Saturday, May 29, 2010

Uncle P and Auntie C go to Wales

With 2 weeks to go before heading to South Africa for the greatest show on earth (no, not Barnum and Baily’s Circus, we’re talking about the World Cup of course) we had just enough time to nip up to Wales and spend some time catching up with Lee’s big sis Kylie and her family.

The Sheppard fam consists of husband Huw and little ones James (3) and Eliza (8 months) and they live in an idyllic little village located just outside of Cardiff named Gwaelod-Y-Garth.  Yes, it’s a lot to get your lips round initially but as far as Welsh names go, it’s a pretty basic entry.

The Sheppards

Anyway, we were really looking forward to the visit.  It’s been about 18 months since Lee’s last visit so little James was only a nipper and Eliza wasn’t even a twinkle in her mum and dad’s eyes.  Court has been dying to meet the “babies” for a while now so she was very excited.

The weather was gorgeous for our entire stay in Wales (that’s not a misprint) so we took full advantage by planning plenty of outdoor activities (well, Kylie planned plenty of outdoor activities and we just went along to enjoy them).

First up was a spot of history.  There are a few things on the “must do” list when you visit Wales and checking out a castle is right up there.  The Cardiff area has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to castles so we had plenty to choose from.  We ended up going to the very old and very impressive Caerphilly Castle.  Built in the 13th Century by some ginger chap named Gilbert ‘The Red’ de Clare, Caerphilly is the second largest castle in Britain, the Queen’s digs at Windsor are the biggest.   After suffering several attacks over the next few hundred years the castle gradually fell into disrepair.  Then in the 18th Century the Marquess of Bute began restoration work to bring it back to its former glories.  Quite a bit of work has been done and it looks pretty good these days.

 Caerphilly Castle

James feeding the ducks

I should mention at this point that many of the historical tidbits featured in this blog entry are courtesy of my brother-in-law Huw who it turns out knows a fair bit about Welsh history and castles and played the role of tour guide for the day.  Wikipedia also added some flavor.  So, any inaccuracies should be taken up with them.

The following day we went to Margam Country Park for a picnic.  James brought his bike along and we even had a kick-around with the soccer ball.  His dad kept insisting the ball was the wrong shape but Lee thinks he saw some definite potential.  The highlight of the day was riding the train, one of James’ favorite activities, as we got to watch James try with all his might to contain his excitement.  We also got to watch Lee demonstrate his baby handling skills as he grappled with Eliza who was intent on really putting him to the test with lots of wriggling.  She escaped fairly unscathed as Lee only managed to bang her head on the roof of the train once.

Eliza looking a bit nervous about her uncle's lack of baby experience

The Museum of Welsh Life is an open-air museum of all things Welsh.   It’s actually much better than it sounds and we spent a lovely afternoon there.  There are over forty buildings representing Welsh architecture and various traditional crafts are on display.  There’s even a small working farm with cows, pigs and horses.

The weather continued to hold so we headed for the beach.  We went to Caswell Bay, which is located in the southeast of the Gower Peninsula in Swansea.  Kylie and Huw take the kids there often and it’s a really beautiful area.  We spent a few hours playing on the beach.  James enjoyed splashing in the surf while Eliza enjoyed eating sand.

We really enjoyed all the sightseeing we did but what we enjoyed most was spending time with Kylie and Huw and getting to know Lee’s nephew and niece.   Looking forward to visiting them again after we get back from South Africa in the summer.

Friday, May 28, 2010

En Espana con nuestras familias

We were both looking forward to spending some on the south coast of Spain with our families.  When we left Greece we thought we would be saying goodbye to the sunshine for sure…but when we arrived at the Alicante airport the sun was still shining.

 We spent the first week relaxing with Lee’s mother and her husband John in their house in Torrevieja on the Costa Blanca in Spain.   The first day we arrived we took a walk into town on the pedestrian/bike path referred to as the “yellow brick road.” The main industry in Torrevieja is salt mining, which is evident during our exploring by the salt flats and mountains of salt surrounding the town.  The town itself is beautiful.  There is a large marina and beaches surrounding the coastline.

