Taking a short break from our respective industries, we jetted down to Costa Rica for a long weekend. Not a lot of wandering from place to place, as our time was limited. We flew into the capital city, San José, and then took a bus to Puerto Viejo, where we stayed in a cheap (read no-frills) hostel for a few days. While in Puerto Viejo, there was a lot of unseasonal rain. We spent our days walking up and down the coast, watching for sloths and other wildlife in the trees, swimming in the ocean, and eating chocolate and seafood.
In fall 2018, Mr. Fool took Ms. Fool on a whirlwind tour of Europe. With only a loose itinerary in mind, and the first week’s travel and accommodations booked, we left LAX for Heathrow. Below are some of our trip highlights. Or click the city name to jump to that specific blog section: London: Part I, Paris, Prague, Berlin, Amsterdam, Bruges, London: Part II.
We stayed with two of Mr. Fool’s college friends. Though they have their hands full with two energetic little ones, they graciously let us share their flat for our first few days in London.
While there, we did a lot of walking (the October weather was pleasant, for the most part) and managed to see quite a bit. A few of the places we visited:
- St James’s Park
- Buckingham Palace
- Palace of Westminster
- Big Ben
- The London Eye
- The Tower of London
- All Hallows by the Tower Church (We had a fun little discovery here: the crow’s nest from Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship the Quest.)
- London Bridge
- Tower Bridge
- Ten Bells Pub (famous because it’s where Jack the Ripper allegedly scouted some of his victims)
- Camden Market
- Borough Market (cider-lovers should stop here)
- Shakespeare Globe
- St. Paul’s Cathedral
A few of our favorite London photos:
From London, we flew to Paris. Our very modest hotel was in Montmartre, right above the 9th district and steps away from a bakery whose chocolate and almond croissants we will forever remember. We started our trip by visiting one of the classic attractions: the Louvre. The next few days were a blur of running from place to place to take in things like:
- Fontaine Saint-Michel, a statue of St Michel slaying a dragon
- Latin District
- Pantheon and Crypt
- Luxembourg Gardens
- Notre-Dame Cathedral (where the lines were so long we had to wait a day to go up the tower)
- Arc de Triomphe
- Eiffel Tower (which is now surrounded by high barriers–a new addition since Mr. Fool’s 2003 visit and an eyesore)
- Sainte-Chapelle (one of Mr. Fool’s favorite places in the city)
- Paris Opéra
- Sacré-Cœur Basilica
- Moulin Rouge
- The Catacombs of Paris (which people lined up for well in advance of opening time)
- Vertical Garden
- Palace of Versailles (a mad house of tourists with 5-hour long waits to enter. Fortunately, we had advance reservations)
- Marie-Antoinette’s Estate
- Petit Trianon
- Grand Trianon
- Marie-Antoinette’s Estate
Our sightseeing was peppered with frequent stops at various eateries. There’s nothing original we could say about the glorious Paris food scene. Ms. Fool’s one bit of advice: go to Ellsworth. She had her favorite meal of the trip there.
A few of our favorite Paris photos:
Prague: City of a Thousand Tour Buses
Prague’s architecture was charming. Our visit was not what we hoped, however, because of the throngs of visitors and many tourist-trap amusements. Still, we made the most of our time there, visiting places like:
- Prague Castle (worth half-day visit)
- Letna Park
- Charles Bridge (a mad house, and the fastest way to get pickpocketed)
- Old Town Bridge Tower
- Old Royal Palace
- St. George’s Basilica
- Petrin Tower
- St Lawrence Church Prague
- Petřín Park
- Hunger Wall
- Prague Astronomical Clock
- Church of Our Lady before Týn
- Jewish Quarter
- Sex Machines Museum
- Powder Tower
A few of our favorite Prague photos:
Swinging By Berlin
Our Prague-to-Berlin bus took us through Dresden, which was leveled by WWII bombings. From the window, we saw some of the rebuilt structures.
