Friday, May 18, 2012

Europe Trip Journal Week 4, Vienna-Salzburg

Day 22:  July 13th.  Today we went to the famous Vienna Ferris Wheel.  It's 100 years old and takes 20 minutes to do a full loop.  We then went on a couple rides at the amusement park with Gwen.  She loved the Dizzy Mouse ride that Katie was brave enough to ride with her.  Mason liked the bumper cars.  We then took the subway up a couple stops to a lake that many of the locals in Vienna go to to cool off.  There has been a strong heat wave in Europe the whole time we've been here, so the lake was packed.  We walked along a neat walking/biking trail beside the lake that extends for 84 kilometers to a national park.  We went about as far as we could before the heat forced us to turn around.  We committed ourselves to coming back the next day to rent a boat with the kids.  It's always fun to stumble on something fun that most other tourists don't find.
Old Vienna Ferris Wheel

Day 23:  July 14th.  We went up and rented the boat for 3 hours and cruised up and down the lake.  There were docks all over the lake that people were sun bathing on.  There was also an island in the middle of the lake with bounce houses and a really neat family scene.  However, there was a fence that split the island in two and when our boat passed the fence to see what was on the other half of the island, we realized it was a totally nude section.  What was strange is that it seemed like all the pretty girls wear a top and all the old wrinkly grandmas take their tops off.  It is quite strange how comfortable they are walking around completely naked.

We swam in the lake with the kids.  The ouside air was 35 Celsius and the water was 28 Celsius.  It was the first time we've ever heard Katie get in any water and say "that is the perfect temperature."  The kids loved driving the boat which was a little electric one.  Mason dove in the water head first and swam away from the boat laughing.

We went back to the hotel and took naps.  Then we got up and walked into town to pick out Gwen's souvenir.  We had some dinner and then walked around Vienna.  This time we went in a different direction than we had a few nights earlier and were blown away by the size and beauty of the old buildings.  You can tell Vienna had long been a center of great wealth in Europe.  We found a well kept rose garden, beautiful cathedral and immense parliament house.

We really enjoyed our time in Vienna and went there not expecting much but found the overall atmosphere to be sophisticated and classy.  There were many great parks, lovely architecture and some neat cultural events (didn't get to partake in those this time around with Mason).  We both sort of wish we would have had more time to see the museums and castles, but thats just gives us a reason to come back some day.
Mason loving the boat

Gwen captaining our vessel

Katie and Gwen 

Cathedral in Vienna

Day 24:  July 15th.  Got up early and bought our train tickets to Salzburg.  The scenery was nice but became spectacular as we got within about 40 minutes of Salzburg and started to see the Alps in the background.  By the time we got situated in our room and had some dinner, it was time to get the kids ready for bed.  Tomorrow should be a busier day.  I'm excited to see the scenery.

Day 25:  July 16th.  Today we spent time in the city of Sazlburg.  We came across many scenes that looked familiar after seeing the movie "Sound of Music."  We saw the graveyard where the Nazis were looking for the Von Trap family.  We also saw the cathedral from the movie as well as where the family performed.  The city itself is very charming.  We did a lot of walking.  The city is having record heat and we were quite hot and came back to our room on the top floor that doesn't have any air conditioning.  It makes for a very long night.  We found out you have to pay about 50 cents per packet of ketchup at McDonalds.

Day 26:  July 17th.  We intended to rent a car today, but there weren't any available to rent.  We went back in town and took the tram up to the fortress overlooking the city.  Archeologists have found stone stoves dating back to 300 AD on top of the hill where the fortress is built.  The original church built on top of the hill was built in 1050.  The fortress was neat and had some interesting displays that included armor, swords, gold coins from 1400 and some old plates, spoons, etc.  Mason was just excited to take the cable car to the top of the hill, he gets so excited to get in anything resembling a train.