On our first Sunday, John and Maggie took us to one of the local markets in the area called The Lemon tree located about 20 minutes from their house.  We spent about two hours searching through the market.  You could buy anything from a pair of sunglasses to a new puppy.  It was fun to compare and contrast the market from the ones we were used to seeing in Southeast Asia.  Of course we did not go home empty handed…Courtney bought a new sundress!

After a couple more days of relaxing, reading our books, and soaking up the hot sun it was time for Courtney’s Mom and her husband Tom to arrive.  There was a brief moment when we did not think they were going to make it because the volcano in Iceland was acting up again, but with only a two-hour delay they safely arrived.  With no real goals for their trip, we decided to stay local and check out some things that Torreveija had to offer. 

We did some more exploring of town by foot and by car.  Tom was nicknamed the “terror of torrevieja” and the “menace of the roundabouts” because he could not quite get a handle on the very unconventional driving customs in Spain.  Thankfully no children or animals were hurt during their stay.

On our only cloudy day, we took a drive to a town called Guardamar to check out the famous beaches.  The sun came out for us after all and we enjoyed some traditional tapas by the sea.  Another day we took a coastline boat tour, which departed from the downtown Marina.  It was nice to the see the city from a different perspective.  We were able to get some good beach time on one of the beaches in the town centre called La Playa de los locos…appropriately named “the beach of mad men.”  It was great to have some familiar faces join us for part of our journey and of course nice for our families to meet one another.

After Maggie, John, Davida and Tom left us we decided to spend our last two days in Spain with some of Lee’s family friends who have retired to the area.  We had a lovely BBQ and spent one of our days lounging on a local beach called Cabo Roig.  This beach is a must see with it’s beach bar/restaurant and beautiful views.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Athens on a Shoestring

After 2 amazing months in Southeast Asia we were headed for Europe, first stop Greece.  We really wanted to hit one of the Greek Islands for some more fun in the sun but, still reeling from our Australian spendfest, we decided not to splurge on the extra travel costs and instead hang out in Athens.  We had a week in Greece and two main goals: (1) spend as little money as possible, (2) see and do as much as we could.  Now, these two goals may seem at odds with one another but through some effort and a little bit of luck we did pretty well.  And so, we bring you our guide to Athens on a Shoestring:

Ride the Metro (or the bus, tram, or trolley).  The Athens Metro is pretty snazzy, no doubt due to the piles of money that was used to upgrade it for the 2000 Olympics.  We purchased 7-day travel passes for only 10 euros each that allowed to travel anywhere in Athens on the Metro or on any bus, tram or trolley.  It even got us out of town to the beaches along the southern coast.  Compare that to London where you’ll pay 4 pounds to go one stop!

Stay at Hotel Neos Olympos.  We found this place after reading some favourable reviews on TripAdvisor.  It’s located pretty close to the Larissa Train Station so getting to and from the major attractions in Athens is really easy.  We decided to get a private room but with a shared bathroom which saved us about 5 euros a night.  The room was nice and comfortable, if a little basic.  Also, as we were staying for 6 nights we were able to negotiate a 10 percent discount on the room.  Where this place really paid off for us budget travellers though was the free breakfast.  Each morning we filled up on cereal, boiled eggs, crusty bread, ham, cheese, and tea and coffee.  They also had these huge oranges which was great as we ended up sneaking a few extra oranges into our bag each day so that we didn’t have to spend money on lunch! Oh, and they had free internet.  Check ‘em out:

Visit the Acropolis on the first Sunday of the month.  We found out through TripAdvisor (again) that the Acropolis is free on the first Sunday of every month (that might not be accurate so if you’re going check beforehand.  It was definitely free on the first Sunday in May though).  The normal price of admission is around 12 euros so it was a huge savings.  Of course, as it was free the place was completely crawling with tourists but then the Acropolis is generally quite busy.  If you really want to beat the crowds the best time to go is probably early morning.  We just went at midday as we’re too lazy to get up that early.  If you’re not lucky enough to be in Athens on the first Sunday of the month and don’t want to pay to see the big ruins you could always just hike up Filopappos Hill.  It’s free, there’s a nice view of the Acropolis, and you can even have some fun with cameras as evidenced by this piece of photographic wizardry.

View the Temple of Olympian Zeus from afar.  These ruins are pretty cool and definitely worth seeing but do they really look that different whether you’re looking at them from 5 feet or 500 feet?  We decided to enjoy the Temple from outside the fence and save ourselves 2 euros a pop.

