Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Happy Holidays 2015!

Hey everyone - Happy Holidays!




With the end of the year coming, I'm going to sign off and enjoy some time off.  See you in 2016!

Oh ... and a word of advice:


Thursday, December 17, 2015

Working On Another Article

As you may recall in the past few years, I've been called upon to write occasionally for the local paper.  In early 2014, I wrote about New Years Resolutions.  In May of that same year, I wrote about running and developing a healthy new lifestyle for yourself

After a full year hiatus, I've been asked to write again for the upcoming January 2016 publishing.  Hooray!

So ... today, excuse my blog inattentiveness while I work on my article.  Once it's cleared to print, I'll share the copy with you.

Happy Thursday!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Christmas Baby Photo

Since my last few posts have been a bit ... verbose ... today I'm going to stick with short and sweet.

Below is a Christmas photo of my ever growing baby bump, which will be included with the ever popular year end card I send out to friends and family each year.

On a tangent to this topic, I had my 20 week ultra sound a week ago Monday, and so far all is well.  There's a healthy and definitely active baby in there (who just won't sit still practically ever).

Happy Holidays!!


Thursday, December 10, 2015

I See London, I See ... (Pt 3)

This blog post is a continuation of my London trip recap, which started last week. See all the posts here:

Surprise!! Euro Trip #2
I See London, I See (Pt 1)
I See London, I See (Pt 2)
I See London, I See (Pt 3)

---

So, let's see.  What have I covered so far this trip.

(1) Landing and spending my first half day in London essentially riding a train, napping, and going out for dinner.

(2) Spending my second day in London with my husband, doing a bike tour, then exploring the streets of London.

(3) Enjoying my third day in London on my own via a shopping adventure and Winter Wonderland.

OK, so I suppose that brings me to day 4 - ROAD TRIP!

---

On Tuesday (which was to be my last full day in London), my husband was supposed to have another day off to spend with me before we went home together the next day.  Long story, but at the end of the day, that didn't happen.  Boo.

Although this was kind of to be expected since he was actually on a business trip and technically should have been working, it was still kind of a bummer.  Especially since we had already paid his ticket on the tour.  Double boo.

Unfortunately that meant, bright and early Tuesday morning after having breakfast with my husband at the hotel, I found myself all by my lonesome boarding a Premium Tours UK motor coach - which, at least, conveniently picked me up right at my hotel.  Despite the disappointment of my husband not being with me, the pickup process overall was quite nice, and I enjoyed quietly sitting on the coach and watching the rain as we waited for others to board at our various pickup stops that morning.

Eventually, the rain cleared and the coach that picked us up brought us all to the Victoria Bus Terminus, where we disembarked and sorted out to our specific tour group.  Turns out, you don't actually stay on the bus you board at the hotel, since Premium Tours does a mass pickup at various hotels for all their tours and then a sort at the bus station to get us each on our specific tour bus.  No big deal.  Just exit the bus, walk to your assigned gate at the bus terminal, and wait to be called to board your next bus.

Some people really seemed to struggle with this de-board & sort concept, and complained about the process being disorganized or hectic.  I actually found it quite smooth, and the environment to be as expected for a busy bus terminal.  I mean ... picture a Greyhound type terminal with 100+ travelers, local and tourist, calmly walking to or standing around their departure gate.  Pretty standard stuff.

Since I was NOT struggling with or complaining about the process, I simply took a seat at my gate and entertained myself by taking photos.





So scenic.  Heh.

Anyway!  As you can see above, I was told to wait at gate 16 and board the "Windsor Castle, Stonehenge and Bath" coach once it started loading.  I chose this tour versus many other available on the Premium Tour site because it started at a somewhat reasonable time in the AM (I think pickup was around 7:30), got be back into London at a manageable time for dinner (estimated at 8pm or slightly thereafter), and only cost £79.00.  I have to admit, though, I didn't really know much about most of the stops on the tour aside from the fact that I was pretty excited to see Stonehenge ... so that's a little embarrassing.  But whatever!  I would learn about them soon enough, right?

After a short wait at gate 16, our new coach started boarding.  Again, I found this process quite straightforward and painless.  And again, some people really seemed to struggle to follow basic directions and complained that the process was difficult or the staff was grumpy.  Seeing what I saw, I couldn't understand the complaining, but whatever.  Dumb tourists exist world wide, I guess.  Just file away the complaining and carry on, right?!