Walking home, the sky began to get overcast and cool off.  All of our moods literally began to change for the better.  I think we were all tired of being hot.  We came home to a room that was about 10 degrees cooler than the night before.  Katie did some laundry and then we went to bed and had the best sleep we've had in days.
City of Salzburg

Day 27:  July 18th.  I believe we saw some of the most beautiful parts of this world today.  We rented a car and went out into the countryside.  The drive through The Alps with all their valleys, wild flowers, sheer rock cliffs, cute village homes and alpine lakes was amazing.  I really hope that at some point in my life I make it back here to drive through some of these areas again.  We visited a little town called Hallstad that was built into this rock wall next to a picturesque lake.  There was a salt mine above the town which was the reason the town was built in the first place.  Apparently in the old days, salt was a very valuable commodity and the town thrived on the salt trade.  It's proximity to the lake did create a few challenges.  One challenge was that with the land so sparse, a villager was only allowed to be buried for 10 years and then the bones were dug up and placed in a building called "The Bone House" to make room for the next person to be buried.  We could have toured the salt mine, but figured that might not be the best place for a wild 2 year old.  Instead, we just walked down the peaceful streets looking at the most beautiful landscape I've ever seen while our 2 year old sat up in his stroller and growled at people.  I think he really embarrasses his sister.

We then continue in our rental car through the lake valleys along The Alps on what is called The Austrian Romatic Strasse.  Every angle you looked could have been a post card.  There were some low lying clouds from the rain we'd been getting that prevented us from seeing how high and steep the surrounding mountains must have been.  We plan on returning tomorrow and hopefully it will be a clear day.
Outside Hallstad with Gwen and Mason


Day 28:  July 19th.  Today we took the car on a ride up the A10 toward Vienna and got off at Mondsee.  It was another beautiful lake that was an emerald green.  We took the backroad from there to Lake Fussel.  There we went to the lake side swim platz that we had stumbled across the day before.  Buster of course loved the pool.  Gwen and I swam out to a floating platform about 200 feet from the shore and dove off the diving boards.  I was blown away with how clear, clean and warm the water was.  Locals were scooping up the water and drinking it.  There wasa  waterslide that emptied into the lake that both Gwen and Buster loved.  The kids had a great time and based on the scenery and the mood of everyone along with what a beautiful day it was, I would rank this as one of the top 10 best days of my life.

Gwen with a perfect dive at Lake Fussel

Monday, May 14, 2012

Europe Trip Journal Week 3, Dresden-Prague-Vienna

Day 15:  July 6th.  What a neat day today was.  We woke up to some rain and decided to take the advise of one of our travel books and go on a drive down the Elbe to see a couple sites.  We took a 7 hour road trip that even Gwen liked.  She usually doesn't like being in the car for so long, but enjoyed some of the sites.  The first stop was a fortress called Koenigstein.  It sits on a sheer cliff atop a mountain that overlooks the river valley and the winding Elbe about 1,000 feet below.  We could see several scenic little towns far below the fortress.  The fortress itself is about 400 years old.  There were over 50 million Euros spent to restore it.  The fortress itself was quite interesting and its placement was very strategic to block armies from moving up the river valley.

We then drove on trough one of those small towns along the river called Bad Schandau.  It was such a neat little spot that Katie and I would love to go back to some day.  We then drove through a national forest and through some amazing hillside towns.  Finally we drove to this place called Bastion, which is this rock formation about 1,000 feet above the water that really reminded us of Bryce Canyon.  It was such a beautiful ride and nice to get out of the city and go explore the countryside.
On top of Koenigstein Fortress

Mason and Katie on Koenigstein Fortress

Picturesque Elbe River Valley

Hiking at Bastion National Park

Day 17:  July 8th.  We arrived in Prague from Dresden yesterday.  Today has been a very busy day.  We started by taking the kids to the pool for about an hour.  There is a health club and pool below the hotel, which is very nice.  After everyone got ready, we headed out for the day.  We did a little shopping so Gwen could find the perfect doll to buy and after a lot of consideration and Gwen going back to the same shops several times, she finally settled on a Russian Doll set.  We went to lunch and I ordered something I had never tried before, gnocchi.  It was very good.  Then we walked around the city.  We found our way to The Charles Bridge by following the crowds.  It was really an amazing bridge with incredible sculptures.  We made our way across the bridge and started walking up hill until we finally reached the palace.  It was amazing.  There was one building in particular that had stone that from a distance looked to be painted.  Upon closer examination, we realized it had been chiseled with such precision that it looked painted, but wasn't.  And there was a ton of that stone.  The scale of the building and the time it must have taken was incredible.  We then walked through the palace and on the cathedral, St. Vitus, which was one of the most amazing architectural feats I've ever seen.  Walking through the building I was amazed at the detail and artwork that went into the walls, the stained glass, the arches, the domes and the art itself on the walls.  I could have stayed there for the whole day.  We sat outside after walking through St Vitus and took many pictures.  Gwen had a lot of questions about other churches and their beliefs.  Today's conversations have included topics like The Dark Ages, The Petruvian Man, The Renaissance, flying buttresses, popes and arch bishops, Nazis, communism, art theft, and many other things I haven't thought about since my sophomore year of high school.
St Vitus Cathedral

