Posts Tagged With: Bus Tour

Budapest with Friends!

Of all the legs of our trip, this is the one we have had planned furthest in advance.  Five full days in beautiful Budapest, Hungary.  Because our friends and travel partners, Gina and Tom, were meeting us here, we planned an arrival date and hotel long before anything else.  We have been looking forward to this for a long time and so far it is exceeding all our expectations.

We knew this city would be a successful stop when we found ourselves with a list a mile long of things to see and do.  From castles to communist history, there is something here to please everyone.  In order to better know the city and its layout, we began the day with a hop-on/hop-off bus tour.  These have proven to be a great way to get an overview when first visiting a city, and this one did not disappoint.  It includes three different rides, one on a river boat tour, and is good for two days.  Today we cruised through the Pest section of town, admiring the architecture reminiscent of Paris.  Wide boulevards lined with trees and buildings dating back to the 1880’s make Budapest immediately more visually stunning than any city we’ve been to in a while.  While we haven’t toured any of these places yet, we drove past the Parliament Building, the Royal Palace, the Opera House, Hero’s Square, and Budapest’s famed baths.  We crossed the Danube over to Buda, the side of the city situated among beautiful rolling hills.  Here we stopped at the Citadel for a drink and amazing views.  Even on a cloudy day, the sweeping landscape down the river and over the city was spectacular.  Tourists were clamoring to take pictures, and Tom even proposed that this may be the best city view he has ever seen.  It really is pretty impressive.  The other Eastern European cities we’ve visited are not even in the same league with Budapest.  A comparison isn’t even fair.

Anticipating the impending rain, we jumped off the bus, headed for lunch, and did what we do best:  enjoyed time with some of our closest friends.  It is amazing how different it is to spend time as a group of four people for the entire day after being so long with just the two of us.  We feel so lucky that Gina and Tom were willing to leave their son at home (which wasn’t the original plan) and come join us on our trip.  They both have such a wonderful energy and spirit that being with them makes us feel like we are on vacation.  A vacation from our travels.  I know that sounds a bit strange, but its true.  To top it off, due to Tom’s bazillion hotel points and endless generosity, we are staying at Le Meridien, one of the nicest hotels in Budapest and certainly some of the best accommodations we will see on this trip.

As the night grew, so did the rain with the addition of lightning.  Beautiful weather is forecast for the rest of our time here, so we spent the evening catching up with our friends and planning the next few days in order to maximize our time here.  We all agree it is a pretty good problem when there is so much we wish to do and not enough time.  We’d much rather it be that way than the other way around!  A late lunch meant we weren’t terribly hungry, so we paid a visit to the local casino.  We all found it a bit strange that the table minimum is 500 HUF.  It sounds like so much, and losing 500 or 1000 HUF feels so painful, but in reality it is only $2.25 and $4.50 respectively.  That’s actually pretty cheap blackjack by most casino standards, which is why we were surprised when the drink Phil ordered (a White Russian) cost him 3100 HUF.  I’ll let you do the math yourself.  It’s ridiculous!  In fact, I think that drink brought bad mojo to the table because my luck immediately turned bad afterward.  Always gluttons for punishment, we played for a bit longer.  After chatting up some very friendly dealers and being creeped out by one overly friendly Danish guy, our hunger got the best of us and we called it quits to head to dinner.

Because we are planning a delicious Hungarian dinner for Thursday night, we settled for a cute Italian restaurant with a beautiful view of the Basilica of St. Stephen. We’ve been doing our best to eat the local cuisine in each city recently, so it felt good to dine at an Italian joint. They served up some tasty cocktails and homemade pasta that made us all happily full.  Tomorrow we plan to take a tour of Parliament and then visit the Memento Sculpture Park–the resting place of communist era statues.  In addition, we hope to make a visit to the thermal baths which we believe will be perfect after a long  day of sightseeing.  As we reflect on our day and the rest of our time yet to come in Budapest, Phil and I keep saying to one another, “I’m so glad we’re here with Gina and Tom.”  We love having these experiences, and they are made so much sweeter when shared with friends.

–Brooke

We arrived at the exact same time into the Budapest train station, making for a very happy, but old-timey reunion of friends!

Gina tries the local fruit brandy, palinka. It was worse than the rakia from Bulgaria and could probably fuel a 747 airplane.

A view of the Royal Palace across the river in Buda.

Our wonderful friends, Gina and Tom.

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Categories: At Night, Casino, City Visits, Destinations, Diversions, Eastern Europe, Friends, Hungary, Tours, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Stopping by Estonia!

Again, we apologize for the intermittent posting. Wi-fi is limited and absurdly expensive on the cruise ship, so we’re only able to post whilst at port.

Behold! Beauty!Salutations from Tallinn, Estonia! As our epic Baltic Capitals cruise continues to sail across Northern Europe, we docked in Tallinn and spent the better part of today in Estonia’s biggest city situated smack dab on the coast. Our oh-so luxurious and comfortable boat was only in port from about 9:30 AM to 5:00 PM, so we endeavored to make the best use of our short time. Tallinn is yet another city that we knew virtually nothing about prior to visiting. Our trip has been extraordinary in helping us fill in these giant gaps of knowledge we have about a ton of places around the world like Estonia, Singapore, Vietnam, etc.