Once we boarded the coach, our guide introduced himself and talked us through some general rules (IE the time allotted at each tour stop, how not to be late for each departure or you will be left behind, etc), and then went straight into his tour spiel as we drove through central London and prepared to exit the city.  I enjoyed his witty narration and banter, and didn't mind the 45 minute drive to our first stop at all.  In fact, it pretty much flew buy with his constant entertainment as we went.

---

Stop One - Windsor Castle

Obligatory tourist selfie time!




So - Windsor Castle.  For those of you who aren't familiar, this is actually the primary residence of the Queen.  Me, being a stupid American, had no idea.  I always thought her primary residence was Buckingham Palace.  But really, that's just her place to stay when she's in the city.  She spends the majority of her time, especially weekends, in this ... we'll call it suburb of London.

Windsor itself, by the way, is a really cute and quaint town.  I actually quite regret that our tour only allowed about an hour and a half here to visit the castle, since there was so much I wanted to explore in the city itself.  In fact, I would recommend that instead of trying to do this stop via a tour, if you get to London yourself, research train options from London to Windsor.  Apparently there is a fairly regular train that runs from London direct to Windsor and back again.  Our tour bus actually unloaded us/parked at the station, which was less than a 5 minute walk to the castle.  Had I known this, I might have actually traded the bike tour I did with my husband for a joint day trip to Windsor instead.  Oh well.




Back to the Castle.






As I said, we had about an hour and a half to tour the castle.  Really, this is not enough if you like to take your time walking through museum type displays, so overall if you take this tour you might feel a tad rushed.  I basically listened to the free audio tour and walked as quickly as I could through each room, and even then I hardly had a chance to see everything (I basically glimpsed inside the chapel door at the end since I ran out of time).  I was OK with this, though, since I had seen a lot of similar displays on my European trip this past spring, and after awhile stuff like this all kind of blends together for me anyway.

If you are wondering, yes - Windsor Castle is basically like a museum.  There is tons on display inside the building - and out - though I was not allowed to take photos once inside ... so here are some internet photos instead:







That last photo was one of my favorite rooms, only because the ceiling is lined with various crests of knights.  That in and of itself isn't terribly exciting but ... hehehehe ... every so often you notice a crest is painted white.  THOSE are the fun ones.  Apparently knights who dishonored themselves for whatever reason don't actually lose their spot on the ceiling.  They just get marked out for all eternity, their embarrassment left to hang as a reminder to others not to betray the throne.  Awesome.

Oh, I also liked the Queen's doll house, which was fully furnished with scale replicas made by famous architects, artists, authors, etc.  If I were to guess, the dollhouse was about 10' square and the decorated portion was as tall as me.  Mostly, I liked the doll house because a local shopkeeper gossip informed me that the Queen complained it was too small after receiving it as a gift (he flourished the statement with a tremendous eye roll - I liked him a lot, LOL!)  Again - more internet stock photos:


 


Despite not being able to take photos inside, outside I had free reign, so here are a few more fun shots.  Note the old school bow & arrow hole for old timey fortress defense.  Cool!  And ... is he guarding ... the John Deer?!  LOL!








FYI, that last photo above demos the flag that flies over Windsor.  Apparently, it used to be that if the Queen wasn't present - no flag at all.  Same applied for Buckingham.  The problem with this was, when Diana died, the Queen was in Scotland visiting family or what not ... so there was no flag flying at half mast honoring Diana's loss at either Buckingham or Windsor.  This caused quite a stir with the public, who found it to be dishonorable to Diana's memory.  So the rule was changed.  Now - the union jack means no Queen, the royal crest means Queen ... forever more there is always a flag flying at both locations.

Before I left the castle, I took one last photo:




Then I snuck outside and waited for the parade to start.  Yes, I said parade.  I was lucky enough to be at Windsor on the day they held the changing of the guard ceremony (which happens every other day - alternating with Buckingham Palace).  When the change takes place, a small parade of guards, lead by a marching band, marches to the castle through the streets of Windsor.  They then enter the castle, which locks its doors during the changeover inside, and the ceremony completes itself in the courtyard shown above.