Day 18:  July 9th.  Today was kind of a take it easy day.  We walked up to the castle and toured the inside.  We went back to the cathedral because I had to see it again.  After that we went back to the room to rest and then went out to dinner and then went swimming at the pool.

Scott and Gwen overlooking Prague

Day 19:  July 10th.  Today we took some of the side streets and went a little further from our hotel in Prague.  We also had some kabobs and this time Gwen had one and really liked it.  We spent plenty of time at the pool and got Mason to take a long nap.  We really loved this hotel; great location and fantastic rooms.
Gwen and Katie in Old Town Square in Prague

Day 20:  July 11th.  What a crazy day.  We took the 4 hour train ride to Vienna.  It was a gorgeous ride over some beautiful mountain towns.  The 2nd class seats though had no air-conditioning at all.  With temperatures outside in the 90s, the train itself had to at least have been over 100 degrees, especially on the seat against the window that the sun came through.  Sweat was literally pouring down my face and glistening on every pore as though I had been running a race.  The kids were pretty well behaved, although Katie and I did attribute part of that to the lack of energy due to the heat.  It was just amazing that a train operates in those conditions.  Every seat was taken, people were standing up and everyone was just dripping sweat like we were all in a sauna.  I was actually surprised there were no cases of heat exhaustion.

We got to our hotel in Vienna about about 6:30.  The rooms are quite a disappointment as far as the other Marriotts we've stayed in.  Vienna is quite different from the other cities we've been in so far.  The streets are lined with building all of similar height and close to the street with no visual landmarks, so it is kind of difficult to get your bearings.  It seems very clean and already I feel safer than I felt if we ventured off the tourist beaten paths in Prague.
Mason in Vienna

Katie and Gwen in Vienna

Day 21:  July 12th.  The day started off kind of slow.  We took our laundry to a laundry mat and were told the cost would be about $28 to wash our clothes by ourselves or we could spend another $3 and they would wash and fold them for us.  We opted for the latter, but I didn't have anything clean to wear, so we stayed close to the hotel.  I went to the pool with the kids while Katie got online to register for her classes.  At the pool there were several old ladies topless.  Gwen was afraid to go to the dressing room to use the bathroom because she didn't want to see anyone naked.

We then went back to the room to let Mason take a nap.  He must have been exhausted because he didn't wake up until 5:00.  We finally got out and walked to the central part of the city.  It was a gorgeous evening and the city is beautiful.  We watched some street performers, toured a cathedral and at outside at a seafood restaurant called NordSea.  Vienna seems very proper and the people are all well dressed.  Sweden is very casual as is Germany.  Czech people seem to like to show if they have money and you're either very fancy or look poor.  Vienna just seems upscale and classy, much like the architecture.  It's nice to go to new cities and find that each has a different personality.  Quite different from the U.S. where everything is so standardized.
Fountain in Vienna

Sunset in Vienna

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Europe Trip Journal Week 2, Hamburg-Berlin-Dresden

Day 8: June 29th.  Today we fought to get out of the Malmo Renaissance by 9:00 only to find out that it was a 5 minute walk to the train station and the ride to Copenhagen is 30 minutes.  Our train left Copenhagen at 11:45 for Hamburg and we arrived at 4:20.  There was a portion of our train ride where our train was loaded on to a ferry and we went across the water to the German coast.  It was pretty interesting.
Gwen on ferry ride approaching German coast
The Marriott in Hamburg is in the middle of the city and quite nice.  It's the first hotel we've had with so far with a pool.  We ate at a roadside cafe and had Italian food.  The food has definitely been the most expensive part of the trip.  We'll go in to buy a few pieces of bread, some drinks and candy and walk out paying $30.  Good thing living in Hawaii has made us sort of numb to that.
Hamburg train station
Day 9:  June 30th.  Buster needs to catch up on his sleep.  These last few days have included a lot of travel, some late nights and a lot of time strapped to a stroller.  A deadly combination for Buster.  We've had a few melt downs in the last couple days and he's repeatedly used one of his favorite new phrases "GO AWAY."  He's also really in to punching.  he turns into quite the bully when he's tired.

