Madrid (Spain) in two days

Madrid, originally Myrit, was set up by Moors in about 700 AD, to fight against Catholic Spanish stronghold of Toledo which used to be the old capital of the Castile kingdom.

  1. Public transport is good, get a Metro card with ten tickets, it can even be shared simultaneously.
  2. Beware of pickpockets.
  3. Credit card acceptance is high, but not 100%.
  4. Churros + hot chocolate are famous in Madrid.
  5. The city has pedestrianized itself over time, so the city center is entirely car-free.

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Budapest (Hungary) in Two Days

Budapest, pronounced Budapescht, consists of two cities, hilly Buda in the west, and flat Pest in the south. The city structure is similar to Prague.

Day 1

Start your day with a walking tour. While there are many specific ones like focusing on Jewish quarters etc. I chose the generic one which covers the history and the culture of the city. After the tour, spend time checking out the castle before heading down to the Hospital in the rock. It was a hospital built during the cold war to survive a nuclear attack. The guided tour at this place is subpar though.

Castle

Buda Castle

Chapel at Buda Castle

Chapel at Buda Castle

Bunker Hospital

Bunker Hospital

Check out the Mansfeld Peter Memorial and Zero kilometer Stone while going down from the castle.

Peter Mansfield Memorial

Peter Mansfield Memorial

0 KM

0 KM

And then before crossing over to the Pest side, take a bus to Citadella for a few more views of the city.

View of Budapest from Citadella

View of Budapest from Citadella

Day 2

Start the day with St. Stephen’s Basilica. There is a hand of Stephen, the first king of Hungary, inside. It is illegal to construct a building taller than this in Budapest. The Hungary Parliament building is precisely the same height.

St. Stephen's Basilica

St. Stephen’s Basilica

Stephen's hand

Stephen’s hand

Next, head to Shoes on the Danube Bank, which are placed by Hungarians in the memory of the Holocaust victims.

Shoes at Danube River

Shoes at Danube River

Later at night, check out Szimpla Kert and Red Ruin, the two famous ruin bars among many others.

Szimpla Kert

Szimpla Kert

Red Ruin

Red Ruin

Note that Budapest is famous for the thermal baths as well. I felt that they are glorified hot water pools with high prices and decided to skip them.

Vienna in two days

Vienna is a historic city. First, a pivotal battle between the Ottoman Empire and Western Europe was fought in 1683 and then, during the second world war, significant support to Hitler came from Vienna.

Some tips for the first timers

  1. The dominant spoken language is German, but it is not hard to find English speakers.
  2. Public transport is great and a 24-hour pass costs 8 Euros.
  3. Most of the good spots are near the city center, so, don’t stay too far away.
  4. Toilets inside shopping malls, big grocery stores, and restaurants are usually free. Outside ones charge 0.5 Euro.

Which museum to see

Vienna is full of museums, and one can spend a week just checking out the museums. Entry cost varies from 4 Euros to 20 Euros. I would recommend deciding what you want to see and make a decision based on that. I was not interested in checking out natural history or art museums since they are similar to the museums I have seen before. Therefore, I picked “Museum of Art Fakes” and “Museum of Abortion and Contraception.” Both unusual and unique to Vienna.

Day 1

Start your day with a tip-only walking tour which gives you a good understanding of the history as well as the culture of this city. After the tour, spend time checking out St. Stephen’s Cathedral, a 13th century 444-ft tall Church which was the tallest building of its time.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral

An old Nail Tree with nails nailed in for good luck is nearby and easy to miss.

Nail Tree

Next, head to Danube riverfront for a walk, it is a bit overhyped, so, feel free to skip it as well.

Danube Riverfront

Then head to the Open air market, Naschmarkt, prices are competitive, and it is a great place to grab fresh fruits.

Naschmarkt

Next, head to the Museum of Abortion and Contraception. It is small, it takes about an hour to see the full museum, and it has a good audio tour in multiple languages. Most writings on the wall, unfortunately, are only in German. The museum covers the legal, technological, and social battle fought for birth control rights.

Day 2

Head to the Republic of Kugel Mugel, a micronation inside Vienna. There isn’t much except a ball, so, don’t raise hopes.

