Jul 082017
 

Up way too early, and check out at the AC Hotel was just as inefficient as the check in had been. Overall, given the price and quality of the room I would stay here again, but for a major chain hotel it was one of the least welcoming and service-oriented I have stayed in in a long time.

To that point that when we tried to take the airport shuttle to the airport (which we had confirmed the day before) the driver refused to take us, saying there were no reservations. Only by complaining to the front desk (who also had no record of our reservation from the day before) did they begrudgingly agree to take us. Oh, and on the way, we stopped at the other AC hotel and picked up several people. Were they just planning to not go at all? It made no sense.

We got to the airport, and check-in was an equally unpleasant experience. The checkin agent from Binter Canarias made a dramatic point of telling us it was a very small plane, and no, you can’t carry your bags on with you. Lots of sighing and unhappiness, but no requests for money, and our larger bags were checked. We were off to security which was quick and efficient, and then I was on a mission: find the Starbucks allegedly located somewhere in this airport.

It wasn’t too hard to find at the far end of the terminal from where our gate was, although they clearly had spelling issues. Also, not too sure why there’s Hebrew writing on my Evian bottle off the western coast of Africa, but it is what it is. I had caffeine, and I was a happy camper.

By the time we made our way to the gate it was almost time to board, which was via a bus, but all in all pretty quick and efficient. No complaints at all.

Binter Canarias flight 912
Las Palmas, Islas Canarias, Spain (LPA) to Funchal, Madeira, Portugal (FNC)
Depart 10:50, Arrive 12:20, Flight Time: 1:30
ATR 72-500, Registration EC-JQL, Manufactured 2006, Seat 11C
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 62,798
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,439,775

Nice short flight in a relatively newish ATR-72, and to Binter’s credit, they served a sandwich and choice of drink on this short flight. I never feel like juice, but decided to order a pineapple juice. Maybe I subconsciously wanted to show that I knew the Spanish word for pineapple – who knows. Overall, given the flight length, aircraft, and route, I was pretty impressed overall with Binter (minus the salty checkin agent, of course).

After landing, I waited for our bags while Ian went and got the rental car sorted. He was driving this time, due to the lack of affordable automatic transitions, so it was up to him how and in what we got around. We got a relatively tiny car, which in the end would turn out to be somewhat of a blessing on the compact roads of Madeira.

Thanks to google maps, we had no problem at all finding the “hotel” we had reserved on booking.com, which in reality was really more of an AirBnB type situation. It was someone’s apartment which they had found a way to list, and honestly, it was my first AirBnB type stay. The owner was super good with communication in advance, and had directed us to a local parking garage which was perfect for us – about five minutes walk from the flat.

When we got there, the housekeeping lady was waiting for us, and gave us the keys without saying much at all. I got the impression she thought we wouldn’t speak/understand Portuguese at all, and that was fine. The flat was absolutely huge, about 100 square meters, with three bedrooms – way more than we needed. Yes, there was no air conditioning, which wasn’t great as it was quite warm, but for a couple of nights we dealt with it.

After grabbing a quick lunch near the flat, we decided to take the cable car up to the top of the mountains to see Madeira from above. The view just after leaving the cable car station:

Crossing over a highway on the way to the top:

View from the top:

We grabbed a small snack at the top (there’s a local liquor called “poncha” which is basically a strong fruit-based liquor with a pretty high alcohol content) so I had a mandarin one and a delicious Portuguese tart before walking around a bit. After walking around, it was time for the long cable car ride back to sea level. Pic on the way down with another car crossing behind:

Nearing the coast again. Nothing but Atlantic Ocean in the distance:

We relaxed for a bit in the flat and had a couple of glasses of wine, before heading out to find some dinner. We walked along the water to a place that looked interesting called Beerhouse. Even if the food wouldn’t be great, the view of all the boats on the water plus the hills of Madeira made for a great view:

After dinner we walked down the busy street near the flat (the Rua de Santa Maria) which was full of restaurants and bars. We stopped at a place called the Mercearia da Poncha which had just about every kind of poncha imaginable on the menu. I forget what Ian had, but I was brave and tried the absinthe poncha. It was definitely a good nightcap, and despite the warm temperatures in the flat I slept reasonably well.

Up early the next morning to begin our driving adventure around Madeira. We had slept in a bit and gotten a reasonably late start, so grabbed brunch near the flat which did reasonable coffees and sandwiches. Shortly before noon, we were finally ready to head out and explore the island.