I was lucky enough to take a video of the parade outside the castle, with a front row view.  Here are a few (grainy) stills, since I can never make posting a video here work:






 

Btw, notice the giant machine gun / rifles the cops were carrying.  I don't know if that's normal, or a response to Paris (which happened just the week prior to my arrival), but it was definitely intimidating.




Once the parade was complete, I headed back to my tour pickup point (the train station), stopping at a few shops along the way.  Ah!  If I only had more time there!!  But I didn't, and by 11:30 we were on the road to our next stop ... Stonehenge ... which was about 1.5 hours drive away.

Since the ride to Stonehenge was relatively long, the tour guide gave us some quiet time to offset our early wakeup.  Being that the drive wasn't terribly interesting, though it was pretty, this pregnant lady isn't sorry to admit she did doze off a little along the way.  Eventually, about 20 minutes outside of Stonehenge, the tour guide gave us a wakeup call and provided some basic narration about the site.  Then we parked at the designated bus area of the welcome center, and were cut loose to enjoy our visit.

---

Stop Two - Stonehenge

Obligatory tourist selfie time #2!




Unbeknownst to me, the recently constructed welcome center for Stonehenge is quite a distance from the actual rock formation.  Due to the distance, a shuttle service is offered to get you to the stones, or you can opt to walk the roughly 1/2 mile distance on the designated pedestrian shoulder along the edge of the shuttle road.  Since the day was cold, overcast and slightly misty - I opted for the shuttle.

While the shuttle drove, I listened to information about the site on my headset and took in some views ... which was mostly sheep and country side.




 
The second photo above, by the way, if you can see it ... on the left there is a fairly large mound with a group of school children standing on it.  As morbid as it may seem, the kids are standing on a burial mound.  And actually, if you can tell, there's a second mound on the right side of this photo as well.  Much like the Native Americans who built burial mounds near me in Minnesota, I was amused to learn the natives who utilized Stonehenge (for whatever reason, which we still do not know for sure) also built burial mounds.  It's reported that there are over 300 mounds in the vicinity of the henge, and at one time there were actually many more.  But, being in a rural area, farmers in the last several hundred years plowed the mounds flat to allow for better farming, not understanding their cultural significance.  Even more interesting is that some of the burial remains, particularly on the stone site itself, are cremated.  I always thought cremation was more of a modern day burial method.

Going along with this theme of nature and death, I was amazed to see how tame the birds were at the site.  This one in particular, I was able to approach about a foot away for another - yes - selfie.




OK - so at this point ... in all honesty ... Stonehenge is one of those places that you see and go "OK, saw it" and then pretty much leave. 

So when I got there and took a few photos ... I kind of went ... now what?


 
 

Aside from marveling at how close the local highway came to the site - which you can see in the second photo above, just to the right of the stones - there wasn't much else to see/do once you got to the stones.  I had already maxed out all the information on my audio tour, and with a rope keeping you about 20' or so away from touching the stones, there was nothing much else to engage in.  (Yes, there are special tours where you can touch the stones, but those are at sunrise or sunset and cost a lot more, so I opted to just do this general public visit option instead).

Eventually, although I was trying to savor the "magic" of the henge, the cold finally won out and I decided to board the bus back to the welcome center.

There, I enjoyed the free restrooms and heat in the visitor's center.  Oh, and the endless junk they sold.




LOL.  Stonehenge Monopoly.

My tour group, I think, allowed for far too much time at this site.  Trying to kill time, I looped the gift shop at least two or three times.  Finally, bored, I wandered back to the bus early and just killed time on the bus.

Eventually we packed up and hit the road again, not going too far away to a town called Tilshead where we had a very late lunch (almost 3pm) at a local pub.  I really liked their sign and thatched straw roof.





On the way to the pub, btw, we learned that Stonehenge is actually in a military training area.  Again relating to Minnesota, I felt like I was going through Fort Ripley.  We even passed several signs like this:




Tank crossing.  Heh.

Finally, after lunching, we hit the road again to our final stop - Bath.

---

Stop Three - Bath

Sorry - no selfie here.  It was starting to get dark when we arrived, and my selfie feature on my phone doesn't include a flash.  Boo!  Instead, all I got was a photo of the local chapel.




