Oympics

Prost From Munich!

Hello again from Munich! We’re thoroughly enjoying our time in Germany thus far as we attempt to experience as much as possible over our short three day stay. So far, so good. After some of the more complicated & confusing cities we’ve visited, tackling Munich has been a cake walk. Getting around is a breeze and our single snag was based on the confusing labeling of the “S” and “U” subway system. We’re still not sure why seemingly identical systems have two different labels, but we have to give the public transportation system credit. The subway has remarkable accessibility through ramps, escalators and elevators. Plus, friendly dogs on public transportation is a very common site. Additionally on the helpful side, we’ve found that a majority of Munich residents speak English and speak it incredibly well. Although, once again we have to be head’s up pedestrians because we’re back to dodging bikers in bike lanes similar to Copenhagen. We’re also trying to make the most of our breakfasts because we realize that we’re winding down our time in regions known for delicious morning pastries. Our most important discovery however is that we’ve also cracked the code on exactly what the traditional German outfits are all about. For lack of a classier description, Lederhosen are essential festive drinking clothes.

Through a happy coincidence, the apartment we had booked happened to be just down the street from a local brewery and beer hall. And what trip to Munich would be complete without a visit to a traditional beer hall? We spent an evening in the Lowenbrau Beer Hall – a lively, fun place that was just our speed. Every item on the menu makes for a big, heavy meal that is complimented by gargantuan glasses of delicious, full-bodied beers. The sprawling beer hall, just one of many in Munich, was packed with a boisterous crowd of everyone from tables of regulars who keep their own personal steins locked up at the restaurant to tour-bus sized groups of visitors. Between bites of sausages and german meatloaf (that was really more like a giant slab of cooked ham), we struck up a conversation with a neighboring table of visiting gynecologists and compared notes on musicians popular in Germany such as Anastasia, The Scorpions and, yes, David Hasselhoff. We also learned a lot about Munich’s own Lowenbrau. Loosely Translated as “Lion’s Beer”, Lowenbrau has been in production since the 1300’s and is one of only six beers sold at Oktoberfest. Why? Because all Oktoberst beers must be brewed in Munich. Not surprisingly, but still somewhat sadly, Lowenbrau recently joined the global Anheuser-Busch InBev family of beers.

The next morning, eager to get outside and see more of Munich, we took the train to Olympic Park – home of the 1972 Olympic Games. It was such a sensational place and we’re now considering relocating to Munich for the park alone. The city has done a phenomenal job of repurposing the massive complex to serve as a central city location for green space, sporting events, community pool, concerts and truly something for everyone. In fact, our visit came the day before the Munich Marathon which started in the park and ended right in the middle of the Olympic Stadium. Forking over a few Euro allowed us to take a trip to the top of the Olympic Tower. It may have been just another tower to see on our trip (and we’ve seen several), but “Olympiaturm” delivered the best view in Munich with a stunning 360 degree viewing platform. From this tallest point in the city, we could see for the first time the large number of parks and forests scattered through small neighborhoods that continued out into the horizon. There was also a strangely placed and largely forgettable Rock museum at the top of the tower.

After the tower, we elected to take the “Adventure Tour” of Olympic Park. Not sure where the adventure came in unless the German word for Adventure really means “stand around and listen”, but it was still interesting. Our easy-going, enthusiastic guide delivered the tour in both German and English, but Brooke and I are pretty sure that only about 25% of what he had said in German got translated to English. Nevertheless, it was a great background on the design and history of the unique stadium and complex. Highlights included seeing the swimming complex where Mark Spitz broke all of those Olympic Records years ago and visiting a locker room that was used by the local Football Club for years. For us, it was just an old empty locker room, but the rest of the tour group was buzzing about excitable while taking photos of signs that players had used this particular rack. We found it interesting that no mention was made of the tragedy involving the Israeli athletes, but to be fair we didn’t visit the Olympic Housing section.

Ready to get off our feet, we headed back to the city center to see some of the Marienplatz area and take a quick trip to the legendary Hofbrau House. We were disenchanted at first its touristy location (right next to the Hard Rock Cafe) and the teeming crowds, but we’re glad we went in. We grabbed a seat along side others on a bench and we had giant steins, pretzels and sausages in no time. What a fun, iconic and tremendous place! The lesson there is just because a location is the most well-known touristy place in town, doesn’t mean its not worth a visit. So, all in all, we feel like we have made solid use of our three days in Munich. It’s been a great city to visit and fall feels like the perfect time to be in this part of Germany. Still, what’s taken some getting used to is that we’ve found Germans to be incredibly friendly, but the language always makes it sound like they are angry or yelling. It reminded us of this hilarious old Dana Carvey/Steve Carell sketch. Now, we have a train ride to Stutgart, a very short night’s sleep and then (after a connecting flight through Amsterdam) off to Scotland!