We headed west out of town, to what was flagged as a great viewpoint – a “miradouro” which would become a term we would be familiar with over the next few days. The drive to the top was pretty terrifying as someone who doesn’t do great with heights, but when we got to the top of the Cabo Girão viewpoint we were rewarded with a great view:

Steep cliffs, 600 meter drop straight into the Atlantic:

After a small snack and a poncha to deal with the winding roads, we headed west to turn inland towards the north coast of Madeira on the VE4 road. Great views in the valley between two mountains/hills:

Looking down into the valley. Winding roads and hills everywhere:

Looking back towards the southern coast of Madeira. Gorgeous views:

After we reached the northern shore we turned east on the VE1. For some reason, google maps didn’t think this was a great way to the eastern coast (it wanted to send is all the way back south and east instead of along the northern shore) but with views like this, they must be wrong:

As we continued east, the road got progressively worse, until it was like this….hundreds of feet in elevation from the shore, and look at that tiny tunnel ahead:

Yes, this was taken from the car on the tiny road we were on. The northern shore almost reminded me of the Road from Hana on Maui, which has some similarly narrow and high up scary roads:

But the views made it so worth it:

I mean, look at this. Worth every minute of the relatively terrifying drive:

Eventually we got close to the eastern tip of the island, and the roads majorly improved. After stopping at a gas station for some Red Bull and snacks, we continued to the eastern tip of the island. The Ponta do Buraco looked to be a pretty major viewpoint (again, miradouro in Portuguese) on google maps, and it lived up to it when we got there:

I mean, look at the panorama of the bay:

Posing for a pic against beautiful nature:

After driving back to the city it was already evening, and a quick shower saw us off to dinner. We decided to stay near the flat since we had an early morning coming up, and ate at Restaurant Mozart. The Maitre D (dressed as Salieri) was an absolute hoot, and stopped by our table repeatedly during dinner to check up on us. Personally, I think he just had a thing for Ian 😉  Bottle of wine and tasting menu ordered, and away we go. Amuse bouche…with a Dorito. Very nouvelle cuisine of them:

For a starter, I went with the Beethoven, which was a delicious octopus carpaccio:

Next up was the Pedro de Cristo, parrot fish with baked tomato and brie cheese. Also excellent.

Selfie against the restaurant sign. We might have had a bit of wine at this point.

a small pre-dessert. As I mentioned, the service was excellent:

Desert was the Handel – honey cake pudding with crunchy topping and ice cream. Amazing.

The whole dinner was superb, and for the price I can’t recommend Mozart highly enough. Al fresco dining, super service, and a super tasty meal. Overall, much much more than I expected to find on the dining scene in Funchal!

After a good night of sleep, we picked a random cafe near the car park for breakfast the next morning. Espresso and pasteis de nata (portuguese custard tarts) for breakfast – can’t beat it for three euro!

After breakfast we left the flat (just leave the keys inside) and parked the car to check out the Christian Renaldo (aka CR7) museum. It was the biggest egopiece of a museum I’ve ever seen (and I’ve been to North Korea) – the trophy room:

Vanity paintings all over the walls:

Even the staircase to the lower level was nothing but vanity:

Someone loves himself:

All in all, we crammed a lot into 1.5 days in Madeira. I could see spending more time there, but only if you wanted a really relaxing trip – or wanted to take things slowly. The driving is definitely not for the faint of heart, but I was super impressed by the quality of the food and the nature on the island.

Next, it was off to the airport and onto another Portuguese Island group, the Azores!

Jun 232017
 

It had been a few years since I’d been to Barcelona, and even then I had just rented a car at the airport and headed straight for Andorra. This time we would have a full long evening/morning in Barcelona before heading to Andorra to check it off for Ian as well as do a bit of shopping.

I had picked our hotel based on a combo of location, reviews, and cost. It was located about halfway between the airport and the city, and looked to have great transportation options to both. We made the mistake of hopping on the bus to get there, which while not a mistake wasn’t quite as easy and fast as the subway would have been. Both are a straight shot with no transfers and roughly the same price.

Our hotel was the Renaissance Barcelona Fira Hotel, which I’m pretty sure was the most uniquely designed hotel I’ve ever stayed in – and that’s saying quite a lot after going to every country. Check-in was good, Marriott status was recognized and we were offered upgraded rooms on a high floor with complimentary wine and cheese delivered to the room. Nice touch! English skills of the staff were also quite good, and they were extremely friendly and helpful.