Berlin gave us a nice chance to decompress after being trapped between groups of tourists all day every day in Prague. A few of the highlights from our trip:
- Brandenburg Gate
- Berlin Wall Memorial
- Checkpoint Charlie Museum (easily could eat up a half day because of the information-rich exhibits)
- Gendarmenmarkt Square
- The Memorial to May 10, 1933 Nazi Book Burning
- Berlin Cathedral Church and Crypt
- Berliner Fernsehturm Television Tower
- Charlottenburg Palace
- Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
- Hackescher Markt
- Berlin City Center
A few of our favorite Berlin photos:
Taking in Amsterdam
We watched the German countryside give way to scenic Holland, with its charming windmills, from a train.
Many of our acquaintances immediately think of the red light district when they think of their visits to Amsterdam. We think of the food and the architecture. We took in a good pancake breakfast in the smallest restaurant in Europe. We ate fried cheese and lots of fries. We had mouth-watering apple pie at Winkel 43. And we spent hours walking the streets so Mr. Fool could marvel at the crooked buildings. He could not stop taking pictures and pointing out how far over the water they leaned. (He later read that the houses had been built using poles pounded into the muddy ground. Some poles did not go deep enough, some were just too weak to support the structure, and some had rotted. All of these things can cause structures to tilt.)
Our visit to Amsterdam was short, and we had just enough time to see
- Molen De Otter (The Otter Windmill)
- De Wallen the red-light district.
A few of our favorite Amsterdam photos:
Living a Fairy Tale in Bruges
A bus took us to our final new city of the trip: Bruges. We stayed in the nearby coastal town Blankenberge, as it was only a 15 min train ride away and a lot cheaper.
We both loved Burges. The crowds were smaller and the centuries-old buildings well-preserved. It was like walking around in a medieval fairy tale city…but one with plenty of artisan chocolate shops, which Ms. Fool loved. Over the course of a few days, we crisscrossed the city to see everything we wanted. Highlights included:
- Church of Our Lady Bruges
- Bruges Provincial Court
- The Belfry of Bruges (This is where *spoiler alert for those who haven’t seen In Bruges* Brendan Gleeson jumps to his death)
- Windmill walk along the Handelskom river to see 4 old windmills in various conditions
- Basilica of the Holy Blood (They claim to have a vile of Christ’s blood here. For a few Euro, you may view it.)
- Ten Wijngaerde (Begijnhof Brugge)
- Kasteel Minnewater
A few of our favorite Bruges photos:
London, part deux
After having near-perfect weather our entire trip, we headed back to London for a final few days.
For our first day back in the city, we booked an early-morning tour to see Stonehenge and Bath. Stonehenge was predictably crowded, but we enjoyed seeing the storied stones in person. Bath was likewise crowded. We had to push and shove our way though The Roman baths, as the museum was not built to handle the high number of people. Regardless, we enjoyed seeing that part of history.
We capped off our final day in London with afternoon tea at The Wolsley. It was fun experience, and it left us with a new appreciation for clotted cream and scones. After our repast, we tried to burn off some of the calories by walking to Abby Road and then Baker Street.
Our final days in London included:
- The Circus (in Bath)
- Royal Crescent
- Pulteney Bridge
- Hyde Park
- Kensington Palace
- Kensington Gardens
- The Wolseley
- Abbey Road Zebra Crossing
- 221b Baker Street
A few more of our favorite London photos:
We spent a total of 22 days on this trip, walked around 161 miles, and hiked up 325 flights of stairs. We somehow had great weather, never got sick, and never missed a flight, train, bus, ferry or any other form of transportation we took. The only “mishap” was Mr. Fool lost a plug converter.
When we return, we plan to rent a car and skip the big cities in favor of smaller towns.
Mr. Fool’s parents came to visit from Pennsylvania and wanted to get a taste of the Old West. So we took them on a whirlwind four-night, five-day road trip that hit almost every major park in the southwest. But before jetting away from our beloved SoCal, we took them on their first-ever tandem paragliding flights. Click here to see that adventure!
Road Trip Day 1: Death Valley & Las Vegas
On the first day of our road trip, we headed north to Death Valley. We drove the 190 though the park, stopping at overlooks and walking though the Mesquite Flat sand dunes and the Harmony Borax Works old camp. The conditions were so rough when we were there, we couldn’t imagine laboring in the heat during the 1880s.