We left Hamburg at 12:00 for Berlin.  We arrived at 1:45.  The arrival didn't go as smoothly as planned.  Katie got off the train with the kids and the stroller.  I walked back to get the crib and the luggage and the doors to the train closed.  Suddenly the train started to pull away.  I motioned for Katie to stay where she was.  I got off on the next stop and had to wait about 40 minutes before the next train went back.  Katie sat in place with the kids for about an hour.  She had no idea how long I'd be gone, she didn't have a phone, money, passport or anything.  We were lucky I was able to get back so quickly and that we found each other.

The train station in Berlin was very elegant and clean.  We took a taxi to the Courtyard where the kids and Katie are taking naps.  I'm exicted to be in Berlin and keep thinking what a feat it would have been for an American to be here just 20 years ago. 
Bombed out cathedral in Berlin
Day 10:  July 1st.  Today was a tiring day.  We left the room around 10:00 and went to the grocery store.  We picked up a few things and then hopped on the subway.  From there we went to the zoo.  Berlin has one of the best zoos in the world.  The kids had a good time and really enjoyed the large playground there.  We then decided to walk around.  We saw an old bombed out cathedral from WWII.  We then walked through Tiergarten back to our hotel.  Tiergarten is a huge nature park in the middle of the city.  We did see a bunch of naked dudes out sunning themselves which was kind of strange.  We walked on to Potsdammer Platz which is a very modern part of the city that has been built in the space that became available when the wall was taken down.  We saw a brick lin of pavers that outlined where The Wall once stood.  All in all we walked about 6 miles.  I was proud of Gwen for keeping up.
Gwen and Mason playing on the playground at the Berlin Zoo
Day 11:  July 2nd.  Today we moved hotels from the Courtyard to the Berlin Marriott-which is more gwen's style of hotel.  It is a very nice hotel in a great part of the city.  The Berlin Wall actually went right through the middle of the hotel, our room would have been on the East German side.  On our cab ride here we passed Checkpoint Charlie and one of the few parts of The Wall that is still standing.  After unpacking, we walked down to the Brandenburg Gate and explored around the old part of town, a lot of churches, museums, universities, all located on the East Berlin side.  We saw the spot of the famous Nazi book burning.  We tried our first "currywurst" which was basically bratwurst smothered in curry sauce.  We got another "yum" from Buster and even Gwen tried it and liked it.  We've been proud of her for trying a few new things while we've been here.  We ended up the day going to the pool.
Katie and Gwen at the Brandenburg Gate
Day 12:  July 3rd.  We finally decided to take it easy today.  We did a little grocery shopping, and bought some German chocolat (not as good as Swedish).  We bought our tickets to go to Dresden and Prague.  We then took it easy in our room before Gwen and I went to Tiergarten to watch a German World Cup match.  There were 1,000,000 people in the park.  It was intense every time Germany scored a goal.  The final score was 4-0 Germany over Argentina.  Cars drove by honking and waving German flags for 6 hours after the match.  The country is crazy about soccer.  Gwen had a good time.  Later she and I went to the movies to see "Shreck" while katie and Buster went down to the pool.
Gwen watching Germany in World Cup at Tiergarten
Day 14:  July 4th.  We left Berlin around 10:00 to go to Dresden.  The train was extremely hot.  Holding Mason didn't make it any cooler.  I'm not sure how that kids manages to get so hot!  We pulled into Dresden and it really is a beautiful city.  They have restored many of the old churches and castles that sit right on the Elbe.  Our hotel is right across the river from these old building and it is an amazing site.  We walked through town and ate at a lovely street side cafe in town with Mason screaming.  The travel days are tough of him.  He finally fell asleep in his stroller right about the time we got back to the hotel.  We ended up going to the pool with the kids after Gwen asked about 30 times.  The hotel is in a nice location but the rooms at the Dresden Westin are quite poor.  There is no A/C and it made for a long sweaty night.
Katie grabbing a pastry in Berlin train station

