boarded, we went through the normal safety checks, and then instead of backing up and heading down the runway we just sat there. And sat there. And sat there. Not knowing how long we’d be sitting there I started a movie. And then I finished said movie. Two hours after boarding, we finally backed out of the gate and started our journey to Toronto. My two-hour layover instantly evaporated, and we landed just as the gates to my next flight closed. I was rebooked for a flight 8 hours later(!), but fortunately the agent let me switch my final destination from Washington Dulles to Washington Reagan which took 6 hours off the wait. Great for me, but not for my bags which were still in Paris, and wouldn’t arrive until mid-day the following day.

Event 2: Toronto to Copenhagen

Ashley and I left the States from D.C., took a quick flight to Toronto, and then boarded our flight to Copenhagen. We took off, and everything seemed completely normal until about an hour into the trip. Out of the blue the plane just dropped, and it dropped fast! And then it just kept dropping. The pilot came over the loud speaker, requested that the head flight attendant head to the front immediately and still we dropped. In probably less than a minute we went from 30,000 ft. to 10,000 ft. before the plane finally levelled out.

It turns out that our plane had not been able to pressurize, and the pilot made the last second decision to avoid having the oxygen bags drop by making the very quick descent. He then turned around, and slowly taxied us back to Toronto. Upon arriving in Toronto, we were met by firetrucks that followed us along the runway. Apparently that’s protocol for any planes that have to return, but it was nerve-wracking nonetheless.

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It was an evening flight, so by the time we finally made it back and disembarked back into the terminal, the terminal was empty – just the passengers from our flight were present. All the restaurants except for Tim Hortons were closed, and so we sat and waited and waited while they checked our plane. After a 5-hour delay, we finally reboarded and made our way to Copenhagen rather uneventfully.

That was definitely the scariest flying experience that either of us have ever experienced.

Event 3: Copenhagen to Istanbul

Fun Fact 1– Not all Turkish Airlines planes have a row 13.

Fun Fact 2 – Despite not having a row 13 on all of its planes, Turkish Airlines still sells seats for row 13.

Fun Fact 3 – We were booked in seats 13A and 13B on a Turkish Airlines flight. When we boarded said flight in Copenhagen, we made our way down the aisle where we saw row 12 and then row 14. We did a bit of a double take, and then asked the people sitting around us. Mass confusion ensued as all of the other passengers were wanting to squeeze past us, and I unsuccessfully tried to make my way back to the front to talk to a flight attendant. Finally, after lots of hand signals and an “Of course there is a row 13. Please take your seat,” the flight attendants realized what was going on and informed us that the very last row of the plane wasn’t occupied, so we were begrudgingly sent all the way to the back of the plane.

The Close Call – Istanbul to Jeddah

Our flight out of Istanbul was delayed about an hour and half which was annoying, but in light of our other travel adventures we were just glad to be getting home. When we landed, however, we realized just how fortunate we really were. Ashley received a message from her mom that all flights out of Istanbul had been grounded shortly after our plane left due to the failed coup attempt that took place in Turkey (and started at the airport) that evening! I’m so glad we made it out just in time and that we didn’t have another misadventure to write about!

Exploring Copenhagen 🇩🇰

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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 “friend” Rick Steves’ 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’t 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: “To be, or not to be: that is the question.” 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’s 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’ve 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 🇸🇪

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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 🇷🇺

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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 “walkable,” 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’re not really fans of cruise line excursions. They tend to be pretty expensive (our “Berlin on your own” 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’s 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’s 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’ve done, and it’s 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 façade, 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 🇫🇮

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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’t worry – our Finnish adventures didn’t 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’t 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 – 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 – 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’ve 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 “appetizers” 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’s 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!