From there, it was on to Las Vegas. We walked the Strip and Miracle Mile, ate dinner, and zoomed off to our final destination of the day: the little town of Hurricane, Utah.
Road Trip Day 2: Taking in Zion
We started the day with a hike up Angels Landing. Since we started during the cool of the morning, we made the trek up in around 1.5 hours. (Having done this hike a half dozen times, Mr. Fool was adamant about getting an early start. Otherwise, you risk roasting for an hour in direct sunlight.)
We did not hike the ridge to the tip, instead turning around at the section just before the chains.
After finishing Angels Landing, we drove though the park and then up the 89 to Bryce Canyon National Park.
We arrived with plenty of daylight left, so we drove all the way out to the end to watch the sunset, stopping at lookouts along the way.
Then it was back to our hotel for dinner and a much-needed rest.
Road Trip Day 3: Grand-Staircase Escalante & Canyonlands
We drove along highway 12 into the Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument and did a little backcountry drive to a lesser-known hike to Zebra Slot Canyon. The hike was a little over 5 miles roundtrip on mostly-flat ground. We reached the canyon after an hour under direct sun. The cool canyon walls provided a nice respite.
The drive through Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument is an especially pretty one, as is the rest of the drive up the 24 towards Canyonlands.
Around 5pm, we reached Canyonlands National Park and made our way out to the main lookout at the tip. Canyonlands is the biggest National Park in Utah and covers 527 square miles. The canyon was formed over the years by the Colorado and Green river, both of which combine in the center of the park.
Once the sun started going down, we got back in the car and continued driving to Moab for the night.
Road Trip Day 4: Arches National Park
Having been to Arches before, we Fools wanted to beat the heat and the summer crowds. So in the morning we booked it to the trailhead for Delicate Arch.
The hike isn’t bad: roughly 3 miles and 480 feet of elevation gain. Delicate Arch sits 46 feet high and 32 feet wide. It is the largest freestanding arch in the park.
After hiking to Delicate Arch, we got back in the car and drove around to a few of the other areas inside the park.
Once we had our fill of Arches, we drove down the 163 though Monument Valley and then headed up the 98 towards Page, Arizona. Our destination: Horseshoe Bend, another amazing feature along the Colorado River.
Road Trip Day 5: Grand Canyon
The final day of our trip, we stopped at the mother of all canyons: the Grand Canyon. Our first stop in the park was Mary Colter’s Desert View Watchtower.
Then we dropped the car at Grand Canyon Village and walked the rim.
After several hours of oohing and ahhing, we drove back to L.A.
Our trip covered roughly 2,000 miles. We were so glad to share some of the best parts of our corner of the country with our family!
Swinging a Big Easy Stopover
New Orleans has been on our bucket list for a while. We finally had the chance to visit after the winter holidays by arranging a detour on our way back to California from the East Coast. Read up on our 4 days in New Orleans to get our recommendations for where to go, what to see, and how to best stuff your face.
Note: our itinerary excludes day trips to popular attractions outside the city such as the bayous and plantations. The reasons were, respectively, because of the weather (unseasonably chilly weather meant fewer creatures would be near the water) and our primary mode of transportation (our feet). Knowing we wouldn’t have a car, we booked a cozy Airbnb along Canal Street, a few blocks north of the 10. A walk to the French Quarter was a pleasant 1.5 miles each way, and a good way to work off some of the rich foods we ate every day.
Day 1 Itinerary
We walked down Canal Street to the Riverwalk along the Mississippi River. After strolling along the breezy waterfront, we grabbed breakfast: biegnets and hot chocolate from Cafe Du Monde.
Because these are a New Orleans must, expect long lines. If you’re like us and don’t care about sitting in the restaurant, walk behind the building to the (usually) shorter takeout-only line. You can take your hot, sugary treats across the street to Jackson Square park. We ate them on a bench while listing to street musicians.
Loaded on sugar, we wandered Decatur Street, Chartres Street, and Royal Street in the French Quarter, taking in the architecture.
For lunch, we ducked into Johnny’s Po-Boys for their acclaimed sandwiches: shrimp for Ms. Fool and blackened chicken with a side of fries for me.