Anyway, due to the winter season, our visit to Bath did not include admission to a tour of what the city is known for ... the Roman Baths.  Apparently, the baths close early in the winter, and often this tour does not reach Bath early enough to make open hours.  Since the price of my tour included transportation and admission to the sites noted, we were therefore comped a lunch meal in replacement for the Bath admission.  Fine with this hungry, pregnant lady!!  Not to mention, having done so much touring in Europe this spring, I wasn't sure I'd absorb much in the bath house anyway. 

When we arrived in Bath, by chance, the Roman Baths were still open for touring.  Since they cost something like $25 US to enter, though ... eh, I figured I could spend my money on other, more interesting things. 

So while many of the group toured the baths or the chapel, I decided to just roam the nearby shops and take in the local flavor.  Mostly I was on a mission to find a union jack onsie ... which I did eventually find ... but I ended up buying a bunch of food/snacks too.  Mmmm ... fresh baked pasties.

After another hour or so stop in this town, finally the tour leader rounded us all up and we boarded the bus to head back for London.  The down side was that the ride was estimated to be 2.5-3 hours long.  The up side was I anticipated that, and had plenty of snacks to keep me happy.  Yum!

---

On the way back, the tour guide did offer some occasional banter, as well as some quiet time.  He also circulated the bus and offered to help drop us in locations that were easy for us to navigate "home" from (as the tour does not include a return shuttle to your hotel, but the driver was willing to stop along the way for quick, side of the road drop offs).  Since I knew the tube well enough from my previous days in London, I gladly accepted drop off at the first stop the bus hit, catching the tube from there.

My husband, being done with work for the day just as I was nearing my drop point, suggested I meet him a tube stop or two away from where I'd be dropped off to meet him for dinner at a Lebanese restaurant. 

Uh ... Lebanese? I've never even had that in the US, let alone London.  Hm.  OK, I'm willing to try it at least...

So, I exited the tube at Earl's Court and meet my husband at Orjowan.




All I can say is about Orjowan is  - WOW!  If all Lebanese food is this good, I've really been missing out. 

We decided to order the non-vegetarian set meal, which included a never ending delivery of mezze (think Lebanese style tapas), a couple hot entrees, and finally a dessert.  I was so full even after the mezze that I didn't know how I'd be able to finish.  But it was soooo good, I couldn't throw in the towel and let the food go to waste.

I mean, even the hummus during the mezze course ... wow!  The best hummus I've had in a long, long time.

Finally, after stuffing ourselves silly and still having almost half the food left on the table, we called it quits and headed back to the hotel.  There, we had a lovely last night's sleep and a final train ride back to the airport the next morning ... with a departure to go back home.

*Sigh* It was a fun trip, but leaving is always hard, no? 

But, it's always good to be home!


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

I See London, I See ... (Pt 2)

This blog post is a continuation of my London trip recap, which started last week. See all the posts here:

Surprise!! Euro Trip #2
I See London, I See (Pt 1)
I See London, I See (Pt 2)
I See London, I See (Pt 3)

---

After a long day of travel, napping and eating in London, I woke up on day 2 in London ready to go ... at 2 am of course. 

Stupid time change.

Luckily, I managed to roll over and snooze for a bit longer, finally officially waking up around 6ish.  Even then, though, I still quietly laid in bed and putz'd on my iPad until about 7am, not wanting to wake my husband.  Considering it was Sunday and he was lucky enough to finally have ONE day off work in the last 2.5 weeks, I wanted to let him sleep as long as possible.

Eventually though, after both of us taking a lazy approach to getting ready for the day, we finally found ourselves leaving our room and scouting for breakfast around 8 or 8:30.  Since my husband was staying in the executive suites at the Hilton, we technically qualified for free breakfast in the lounge.  But having eaten the same sausage, "bacon" (not American crispy bacon, btw), hash browns, scrambled eggs (which appeared to be made from a powdered mix) and random mini pastries, I couldn't' blame my husband for wanting to venture out and get something new from the great, wild unknown.

Since Paddington Station had a handful of grab and go options, we decided to walk down there and see what looked good.  In the end, we each got a filled croissant type pastry and bottle of orange juice from a stand that looked promising.  And, as being all things European and pastry, this did not disappoint.  My mozzarella and tomato croissant was flakey, warm and delicious.  My husband was equally impressed with his ... which I think was some sort of ham, mushroom and swiss type combo, I don't recall exactly.