Kugel Mugel

Then head to weird houses designed by Hundertwasser.

Weird house; weird design

And next door is the Museum of Art Fakes which covers the art forgery in great detail. The museum is small but has an unusually high-quality collection of both samples and anecdotes to learn from.

Museum of Art Fakes

Maui (Hawaii) in 4 days

Maui is a small but beautiful island of Hawai’i. Here is a recommended 4-day itinerary for Maui. This is a slightly modified version of what I was able to do. The public transport on the island is poor. For solo travel outside the rainy season, I would recommend renting a moped to go around. Otherwise, rent a car.

The island has a much more developed western part consisting of Kaanapali which has major resorts and Lahaina which area.

Day 1

Start with Road to Hanaa, it’s a day-long activity and you do want to do this early on when it’s not raining.

My trip overlapped with Deepak Sharma

My trip overlapped with Deepak Sharma

Don’t forget to eat Aunty Sandy’s Banana bread on the way.

Day 2

Wake up early to get to Haleakala National Park to watch a beautiful sunrise. You can hike down in Haleakala National Park afterward. Its interesting flora and fauna but not a great hike.

Sunrise at Haleakala National Park

Hiking at Haleakala

In the evening, head to Kaanapali, the beaches are great and do jump off the Black Rock cliff into the Pacific ocean.

Day 3

Head south to Makena State Park, Big beach is another beautiful beach there. Do note that it is very similar to Black Rock beach, so, you can skip this entirely. In the evening, head to Lahaina to check the largest Banyan tree in the United States.

Day 4

Head to Iao Valley State Park for hiking. Spend rest of the day checking Wailuku and local delicacies.

 

 

Cruising in French Polynesia

We sailed on the Windstar cruise in French Polynesia. On a 7-day cruise, we stopped on six different islands including two days in Bora Bora.

The cruise ship has a crew of 99 and 74 staterooms for~150 passengers. This ensures extremely personalized service, and you get to know pretty much everyone else on the ship. The crew members learn everyone’s name pretty quickly and, specifically in our case, we got custom orders for vegetarian food of our choice on a regular basis.

Day 1 – Papeete

We reached Papeete airport early morning and took a local bus to Papeete. We left our bags with Windstar while we checked the local market in Papeete. Nothing outstanding but it is an excellent way to kill time. Also, Papeete markets are most reasonably priced compared to the other islands. Therefore, if you want to buy something, buy here. One can easily rent a scooter or a car (some automatic transmissions are available as well) and do a trip around the island. Given the small number of passengers on the ship, onboarding was an extremely smooth experience.

Papeete Market

View of Papeete from the ship

Day 2 – Moorea

We did a half-day Kayaking tour which included Kayaking to a motu (islet) and snorkeling in the coral garden around it. Unfortunately, due to bad weather, we could not kayak further until the Stingrays & sharks. The coral gardens were amazing. They are much better than the ones in Hawaii and similar or better than the ones in the Caribbean. Transparent Kayak further adds to the charm of being able to sneak peek what’s under you while Kayaking. The Kayaking spot is a bit far from the docking spot (Cook’s bay) and therefore, do book transportation.

Kayaking

On our way back we checked out the local market in Maharepa. Feel free to skip a visit to Maharepa. The local tourist office does provide free Wi-Fi access (password: E6DC5D69B8).

Maharepa

Day 3 – Raiatea

We rented a scooter and went around the island. We visited a few pearl farms which were closed due to the weekend. We checked out the Marae Taputapuatea, an ancient Polynesian temple which is also a UNESCO heritage site. In hindsight, we should have gone to the three waterfalls hike, but by the time we finished driving around the island, it was too late in the day.

Marae

Pearl Farm – at the edge of shallow water since shells are harvested in the deep water

Raiatea

Note: Raiatea was the only island in our trip where the ship docks. So, unlike a 10-15 min tender, one can go in and out of the ship.

Day 4 – Motu Mahaea (Tahaa)

We spend the day at Motu Mahaea, a private island experience with tons of coral gardens nearby for snorkeling. This was the first of the Windstar’s two private motu experiences which included beach chairs, beverages,  lunch, and water activities (kayaking and paddle boating) on the motu.