Then we walked over to The National WWII Museum a mile away. The museum’s free area, a large multi-story building with a number of vintage planes suspended from the ceiling, has a few exhibits and an ancestry lookup. We spent a few hours exploring and then headed back to our Airbnb to rest up a bit before dinner.
After a quick nap, we called a ride to our final destination of the day: Bacchanal Fine Wine & Spirits, a wine bar with live music and a laidback vibe.
We picked a bottle of wine after entering and made our way to the second floor, where we snagged a corner table just as the band was setting up. The wine flowed, music played, and lots and lots of food was piled in front of us. We fell into bed that night in a pleasant food coma.
Day 2 Itinerary
For our second day, we headed to the Garden District. We started at the corner of Felicity Street and Magazine Street. After four blocks of walking past quaint shops, we stopped at our brunch destination: Stein’s Market and Deli, a really good NY-style joint.
We grabbed a B.L.T. + avocado, a tuna melt, a matzah ball soup, and OJ. The sandwiches were good, but with the cold weather we were having, the soup took the cake for us. There was plenty of seating inside and a low wait time, so we were in and out in under an hour.
Directly next door was our dessert destination: District Donuts. Yes, we had dessert after brunch because vacation, ya know?
Our donuts were really, really good: light and fluffy and not too sweet. District also serves donut sandwiches and breakfast tacos that are highly recommended by online eaters. We eyed the entrees around us longingly. If we hadn’t stuffed ourselves minutes earlier, we probably would have had a second breakfast.
After our donuts, we walked west along Magazine Street for a little over two miles to window shop and admire the architecture.
During our walk, we stumbled upon La Boulangerie, a French bakery. After seeing the strawberry tarts, we decided to pause for another sweet treat and some lemonade.
After finishing the walking tour, we returned to our Airbnb for a pre-dinner nap.
Then to start our evening, we returned to the French Quarter.
Our destination: 9 Rose Cafe, a well-reviewed Vietnamese restaurant. They have a really good “cheagen” (cheating + vegan) pho, so called because it contains no sliced animal protein but is beef broth-based. Alongside our “healthy” pho, we had braised pork belly steamed bun sliders, which we highly recommend, and spring rolls, which were pretty standard.
And you knew this was coming: dessert. Of course.
Off we went to Sucré for a box of decadent, handmade truffles.
We took the chocolates to go and headed to Frenchmen Street. While many partiers love Bourbon Street due to the nightclub-like atmosphere, we prefer the dive bar scene. So Frenchmen Street was more our pace. Music spilled out of the lounges, jazz clubs, and bars as we wandered along. We stuck our heads into a few places until we found some music we liked. After listening to some music, we returned to our Airbnb to scarf down our chocolates.
Day 3 Itinerary
We woke up and caught a Lyft to Dante’s Kitchen for a Southern-inspired brunch. It was one of the best meals we had during our trip.
We shared their fluffy buttermilk biscuits and a mimosa. Ms. Fool went crazy for their shrimp and grits, and I wolfed down their banana pecan pancakes and duck fat hash browns.
To work off the meal, we strolled to to Audubon Park, where we checked out the Labyrinth, a circular stone walking path, and the Tree of Life, planted circa 1740.
We then headed back to the French Quarter to visit the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum. It was $5 each, and thank goodness – any more and we might have been disappointed. It’s a very small museum but has lots of small things to read and see.
Next, we walked to the 1850 House Museum. It cost $2, and we think that’s a fair price for what you get. It gives you a tiny peek into what your living situation might have looked like back in the day. It’s not an entire house: it’s a series of preserved time capsule rooms.
There’s nothing like walking though a few museums to make your stomach scream, “Feed me!” So we popped into French Market Place, an open air market with food and clothing vendors. We grabbed a few smoothies and then retired to our Airbnb for a nap.
It was really hard to wake up and head back outside. It was dark and cold, but we wanted to watch the fireworks over the Mississippi. The show marked the end of 3 Kings Day and the start of the Mardi Gras season.
And then it was time for dinner at Carmo, a restaurant that specializes in healthy cooking and locally-sourced ingredients. We ordered kottu roti, creole chicken, creole-seared avocado, vegetable soup, and passion fruit juice.