Tallinn is one of the smallest cities in one of the smallest countries that we’ve spent time in thus far. The entire nation has a population shy of two million. It doesn’t take long to discover that due to it’s small size and “favorable geographic location”, this is a country that has been invaded, occupied and controlled throughout its history by nearly every major European nation including Sweden, Denmark, Germany and, most recently and most notably, Russia. The more we see of Europe, the more it dawns on us how the history of these European nations is so intertwined. Estonian is the local language, but you won’t hear it much outside of the country. It’s unique to be in the midst of a language that only 1.5 million people speak among millions of Europeans.

Rocking it in the older part of townA large part of Estonia’s history involves being resilient while fighting seemingly endless oppression by much larger nations. In fact, in the last 800 years, Estonia has only had 40 total years of true independence! And twenty of those years have been since 1991. That’s crazy to wrap your head around. The country continues to grow on its own two legs and recently joined the E.U. and converted to the Euro just two years ago. Our lunch bill had the price in both the old Estonian currency and in Euros since locals are still adjusting to the conversions. In some ways, Brooke and I were exploring an entirely new nation comprised of a centuries old culture and people. We’re seeing parts of the world in a changing time with some counties experiencing independence and peace only in recent years. Estonia has a remarkable story and it is a remarkable time to for us to visit.

Also, please refer to me as the Baltic Fox moving forwardOnce again, the ever-present Hop-on Hop-off tour bus served us incredibly well. We’re on the cusp of writing personal endorsements for these buses.  When we only have a short time to dig in and see a city, these double-deckers are perfect. For just ten Euro a pop, we enjoyed a guided ride on two different lines covering a solid chunk of the city. Plus, the bus provided transportation to and from to the cruise port. We learned about the Estonian singing culture and their giant outdoor amphitheatre that can accommodate thousands of singers (Estonians apparently love to sing), Tallinn’s role in hosting water sports on the Baltic during the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and we got a good look at a scary looking seaside prison turned museum.

Since our Norwegian Sun was one of four, count ’em four, giant cruise boats clamoring for space in the port, our first sight in Old Town was tourists and more tourists. At first impressions, you might think that Tallinn’s main population is nothing more than confused looking middle-aged tourists with cameras and fanny packs. We explored old town for a bit which was made up mainly of beautiful old preserved buildings and churches and surrounded by an ancient wall that has large parts still in tact. Old Town itself has an authentic Medieval look and is quiet, sterile and only used now for historically preserved buildings, government buildings and souvenir shops. Wandering away from the crowds and down the hill, we ambled around the corner and we discovered this great Army-Navy Antique Store. The place was a wonderful mix of antique store and history museum with Soviet and Nazi era flags, metals, propoganda posters, busts of Lenin, Matchbooks and more. Just around the corner, the Estonian History museum was one of the best we’ve seen on this trip so far. The small but mighty museum included an exhibit on a recently merchant’s chest dating from 1350 which was unearthed from the Baltic Sea just last year.  The museum also has a very entertaining, tongue-in-cheek video that gives a colorful, brief informative history of the country. On top of all that, the museum has a bathroom that talks to you. I’m pretty sure the toilet was trying to teach me Estonian one word at a time.  It was a little creepy at first.

Around 5:00 PM, Brooke and I marched proudly back onto the boat satisfied with the job we had done. We hit the city hard and fast. Our reward? A quick history and taste of Estonia. Today was a good day: spending half the day exploring a brand new country in Estonia and the other half keeping busy on our giant boat. Speaking of our time on this massive rig, cruise living continues to treat us very well! We’re meeting friendly (mostly American) new faces around every new corner, kicking tail and taking names at trivia (particularly Name that Tune Movie Trivia) and we even managed to catch a Sunday Night NFL game which was pumped in live via Satellite late night in the Sports Bar. The food has been sensational in the categories of taste, availability and quantity. And running on the treadmill is a much more inspiring activity when the view from your window is the moving, open sea. Tonight was a delicious dinner with an ocean view in the main dining room, enjoying a live version of Deal or No Deal, watching a group of shipboard singers and dancers plow their way through Broadway Show tunes, and enjoying some more good luck in the Casino. Hmmm…is it too early to look into a fifteen day cruise? Next stop: St. Petersburg!

-Phil

One last image of some of Old Town from high above. The big church in the background doubled as beacon for sailors and has burned down like five times.