Motu Mahaea

Motu Mahaea

Kayaking and paddle boating at Motu Mahea

Day 5 – Bora Bora

We rented a motorboat from La Plage and steered it around the island doing snorkeling and watching stingrays. Boating gives you a good view of the island and you get to learn to boat as well. I would recommend getting a boat license online beforehand, so that, you can rent a more powerful boat and go faster.

Water bungalows of Bora Bora

A view of Bora Bora from our boat

Back on the ship, we checked out the water platform. Apart from swimming, one can do kayaking, paddle boating, wakeboarding, and water skiing here.

Water platform

This was the Christmas eve, and the crew sang Christmas carol.

Christmas Carol

We returned later at night to check the Bora Bora island; it is mostly dead apart from a few small shops serving the locals.

Night eatery at Bora Bora

Our cruise ship on Christmas Eve

Day 6 – Bora Bora

Earlier in the day, we did a part of the hike to Mt. Pahia for the views. The full hike is hard to navigate without a guide.

A view from the Mt. Pahia hike

We spent the rest of the day at Motu Tapu, another private Motu rented by Windstar for their destination discovery event which included dinner and cultural shows.

Bora Bora as seen from Motu Tapu

Cultural show on Motu Tapu

Coconut peeling with teeth

Fire stunts

The show was mesmerizing and in case you are not doing this cruise, I would highly recommend that you find an alternative way to have this experience as part of your itinerary.

Day 7 – Huahine

We did a half-day long Safari Expedition of the island which included a visit to Vanilla Farm, Pearl Farm, native fish traps, and a visit to the local sacred blue-eyed eels of the island.

Growing vanilla requires hand-pollination and makes it a labor-intensive activity. That’s why Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after Saffron.

Vanilla Farm Tour

Pearl farming involves putting a small piece of the membrane from the donor shell which along with a mollusk, an irritant, is inserted into the gonad of the host shell. the membrane grows and covers the mollusk forming the pearl. It takes about 18 months for the formation of a full pearl. And on every success, an even bigger mollusk is used to form a larger pearl from the same shell.

A shell used for growing pearls in a Pearl Farm

Tahitian fish traps are set up in the river, so, fishes flowing with the flow of the water enters the trap and gets trapped. The traps are porous enough for the water to leave but the pores are not big enough for the fishes.

Fish trap – can you spot the trapped fishes?

The locals believe that the sacred eels of Huahine are supposed to be reincarnations of their dead loved ones. They don’t kill or eat these eels.

Sacred eels of Huahine

The lush green island of Huahine as seen from a lookout

We checked out the bridge (commanding room) of the ship in the evening.

View from the bridge (commanding room)

Alas, all good things do come to an end, and so did our cruise. The captain and the crew came and bid farewell in the evening.

A goodbye from the crew

French Polynesia – the basics

Getting to French Polynesia

Getting from the US to French Polynesia used to be hard and expensive with Air Tahiti Nui being the only option from the Los Angeles airport (LAX). In 2018, French Bee and United Airlines started direct flights from San Francisco (SFO) to Papeete (PPT). Papeete, the main island, is relatively dull and there is nothing much to do on it. The two best islands are Moorea and Bora Bora. Alternatively, one can take a 10+ day-long cruise from New Zealand or Australia.

Do check whether you need a TOM visa or not on the official website. For some nationalities like Indians, a French Schengen visa suffices.

Traveling between islands

A ferry runs between Moorea and Papeete multiple times a day. Bora Bora is much further, and the only practical way to access it is to fly or take a cruise. If you are planning to fly then consider taking a multi-island pass which allows you to access multiple islands. If you are planning to cruise, Windstar and Paul Gauguin are your two options for week-long leisure cruising and Aranui for a longer adventurous cruising beyond the society islands. I, eventually, decided to go with Windstar.

Traveling on islands

On almost all islands, except Papeete, public transport is non-existent. One can rent a scooter, rent a stick-shift manual-transmission car, or take a cab. Do note that for the taxis, prices are closer to Europe than the Caribbean.