The kottu roti was my (Mr. Fool’s) favorite food item. It’s a Sri Lankan street dish made with strips of Godhamba roti that are fried with shallots, garlic, and onion, and then covered with curry and Havarti cheese. Ms. Fool found her chicken good, but craved other textures and flavors halfway through her meal. The soup neither of us would order again.
Overall, it was a decent meal, but the service was a bit off. We had to wait despite our reservation, and the wait staff mixed up our order and billed incorrectly.
We rounded out the night with a quick stroll down Bourbon Street to see how raucous the nightlife would be once Mardi Gras season was underway. The street was packed with drunk and dancing people clambering for beads being tossed from the balconies. After five or six blocks, we called it a night.
Day 4 Itinerary
We started our last day in New Orleans by returning to where it all begin: Cafe Du Monde. We then returned to The National WWII Museum. We used the museum’s free bag check to keep our luggage, and then paid for day passes and tickets to Beyond All Boundaries, the museum’s 4-D movie experience.
Beyond All Boundaries is very well done. The screen is a huge and wraps around you, set pieces seamlessly appear and disappear, and different light and smoke effects really immerse you in the story.
The rest of the museum is well designed and deserving of the hype it receives in travel guides. It’s very interactive, and it has lots of interactive exhibits that bring the war experience to life. There were rooms that looked like bombed-out cites or freezing forests torn apart by war, and an area designed to feel like you were a lookout on a naval ship. We expected to just spend a few hours at the museum but spent closer to five.
We finally stepped away for late lunch at Seed, which bills itself as a healthy eatery. We had blueberry pancakes, sweet corn polenta, fresh fruit, and a vanilla matcha smoothie.
Our food was okay: a little over priced but it served its purpose.
Afterward, we walked to the well-reviewed market Big Fishermen. After reading about it online, Ms. Fool wanted to try some of their seafood. We’d stopped in twice the previous days, and both times they were low on the day’s catch due to the cold weather. We figured we would give it one last chance, so we made the hike over.
The pickings were once again slim. But Ms. Fool ordered some fish and corn on the cob just for the sake of it.
We grabbed some food to-go (there’s no seating) and headed to our final food destination of our trip: Bakery Bar
The King cake was good, but the fondant exterior was a bit too sweet for us. We felt similarly about the maple blueberry bacon cake bites.
After collecting our bags from the museum and eating the seafood sitting on a bench outdoors, we bid farewell to New Orleans.
Jetting Down To Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
After spotting a too-cheap-to-pass-up hotel-and-flight deal, we booked a 5-night trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Many water sports enthusiasts head to Puerto Vallarta for kitesurfing or scuba diving. We, however, had no particular goals or plans – a rarity for the couple who usually has at minimum a list of sights and an eatery or two to visit. (Heck, we even managed to turn a 12-hour layover in Switzerland into a whirlwind day trip.) But sometimes there’s pleasure in not having an agenda. So, with a come-what-may attitude in mind, we headed south of the border.
How We Did It
This was our first international trip using Southwest Airlines. If you fly out of LAX, as we did, note that you have to check in at a domestic terminal and then catch a shuttle to the international terminal. So plan to arrive early.
We stayed at the Sheraton Buganvilias Resort. For the most part, it was nice: clean with a beautiful pool and accommodating staff. However, multiple floors were under construction. So we sometimes had hammering or sawing interrupt afternoon naps or wake us up before we planned.
No car rental. Aside from taxis to and from the airport, we walked. For better or for worse, Puerto Vallarta caters to tourists. So we never once felt unsafe.
What We Did
Lots and lots of walking. Paseo Díaz Ordaz. Malecon boardwalk. Over the Río Cuale to Los Muertos Beach. Again, we were in this trip primarily to take it easy. So there were no fabulous day trips planned. Just lots of sun on the beach, nights reading while lightning flashed outside our window, and plenty of eating – though not at our hotel. After one meal there, we decided to eat elsewhere. Not only was the food overpriced, but it was also rather bland.