 Looks just as old from here

Walk around the famous Plaka.  That’s right, walk.  Don’t buy anything, that’ll cost money.  Just walk.  It’s quite a nice area and you might find yourself enjoying watching other people spending their own cash while yours stays safely tucked away in your pocket.

Watching these guys do their thing (whatever that is) was free too

Eat gyros.  They’re traditional, delicious, cheap, and fat free (well, maybe not the last one).  Throw in a Greek Salad to share and you’ve got a tasty meal that won’t break the bank.  This was our dinner every night, we couldn’t afford anything else.  Stupid Euro.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Things Seen on the Back of a Motorbike in Southeast Asia

4 Upside down dead pigs
1 television
1 family of five
50 dead ducks
1 full size refrigerator
1 six foot ladder
100 plus coconuts
1 Courtney
4 five foot tall porcelain vases
1 glass display case full of pastries and danish
1 large spool of chain link fencing
2 ironing boards
1 sleeping child
1 Lee
100 plus sheets of rice paper
1 Monk smoking a cigarette
10 large truck tires
60 plus pots and pans

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Koh Lanta

After 7 weeks, 4 countries, 20 towns/cities, and over 3,000 miles our Southeast Asia adventure was nearing it's end.  After so much traveling, and with a week left before our flight to Greece, we decided to head to southern Thailand for some beach time.  We chose to go to the island of Koh Lanta as we had heard that the beaches are beautiful and it's a little quieter than some of Thailand's other islands.  Koh Lanta is on the west coast of southern Thailand in Krabi Province.  From Phnom Penh we decided to grab a cheap flight to Bangkok and then another to Phuket and from their we hopped on one of the numerous boats that ferry visitors to and from the islands in high season.

On the boat from Phuket to Lanta
We had one thing in mind when we decided to go to the Thai islands - bungalow on the beach!  After a bit of comparison shopping (we spent the first night in a place called Moonwalk Resort.  Nice bungalows and swimming pool but the owners weren't very friendly or helpful and it was a bit pricey) we found our happy place - Lanta Emerald.  Bungalow 30 feet from the beach, swimming pool, awesome beachside bar and friendly family running the place.  Perfect.

For the first couple of days we hung out on the beach and by the pool.  By the third day we were ready to do some more exploring.  At this point, we've been moving around so much that neither of us are very good at staying still for long.  Having learned nothing from our experience in Laos, we proceeded to rent another motorbike to get us around.  Bit of a risk given Lee's motorbike driving record (experience: 1 day/ accidents: 1) but it really was the only way to get around on the island.  That or forking over about $10 a ride to a local tuk tuk.  It only cost $7 to rent the bike for the whole day so we decided it was more important to save our money than our skin.  Fortunately there were no spills this time and Lee now considers himself an expert motorbike driver (experience: 3 days/ accidents: 1.  A much more respectable record).

Lanta Old Town
With the bike we were able to visit Lanta Old Town on the other side of the island and we also discovered some stunning secluded beaches along the southwest coast.  On a couple of occasions we attempted to find some markets to do some shopping but nobody quite knew when they would be open.  We received several tips that a rather large market would be open on Sunday up by the ferry pier,  We were even told the best time to go (3pm apparently).  So we scooted up there mid-afternoon only to find that it had finished up earlier that morning.

Secluded beach
In the evenings we tried a few different restaurants/bars for dinner and drinks but the best one on the island seemed to be our very own beach bar, the Ting Tong Bar.  Run by a friendly group of Sea Gypsies (there's actually a Sea Gypsy Village on Koh Lanta.  Seriously, look it up. ok here you go: the Ting Tong Bar was hopping every night.  "Toffee" seemed to be the main man and he spent each night making sure everyone was enjoying themselves.  The food was pretty good too.  Our favorite dish was probably the seafood Mussaman Curry, delicious!  We also met a nice couple from London, Chris and Sarah (they were actually our bungalow neighbors) and their friend Gary who we hung out with for a few days.

View of sunset from the Ting Tong Bar
Koh Lanta is definitely on the list of places we have to go back to.  To be honest, most of the places we visited in this part of the world are on that list.  Until next time.