Not being picky, we sat on a bench in the station and enjoyed our breakfast while the pigeons flew by about 10 feet away.  Mmmm ... appetizing.

---

After enjoying our meal, we decided to take advantage of the early morning, no foot traffic situation, and hopped the tube (subway) to Waterloo Bridge.  There we got the first of some spectacular views I had during this trip.


 
The London Eye (ferris wheel),
with Big Ben slightly to the right of it.
 
 
 
For any Bond fans that saw the latest movie,
obviously this building is STILL standing.


Since it was a beautifully clear, albeit cold morning, we decided to just take in the sites around the Waterloo Bridge by foot.  My husband, being more familiar with the area, guided me around various streets while I took in the views.

And of course, I had to take the obligatory tourist photo along the way.




After a good hour of wandering / exploring, we decided to hop the tube back towards the direction of the hotel, as we had an appointment that direction at 11am.  Not needing to go all the way to the hotel, we exited a stop or two early and popped up a few blocks from Hyde Park.  There, we walked the neighborhoods, and got to see first hand how they walk the dog in London:




Heh.

Once we got to the park itself, amused by the comings and goings of people doing everything from their daily run to their daily horse ride, we decided to grab a bench and just people watch.  I was simply amazed at the diversity of people and activities that passed us by - everything from local Londoners to Russians speaking their native tongue, elderly on their daily walks to toddlers being pushed in strollers ... the park really had all kinds.

With the colder weather, sitting wasn't conducive to keeping warm, and eventually we were motivated to get up and keep moving.  Walking along the outside of Hyde Park, on the sidewalk which adjoined the street, we made our way towards the Queensway Tube station.  Along the way, we passed dozens of artists with their works displayed on the park's fence, which were available to purchase.  Much like the goings on inside the park, the diversity of the artist's works outside were equally mixed.  From classic ocean scenes to abstract paint splatters, there was a canvas for any kind of art connoisseur who might pass by. 

Unfortunately, most of the pieces were much too large for me to want to bother bringing home, so making a purchase was entirely off the table.  But looking was fun none the less.

---

Eventually we made our way to the Queensway Tube station, where we were a tad early for our 11am appointment - a bike tour!  If you recall from my previous Euro Trip recaps this spring, we had fairly good success taking group bike tours, so we thought it would be worth a shot in London as well.  Using our Amsterdam bike tour agency as a reference point, we took their recommendation and booked a tour with London Fat Bike Tours.

My husband, in originally hearing I wanted to do a bike tour in London, thought I was actually a tad deranged.  (Um ... you married me dude ... you're surprised by this now?!)  In his defense, though, I didn't know that the traffic in London is rather, uh, let's just say ... intense.  Luckily, I had picked the Royal London tour option, which took us largely through the parks system, avoiding roads for all but maybe 5 minutes of the ride.  Once my husband heard that bit of news, he was markedly more on board for the day's adventure, which started at 11 and ended at 3.

Anyway - back on topic.  After we met up with our guide and got our bikes, we were off! 

The tour was nice and leisurely, taking us through some of the more scenic areas of nearby parks and passing landmarks along the way.  Once again we passed Big Ben, the London Eye, and a few new sites as well - Westminster Abbey, Buckingham and Kensington Palaces, and a few other more notable attractions.  Of course, like our other tours, around the halfway point we broke for about 30 minutes to have a lunch and bathroom break, too.

Since I had seen most of the sites we passed on this tour earlier in the morning, I had already taken the photos I wished, so I didn't end up taking many other photos on the tour itself.  Unfortunately, that leaves this part of the recap to appear a tad boring.  Sorry about that.

I should have at least taken a photo with my bike.  Drat.

After the tour wound down, we returned our bikes and thanked our guide, and then we were on our way. 

In discussing the tour with my husband as we rambled back to the hotel, we both agreed that this tour was nice but ... in comparison to the other bike tours we took in Amsterdam, Paris and Rome it seemed a little lackluster.  Of course, I'm spoiled enough to be able to make the comparison, so that doesn't mean that I don't recommend this particular tour.  It just wasn't as impressive as some of the others I've done, that's all.  In the end, I'm still glad we did it, and it was certainly nice to give my swollen, post-flight pregnancy feet a bit of a rest while still taking in the sites.