View across the Elbe at the old buildings of Dresden

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Europe Trip Journal Week 1, Stockholm-Malmo-Copenhagen

Day 1:  June 22nd.  We had an early morning going to the ariport.  Jen was nice enough to take us.  Not sure what we're in for.  Leaving today to fly to New York at 10:00, then on to Stockholm at 7:00 EST and arriving in Stockholm at 9:00 AM.
On way to Sweden
Day 2:  June 23rd.  Arrived in Stockholm a little tired but not too bad.  Mason did pretty well on the flight, but I wasn't able to sleep at all.  We took a taxi to the hotel, a very nice Courtyard about 5 subway stops from T-Centralen.

We walked downstairs and asked the person at the front desk how to get to Gamla Stan by subway.  He suggested that since it was such a nice day, we should take the "short" walk to Gamla Stan.  After the long flight it sounded nice to stretch our legs.  The short walk turned out to be about 2 miles each way, not to mention the stroll through Gamla Stan and walking down Drottningsgatan.  All in all, I think we walked about 5 1/2 miles.  I forgot that Swedes walk evey where and to them 5 miles is nothing.

I had a kabob for lunch and shared some with Katie who surprisingly liked it.  Korv was a big hit with the kids.  Mas said "yum" after every bite.  Gwen was most excited to try the Goddis and we bought some at the airport.  I had to buy a kaneela bulla and Fanta.
Gwen and Mason in Gamla Stan
Day 3:  June 24th.  We all slept well last night.  Woke up feeling like it was 6:00 AM and saw that it was really 11:50.  We went to Alens and bought Katie a new hair straightener and blow dryer that worked better on European voltage so she could enjoy the rest of the trip.  We then went down to Vasterhaninge so the kids could see the temple.  Found out about the Stokholm north and south stakes "Midsommar Party" the next day.  We walked past the temple to see some old Viking graves.  It was such a beautiful night out.  We walked down this nice trail and saw some perfect Swedish homes with families out enjoying  ficka.  It was such a nice Swedish experience that I'm glad I could point it out to Katie so she could see it.

The kids thought the train ride was fun.  They also enjoyed their first Marabou chocolate.  Mason managed to squeeze himself between slats in the temple fence and we had to send Gwen in after him.
Mason in front of the Sweden Temple
Day 4:  June 25th.  Today we got up early to go to Midsommar.  We started the day off a little earlier than the one before.  Katie was back on track with her running.  We went to Vasterhaninge and met Brother Klarin.  He made arrangements with his son in law to take us to the spot where the church was celebrating.  Gwen and I danced around the Midsommar Pole.  She and Katie made a wreath of aspen leaves.  The leaves made Katie's allergies flare up.  I bumped in to Glen Ekelund whom I knew from my mission.  We tried a few different ice creams.  Overall, a very nice day.
Gwen and Mason at Midsommar
Day 5:  June 26th.  Today ended up a little rainy.  We went to Skansen and thought we would see the Vasa Musuem, but I think everyone else had the same idea and it was far too crowded to get in.  We ended up in town where Mason dragged us into a McDonalds.  I didn't even know he knew that word until we passed one and he kept repeating it until we relented.  We then went to the train center to order our tickets to get to Berlin via Hamburg via Malmo.  I saw Patricia Espenoza working there and thought we would go visit them that night but both she and Veronica had to work.  They made me promise to stop by when we come back through.  We ended up playing at the park across the street from our hotel, which has become our nightly ritual.  Sweden has some amazing parks and there are two great ones within a 5 minute walk from our hotel.  This place is so kid friendly.  It's nice to see how a warm summer night doesn't go wasted in Sweden.  Every night that we go out, there are plenty of people out enjoying the lovely evenings here.  I always thought Swedes lacked drive, but as I get older I respect the way they enjoy life along the way.