-Phil

That's a lot of polls to control!

The World’s Largest Foosball Table! Part of The Olympic Stadium. Could get some great games going here!

Munich’s Olympic Park

View of the BMW Headquarters and Museum from atop the Olympic Tower

Brooke soaking up the whole Beer Hall experience!

Categories: Beer, City Visits, Destinations, German, Oympics, Parks, Self Guided Tours, Sports, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Rotorua and The Polynesian Spa

Good evening from Rotorua, New Zealand! Brooke and I are settling into our cozy, yet simple room at the YHA Rotorua Hostel as we end our day in this charming and sleepy mid-sized town, alongside a lake formed in a volcanic crater.  This town is famous for natural beauty, geysers, hot mud springs and more. It is also the native home of Zorbing! Which we have absolutely no desire to do. Rotorua is just another one of many, many locations whose name is Maori in origin. There are two things we see everywhere we look in New Zealand: Maori cultural influence and backpacker camps and hostels.

Phil and a deliciously oversized Stella ArtoisWe’re hosting full bellies courtesy of a late dinner just down the street.We dined at a gorgeous and grand former local police station turned Irish pub aptly named “The Pig and Whistle” (get it?). The evening was made up of a giant Stella and a Giant (but not so fresh) Guinness, splitting a pork tenderloin and watching the opening heats of the Olympic Kayak and Canoe racing live from London. Go Kiwis!

The highlight of our day had to be our trip to the hot pools at the Polynesian Spa. In fact, it might have been one of the top highlights of our trip thus far. Hot mineral bathing in geothermal spring water that flows right under our toes in Rotorua. We don’t have a lot of photos to share because, you know, a brand new digital camera doesn’t mix very well with seven baths and spas lined with slightly corrosive mineral water. The spas provided amazing relaxation and just an incredible experience. It was really quite like nothing else I’ve ever done. I’m nobody’s Hemingway nor Steinbeck nor even E.L. James, so I feel like I’m not going to do this happening justice, but I’ll give it a shot:

The Polynesian SpaUpon arriving at the Spa, we chose the Adult Pools and Priest Spa package that ran us $25 USD each for unlimited time in the rejuvenating waters. This included access to seven separate pool areas in total – none deeper than about four feet. You quickly notice that those pools are slightly stinky (from the natural sulfur rising up), remarkably steamy and really hot. Each pool is kept at temperatures between 100 and 110 degrees

It is a very tactile experience. It is hard to focus on anything other than the warmth and the steam pouring in waves of clouds off your body. Man, if I was a local resident, I would be there every single day. So, sure, we don’t really understand how these thermodynamic spas work. Seems like we’ve been getting a crash course in various Geology lessons as we tramp across New Zealand. We do know that each pool had minerals that you can see floating in the water. And we know that a hot spa on a cool night feels amazing. And probably a hell of a lot more enjoyable than the awful sounding idea of a hot spa on a hot summer night.

In the pool closest to the lake, which was the hottest and our favorite, I had this sort of magical moment when the clouds finally cleared allowing me to at last view the stars of the New Zealand sky. It was then when I saw the Southern Cross for the first time. A set of stars I had never seen before. The stars here are bright and there are many. It makes it easy to understand why I came this way.

Hot Tubs await youWhen we decided we had raised our core temperature quite a bit and soaked it all in, we called it quits. Leaving the spa felt like walking out of a long message. Refreshing and soothing and leaves you feeling at ease. Brooke and I walked out of the Polynesian Spa in the cool New Zealand night feeling like we had some leftover steam still escaping from our bodies. Yeah, it was the highlight of the day soaking in those pools. Chalk one up for another worthwhile, memorable trip experience.

We’ve settled into Rotorua and will likely stay a couple of nights. The hostel has some thin walls and bathrooms down the hall, but the place is clean, modern, full of amenities and give us all the space we need. Tomorrow night, we think we’ll try our hand at a homemade meal in their eye-poppingly large kitchen. We continue to absorb and explore and learn and see and enjoy. Hmmm…I’m pretty sure that our clothes and our room smell a little like sulfur from the pools.