---

By the time we made it back to the hotel, it was around 4pm or so, and we were both looking forward to having a little relaxation time (sssshhh ... don't tell anyone I wasted more time on this trip taking yet another nap). 

Around 5:30 or so, we decided to venture out of the hotel again for another scenic walk around London, guided by my husband.  The walk was slightly less that ideal due to the winter sunset happening well before 5pm and everything being shrouded in darkness.  Regardless of the dark, we had a nice stroll along one of the canals in London, and we did have the benefit of being able to see all the canal boats tied up for the night along the edge of the canal, so that was cool.  I was actually quite surprised to see so many were house boats, and wondered if that was a common living accommodation for Londoners. 

After walking for about a mile or so, we arrived at our dinner location.  My husband had eaten here earlier in his trip, and although he said the food was just so-so (though better than many options he had eaten at during his visit), he did enjoy the walk along the way, so that's how we ended up at The Waterside CafĂ© in "Little Venice".

The restaurant was a traditional English pub, and had the typical dark wood interior and heavy wood furnishings along with a somewhat standard pub fair menu.  After perusing the menu, I decided on the fish and chips, while my husband had some sort of pork roast platter.  Both were tasty, though not what I'd rank "delicious", so don't go there expecting a blow your hair back experience.  Just a nice, solid meal.

As you can see, I was far more interested in what I ordered, as that's what got camera time.




Oh, by the way - pro tip: in London pubs, the servers don't take your order at the table.  Make sure once you review the menu that you walk up to the bar to place any food and drink orders.

After dinner, we repeated our leisurely stroll back to the hotel and called it a night, since my husband had to work the next day.

---

The next morning, since I was on my own after breakfast, I decided to adventure the tube and do some exploring.  I ended up in the Piccadilly Circus area, which is kind of like a mini Times Square with a giant TV screen flashing advertisements at you all day, and lots of traffic humming by.

There, I did almost a full day of shopping (especially at Hamley's Toy store, and regretfully not at Liberty of London, though I wanted to buy lots there) and took some fun photos of the holiday street decorations I happened to pass.


 

 
 
 
After a long day on my feet and only a short lunch break, mid afternoon I decided to return to my hotel for a short break (and yes, another nap - I'm pregnant and dealing with a time change, OK?!).  After dropping my bags and recovering, I headed out for adventure #2 of the day : Hyde Park and Winter Wonderland.
 
---
 
The walk to Hyde Park was shorter than I expected to reach the park itself, but MUCH longer than I expected once I was inside the park.  Seriously, that park is huge!!  I felt like I could see Winter Wonderland for ages before I finally got there.
 
 
 


 
 
Finally, though, I made it to the entry, and all that laid inside ...
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
In awe over all the sites and sounds, I was amazed that entry into this carnival of sorts was free.  Of course, tickets were required to play games and rides, and the shops selling gifts and food all cost money, but none the less ... anything this spectacular in the US would surely cost at least $5-10 per person for entry. 

Of course, along the way I couldn't help but chuckle at a few of the offerings as well (like a European style Paul Bunyan, a "shoot the ornament off the tree" gun game, a rollercoaster called "Thriller" that had Buddha as a mascot, and a boiled corn on the cob hut).  Perhaps this is why they had free admission?  (Kidding)



 
 


Eventually, after spending close to two hours roaming the spectacle and finally seeing it all, though partaking in nothing (pregnant = no rides, boo), I found myself on the absolute furthest possible corner of Hyde Park from my hotel and in the pitch dark.  Not wanting to wander the park alone in the dark, and being right by a tube station, I opted to ride back to the hotel instead. 

My feet were quite glad for that decision, though riding the tube didn't exactly promise me a seat during rush hour, so I did still stand quite a bit.  At least it was less walking that it could have been.

Finally, I made it back to the hotel and met my husband, where we went out for another dinner at nearby Bizarro's, a reasonably priced Italian restaurant.  Now that place, I actually DO recommend if you're in the area.  The pizza I had was quite tasty, and my husband enjoyed his pasta as well.

Full of carbs, after dinner we headed back to the hotel for yet another bout of shut eye.

Hey!  I needed my rest for the next day of adventure!!  Stay tuned for more!