What to do

  1. Snorkeling/scuba – good coral gardens are accessible on most of the islands. Stingrays and lemon sharks visit shallow sandy areas, and one can snorkel there as well.
  2. Visit a motu (islet) – there are tons of small motus around most islands, especially, Bora Bora. Spend some time on one. Do note that beach access is not public in French Polynesia. And very few motus are public.
  3. Visit a pearl farm – to see how Tahitian black pearls are made
  4. Visit a vanilla plantation – to see how vanilla, the second most expensive spice after saffron, is extracted
  5. Watch Tahitian dance

What not to do

  1. Visit a marae (Polynesian temple) – they are not worth it. They are hyped, and unless you are an archeologist, they do not make much sense. Avoid them completely. And if you want to visit, get a guide, so that they can tell you the historical significance.
  2. Visit local markets – most stuff in the local markets is imported from China, France, the US, and New Zealand. Don’t visit a local market for the sake of it; you will be disappointed to see the lack of locally produced goods.
  3. Everything you can do elsewhere – French Polynesia is an expensive place. Don’t do anything which is not unique to French Polynesia.

Some useful Tahitian phrases

French is the official language, and everyone speaks French, some local phrases are still useful.

  1. La Ora na – Hello
  2. Maururu – Thanks
  3. Maeva – Welcome

A trip to Antelope Canyon

Antelope Canyon is probably the most photographed canyon in the world. Located in the Navajo Indian preservation, only guided tours are permitted.  We took a trip to Antelope Canyon Tours. The tour lasts about an hour, and it takes ~20 mins one-way drive to reach the canyon. There aren’t any hikes, just simple walks in the canyon. Everyone is crazy running around and taking photos, so, it does become a bit hard to enjoy in the mad rush. Even then,  if you are in the area, I would recommend booking a tour in advance to visit the canyon.

 

A vegetarian lunch at French Laundry

For the uninitiated, French Laundry is one of the best restaurants in the world. I got a chance to try the tasting menu. I had a vegetarian, or to be precise, a lacto-vegetarian (milk and cheese but not eggs) meal here.

The restaurant looks nondescript from the outside, and it is easy to miss it while driving.

French Laundry

French Laundry

It was an 8-10 course meal depending on how you count a course. Portion sizes were small but delicious. And there was a gap of about 15-20 mins before each serving, so, a total commitment of 3-4 hours for the full course.

Course 1

Course 1 begins

Crispy Chickpea Panisse (at least that’s what I remember)

Fennel Gastrique

Fennel Gastrique

Toasted Quinoa Tabbouleh

Course 2 – Toasted Quinoa Tabbouleh

 

Holland White Asparagus En Persillade

Course 3 – Holland White Asparagus En Persillade

Sacramento Delta Green Asparagus

Course 4 – Sacramento Delta Green Asparagus

Bread and Butter

Course 5 – Bread and Butter

Morel Mushroom Farci

Course 6 – Morel Mushroom Farci – did not taste like a mushroom at all but was still pretty delicious

Spring Vegetable Navarin

Course 7 – Spring Vegetable Navarin – I was starting to feel full by now

Bleu D'auvergne "French Blue cheese"

Course 8 – Bleu D’auvergne “French Blue cheese” – never tasted such cheese before

Meal ended with a mouthful of deserts

The meal ended with a mouthful of deserts

It would be a wrong question to ask whether the food was worth the time and money. The right question would be “Was the experience worth the time and money?”, I would say definitely. Being vegetarian, I was skeptical but was delighted beyond my expectations.

Escaping into Caribbean with Norwegian Escape Cruise

We took a Norwegian cruise in the western Caribbean. The cruise was seven-days long, three days onboard and four days at Falmouth (Jamaica), Georgetown (Cayman Islands), Costa Maya (Mexico), and Great Stirrup Cay (Bahamas). If you are a first time cruiser, read some of my tips for the first time cruisers.

Norwegian Escape Cruise ship

Norwegian Escape Cruise ship

Miami as seen from the ship

Miami as seen from the ship

Day 1 & 2 – at the sea

  1. The boarding is a bit of a mess. With 5000 passengers boarding and everyone required to assemble in the common area for the security briefing, it was a complete chaos for a few hours.
  2. We checked out the spa. It is well-maintained with sauna, sanatarium and an arctic room.
    Note: Unlike some other cruises like Carnival, spa access is not complementary to all cruise passengers.
  3. Sports and aqua section on the top deck is pretty good with a pool, jacuzzi, and some water rides. I had some good fun trying out their ropes adventure there. It was impressive enough that I tried it multiple times during the journey.