Check it out! Spring Awakening is coming to Tallinn! (We think that’s what it says)

Watching some Sunday Afternoon Football (at 12:30 AM!) on the Norwegian Sun’s Sports Bar on Deck 12 with new friends. Never that far from home…

Categories: Budget, Casino, City Visits, Estonia, Reflections, Self Guided Tours, The Cruise, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

A Brief Run in Singapore

The 2012 Singapore Skyline!Greetings from Singapore! Brooke and I are only in this small nation for two days as we close out the Pacific/Asia leg of our RTW trip. Our initial impression of Singapore? This is the one place so far that has most reminded us of an American city. In fact, and to be oddly specific, its kinda like Chicago. Add in the tropical foliage and location near the equator and Singapore has reminded us of Tampa at times as well. English serves as the official and primary language (thanks to 140 years of British imperial rule), and the city has an udeniably western vibe emitting from familiar looking shopping malls, big name hotels and modern skyscrapers. In short, Singapore has also been our easiest stop in a while.

Singapore is unique in that it manages to be a few different things all at once: a relatively small island geographically, a relatively big city socially and a sovereign nation politically. All wrapped into one happy enchilada. The country is made up of a hodge podge of people represented by four ethnic populations: Chinese, Malay, Indian and, um, Other. Yeah, apparently, that last few percent just gets kinda grouped together. Like many other cities we’ve seen, the city itself is heavily populated, but not as densely jam packed or teeming with bodies. Singapore has worked to keep the city full of open spaces, manicured landscapes that include a world famous botanical garden and even a few cricket fields downtown. In fact, urban Singapore has managed to become one of the world’s biggest exporter of orchids. Who knew?

A Singapore Landmark - Raffles hotel goes way back to the 1800'sAnd how do you get such a lovely, nice, town? By making it gut-churningly expensive. In fact, to encourage a cleaner, less congested city, there are measures in place to make it prohibitively expensive to even own a car. And Brooke and I are relatively certain that Singapore’s national pastime is going to a mall. There were lots of malls. Tons of malls. Endless malls. Many of them on the high end of the spectrum. If I had really wanted to buy Brooke an Omega watch, I had about a dozen opportunities. Cost was a factor when we skipped out on a classic visitor stop: ordering a Singapore Sling from it’s birthplace at the long bar inside the historic Raffle Hotel. At $23 a sling, that one was out of our budget. But the most amazing example of a city that works to control it’s environment through cost measures? The casinos: If you’re a resident of a Singapore and want to visit one of the stunning, new casinos in town, you are required to fork over a hundred dollars just to enter the gaming floors! I’ve never heard of such a thing – essentially an admission price to a casino that only locals have to pay.

In true Kollineiser traveling style though, we’ve managed to keep our visit on the cheap. We dropped a few bucks to grab a set on an open-air double-decker tour bus. Slipped on some sunglasses, sat back and took a guided-tour for a few hours around town. These buses are becoming our preferred method of sight-seeing when we only have a short time to pack in information. The tours can be a little lacking in personality, but are certainly an easy going and quick way to get a crash course on a new town. We stumbled upon Din Tai Fung – a phenomenal, busy Dim Sum restaurant where a team of cooks create dumplings and pork buns right on the spot. This might be a western city, but you can see the influence of the neighboring Asian countries all around. Particularly in the majority of dining options. Last evening, we even took some time to go see a movie. Another little international difference: upon purchasing tickets for “The Campaign” at the box office, we found that we had assigned seats in the theater!

That is a crazy buildingIf there is one gleaming landmark worth calling out, it would be the newly built Marina Bay Sands Towers: three fifty-five story hotel buildings linked at the top by a massive cruise-ship looking Sands Sky Park. From every angle, it looks like the brainchild of a demented I.M. Pei prodigy, but it works. The city really has a sharp set of grand architecture scattered throughout. Clearly, thoughtful efforts have been made to preserve the past by repurposing beautiful old buildings and build intelligently for the future with such provisions as limiting skyscraper heights. Singapore looks at times like one giant playground. We know that’s probably not an accurate representation, but alas. The number of endless water parks that are open year round (since there is just one season around here) doesn’t exactly help that impression. And they too have a giant Ferris wheel downtown – we’re seeing them everywhere.

But one of the best things that we did in Singapore was to take some time to sleep in. Our quality Air B ‘n B stay and comfortable bed allowed us to stay in bed as long as we wanted. After running at a breakneck speed through Vietnam and Hong Kong, we now feel rested and ready for Copenhagen! Overall, we enjoyed our short stint in Singapore. And since we didn’t embark on a major shopping spree or happen into some serious money to blow, two days worked out to be a good amount of time in town. Onward!

One last note: we discovered a piece of boarding genius at the dazzling Singapore airport. Passengers only have to go through a security screening once they arrive at their departure gate. Each gate has its own little security. Brilliant! Are you taking notes on this, America? Also, not one other country has made us take our shoes off while going through security. Just throwing that out there.

-Phil

Enjoying delicious Dumplings and steamed rolls in Singapore!

One last opportunity to buy high end goods in Singapore. This was the hundreth Swarovski store we saw…this one at the airport.

On the clean, cheap and modern MRT (subway) we kept hearing anouncements and seeing signs to Alight. I’ve never done so much alighting in my life.

Categories: Casino, City Visits, Diversions, Flights, Louisville | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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