Just another gorgeous day in New Zealand

Just another stunning day in New Zealand – rainbow captured over Rotorua during an afternoon rain earlier today

Categories: City Visits, Diversions, Eating, Hotels, New Zealand, Oympics, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Raglan, Waitomo Caves and Hamilton, New Zealand

Even though we’re only a few days in, our time in New Zealand continues to be as wonderful as the sites have been breathtaking. We’re quickly learning that this is a country of boundless natural beauty. Without hyperbole, this land is simply stunning. We had an opportunity to see a good portion of it first hand today. Our third full day here was made up of a trip to scenic falls, a windy drive, a guided tour through the spectacular and legendary Waitomo glow worm caves and an evening with the most hospitable and welcoming couple in New Zealand, if not the Southern Hemisphere.

We left Raglan bright and early after completing our recent routine of “Breakfast and Wi-fi” at a local cafe. The locals were celebrating The Chiefs big rugby win last night. We’re also picking up on the friendly rivalry between New Zealanders and their nearest neighbors in Australia who are just “across the ditch” (the span of ocean separating the two countries). Every Kiwi we’ve spoken with has beamed with pride when they remark that New Zealand is 14th overall in the 2012 Olympic medal count while those Aussies only have a single gold medal to their name. Funny.

One note on internet access: Every single business we’ve encountered so far is a bit peculiar about their Wi-Fi. No one has true “free” Wi-Fi. With any purchase, you receive a code that gets you online for a set amount of data (50 mb) or time (1 hour). This is a bit hard to get used to.

From Raglan, we drove a short distance to the scenic Bridal Veil Falls. After a short voyage down a windy road (oh, have we driven on some windy roads far) and an easy 10 minute hike, we were greeted with the amazing site of water streaming 150 feet to the small limestone pool below. Quite the way to start a day of travel and siteseeing. Amazing. Less amazing was the twisting, slow-going gravel road that we then had to drive on for about 45 minutes. Were we lost? Did we take the wrong road? No, that’s just the way the path goes. White knuckle, can’t-see-around-the-next-corner driving indeed. A challenging, but interesting drive. And as bonus, there were picturesque sheep and friendly cows alongside the road to greet us. And we had the enjoyably music coming from New Zealand radio. Worth mentioning that the “Pop Hits of Today” in New Zealand are pretty much the same as the “Pop Hits of Today” in the United States. Maroon 5, Gotye, Katy Perry, and Fun. have all graced the spaceship’s radio to say hello.Our spaceship wound its way up and down hills and around small mountains as part of an incredibly scenic drive. Around each corner was another bucolic, green and sensational view. I’ve really never seen anything like it.

The Waitomo caves, the highlight of our day, was another experience all together. We paid for a combo ticket to visit two caves- Rakauri and Glowworm Caves. The Rakauri cave was a long tour through a twisting, beautiful set of caverns full of stalagmites (coming from the ground that “mite” touch the ceiling), stalagtites, columns, curtains, and more. We had an exceptional tour guide who made the experience outstanding. The magnificent underground beauty was stunning and we learned about the Maori history, background on the caves and just some stunning insight. They even showcase a big chunk of limestone rock that had been carved like a sculpture by just seven years of water drips. But the best part were the glowworms. Native only to New Zealand, these caves are inhabited by glowworms – tiny creatures no longer than four centimeters long that cling to the ceiling and light up the pitch-dark caves like some type of underground constellation. Just…wow. The boat ride at the end of the Glowworm cave through an underground lake was simply amazing and made our day. I could gush for pages about these two caves and the remarkable site of the glowworms.

No room for Phil in the cave

Planning future trips with FelicityOur evening, spent in Hamilton, was a completely different experience. Against all odds, we managed to meet and befriend possibly the nicest, most generous couple in the country. We met Ken and Marinota during our layover in Guagzhou where they had invited us to their place for tea (dinner) one night. Man, are we glad we took them up on that invitation! What followed was an evening of conversation, meals and never-ending hospitality from this enthusiastic, sincerely friendly,well-traveled duo. They helped us outline some future stops in New Zealand (each place was more of a “can’t miss’ than the one before!), talked travel, gave us insight into New Zealand culture (Ken calls the remote “the zonker”) and we even chatted it up with the neighbors – Jason and Felicity – who stopped by. Jason and Felicity are planning a trip to Van Wert, Ohio in December. Where? I thought I knew all the towns in Ohio! I’ve come 7,500 miles just to learn about a town in my own backyard I’ve never heard of. We had an amazingly fun night that left us exhausted (but that might have been the many glasses of wine.) Ken and Marinota, being the wonderful people that they are, even opened up their home to us and invited us to spend the night in the guestroom. As we said, exceptionally generous and absurdly gracious. Hooray for making new friends in New Zealand.

Next, we had west to the town of Rotorua and onward!

-Phil

Categories: City Visits, Destinations, Driving, Exploring, Friends, New Zealand, Oympics, Transportation, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

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