Day 6:  June 27th.  Today is a day we won't soon forget.  We started on a train ride bound for Malmo at 3:21 that was supposed to arrive at 7:30 and ended up arriving at 1:15 a.m.  The track apparently had a large cable fall across it when we were about 2 hours into the ride.  The train stopped while they sorted out how to take care of it.  Since it was a Sunday and also a holiday weekend, it was very difficult to find someone to fix it.  We waited in the train for about 2 hours before they had us get off and get on board buses that were going to take us around where the problem was and put us on trains on the other side that could take us to Malmo.  The trainride itself, and especially the bus ride, were extremely beautiful and reminded me why I loved the Swedish countryside so much.  Beautiful lakes, cabins, flowers, fields, biking trails and animals all along the ride.  I even saw a moose running through a field right next to the train.  We finally boarded the other train and found there wasn't enough room.  Apparently 4 trains were crammed into that one train.  Buster was finally starting to get cranky and I was very disappointed that no one offered their seat to a woman with a young baby.  In typical Swedish fashion they all looked ahead and tried to pretend not to notice us.  We were then pulled off and put on another train that had some room.  With stops, it was after 1:00 before we arrived.  We asked directions to the Renaissance and walked several blocks before we realized we had been sent to the Radisson.  We then had to backtrack pulling a 70 pound bag, stroller, two backpacks, crib and a couple tired kids.  We found the Renaissance tucked away down an unassuming alleyway.  It was after 2:00 before we went to bed.  At least it turned out to be a great hotel.

Day 7:  June 28th.  Mason woke us all up around 10:00.  We were disappointed because we had planned on going to Tivoli in Copenhagen but with such a late start we didn't know if would be worth it.  After doing some things and getting ready for the day Gwen talked us into just going.  I knew we would be getting a refund from our train ride, so spending a little at Tivoli became easier.  We took the 1/2 hour train ride across the ocean to Denmark.  Tivoli is such a neat amusement park and just across the street from the main train station.  Gwen and I went on her first roller coaster ride and she loved it!  It took some coaxing to get her to try, but in the end she went...several times.  She then wanted to try all the scary rides but wasn't tall enough.  Mason had his first melt down of the trip but after an hour, Katie finally got him to sleep.  When he woke up, Gwen took Katie on all the rides while Mason and I went to the playground.  We then walked around Copenhagen, it is such a great city.  I wish we had more time to spend here.

This was a special day full of "thank yous" and "I love this place".  I'm so glad Gwen got us out the door this morning and forced us to have such a great day.
Katie and Gwen in Copenhagen

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Hotel Review: JW Marriott Las Vegas

The JW Marriott in Las Vegas is going to appeal to a certain crowd.  If you find yourself in Las Vegas with kids or want to be away from the madness of The Strip, you’ll really like this hotel.  If you want to go to Vegas to live it up and stay on The Strip, we’ve stayed at The Venetian and really liked it.

The JW Marriott is in an upscale suburb of Las Vegas called Summerlin.  It is a good 20-25 minute drive to The Strip and if you plan on partying and need a taxi, it can be a pretty expensive fare.  However, the Summerlin area is known for upscale homes and amazing golf courses.  The TPC Summerlin is just next door and a very challenging course that hosts the Justin Timberlake Shriners Open every fall.

The grounds of the resort are very nice and have a large swimming pool that our kids love.  The pool has a grotto and waterfall.  It is well attended to by staff offering poolside drinks and food.  There are also lifeguards on duty, so it's easier to relax as a parent.

All hotel rooms in Las Vegas are bigger than average hotel rooms.  The rooms at the JW are larger with a spacious closet and very large bathrooms with large jetted tubs and a rain shower head.  You will pay about $10 a day for internet access. 

The casino in the hotel is quite small and offers some table games, but mostly slots.  You won’t find a poker room here and you get the feeling most of the people are locals.  The restaurants aren’t anything too special and you get the feeling that the resort isn’t as busy as it should be.  The Red Rock Casino is just a couple miles away and is certainly a better casino that also has movie theaters and plenty of restaurants.

Check-in was smooth.  Parking is very easy and free.  The rooms are clean and spacious.  There is the disappointing “resort fee” that you have to pay to get access to the workout facility.  It seems like everyone is doing that now.

We tend to book this hotel every time we go to Vegas with our kids and really enjoy it.  It lacks a bit of the wow factor of other properties, but still feels a little special and unique in that it isn’t trying to be what all the other resorts in Vegas are.  I’d recommend it to any family.  However for couples that are going to Vegas for a little getaway and want to experience the Vegas scene, they should book a hotel on The Strip.
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