Where We Ate
- 100% Natural. The breakfasts were really tasty and healthy, although a little overpriced. Lots of vegetarian options and some organic, which is why we visited. While we are generally open to eating anything at least once, we try not to stray too far from our primarily-vegetable diet for more than a few days at a time.
- Mariscos Cuetos. We had a really good dinner of large shrimp and chicken fajitas. They’re a bit pricy compared to other seafood eateries in the area. But their food is high quality. Bonus points for the band that plays while you dine.
- Layla’s. Our top pick. This was the priciest place dined at, but the food and service were really great. Beautiful ambiance on the balcony. The owner and waiter even shared a drink with us.
- Pan & Cué. Pretty standard Italian fare. Really can’t go wrong with anything here.
- La Bodeguita Del Medio. We wanted some Cuban food, so we came here. We thought it was not nearly as flavorful as it should have been. Also, we’ve had much better Cuban food in California.
- Natureza. Great smoothies and crepes. Again, lots of healthy options.
We also ate lots of ice cream, crepes, and street tacos at various stands. Flavor-wise, the ice cream can be hit or miss. But it’s cheap enough that you can’t complain.
Some Travel Tips
- If you have USD: exchange some of your currency for peso, but also make sure to keep some USD 1’s, 5’s, and 10’s. Then, when paying, ask the cost in both peso and USD, and use the cheaper option.
- Exchange money via an ATM and not at currency exchanges or money exchange machines. You often get a much better rate with ATMs. Remember to check with your bank on ATM fees.
- To save money on airport transportation, skip the white airport taxis and walk to the main road. Hail a yellow taxi. The airport taxis cost about $20 USD, while yellow street taxis cost around $10 USD. (At the time of this post, the exchange rate was 1 USD = 18.12 MXN. So, following our advice in tip 1, we chose to pay with peso, a cost of ~$5.51 USD).
- Use a credit card that doesn’t have foreign transaction fees.
Enjoying The #BeachLife On North Carolina’s Topsail Island
There’s an island off the coast of North Carolina called Topsail Island. Since I was a kid, my (Mr. Fool’s) family has loved to visit. It’s a small town with a leisurely vibe and clean beaches that are scattered with seashells and sharks’ teeth. Perfect for a family vacation.
We rented a beach house that was practically right on the water: walk down the steps off the back porch, and your toes were in the sand.
Our days were spent sleeping in late, playing in the warm surf of the North Atlantic Ocean all afternoon, and walking the beaches at dusk to take in the amazing sunsets.
I brought my drone (DJI Mavic Pro) and flew it a few times while we were there. It handled the high winds decently well and even got a little rain on it one time. Check out the short video below.
Pursuing The Total Solar Eclipse
It so happened that the 2017 total solar eclipse was happening during our vacation. Since we were only a few hours from a path in the totality, on the day of, Ms. Fool and I woke up early and drove to Turbeville, SC. It’ a small town away from major cities, so we figured there would be less traffic.
It was cloudy for long parts of the drive, and we were worried we wouldn’t be able to see much. But, as luck would have it, the sun was no longer hidden by the time we finished driving.
A few minutes before the totality, I flew my drone up and let it hover to capture the moon’s shadow crossing over the earth. I got some cool footage you can see below. Watch the lower part of the screen: you can see the street lights lining the road all come on.
For fellow drone enthusiasts: I rotated the drone 180 as the shadow passed. The result: it looks like I just graded the footage dark to light.
Exploring The U.S.S. North Carolina Battleship Memorial
On the last day of our trip, we had a few hours to kill on our way to the airport. We stopped by the U.S.S. North Carolina Battleship Memorial to check it out.
We wandered around the decks and crawled inside a turret where there was hardly space to move. The living spaces below deck were hot and small. It’s incredible to think about what our enlisted endured.
You could easily spend more than a few hours on the ship reading all the exhibits and following their audio tour. But it’s also nice to take a quick self-guided tour, as we did.
Deciding To Pause In Zürich
While arranging our return flights from Morocco, we noticed we could squeeze in a 12-hour layover in Zürich, Switzerland. It was an attractive opportunity. Not only would we spend time in a beautiful city, but we could avoid having to either race through the airport for a connecting flight (stressful) or sit around for several hours waiting to fly out (boring). 12 hours wasn’t a lot of time. But it was long enough that we could leave the airport and get the teeniest of tastes of the city, which Mr. Fool hadn’t visited in over a decade and Mrs. Fool had never set foot in.