Elevators up to the room, and this is what greeted us coming off the elevators:

The hotel is build in a basically as two long/slim corridors with a series of open-air walkways connecting them:

View from my room across the open atrium to the other “tier” of rooms on the floor. You can see elevators to the left and a staircase to the right:

After checking in and enjoying the small bottle of wine and cheese plate which was quite generous, we hopped on the subway to enjoy the long daylight in Barcelona. Sunset was after 9pm, so we had plenty of time to do some wandering before grabbing a bite to eat. First, mandatory shot of La Sagrada Familia:

We wandered a bit more, but it was already 8pm and we were getting hungry. Unfortunately, the first two places were closed because it was Sunday, and we eventually ended up at CocoVail Beer Hall, which had an amazing selection of local craft beers to explore:

Look at that selection of local meets and cheeses!

After a delicious dinner, we decided to wander the city a bit more, and ended up at Kælderkold, another pub with an amazing list of (mostly imported) craft beers. Unfortunately, it was about 30 degrees inside and packed with obnoxious drunk american college students drinking with their parents, but the bartenders and selection of beers was fantastic.

Got back to the hotel around 1am, and the rooftop pool bar was still going strong, so we enjoyed one last drink before calling it a night. A surprisingly “early” night for Spain, but hey, it was a Sunday…

Slept in a bit the next morning, walked for a bit, and got this picture of the hotel which more clearly shows the two sides where the rooms are, and the walkways that connect them:

View from the entrance. I loved the hotel and it’s funky architecture, but probably not to be recommended to those with a serious fear of heights, as it was rather open:

View from the rooftop pool and bar:

I could seriously see just spending a day lounging around at the rooftop pool and enjoying the sun:

One last shot of the open-air atrium:

We checked out around noon, headed to the airport, where Hertz apparently didn’t know which terminal to expect us at, so our car was at the other terminal. They unfortunately had no automatic transmissions at the terminal we were at, but the friendly agent assured us it would be worth the wait to drive it over to us. 15 minutes later, a fantastic E-Class Mercedes showed up – what a fantastic upgrade! This was going to make the drive to Andorra lots of fun!

This is probably old news for those who do a lot of driving in Europe, but in the couple of years since I had gone to Andorra the number of tolls on the route had multiplied massively. I remember one or two in each direction on my previous trip, but this time we had at least 6-8 different tolls. The tolls are fantastic, however, because you can just pull up, put your credit card in, and away you go. Nice and convenient, and the only downside is that you don’t get a receipt.

After about two hours of driving it was definitely time for some food, and we stopped off at a small gas station/restaurant and took our chance. It was a set menu with three choices of starter, main, and dessert – all for something like 12 euro if I remember correctly.

I chose the amazing gazpacho to start – which was super tasty:

Sorry Peter Rabbit, but you were delicious…although a lot of work for very little meat…which isn’t unusual for rabbit.

…and a delicious flan and espresso to finish it off. Great value!

Rest of the drive to Andorra was uneventful. Unfortunately, for the second time, I couldn’t find the place to pull over and ask Andorran officials for a passport stamp, so missed out on that once again. Not the end of the world, and like my previous visit I remember thinking “I can at least can an exit stamp on the way out of the country” so completely missed out.

Fortunately, this was my second trip and we were staying in the same hotel, so it was relatively easy to get there. I neglected to mention that the Mercedes also came with navigation which made it much easier to find our hotel. I remember wandering the one-way streets of Andorra la Vella last time and having a hard time. This time was comparatively super easy.

Now, time to head out and enjoy Andorra!

Sep 222014
 

Plan was to wake up early in order to have a nice casual drive to Barcelona. However, jetlag was starting to catch up to me, and I just couldn’t do it. Finally made it up around 9am, and headed down to the hotel restaurant for a quick breakfast. Hard boiled eggs, baguettes with Nutella, and some good strong coffee. What’s not to love? The very nice dining room of the Casa Canut:

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After breakfast, I wanted to mail a few postcards, so wandered the town trying to find the local post office to mail them. I’d purchased postcards and stamps the night before and wrote the out over breakfast. The walk was a nice wake-up, and I got another good view of the ferris wheel in daylight:

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Then, it was time to drive. Checked out of the hotel around 10:30, and the doorman brought Pépé the Smart Car around for me.  First stop was Llívia, a small Spanish enclave completely surrounded by France. The route highlighted on the map below is the route I took into Andorra from Spain. I was planning to go out the east side on the yellow road you see, and head down the E9 highway to Llívia. This border of Andorra was supposed to be much, much more mountainous, and a very scenic drive.

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Total travel time was forecast at one hour and 13 minutes, so I was expecting 1:30 to 2 hours with stops along the way for photos:

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Leaving Andorra la Vella, some amazing views:

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Sep 182014
 

After fueling up at Starbucks…

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…it was time to find terminal 3 at CDG. I made my way to the CDGVal train, which was pretty self explanatory, and then there was the maybe 200 meter walk to T3. It seemed kind of silly, but I’m used to the C-terminal train at Dulles which also involves a long walk to the terminal, so I’m used to strangely planned train systems.