    Ropes - a must do adventure

    Ropes – a must do adventure

  4. Vegetarian food was good (not great) in the Asian section of the Garden Restaurant’s buffet and they do provide Indian roti on request too.

Day 3 – Falmouth, Jamaica

Falmouth

Falmouth

The cruise ship embarked in Jamaica. We took a tour of the Secret Falls and Dunn Falls in the Ocho Rios via Chukka for $70 per person. Their guide picked us from the Falmouth port and while driving gave us a good summary of the history of Jamaica, including various stops like the one where Columbus is believed to have first arrived. The drive to Secret Falls is about an hour.

Secret Falls/Blue Hole

Secret Falls/Blue Hole

Our second stop was Dunn Falls. We hiked right from the ocean back to the top of the falls. Overall, it takes about 4-5 hours to return to the cruise port.

Dunn River Falls

Dunn River Falls

I would highly recommend this activity to anyone heading to Falmouth for half a day. Back to the cruise ship, shows like live music and performances were going on. Our cruise director Tyler Gray was an amazing show host as his Facebook fan following demonstrates. We quickly learned to attend each and every show he is hosting.

Day 4 – Georgetown, Cayman Islands

Water near Cayman islands is shallow and therefore, the big ship anchors in the water at a distance, small boats, like the one shown, embark people to the port and back. Note: bid for good embarkation slots in advance.

Ships for moving passengers to Grand cayman

Ships for moving passengers to Grand Cayman

The island is green and beautiful.

Green cayman

Green Cayman

We took a three-stop snorkeling cruise by Captain Marvins for $50 per person. The three stops are the famous stingray city, the coral gardens, and the reef. The stingray experience was great but otherwise snorkeling in Caye Caulkar(Belize) was a superior experience.

Stingray city

Stingray city

Overall, this 3-hour activity was worth for us. But in case you have experienced a stingray tour before then I would recommend doing something else. The return to the ship was a complete torture as everyone headed back at the same time, the wait time to get onto the small boats was 1+ hour. Back to the ship, there were some great shows, including a great juggling performance by Scotty Cavanaugh.

Juggling

Juggling

Day 5 – Costa Maya, Mexico

Costa Maya

Costa Maya

Our next port of call was Costa Maya. The city or at least the port is extremely touristy. If you are planning to buy anything, be ready to bargain. We took a transportation + guided tour to Mayan ruins (Chacchoben) for $50 per person. The ruins are similar to but not as great asPlaza Del Sol near Mexico City. If you are in a big group, I would recommend taking a transportation-only taxi to the ruins and get a guide there at a much lower price. Or if you have seen similar ruins then skip this and head directly to the playa. A one-hour massage at the beach with beautiful views with right prices ($20) is the highlight of the beach.

Chacchoben

Chacchoben (Mayan ruins)

Mahahual, local name Costa Maya, is green wherever I looked at.

Mahahaul (Costa Maya)

Mahahual (Costa Maya)

Back on the ship, we attended a Cabaret at night. Many such events require reservations, so, don’t forget to book them in advance.

Cabaret on cruise

Cabaret on cruise

Day 6 – at the sea

Vast and endless sea

Vast and endless sea

More events continued on this sea day.

Deal or no deal game show

Deal or no deal game show

And more…

Comedy show

Comedy show

Day 7 – Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas

Great Stirrup Cay is a private island of Norwegian. While the food and water are complimentary on the island, there are tons of complaints about everything else being overpriced. The complaints are not unfounded, here is a price list of activities.

Prices at Great Stirrup Cay

Prices at Great Stirrup Cay

Apart from that, there are still tons of small things to do on the island. One can go swimming, do carry swimming goggles to see fishes. Or one can play volleyball. As on the ship, vegetarian food was plenty and good (not great).

At night, back onto the cruise, more entertainment continued into the night.

Another game show

Another game show

And with this, our cruise came to an end.

Bye Bye

Bye Bye