The Fools And Their Money Are Soon Parted
Zürich is much more expensive than Morocco. (At the time of this post, the exchange rate was roughly 1:1 USD.) Even though we knew that would be the case, we still experienced some sticker shock. Our room at the City Backpacker Biber Hostel, for example, which contained two single beds, a sink, and a small wardrobe, with a shared bathroom down the hall, cost around CHF $125. Dinner that first night, eaten shortly after our 11 PM check-in, was slices of pizza that cost enough for us to pause before ordering a second slice each. (We did, but only because we were hungry, and convenience stores weren’t open.)
A Whirlwind (Partial) Tour Of Zürich
Before bed, we walked along the Limmat river and enjoyed the cool night air – quite a contrast from the hot, humid temperatures we had just left behind in Marrakech.
The next morning began at 6 AM. We walked to Platzspitz park to play a game of chess on an oversize chessboard. From there, we meandered though the city and admired the architecture. Zürich contains a beautiful mix of Baroque and Neo-Classical influences. After pausing at the Stadthausanlage square farmers market, we finished our all-too-brief day at Lake Zürich. From there, it was back to the airport.
19 Days in Morocco:
We packed light for our visit to Morocco: each of us had one daypack and one checked backpack. Our trip was to last 19 days total, 15 of which would be spent on a G Adventures tour. The other 4 days, we hoped to explore on our own.
Our plan was to arrive in Casablanca in the early morning and spend a day independently exploring before meeting our tour group for a trip that would cover Tangier, Chefchaouen, Meknes, Fes, Merzouga, Todra Gorge, Ait Benhaddou, the High Atlas Mountains, Essaouira, and Marrakech.
Right away, we hit a few little bumps. Our Paris layover ended up being so short that our checked luggage did not make it to Morocco. So we spent 6 hours in the Casablanca airport until they arrived on a later flight. We made the most of our time, though, by buying a SIM card ($20 USD for local calling & 6 gigs of data without a contract!) and getting cash from the airport ATM. (Travel tip: open a checking account that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees or ATM withdrawal fees. Best way to stretch your travel budget.)
By the we got our bags and checked into the hotel, it was close to midnight (so much for sightseeing the first day!), and we were exhausted. But we decided to take a quick walk and get something to eat. The city was as lively as any other major US city on a Friday night, with lots of people outside and plenty of bars open for business. We ducked into a small sidewalk cafe and, unable to read the Arabic descriptions on the menu, blindly picked 2 items. One of them was a yogurt dish that had fruit and nuts in it. It tasted amazing. After my first bite, I declared it a “bowl of heaven.”
The next day, we hiked with our backpacks for 5 miles along the ocean and though the city to reach the G Adventures-designated hotel. We dropped off our luggage and made a quick stop at the Hassan II Mosque before returning to meet our travel group and tour guide and enjoy a group dinner.
Determined to find another “bowl of heaven,” Mrs. Fool and I separated from the group after dinner. While walking the city streets, I bumped (accidentally, I thought) into a guy, who then apologized for bumping me. He then shook my hand, welcomed me and Mrs. Fool to Casablanca, and asked if I knew anything about soccer. As he spoke about soccer, he moved in close to me and kicked at an imaginary ball. After a few seconds, I realized something was off. I instinctively touched my front pocket, and then I grabbed his hand and asked very calmly (but with some profanity) if I could have my wallet back. With a somewhat stunned expression, the guy handed me my wallet and began to apologize. I released his arm, told him off, and then walked away, happy to have not lost a cent. That was, fortunately, the only negative encounter we would have on the entire trip with a local.
The next morning we set off early in a travel bus with 13 other people from all over the world, our tour guide and bus driver.