What I’m not used to is airport terminals that feel like a warehouse. Or bus terminal. Some place that not only doesn’t have first class facilities, but no lounges whatsoever. It was a terrifying place. I started to break out in a cold sweat. What’s this…a line…and there’s no way to cut to the front of it. What’s worse, after 20 minutes standing in it, I was still stuck in the line!  Dear God, I take back every thing I’ve said about how being elite on United no longer is what it used to be…it was traumatizing.  30 minutes later, I was at the front of the line…and based how slowly the line moved I expected the Spanish Inquisition (see what I did there?) before I could check in.

J’ai déja enregistré et j’ai besoin seulement de mon carte d’embarquement….” (looks at passport, tap tap tap, clunk clunk clunk) and out comes my boarding pass. That’s it.  15 seconds. I waited in line for 30 minutes for a 15 second transaction. Dear Vueling: YOU NEED KIOSKS. KTHXBYE LOVE YOU.

I still had about an hour until my flight, so find a little store selling bottled water…it was reasonably priced and I decided to head for security. Took all of 5 minutes to get through, and the waiting area on the other side was just a large collection of seats for 5 or 6 “gates” which were really just doors to busses since T3 has no jetbridges.

Bus to the plane at departure time, and we finally left about 20 minutes late. I’d paid an extra 10 euro to sit in the exit row, which at 6’3 is more than worth it. I shared the row with two very lovely ladies from Kansas who were going on a Mediterranean cruise.  They spent the next 90 minutes telling me all the fascinating things they’d discovered in their few days in Paris. I did lots of smiling and nodding and pretending to be fascinated 😉

Vueling flight 8243
Paris, Charles de Gaulle (CDG) to Barcelona, Spain (BCN)
Depart 9:50, Arrive 11:35, Flight Time 1:45
Airbus A320, Registration EC-JSY, Manufactured 2006, Seat 14D

So, what was it like to fly a low cost carrier?  Well, not that bad.

I had legroom.  Chatty, but nice row-mates.  I got a Coke Light…it cost me like 3 euro, but I got one.  We were only 30 minutes late, so all in all, I can’t really complain too much.  The best part was the exit row briefing…you had to speak and understand either Catalan or English to be allowed to sit there.  I got briefed in Spanish, which I was super proud of being able to pass well enough in, and the nice ladies from Kansas got briefed in English.  All went well.

Then…it was off through Barcelona to find my car.  I have a confession here.  I can’t drive a manual transmission.  About 100 countries ago I said I’d learn.  I still haven’t.

My options?  A Mercedes E Class at 199 Euro a day (for two days…ouch!) or a Smart Car for about 50 Euro a day.  You can guess what I chose.  The rental agent spoke basic english, and combined with my basic Spanish we got the song and dance done…including the “are you SURE you don’t want extra insurance?”  Yes.  “Oh, and one last thing…se llama Pépé.”  Yes, my car had a name according to the rental agent.

Introducing…Pépé:

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Now, it’s important to remember.  I’m not a small guy.  I’m 6’3 and north of 200 pounds.  There was enough room in this car for me and my one tiny bag, but that’s about all.  I was welcomed with this hangtag in the car:

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She’s winking at me…there’s something she knows I don’t.  Oh, wait, it’s how to drive this thing!  Wait, I have to shift even though it’s an automatic?  Yes, there’s no clutch, but still the shift from 1st to 2nd up to 5th etc was a manual shift.  Once I kinda got the hang of that…I was off.  Fortunately it took a long time to get out of the car park, which gave me lots of practice.  Programmed Google Maps on my iPhone to read me directions to Andorra…and I was off to brave the highways of Spain!

The first hour was a bit of a hot mess.  I made several wrong turns, forgot to shift, got stuck doing 80 kph on the highway, it was a wreck.  But eventually after 90 minutes or so I was getting the hang of it.  Just in time to pull into a rest stop and refuel.  I needed caffeine and calories.  See, isn’t Pépé gorgeous in the sunlight?  It was about 85F and a gorgeous day.

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Nov 072011
 

Slept in just a little, and woke up and drove up to the lodge for breakfast. It was just far enough that you didn’t want to walk it on a very very chilly morning. Breakfast was on the deck, and it was an amazing setting. I really want to come back here for a bit longer to do some hiking. The area is gorgeous.

After breakfast, we took a slow trip back to the room to pack up…a view of the five individual rooms at the resort: Continue reading »