Chefchaouen, founded in 1471, is a beautiful town nestled in the foothills of Rif Mountains. We spent one evening and a full day in the town, which was hardly enough time. There is a maze of streets winding around the closely-packed buildings, all painted shades of blue, with open markets and street food. We spent a good part of the day hiking up to a Spanish mosque and then farther up into the Rif Mountains to a small farmhouse for a lunch that consisted of mint tea, bread, and chicken and vegetable tagine. A interesting thing to note is that the Rif Mountains are home to many farmers who grow marijuana plants for export. We passed vast fields of marijuana along our hike.
Merzouga, Morocco – Sahara Bedouin Camp:
As we got closer to Mezouga, civilization gave way to sand, and the last half hour of driving was just on sandy dirt. Our hotel was built on the edge of the Sahara Desert, one side surrounded by dense, clay-like ground and the other, sand dunes. That evening, we spent a little time swimming in the outdoor pool and then enjoyed a group dinner. The next afternoon, we rode camels into the Sahara, snaking between towering rust-colored dunes. As the sun began to set, we all hiked up to the top of one to watch the sun sink into the sand. We then had dinner at a Beber-styled camp while listening to music and then retreated to canvas tents for the night.
We arrived at the seaside city in the evening, and after settling in at the hotel, we explored the dozens of narrow, vendor-packed streets, looking over paintings, tasting crepes, and admiring intricately carved wooden chess boards and figurines. We paused for a half hour to dip our toes in the chilly ocean, which had very few swimmers and even fewer sunbathers. The next day, we headed to the local fish market to pick out some freshly-caught seafood. Our tour guide went to several stands, plucking up shrimp, crab, squid, and multiple types of fish. He then shepherded us across the street to a makeshift outdoor restaurant tucked between boats in the process of repair. Everyone sat in plastic chairs at folding tables, munching on bread and green olives while our fish was skillfully cleaned, filleted, and placed in thin wire baskets over charcoal grills. As each fish or mollusk was finished, it was heaped on a plate and presented to our table with a bowl of salt and slices of fresh lime for seasoning. While I dislike most seafood, Mrs. Fool happily gorged herself.
Marrakech, Morocco – Djemaa el Fna Market Square:
The final leg of our trip took us to Marrakech. The temperature was topping 100 degrees, but we were able to find some places that were not too hot to visit. Mind you, we’re Southern Californians who are used to scorching days, and so “too hot” is an incredibly subjective term.
We spent the morning hiding in the shade of the Jardin Majorelle Botanical Gardens, and then, after an afternoon snooze, headed to Jamaa el-Fna Square to wander around the many markets and enjoy street food in the cooler evening air.
The very last night, we spent inside the medina at the Riad Hotel l’Etoile d’Orient. The hotel was conveniently located to the square and very quiet. With the continued high temperatures, it was really nice to be able to explore a while and then retreat to the cool air-conditioned room. For our last dinner, we stopped at a street food vendor selling sandwiches to a crowd of hungry Moroccans. We watched as he deftly sliced open a piece of khobez and shoveled in hard boiled eggs, potatoes, and harissa. A quick drizzle of olive oil, a roll in a sheet of paper, and the package was handed to us. Simple and delicious.
Our entire trip to Morocco lasted 17 days, and by the end, we were ready to go. The G Adventures portion – as they cautioned on their website – was fast-paced, and the constant movement and heat (temperatures hit 105 F during a surprise heat wave) became a little tiresome by the end. We had a great tour guide, and most of the local guides were good or entertaining. We got to see and do so much that everything became a little bit of a blur. However, I think it was a great way to see Morocco. Everything was taken care of: no worrying where we would stay or how we would get from one location to another or which tour guide we should go with. We had a little bus trouble, but it was quickly resolved by our guide. Accommodations were decent, meaning don’t expect modern bathrooms, hot showers, or comfortable beds at every spot. Food was usually good, but we had some of our best meals outside of the tour when we ventured off on our own.
We Fools would advise going a day early and staying a day or two at the end like we did, as it gives you a little breather on either end. The last two days were relaxing knowing we had no schedule, could sleep in, wonder the medina, browse the shops and try different restaurants at our leisure.
Just about everyone on our tour got a stomach bug at some point, some worse than others. Though we played it safe – brushing our teeth with bottled water, avoiding most salads and fruits that were freshly washed – we both got a little sick midway though. So be sure to bring some Imodium or the equivalent.